Monday, March 16, 2009

Chapter 48: In which I unburden myself


Somehow, I never thought I would write about this. But recent events in the news have brought some of this shit to the forefront of my mind again, and I dunno, I guess I’ve carried this secret around for a good many years now, and I’m tired of it.

I would say that one of the toughest things about being a woman is dealing with the many ways in which we are judged. I appreciate that being a man comes with a unique bundle of expectations as well, but I think that even though I have spent my life trying to be good, trying never to disappoint anyone, I have also spent that life chafing against the expectations that are unique to my sex.

And man, I thought I was different. A designer I worked with once said to me “How did a girl with such cute tits get such big balls?” I laughed so loud at that. Yeah, that was me, I thought. I was special. I was tough.

It was 1983, and I was newly married, and we were both in grad school. My husband and I lived in a studio apartment in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. If we had no rehearsal after class, I would make us dinner in the tiny kitchen of the apartment. We lived on little money. We had been together since we started dating in undergraduate school the previous year.

It started small. He was smart. He was older than me. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, shall we say. He was demanding. But it started small.

At first, I found myself apologizing at parties when he would become confrontational over some perceived slight. Gradually, he became more demanding of me, always insisting that his love for me was greater than mine for him, and according to him, the many small ways that I failed him was proof of this.

It started before we were married, and so you might ask yourself why I married him.

I have no real answer for that. I just thought…I guess I thought it was what I was supposed to do. I know that’s inadequate. He loved me ferociously, and I guess I thought it was my one chance to have that. And I wanted that. Oh, I wanted it.

Still, I remember sitting in my wedding dress. Alone, in the room where I was waiting for my Dad to come and walk me down the aisle. I remember wishing it weren’t happening. I wished for someone to come in the room and tell me I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to. But no one said that. And I just couldn’t stop it on my own. I just couldn’t. I wasn’t important enough, somehow, to cause so much trouble.

Gradually, my failings, as far as my husband was concerned, had become a long list indeed, and I regularly suffered through its recitation. Gradually, he stopped me from going out with the girls I had made friends with in the department where we were both students. We couldn’t afford it, he said, and besides, I shouldn’t be telling other people about our personal lives. Specifically, I shouldn’t talk to other people about him. He began to criticize my personality as well, telling me that taking twenty minutes to pick an outfit in the morning meant that I was irretrievably vain. He told me it was disgusting to him to watch me do it. By then, such language had become commonplace to me. You may not believe it, but I had come to believe that it was love to say such things. I had come to believe that he was right. When his temper would explode and he would yell and stamp about and slam the door, I thought it was probably my fault.

I know you’ve heard that before, about other women. And I know that if you’ve never experienced it yourself, it’s pretty much impossible to understand how someone comes to think things like that.

I also know that you can tell where this is going. I could tell, too. If you remember nothing else about this story, I want you to remember that I knew where it was going, too. I knew it every waking minute.

And so it happened one day, starting, of course, in a laughably innocuous way.

I was making dinner. He came home. He stood in the doorway of the kitchen and asked me what I was making. A spinach salad, I said. There was a pause. He stared at me. And I felt my heart sink. I knew that pause. I knew it very well. There was nothing to do now but to batten down, hold on, and try to weather the oncoming shitstorm.

He didn’t like spinach, not raw spinach. How could I not remember that? How could I feel so little for him that I could forget it?

I hung my head. But inside, something wasn’t normal. There were words inside of me that wanted out. It was like a match had been struck. I felt my teeth clenching, to keep whatever it was down, but I couldn’t keep it down.

“There are so many things you don’t like,” I said quietly, “it’s hard to remember them all.”

Yes, that was it. That was the sum total of my protest. I hadn’t even looked at him when I said it.

But it didn’t matter. He was canny enough to smell a rebellion. He thundered at me, “What did you just say?!”

And that, dear readers, is when I lost my shit. I wheeled on him and screamed. Screamed! All about how he was a child and he was so unfair and how I tried so hard and it wasn’t me who was at fault, it was him, it was him, it was him.

Then he picked up the salad bowl and dumped it on my head.

