On Taking Sides

I had coffee yesterday with my high school English teacher, Helen. She’s so special to me. She’s a thoughtful, intelligent, critical, and examining person, and I don’t think I can possibly convey how much of a formative effect she had on who I became as a person and writer. I started studying with her in the 9th grade when I worked for the high school newspaper, which she advised. She had special relationships with many of our students, but I like to believe that ours was especially close. I have great parents, but they are not particularly interested in intellectual pursuits. They were always a little baffled and worried because I constantly had my nose in a book. In contrast, Helen encouraged that. I had never thought of myself as being particularly “smart.” I had always found school easy, but I hadn’t really pushed myself or seen myself as a student with any special talents. I was content to be a B student. Helen was the first teacher who saw something unique in me. She made me feel that I had talent, that I was smart, and that I could achieve things in my lifetime. She made me feel special. It’s such a cliche, but I can’t describe it any other way. When I started college, I actually struggled with the realization that I wasn’t special. I was in a competitive Honors College, and everyone was smart. Many of them were much more driven than me. I’m not a particularly competitive person, and in competitive programs, that can put me at a disadvantage. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, but I continued to learn, and grow, and now, I’m blessed to be surrounded by an entire population of smart, acccomplished, and talented people, and I’m no longer threatened by their intelligence. Instead, I’m attracted to it. I’m stimulated by it. I adore it. I love smart people. I love thoughtful people. I love ambitious people. I love kind people. I love humanitarian people. I love people who are unafraid to speak their mind. To me, Helen is all of those things, and I try to be those things too.

Yesterday, Helen told me that, while she enjoys reading my blog, there are parts of it that she feels she can’t understand–that it is not always accessible to people who haven’t suffered gender violence themselves. She mentioned, in particular, that she doesn’t understand why I’m so passionate that people should take sides in situations of abuse. She said that she feels that puts people on the outside in a moral quandary, that she doesn’t understand why someone cannot support both the victim and the abuser. I tried to explain myself to her, and I think she understands more now where I’m coming from, but I realized that maybe I need to explore this subject more fully.

I am going to try and keep this as simple as possible, so I’ll just make a list of points.

1. If you support an abuser, then you cannot also support their victim. If I found out that someone had been beating their wife, I would have no problem cutting that person out of my life. I have no desire to be friends with someone who beats their wife. I don’t understand why that is a difficult choice to make, but no one can be forced to abandon their friendship with an abuser. We all make our own choices, but those choices have consequences. I don’t know a single domestic violence survivor (and I know many at this point) who would have any desire to remain friends with someone who remains friends with their abuser. This is not something that is particular to me. Almost all survivors desire to have their friends’ unequivocal support, and unequivocal support means abandoning contact with the abuser. None of my close friends struggled at all with cutting ties with Caleb. They wanted to cut ties with Caleb. They hate Caleb. Caleb makes them sick.

Obviously, It is more complicated for his friends. Some of his friends had also become my friends over the years. Most of those people struggled with cutting ties with Caleb, but when I expressed a need for them to cut ties with him, they did that for me. They recognized and respected that–if they were to remain my friend–they could not remain friends with Caleb. Others chose to remain friends with Caleb. They might have been happy to remain friends with me (given the opportunity) but I had to cut those people out of my life. Life is a series of choices, and they chose Caleb. They may think that I’m ungracious, or that Caleb is the bigger person because he didn’t ask them to make that kind of choice, but Caleb didn’t need to ask them to make that kind of choice. Caleb was the abuser. He wasn’t healing from trauma. He wasn’t trying to survive. He wasn’t trying to fight his way back into a life that had meaning, and hope, and wonder. Caleb had issues, for sure, but those issues were of his own making.

2. Abuse and break-ups are not the same thing. It’s often a wise choice to remain neutral when friends break up. No one really knows what happens behind closed doors, and it usually takes two to end a relationship. In typical break-ups, neutrality is the mature stance to take. However, in abuse it only takes one. When Caleb’s friend told me that–in time–I might learn to identify my own triggers, she was focusing on my behavior. She said nothing about Caleb’s behavior. That is victim blaming. She was treating me like a participant in my own abuse, but I was not a participant. I was a victim. I tried desperately to stop the abuse. I did everything that I could. I tried to change myself in every way possible. I tried to change him. I tried to learn to live with  it. I tried to forgive. I tried not to be angry. I tried not to be sad. I took my marriage seriously. I do not love lightly, and because I’m a loving person, a loyal person, and a forgiving person, I tried to work out a relationship well beyond when I should have given up. This was not because I had  “triggers.” This was because I believe in supporting those I love. If it makes her feel better to justify her continuing relationship with Caleb by trying to assign partial blame to me, then that’s her decision, but she shouldn’t be surprised then that I’m defensive, angry, and no longer respect her or feel any affection for her.

3. Supporting the abuser is enabling the abuser. Abusers very rarely change. If they are changing, the first person who will notice is the victim. If the victim is not telling you that he is changing, then he is not changing. This same woman who told me to identify my triggers also told me that she thought Caleb would change. I can’t tell you how incredibly insulting it was to be told by someone who hasn’t seen Caleb in a decade–someone who never really knew him or spent much time with him in the first place–that he would change. I was married to him for almost a third of our lives. I loved him. I raised a child with him. I know all of his darkest secrets, and he knows all of mine. No one in this world knows Caleb better than I do, so she shouldn’t tell me that he “can and will” change. I’m the only person who can make that kind of judgment.

