On Telling Our Stories

I received an email from a woman this morning, and I meant to only write her a short reply, but as is typical for me, I got a little carried away. After finishing my reply, I realized that it was something I wanted to share here because it articulates much of my thinking about abuse.

Dear —–,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write to me. It’s important to me to hear from other women who identify with my story because I, too, for a long time, felt that my story wasn’t recognizable in the narratives I was reading. What I’ve discovered from writing my blog is that there is no typical domestic abuse narrative. There are red flags, and patterns, and cycles, but there is not necessarily a typical narrative. I think the idea of there being a typical narrative does women like us a disservice because we don’t fit into the mold that people think of when they think of domestic abuse victims/survivors, and because we don’t fit that mold, some people have a hard time believing that the abuse was real, or that it happened. Or maybe because we seem to be doing okay–we’re educated, we have jobs, and we’re capable–people don’t realize how much damage has been done to us on the inside, how much of the damage is not visible.

It breaks my heart to hear that your girlfriends weren’t there for you in the way you needed. My girlfriends have been my biggest support system. They have kept me sane during a time when a man who I loved was (and is) actively trying to convince me that I’m insane. But your story with your girlfriends is all-too-common. I don’t know why they weren’t there for you. It’s probably a combination of the reasons you described, that it was difficult for them to hear, that they are a little selfish, and that you might have pushed them away. I didn’t have that experience with my girlfriends, but I did with my parents. They haven’t been supportive in the ways that I needed. They have been supportive, but they have also undercut my efforts to move on, and then, they have acted offended when I didn’t think they were very supportive. It’s frustrating to them and to me. Again, there is no typical narrative, but one thing I have discovered is that all survivors have someone in their life who doesn’t support them in the way they need. That is a pattern.

A big part of the frustration of abuse is that it’s easier for the abuser to move on than the victim. It’s easier for the abuser to move on, to be happy, and to be stable. People see the abuser doing fine, and they see the victim still struggling with their issues, still struggling with sadness, or anger, or self-esteem. Most of all, they see the victim struggling to tell their story. It is so hard for us to tell our stories. It requires a great deal of self-reflection, of analysis of the world and culture around us, and of re-evaluating the narrative of our own lives. People don’t realize that is not any easier for us to piece together how or what happened than it is for them. If it is hard for them to understand what happened, it is even harder for us because we were effectively brainwashed in the abusive relationship. That brainwashing does not just go away. We have to be deprogrammed. We have to put the pieces together. It is all very confusing and foggy. And people see victims struggling through this process, and they question the victim’s credibility, and that becomes another form of victimization, and it also justifies their decision to stay friends with the abuser. 

In divorces, the common mantra is It takes two. This is generally true, but I see people saying the same thing about abuse, and no, it does not take two. Abuse takes only one. And because of that, there are sides in abusive situations, and anyone who truly supports the victim will be willing to take a side, will be willing to eliminate contact with the abusive person, and anyone who thinks that it is “immature” or “petty” of me to say that does not understand abusers. Anyone who thinks that it is okay to remain in contact with an abuser does not understand that the abuser takes silence as permission, that their silence empowers the abuser, and that the person who remains in contact with the abuser (assuming they have not taken a stand directly to the abuser, and let’s face it, if they have taken that stand, then the abuser would have dropped them already) becomes complicit in the abuse. I wholly believe this. It is a controversial view. Our culture thrives on neutrality, glorifies neutrality, but there is no neutrality in abuse, and people of integrity who truly support the victim will withdraw support of the abuser. It is not possible to support the abuser and the victim. It simply isn’t.

I use the words victim and survivor at different times. One of my pet peeves is people who interject into a conversation about victimization, “Oh, I prefer the word survivor.” I respect the choice of victims/survivors to choose how they identify themselves, and if I want to use the word victim, then I hope that others respect my decision to use that word. It is not that I see myself as a victim. I don’t. I see myself as a survivor, but during my marriage, I was a victim. I use that word as a way of articulating that I was not a participant. I was a victim. Caleb victimized me. That was all him. I am now a survivor. I survived something terrible, and I’ve thrived. Hell, yes, I’m a survivor, but I was victimized. That is part of my history now, so I use the word victim when describing the process of being actively victimized, and I use the word survivor when describing the actions I’ve taken since leaving my situation. I don’t know how you choose to identify yourself, but I wanted to let you know the way the terms function for me.

You mentioned that you sometimes wonder if your situation was bad enough to qualify as abuse, and I’ll say this: Yes, it was bad enough.

We all worry about that when we get out. We have gotten so used to minimizing our situations that we all wonder if our situation was bad enough. I wondered the same thing. I thought my situation wasn’t bad enough. My ex-husband tried to force me to swallow a bottle of Ambien, and I still left the relationship wondering if it was bad enough. 

Yes, it was bad enough. And the emotional abuse is the worst, and the physical intimidation is maybe even scarier than the violence. Just last night, I told my friend that I don’t know if Caleb will hit his new girlfriend. He has had consequences for hitting, and everyone knows now that he is abusive, and he was always in control. He never lost control. He chose his violence. I believe that he will be able to choose not to hit the new girlfriend. But he will be even smarter about other forms of abuse. He will still emotionally abuse her. He will still physically intimidate her. He will back her into corners so she feels threatened, then wonders if she should be feeling that way because he did not hit her. He will take her keys when she tries to leave, try to break her phone, and most of all, try to break her soul by making her feel inadequate, by making her feel as though no one but him will ever be able to love someone like her, and because he might not hit her, she will be even worse off than me because she will not have that visible marker that says, This is abuse. 

Sometimes, we need that definitive evidence that we have been abused. As sick as it might sound, I am sometimes glad that Caleb was so clearly abusive, that no one can call my story into question. There are still people who call my story into question, but those people are clearly sick themselves, and they can’t see that Caleb’s abuse comes from his own fundamental cruelty. Yes, Caleb has kindness too. Yes, Caleb has a sense of humor. Yes, Caleb has vulnerability. All of those are qualities that he possesses. They are not going anywhere, so why do people seem to think that his cruelty will go away? I am thinking now of the people who have told me they thought he would change. He will not change. He cannot change one of the tenets of his character, which is cruelty. He is not able to change the fact that part of his fundamental character is cruelty. That is not going anywhere. 

While Caleb was abusing me, I wrote an essay. It was titled “Cruelty Was the Only Thing She Knew.” It was about babysitting and what I had witnessed as a child. Many people commented to me that it was a deeply dark essay. It was. I know this now. I know this because, when I re-read it, it is as though I cannot recognize the person who wrote it. I was so immersed in Caleb’s cruelty and his darkness, that the darkness was coming out in my writing in subtle ways. That was before he was actively hitting me, but he was physically intimidating me and emotionally abusing me. He had hit me already, but it wasn’t common. Still, because of the way he treated me, I did believe that cruelty was the only thing I knew. He was cruel. He is cruel, and that is what I knew.

But I no longer think the world is cruel. I am able to see now that the cruelty was in him. It was not the world. It was all his own.

You have given me a lot to think about, and I appreciate that. You are not alone. We are not alone. We are all too common, and I am glad we are able to find each other when we need it.