And I stood there, with a bowl on my head and that traitorous raw spinach lay on my shoulders and in my hair and at my feet. He looked at me triumphantly. And in the depths of that unprecedented humiliation, I saw really clearly, for the first time, into my future. And knew I needed out.

“I hate you!” I yelled, still with the bowl on my head. “I fucking HATE YOU!!!”

And that, dear readers, is when he lost his shit.

He picked me up by my sweatshirt and threw me into the bookcase.

Then he picked me up again and threw me against the wall. And then onto the floor, and then into the table. I lost count of how many times he dragged me to my feet and threw me against whatever obstacle was nearby. I was sort of stunned at that point and mostly trying to manage the extent of my injuries by covering my head or turning my face away. I remember being terrified at one point, when he threw me on the bed, that he might rape me. Anything was possible at that point. He had, in the course of throwing me around the room, ripped my sweatshirt to ribbons, and I was not wearing anything underneath. It was somehow more horrifying to be exposed in the midst of that violence.

He did not rape me. Whatever he was, he was not that.

He dragged me into the bathroom and pulled my wedding ring off my finger and threw it in the toilet. That’s how much I cared about the marriage, he told me.

Then he left.

The apartment was quiet. It occurred to me that someone might come to the door now, now that it was over. But no one did.

Readers, I am ashamed to say that the first thing I did was fish my ring out of the toilet. And put it back on. That is the only thing that I look back on with any real regret. I should have flushed it down. I should've let him pay that one small price for what he did. For what he did, he should have at least paid for one very thin gold band.

Gradually I made my way out of the bathroom. I was bruised but not seriously hurt.

He would later that evening of course return. He had bought me candy. Candy! And he no doubt intended to apologize, except that he was angered that I was watching television. I was supposed to be devastated, not sitting numbly in front of the television.

Didn’t I realize our marriage was in crisis?

It was, I remember thinking, except not for the reason you think.

And so we split up, not right away like what happens in the movies, but a month or so later. I know he continued to believe that I was deficient in some vital way, and he may still think so, if he ever bothers to think about us at all, which I doubt. I suppose I should be grateful that I was an insufficiently engaged sparring partner for him. It might have saved my life.

After he left I quickly went from being devastated to feeling incredibly light and free and young – all the things a twenty-three year old woman should feel. The enormity of my mistake began to sink in. I vowed to never make it again, and I have not.

I have never let a man control me again.

I experienced the joy of realizing that I did not have to make excuses for his behavior any more.

Even after we split, people would ask me to explain or excuse him. I refused. He blew up at some professor and they got into a screaming match. I was there and saw it. The department head called me in and asked me what I thought of what had happened. I just laughed. I laughed a little too loud. I could not stop laughing. The department head looked like he wanted to call security on my crazy ass. “What’s so goddamn funny about it?” he said. “I’m sorry,” I said, laughing. “I’m sorry for laughing,” I said, laughing some more. “It’s just that…” I stifled a laugh. “It’s just that…it’s not my problem anymore. Do you understand? It’s not my problem anymore.”

He stared at me, and I smiled, maybe a little sadly that time, and I saw a wave of understanding pass his face. And then astonishment. And then pity. He looked at me, and I could tell my history was at that moment writ large upon my face.

And I didn’t care. I was free. I hadn’t even realized the multitude of freedoms that I had given up along the way, but it didn’t matter. I had them all back.

He would later that year lose his mother to a horrible illness. His mother had basically killed herself in a variety of slow ways after marrying and divorcing a series of men all very much like his father, which is to say: violent and controlling. He hated his father, he hated them all, and yet he ended up so like them. I guess he could not justify emulating his mother, and so having no other model, he emulated his mother’s torturers instead.

He would later ask me to come back to him. I would refuse.

He would later disappear into the throng of aspiring whatevers that clog the freeways of Los Angeles. Just one more clueless asshole among many.

I would later pawn my wedding ring for train fare.

I would later say, when the subject was upon the table and people were saying those things that they say about women who are victims that way, “You’re talking about me, you know. It happened to me.” And they would say “No, not you. You’re not…” And I would say “I’m not what? What am I lacking, that it can’t be me?”

