On Perfection

Reed texted me, “Can we talk?”

I could tell it was important. I texted back, “Sure, call me right now.”

He called, and I saw his forehead pop on to the screen, but not his face. I heard a gasp.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Not okay,” he said, though I still couldn’t see his face.

I panicked.

What’s going on? I asked.

And his voice came into view, his sweet face upset, and he told me everything, which was nothing. He was crying, which he rarely does at his age.

His dad was mad because he didn’t feed the dog. His dad took away his allowance. His dad threatened to take away his iPad.

All of this seemed to be normal parent/child conflict, but Reed’s level of being upset was not normal. I have primary custody of this child, and I cannot remember the last time that I have seen him cry, yet he was sobbing.

His dad expects perfection.

His dad’s bar for perfection is ever-changing.

I intervened. I poked the bear. I asked Caleb to be kinder with Reed.

Caleb was a jerk to me. He said that we could revisit our parenting plan if we wanted to. I was confused.

Was this hubris?

Or parenting suicide?

Caleb has to know, at this point, that revisiting our parenting plan could only result in reduced custody for him.

One friend suggested that Caleb wants to start over with his new family, but wants to be able to blame me when he loses time because he is so attached to his idea of himself as the perfect dad.

Still, after giving it some thought, I don’t think it’s parenting suicide; it’s hubris.

Caleb genuinely believes that he is an amazing dad. He genuinely believes that he could get more time with Reed if he tried.

I don’t even know where Caleb will be working or living in a month, though he is legally required to tell me.

Caleb is in arrears on his child support payments.

I don’t know when I will get my next child support payment, and I am not getting paid during the summer. I will not receive the next installment of my book advance until September, so I am flat broke.

Caleb works under the table during the summers so that he doesn’t have to report his income to the child support enforcement office. He already underreports his income by at least 15,000 dollars a year, and I know this because I still have a West Virginia State Employees account and can see the salary of all of the state employees, but I do not have the energy to pursue an income adjustment to our child support.

Caleb is vicious, and I would rather be flat broke than have to see him in a courtroom.

I can never again see his face without seeing it in front of me while he strangled me.

The world grew blurry around him. It was like looking through a prism, but only one thing remained clear.

His face.

Caleb takes Reed with him during the summers while he paints houses. Reed paints alongside him for one dollar an hour. This summer–and last–he painted the outside and inside of a house that belonged to one of my former professors.

When I reached out to her to point out to her that what she was doing was unethical, she wrote back to me, Don’t tell me what to do.

I told a friend tonight that so much of my anger after I left Caleb manifested against other people. I told her of how a writer friend of Caleb’s had posted a thing about being a feminist for his daughter, and I wrote something sarcastic about how he only cared when it was his daughter. He commented back, then I commented, and it turned into a very heated exchange.

This man is somewhat famous in literary circles, and I was a nobody who was bickering with him on his Facebook post.

It was potential career suicide for me.

This man is close to some of my favorite women writers, and though he, himself, is not an abuser, those women have also supported someone who is a known abuser in the literary community.

It has been a wholly disheartening experience. I do not want to reach out to those women to support my book, though they have so much influence within the feminist writing community.

People are complicated.

I, too, cannot be everything to everyone.

Sometimes, women reach out to me with their stories about men in the literary community, and it is as though they want me to take on those stories, to do something about them, even though they, themselves have not done anything about those stories, and I am tired.

I am tired of call-out culture, though I am not tired of call-outs.

I am tired because people seem to assume that it is easy for me to participate in call-out culture, so I am often asked to call-out for people.

And I can’t. I can’t speak for you.

If you have a story, speak it, and I will happily spread it. If you are not ready to be public, I will give my blog space as a place to write anonymously.

But please don’t ask me to speak your story for you.

I only have one story to tell.

I can repeat the stories of others, but that will never make them my own.

When I told Caleb, “I think that you withholding your employment information is an abusive tactic to make me feel anxious,” he said, “Yeah, just go fuck yourself,” and hung up on me.

He said that in front of his now-wife.

She must be used to that kind of language.

Most likely, she’s been brainwashed by now.

I used to think that kind of language was normal too.

Her time is coming.

No one will ever talk to me that way again.

The other night, I was out with a friend. I described to her that the man I’m currently involved with looks nothing like Caleb, and that is probably the appeal. I told her that Caleb is very unattractive.

She didn’t believe me, so she looked Caleb up on Facebook,

“Oh my,” she said.

“I know, right?” I said.

But then, she said, “You and his young wife look nothing alike, but can I say this?”

And I said yes.

“You both have the same look,” she said.

And I already knew this.

I said, “Yeah, he replaced me with a younger version of me.”

And I believe this, but the difference is that the new wife wants to be a stay-at-home mother. She wants to homeschool their child. She has no professional ambitions that I can tell, and because of that, I hope that she will be safe.

In my own experience, the quickest way to threaten Caleb and incite his violence is to be successful at the things he wants to be successful at.

He must fucking hate me now.

A friend recently posted an article about perfectionism paralysis. Basically, perfectionism often causes people who would otherwise be high achievers to fail because they’re so afraid of not being perfect that they can’t complete normal tasks.

