I wish I had a kitten for every time in the last week that I have heard someone criticize a person who stays with an abusive partner. It would make me an animal hoarder, but at least I would be calmer.
Fortunately, the discussion this week about Ray Rice’s abuse has taught me something else as well: Telling people about abuse does not work. They need something like an image to help them put themselves in the shoes of the abused person.
So while I can tell you that abusers are very good at making their victims feel sorry for them, I am hoping that telling a story will get across the point far better.
When I was in third grade, I got in Big Trouble. Once again I had allegedly peeped during one of the 90 minute prayer sessions that our church held every week. As a child with ADHD, I found it almost impossible to sit still with my eyes closed for 90 minutes without falling asleep or having my eyes fly open when I simply forgot that they were supposed to be completely closed. I really wanted to be obedient. I was just constitutionally incapable of doing some of the things required of me.
My mother saw my propensity for peeping as an act of rebellion. Her procedure for dealing with rebellion was to beat me with a belt or a thick plank of wood. It wasn’t just the intensity of these beatings that made them torturous, it was also how long they lasted. Often, she would go multiple rounds, beating me for as long as her energy would last, pausing for a rest break of 10-20 minutes, and then resume.
Those rest-breaks between rounds of beatings were some of the most mentally anguishing moments of my life. Before a beating started, I could lie to myself about the pain, or about my ability to handle it. But in those rest-breaks, any denial had been broken, and I knew that there was more to come. I knew that before long the pain would build until it was all there was in the universe, where I was swallowed by it so thoroughly that I would lose all track of time and sense of myself. Often, I would vomit. My mother saw this as another act of rebellion and would extend my beating accordingly.
I was especially emotionally vulnerable during those rest breaks, and my mother would sometimes use that time to extract promises or apologies from me. The night that I was in Big Trouble, she was so desperate to stop me from peeping during prayer services that she used the rest break to tell me a deeply disturbing story.
She started by asking me to close my eyes and visualize myself on the porch of our house, engaged in our weekday morning ritual. She told me to see myself waving goodbye to her as she drove off to work. She had me imagine the cold air on my face, the feel of the concrete porch posts beneath my hands, and my books beside me as I waited for my ride to school.
Because of how vulnerable and therefore suggestible I was, I fell into her story. I experienced it in sensory detail. When she told me to imagine her kissing me goodbye, I could almost feel her lips brushing my cheek.
She told me to imagine that as she made the turn to go to work, a large tractor-trailer came speeding out of nowhere and knocked her car across the highway. I saw the accident in slow motion, her car crumbling in on itself, spinning and coming to rest at the fire hydrant in front of our neighbor’s house.
As I sobbed, she went on to describe what I would see when I got there: her body trapped in a shell of twisted metal, calling out my name and telling me how much she loved me between screams of agony. Following her words, I imagined her in torture, bleeding, crying and finally dying in front of my eyes.
“That is how I feel when you are rebellious.” She said at the end.
For days after she told me that story, I was overwhelmed with trauma and grief. It was as if I actually had experienced watching the gruesome death of a parent. For years, I had nightmares of that story. It haunted me well into my adulthood, popping into my head at the oddest moments and bathing me in waves of guilt and shame.
I thought that if that was how much it hurt her for me to be a serial prayer-peeper, it was no wonder she had to beat me. She had to protect herself from wounds I inflicted without even the slightest thought. I completely bought her idea of me of as a carelessly bad person and believed that I was fortunate she was willing to correct me.
I don’t believe that my mother set out to tell me a story that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Instead, I believe that she was acting of the instinctual genius that abusers have for making their victims feel sorry for them. She has a gift for making her pain seem so real and overwhelming, that any pain she inflicted on me seems understandable and mild by comparison.
I felt sorry for my mother until I was 40. I believed that beating me really did hurt her more than it did me. My mother’s story was graphic and haunting, but I have no reason to believe that she was more gifted in her manipulation than any other abuser. I think that just about all abusers have one or two gifts that they use to make a victims hate themselves and love the person who hurts them.
Abused people act logically according to the realities of the alternative universe that the abuser builds.
People who stay in abusive relationships are not crazy or self-destructive or gold-digging. In the world built by their abusers, they are at fault and their abuser’s beatings are acts of love and patience.
I felt sorry for the person who beat me for the same reason that almost every abuse victims does – because it is the only way that I could make sense of what has happened. If my mother was the problem, I was completely screwed. But if I was the problem, then there was hope.
Hope and love are what keep most abused people in a relationship. They conspire to make us believe that everything will be okay if we can only say or do the right things. We believe that our abuser is not like other abusers, that really s/he is a truly good and loving person who has been hurt or is putting up with us and that is what makes the abuser hurt us. Hope and love make us believe all excuses, bear unimaginable pain, and bet on incredible long shots.
I have learned that you don’t have to give up love for your abuser, but you do have to run out of hope. You have to finally exit the abuser’s alternative universe and live in reality. Above all, you have to be willing to inflict pain on the abuser to save yourself. Freedom and healing starts when you can finally stop feeling sorry for your abuser.
P.S. Thank you to Rebecca Gorman for her help in proofing this post and to Laurel and Claire for their efforts on other pieces. With my dyslexia, I am reliant on the help of proofreaders, and they have my unceasing gratitude.