Guest Post: On Sharing Our Stories

By Bonnie Thibodeau

“Every act of communication is an act of tremendous courage in which we give ourselves over to two parallel possibilities: the possibility of planting into another mind a seed sprouted in ours and watching it blossom into a breathtaking flower of mutual understanding; and the possibility of being wholly misunderstood, reduced to a withering weed.” –Mary Popova

“It is possible that if you tell the truth not only will you be delivered yourself from the prison of untruth, but the person who hears the truth will also be opened and can be delighted.” –Alice Walker

I remember everything about the first time I slept with Anthony*. We didn’t have sex that night, but I woke up feeling that warm glow that only follows magical nights. After seeing a Blues band in a smoky bar, we drove along the winding Appalachian country roads in my old Subaru, taking turns picking out music for each other. He introduced me to Deer Tick and the National, and I turned him onto the Tallest Man on Earth and Gaslight Anthem. 

We parked along the logging road by the woods where he was camped for the summer. We could still hear the creek while we talked for hours, lying on the warm hood of the car. Our first kiss was electric in a way that shocked us both. We walked out to the meadow, trying to stretch the night out as far as it could go. We kissed under a full sky of perpetually shooting stars in a field that twinkled with the light of a thousand fireflies. We scrambled up a narrow plank to the tree platform and crawled inside his tent. We kept the rainfly off so we could fall asleep still bathed in moonlight. We kissed some more. It was deep and passionate, but I knew it was right when he asked if we could wait to have sex.

In my past relationships I fell for men who would not or could not love me because they loved someone else more or they didn’t love themselves enough. I hurt the good men who tried to give me the love I wasn’t ready to accept, love I didn’t realize I deserved.

I was trying to do things different this time around, and I had a feeling he was going to be very different.

I woke up wrapped in his arms, tracing the tattooed outlines of the Japanese samurai and cherry blossoms drifting down his bicep. I turned on my side to face him, our own smiles reflecting back at us in each other’s bright blue eyes. He laced his fingers in mine and said he could only promise two things. He promised he would never cheat on me. He promised he would never hit me. In retrospect I see how low the bar was set, but I remember squeezing my eyes shut in disbelief; for the first time in my life I felt safe, truly safe, trusting my heart with a man. I curled back up in his arms like a happy dog napping in a sun patch, and he held me closer.

We fell madly in love in those first summer months. He wrote lines from Leaves of Grass and brought me a brick from the crumbled Civil War hospital where Whitman worked as a nurse. I made salmon and poured wine for us to share on the chairs outside my Morgantown apartment. He read Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson while I read from tall book stacks for my next round of English grad classes, both of us propped on our elbows on side by side towels at the lake, running into the water when we got too hot. He rested his hand on my thigh when we drove, stopping along the way to take pictures wherever we went. We went boating with our friends on the rivers where we first met as whitewater rafting guides. We spent most nights camping, still holding hands in our sleep. We ate popcorn on the couch watching Ken Robinson documentaries and Trailer Park Boys. We talked about our pasts, our pains, our pleasures, and of growing old together. We got a puppy. 

That was the start of our great love story. 

The dirty secret about abusive relationships is that they usually start this way. That is the bait. It’s convincing, it’s beautiful, it hides the hook well. He holds a line she does not see until it’s too late. He knows how hard he can pull and when he must reel to keep her on that line. Sometimes she gets away by struggling. Sometimes she gets away by chance. Sometimes she does not get away. 

My boyfriend technically kept both promises from that first morning. 

My boyfriend never hit me. He was arrested shortly before it was bound to happen. My boyfriend didn’t have sex with anyone else, so far as I could tell. He was arrested shortly before he had a chance to visit the women he was talking to. 

We were together for two years. In hindsight I can pinpoint all the moments when things started shifting, gradual at first. He would change whatever cd or radio station I put on, a precursor to his oscillation between total disregard and outrage when I did try to make choices about which restaurant to eat at or what music to listen to. He informed me if I was feeling stressed or guilty, even if I didn’t realize it, so that I thought he understood me better than I knew myself. 

I remember a lot of broken laptops, cell phones, dresser drawers, and chairs. I remember my hands getting sticky from picking up broken shards of a mason jar of homemade jelly he threw at the bathroom door just as I was slamming it shut behind me. I remember wearing sunglasses in the car and looking out the passenger window so he wouldn’t see me crying. I remember clutching the side of my seat or the door handle in the car when he pounded the steering wheel with his fists, speeding too fast around curves. I remember lying in bed, unable to fall asleep while he sat in the corner of our bedroom staring at naked women on the laptop all night, pausing only to glare at me, his face lit by the flickering glow of the computer screen.   

