“If only I’d known”… What I now know about domestic violence.
I would have helped you, if only I’d known. That’s what I kept thinking while in the middle of an “In Business with Jody & Joan” radio interview with Shannon Barry. She was talking about domestic violence in Dane County — her area of expertise as executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. But even while I was listening to her in present tense, my thoughts flew back ages in time, to speak to a female family member.
My relative and I have another family member in common, and recently she wanted me to know why, if she reconnected with me all these many years after our lives drifted apart by circumstance and miles, she still wasn’t ready to reconnect with that other family member.
That other person had bound her physically, financially, and emotionally to him — right up to the moment she fled his control. But that was only after the man raped her repeatedly. [I could couch it in kinder language, but I think we all do too much of that. It was brutal. It was rape.]
Domestic violence with the cherry on top.
I would have helped you, sweetie, if only I’d known. I would have believed you. I would have taken you to a safe place. Hidden you. Turned him in to the authorities.
She told me decades later, after repeat visits to both therapists and drug pushers to find some relief from the pain. She is straight now, in a good place and a good life with a good man, and strong enough to confront her fears. But part of her is irretrievably crippled. She still struggles with depression. She still wonders why it happened to her. She still wonders why no one noticed her situation and desperation or tried to rescue her. Not family, not friends, not teachers.
He did that to her. He isolated her and hid the bruises where no one could see them. At least, we couldn’t ask to see them without risking indelicate questions or intrusive investigation.
I don’t get a free pass on this one.
A part of me suspected it was happening in the then-and-there. I myself was leery of being alone with him. I loved him but was frightened of him because he’d made improper advances to me — “teasing,” he called it. He was older than I; he’d been teasing me since I was young, asking for kisses, asking about my bra size, teasing about my measurements (“perfect 36, 12/12/12”) — he always had something about my body. “Don’t run! You’ll fall over! You’re top heavy now.”
I was his extended relative. She was his daughter.
The last time I saw them together, she was 12 and I was 22. I was visiting the family overnight, as I had come from out of state. She had a friend over to their house, and the man was “wrestling” with the two of them on the floor and [I thought], managing to inappropriately touch both of them too often for it to be accidental. He was a popular dad because he spent so much time with his daughter and her friends.
I had a sick feeling, but we certainly didn’t talk about impolite and dirty things like incest back then.
It was my last visit because his “teasing” was too obvious to shrug off. He crossed a line during that visit. After a couple beers, he confessed to me that he’d wanted to kiss me since I was 12: the same age as his daughter. And then he tried it.
I slapped his face and then slept in a back guest bedroom with a chair under the doorknob. A friend had dropped me off that weekend, and then he went to a different city in the state to visit friends. I had no ride available until the next morning. It was one of the longest nights I’ve known, lying awake in the dark, frightened that he might find the door locked and, in anger, kick it down or come through a window. His reaction to my rejection was a real source of anxiety, given his known propensity to anger when drinking.
I was also worried that night, and more nights to come, about the safety of the others in the household. Especially his daughter. I told another [closer] relative of my (1) experience and (2) suspicions, and she told me to stay out of it; he was a decorated military man, a family man. He was brilliant. He was a family jewel with an important job. She said I surely must have misunderstood the situation. She asked what I wearing when he tried to kiss me. What had I said to make him think that would be alright?
There were no slick public service posters on the back of bathroom stall doors or clandestine ads in the “personals” ads back then to steer women to help. It was pre-McKenzie Phillips on Oprah. There was only a young girl and a young woman, who didn’t see each other very often. We weren’t confidantes. There was she, living with him, and I, visiting them maybe once every few years — until that visit. I never returned after that.
I took with me just the sick feeling that something was very, very wrong in that household.
I would have helped you, sweet child. I would have moved heaven and earth to save you.
Shannon Barry tells me that 30% of all Dane County arrests are related to domestic violence. I think of all of the women I have known who have had incidents in their lives, some a lot closer to me than the relative I more recently reconnected with. I didn’t help most of them either, because no one ever directly asked me to help. I did try an intervention with one, but interventions don’t work particularly well in cases of domestic violence. After the abuser learns of it (guess who told him you suspect him?), you’re the last one invited over. In fact, you’re banned. And you get that awful name badge: “Trouble Maker.”
No one wants to be a Trouble Maker.
Another very close family member married a real nutcase. He was abusive to her and to their children. She gave him a rifle one Christmas; he shot a farmer’s cow because he didn’t manage to kill anything during his first hunting trip with it. This was a year after he duct-taped a puppy’s snout closed, and bound its front paws together and back paws together and threw it down the basement stairs for barking when he was trying to sleep.
That last fact probably outrages you, right? Someone should have called the police, right? But he did a lot worse to his family and we knew if we called the police about those incidents, she wouldn’t press charges (arrest wasn’t a mandatory arrest then, as it is now), and he would have taken out the humiliation on her. Very likely, he could have killed her and the kids, all of them. Maybe even us.
What do you suppose it took for her to leave him? She didn’t ask for my help, but I offered it when she brought her children to my house for an awkward visit (awkward because I didn’t know she was coming for the holidays). She told me she was leaving him, but guess what? She took the money I gave her to escape with, and she bought him a very, very nice watch for that particular Christmas.
It took boredom to pry them apart… his. Eventually he left her for a younger model. And by model, I don’t necessarily mean a beautiful woman: I mean a woman who would fall prey to a man who would compliment her (initially) and show an interest in her despite the fact she had kids or a little extra weight or few financial resources. He found another someone who felt “lucky” to have him; a woman who then feared “losing him.”
Little did she know that she was about to lose herself literally as well as figuratively in that romance.
No one wants to be a Trouble Maker. No one wants to be preachy or act superior or tell a woman that her friends think she is involved with (or married to) an abusive man who gets off on making her feel like she’s a piece of crap. Hearing that can sever a friendship or a family tie. Particularly when he’s convinced her that she is a piece of crap. That she deserves him.
I would have helped you, woman-child. If only I’d known for SURE. But I didn’t have the stomach for asking, way back then. I didn’t have any resources. Also, and I’m afraid to admit this, but I was afraid you tell him what I thought, and he’d find me and hurt me.
Instead, she remained silent. He took that for consent. Well, he took what he wanted, period, consent or no consent. “Kiss me hello like you mean it,” he used to say to me. He just said to her, “Kiss me,” and she couldn’t turn away.
I would have helped you. If you had called out…. But I never offered, and you never asked. And I will have to live with that guilt, knowing your full story now. Knowing I was partly responsible for being able to set aside the awful feeling… the nagging suspicion… A look as I was leaving. I hugged you — do you remember? — and asked if you were okay, and you nodded. There was that, only that. Your lips saying one thing, your eyes another. I’m so, so sorry I left you behind.
Domestic violence affects more than the abused. It affects everyone who loves the abused. It is a rampant societal problem affecting millions of people and hundreds of thousands of workplaces. It robs too many children of the ability to concentrate in school or to believe in their dreams or abilities. It robs too many women of their self-esteem and ability to protect their children.
Because there remains a hugely predominantly male profile, we have to start with women. And to do that, we have to start with people who love women.
Today is different than yesteryear. We have laws. We have law enforcement. We have witnesses armed with resources. We can, and should, have zero tolerance for domestic violence.
Being “A Trouble Maker” is better than being “A Mourner.” If you have any concerns for the safety of someone you love, learn the phone numbers and offer to help her with an escape plan. Visit www.abuseintervention.org.
Don’t wait to be told years later what she went through, like I did. Ask her directly, face to face, in the here and now.
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