[This piece may contain triggers on relationship violence.]
In early 2001, a group of friends who had introduced me to my then-boyfriend sat me down at a kitchen table. “We’re worried about you,” one said. “Has he hit you?”
The answer, at the time, was no.
Ten months later, I stumble into the emergency room, blood dripping from my nose onto my ripped pajama top, barefoot in the November chill. The receptionist says words to me that make no sense. The only words that make sense are the ones that spill out of my mouth over and over again, the only words that will let the receptionist and the nurses and my friends and my parents know that this isn’t what it looks like, that I’m not one of those women, those women in abusive relationships, those women who can’t help themselves enough to get out: I went to college, I went to college, I went to college.
I knew the numbers, I knew the stats. I knew that relationship abuse wasn’t just for pretty white women, or women of color, or poor women, or straight women, or even just for women, period. I knew victims of violence could love their abusers. I’d done my women’s studies reading; I’d written a piece in my college magazine about how despite the necessity of programs like Take Back the Night and SafeRide (both of which I’d volunteered for), they also furthered the notion that a woman’s greatest personal threat lay outside the home.
But privately, I knew that the women who fell prey to relationship violence were categorically Not Like Me. They weren’t feminists, for starters, or at least not yet. They weren’t independent, articulate, raised by liberal Free to Be You and Me parents whose overriding message to their children was You are worthy. Frankly, I thought those women probably weren’t that smart, to not leave after seeing the warning signs. I pictured emotionally frail women who just didn’t know better cowering from their beastly abusers—how awful, we must do something, I’d think, as I’d write a check to the local women’s shelter.
College-educated, women-studies-minored, interned-at-Ms.-magazine feminist me, of course, knew better. I knew so much better that the first time I woke up with bruises across my torso I knew it was because we’d “wrestled”; that I was partly responsible for whatever mess had happened the night before. I knew that the hurled objects, the “tussles,” the phoned-in threats to hurt himself, and the time he spat at my face were signs of an unusually intense relationship—we were intense people, we had this energy other people just couldn’t understand, we were explosive and dynamic and you can’t put a word on this kind of love, people.
I knew my faults, but an inability to help myself wasn’t among them. I’d traveled independently, moved by myself to New York City without knowing a single soul there, and was making a living in a competitive industry. Whenever I had a problem, I’d figure it out. I could handle whatever came my way; I didn’t need a white knight, or my parents, or even my friends. I could take care of myself.
“I can handle it,” I said to my boss when she asked me flat-out if my boyfriend was hitting me. “I can handle it,” I said to the bartender who quietly asked me if I was going to be okay after he’d asked my boyfriend to leave because he’d started a fight. “I can handle it,” I said to the friend in whose home I took refuge when my boyfriend called me at midnight and told me he was coming over with a baseball bat.
And the thing is, I did.
When we imagine abuse, we envision the act of abusing: the woman crouching on the floor, a flying fist, a sailing kick. Perhaps my remembrance of that time would be different if my abuse had been more prolonged, or more severe, but what I recall from that era of my life is not moments of violence but feeling as though I were separated from the world, swaddled in a thick layer of invisible cloth that I couldn’t ever swat away. I was in a fog.
I called in sick to work a lot, or would drag myself in after sleepless nights spent in various states of frenzy that, thankfully, I cannot now recall. I forgot the most basic of things: why I’d walked into the grocery store, how much my rent was, my own phone number. It was depression, sure, but I’d been depressed before, and this was different. This was a fog of having no idea who I was, where I’d gone, or if I might return. This was a fog of having my life completely rearranged to center upon the eye of the storm—an eye that seemed to be the only point of clarity, however distorted it was. This, as it turns out, may have been biological: Abuse, even without resultant PTSD (which I didn’t have), can change brain structures; couple abuse with PTSD and you’ve got increased cortisol levels and other hormone fluctuations.
