Friday, January 18, 2013

The Ruination of Abusers

In the last couple months, I've been speaking out a lot about domestic abuse, both in general and in the cases specific to the Circle that I mentioned in my previous posts.  I'm going to take a moment, now, to address just a few of the arguments men I know (and it has been exclusively men who have said these things) have made against me doing so.

First and in particular, I want to address the claim that, in discussing publicly what they've done, I'm "ruining the abusers' lives".

When a man (or a woman, but men make up the majority of abusers) decides to hit his partner, he is making a choice.  He is choosing to do something that he knows is not only wrong but also illegal.  He's decided that the sense of control and empowerment that he gains from doing so is worth the risk, especially since women who come forward about abuse are often not believed.  Physical abuse, when it falls short of bruises and broken bones, is hard to prove.  Psychological, emotional and financial abuse are harder still.  So, an abuser does the mental math and understands that, as long as he is careful not to leave marks, he can probably get away with it.

Abusers also count on their ability to convince their victims that the abuse is their fault.  My ex hit me because I was "a worthless cunt", or because the house was too messy, or because I questioned whether he was sober when he was deeply intoxicated, or on one memorable occasion to prove to me that he'd hit me when he was sober and that it was therefore not about his drinking.  Whatever the "reason" it was always ultimately "my fault".  Even a smart person internalizes some of that.  It turns into a "he didn't have the right to do that but..." that plays to the fallacy of there being two legitimate sides to the "story" of abuse.  Your partner isn't really an abuser; he'd stop if you could just...  This allows the cycle of abuse to continue and discourages the victim from talking about it; after all, everyone will just think it's her fault.

On the rare occasion that a victim gets past all that and speaks out, she is then often berated (as I have been) for "ruining her abuser's life" with her accusations.  Talking about abuse that others have suffered as I do, even with their explicit and well informed consent, is condemned even more shrilly.  People foam at the mouth, tell me my experiences make me too close to the issue (more on that later), and claim that I just hate men (my fiance would disagree).  However, all their teeth gnashing and torch waving is missing one key point:

  I didn't ruin their lives; they did.

The abuser ruined his own life.  He did.  He ruined his life when he decided to hit his partner, or tell her that she's useless, or keep her from holding a job by showing up at her work repeatedly until she got fired.  He ruined his own life when he decided that she was his physical, mental, and emotional punching bag and that her well being didn't matter.  He made that choice.  If I could unmake those choices, I'd do it in a second on behalf of all battered partners, but those choices weren't mine to make in the first place.

Telling people about an abuser's behavior doesn't somehow make that behavior worse.  All it does is make sure that people know what happened so that he faces the legal and social consequences of his actions, for which he is rightly accountable.

If you don't believe me, lets compare this to a DUI.  A drunk guy hits a pedestrian with his car.  If she presses charges, is she ruining his life?  Of course not; he did that.  If the local paper reports on the accident are they ruining his life?  Of course not, he did that.  He was driving the car.  He committed the crime.
It's the same damn thing.

With that out of the way, on to point two.  I've had a few people tell me that I'm not qualified to talk about domestic abuse because I've been domestically abused and therefore am incapable of being rational about it.

I'll repeat.  They say I'm not qualified to talk about it or have opinions about it because it happened to me.

I'll just let that soak in for a minute.



Ok, at this point I'm hoping that sounds as ridiculous to you as it did to me.  If not, here's the long version of why it's crap.

First off, this is classic gaslighting.  When people don't like what a woman is saying, they call her hysterical or irrational.  It doesn't matter if she is (as I do) citing facts, studies and evidence and making a logical argument; the simple fact that she's a woman and emotionally involved with an issue means that anyone can discredit her stance.  Gaslighting is a derailing technique used to prevent unwanted speech.  It works really well because the idea that women can't be logical and emotional at the same time is pretty ingrained in our society.  It's also utter crap.  Unless your argument is actually better than mine factually, you're not going to have much luck using this tactic with me.  If your argument is better factually, I will probably eventually agree with you, but I'll note that opinions (even your strongly held ones) are not facts.

Secondly, this is logically speaking a stupid argument.  When you've gone through an experience, you  typically know more about it than people who haven't been through that experience (obviously psychologists and other professionals specializing in domestic violence are an exception in this case).  In the last year, two women have come to me for help leaving abusive situations.  In both cases, there were warning signs that I noticed and commented on beforehand.  This is because I have first hand experience with how abusers behave, and can recognize the small holes in their protective covering.  In one case, his unreasonable and unexplained rage over a game was a warning sign, as was her nervous silence and the fact that the couple only had one email address.  I recognized these things as possible problems because I've experienced some of them (the inexplicable, sudden, and unreasonable rages, the nervous silence when you're afraid how he might react), and because dealing with my own abuse and with my brother's struggles has made me highly aware of controlling, manipulative behavior in others.

