I realized, looking over my book on handparting, that I don’t/won’t be talking about spousal/partner abuse much at all. It is a topic that merits attention. It can also be very triggering, so the details will be put under the more tag.I am clergy in the state of Minnesota. I don’t use it much, the ordination is for when someone needs clergy in a pinch, mostly for non-traditional weddings. Although I don’t run around insisting everyone call me “reverend” (ick) I do take seriously the legal duties I signed on for when I filed with the state. Those duties being, mainly, that if I see a crime, particularly one of abuse, I am required by law to report it. Although I’ve seen women in their worst states, there are abusive behaviors you can’t press charges for. I’ve been at the hands of some of the nastiest stuff, and I’ve also seen it happen within the institutions designed to protect and support the vulnerable.
This ties in with a job I had several years ago as a battered women’s advocate. The job never really stopped even after I quit working for the shelter, and when I came back on a visit years ago I was told that as far as the other workers there were concerned, I was still “in.” The only person not on board with this was the shelter director. I never fit with her politics or aesthetics, and that carried into her assessment of how I performed my job. She also scheduled staff meetings when I had class in college – and she expected me to skip classes for those meetings. Asking me to skip out on meetings is not the stuff of feminist empowerment. I mention this without footnoting it because this situation for other domestic rights advocates is actually pretty common; one person’s politics can override perspective on the big picture for everyone. I’ll never forget what led me there, and while I’m disappointed by my own experience with the organization, the training has stood me in good stead. But I want to relay a portion of my history here, and some of it you may or may not find surprising. I do ask that you not simply dismiss this as college shenanigans, because I was exposed to some insidious stuff.
You can’t get a job at that agency without being an abuse survivor yourself. My first overtly abusive relationship was with my first college boyfriend. If you invert his initials, it’s OJ. Which says far more than it should. After courting me intensely with an interest in “keeping me away from that frat crowd” he promptly joined a fraternity ((I am not opposed to fraternities these days. I am opposed in general to bait and switch crap.)) and did his damnedest to keep my life high drama and keep me feeling as bad about myself as possible for as long as possible. He brought me home to meet his family without warning me – I was not comfortable with that – and while we sat there he tried to finagle an invitation to my family’s place for the holidays. He told me later his family thought I was “pushy.” I hadn’t even asked for a glass of water, and the whole invite to my family’s home thing made me deeply uncomfortable. His mother harassed me with phone calls, he left creepy messages on my family’s answering machine when I went to their house for short holidays, he persuaded my roommate to leave him in our room so I’d come back from class and get no escape from him and he isolated me from everyone he possibly could. He bugged me to quit the newspaper, which was the one consistent link I had to anything outside his social group; my second editor went so far as to make a mock-up tabloid with my face superimposed over Whitney Houston’s with a reference to a Bobby Brown meltdown. ((She’s an asshole who prospers to this day. There was some other truly disturbing behavior from her in its own right. Mostly I trust karma. In her case, the picture must be huge.)) There was no hitting, just a constant psychological wearing down as he told me how fat and unattractive I was but that he “didn’t care about that.” He really wanted some girl who considered him her whole world, and while he never did convince me he was a shining star, he did do an effective job of convincing me people roundly disliked me.
Thankfully stuff was happening even during my freshman year to constantly subvert the message of how unlikable my intelligence and drive was. I don’t know what he said, or who he said it to, but at the end of the year the guys who lived in the dorm room below me asked if we’d broken up, and when I said that yes, and I was having trouble keeping him out of my dorm room (because my roommate was an idiot) he somehow could never sneak in again.
On the other hand, he had a “best friend” who bore a striking resemblance to the Pilsbury Doughboy in voice and figure. While two girls I knew talked about what a nice guy he was, all I ever encountered from him was hostility. I remember one occasion where he demanded from me ideas about how to eulogize a grandparent. I had not spoken beyond expressing condolences for his loss. Somehow, when I spoke one sentence of suggestion, it turned into a thing where I was cutting him down. (I told him to bring up cherished memories of the grandparent.) While grief can bring out irrational behavior, he did stuff like this with me on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I was exposed to him regularly because my roommate/bestie was engaged to him. She would come home on weekends and mention his “yelling at her,” and I realized she was doing his laundry for him and that her entire schedule was whatever he said it was. As I got to know her and her family better, I was taken aside by her family members, her father included, because they all thought her fiancee was an asshole. I agreed. This is the guy who managed to get me alone once and made it a point to tell me how “everyone on campus thought I was a total bitch,” and who clearly felt important when he saw me crying at the mean-spirited psychological “lesson.” Again, his message was undermined by people who under childhood-typical circumstances would have hated me who thought I was the coolest thing around and told me so, sometimes without the liquor.