I remember making excuses for him. I remember swallowing his excuses. He was abused. He was orphaned. He was a veteran with PTSD. He had a good heart. He was afraid of losing me. He was the man who loved me. One day he asked, out of the blue, “What have I ever done that makes you think I would hit you?” He was the man who would never hit me.

I remember taking the blame. He told me: I didn’t love him anymore. I was codependent. I was emotionally distant. I was leaving him for the men at my work. I was disgusting when I cried. I could never understand his pain. I shouldn’t take it personally when he storms out. I shouldn’t take it personally when he storms back in. I shouldn’t act scared.

I remember waves of relief washing over me when his anger subsided. I remember the apologies, the explanations, the embraces, our tears, the promises of change. 

I remember waves of confusion that followed the relief. Why did he tell me to go on that weekend trip to Zion with friends, only to call me at midnight with threats of leaving forever with our dog and truck because I was a bitch? Why did he ask if I had a good trip when I came back early?  How was it possible to love someone deeply, but feel paralyzing dread when he entered a room, holding your breath until you could read him for signs of how to behave? 

I mistook his intellect and occasional vulnerability for virtue. His charm bought him others’ good graces. His photography was beautiful, honest, and distracted everyone—I think including himself—from the fact of his lies.  

He knew how to cut me down in ways that were difficult to pinpoint or explain, but so effective that I rarely resisted. He told me he didn’t feel welcome with our friends, so we spent less and less time with them. He mocked my family, and my ivory tower education, my whitewashed dreams for us to have a home and family one day, my sense of childish humor, my incessant tears. He ignored the hurting parts of me. He helped me feel invisible. He interrupted me often, and admonished me when I noticed. I knew that when he returned to a good mood as if nothing happened, it would be a snap change, and I better be quick to catch up.

I remember thinking we could fix it, we could find our way back to the happiness we once had. I could get a better job so we wouldn’t be stressed about bills and groceries, so we could afford a counselor. I could say all the right things again. I could be sexier. We could hold hands and take the dog for walks again. We could move farther and farther away, just the two of us. I could toughen up. I could choose to stop feeling sad, scared, and alone. I could stop feeling guilty for feeling sad, scared, and alone. 

Mostly, I remember the trappings of my silence. Disappearing is always a quiet course. 

Once, I accidentally came across an intimate conversation he was having with his ex. It took me weeks to gather the courage to ask him about it. Somehow, by the end of the conversation I was apologizing while he stormed out of the house, not sure if he could trust me again. I didn’t mention it again. Somehow, by the end of the relationship I was shocked to realize I had only scratched the surface of love and lust messages written for women who were not me.

He broke and sold his phone. He used mine instead. It stayed that way. When friends called he’d hand me the phone, repeating some iteration of “I’ll leave the room so you can talk about me.”  He’d come back in the room sporadically to rummage around for something. I would not talk about him. I wanted to cry out, but I tried to keep my mouth shut. I grew too tired of trying to make myself heard, too intimidated to be honest with him about my growing anxieties. Instead, I sat quietly on the bed—feeling sick at my own passivity—biding time between the moments of calm. Sometimes we’d lie in bed, trying to hold each other like we used to. I could still feel his soft touch, still hear the love echo in his voice. I didn’t want to admit out loud, or even in my head, what my gut kept screaming: get out.

Our story first ended out West. We were living with friends in northern Utah and taking road trips to remote hot springs in the Nevada backcountry in winter. He’d been to these places before, and I was excited to see his favorite landscapes. We walked through slanted doorframes of long-abandoned farmhouses, through foundations with no buildings above in a ghost town, and along the high rim of a hundred year old dam. We soaked in old stone pools flowing with warm water while thick snowflakes swirled around us. There was no one for miles and nothing in sight except brilliant orange, pink, and purple sunsets spreading across the backdrop of white-capped mountains. We went to visit his friend Paula*, an older woman living on the outskirts of a small mining town. She still grew her own food and heated her home with the wood she chopped. We enjoyed helping her pull parsnip and potatoes from her garden, peeling seeds from dried sunflowers, and sitting on the back porch with cold beers and napping dogs at our feet. I was organizing canned beans in her pantry when he decided we had to go. 

He was worried the police would show up. He grabbed our bags, and we were out the door in five minutes, Paula rushing to give us hugs and a wrapped plate of the burritos she had been making for dinner. He drove fast, trying to get as far from the nearest towns as possible. He was absorbed in his panic. More than finally seeing what it cost to wait for a man to stop running, my heart sank with the recognition of my aloneness in this partnership. There was no room for my wants or needs in this relationship. I would have no turn to lay my burdens down. I must be the rock. I must outlast dynamite. 

