In the past few days, domestic violence has been the topic of conversation around the country. Ray Rice was accused of domestic violence toward his then-fiancé, Janay Palmer, in an elevator this past February and was suspended for two games. Since that incident, she went on to marry him. Just this week, a new violent video of the incident has surfaced and he has been released from the Ravens and indefinitely suspended from the NFL. She apologized for “her role” in the incident, and has chastised the media for being so mean to her husband. The backlash has been significant, but strangely, much of it against his wife. Most of the conversation is about her. How could she do that? What is wrong with her? I would never… And on and on. She is standing by her man, and that is confusing to people unfamiliar with domestic violence.
In the midst of this hoopla, a woman who knows firsthand about domestic violence, Beverly Gooden, started tweeting with the hashtag #WhyIStayed. As she says, “Leaving is a process, not an event.” It has caught on like wildfire, and many victims are telling #WhyIStayed as well as #WhyILeft.
But still, I am seeing responses that shock me. Friends of mine on Facebook are still saying that these women are stupid or that maybe things aren’t really as bad as they appear. They themselves would never stay. People, it’s not about staying in a bad relationship or the “stupidity” of the victim. It’s so much more complicated than that. It’s about control and power and manipulation. It’s about bravery and fear and taking leaps so mighty they should be celebrated, not alienated as something “other.”
These women are not other. They are people you know. People you see every day. Smart people. Kind people. People like me.
My husband abused me.
This is the hardest post I have ever written, because I don’t speak of that time. It’s been ten years, but I still don’t tell what it was to live that life except to those very close to me, and only in pieces and vague nuances. Even now, I go over and over and over my words, wondering if I want to expose myself this way. Wondering if this is worth it. Embarrassed. Some days it still feels like it was my fault. I believe the lies he told…and sometimes the ones you all tell, too. That I should have known better. That if I was just smarter, if I just listened better, if I just paid better attention, this wouldn’t have happened to me. That this only happens to stupid women with low self-image and maybe I’m both. Even now, I feel I risk so much in the telling. I know I will find more eyes filled with pity, more silent stares and disengaged relationships. I know it will invite questions, because these truths are full of contradictions and have no easy answers.
Even now, this thing has power over me.
But I have had enough. In light of these public events, and some very powerful private ones, I am done with alluding to that life. Today, I’m going to spell some of it out for you. It might mean I lose friends. It might mean I alienate with discomfort. It might mean that I become a woman with too much baggage to bother with. So be it.
Because sometimes it is in the telling that we give the power back to others and speak the truth to ourselves. And that matters more.
So here is my list of Why I Stayed, Why I Left, and one more aspect that needs to be addressed: Why It’s So Hard After.
Why I Stayed
Because I have a master’s degree and these things don’t happen to people like me.
Because I’m articulate, and if I was just persuasive enough, I could reason him to stop.
Because I’m tough.
Because I’m not a quitter.
Because he was a professional and respected in the community.
Because he never drank or took drugs. He simply reacted to me. Change myself, and it would stop.
Because God hates divorce.
Because he said the pastor would tell me to stay; I thought so too, because everything from the pulpit supported him, and so I never dared to ask.
Because we were the “cutest couple” and “so good together.” Because teens we worked with hoped they could be “just like you two” someday.
Because I made my bed and I should lie in it.
Because it’s hard to leave when you are unconscious.
Because this was a submission issue and not an abusive one.
Because he erased all the evidence I had.
Because a lot of the time it wasn’t physical.
Because he knew how to not leave marks.
Because this doesn’t happen to smart people.
Because I was too stupid to leave the first time it happened.
Because sometimes I fought back. And maybe that made me as guilty as he was.
Because I got pregnant.
Because if I left, he said he would kidnap my child.
Because if I called the police, he said we would both go to jail and our child would be turned over to CYS.
Because I was systematically isolated from everyone who loved me.
Because everyone he surrounded us with would believe every word he said.
Because he was a kind man, and a charming man, and an interesting man. He made me laugh. And he was intensely interested in me.
Because away is unknown, and maybe unknown is worse. This was the unknown, before.
Because he could kill me if he didn’t remember to have mercy. And there is no mercy for a woman leaving.
Because when I was routinely asked at the hospital if anyone at home was hurting me, I lied. I was in labor and there were people in the room, including him. And he told me that was on record now; nothing else I said mattered.
Because he took my paycheck. And changed the bank account password regularly. I never knew how much we had because all purchases had to go through him.
Because the daycare was in his office building.
Because we worked for the same company, and telling meant every coworker and copy lady would know what a fool I was.
Because I couldn’t leave and keep my job.
Because he said my smart mouth got me in trouble. So maybe I deserved it.
Because everyone knows that I’m strong and opinionated and no one steps on me. And so no one would believe I would let it happen.
Because he told me he would stop if I behaved better. I just needed to try harder.
Because I was a good wife.
Because of slut shaming.
Because we’re all sinners so I should have grace for his faults.
Because I’m not a saint, so maybe I wasn’t really a victim, either.
Because isn’t love supposed to cover a multitude of wrongs?
Because if I left I was dooming my child to statistics like these.
Because when I stopped covering my bruises as an act of rebellion, no one said a word.
