"I don't understand how girls could let that happen to them. What makes a person stay with someone who hurts them?" My boyfriend, my kind, beautifully gentle boyfriend twined his fingers in mine. I sipped my glass of wine and stared into the bonfire flames. I wondered what he'd say if I said I knew, and didn't know. Because it's more complicated than that.
When you say you don’t understand how a girl could let herself be abused, something happens to my stomach. Not my stomach, that part of myself that is so visceral that it almost makes me a person, itself. It makes my essence twist, that’s it.
Because she doesn’t let it, not exactly. I want to protest that she doesn’t let anything happen. It isn’t about permission. It’s not a give-and-take; it’s take, take, take and take some more until the abuser eclipses the abused. Until the abused is a shadow he casts because he eclipses the sun from her, because he eclipses everything rational. Everything real.
Here’s how it happens. Sometimes. At least one time.
It starts slow, like a sunrise. At first, the edges start to look different. No, he looks at you sometimes, and you see his mouth curl at the edges like he doesn’t like what he sees. Like he hasn’t woken up next to you when you’re both in the fuzzy afterglow of dreams. Like your dreams themselves haven’t been intertwined for longer than you can remember. Like you weren’t made for each other. Because that’s a central feature of an abuser: he makes you think you’re inextricably linked. That’s how he catches you: because you don’t notice the net until you’re terribly, beautifully tangled.
The first time he speaks at you like his tongue is coated in acid, not with you because you’re not there anymore, not really, it will be a surprise. You won’t know how to react. Maybe you won’t. “He didn’t mean it,” you’ll say. And your heart will smart, but you’re his, remember? He loves you.
And oh, does he love you well. He takes you to the sky and back and you grasp handfuls of stars on your way back down, laughing with the moon in your hair. The memory of the stratosphere can soften the blows, for a while. His words are cushioned by the memory of what you have when it’s good, and you can tell yourself it’s ok, can live in a lie a little while longer.
Remember, you don’t have a choice. Or you do, but the choice is to rationalize it or be alone, and you’re one, aren’t you? You can’t live without him. He’s told you with the eyes you drowned in when he found you, and you’ve taken his truth into your veins. So you stay. You stay.
You swallow the fear the first time he hits you too hard. You say something wrong, do something wrong, live something wrong without knowing it and before you know what’s happened, you’re on the floor and you’re at the wrong angle, ass-over-teakettle, and the mattress is off the bed and everything feels wrong, your clothes gone, your hair on wrong, your body reeling, mind reeling, soul reeling, there’s blood trickling down your face with tears you don’t remember crying and where is he, where am I, he’s standing on the other side of the room laughing, brushing his hair back with one hand and you stare at him like a stranger. A stranger with the body you could have drawn from memory, every detail.
Beyond the barrier that was the bed that always brought you together, and that’s confusing on a whole different level. And you ask yourself what you did wrong. That’s your first reaction, to examine your own shortcomings, the failures he points out that you know without being told are inexcusable, irreconcilable. Because you know he’s the one who’s doing you a favor and
Because that’s not like him.
He picks you up and his eyes are empty, although he goes through the motions of “I didn’t mean it,” and “I’m sorry,” and “Are you ok” and “You’re so beautiful” and everything the man you love says, has always said and it is ok, it is ok, because he’s there and that’s all that matters.
Being an abused woman is like sliding down a hill, inches at a time. One night, you’re on the floor and wondering how and soon, you’ve learned to cover bruises like a make-up artist. Soon, you learn how to lick your wounds and recover quickly because it just makes him angry to see you’re weak like that and you don’t want to make him angry, not again.
“You’re so sensitive,” he sneers. “Don’t take everything so personally. I was just kidding (he’s always kidding). You made me do it. You asked for it. Don’t be such a baby.”
You look in the mirror and there’s a new hardness in your eyes, to cover the quivering dread that lives behind the place you let yourself see.
You don’t even notice your voice is gone. “I should break up with him,” you say to your friends, after a couple glasses of wine. After everyone has gained the courage to ask, to see, to listen. But the next time you see him, something breaks. I think they call it lost resolve, but it feels like courage. Courage to trust that he’s better than he’s acting, because he was when you met him. Because if he isn’t, it means you chose this.
Because you chose him, you chose a man who would hit you, who would berate you, and that must make you everything he says you are. Remember, love. He knows you. His hatred starts to feel like your failure.
“Tell me you like it,” he snarls in your face one night, his hands around your neck. And you nod, because in that moment, you think you do. You think you do, because you did like him once. You still love him, but you don’t know why.
That’s how love works. Even love gone sour.
I wish I could tell you I left the moment I knew it was wrong. I wish I could go back to my younger self, look her in her eyes and tell her she’s better than this, that she deserves a man who will touch her the right way, speak to her like a fellow human being. But when they say love is blind, what they mean is that sometimes you get so wrapped up in the shattered remnants of the love abuse has destroyed, you don’t realize you’re bleeding from the shards that have embedded themselves in your skin, in your soul. In the place where your identity lives.
It takes strength to leave. The same strength that is siphoned into desperate survival.
So I want you to know that when you say you don’t understand how a woman could let herself be abused, I feel a tiny pang of something more complicated than regret. It’s the shriveled stillborn of anger, a fury that never bloomed because it was smothered in stifled self-esteem. And that anger is blended with sorrow for the girl who wasted so much of herself on what she didn’t deserve, and because now that the shingles are shucked from her eyes, she is ashamed of the self she let live that way.
Now that I’ve taken back the power to be loved the way I deserve, I don’t understand it either. And that fills me with hopelessness for the women who are caught in the same net of gossamer steel who also don’t see what they need to escape. It makes me worry for them, for us. For the ignorance that still surrounds domestic abuse, rape. That the word "legitimate" is even uttered in the same sentence, by people who are heard. Who are followed. Who are elected. It makes me sick, in that visceral place that knows these things are wrong and wonders how anyone could say any different.
The cycle has to end. And I’m afraid we aren’t strong enough to do it until it’s already too late.