Sit With It.

Earlier this week 

I see a police officer berating a young child of color – he can’t be older than eight – in the school parking lot. He’s yelling, his shiny, decked-out car blocking a clear view of the two, only his black-soled feet visible from below. I can hear the anger in his voice, the sobs of the child, the air thick with the disbelief  as we – us parents in the car rider line – try to position our ears and eyes like nosy neighbors, trying to gather understanding of the situation. I put down my book and ask myself questions. Is the child restrained? I can’t tell. His Mother has come to collect him, so he’s safe, it’s all ok…? The police officer watches them leave, and the rage that remains on his face seems misplaced. In what world can an eight-year-old child cause such anger, such bitterness? The memory of his fury sits in my gut like a heavy stone.

Yesterday 

My phone goes bing and an alert dips down onto my screen like a lead balloon. “School Shooting Underway in Florida” or some vague wording like that. The pest control guy is here, so I put the phone down and take a sip of water. I feel like I have to make pleasant-but-inconsequential chatter with him lest I seem rude or he calls my landlord or something – the worst a woman can do is be rude to a man hired to do a job – and school shootings do not make for lighthearted conversation. We talk about snow and mice and he tells me a story about a woman who called him because there was a dead possum rotting in her wall, but that’s not part of his job so he wasn’t able to remove it for her. I can’t tell if he’s relieved about that, or guilty. After he leaves, I go back to my phone. I make the mistake of watching a video. Then another. By the third, I’m wrenched with sobs, triggered, but I don’ t know why I’m triggered because triggered isn’t a thing that happens to me, or so I thought. I need to get up and cook Valentine’s dinner but I can’t move, I’m immobile, flattened, every last bit of energy and motivation gone from me like stale air, escaped from an old balloon. The students emerging, shell-shocked, from a bullet-laden high school holding their Valentine’s Day balloons, a holiday that is now forever ruined, that they will no longer associate with candy, flowers from Mom or think-pieces about capitalism, but with gunfire and blood.

It is fitting, in a way. Love and Violence are an uneasy marriage, but a marriage it is, whether you admit it or not. Hell, it’s even in the Bible.

IMG_2095.jpg

A few days ago 

I read an article about a teenage girl who lives with her Dad, but while on visitation with her Mom, Mom gets her hair highlighted. It’s a special treat. She goes home and Dad is furious. Dad is a firefighter who has been arrested previously on domestic violence charges. He is a control freak who exacts revenge on the woman he can no longer abuse by using their daughter as a pawn. He had previously told his teenage girl that she couldn’t highlight her hair, and she and her Mom went behind his back. Naturally, he is furious. Isn’t his word supposed to be law?

He and his wife – the evil stepmother in this story, and let’s not unpack the fact that she may well be living in her own hell – drag the girl to Supercuts and force her to sit through a haircut. By the time the botch-job is done, the girl’s hair is one step from a buzzcut, gaps everywhere, and in accompanying photos, the girl holding her hand to her face to cover her humiliation and tears, the highlights are still visible. 

Some of the comments suggested there is more to the story, but does it matter? I don’t really think it does. Bits of the story are probably wrong, context not given, but we all know the gist by now.

 Fifteen years ago

I sit nervously on the edge of the straight-backed chair, as my partner paces. He’s on the phone with the vet. Our kitten, after a four-day hiatus, finally dragged himself home – literally – pulled himself through the lounge window with his front legs, and fell in a pile in front of us on the floor. We raced him to the vet, who kept him overnight, though we already know that his back is broken. Likely hit by a car, judging by the ragged splinters of his claws and the way his formerly straight body is now at an angle.

He hangs up the phone, walks over to me. We can go pick him up now; they are done with the tests. There is no internal damage, and he will live – but his back is broken. Since he’s a kitten, still growing, not yet neutered, he will need to be contained within our home for at least three months. He will wear a cone of shame and is not allowed to jump, as if we could stop him. I listen to this glassy-eyed, but relieved – I put far too much of my emotional wellbeing into this cat, he is all I have, in more ways than one, and all I need to hear is he will live and the rest is immaterial. To imagine such a little thing, only a few months old, his skinny, spindly little cat-self living through the impact of a heavy, blunt vehicle –

I’m still sighing in relief, a brief moment of respite, just a nanosecond, my guard let down, a thing that I rarely ever let happen anymore – I am usually a fortress, protected with moats and fences and walls so high, so impenetrable, my every thought and fear aimed outward, at the ready – but the relief is so great I forget.

