I wrote this some time ago, and have been undecided about whether to share it, or where. Today, I learned that October is domestic violence awareness month, and decided that the time was ripe to get my piece of the word out, in hopes that it will help someone to break a cycle that is passed down from generation to generation. It's not what you're used to here, but I think it's important.
The most significant moment of my life occurred in the fall of 1994. It wasn’t my marriage, the birth of my precious daughter, the day I was sworn in to the practice of law or when I held my first book in my hands and ran my finger across my name on the cover. No, the most significant moment of my life took place in an apartment-building driveway in a run-down town, well after dark on a week night.
A man I loved lifted a rock—a very large rock—and said, “Shut up, get in your car and drive away and don’t look back or I’m going to bash your head in.” The original statement, of course, contained a few colorful adjectives. I believed him. I got in my car and drove away without looking back, and as I did, I sighed.
That was it, that sigh. A man I loved and trusted had threatened to kill me with a rock, and I’d believed him, and it made me SIGH. It didn’t shock me, appall me, or even really frighten me. If I’d put that sigh into words, I think they would have been “here we go again.”
I’d grown up with violence, of course. And like every child who grows up with violence I’d sworn I’d never tolerate it and meant it from the bottom of my heart. I’d grown up to fight violence, training and volunteering in domestic violence shelters and sexual assault programs for several years. And then, when violence came back into my life, I greeted it much in the same way I would have greeted a flat tire on my way to work.
In my mind, of course, I knew all the things I’d been telling victims for years. But in my gut, in my physiology, deep in my psyche, this kind of thing was just part of life. I knew how serious it was, but I couldn’t feel it. And because I didn’t experience it as anything life-altering, it didn’t alter my life a bit. I left when I was told, to avoid getting my head bashed in with a rock, and then I returned the next day.
I didn’t recognize the significance of that sigh then, of course. It was years before I looked back and realized that my reaction was the result of a kind of programming that can only be erased by long, hard work and extreme awareness. I’d thought that in mentally rejecting violence, in my training and volunteer work and the way I saw violence in the lives of other women, I’d moved past that programming, but I hadn’t. It was only lying in wait. In fact, that programming has never entirely been erased; I’m not sure whether it ever can be. The difference is that I know now that my emotional and instinctive reactions can’t be trusted in that arena, that I have to have a concrete bottom line and stick to it as if it were a law, because my gut won’t tell me to do what needs to be done.
The other difference is that I have a child now, and because of that one moment—because I sighed when I should have screamed, and briefly retreated when I should have run—I know that what she experiences in her day-to-day life as a child will be what she perceives as normal, no matter how much lip service I pay to it being wrong, no matter how clearly she recognizes that herself. And it’s not just about violence; our children become familiar with, and comfortable with, the type of relationships we model, our financial stability or lack thereof, and every other aspect of the lives we live from day to day and thereby present as normal.
A thousand studies have told us as much, have told us that girls who grow up with violence enter into abusive relationships and boys who grow up with violence become abusers, and we think, all of us, “Not my kid.” It’s not just denial: children object, they see the problem, sometimes they’re more clear-headed about it than their parents, and it seems impossible to imagine that they’d ever tolerate that same pattern in their lives.
I was that child: the one who threatened to call the police, who advocated bolting the doors, who had a hundred suggestions for when and where and how to get away. And when the chips were down, more than a decade later, I sighed. And I stayed.