"I ran into your ex."
"Which one?" I ask.
I am serious. I'm not that popular. But Austin has that small town feel; circles overlap. So, over the course of one evening, it's not unusual to encounter two or more exploits past. Who is she talking about?
Claire reveals which ex.
"Oh, he's such a cutie-pie!" she chirps.
Claire does not know me well. However, through our mutual friendships, Claire does know that this man has been more than a thorn in my side, that I really have no interest in discussing his cuteness, or anything else about him for that matter. Politely, I try to change the topic. Despite this, she continues.
I look at her coldly, dumbfounded at her lack of tact. She doesn't get it and gushes some more. Finally, tired of her insensitive giddiness, I speak up, "Gee, that's nice Claire. Did you know he hits women?"
"Well, he never hit you, did he?" Her tone borders on accusing. "You sure thought he was pretty wonderful when you decided to live with him." Yes, Claire, and babies can't resist dipping their hands into pretty candle flames, either. How can they know the pain?
No burn, no learn, sister.
The hostess seats us. Unbelievably, Claire again tries to engage me. Now fully baited, I begin to defend myself. Her pointless egging has made decorum irrelevant; I'd better be blunt. "A man who abuses is not remotely cute," I loudly explain for the benefit of the entire table. Someone else with at least half of Claire's discretion dismissively adds, "Oh, everyone says bad stuff about exes."
Stunned, I look at the faces around me and announce, "Folks, listen. I am not talking about a minor case of irreconcilable differences, here. This man hurt me."
Since I really don't want to get into this discussion, I swallow hard and offer, "I'll tell you what, since I didn't come here to be crucified or, for that matter, to crucify, how about for the rest of the night we all pretend I'm an unattached lesbian who has never had a partner of any sort, that I don't have a child, and that I lead a dull life?" Thankfully, someone more astute than Claire takes the hint and switches topics. But it's too late. The night is ruined. I fight tears and the urge to make an excuse to leave before my entrée arrives. "But he didn't hit you, did he?" plays over and over and over in my head.
No, Claire. No, world. He did not hit me. I did not let it get to that point. For the record, he grabbed me, hard, the last time I left him. He pinned me to the ground and nearly broke my wrists. He blocked exits, puffing up his twice-my-size frame like an enraged blowfish, and threatened that I wasn't going anywhere. He snatched my laptop, forcibly dangling it before me. Knowing that it's the way I make my living, he refused to give it back until I cried and begged. He repeatedly contacted my friends, family, and business colleagues -- people he met through me, most of whom had nothing to with our private lives -- and spread wild, damaging lies about me.
But he did not hit me.
I am not Hedda Nussbaum.
Remember Nussbaum? The poster girl for beaten women, whose partner, Joel Steinberg, a suave, esteemed Manhattan lawyer, destroyed her face and her life and killed their adopted daughter in 1987? Recently, The New York Times Magazine ran a profile of Nussbaum. And do you know what they concluded? Many people despise her as much, perhaps more, than her abuser.
Why? Because, they say, she was an idiot to stay. Because, they say, she could have done so much more to try to save her daughter.
By applause, how many of you out there have been in an abusive relationship? Was it physical? Or was it "just" psychological? Did you turn to your friends when finally you realized how screwed up it was? Did they believe you? Or did they accuse you of exaggerating? Of being at fault for choosing an abuser in the first place?
The ex of whom I speak was not the first to resort to violence to get my attention. My first boyfriend threw me across the room once. I sported his magnificent black and purple bruise on my ass for a week, a precise imprint of the derailleur of the bicycle that broke my fall.
Back then, I blamed myself for that incident. We were young, intense. We argued a lot. That was passion, right? Not abuse... I sort of asked for it, didn't I?
Funny, I used this "act of passion" excuse to rationalize away a little caveat I received as I prepared to enter into a domestic situation with the recent abuser. A woman previously involved with him warned me: He hits. I confronted him. Do you hit? He said maybe, once or twice, he'd taken a swipe at one woman or another. But that was long ago. He said his accuser was crazy. Jealous. Angry that he chose me, not her.
Call me an idiot. I chose to believe this man. Why? Because I wanted to. Why else? Because I had never met the woman who warned me, because her words were inflected with the venom of jealousy, and because in addition to her warning, she lashed out wildly at me, proving to me that she was a little nuts. Unfortunately, she was also right.
