Warning: This post is quite a departure from my norm. It’s also a very scary post for me to write, but one I feel is very important to share. It deals with domestic abuse & violence, so I wanted to give a heads-up if that’s a sensitive subject for you. Also- this is clear from the post, but it is NOT about my husband. Some of the details may be vague because some of my readers will know the person I refer to.
I didn’t think it would happen to me.
This phrase is a cliché, but being common doesn’t make it less true. We don’t think of domestic violence or abuse as something that will happen to us or to our friends, our mothers, our sisters. I’m not sure who we DO think it will happen to, but even our assumption that it won’t happen to US says something about our underlying assumptions about victims. I’m going to circle back to this idea, but I first want to tell you my story.
They say that if you are going to cook a frog, you put it in cold water and then slowly bring it to a boil. They won’t even notice.
This is a terrible thought on its own, but it also is chilling how perfectly it encapsulates my relationship with him. His control was systematic and slow. I like to think that if it had been quick, I may have noticed and gotten out. But maybe not. Because I never imagined it would happen at all.
I remember standing in the hallway at school with a flyer for a girl’s Bible study retreat.
“You’re not going to that,” he said. I watched him tear the green sheet of paper into pieces and drop it in the trash. I just watched.
It was like I was watching someone else. How did I get here? To this point where I do not question him telling me what I can and cannot do? I did not speak up. I did not argue.
I simply went along with what he said. Always This was, of course, a year into our relationship. Had he done something like this in the first month or two, I would have laughed. I would have broken up with him.
At least, I think.
Even now, I can’t fully understand my actions. I can’t fully understand what it was that made me stay. When he systematically and slowly alienated me from every single person in my life until he was the only one I spoke to. Ever.
My best friend and I didn’t speak.
My parents and I only argued. Mostly about him.
I didn’t go to Bible study or youth group. I wasn’t allowed. He did not quite put it in so many words always. But his rules were clear. Sometimes with words. Sometimes with a look. Or with an aggressive form of the silent treatment or with insults.
I made excuses for why I pulled away from everything in my life. Because I could not admit that he would not allow me to go. Who lets their boyfriend tell them what they can and can’t do?
The opportunity to apply for a trip to Australia that one summer? We probably didn’t have the money, but that’s not the reason I never finished the application.
When I felt like things were not right and I tried to talk to him, he spun me around in circles with his words until I no longer knew which way was up. Even if what he said made no sense, somehow I was the dumb one. I lost every argument. So we stopped having them.
I was an honor roll student. Top 10% of my class. Strong willed. Independent.
With him, I became limp. Invisible. Stupid. Ashamed.
And he WAS smart. Smart enough to never hit me. Though I know, I KNOW, with certainty that he would have, he did not. Yet. Which made it harder to find the name for what was happening to me. I had nothing to pinpoint. No evidence. No bruises or scrapes. I had never heard of psychological or emotional abuse.
He only slipped up a few times. Because he did not just control me; he controlled himself. Almost always. He hid the darkest parts. knowing I would leave if he was not careful. The process required patience, which he had in abundance.
Except for the time he drove me to an empty parking lot and stood with his face one inch from mine and screamed, the spittle from his mouth landing on my cheeks and nose. He screamed and he screamed and I waited for a blow that never came.
I just stood there. I let it happen.
It was my fault, you see. I stayed in Williamsburg with my mom and Nanny a few hours longer than planned. I had called from a payphone an hour after I was supposed to meet him. It was the first chance I got to call. It was not enough.
There was one other time, the time that stands out so clearly in my mind as the time I almost died.
It started when he ordered a fast-food sandwich that shouldn’t (but did) have mustard. He threw the sandwich. Screamed and cursed at his father, who looked at me with a shrug. What can you do?
Then the directions he had to get to the track where his brother was racing were wrong. He blamed me for missing the exit number, but that exit did not exist, because we were on the wrong highway.
