On Victim Blaming

My ex-husband blames me for his abuse. His family blames me for his abuse. Some of his friends blame me for his abuse.

This is natural. It is difficult to acknowledge that someone we love and respect has perpetrated horrific acts of violence on another person. It was difficult for me to acknowledge that it was happening while it was happening, so of course, it would be difficult for people outside of the relationship, who didn’t personally witness the abuse to reconcile that their friend or family member, a person who seems very mild-mannered and nice, could brutally beat his wife. It is easier to blame the wife, to think that the wife must have done something to set him off, to think that the wife must be exaggerating somehow, or to think that the wife is lying because she’s crazy or malicious or revenge-seeking.

It is also easier to think there is a gray area, that this is an issue between the couple, that all couples have problems. Caleb and I had problems. I was not the perfect victim who just silently accepted all of the things he told me. I yelled back. I criticized. I tried to fight back physically once, and I discovered that my strength was no measure for his. I discovered that I was weak when he held me down by my wrists. So effortless for him. I was pinned like a butterfly to a board.

He looked in my eyes for an extended pause, then he spit. In my face. He spit in my face three times. He spit in my face to show me how powerless I was.

But because I tried to fight back, he can now say, “She abused me too.” One of our mutual friends told me that his friend had told her “Well, Caleb says they beat up on each other.” I don’t know what to say in reply to that, except that I am not as strong as Caleb. If I could have defended myself against Caleb, I would have. I can promise you that.

If I had the strength to fight back and win, I would have.

I would have. I would have. I would have.

I am not the perfect victim.

I am not a martyr.

One of my best friends wanted to write a guest post for this blog about how she witnessed me changing as the abuse was happening. She is a wonderful, accepting listener, and I have talked to her quite frankly about my struggles with anger towards him and towards other people in his life. I have acknowledged to her that, when we would fight (he and I), I knew the abuse was inevitable, so I often went all in. My own fighting style became harder, meaner, more aggressive. There was no healthy communication in my relationship with my husband, so I could either stuff all of my feelings inside, or argue back, and neither of those options ever ended well.

My friend wanted to write about how she witnessed some of this. She saw me getting harder. She saw me getting sadder. She knew this wasn’t me. She saw me changing in ways that were not for the better, and she knew that something was happening, but she didn’t know why. She knew for a long time before I did that Caleb and I were going to get divorced. I would call her in the middle of the night sobbing, telling her that he called me names and put me down, but I didn’t tell her he hit me. I didn’t give her that information yet because, if I had, she would have been on a plane, and she would have made me move out, and I wasn’t ready for that yet.

I’ve been friends with this woman for 16 years. We lived together and, in typical twenty-something fashion, we discovered we weren’t suited to being roommates. We experienced personal traumas and tragedies together. We fought over silly things. We once drank boxed wine with another friend and had a karaoke party long into the night. Just the three of us, giggling and singing karaoke in our apartment. She was in my wedding, and I was in hers. She married in Vietnam, and as a wedding gift to her, her mother bought my plane ticket. We have the same name. We are both named Kelly. When we lived in the same town, we saw each other almost every day. When we moved apart, we started talking on the phone. When she lived in Vietnam for two years, we Skyped–she in the early light of morning and me at dusk. I still love the sound of the Skype ring on the computer. We have talked almost every day for 16 years. This is a love story. A love story of friendship. In the past year and a half, I have discovered that my friends are the loves of my life. Not just this friend. There are others too. The universe has blessed me immeasurably in that regard.

She knows me as well as anyone. And she witnessed me change during my marriage, and it concerned her, and she wants to write about that, but she struggles with writing about my change because she realized, while attempting to write it, that she was opening me up to being victim blamed. That, if she shows me as being flawed or imperfect–even though she loves and admires and respects me–there is the possibility for people like my ex or his friends to latch on to those imperfections and say “See! She deserved it!”

Here’s the thing: I am flawed and imperfect, but I didn’t deserve to have my husband beat me. All of the accountability for that falls on him. I am flawed and imperfect, but I am blameless in the abuse because there is no blame that can justify abuse. I am flawed and imperfect, and I am not blameless in other ways. I can list to you all of the ways in which I wasn’t always a good wife, but it doesn’t matter. He wasn’t allowed to abuse me.

This is clearly something that needles at me because I’ve written about it before, but one of my ex-husband’s friends, whose intentions are good but who also doesn’t seem to understand the dynamics of domestic violence, has asked me why I stayed when things got unsafe. She asked me to try and learn to identify my triggers. She is asking the wrong questions. Questioning my behavior won’t stop his violence. She doesn’t understand that this is victim blaming. The only way to deal with a man’s violence is to ask him why he* beat his wife, or why he raped that woman, or why he did whatever violent thing he did, and then to give him clear societal consequences for that violence, which she’s not doing.

If that man has not acknowledged what he’s done, and someone remains their friend, then they have inadvertently endorsed his behavior. Abusive men love neutrality and silence. It tells them that they can get away with anything. When people who know my ex-husband was abusive and that he violently assaulted me for years treat him like he’s a great guy–for example, one couple who knew he had abused me still wanted him to perform the ceremony at their marriage–then those people are showing my ex-husband that his violence against me really didn’t matter, that he was justified in it, that it wasn’t such a big deal for him to beat his wife, that there is gray area, that maybe I deserved it. And that’s how I, the victim, end up with a crappy letter of apology like the one I ended up with, because Caleb, the perpetrator, knows it doesn’t matter, that he will always have the support of his blind propagandists.

Jackson Katz, one of the leading authorities on domestic violence, identifies this issue nicely:
Now, those of us who work in the domestic and sexual violence field know that victim-blaming is pervasive in this realm, which is to say, blaming the person to whom something was done rather than the person who did it. And we say things like, why do these women go out with these men? Why are they attracted to these men? Why do they keep going back? What was she wearing at that party? What a stupid thing to do. Why was she drinking with that group of guys in that hotel room? This is victim blaming, and there are numerous reasons for it, but one of them is that our whole cognitive structure is set up to blame victims. This is all unconscious. Our whole cognitive structure is set up to ask questions about women and women’s choices and what they’re doing, thinking, and wearing. And I’m not going to shout down people who ask questions about women, okay? It’s a legitimate thing to ask. But’s let’s be clear: Asking questions about Mary is not going to get us anywhere in terms of preventing violence

Please take the time to watch this video, then share it with everyone you know. We are in a moment where violence against women is rampant, and it’s time to change that. It’s time to speak out. Katz quotes Martin Luther King Jr:

“In the end, what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

*I recognize that abuse is not something that only happens in heterosexual relationships. In this blog, I mostly deal with the dynamics of my own relationship, but I am aware that abuse can happen in same sex relationships and from women to men, and that I am presenting a limited view here.