Mostly I just focused, happily, on the thought that I was about to co-habitate with a man who had spent months wooing me, lavishing me with attention and gifts, impressing me with his brilliance and success. And, oh yeah, he was a cutie-pie. Any residual apprehension I had when I thought of Jealous-Woman's words was wiped away by his clever hand. He pointed to the ex-girlfriends who would vouch for his gentle ways. If he were really an abuser, would these women have remained friendly?
Unfortunately, that warped logic appealed to me. Suffering low self-esteem in relationships past, I couldn't conceive that his ex-lovers might have maintained contact to convince themselves that they hadn't been abused -- to believe his hits had been mere overzealous acts of passion.
The longer he and I stayed together, the more safe he seemed in the knowledge that I was too involved to leave. Perhaps this made him more comfortable to be more honest with himself? And with me? He began to confess a few details he "forgot" to mention before. He copped to hitting a few more women a few more times than he'd previously recalled. And well, okay... he had punched his own mother in the face, once. But not on purpose. And she had forgiven him. Could I?
I did. Because back then, I had that Claire mentality. He never hit me, did he? Clearly, he was a changed man. That was what counted. So, he grabbed once in a while -- so what? So he tried to get me to change my weight, my clothes, my writing, my taste in furniture, my "unclassy" preference for beer over expensive wine. That wasn't manipulative or abusive, was it?
It is so confusing when you are inside the distorted picture of a dangerous relationship. You try foolishly to fix things again and again, because you'd hate to admit there is something out there beyond your repair. Eventually, though, you stop trying to fix. You start accepting the destructive, the devastating. You accept this as "normal." As the article on Nussbaum reports, "[In the past decade] the psychology of domestic abuse has been better understood, especially the victim's profound attachment to the abuser."
Was I attached to him? I have to say, though I hate with all my heart to admit it, that honestly, yes, I was. And yes, I chose to stay with him far too long. And I said I loved him. I thought I did. But can somebody show me where it says that being attached and loving someone gives that person license to hit again and again and again, be those hits physical or mental?
Lies discovered, promises broken, pain rendered, all netted me (can you believe this cliché?) big, expensive bouquets of roses replete with little cards begging forgiveness. Visitors noted the lovely dried bunches hanging about the house. What a nice man you have!
All the roses, all the affection lavished in public, all the times I responded in kind at all the parties, parties where people like Claire saw us together -- what did these gestures tell people? Did I silence the truth to convince myself life was fine? Or was I giving in to his ceaseless demands that we never let others know what really transpired?
That last day, after one argument too many, when I could see in his eyes how much he wanted to smack me clear across the room, I ran from him. He chased me through the house. No words will ever capture the terror of those moments, with him, in a pure rage, coming toward me. No, Claire, he never hit me. I made it clear beyond clear if he ever did, I was gone.
Now, what did this confessed hitter of women have to lose? Knowing that no amount of roses or apologies could ever change my mind, what motivation remained for him to resist smashing my face, breaking my arm, or hurting my child?
So, I left anyway. I did not want to wait to gather physical "proof." I did not bear the trophy of teeth broken, eye swollen shut. I had kept silent about much of this anguish over the months. He doted on me and I on him in public -- who knew we were in deep trouble? Having witnessed all this, some friends surmised I was exaggerating, I was overreacting. Surely, I was giving up too easily and didn't understand commitment. Surely "abusive" is too strong of a word? Proof was not evident; was it necessary?
I didn't need broken teeth. I didn't need to tell everyone I know about this personal hell. I understand commitment. Commitment to myself and to my child. So many men just cannot stand that in a woman: commitment to anyone but them first. Some men get so mad at bitches like me, that... well, they just need to teach us a damn lesson. For our own good, of course.
I send these words to encourage those of you who are in abusive relationships: Get out now. I send these words to encourage those of you who are skeptical: Listen to your friends. Even if they don't have black eyes. Even if they haven't hit their partner or child yet, believe them when they turn to you for help.
And, Claire? I offer you this, sister: If you ever come to me and tell me a man hurt you, no matter how unbruised you are, I will believe you. And I will help you. And I promise, promise, promise I will not once try to make you acknowledge what a cutie-pie he is.
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