"You grew up in a glass house."
My dad often tells me this about my childhood. He grew up with alcoholic parents, trying to step in when his dad hit his mother. He doesn’t share more than this so I didn't understand what he saw or appreciate the cycle he broke when he refused to drink or abuse his own wife and kids. As strong as my dad was, there were some things he couldn't protect me from.
When I was in fourth grade, we moved from the catfish farm to a house closer to Yazoo City. At the end of our road was Horse Hill, a barn that boarded horses. Heaven. I was 10 years old and all I wanted was a horse. I took riding lessons, and the friendly old man who cared for the barn let me help muck out the stalls and do other barn chores. One day he gave me a ride home and stopped before he got to my house. He pulled me close, forced me to kiss him and told me to use my tongue. He was 50 years older than me. Maybe 60 years older. Getting away and will never forget the shame I felt walking into my house to tell my parents something I really didn’t understand. My parents told him to keep his hands off me and I never went back to Horse Hill. We ran into him into restaurants around town, but didn’t talk about it again.
Interviewing domestic violence victims has forced me to look at the deepest cracks in my glass house, understanding that abuse happened in my family, and to me. I struggled with low self-esteem, a need for attention, and made a few bad decisions about men. The need for love, attention and protection were the same reasons victims gave for falling for their abuser. Needs every woman understands.
Admitting, accepting, and understanding doesn't make domestic violence any easier to write about. The first day of September was supposed to be the day I started writing a series on domestic abuse for Lagniappe, but I wrote this essay, instead. Processing and procrastinating.
I am unsure how to begin writing about the secret crime that society still doesn't want to acknowledge or hold men accountable for (the Urban Meyer controversy this week). Domestic abuse goes on behind closed doors in every neighborhood, from trailers and shacks to mansions and penthouses. All colors. All countries.
Not that long ago, victims were called battered women, abuse was considered chastisement and there were no legal protections.
I heard rationalizations, stereotypes, warnings and explanations.
“Out of sight, out of mind. Men will be men. Men were created to plant their seed in as many women as possible. Humans aren't created for monogamy. She brought it on herself. She knows what bottoms to push to set him off. Keep it to yourself. Don't embarrass this family.”
“Honey, this has been going on since the beginning of time and the only thing that is going to stop it is the end of times.”
“What happens in this house, stays in this house.”
“Be glad you have a man.”
“Mental abuse leaves deeper scars than physical abuse.”
“Why doesn't she just leave him?”
Victims lucky to be alive tell stories of abuse that began with fathers, grandfathers, stepdads, boyfriends, and uncles before they even met the abusive boyfriend or husband. Men who view women as possessions--slaves to be used and controlled--or just an outlet for sex. Mothers of the victim or the abuser who don’t step in. Women who look the other way because abuse and molesting runs deep in their family and it happened to them, too. Abuse is just a part of life.
I am grateful to the women I interviewed for sharing their darkest secrets. As they told unimaginable stories, I watched strength, courage and freedom rise from releasing the shame and breaking the silence. Some for the first time. They are survivors hoping that sharing their story will help save someone else from pain or death. They also want the rest of us to understand.
Domestic violence is complicated. It is mental, emotional, financial and physical. It is a plate of dinner thrown against a wall, being stalked at work or the grocery store, threats to pets or other family members, or anger over getting home a minute later than expected. If it happens once, it will happen again, no matter the promises, gifts and apologies that follow. A push, shove or punch progresses to biting, choking, kicking, stabbing, strangling, raping or shooting. Fifty percent of men who abuse their female partner also abuse their children (statistic from Penelope House).
From the outside, the answer is clear. Get out or die. But leaving is not that easy. The abuser creates a world where the woman is isolated and dependent. After being constantly criticized and belittled, she thinks she is worthless and can't do anything on her own. If she has kids, she tries to do what is best for them. From where she stands, every option is a bad option and the fear of the unknown is worse than the fear of abuse.
She also loves her abuser because he doesn’t always abuse. There are times he is fun, loving and charming. She believes him when he says it will never happen again. She thinks she can fix him or love him out of it because she is in love with the man she thinks he can be. What woman doesn’t understand this? We are naturally empathetic fixers, putting others first and enduring pain and suffering to please or protect the people we love.
Every nine seconds a woman is beaten in the United States, but only one-fourth of these are reported (Penelope House statistics). Sometimes, victims don't talk or press charges because they don't want the abuser to go to jail, or lose his job and income. Calling the police can be worse in some communities than the abuse. These are frustrations for the judicial system, whose job is to protect and defend.
Intimate partner violence is the greatest cause of injury to women. What is the trigger? What causes a person to hurt/berate/murder the person who loves him? Abuse is a learned behavior. Most abusers were abused themselves, saw their father beat their mother, and lived through their own trauma. They are hurt, insecure and short-tempered and they don't know how to control their emotions. There is a rush from releasing anger. They see women as property, a possession, something to control. If they can't have her, no one else can. They will kill her if she tries to get away. My head learned this from research and interviews, but my heart still can’t understand.
Abusers are the center of their own universe. Often with narcissistic personalities or other personality disorders, they don't see the world as others do. Remorse, intervention and rehabilitation are difficult for a person like that. They also know they can get away with it and believe there will always be another woman ready to be pulled in. Abusers need to come with a warning label.
The abuser can be a surgeon, preacher, mechanic, or lawyer. A person on your church pew or a coach of a sports team. It can also be a woman.
Domestic abuse is everywhere. I wasn't prepared for that being the truth. Strong, successful friends have shared their own horror stories. I overheard a woman on Dauphin Street telling of her boyfriend beating her with a pipe. I watched a car in front of us swerve on a highway in Baldwin County as the driver yelled and repeatedly punched the woman in the front seat.
On Friday, a friend told about the abuse of her religious sister. She told her, “God doesn't want you to go through this. It is time to pack and pray."
A few hours later, an interview (in Bienville Square for Our Southern Souls) about stirring love into pastries at one of Mobile’s best restaurants, turned into stories of going to prison for stabbing her abuser. After she got out, he shot her in the back.
Down the street, a woman in Cathedral Square wearing a T-shirt that said, "Fabulous Fruitcakes 2018 tour" told me stories of her cats named "Lulu Kitty Girl Swirl Nugget" and "Pierre Giovanni Tuxedo Tux Hendrick." She also had a broken collarbone as she walked down the aisle of her big Waco, Texas wedding. The bone was broken by the man waiting at the altar to say, “I do.” She stayed with him for seven years because no one in her family had ever gotten a divorce. Her dad said, "We do now," and picked her up with a U-Haul the next day.
Abuse isn't normal. Women aren't property. There is no Prince Charming, but there are good men. When a boy hits you or says something mean, it does not mean he likes you. Get a plan and then get out. You are strong enough. You deserve better. Talk to someone. You are not alone. You are going to be okay.
Abuse takes place in all neighborhoods, no matter where your neighborhood is.
Even if you live in a glass house.
If you need help, here are some contacts:
Penelope House in Mobile: 251-342-8994 (24-hour crisis line)
The Lighthouse in Baldwin County: 251-947-6008 (24⁄7)
National Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)