The hand extends, the pale knuckles bright, lined with dark hair – so much hair for such a young man, I often think. I have wondered before if he has too much testosterone, what a preposterous, weird thing to wonder – I do not know if my eyes close from relief or if my eyes subconsciously note what will happen before my mind does, a kind of preemptive protection, but whatever, I am sightless as the hand connects with my face, the side of my cheek, just above my jaw, with a slap so hard it whips my head around and I fall off the straight-backed chair and to the thin carpet, much the same way my kitten fell to the floor from the window. The slap is so hard it feels like a punch. The slap is so hard I taste the color red. The slap is so hard that my face feels like it’s crawling with bees, buzzing from my cheek into my ear, my mouth, my eyelashes. My eyes are still closed and they stay that way, because why look?

In my relief I have forgotten about the cost. The bill. The money. Stupid me.

“Better he’d have died.” He says, but really his explanation is irrelevant, as I’ve already had the punishment. “But you’d never forgive me, and anyway, euthanizing him would probably cost even more.”

A worse betrayal than the slap is that deep down he loves the cat more than I do. I saw him pace the floors, waiting for him to come home. I saw the way his shoulders sagged with relief when he tumbled through the window. I know he’d pay every last penny to keep him alive.

But he has someone to blame, and I don’t. An outlet for his frustration. That’s just the way it is.

This morning

If I told you my former partner was a feminist, with an astounding IQ, from a middle class home with two loving parents and a number of friends, would you believe me?

If I reminded you the school shooter was failed by a system that forces boys into boxes, denies them emotions, tells them they are “owed” love and gives them permission to use their hands, would it matter? If I uttered the word “gun” would your eyes glaze over?

If most people side with the Dad who chopped off his daughter’s hair because “kids these days need to learn discipline”, would you be surprised? If it had been a son, do you think he’d have gotten the haircut?

If I told you the cop I saw berating a kid is beloved by the school and the kids literally cheer when he walks onto the playground, would you wrinkle your nose in confusion?

If I tell you that this long, emotional, chaotic piece of writing has no actual conclusion, that I won’t be tying these things together with a poignant, smart, but just-angry-enough ending paragraph that gives us cold comfort and inspires us to act, to hope, to believe that these things will stop happening one day, that the world can be better for our kids and for us, too, that there is still reason to have faith – but rather just left it like this, left you wondering, hurting, pissed off, the point lost somewhere in the middle, if I ever had it at all…just leaving this post open-ended and without a conclusion…leaving you to figure it out, do the math, try to find some meaning in all of this…

Well, then you’d know how I feel.

How so many of us feel.

Sit with it. We have been.

Advertisements

Believing is Not Enough

I used to write a lot of think pieces – in fact, I used to hold a weekly column in which I wrote about a wide variety of topics, most of them to do with current events, politics and social issues. It was a good fit for me, as a writer who is heavily invested in making the world a better place – and it didn’t hurt that I’m opinionated as all get out.

self_portrait_by_kaiwhakamarie

A long-ago self portrait. I used to smoke to cope. Now I just write.

I got away from think pieces after a while, though, for one because the internet is saturated with them to the point that they have become parody, but also because I was exhausted. Just so very tired of having to pull out the energy to write about some very dark times, dark places and dark themes. Situations in which there often are no resolutions. Things that hurt, that bite back. After a while I just had to stop for my own sanity.

I began writing more fiction and less essays. But I am who I am, and the me started to creep in through my fiction, too. Before I knew it I had written an entire novel about a victim of domestic violence. Then I wrote a sequel. I can’t take a break from it, because it is woven into who I am.

When the story broke about Amber Heard and Johnny Depp last week, I went through a variety of emotions. First disappointment, because Depp has long been a favorite actor of mine; second anger at the way the headlines none-too-subtly shaded or outright accused Heard of being a liar, a golddigger, a wanton temptress; and lastly, resigned sadness at the fact that even the people who seemed to believe Heard still wanted to attack her. As if her being an unlikeable person somehow negates the violence, or makes her deserving of it (she seems perfectly likeable to me). People want to love Johnny Depp so badly that it’s easier for them to justify abuse they actually believe took place, than to sympathize with his alleged victim. Like, apparently it isn’t possible to love What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and also believe Amber Heard. Look, guys, this has been going on a long time. I love the music of John Lennon and Jim Morrison; I love the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I enjoy the art these men produced while also recognizing that they abused the women in their lives. This is important: We can appreciate the contributions they make while still holding them accountable. 