Listen. I am that woman. Because I was that woman. Tell me why it happened to me. Tell me what I am, that it happened to me. Tell me what’s wrong with me. And remember, the next time you open your mouth to talk about someone else - you’re talking about me.

33 comments:

kirby said...

Wow. I don't know what to say, except that with each post you write, I find myself more and more in awe of you.

Liberality said...

Yes, it is you and me and her over there too. Thanks for speaking up for us.

Some Guy said...

Like Kirby, I'm kinda speechless. I'm just glad you're with someone now who treats your right.

SkylersDad said...

Thank you for sharing yourself with us Vikki. I wish you a long, peaceful life with Spooney, full of love. You certainly deserve it.

Poplicola said...

Hm. I guess the only disconnect I see is that you regret fishing your wedding ring out, but then later, you pawned it for train fare. It's an incongruity of perception that seems to me is actually what they call in literary criticism The Frickin' Point. Hard won perspective. Taking something forged in the mistakes of romanticism all 23-year-olds are prone to and turning it into something liberatingly practical. To go from "symbol of our spiritual and socially-mandated connection as man and wife" to "gold=money" is not insignificant. Rather I think you should congratulate yourself for having the presence of mind to realize that you might one day realize that.

Also (and not insignificantly): Fuck that guy. I know you're way ahead of me on that one, but give me a chance, I'm just catching up.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Holy hell, that was some post. It moved me to tears. I'm so sorry anyone would make you feel like that and treat you like that. Thank goodness you came out of it stronger, smarter, and wiser. You know this post will do nothing but make us all adore you all the more, thanks for sharing.

Dad E said...

I made the mistake of reading this before I went to bed and now I can't turn off my thoughts.

This is the first time I knew of your physical abuse. When I visted you shortly after he left and you told me he had left, I could see that you held a sense of shame which I attributed to a failed relationship. And I remember trying to comfort you but didn't feel I could do much in the way of wanting you to move ahead. But I said, "your job is to get over it."

Getting over something tramatic takes time and vestiages remain that, if ignored, keep coming back around to haunt.

You have great courage and strength to revisit this and I think your expressive post has helped resolve more of you pain. It is difficult for me to express how much I admire what you have become. My eyes start to get heavy.

Just remember, "everything counts" and "you are just right".

vikkitikkitavi said...

Kirby: Then I shall use that as the compass I steer myself by.

Liberality: Welcome, sister. No thanks necessary.

SomeG: Well, Chris, you know, I just never wanted to be that girl. But I was, and I have to live with the fact that it kind of stuns people sometimes.

SkyDad: Thanks. We all deserve it, baby.

Pops: You have a point, although perhaps I should've made clear that it was commuter train fare. I got, like, 10 bucks for the damn ring, which did not afford me escape as such, but did allow me to get to work one day when I forgot to go to the ATM. I still think it might have done more good in the Pittsburgh sewer system.

Dr.MVM: Hey, I have nothing against adoration, but let me confess that the "stronger, smarter, wiser" part took years. In fact, I would say I haven't fully earned that praise quite yet.

DadE: Well, there's really no good way to tell your Dad those kind of things, is there? Especially since, at the time, they feel an awful lot like failure, and then afterwards they feel an awful lot like sucking after sympathy. Anyways, I'm sorry you learned it this way, DadE. I understand that you due to our familial relationship, you are technically required to forgive me. :)

Jess said...

I went to a sermon my aunt & her husband did about domestic violence at their unitarian church YEARS ago. I remember afterwards there was a sort of round table where various women got up and talked about their own situations with violent men. These were not women you would expect to have had this happen to (i.e. "victims"). These were intelligent, strong women (like you) who got themselves into relationships that spun out of their control. I remember it really freaking me out as it sunk home that it could happen to ANYone. You should feel proud of getting yourself out of it. Not everyone does. Also, your ex was a fucking DICK! I want to throw HIM into a bookcase!

CiscoKid said...

You are right about the women part, though one may seem normal, you have no idea what they have been or gone through. My mom went through it and because of it, I think my sisters, my brother, and I are in relationships where none get abused, or do any abusing. Sure we all have disagreements but not to the extent where someone gets thrown into things.
You are to be admired..

Doc said...

