October 1 marks the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which I have complicated feelings about. The numbers are frightening and important: one out of 10 teenagers are abused by someone they are dating. Domestic violence homicides claim the lives of three women every day. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 was met with resistance, with politicians wanting to dictate who was worthy of protection. So yes, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about it for a whole month on media platforms large and small, even though the cynic in me can’t help feeling that the whole thing is a bit disingenuous. I’ve always been wary of national conversations about domestic violence, but even moreso when I think of the way we treated Janay Rice, the wife of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was captured on video punching his then-fiance in the face and then dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator.
In short, we told Janay Rice the abuse was her fault, which is what we always tell women. It is no doubt what I will be told after sharing this story.
The day the footage of Janay Rice being beaten was released, Everyday Feminism tweeted an essay I originally wrote a year prior for International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region called, “I Am A Complicated Latina Feminist, Ending Violence.” At the time I wrote the essay, it was a big step for me. Outside of close friends, and those who witnessed the abuse firsthand, very few knew of the way I was raised, which is to say I was raised by a man who was raging and had no qualms about hitting women and children.
Like Roxane Gay, I too hate writing about the terrible things that happen to women. Also like her, I feel an obligation to “because terrible things have happened to me and because for too long I stayed silent.”
These days, it is easier for me to talk about the ways in which I saw my mother abused. It is easier for me to talk about what it was like to grow up in a home so tense from the constant threat of violence, you could feel it in the air, that adrenaline-like terror that the most innocuous interaction or comment could bust your life – or your lip – wide open. Talking about these things has gotten easier, but it will never be easy.
I can’t say why I chose to watch the video clip of Janay Rice being knocked out by a man who was supposed to love her. For many, trigger warnings are understandably necessary. For me, they are not required, but there’s also no way to tell what depictions of violence will set a bomb off in my brain. I can watch a movie featuring a graphic, gratuitous scene in which a man abuses a woman and feel almost nothing, but a scene in a shoddily-produced one woman show left me shaking in my chair, fighting off tears to avoid being embarrassed in front of my friends. In the scene, an actress wearing a gold cape was playing both the parts of her mother and her father during a domestic dispute while James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” blared from the speakers and the house lights flashed to indicate the moment her father struck her mother. It was bizarre, and it got me.
Watching the Ray Rice video and re-reading my essay from a year ago made me feel unwell all day. I cried in bed. Given that depictions of violence against women are so common we rarely truly see them anymore – just as I’m able to watch women brutalized in movies and feel relatively unbothered – I was having trouble understanding why the seconds-long video of Janay Rice being hit was so overwhelming to me. Ostensibly, I know what happened to Janay Rice happens everywhere, every day. I am a feminist writer and news junkie and I routinely read and write about the horrible things that women endure. There are also hard numbers to illustrate my innate knowledge of the subject. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that in the United States, 20 people per minute are victims of intimate partner violence, with 85 percent of those who experience domestic violence being women.
As a writer who often touches on personal issues, there are parts of my life that are still incredibly difficult to talk about, mostly because I’m still trying to make sense of them and understand their impact on who I am now and how I operate.
I spent my most formative years, from about 15 to 20, in and out of an abusive relationship. Friends and partners could conceivably understand domestic violence I was born into, but they couldn’t understand the domestic violence they believed I was choosing by maintaining a relationship with, and even chasing after, a man who abused me. I didn’t know the phrase “victim blaming.” There was no Twitter. If there had been, the #WhyIStayed conversation sparked by Beverly Gooden would have ensured I didn’t feel completely alone in the world. But there wasn’t, and I did.
During the course of the relationship and for a long time after it, I was hesitant to call it abusive. There were no black eyes or broken bones; no trips to the hospital or cops called. We’re conditioned to believe that abuse looks or feels a certain way, so much in fact that when you experience it, it’s not always clear it’s happening. When you grow up in a home where overt violence was baseline normal, your boyfriend punching the wall next to your head or pushing you to the ground as he shoves past you doesn’t seem so bad.
As a child, I learned to detect the slightest change in atmosphere, the way an exasperated sigh, the incremental rise of a voice or the stiffening of a body meant fight or flight. In my first serious relationship, I did the same, learning to walk on eggshells. I thought I loved him and I thought he loved me. Before the yelling, cursing, and name calling became normal for us, there was that first-love giddiness. It took a long time before he violently laid hands on me.