Repeat that to yourself a few times.

I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone who has read my work that I, too, am a former victim of domestic violence. If not, well, now you know. It bothers me, as a writer, how language fails when I try to describe myself. I do not like the word “victim” and the powerlessness it invokes. Nor do I love the word “survivor”, because it gives too much power to the abuse. “Former victim” is as close as I can come to comfortable, but it is a splinter in my heel, too. At any rate, I am a person who was once abused. It was a number of years ago and I am fine (well, fine is relative. But I’m okay.). I am “lucky” enough in that I have been, for the most part, believed. It took me years to finally begin talking about my experiences, but when I did, people believed me. I realize this is a rarity as I have seen other women questioned and disbelieved, and it has broken my heart.

The thing about being a victim of domestic violence is that there is never any way you can feel okay about it. Even if you yourself have healed, and you can move on with some semblance of sanity, it will be other people that will push you back down into despair. They won’t do it on purpose (well, most of them won’t). Most won’t even realize they are doing it.

It comes when you start talking. Most of us reach a point, be it weeks or months or years after the fact, when we start purging the memories, the pain. We want to talk. We need to talk. It is therapeutic. This is when they will turn on you. Through judgment, or subtle sarcasm, shade, through questioning you just a little too hard, through statements that seem to blame, through outright silence, which will cut you like a thousand knives. They will ask their questions, make their statements, or just ignore you completely, and you will feel victimized all over again.

But I thought you believed me, you will think to yourself, frustrated. Why do I feel like I’m still on trial?  Why do I have to pretend this didn’t happen to make everyone comfortable?

i-believe-you

The thing that might be the most surprising, and the most hurtful, is that it doesn’t always come from the people you think it will. You know the ones, the rape-deniers, the misogynists, the ones who think feminism is a dirty word. No, often enough the judgement, the skepticism, the deafening silence will come from your friends. Your family. Yes, even people who know it’s true. Yes, even people who are feminists. Yes, even people who are also former victims themselves.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this, and I’m usually more eloquent, but today words seem to fail. I’m just too mad, and too tired.

Because today I’ve had the misfortune of reading a truly terrible statement by the father of a rapist, which I refuse to link to, in which he bemoans the loss of his son’s freedom and appetite and cries about how his son will see his life ruined for “20 minutes of action”. That “20 minutes of action”, of course referring to the brutal rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

This victim was also believed. A jury unanimously voted and delivered a guilty verdict to her rapist. And the judge felt bad for him, and decided that jail might hurt his fee-fees, so he only gave him six months. For brutally raping someone behind a dumpster. She was BELIEVED. Might we imagine what it’s like for the victims who aren’t? Sadly, many of us don’t have to imagine.

I’m so very tired of us.

Funny, the sentence I meant to type was “I’m so very tired of this.” I started to delete the word, and then I thought, no, that’s apt. I am so very tired of us.

Because we are all complacent in rape culture and abuse culture. We all could do better. We could all go out of our way to believe victims, to listen to them, to offer them support. We could all hold abusers accountable. We could make it easier for victims of rape and abuse to come forward, to not just believe them but to offer them help and resources and a modicum of respect when they speak out. To offer them a justice system that will actually punish their rapists and abusers. We could all do a better job of raising men to think less of sex as something “owed”, and teach them that women are not a commodity, an object, a possession. That they are not entitled to our bodies, to hit or punch or rape at their leisure. At the very least we owe it to ourselves to not raise the type of person who refers to a rape as “20 minutes of action” and cares more about the steak his son no longer enjoys than the woman his son assaulted.

That woman, by the way, isn’t going to shut up. Read her amazing letter. She has brass ovaries. He didn’t break her. She is talking.

And I am talking.

We are not going to stop talking.

We will keep talking until your discomfort gets so great that you are forced to get up and act, to move, to change. We will keep talking until just believing victims of sexual and physical abuse isn’t enough. We’ll keep talking until we have no reason to.

From the late, great Maya Angelou:

“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”