On Not Hating Men

I hated men for a while after I left Caleb. That’s a hard thing for me to admit, but it’s the truth. Honestly, I’m not sure if it was hatred as much as deep distrust, but I distrusted all of the men in my life. I distrusted men who had never done anything but treat me fairly. I distrusted my own father, who had always been loving to me, who had always been consistent, and who had always been stable and calm. I distrusted my own brother, who had been the tenderest older brother that any girl could have asked for, who had driven nine hours in my twenties just to come to my birthday party, who had been one of my greatest confidantes, who had reassured me that I was pretty and funny and smart when I was feeling ugly and unlovable, at the age when most young women feel ugly and unlovable, who had taught me how to ski, and who stood over me for hours while I tried to master a roll in a kayak. He flipped me upside down and told me that, if I couldn’t get the roll, I should reach around and tap on the bottom of the boat, then he would flip me around. I never mastered that roll. I struggled in the dark lake water. I saw the algae floating below me. I felt the air in my lungs giving out, and I twisted, and twisted, but I never got the roll right. Still, my brother, my dependable brother, flipped me over every time, allowing me to break back into the sunlight. He never let me stay under the water too long. He showed me that I was safe with him.

But, still, after I left Caleb, I distrusted my brother. I distrusted the brother who had never given me any reason to distrust him.

Here’s the thing: When I left Caleb, a lot of the men in my life weren’t there for me in the ways that I needed. The women stepped up in powerful and nurturing ways. They reassured me. They took on the burden of my story because, believe me, it was a burden to hear my story. They told me that it wasn’t my fault. They let me confide in them the sometimes awful ways I had responded to the abuse, and they still told me it wasn’t my fault. They picked up the phone when I called. They walked my son to the bus when I had to work. They dealt with my mood swings, with my panic, with my fear that I had made the wrong decision, with my admissions that I still loved him, with my admissions that I thought of going back to him, with my admissions that I was filled with rage–a rage so all-consuming that sometimes, I couldn’t imagine a life without rage–with my admissions that, sometimes, I didn’t want to live any longer, that I was only waking up in the morning out of obligation.

The women in my life let me burden them with all of these things, and they never treated me like a burden. And some of the men did too. These men came from unexpected places. My friend Ab, who I had met because he was Caleb’s friend but who had also become my friend over the years, was always there to listen. He listened with such compassion and openness and empathy that I probably turned to him more than I should have. And a professor from the English department, Ryan, who I had only known casually before that, ended up being an unexpected confidante. I had lunch with him one day to talk about PhD applications and job applications, and he asked me how I was, and I ended up spilling the entire story and crying in the coffee shop, and he treated me with such kindness and such empathy, that I will always consider him a close friend. And there were other men like that too. I wish I could name them all, but they know who they are.

But, truthfully, some of the men who were closest to me didn’t respond in the ways I needed, and I think there’s an answer for this: They simply didn’t know how. Maybe it’s easier to respond to an acquaintance than to a daughter, or a sister, or a close friend. Maybe it’s harder when the victim is too close. Maybe it’s easier for a father, or a brother, or a friend to try and avoid an issue, or to talk around it, than face the fact that a man who they trusted and cared about has hurt a woman who they loved. Maybe it’s just too hard to face the fact that a man can irreparably change a woman through his violence, that no matter where she goes, or how she moves on, that man’s ghost will always be in her bones.

It wasn’t just Caleb who failed me. There were other men in my life who failed me. There were men in his life who failed me. There is an entire culture of masculinity in this world that failed me. And for a long time, I didn’t think I would ever trust men again, but I realize now that they did the best they could. They were all doing the best they could. We don’t teach young boys how to express their emotions. We don’t teach them how to be empathetic. We don’t teach them how to nurture. We teach them how to be stoic. We teach them how to be strong. And then, we’re surprised when they don’t know how to nurture. I needed to be nurtured, but I was receiving stoicism, and I didn’t understand that, for some of these men, stoicism was the only nurturing they knew how to offer.