There are not words that accurately depict rage. I can tell you what happened, but the words do not capture the terror of this moment.
He began to drive his car twenty, thirty, forty miles over the speed limit. Screaming and cursing as he jerked the car through the lanes, narrowly missing accidents each moment. Other cars braked, tried to get out of his way.
One hand was on the wheel. With the other he began to beat the car with his fist. I leaned into my door as much as possible, hoping to be out of reach. The dashboard. The radio. The seat itself. It would not have made a difference had he made contact with me too.
He braked suddenly, made a U-turn in the grassy median of the highway, the tires sending sprays of grass and mud up behind us.
People talk about fight or flight like they are the only two choices. There is also: freeze.
That was my choice. In that moment and in the relationship, I froze. Kept quiet. Head down. Tried to be unnoticed, invisible. If I obeyed the “rules,” the ones I knew were understood between us, I didn’t have to worry.
But this day, I had done nothing. It was about him. His own rage. Mustard on the sandwich. Wrong directions. Being late for his brother’s race.
He pulled to a screeching stop in a parking lot. “Stay,” he told me with a finger in my face and went in search of a payphone. He parked in the back of the lot, away from buildings. I remember counting the seconds.
How long would it take me to get to that diner over there?
Would I be able to make a phone call to my dad to come get me? I needed my Daddy. I knew he would come.
I could call the police. But what would I say?
I had my hand on the door handle, but did not get out. What I knew: my dad could not get to me before he came back to the car, saw me gone. I imagined him finding me in the diner near the pay phone. Perhaps keeping his cool in front of the other patrons. Until or unless I said no. I played out the possibilities in my mind. He would drag me, by my arm or my hair. Maybe someone would stop him, but sometimes other people freeze, too.
If I got out of the car and he caught me, he might kill me. I sensed this, though he had never said it in so many words.
So I stayed.
When I finally broke up with him, it was at school where I felt safe. He threw a metal trashcan at me. It was waist-high, not a small thing. He was far enough away that I don’t think he thought it would hit me. It rolled to a stop near my feet. Amazingly, no one saw this. Another thing with no proof to say it really happened.
Relief. I had done it. I could breathe. I could avoid him, his rage. The feeling of release is as indescribable as trying to write about rage.
But the next day, feeling high and powerful again with my freedom, I agreed to “talk about it.” I owed him that. And somehow at the end of the conversation, I was again his. I could not get away. I did not know how it happened.
It took another six months to have a late night conversation with a friend and my Bible study leader. I had defied him and gone to a sleepover with my old friends. Most of whom I had not spoken a word to in months. I played along with the normal sleepover antics, but sometime after midnight when the house quieted, I began to say it out loud.
I don’t know if they asked or I offered, but the words unspooled like so much thread at the kitchen table. I spoke clinically. Without tears. I categorized and labelled all the moments no one knew. The ones I’ve now forgotten. “I know you’re supposed to focus on the good things,” I said at the end.
“No,” one of them said. “You NEED to remember the bad. Because it’s BAD.”
And so it was. They gave me permission, validation. Yes, this is not normal. No, it is not okay. Yes, you CAN get away. But you need help.
I called to break up with him, said no to getting together to talk about it. “It’s over,” I said. And I meant it. He kept a few important things like my tennis racket, hoping he could get me alone again, I’m sure. I bought a new racket instead.
I became immediate and fast friends with two brothers who hated him, because I had the sense they would protect me. I had the sense that I needed protection. Why they hated him: he had dated a good friend of theirs (who became also a fast friend of mine) and the rumor was he pushed her down once.
For years after, I lived in fear. I expected to see him somewhere he did not belong. I expected him to come for me. I very truly believed he would kill me. It seemed inevitable. And at the same time, a little nuts.
I was not surprised when he somehow found my college roommate’s email address and sent her a message that he was trying to reach someone named Kirsten– did she happen to know me?
