Today I came across a Facebook group that set my laptop on fire. My fingers have been a tappin’ all afternoon. It seems two young Brits thought it would be funny to create a group called, “reasons when its acceptable to punch a woman in the face”. They list 58 reasons including: “being on her period, being on her period and still coming to see you, talking bout other guys….even her dad, taking off her make up, leaving the kitchen, leaving the bedroom, refusing a threesome, telling you to stop pushing her head down…. when they give you head, not allowing you to have sex with their mum/sister” and, “when your football team looses.” They also list one reason not to hit a woman in the face: “when she’s pregnant…..punch her in the stomach”. Sorry, boys. It’s not funny.
How could any dark-hearted self-respecting man-hating-feminist let that one slide? (I’m not really man-hating, in case you wondered.)
“Those momma sows, they’ll pretty near kill you if you get near their young,” I was warned when I was a little girl down-on-the-farm. I found out just how feisty those mother pigs could be once when I was reaching through a gate to pat a twee little snout. The momma turned her head, saw me and took a quick chomp at my hand causing a beastly bruise and sending me whimpering for the safety and comfort of the women in the house. There is something hard-wired and instinctual that happens when one’s child is threatened—chomp!
When my eldest son was six–I don’t even remember what he did—but whatever it was plucked a taut nerve in Ex’s psyche. He pounced on the boy, pinning him to the ground. I went what my kids would call “ninja.” I grabbed a fistful of the man’s hair (he still had lots then) and pulled him off the child. Refusing to let go, I dragged him outside into the snow. (In retrospect, I was fortunate that he didn’t turn on me, swinging. I suspect he was shocked by the swiftness and ferocity of my response.) He breathed through his nostrils like a wounded bull in the streets of Barcelona, red-faced, veins popping. In a fierce whisper I said, “If you ever touch any of the children again, ever even threaten them—we are leaving for good.” Chomp!
I went inside and locked the door and he thundered off into the night. He returned hours later when the children were in bed, full of driveling remorse.
He never did touch the children again, not physically. However, as the marriage deteriorated and I made plans for our separation, he became increasingly volatile. Once when Ex became agitated, the same son foolishly chided him and suggested Ex take a time-out. Ex stalked across the kitchen and grabbed the time-out chair—a work of art which the children and I had spent an entire snow day happily painting. He lifted it above his head and slammed it to the floor, splintering it. The children ran and hid under the dining room table as he lifted it for a second whack. I grabbed the keys and ushered them out the front door to the sounds of the chair being beaten dead. Of course, the kids were crying—and then it really sunk in: He didn’t have to lay a hand on them to hurt them. If he shouted, threw and broke things, if he called me names, if he hurt me—then he hurt them.
That was the first time I left. He went into counseling and on the wagon and made a lot of promises about the future and change.
Most women who leave ugly situations like mine, do so several times before “it sticks.” I was no exception and there are several reasons why and not one of them is because I was weak or stupid or had it coming.
I was so embarrassed I couldn’t entirely even admit to myself what was happening. I certainly couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. I protected him from scrutiny as a result. Also, I was afraid. We were living in small town nowhere and he had been rapidly ascending to prominence in the community. He often encouraged me to call the sheriff who was a golf buddy. “I’m sure he’d be happy to come out and lock you up.” My sense of self-worth was limp from steeping in the relationship for too long. I felt helpless, as though there wasn’t much I could do but tiptoe despairingly around his periodic tempers while I quietly formulated a viable escape plan. Lastly, always after a flare up, he was contrite and kind, apologetic and bearing gifts and things would be better for awhile. I hungered for it to be true every time he said, “it will never happen again.” It’s often said that “people believe what they want to believe” and I earnestly and with-all-my-being wanted to believe that his bursts of hostility would end (even though I already knew that there weren’t any prospects of a real happily-ever-after).
I have seldom told these stories before, for the same reasons I didn’t tell anyone when they were happening. It is humiliating to be considered the kind of woman who would let something like this happen, especially more than once. Most people see women as complicit to their victimization but the problem is more nuanced and more complex than the lyric a friend’s band sang when I was in college: “You gotta leave if he hits you.” I now know that I am the kind of woman who found herself in such a situation because any woman could be that kind of woman. I am bright, capable, educated and I have never lived in a trailer park. I’m a middle class suburban soccer mom, Sunday-school teacher, long-time feminist and—I am also, a domestic abuse survivor. Ultimately, I kicked the ogre to the curb, but it wasn’t easy.
The final time was in 2004. We had been separated for six months and the children and I had returned for a holiday visit. They were in bed and Ex and I were in his kitchen talking. He began to get angry as we talked about the separation. He grabbed a carving knife from the kitchen counter and threw it across the room, missing me. I got the kids out of bed and, in their pajamas, put them in their car seats and on a subzero snowy night, I left for good.
My fifteen-year-old daughter came home from school recently with an “I need to talk to you” event. A too-young-to-be-dating acquaintance at school had bruises on her wrists and neck because her boyfriend, he “does that sometimes.” My daughter with her typical sensibility, said, “If things get violent you leave, it’s just what you do. It’s what you did.” Steely old me choked up.
The point is this: When I finally and for-keeps ushered the children out his door, I wordlessly told them: This isn’t okay. This isn’t normal and we won’t stand for it—not-no-way, not-no-how and—they heard me loud and clear.
“If things get violent you leave, it’s just what you do. It’s what you did.”
Please consider making a donation to your local domestic violence shelter or to mine: Doorways for Women and Children.