People are very critical of women who are being abused physically. Why do they not just leave … why do they then get into another abusive relationship … and on, and on. “They are sick, that is why!” shouts the chorus in glee. The chorus forgets to consider how many predators there are, and how very greatly these predators are empowered and encouraged, even by the choristers.
Why do so many choristers sing this song, at the same time as they work actively to keep people from seeing abuse as such? Why must abuse be seen as an exceptional situation? Why cannot it be seen in what I am sure is a truer perspective: a context which incorporates a continuum of poor behavior ranging from Puritanical suspicion and passive aggression to state sanctioned torture? Covert or overt, subtle or blatant, the abuse of women is not widespread because women are “sick” but because it is a primary tool of patriarchy.
Since childhood I have been aware that one of my great failings is the inability to absorb sufficient amounts of verbal and emotional abuse. One ought to absorb more than I can and still function at a high level. Had I been a more moral individual, according to both my original education and my Reeducation, I would have been able to achieve at least one of two things. Most ideally, I might have become more accepting and accommodating of abuse and still functioned at high and higher levels. Alternatively, I might have accepted that the degree of abuse one should absorb is in fact disabling. I might then have found an abuser who would at least not disfigure me, and who could support a disabled person in style.
I find it very interesting that we are expected to escape physical abuse and are heavily criticized if we do not, but to absorb verbal and emotional abuse. We are to say it is happening because we have a “communication problem.” Had we phrased things just right, we would have avoided “misunderstandings” and would not have been abused. Now that we have been, we must be quiet and wait for the next episode. In the meantime we must still function at a high level.
Following is one of the many letters I wrote in 2006, to a man with whom I was having “communication problems” (some details are changed or omitted for purposes of anonymization). I had gotten involved with him two years earlier, realized soon that it had been a terrible experiment, but stayed largely out of guilt: I was the only really good thing in his life, said my friend.
I was also afraid to leave because my friend was also a good friend of the Dean of my college. I did not know what they might do to me if I left. I did not realize this constituted sexual harassment, either, because I had not been openly coerced or explicitly threatened. Observe my attempt to communicate and my reasoning. Note that I realize that I have been discarded long since, but also kept on a very short leash that I am fearful and guilt ridden about trying to break.
Note what I am saying, although I do not realize it myself: I want to leave and I know it. I know I am not important to this person in a real sense, but I feel terribly responsible for meeting their companionship needs. I am convinced that if I can only communicate correctly, I can resolve the situation. I do not want to be in the relationship, but I have forgotten I have the right to leave.
“Sorry to keep harping, but I think this actually is important. I hope you won’t think ‘she’s just in one of her moods’ — (that’s another sexist thing, by the way, the discounting of what women say). I made a serious error that Sunday in 2004 that you were in a state of nerves over your [tenure decision] and I called your friend M–. I had tried to break up because I couldn’t see how to share the life you were leading, listen to the plans you had to sabotage or undermine other people, and also maintain my health.
“By the end of that afternoon I relented – rescinded my decision to break up – because it felt so bad to see you so hurt. That was the day I decided I would fit myself in with your life and support you until you [made tenure]. This was a poor decision since the result is that I go into these states of exhaustion, frustration, and claustrophobia which harm all concerned.
“I really do understand that you love the live you lead. This is why I don’t know what to do. I do not want to lead that life, and yet I do not want to hurt you. At the same time trying to spend time with you is very detrimental to my own work and health. I understand that the sensible solution is for me to enjoy your life more, and I keep trying to talk myself into it. But I want to lead another kind of life and I find I am unable to repress this.
“DEEP BREATH. I am afraid that if I act on these things I will leave you behind and thus hurt you even more than I have so far by not enjoying the life you want to lead. Much of my energy over the past two years has been concentrated on alleviating the pain of the ‘train wreck’ you also claimed to be living. This, again, was sexist (as well as unrealistic) on my part: the sexism is in the assumptions that (a) my life *had to* come second, by definition, and (b) that ‘train wreck’ alleviation was my responsibility.”
I am still in Abu Ghraib, but I have smuggled this post out. Here in Abu Ghraib I am dealing with some whitemen and I do not know yet how things will go. It seems that the situation is the same as the one I was in with the man to whom I refer above: I am attempting to communicate. I am being asked to empathize with an oppressor.
This is what society allows and expects, but “better communication” is beside the point if what is really needed is an exit strategy. If that is the case, I need to find a way to stay in the house, not be further destroyed by what takes place here, and work to leave.
I am not yet sure how to accomplish this. What I find interesting, however, is that the same behavior from men I would be berated for accepting at home, I am expected to accept at work.
The chorus would say: just leave now! If you do not leave now, it is because you are sick and you want to continue to be abused! But if this chorus is serious, they will just have to bankroll me. And whether or not they bankroll me so that I can take their advice as quickly as they would like, they have no right to speak to me in that abusive way.