I know he did not “find” her email in the way he said. I know him better than that. He was smart enough to know that reaching directly was a mistake. Finding her happenstance (and saying he didn’t know if she might possibly know me) was unlikely.
How he came to know this information about me, I still don’t know. The internet then was not the place it is now. I can only assume he had been to my campus. He had done his research. He had stalked me.
I agreed to meet him. I needed to know. I needed more validation. Because for years, I wondered. He never hit me. Why was I so afraid? What really happened? Was it all simply teen drama, made bigger in my mind?
I got no validation in our meeting. I did get my tennis racket back. He spoke politely and in measured tones about how we could work it out. I was only an hour away, he said.
Only an hour away. I imagined him driving to my campus, hanging around. Watching me from a distance. Had he? I don’t know. That sounds ridiculous to me now. But I know that my fear came and comes from a real place.
I told him no. I tried to ask some questions, tried to tell him what our relationship was like. Again, he spun the words around and around. I left so confused.
But sure only of this: I would not be frozen again.
For years I have thought of writing it and did not. I know that some of my readers know this man. I worry it may make its way through Facebook to him, of what he would say (or do) to me.
A few years ago he married. I remember feeling relief and then guilt for this thought: Now I’m safe. He is focused on someone else. I hope for his wife’s sake that this is not still his pattern, though I know that it was back then.
I wrote to my friend last year, the one he pushed down.
Am I crazy? I asked her. Am I blowing this out of proportion or remembering wrong? Sometimes I feel like I must be wrong.
Your memories are real, dear, she wrote. And I’ll never be able to reach an understanding of why I allowed myself to be taken in.
I want to circle back to what I said at the beginning about the assumptions we make about victims. I have not read research before writing this post. I am writing simply about what I know to be true from my experience. But in my experience, I have noticed something.
Here is the language I use in thinking about this time and also the language I hear when I have conversations about it or when I hear others having conversations about abuse.
How did I let this happen?
How could a smart girl like me get into a relationship like this?
How could this happen to someone so independent?
Why weren’t you strong enough to just walk away?
And my friend’s words: I’ll never know why I allowed myself to be taken in.
You see, even as I think of myself and my role in this relationship, I am placing the blame on me. And in the kinds of conversations I hear about domestic abuse, there is so much of this misplaced blame. It is almost always unintentional. But it almost always places some kind of assumption that the victim has done something to deserve it, or at least to not have gotten out.
As if it were that easy.
No one means to say that this only happens to stupid women, powerless women. We would not say that out loud. But it is unintentionally applied, as though there is only one kind of victim. One who sort of deserves it, even if she didn’t actually do anything. She just wasn’t smart enough or strong enough to get out.
Perhaps you, like I, have asked these questions, not meaning to put blame on the victim. I think that we have a larger cultural problem where this is the assumption, so very deep that we do not realize it. So deep that I assumed it about myself.
Why didn’t I leave?
I did not leave because of fear. My fear of his rage was very real. I do without doubt believe he would have beaten me at some point. Going back to the frog analogy, the water was hot, but was not yet boiling. He had the control (except in those few instances) to restrain himself, to systematically get me to the point of total dependence and isolation. He OWNED me.
The isolation is also why I didn’t leave. I hurt people because of him. My best friend felt ditched. She did not know WHY I could not hang out with her anymore, that it was against the rules. My parents hated him and I know were grasping for ways to help me, even though they didn’t have any idea of the full story, just a hunch he was bad news. It is not uncommon for teen romances to fold in on themselves, to exclude others. That’s what this looked like to everyone around me. It was anything but normal.
The other reason, the reason that is really hard even now for me to admit is shame. Shame and also an odd sort of pride.
I LET it happen.
Every time I froze I was letting it happen. Every time I didn’t stand up when he said I couldn’t do something. Every time he yelled and I did not yell back or walk away. Every time he made a new rule. Every time his rage bubbled up.
It was MY fault.
I should have done _______.
I could have done ________.
If I had only ____________.