Because I was so, so ashamed.
Why I Left
Because I knew if one person believed me, if one person said something to me, I could leave. One person was brave enough to speak. And then I was, too.
Because I couldn’t do it on my own, but others helped me figure out how to get away.
Because I am stronger than he thought.
Because my child needed me more than I needed to follow the rules.
Because sometimes fighting back doesn’t involve fists.
Because I was tired of being brave and quiet.
Because I am strong and opinionated and no one steps on me.
Because despite his best efforts, I didn’t miscarry my child. And that needed to matter.
Because I figured I was dead either way. May as well go out in a blaze of glory than in quiet suffocation.
Because walking away doesn’t always mean you are quitting.
Because he said I never would.
Because God hates abuse more than he hates divorce.
Because there was a pastor brave enough to say that my safety mattered more than my marriage.
Because watching my child get struck hurt me more than being struck myself.
Because I have a smart mouth and I know how to use it.
Because not all evidence has to be physical.
Because if I stayed, I realized I was dooming my child to statistics like these.
Because I saw this and I realized how deep it really went.
Because I saw this and knowledge is power.
Because I saw this and I wasn’t alone anymore.
Because I was believed.
Why It’s So Hard After
Because my private life is fair game for public dissection.
Because explaining it sometimes feels more embarrassing than living it.
Because every time I am asked if I knew before I married him, all I hear is “How stupid were you, exactly? Mostly stupid, or all the way stupid?” And I know that, deep down, they have judged me as stupid, regardless.
Because for every person who tells me they are proud of me and I am so very brave, there is another who isn’t so sure. One woman told me that God wanted me to go back. Another told me that I was lying. Someone else told me they knew this would happen to me.
Because for every pastor who supported me, there was a pastor suggesting that I didn’t try hard enough or I didn’t listen to good counsel in marrying him, and that sounds an awful lot like maybe I deserved it.
Because every time I hear “respect your husband and submit to him” I remember the way those words flowed through his fingers and around my neck as I passed out. And every time I hear someone say “head of the household” I remember how it felt to have my own head beat against a doorframe to the rhythm of those syllables. And the dark side that exists in those words is never publicly acknowledged. Often it seems that protecting theology is more important than protecting women.
Because no one ever says that sometimes turning the other cheek means walking away.
Because I have to be a victim. And that feels like a dirty word. And sometimes people tell me that being a victim is a choice.
Because wounds become scars, but sometimes people want to treat me like the wounds are still bleeding. And they aren’t. I don’t choose to be defined by this.
Because sometimes, at times like these, the scars burn bright, and hearing all the words again make me think that maybe he was right about me.
Because sometimes when I tell someone about it, they tell me all the violent things that it makes them want to do toward him. I don’t need anyone to punch him out or “give him a taste of his own medicine.” What I need is for him to have clarity, and understanding, and ownership. Those things don’t come from violence.
Because my son still sees him every other week. And I have the terrifying privilege of teaching bravery and honesty. Of teaching what it means to respect and honor with truth and compassion and an eye on safety. Of teaching how to joy together in the ways he is kind and interesting and charming, even in the light of all the rest.
Because while I get to choose how to tell my story, it is always there, needing to be told. And choosing grace and love is still hard sometimes. But the alternative is worse.
Because sometimes when I tell my story, the listener makes it my identity. They see me as weak and coddle me; they see me as exploitable and they attack me; they see me as damaged and they walk away. But it is not who I am; it is what happened to me. Who I am is what I did with what happened.
Because often politeness and appearances matter more to others than truth and honesty.
Because sometimes I feel like I have to carry a scarlet A into every relationship, and no one would ever want to deal with that.
Because even though I have brilliant people around me to remind me of true things, sometimes I’m still so tired of being strong.
Because although I don’t know her specific reasons, I can empathize with the complicated explanations behind why Janay Rice stayed. And why some of my friends did, too. And I know I’m not any different than the women who stayed, not really.
Because I don’t need pity, and I don’t deserve blame.
Because sometimes I’m still so ashamed. But I’m also determined. And better.
Because it’s all so very complicated.
If you are in an abusive relationship, tell someone. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else. Call the number below. It won’t be easy, but it will be better. Abuse is not just hitting. It is about power and control, and there are lots of ways that happens: emotional, financial, sexual. It doesn’t matter how long it has been, how many times you have covered it up, or how it looks to other people. You know what your partner is doing to you, and you don’t have to stay. You have more evidence than you think. When you start talking, truth will start to break through, and you will see more reasons to leave than you do even now. I promise.
National Abuse Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 http://www.thehotline.org/
If you suspect that something is “off” in a friend’s relationship, ask! And if you think they are lying, ask again another day. You don’t know the fear that is bound up in their answer. It is embarrassing to ask, but it is worse to tell. And don’t just ask if he/she is being hit. Ask if he/she is being controlled. Ask if he/she is living in fear. Show your friend that diagram above. Point out the ones that worry you. “How can I help?” are the most powerful words you can utter. Keep the shelter of friendship open, no matter the response. Leaving is a process, not an event.
Truth matters more than secrets.
Compassion matters more than shame.
Bravery is conviction in action. And it starts with words.
So start speaking.