Which is to say: I was in many ways incapable of helping myself—which, even years later, pains me to say. But there it is: The fog of abuse ensured that my emotions, instincts, and principles were muted; every ounce of energy I had went into my relationship and keeping up the general appearance of sanity. Had you somehow been able to land my healthy, normal status-quo self smack-dab into the worst of my relationship, I’d have gotten out immediately. That’s not how abuse works, of course. Abuse is gradual; abuse is systemic. Abuse changes you; abuse reduces you. Abuse took the me out of me.
I needed the people around me to be more alert than I was capable of being. I needed them to not rely on my cues; I needed them to not take me at my word; I needed them to not treat me as though I were functioning at my best, fullest, most autonomous self. There’s a sentiment within the abuse-prevention community—and the feminist community—that we must respect victims’ autonomy, and it’s a necessary point when coupled with a solid understanding of abuse. But without that fuller understanding, respecting autonomy can too easily lapse into a hands-off approach. Which, when you’re concerned for someone who is in the fog of abuse, can lapse into the realm of danger.
Let me be crystal-clear: Feminism is not the problem. Thanks to feminism, not only do we have a name for the violence that happens behind closed doors, we have laws—many of them good—to ensure that abusers are treated as criminals, not merely “bad boys.” We have battery intervention programs to help abusers stop abusing; we have programs to help the abused, including support, education, and financial rebounding after severing ties with one’s abuser.
Feminism gave another gift to the world: the idea that women are capable of taking care of ourselves. While the institution of feminism has also made clear the importance of community, its dual message of personal sovereignty can be easily distorted: You must take care of yourself—and if you can’t, maybe you’re not quite as independent as you think, little lady. And while accepting responsibility for our situations is generally a good ol’ American virtue, when you’re talking about abuse, that “acceptance” can mean perpetuating the cycle.
Indeed, the independent-lady spin is one of the masks abuse can wear now that we’ve basically ascertained that women are, indeed, capable, autonomous creatures. Two generations ago, victims may have had trouble identifying relationship violence because the words didn’t exist, and it was considered a private matter: That’s marriage, honey, you just deal with it. Today, we know the words, we may even be schooled in things like the cycle of violence—we just don’t think it applies to us.
“[S]ome researchers believe that because young women today feel invulnerable in relationships, they may actually try to tough it out themselves rather than ask for help when things turn bad,” wrote Liz Brody in Glamour magazine’s June 2011 report on relationship violence. (Note: I freelance for Glamour and in fact copy edited this article—which is excellent, and which I wouldn’t mention at all if I couldn’t stand by every word of it.) “‘They don’t believe they’ll ever be an Ike and Tina Turner story,’ says Kenya Fairley, program manager for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, ‘because they see the initial incidents of abuse in the same way they see obstacles they’re tackling at work. So if a boyfriend criticizes her, she thinks, I can handle it, just like she does with her boss. Women today keep managing the abuse until they’re so far in they need help getting out.’”
The refrain of individual responsibility that underlies this belief has a long history of also being one of those antifeminist arguments that sometimes masquerades as feminism: See also the Independent Women’s Forum, Katie Roiphe, and maybe even Naomi Wolf, who proclaims that “the core of feminism is individual choice and freedom.” The idea that feminism is equivalent to personal sovereignty also comes in handy when a feminist—this feminist, to be exact—is in the middle of a hurricane, unable to see anything but the individual drops of rain that, together, compose the storm.
It makes sense that I was unable to see that what I thought was me “handling” the situation was, in fact, the 2001 liberated-lady version of “he beats me because he loves me.” Abuse “works” because the victim internalizes it. I wasn’t ever going to internalize the idea that he hurt me because he loved me; I could, however, believe that because abuse was what happened to weak women and I wasn’t weak, my situation was just that—a “situation,” not abuse.
“You’re a strong woman.” “Well, Autumn, clearly you’ve thought this through.” “You know your own mind.”
I hear this from the people around me, some feminist, some not. It is what I think I want to hear: I am strong, I am invincible. I can handle it. Their trust in my judgment speaks to their efforts to respect my autonomy, to not act as though they know better than I do in regards to my own life. They don’t trust him—they make that clear—but they trust me.