These are the things I have heard people say, and I have said them to myself. I still say them sometimes, until I stop and realize how much blame I still shoulder.
You could have told us, so many people said after, when I told this story, or pieces of it.
I know that I could have. But then I would have had to face the shame. The shame of being someone who let this happen. The shame of being someone everyone (including me) thought was smart and strong.
I was the kind of girl who wouldn’t let this kind of thing happen.
The shame and pride meet in a strangely blurry embrace. I couldn’t not ask for help, because then I would have to admit that I was not strong enough. I was not smart enough. I DID let this happen to me. I did not fight. I did not run. I froze.
I had not planned to write this post. This week I listened to “Her Name Was Nicole” on the True Crime Profile podcast. And as I heard the voice of Nicole Brown on the line with a police dispatcher, calling for help as O.J. Simpson had broken into her home, I began to weep. I held a dish towel in my hand, wiping down our kitchen table. I wept and I tried to understand why.
I am still so sad for Nicole. That the warning signs and the cries for help were not enough to save her life.
But this alone is not why I wept. I heard the fear in her voice and I heard the dispatcher say, “Well, did you do something to make him angry?” The feeling of isolation fear is still very near to me.
I do not mean to make light of Nicole Brown’s terrible death by bringing a comparison to my own story. I faced nothing like the physical violence and abuse she did. Nor do I fear for my life anymore. (Though it did take something like fifteen years to stop waiting to see his face, that smile that would let me know why he was there, to punish me for breaking the rules.) But in her voice, I recognized the fear. The shame. The isolation. The DESPERATION.
I wanted to write this post because I know there are other women out there who will recognize this. Whether psychological (like my situation) or physical or sexual or a combination, you may have this in your past or be experiencing it now. You may be isolated and desperate and feel ashamed. You may feel like you cannot admit that you LET this happen. Maybe you have someone in your life and you see the signs and you don’t know how to enter into the conversation.
Abuse does not just happen to a certain kind of woman. Someone weak. Vulnerable. Someone stupid. These are the myths. Yes, there are sometimes natural situations that feed into someone having this kind of advantage over someone else. Age or a position of power, for example. They may make a woman more vulnerable. But if you know any victims of abuse or are one yourself, I hope you know that it is not their fault. Your fault. You are not stupid or powerless. You do not need to feel ashamed.
We ask the wrong questions sometimes, you see. I know that I do, even of myself and my own story. We perpetuate the blaming of the victim, even though that is not what we realize we are doing.
Why do victims stay?
Even this is sometimes the wrong question, but the answer is important to discuss. It is not always the same reason. Some stay because there is nowhere to go. Some stay because of fear. Some stay because of shame. There is an isolation that is so total and so terrifying when you can stand next to someone else who might help you, but you CANNOT ask. If you do, you might not receive help. HE might find out. You might be asked a question like, “How did you let this happen?” which only deepens your shame and isolation and sense that it is YOUR fault.
It is not your fault. You are not a certain kind of person to suffer this abuse. You are right to be afraid, but you can find help. And you should.
I want to leave you with a few resources.
- Paladin is a great anti-stalking site with training and a hotline for the UK dealing not just with stalking, but abuse.
- In the US you can use the National Domestic Abuse hotline. You can also see a really helpful resource for Is This Abuse on the site. If you need help talking to someone you suspect is being abused, here is a great resource.
- You can also see the Nicole Brown Foundation for more resources and education.
I hope that you are not in this situation. That you don’t know anyone who is. But I know that this cannot possibly be the case, just knowing even the most basic of statistics on how common abuse is. If you want to or need to talk, I’m no counselor, but I’ll listen. In the comments, in my inbox.
Note: I am not writing this just to be cathartic or to draw attention to myself. I hardly faced anything compared to what many women go through. But I write in hopes that if you are in this situation or one worse, you can know you aren’t alone. Or if you are on the outside and needed a view in to help you understand, this might help.