People often ask me if I am such an advocate for victims and survivors then how would I propose to solve the problem of domestic and intimate partner violence?
That question is not easily answered in one conversation or in one blog post or even in one seminar or one Ted talk or one single person. But people are often shocked when I answer that we all play a part and we all participate in a society that brings this about, even the way we raise our sons and daughters.
Many women go through life and never experience physical violence against themselves. Most of us are never taught to even recognize violence against women when we see it. Most dialogues around intimate partner violence focus around physical violence and isolation and seclusion that most often marks a violent, abusive relationship. Those are relatively easy to identify and discuss, but those discussions always seem to serve as a barrier for the truly difficult discussions that identify the abuse we have all witnessed.
And sadly, most discussions around intimate partner violence allow each person to continue denying the abuse they have seen themselves. If we only talk about the worst bruises, or the most blatant instances of intimate partner violence, then we can deny how bad it really is. It’s easy to look at the recent campaigns against intimate partner violence (even the recent billboards that work to raise awareness, such as this one from the Salvation Army about the famous dress) and say, “Oh, well I never looked like that, so it must not be abuse.” I never looked like that either. My abuser knew very well not to leave marks. He became the expert at keeping me in my place without even a word being spoken.
Perhaps the reality is that most women have never experienced physical violence against themselves. That is a reality I and most survivors can’t relate to, because for us physical violence was a part of our existence, and often was one thing we could actually control in our abusive relationships. And many times, the physical abuse was the one thing that made us finally get out. (Victims learn early on there are aspects of the violence that they can control – they can control how quickly the violence comes on and they know how long the violence will last, and they can somewhat control how often it even happens. Alice Walker discusses this at length in her book, Battered Woman.)
Yes, if not for physical violence, we might have stayed for many more years.
Indeed, by the time physical violence occurs, a long pattern of emotional and verbal abuse has already occurred. Often that pattern of emotional abuse begins in our families, by our fathers and brothers and uncles and grandfathers, when we are most vulnerable and still learning about the world. And since we grew up with it, we participate in passing it down to our own sons, continuing long family lines of emotional abuse against women.
Many women can easily identify physical violence, and continue our own denial of abuse, because we cannot easily identify emotional and verbal abuse against ourselves.
I have long conjectured that physical violence begins with emotional abandonment. Long before a hit is ever executed, the abuser has walked out on the victim, the abuser has been emotionally unavailable to her, the abuser has distanced himself from her. (I fully acknowledge that sometimes the abuser is a woman. In my blog the abuser will be male because that is my personal experience in a traditional gender based violent relationship where my abuser was male. This is the experience out of which I write and study and speak. I welcome any and all dialogue on intimate partner violence that exists in GLBTQ relationships, or intimate partner violence that is instigated by women.)
And even long before the emotional violence, women experience patterns of linguistic violence against them by the men in their lives – their fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and brothers – who set them up to feel less than and who contribute to making women vulnerable to abusive relationships.
Allow me to rephrase that: women often grow up in families where the patriarchs talk down to them, demean them publicly, ridicule them and shame them, dismiss them easily, and keep them in a bound space and expect certain behaviors from them. It is these environments that make women already bendable and pliable – and vulnerable to abuse.
Women are taught early and long to do what men tell them to do. Men expect women to tell them what to do. I have long been known for expressing my own frustrations with my own tendency to jump up when a man says to, by voicing loudly: “Since when do I do what a man tells me to do?” And I am frequently made fun of for that – what do you mean, you’re not going to do what I say do?
Sometimes I even catch my sons trying to tell me what to do, or questioning me when I insist something is reality when it is different from their perception of reality. Even at ages of 11 and 10, they somehow think I jump when they say jump. Even at ages of 11 and 10, they try to talk down to me and are beginning to experiment with their own male privilege (read: their own ability to bend and ply their feminine counterparts).
My therapist has warned me, somewhat glibly, that boys at this age have absolutely no use for their mothers. This is why many boys completely rebel, why many boys of single mothers go to live with their fathers at this age. Part of me wept with the matter-of-factness she delivered this news to me. This doesn’t bother anybody else? There’s not a big social problem right there, when boys are cultured to reject their mothers at age 11, and no one bats an eyelash? Oh, that’s right, mothers are optional after all. We don’t need our boys to be like their mothers, we need them to be like their fathers.
Wait! Stop! No, we do need our boys to be like mothers, too, and we need to be able to connect with our boys and still retain some sort of influence over their lives! What is wrong with us, that we are giving boys such anxiety, such a dichotomy of existence between the positivity associated with masculinity, and the less-than associated with femininity, that boys around age 11 reject the femininity in order to save some sort of face.