For all my life, I've known the man you married. I am related to many of them. Thank your lucky stars that you have moved on and found a good life with Spooney, as the one before promised only sadness compounded by sadness. You are one of the lucky few. You have traded his hateful "love" for the real deal and many don't make that connection. From a young age, girls are sold the false tonic of marrying Prince Right and your life will be perfect. I know. I have watched my sister shift from one asshole to another in the vain hope that the next one will be the "right one", only to find that it ain't so. She, like you, has found a good one and there really aren't many left. I would like to count myself amongst this number but only Flannery could tell you the truth.

Best of luck dear,
Doc

Spooney said...

Wow, I’ve heard most of these stories before, but not in writing and in such detail. It’s really hard for me to hear about you being treated that way. I think it’s brave of you for sharing this with everyone and it makes me love you even more.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Jess: Ah, you and me against my ex. I think that would be a tag team worth seeing. And you are lucky to have had that experience that you describe. Whenever I see a man trying to control a woman in his life, even if it is something really small, and they are complete strangers to me, I just want to rush up to her and say "There is a different life you could have. The first step is knowing that it exists."

CKid: You are lucky to have learned the lesson you did from witnessing that abuse. Some people, like my ex and apparently Chris Brown, learned the opposite lesson.

Doc: "From a young age, girls are sold the false tonic of marrying Prince Right and your life will be perfect." Doc, you said a mouthful. For every step forward an independent woman takes, it seems like there are those in the media who push us two steps back. Feminists are constantly degraded as being ugly bitch harpies who hate men, and yet the same people who say those things also make fun of women who are victimized when they allow, or are forced to allow, men to control them.

Spooney: It took me a long time to get to you. Life's funny that way, isn't it?

Dad E said...

I understand why you were reluctant to share this with me, although it would have helped to unburden you at that time. But you did the best you could then as you have always. There is certainly no thought or need to forgive you.

Grant Miller said...

Neither of us are religious, but somehow I just wanna say God bless you.

Lisa said...

Me too.

That's all.

Oh, and I love you.

Zoe Wiseman said...

Oh cousin... I am crying. I didn't know. And I think you kick ass for spilling it!

I love you!

Marshall said...

Vikki, not sure what to say here. Not sure I have the vocabulary or the where with all to say anything worth while. But I am sorry for that experience, and am that much more happy for you and Spooney.
love to you both,
Marshall

vikkitikkitavi said...

DadE: Yeah, I know. It took me years, though, before I told anyone.

Grant: Grant, you are allowed this one moment of sincerity only. And now it's over.

Lisa: Oh, sweetie, it was a long time ago. But I think you know what I mean, though, when I say that it's just easier sometimes for people to know those kind of things about you. I never meant to keep it a secret, but there was never a way to bring it up, really. I guess I've always been a "spill it" kind of gal.

Cuz: Well, I hope I haven't taken the cheap way out. Maybe at some point, when it didn't own me anymore, I should have embarked on a "tell everyone about the abuse" tour of all my loved ones. But I never did. I hope you forgive me.

Marshall: You don't have to say a thing, baby. When people tell me that they like to read my blog, for me they help put a face to that nameless whatever it is out there. And then when I'm writing something, I have faces to write to, and it helps me. So thank you.

GETkristiLOVE said...

It's hard for me to read this, especially since I lived with you two for a while in college and I never liked the guy, even though I tried. One of my boyfriends almost went toe-to-toe with him one night because my boyfriend knocked more than once when he was in the bathroom and he came out like he was going to kick some ass... until he saw the size of my boyfriend. I also saw him rip our phone out of the wall and throw it across the room because he didn't like what the person on the other end of the line had said. It was scary. I left the apartment and always avoided him as much as possible.

But most of all, I'm very sorry that I wasn't there for you on your wedding day. I thought about asking if you were sure about him, but everyone else was so doubtful and down on the whole thing... like Gran saying that acting isn't a career and you two should have something else to fall back on. So I thought that supporting you two together is what you needed. I should have just told you to run... run like the wind!

But you will always be my big sis who I look up to and even though you were that woman, I still love you and admire you even more for how you came out of the situation.

dguzman said...