As an outsider, it is an incredibly entitled and presumptuous stance for someone to take when they assume that they have access to wisdom/knowledge that the victim, herself, doesn’t have access to. Continuing a friendship with the abuser in the face of his behavior enables him. It tells him that he can get away with anything. It tells him that he will always have fans, even when he has behaved his worst. It tells him precisely the opposite of what this woman claimed. It tells him that he doesn’t have to change.

In his pivotal text , Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft, the founder of the first Batterer’s Intervention program, writes, “It is not possible to be truly balanced in one’s views of an abuser and an abused woman. As Dr. Judith Herman explains eloquently in her masterwork Trauma and Recovery, ‘neutrality’ actually serves the interests of the perpetrator much more than the interests of his victim and so is not neutral. Although an abuser prefers to have you wholeheartedly on his side, he will settled contentedly for your decision to take a middle stance. To him, that means you see the problems as partly his fault and partly her fault, which isn’t abuse.”

4. Abusers choose to be abusers. I’ll just use Lundy Bancroft’s words here:

One of the obstacles to recognizing chronic mistreatment in relationships is that most abusive men simply don’t seem like abusers. They have many good qualities, including times of kindness, warmth, and humor, especially in the early period of a relationship. An abuser’s friends may think the world of him. He may have a successful work life and have no problems with drugs or alcohol. He may simply not fit anyone’s image of a cruel or intimidating person. So when a woman feels her relationship spinning out of control, it is unlikely to occur to her that her partner is an abuser.”

As long as we see abusers as victims, or as out-of-control monsters, they will continue getting away with ruining lives. If we want abusers to change, we will have to require them to give up the luxury of exploitation”

If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no one will help—just what her partner wants her to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.”

5. The process of abuse is an erosion of self for the victim. Abuse changes self-perception in ways that are traumatic and damaging. Leaving abuse doesn’t just reinstate a sense of self-worth or value. It’s a long and painful process, and some people never fully recover. Part of recovering from abuse means learning how to express our anger, how to stop blaming ourselves (and start blaming the abuser), and how to ask for what we need. If what we need is for our friends to take our side and cut ties with the abuser, than that is a necessary part of our process. For me, cutting my mutual ties to Caleb was one of my biggest steps in healing, and I haven’t regretted the loss of a single one of those people. Nearly all of the other survivors I’ve spoken to have said the same thing. Because of the years of abuse, and the consequent erosion of my self, I look to others for a lot of validation. I need validation that what I’m doing is right. I stopped learning how to listen to my inner voice when Caleb’s voice overpowered my own. When other survivors tell me that they have the same feelings, then I know that I am not crazy, or overly demanding, or immature. I am merely expressing what I need when I ask for people to cut ties with Caleb.

6. Recovery from abuse is often disappointing and demoralizing. I’ll be honest, recovery from abuse is also one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. I experience gratitude now in ways that I’ve never experienced gratitude before. I know what rock bottom feels like, and I’m no longer there. I know that I’m tough. I know that I’m strong. I know that I’m a survivor. All of this is a wonderful byproduct of recovering from abuse.

Still, I have been disappointed by many people in my life. This woman I mentioned earlier (Caleb’s friend who victim blamed me) was someone I used to really admire, but I’m completely disillusioned by her now. One of Caleb’s childhood friends is a counselor at a college, and she has completely bought into Caleb’s stories. She thinks that I’m crazy. I find it disturbing that there is a mental health professional out there who is counseling college-aged females, and at the same times, she disbelieves an entirely credible account of gender violence. I wonder how that will affect her perception of the young women who come to her with their own accounts of violence.

Another of Caleb’s friends, an author, told a mutual friend “Well, we don’t really have proof that Caleb abused Kelly.”

Here’s my response to him:
1. There is obviously plenty of proof.
2. Why do I need to have proof?
3. Every time someone mentions your book in my Facebook feed, I feel completely disgusted by your name.
4. I will never read your book.

People get to choose who they believe, but as a victim, I can’t describe the devastation that accompanies being disbelieved. It’s incredibly hurtful, and for me, it has contributed to my feelings of entrapment by the abuse.


With all of this that I’ve said about victim blaming and taking sides, I want to finish on a note of gratitude. I’ve been so lucky. I have so many  people in my corner. I know that I am surrounded by people who love and support me. Sometimes women write me and ask what they can do to heal. I don’t know what to say. I want to tell them, “Surround yourself with people who love you just the way you are. Maybe then, you’ll learn to love yourself.”

When I had coffee yesterday with Helen, she told me that, at my wedding, Caleb and I were standing outside the church, and I introduced her to him. She took his hand and said, “Take care of her. You have a very special person here.”

She said that what she really wanted to say was “Take care of her because I have a terrible feeling that you’re not going to.”

And he didn’t. He didn’t take care of me.

But Helen did. And all of you have taken care of me. You know who you are. You’ve taught me how to love myself  again.