This is happening when we even say things like “Stop crying like a girl,” or “Stand up and be a man about it,” as if being female was the worst thing in the world. Our fathers taught us this, as they made fun of us for screaming like girls and they ridiculed us for playing with our pink toys and our own fathers rejected our desires to have tea parties and our own fathers rejected nail polish and playing in our kitchens.
We became used to a rhetoric, a quiet subtle way of living that meant the feminine was something for men to avoid. And when our sons hit that age where they were testing their own masculinity and discovering a deeper understanding of the world, they too picked up on rejecting the feminine. Mothers and daughters were rejected in that process, and, because we weren’t taught any different and we weren’t taught to notice, we became complicit in this reality.
In theology we call this “binary opposites.” The idea is that even as early as Genesis, the world is seen as split in two – the good and the bad. Everything falls into a category, either good or bad. Masculinity is good, femininity is bad. Adam was good, Eve was bad. If I think I’m good, then you must be bad. If sons are good, daughters are bad. White is good, black is bad. American is good, foreign is bad. You get the idea. Good vs. evil. Heaven vs. hell.
What is most fascinating about being a survivor is that I learned that there is both good and bad in each of us. My abuser has much good in him – he is a hard worker and he has much compassion for animals and he believed he was a family kind of man. There was much good in me – I was, and still am, a good mama and I work hard and everything I do is to the best of my ability. But there is also bad in both of us – he cannot handle anger very well, he was cultured and raised with a mistrust of women within a family that routinely makes fun of his own mom, he was repeatedly denied the opportunity to take responsibility for his own actions, he is deeply enslaved to a substance in his life, and he is unable to see the problems in his own actions that keep him continuously enslaved in patterns of negative behaviors. The bad in me is that I believed I could help him, I believed and was cultured to believe, that a good woman, a good wife, would always stand by her man, even if her entire world crumbled around her. The bad in me was that his anger sparked my own deep anger, and the bad in me was that I learned to deal with my own negative feelings in very negative ways.
None of this should serve to blame women for the patterns of behavior and abuse that steal their very beings every day, for years on end. We cannot blame victims, and we cannot make victims solely responsible for the horrors that happen to them. The discussions always get heavy and difficult when we turn the conversation to the victims themselves and ask why they stay? That question can only be answered by turning into our own selves, and analyzing what we all do, that keeps victims in their place? How is it that we are actively, even today, raising sons and daughters who will be victims and perpetrators?
One of the most frustrating things in my experience has been hearing how many times victims watched their perpetrators abuse their own mothers.. We’ve come far enough in our society to know that how a man treats his mother can directly show how he will treat his wife. One woman I have spoken with who wishes to remain anonymous, told me how they had been married for one week, and her husband pushed his own mother in her own kitchen. Then the mother turned to her and said to her, “I hope he doesn’t treat you that way,” as if she were to blame for that incident.
Rather than let him know that his actions were unacceptable, she turned to the victim and against the victim. She had long been disempowered by her son and her own husband to speak against them. She had long been made fun of by them at the dinner table and every time she made a mistake – she was the absent-minded one that everyone blamed if something went wrong, she was the blonde one at the table, it was surely “mom’s” fault. She had long covered for her son’s misbehavior – years of hauling him out of jail when he received three DUI’s before he even graduated college. Years of driving his angry butt around town to work and to community service and still giving him the key, still opening her home to him even while he criticized her and disrespected her.
It’s easy to wonder, omg how or why would she put up with that? Because if his dad found out, hell would be paid. When my own abuser overturned and destroyed our own kitchen in an angry outrage, his dad came the next morning and tore up our garage out of his anger at his son. Violence only beget more violence.
So mom intervened to keep peace. Mom took and accepted blame to keep peace. Mom became the interceptor of the violence. And Mom became the complicit one, the one who upheld the family honor even at her own demise.
This is not the happy Mother’s Day post where mothers experience peace and happiness within their family homes, my friends. This is the introspection of realizing my own participation in a system where women bear the burden of keeping peace among men who reject femininity, and who struggle with the brutality of their own humanity. You see, men only continue to act this way, because women continue to allow them to act this way towards them. I often wonder what would happen if women simply stopped showing up? If women stopped jumping at the sound of men’s voices, if women stopped laughing with the jokes when the jokes demean them, if women stood up for themselves and each other when men de-humanize them in public and in private? Oh the struggle. May we raise sons who know to respect women, and may we raise daughters who refuse to take their shit.