Both men abused me, but neither ever raised a hand against me. One manipulated me into non-consensual sex, and the other one set out to make me feel as bad as possible about myself. The latter went so far as to attempt to order me on how I was to spend my time, and even tried to tell me how I was to spend my money. That last bit didn’t fly. Since my relationship with the second man was one of extension – I was roommates with his then fiancee – he had to spend time thinking of ways to be abusive and hurtful to me when I wasn’t around. This means it took some effort for him, and that it also took conscious thought.
Abuse starts with the psychological stuff. It can’t work without the abuser getting in your head and convincing you that you deserve your poor treatment. These men are con artists, but their payoff is human pain rather than ill-gained money. While I never broke down as far as they hoped I would, both of these men from my past did do a number on me, enough of one that, upon my return to Indiana, my friends listened to my relay of my year and said, “That’s it, we’re fixing you.” Six weeks into the summer and all the damage those two men did was undone. Although I’ve drifted from all those friends I had that summer, taken by drama, geography or contempt, I will forever cherish the summer of 1995 and the friends that were there for me then even though we all had to become different people. My only regret is MJ, and I honestly don’t know what I could have done that would have made it turn out differently. I’m still disgusted my mother bribed my friends to write me letters about how great kids are. Yech. Most people who got put through what I did aren’t lucky enough to dive into a pool of waiting friends who cherish every brassy, sassy smart aspect of a big mouth and bigger butt.
Even so, the best thing I could do was get the abusive parties out of my life. The ex boyfriend proved easy: apparently the disapproval of the boys downstairs carried over into a more general campus disapproval. I heard maybe two idiotic comments about my relationship with my ex the rest of that year, and when the ex tried to talk to me, I told him about my new boyfriend (I really did have one at that point, another disaster for another time) and whatever he’d been planning visibly folded right there. The guy could never get into the dorm without my freshman year roommate letting him in after that.
The other guy, notsomuch. I was friends with his girlfriend. He had a creepy way of ingratiating himself with anyone around me he could. He was also prone to longwinded diatribes that made sense to absolutely no one, and I think there were people he simply confused into submission. Boy howdy, did this guy want to get at me, too. Something about me offended his sense of what women should be, and he could not just leave me the hell alone, ever. While my departure from campus ultimately had nothing to do with him as far as I can tell, he was behind multiple problems and misunderstandings that I had to deal with. He definitely went out of his way to make my life harder than I deserved.
A strange fact of male-on-female violence is that the recidivism rate is 100%. These guys get addicted to it, and so far what rehabilitation there is leaves me unpersuaded that rehabilitation is really possible. You have to undo complex attitudes about women’s role in society, and the men who adopt those attitudes do so because they want society to be that way. It’s not because “that’s the way it is” but it’s because in the world they want, it’s OK to hit women and tell them they’re worthless. It’s one of many reasons I don’t bother to look up old friends or enemies: people ultimately don’t change, and what they really want in life doesn’t change either. I consider things like religion and politics cosmetic – the core of a person’s being is their truth, for good or for ill. So abusive people might stop some stuff, but if they got a chance to abuse someone again, they’ll do it at the first opportunity. It’s what they are.
There was another friend I had on that campus before I left. She was a sweetheart, and I felt a little guilty about how little time I wound up spending with her. She gave me a tour of her dad’s funeral home one weekend, and we got to see the gorgeous organ in her living room. I’m not sure what happened, but she went through at least two engagements. Still, even though I did not hang out with her at all sophomore year, she was kind enough to use her cosmetologist skills to help me dye my hair red one weekend, and help me get my hair back in shape after I set fire to it on another weekend.
The reason I bring all this up now? The ever-hated but inevitable Facebook. While my ex-roommate came to her senses (the schmuck wanted her to drop out of school and support him) the second girl was not so sensible. She married the schmuck, who, as it was reported to me, told her the entire time how he and my ex-roomie were “soulmates.” There already has to be serious damage when you date a guy who tells you another woman is his soulmate. Even so, they got married and are still married – all hail grim Lutheran practices – and she’s sent me I believe her second friend request.
I like this woman. She helped me out free of charge after I set my hair on fire. You don’t forget a kindness like that.
But to let her back into my life guarantees that her crap husband will see it as a pathway to me. I can’t have that. This isn’t just that I’m at a delicate stage in my writing career: it’s that this man would like to find a way back at an old victim, period. There will be no good time to let him in.
As to my obligation to help this woman, I have to say this: I’m no self -congratulatory moralist. I don’t know that he’s abusing her, I just can calculate that it’s likely based on proximity and experience. Also, she hasn’t asked me for help, and she’s not in Minnesota, putting her squarely outside of any reporting jurisdiction.
What it comes down to is my basic right to protect myself, and that’s what it comes down to for anyone and everyone. If I open the door to her, he follows. So as much as I like the woman and have fond memories of her, because of the man she is with, I have to keep that door firmly shut. It’s a shame. I really do wish her well.