At our high school, he was the class clown, notorious for goofing off and capable of making even hardass teachers laugh with his silly impressions. On the outside, we were perhaps a mismatched couple, but a happy one at first. I was quiet, he was loud. I was studious; he was on the cusp of being booted from his third school. I spent my lunch reading or writing or talking about reading or writing; he spent his jumping into the school swimming pool fully clothed. Before being entirely pulled into his orbit and becoming addicted to the drug-addled chaos we’d eventually indulge in together, I was relatively straight laced; a sweet, shy girl drawn to his brash attitude and crazy antics.
The first time it happened, we were in his car stopped at a red light not two minutes from my childhood home where I learned to take what men dish out. He was coming down from meth and angry about everything and nothing at all. I was angry about his drug use, his careless attitude, and his habit of disappearing for days at a time without a phone call. He clearly wasn’t in the mood to hear it and as if by instinct, punched me. His arm just flew out, like hitting me was a reflex. After his fist made contact with my flesh, he looked as shocked as I felt. I started crying and felt violently angry. I kicked his windshield. He punched the cracked windshield as I climbed out of his car. He screamed for me to get back in, but I jogged across the intersection. I heard his tires screech as he ran the red light. I expected him to come looking for me, but he didn’t. I wanted him to because I thought this was love.
When it comes to abuse, perception is a tricky thing.
Once, while living at my grandpa’s house, I got into a fight with my dad in front of my friend, a girl I was in love with. For no reason at all, my dad shoved me in the kitchen, spilling the soda I was holding all over the floor. He yelled for me to wipe it up. Defiant, I told him he should, seeing as how I only spilled because he shoved me. I saw the familiar flash of anger in his eyes, knowing I was one smartass sentence away from a slap. The idea of being hit in front of this girl I loved mortified me, so I blinked back tears and got down on my hands and knees and wiped up the soda as my dad, grandpa, and uncle stood around the kitchen sort of watching, but mostly continuing their conversation as if nothing had happened. Years later I would learn my friend saw this as a comical moment, another illustration of my mouthy ways getting me in trouble. To this day, I still think of it as one of the most demeaning moments of my life.
During this time, I didn’t have the tools to connect the dots between the abuse I experienced in my home and why enduring abuse in my first romantic relationship came so easily to me. I’d identified as a feminist since I was 12, swearing I’d be nothing like my mother, yet there I was – and it pained me. In retrospect, I realize this reasoning was ridiculous. Simply claiming the “feminist” label couldn’t save me from domestic violence or help me understand generations of abuse I was unknowingly perpetuating. Why did I stay? Because it’s what I knew, that’s why. No matter how you identify or who you are, you can find yourself in an abusive relationship and there will be reasons why you stay, as powerfully detailed by Vanessa Mártir and Jessica Valenti and Charity Morton and Val Willingham and Erin Matson and women who would rather remain anonymous.
If anything, my identification as a feminist made the idea of disclosing the abuse even more difficult, because I thought it was something I was letting happen to me and it embarrassed me. Again: perception. If I was perceived as strong, wasn’t I? If my relationship was perceived as loving, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it just the drugs that made him behave this way? Maybe I was just fucked up and sensitive?
In abusive relationships, respectability is also a total mindfuck. I was the one from the wrong side of the tracks. My parents were janitors and housekeepers; we were blue collar. I grew up in a two-bedroom duplex sharing a bedroom with my two older brothers. We were on welfare and ate food out of cans.
My boyfriend’s father, who recently ran for state senate, went to his own business each day in a suit and tie. His mother kept their expansive home, with its formal living room we weren’t allowed to sit in, immaculate. She cooked healthy, organic dinners every night after long days at the office. She told me often that I shouldn’t put up with his abuse, though she never asked me if I needed help. I had the distinct impression that if I ever tried to do anything about the abuse, I’d be left in the lurch.
I was too young to understand words like “privilege.” I didn’t know what it meant for someone to have the upper hand on someone else. There was a part of me that thought: why would someone from a family like this have any interest in someone like me? There was also a part of me that thought: how can someone from a family like this be such a fucking monster?
Today, that is an uncomfortable line of thinking, the way I probably hoped his family would save me from my own; the way I was quick to dismiss him as a monster and blamed his behavior on drug use, instead of seeing him for what he really was: an abusive man, period. There is this compulsion to make abusive men larger than life or otherworldly; we call them beasts and animals and monsters and emotional vampires. When I read a tweet in reference to Janay Rice from a Twitter user that goes by the handle @RomanKush, it felt like a punch in the gut: “Real men beat women. Real men kill women. Abusers aren’t mystical beings. They are real. They are your friends, brothers, and fathers.” I have been abused by friends and by my brothers and my father. They are not beasts; they are men I love and was told I could trust. They are everywhere.