I don’t hate men now. I trust men. I’m not sure when the shift happened. It was probably around the time I started my PhD program. I no longer lived in the same town as Caleb, so I felt safe for the first time in years. I was meeting new men, making new male friends, and getting new male mentors, and none of these men seemed like misogynists (one of them did, but that’s a story for another time), and I started writing about the abuse, and these men were shocked. None of them defended Caleb like the men who had known him were doing. None of them said, “Well, I have a hard time believing that Caleb would abuse Kelly,” or “But he’s so nice,” or “Well, she must have done something to provoke him,” or “I heard they beat up on each other,” or “She’s crazy.” None of these men were saying that. They were unequivocally supporting me, and I trusted them. I trusted that these men didn’t beat their wives and girlfriends, and I trusted that they wouldn’t defend the men who do.

And slowly, I started opening myself up to the men in my own life again, and I started realizing that no one is perfect, and no one knows how to respond perfectly in every situation, and I’m not going to say that these relationships have gone back to the way they were before, but they are not irreparably damaged either.

Many of Caleb’s friends are pretty clear-cut misogynists. I knew this from the moment we started dating. One of his friends, an alcoholic who frequently cheated on his wife, was grumpy when Caleb and I moved in together. He thought I had stolen his drinking buddy. Still, he had agreed to help us move from my studio apartment to a larger apartment. I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy, feeling very sick and fatigued. I was also terrified. I was terrified of the transition into my new life with Caleb. I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t really wanted to get married, and Caleb had pressured me. I felt pretty doomed. And then, Caleb’s drinking buddy didn’t show up, but another one of his friends was there, and he helped us. Together, the three of us moved everything to the new apartment. Caleb and his other friend actually walked my couch three blocks to the new apartment, and when we were finally at the new place, the friend who had helped us made a really lovely meal, and we were sitting in the backyard, eating this great food and laughing, and I finally relaxed. Then Caleb’s drinking buddy showed up. He was drunk. He helped himself to some food. He helped himself to a beer. He drank his beer, crumpled up the can and threw it at me. It landed at my feet in the grass. I looked at it pointedly and said, “Is that where that goes?” He took his fork, licked off the tines, and threw it at my feet. “You can take that to the kitchen,” he said.

He stood up then, and Caleb and the other friend went with him to the bar. Caleb later told me that, at the bar, he had chewed the drinking buddy out. He had said, “Don’t throw your fork at my wife.” I remember staring at Caleb as he told me this. I remember thinking, “If that’s how you felt, then why did you leave with him? Why did you leave me alone on the first night at our new home so you could go to the bar with the man who threw a fork at me?”

The drinking buddy is just one example of many. Caleb had a lot of friends like that, and so, during the nine years of our marriage, I grew used to guys like that. I thought that most guys were like the drinking buddy. I thought that most guys were like Caleb’s college buddy who took us to a football game, then told us he was DTF (Down to Fuck) when we went to a bar after the game. I was disgusted. This guy was a thirty-something middle-school teacher. Most of the women at the bar were undergraduates. This man also taught me a terrible word that basically means a woman is “fat and ugly.” The whole thing was abhorrent, but I thought, “Well, this is what men are like.”

These men were so conspicuously bad that I convinced myself Caleb was one of the good guys, even though he abused me. Caleb abused me, but he also called himself a feminist, he respected his mother and his female boss, and he knew how to talk about women respectfully. Caleb was only a closeted misogynist, so I thought that I had one of the good guys, but that only made him more dangerous.

Caleb has a new girlfriend. It was inevitable. He’s very charming. And this woman, I’m sure, knows our story. It’s hardly a secret, yet she has chosen to date him anyway. I can’t help her. There is nothing I could say to make her believe the truth of what happened to me. She’ll need to find this out on her own.

Last night, I read this beautiful essay that felt so familiar.

