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
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
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.