Among my friends, my dad was one of the good fathers. He was not a drunk. He did not leave my mom to raise me alone. He was not like his father, disappearing for days once he got his paycheck, spending it on other women. My dad came home every day. My dad worked multiple, backbreaking jobs at once. My dad took care of his family. Ours was a house that my brothers’ friends stayed at when their parents kicked them out for any number of teenage offenses. My dad was perceived as being a good man, but one day he slipped up during a fist fight with my brother.
My brother went to school with a black eye and when asked by a teacher, decided to be honest about what happened. Before long, Child Protective Services was at my middle school and I was sitting across from a woman who wanted to know if my dad hit me. Instinctively, I knew to say no. Not just to avoid a beating, but because if I was honest, everything I knew would explode.
That instinct, to lie or protect the men who abuse us, is hard to explain. It comes from being afraid of the person who is abusing you, of course, but also afraid for the changes that honesty will force. We don’t want to endanger the men who hurt us, because we love them and we don’t think we can live without them.
When Janay Rice defended her husband in a statement on her Instagram account after the video was released, she wrote, “To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing.” I understand her feelings deeply. To her, this is an embarrassment she and her husband share; the abuse is something that unifies them and the aftermath of having it revealed has brought them closer together. Us vs. the world, the world doesn’t know the sweetness he expresses privately, no one sees the good that also happens behind closed doors, stand by your man, etc.
I do not know Janay Rice, but I can clearly envision instances in the past several months in which she has probably felt forced or strongly compelled or simply eager to comfort and console her husband for the “embarrassment” of getting caught, for the loss of his career, for the endless headlines.
One of the most damaging, insidious byproducts of abuse is manipulation. More times than I can count, I’ve found myself comforting a man who has done the unthinkable; a man who has responded to pain his violence caused with a different variation of the same sentiment: “Why did you make me do this?”
My dad slapped my mom the day before she died. The next day, when he was guilt-ridden and crying, I found myself saying, “You were just frustrated with her. You didn’t know.”
Or the time my boyfriend pushed me and called me a “stupid bitch.” When I burst into tears, he slammed his head against the kitchen wall and slid down the refrigerator into a heap on the floor, sobbing, his head in his hands, saying, “I’m a horrible person. I want to die.” I pulled his hands away from his face, wiped away the tears, and kissed him, telling him it was OK. This was the same man who forced himself on me and then became upset with me because of the aftermath. The same man, who once after sex, told me if I ever cheated on him, he would kill me. The same man who cheated on me dozens of times, sometimes with friends, never using protection. The same man who fathered a child with another woman while we were together.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that in 80 percent of intimate partner homicides, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.
My boyfriend made no attempt to hide his violence. When he said, “If you ever cheat on me, I’ll kill you,” I said, “I love you and I would never cheat on you.” I meant it.
Also: there are levels. Like the time a man, bitter over my decision to disengage, cussed me out and threw a glass of water at me in a restaurant. Later he left a drunken voicemail, saying, “You just drive me so crazy, baby.”
Like a very sweet boyfriend with no history of violence who had a little too much to drink and playfully slapped my face during an animated conversation, despite knowing my history of abuse. I cried because having my face slapped, even in jest, brings up many bad memories. He was incensed, believing my tears implied that he’d done it maliciously. There was no making him understand that my reaction was not unwarranted and that you should never slap a woman in the face, not even playfully, especially if she is a woman who has had her face slapped unplayfully. He stormed out of our cabin and I spent the rest of the night apologizing for my reaction and begging him to come back inside.
I was lucky my abusive relationship didn’t escalate further. I was lucky mine ended rather unceremoniously. I have been lucky to not enter another. It is luck, really. At least for me. I assume there will be people who don’t understand this, who grew up in the kind of home that taught them to view an abusive relationship as something you choose to be in, with the only possible option — the only option that means you’re a person worthy of respect — being to leave. I do not write this for those people.
I write this for women like Janay Rice, who has become the spark for a national conversation about domestic violence; the subject of headlines and think pieces; the inspiration for hashtags; the butt of jokes. I don’t have answers for her, or for women like her, who are hearing from their communities the same things they’ve heard from their abusers: that they’re “stupid,” that what’s happening to them is their fault, even if the context is “because you haven’t left.” I don’t have answers but I do wish them well, and support them.
Despite being there and living through it, I have little to say to women who find themselves in abusive relationships. Every situation is different. Women leave when they can or when they must or not at all. I can tell them I see them and I hear them and they matter; that I understand and I don’t understand; that I want them to leave, but I know sometimes they can’t; that there is a life on the other side that is in no way out of the realm of possibility; that they deserve love that doesn’t hurt or damage or kill. I can extend my hand repeatedly and not judge them if they don’t accept help initially or at all. But that is all that I can do, and I will keep doing it.