Everyone is "that woman" to some extent, some more, some less. I'm glad you feel unburdened by talking about it, and I'm glad you really unburdened yourself by walking out on that dickless asshole back then. And fuck yeah, you pawned the ring for trainfare! I sometimes consider getting rid of my ring, but now I'll keep it until I need trainfare.

Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

I used to be so blissfully unaware of the statistics -- lived a "normal" life, absolutely ignorant of how common such abuse is. And then a mere ripple effect from something not very far removed from your story blindsided me one day, forever changing the course of my own life. It's wonderful that you were able to regain that light, free, young state once again. Here's to staying in that space.

bubbles said...

vikki
This post was so beautifully written. I wish I could say I have not heard this story in other forms or lived some of it myself.

You are a hero because it took you less than 23 years and three children to make the change, sister! I always explain that I'm a s-l-o-w l-e-a-r-n-e-r!
:-)

Kristi:
my sister couldn't bring herself to stand my ex, either. sisters just know stuff, I think. I see it in my daughters.

I know you aren't a hugger, vikki -- but ((hugs)) anyway!

vikkitikkitavi said...

GKL: I'm sorry too. Sometimes I wish our family wasn't so WASPy and we actually brought up unpleasant subjects sometimes. On the other hand, it's way too late to change now.

But seriously, part of the reason that it was so hard to admit what he was, was it meant that I had to admit that I exposed you to it as well, and then the shame of that meant my whole damn world might fall apart.

And part of the reason I reject the label of being brave is because I did not act bravely. I stopped acting cowardly.

DGuz: Well, pawning the painful symbol for train fare is good for a story, but you don't get a very good return on your investment that way.

BSUWG: You're right, it is more common that anyone would ever guess. And once you've seen it at work and experienced its insidiousness, you can never look at the issue the same way again.

Bubbles: No, I think the whole point is that you cannot judge. Every situation is unique. There is no pathology for the victim of domestic abuse.

Zoe Wiseman said...

CUZ - Please don't apologize. Not for this! Ever.

frogboots said...

wow. just - wow. and brava for you, for writing this and for general awesomeness in the face of serious pigfuckery and nastiness.

bad temper and physical abuse aside, this post resonated with me, a lot. it's amazing how smart, tough-cookie girls can just hang their heads and let men tell them they aren't good enough....even in the midst of it, I thought: "I'll never let any man control me!"

sigh. it gives me hope - seriously - that you found your Spooney after a long time.

(and hey! i live in pittsburgh now!)

vikkitikkitavi said...

Cuz: OK. xoxoxoxo!

FBoots: Hey, glad to hear from you, girl. You know, maybe this will sound awful, but I was dead sure I was going to be with husband number two until the end of time, and...um...I was kinda wrong. Big wrong, as it turned out. Now, I realize he was another "learning experience." So, you never really know who's going to be the one who sticks around until the end. If I were a betting gal, I'd put my money on Spooney, though.

Distributorcap said...

wow

vikki you never cease to inspire and amaze me --- i hate that you had to go through such a terrible time - no one deserves this

one line struck me

He would later ask me to come back to him. I would refuse.

so many would have gone back. you learned and learned well -- and have made better decisions

and a better person ---

i hope your story inspires other women (and people) too......

Larry Jones said...

Vik - So glad you got out alive. Thanks for shining your light on this. It must have been difficult to write this post, but there are families all over the world where it should be required reading.

Sorry, I do judge you: Brave and inspiring.

Red said...

Really great post. I'm lucky enough that it's never quite happened to me, but it's so easy to see how it could have if I were less lucky. Go you for being strong enough to end it.

PK said...

Word, babe, word.

vikkitikkitavi said...

DCap: The thing about not going back to him was that enough time had passed where the pain of losing him and the general shame of failure had worn off sufficiently for me to realize how much better life was without him. Without that time, who knows what would have happened.

LJones: Well, I reject your judgment, if for no other reason than I'm not sure that acting in self-interest deserves to be labeled as brave.

Red: I hope it is easy for people for see. Thank you for saying that.

PK: Indeed.

Coaster Punchman said...

Well thank God you had the sense to get out when you did. Sounds like you had more self-esteem than you gave yourself credit for.