In it, KL Carr writes:

Last night I dreamt I was with my ex’s girlfriend, and I was trying to explain it all to her. She was tiny, so tiny I could pick her up, Pietà-style, one of my arms under her back and the other under her knees. As I carried her around, I felt resolved I would not put her down until she understood. But she – tiny and calm, with a face that no one could ever hate – she kept saying that I was the one who didn’t understand. That he wasn’t like that. That he would never hurt anyone. And I was angry and giant-size, in the dream, and I carried her around and around in circles. I wouldn’t put her down, even though I knew I should, even though I sensed she was afraid. The whole time she seemed to get smaller and smaller, but no less brave (contradicting me, a giant!) and no less sure of herself. She knew, she told me, absolutely knew, that he would never hurt her.

Carr also writes of her irrational fear that he won’t hurt this woman because, this other woman, “….had no dark eddies, no streaks of wickedness in her heart, no demons of her own for his demons to come out and play with.”

Oh lord, do I know how that feels. After we split up, Caleb said that we were “toxic” for each other, and I believed him. It was my demons that brought out his demons, you see? That’s what he always told me. That’s what I believed. And if that was true, then wouldn’t my demons bring out the demons in all men? Because, of course, Caleb didn’t think the responsibility was his, and neither did I. If I had thought the responsibility was his, then I wouldn’t have stayed with him for so long.

But I know now that the demons were all his own. They weren’t mine. I’m not saying that I don’t have demons. I do, but not in the way that he tried to convince me and has tried to convince others that I do. I’ve loved three men, and dated many others. With the exception of Caleb, I’m on good terms with all of them. I’ve had the same best friends since childhood. I’m not a monster. No one who knows me would describe me as a monster. But I let him convince me that I was a monster. And then, when I started to realize that was untrue, I convinced myself that men were monsters. And now, I realize that it’s more complicated than that. Individuals can be monsters. Caleb was a monster. Caleb was also, often a loving partner, a loving father, a respectful son, and a loyal friend. Caleb was all of those things, and he was a monster to me. But his demons are all his own.

I am not a monster, and men are not monsters.

When I was in Idaho a few weeks ago, I met one of my brother’s best friends, Jeff, for a drink. Jeff has always treated me tenderly. He’s like another big brother to me. I have so many fond memories of him. He’s very nurturing. He’s also a tough guy. He works out a lot. He has big muscles. When I met up with him, he had had a few drinks. He told me that he had been following my story. He told me that Caleb needed a “butt whooping.” He told me he was surprised that my brother hadn’t called him because, when I left Caleb, Jeff was only living a few hours away in Maryland. He said that he would have driven those hours to confront Caleb.

My brother is not like that. My brother, to my knowledge, despite being a very tall, athletic guy himself, has never been in a fight. This past summer, my friend Sadie told me that my brother’s gift to the world is “being kind.” This is true. My brother would never incite anyone to violence. My family is not that way. We were not raised that way.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t fantasize about it. I did. I never fantasized about enacting violence on Caleb myself. I knew that was an impossibility. That would have been like fantasizing I was Angelina Jolie. Still, I fantasized about watching someone else enact violence on Caleb. I fantasized about watching him be powerless.

I fantasized about saying, “How does that feel? How does that feel? How does that feel? How does that feel? How does that feel?”

I’ve learned that those fantasies were completely normal. I’m not a monster for having those fantasies. and I never would have acted on them, but I had them.

At one point, Jeff looked at me and said, “You’re my baby. Nobody hurts my baby.” Did I mention that he had already had a couple of drinks when I saw him? It was funny, right? But he was serious, and I was seriously touched. And I’m a feminist, and I should have said, “I’m nobody’s baby! I don’t need a man to take care of me.” But instead, I just felt relief. I felt immensely cared for, and that’s okay. It’s okay for me to want to be protected. That’s okay.

It’s not okay for me to need a man to protect me, but it’s okay for me to find some solace in patriarchy, in the thought that men can use their strength to take care of me rather than hurt me. It’s okay for me to find some solace in whatever the hell brings me solace. It’s okay for me to be complicated, to be nuanced, to contradict myself. And it’s okay for the men in my life to be all of those same things.

Being Silly With Jeff