At 10 AM on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday morning, he sent a message informing me he was "ready to talk in a neutral space." To say I was not expecting his message would be an understatement. The last time we had any contact, he was beating me with my own umbrella on Hollywood Boulevard. That was four years ago.
When pressed for an explanation of his unsolicited missive, he replied, "I was under the impression you had something you wanted to say to me. You do seem to have a problem moving on."
Did I have a problem moving on? Four years had passed; in them, I had thrived. I was no longer being emotionally and physically abused by someone I loved. I had redeveloped the capacity for self-respect our relationship had eroded. I was a stronger person, a better person. But, in spite of it all, did the problem remain? Yes, I conceded. It did. It was, it turned out, incredibly difficult to accept and move on from the fact that I had allowed myself, a card-carrying feminist from birth, to become a victim of domestic abuse.
I always hated the word "victim." It implied a level of powerlessness I thought I, a character of the staunchest order, was incapable of possessing. I was always a mouthy broad, fiercely independent and seemingly incapable of suffering fools gladly. I was not your typical victim, if such a thing exists, which is why I kept my abuse a secret for so long.
Growing up, I viewed domestic violence as something that happened to other women—women with no self-worth, no education, no hope. Women who had never heard of Germaine Greer; women who didn't know "riot grrrl" was spelled with three r's and zero i's. The sort of women I'd watch brokenly and inconsolably sob in Lifetime movies with inane titles and even more inane dialogue, rife with variations of the sentiment, "If I can't have you, no one can."
I was raised in a household where the threat of domestic abuse was ever present, yet never fully manifested. My father seemed content enough by the results he got punching a hole in the wall near my mother's head, avoiding the pesky legal troubles that may have arisen were he to move his fist to the right an extra six inches. My mother's solution to the gaping hole in the drywall was to hang a JCPenney portrait of my sister and I over it. That was how things were. I knew they were not healthy, not "normal." But at least, I told myself, he didn't actually hit her.
I never pitied or resented my mother, but I did judge her for sticking around. Why put herself through so much undue trauma, feeding the bleeding ego of a man too proud to admit he had an anger management problem, when she could just jump ship? When she eventually left him, I thought, Took you long enough. I told myself I'd never put myself in a situation like hers. For years, I kept that promise—until, of course, I didn't.
My ex was controlling from the get-go. He didn't like a lot of things about me, up to and including the fact that I smoked; I quit in order to prevent the fights we'd have about it. Whenever stress led me to sneak a cigarette, he'd invariably find out, either by smelling my clothes or my breath, and give me no end of hell for my indiscretion.
Everything I did was fodder for an endless argument, for which I would endlessly apologize. I'd brokenly and inconsolably sob while begging for his forgiveness and promising that, whatever it was I did, I would never do it again. After a few days of silent treatment, he'd acquiesce; we would move on as if nothing happened.
Our problems were always my creation, as he steadfastly refused to acknowledge guilt in any situation. I was the person who caused the conflict; I was the one who made him so damn mad. Why couldn't I just stop being a cunt? If I could do that, things would be peachy. I tried my best, but invariably failed.
I had little to no friends and familial ties that could, at best, be described as weak. I had no one to talk to and nothing to say anyhow. I had reached the point where I believed him when he told me I was worthless, awful, ugly. After all, if I weren't, wouldn't I have at least some semblance of a support system? As my only consistent companion, his word became bond.
In the home the two of us shared, the specter of violence was ever present, just as it was in my childhood home. Chairs were thrown and threats were made, but never realized. I thought his threats, like my father's, were impotent—idle words he'd never make good on. Nevertheless, they caused me to harbor resentment, and I, in turn, did some heinous shit of my own. I cheated on him, eventually marrying the guy I cheated on him with out of spite. For this, I sincerely apologized. He never did.
When he finally followed through on his threats, we weren't even dating. I had broken up with my husband, reestablished ties with him, and let him crash at my place upon his move to Los Angeles. I remember the first night it happened; the wild look in his eye as he ripped my clothes and pinned me down. At the time, I was still friendless, lacking anyone to confide in. I had quickly fallen back into old habits, absorbing his word as gospel. Because I cheated on him, he explained, he now had an excuse to beat me. So he did.
While all this was happening, I started doing the impossible—making friends for the first time in my adult life with people I met at stand-up shows. But they, my ex would inform me, were not my friends. The men who said I was funny solely wanted to sleep with me. The women were fair-weather, ignorant, and not to be trusted. Anyone who wasn't him was the enemy.
I can't pinpoint exactly when or why I decided to stop believing him—it was a combination of factors, including entering into a new relationship with a non-sociopath, making friends, and having a creative outlet people complimented me on. The more folks treated me as a person of worth, the quieter his voice got. Eventually, he was drowned out.
I kept what had happened under wraps for ages, revealing it solely to a handful of close friends. I didn't want people to pity me; I didn't want to be seen as a victim. The more people I told, however, the more support I received—they didn't see me as a victim. They didn't see me as powerless. I was just a person who found herself in a shitty situation she thankfully extricated herself from. It didn't make me any less of a woman, any less of a feminist, to be in that position. I stopped blaming myself. I moved on—to the extent, of course, I could.
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