What they didn’t know (what they couldn’t have known, what I didn’t know) was how incapable I really was during that time. I don’t blame my friends for not taking a stronger position. After all, they were just trying to follow my cues, which were muddled at best and hostile at worst. I pushed away a lot of people during that time; I was obstinate, defensive, hyperprotective of my boyfriend. And abuse is never easy to address, in part because of the misconceptions surrounding it, and in part because even if we know full well that it’s a public issue, discussing it becomes an intensely private matter. It’s easy to talk about the need for community feminist action and to deconstruct the ways we as a culture reinforce violent attitudes toward women. It’s quite another to look your friend—who is insisting left and right that she can take care of herself—and say, Actually, you can’t.
The one time someone said something remotely resembling that, around that kitchen table, it worked—and then it didn’t. I went home, I called my boyfriend, I told him it was over. He showed up at my apartment crying, telling me he needed me. Those friends “had it in” for him, he said; they’d hated him all along; they just didn’t want either of us to be happy. They couldn’t see how special we were together.
There was another phone call the next day: I’m staying with him, thanks for your concern, I can handle it. It was quick, short, to the point—just as was every social outing I had with those concerned friends for the next few months, until I finally realized that it wasn’t him that was no good for me, it was them, they didn’t know the real me, they didn’t understand me. They had it in for me.
And in exasperation—perhaps sadness, hurt, anger, frustration, I don’t know—they didn’t try to have that conversation with me again. Instead, we each allowed a small concrete hedge to grow between us. That hedge flourished every time they’d ask with a brittle smile, “So, how’s it going with him?” and I’d answer “Fine” with my brittle smile, and sometimes we’d quickly start talking about something else, and sometimes I’d take that as my cue to leave, and sometimes there would be a sliver of uncomfortable quiet, during which they might say, Well, Autumn, you sure know your own mind, and the shrieking, twisted, screaming girl inside of me would be silenced by the beam of my smile as I accepted the compliment.
The hedge grew, and grew, until I couldn’t see them any longer.
The system didn’t fail me. In fact, the system will earn little but praise from me: Within minutes of me entering that emergency room, my abuser was arrested. I was repeatedly offered support services (which, of course, I refused); in fact, the state instituted an order of protection against him, knowing full well I wouldn’t have done it on my own. He was sent through a court-mandated batterers’ intervention program, which was successful in that even though it took me years to finally leave him for good, he never physically hurt or threatened me again. (He was also sent through court-mandated alcohol counseling, which was unsuccessful in the long run, but which kept him sober throughout the battery intervention program.) My case is a model of how the system can and should work.
Without feminism, the system would be where it was decades ago—for instance, in New York, the very state that took swift measures against my abuser, violence was only acceptable grounds for divorce if the victim could prove that a “sufficient” number of beatings had occurred. For that reason, and for a variety of other reasons—most notably, the longstanding feminist emphasis on community and sisterhood over the individualist feminism that can so easily be warped to mean “every gal for herself”—it’s clear that feminism was not the problem here. Abuse was the problem here. He was the problem here.
But sometimes I can’t help but wonder: What would have happened if my independence, my competence, my autonomy, and, yes, my feminism hadn’t been an assumed fact? What would have happened if I weren’t known as the woman who co-organized the campus Take Back the Night march and who couldn’t possibly be a victim of relationship violence, for doesn’t she know better? What would have happened if I hadn’t internalized the need to be independent when I actually wasn’t able to be so; what would have happened if my friends saw me as a little less strong, a little less capable at every moment, a little less autonomous? What would have happened if we’d all had a broader template that showed that vulnerability was just as valid a state for a feminist to inhabit as strength and invincibility?
What would have happened if any of us had better recognized that I couldn’t “handle it”? What would have happened if people in my life had better understood that feminism, independence, and autonomy did not create a cloak of protection around me, and had been prepared to look me in the eye and respond to my I can handle it with No, Autumn, you can’t. But together, we can.