I flunked out of undergrad twice.

Yesterday, I talked to my therapist for the first time in a long time. She is the same woman I started seeing when I was married to Caleb, and she hasn’t charged me since I’ve left him.

At that time, she told me, “I don’t want you to stop seeing me because you’re afraid of money.”

Now, she tells me, “We’re just ‘catching up.'”

She is my friend now. We haven’t exchanged money in years, and this time around, we both cried.

I asked her if it was okay that I use her real name in my book, and she started crying. She said, “Just to see how much work you’ve done, and you’ve done it all on your own.”

And then, I started crying, and I am crying right now as I type it because I DID THIS ALL ON MY FUCKING OWN, AND IT HAS BEEN SO HARD.


I hate Caleb. I hate that the man I loved so much hurts our child. I hate that the man I loved so much keeps trying to hurt me.

And I loved him. Do you know that?

Sometimes I think that he was the love of my life, and I just want to crawl under a rock and die because what the fuck is wrong with me?

When Reed called me the other night, and we were talking, I felt this weird sense of relief, then I realized that I was just so glad not to be living with Caleb anymore, and I had survivor’s guilt because Reed was still there.

Tonight, Reed told me, “Mom, quit messaging my dad.”

“Why?” I asked. “Did he take it out on you?

“No,” Reed said. “He made you out like the bad guy, and I don’t want him to hurt you anymore.”

I said, “Buddy (because I call him that), it is not your job to protect me. It is my job to protect you because I am the grown-up. I do not care what your dad says about me. I care how it affects you.”

But it was obvious that my email to Caleb had not helped–had only made things worse for Reed–and what am I supposed to do?

I am wrecked, but I am trying.

I work really hard not to badmouth Caleb to Reed, but this time, I explained gaslighting to him. “You know when see your dad drink three beers, but he tells you that he only drank one?” I said.

Reed nodded because he had told me that himself.

“That’s gaslighting,” I said.

He said, “My dad thinks that you just want to turn me against him, that you want to take me away from him.”

I enjoy my time on my own. I have no desire to take Reed away from Caleb. I wish that Caleb was the kind of dad who could be a 50% dad because I am tired of doing this all on my own.

And I am exhausted by the notion that a “be kinder to our kid” email could somehow be perceived as me poisoning Reed against his father, but it is clear that Caleb has turned himself into a victim.

Though I have tried so hard to avoid it, Caleb has set into motion this “he against she” dynamic.

And Reed was clearly lost as he was translating this all to me, so I finally said, “Have you ever caught me in any lies?”

And he said, “No, not at all.”

And I said, “How about your dad?”

And he said, “Yeah, my dad is kind of a liar.”

I don’t want to have to tell this eleven year old boy what gaslighting is, but what am I supposed to do?

How do I be a good and supportive mother who doesn’t badmouth my co-parent when I know that my co-parent is doing that to me?

I hate this.

For all of our faults, Caleb and I have generally co-parented well, but there is too much change now.

Caleb has a new job, likely a shitty job. A job that he couldn’t even ask his own chair to write him a letter of recommendation for.

A friend of mine at WVU described it as “he just fled.”

He has a new baby, and a wife, who, according to Reed tells Caleb, “Stop treating me like a kid.”

He has an ex-wife who is doing the things that he wanted to do.

He is angry and escalating, and I don’t know what to do.

So, I write this blog post. I sob. They are sobs that come all the way from my stomach because I am utterly powerless in this.

I have no power over Caleb.

I have no power over that male writer who initially supported him.

I have no power over those feminists who don’t denounce abusers in their communities.

I have no power over myself.

My therapist tells me that, what I’m doing with this man I’m involved with is trying to find some control.

Maybe if I change this thing about my own behavior, then that will affect his behavior.

Maybe that will give me some control over this situation.

In her final comments on my book manuscript, my editor had said, “The reader is still going to want to know why he was so violent.”

I was annoyed by that. Though my editor is supremely feminist and wouldn’t have bought my book otherwise, it was an implicitly victim-blaming statement.

How could I know why he was so violent?

I finally wrote a chapter that is full of theories. A list of reasons he might have been violent. I concluded that I could never know.

The truth is that I spent so many years thinking that, if I could pinpoint the cause of his violence, then I could stop it.

I was trying to gain some control, just like my therapist said I’m doing with this new guy.

And let’s be honest.

I am a perfectionist.

I wanted to make the marriage work because I didn’t want to fail.

Ultimately, though, it’s about control. I want to have control over my life, my heart, my behaviors, my responses, my urges, my sex life, my parenting, my PTSD, my career, my education, who I love, and most of all, everything.

But I am powerless over so much.

I cannot make Caleb be nicer to Reed. I cannot protect Reed from the father that he loves. I cannot change the abuse enablers. I cannot make the guy I’m involved with less scared of committing to me.

There is so much I cannot control.

The only thing that gives me any semblance of control is writing about it, so that’s what I’m doing now. I’m telling you my story.

My own. No one else’s.

I can’t control my story, but I can reclaim it. If you have made it to the end of this long post, then you are with me on this journey. Thank you, dear reader. How about we reclaim our stories together?