He pulled over halfway past nowhere to set up the tent. There were no trees for cover, only gently rising mounds of packed earth and scrub brush. It was biting cold, but we kept the rainfly off, this time out of exhaustion. We hardly spoke a word to each other as we crawled into our separate sleeping bags, our dog under his own blanket between us for warmth, our backs to each other. After he fell asleep I lied on my back staring up to the fullest sky of the brightest stars I had ever seen. There were no lights to compete with the desert sky. The stars felt so close I felt as though the warmth of my breath hitting the air might melt them, like thin crystals of frost on a window. It was breathtaking beauty, and I had never felt so empty.

Our breakup intertwined with his arrest months later, among other revelations. In the year that followed, I was bound to a giant knot of rage and grief. It sat in my stomach and would rise up in my throat as memories kept looping in my mind. It felt like I would choke on my own misery if I didn’t purge myself of the memories. Sometimes I screamed riding in the truck cab with close friends after a perfect day of tubing and doing somersaults on knolls. They let me cry on their shoulders answered my calls when I woke from bad dreams, crawled in bed with me on the mornings I wouldn’t get up, and laughed about the absurdity of it all while sipping coffee at kitchen tables before heading off to teach class.  But even when I had the words for what I felt, it was hard to reach out. I was ashamed I didn’t have the one simple story to tell. I felt I had to choose between the narrative of the monster or the broken heart. Because who would be patient enough to listen to a woman who’s missing the man who hurt her? A man she loves but can’t forgive?  

Breaking that silence has proven difficult long after the severing of ties with Anthony. It was hard to name the experience, to say “abuse,” to identify a loved one as an abuser. I never used this word with him. I’m still not ready to pair the word with his real name publically. It felt like a dirty word for many months, a word I wasn’t entitled to say. He never hit me. But now I feel the gathering strength and urgency to speak up. 

The other day I was listening to an NPR interview with author Katherine Patterson. She said she’s come to find that the “most wonderful thing about being a writer is having readers.” My initial response to this was absolutely not. I had been grappling with writing this guest post for Kelly’s blog for months. The most terrifying thing about writing this essay has been imagining him while he’s reading it. Imagining his response after reading it.

I would freeze, thinking about his reaction to the narrative of my own experience. I can’t see if there is understanding or remorse. I can imagine anger as I set my words free for others to find. I can hear him saying it’s nobody’s business. I can imagine the many ways he might tell me I’m wrong, the many ways he might deny the narrative of my life. When I imagine him reading I stop writing. I slip back into the familiar holding pattern of self-doubt and deferring to him, even in his absence. I slip back into silence.

The first time I shared a personal Facebook post about abuse, my palms got sweaty and my heart pounded. But I felt a little stronger and liberated when I clicked “post.” In the comments, phone calls, and conversations that came from friends after, I found more of the understanding and support I was starving for. 

I remember the first time I met Kelly. She shared an office with three other GTA’s at WVU, one of whom was our incredible friend Rebecca who even signs her emails with a <3. I spent a lot of my breaks between classes in the office with Rebecca. I was sitting at Kelly’s desk in the back corner one day. On her desk she had a wooden frame around a picture of a red fox. It was a striking photograph. I studied the fox’s face and I became acutely aware of the space between the fox and its image—a translation of wild and beauty instead of its actual presence. A life captured, an implication beneath a glass pane. 

When I first saw Kelly she reminded me of her framed fox. She had beautiful red hair and big blue eyes. She struck me as someone with a sharp mind, kind heart, and a spirit at home in the wild. But when she smiled at me I had the same sense that something in her was lost. Not gone from her, but pinned beneath an invisible pane of sorrow, noiseless and still. I could see a static image of a hidden life force.  

I was still with my boyfriend when I learned Kelly left her abusive husband. My heart broke for her. A year later I left Anthony. Around that time Kelly started writing her blog. I couldn’t read her posts without crying. I couldn’t finish reading them without feeling less alone and more hopeful. The details were so clearly unique to her experience. But I could relate to her narrative. It was the first time I saw myself represented in the open, everything I wasn’t able to name articulated poignantly. I felt the weight of all the shame, guilt, and confusion lifting. I felt less alone.

Sharing our stories is not about vengeance. I do not want anyone, even Anthony, to wither at my words. It is not about replaying the pain. I do not wish to cast myself in the role of the victim.  Sharing this story is my choice to transform so that I do not transmit my pain. Writing our stories is an act of reclamation. It takes courage to break the silence. It takes courage to listen.

When I write now, I am moving beyond fears of being misunderstood or ignored. I am thinking about Kelly’s stories—the courage it took to write them and the courage they inspire, like a brightening window in a dark hall—for both survivors of abuse and allies who hope to better understand and support their friends. I am writing to deliver myself into truth. I am thinking of the people I have not met, who may recognize some of their own truth in the words, who may be opened and delighted. I am thinking of my friends of every sort, and I find it is wonderful to have readers.