Finally, the argument is particularly stupid  in my case.  I'm pretty smart to begin with and I did extensive research into domestic abuse to try to understand and cope with what I went through myself.  When I say "abusers typically do x" it's because I've made a point of learning about it in order to process my own trauma.  I'm not pulling it out of an orifice; it's part of the clinical information and I can point you at sources.

Moving on, lets tackle "how do you know she's telling the truth"?

Well, in one case she is me.  Obviously I believe me, but why should you?  Well, first off, I don't exactly have a reputation for lying (except among those who are claiming I'm lying about this, and that's pretty recent).  I can be awkward, stubborn, and blunt, but I'm honest.  In addition, for a lot of the incidents that happened to me, I was the only reliable witness.  My ex was an alcoholic who had a problem with blackouts.  So yeah, I think my memories are more reliable than his on pretty much any matter you care to mention.

What about the other cases, though?

Both of these women came to me with their stories.

The first woman who came to me (lets call her Joan) had been isolated with her partner for the better part of 18 years.  After moving back to our city, I never saw her go anywhere without him; not even down to the store to grab a soda. She was also incredibly quiet, and her quietness had a very nervous quality to it.  She emailed me shortly before a larp we were all planning to attend and told me what was going on: that he was abusive, that she needed help getting out.  She emailed me because she had no one else to turn to; everyone else she knew was either a mutual friend or a member of his family.  She felt comfortable talking to me because she knew I'd been through it myself.

Because she was afraid of what her partner might do if she confronted him, we snuck Jane out of her hotel room at the larp at 3am.  When we dropped her off, she asked us not to tell him where she was; she was afraid he'd come after her.  Now we call it the Weirdest Spy Movie Ever, but I don't know if I've ever seen anyone as frightened as she was that night.  I also don't know if I've ever admired anyone's courage so much.  Leaving is an incredible leap of faith, and she took it head on.  She's our roommate now, and has been for five months.

Joan's a smart, capable woman who's still struggling with the aftermath of years of abuse.  I recognize that struggle; I've been there.  It would be pretty much impossible to fake it on a twenty-four hour a day basis.  

Joan and I have also spent many, many hours talking about our respective experiences.  She has no reason to lie about them; we would have helped her whether she was being abused or not.  Everyone has the right to leave a relationship that they're unhappy in.

Joan's ex is a man known in the Circle for his temper.  I've personally seen him react multiple times with really irrational anger to in-game situations that most people don't find upsetting (not rape, incest, torture or any other major trigger).  He then claimed that he was just doing what his character would do, rather than explaining why he was so upset. When Joan left him, the very first thing he did upon realizing she was gone was to cancel her ATM card so that she would be unable to care for herself effectively on her own.  He later claimed that he did this because he was concerned for her safety, but given that sitting outside in an unfamiliar city at night is pretty unsafe, I find his argument unconvincing.  I've also seen him treat Joan dismissively, not in large ways, but enough so that it made me take notice.

Joan has no reason to lie about what her ex did.  She gains nothing from it; to the contrary people in the Circle would much prefer it if she (and I) pretended that it was just a bad breakup.  By contrast, her ex has his reputation to protect.  I think, given that, believing her is pretty damn rational.  

The second  woman (lets call her Kate) called me in the middle of the night in tears because her ex boyfriend had thrown a chair and a glass at her, taken her cell when she said she'd call the cops, and then locked her out of the apartment after she fled when he gave it back.  She was terrified and didn't know what to do.

Kate is intelligent, capable, and quiet.  She's an editor and works on a poetry journal in her spare time.  I have no reason whatsoever to think she'd make this up.

The man in question has hit two of his former partners, one of them many times.  I've seen him be domineering, controlling, and violent with his ex wife (the relationship was mutually abusive, but that doesn't excuse his behavior).

Kate had nothing to gain from saying he did this.  It's made her life harder and sadder.  She'll soon have to walk into court and face him, something she'd rather never do again.

The man in question is facing jail time if he can't convince people she's lying.  He has every reason to lie himself, and his history makes me think he's fully capable of doing what he's accused of.

Given their respective histories, and the obvious distress Kate was experiencing when I spoke to her, I see no reason not to believe her.  She has nothing to gain by lying, and he has everything to lose by telling the truth.  Again, I believe her because her story makes sense and the facts support it.

So, to reiterate: I believe them because they're generally honest people, their stories make sense, and both of their partners have a history of aggressive behavior.  That said, I also believe them because, popular opinion to the contrary, victims generally don't lie about this.  Given the amount of societal pressure to stay silent, most victims (male and female) don't talk about it at all.  These women only felt comfortable coming to me because I'd talked about my own experiences and so they knew I might believe them.  At very least, they knew I wouldn't dismiss their experiences offhand.  I didn't start talking about my own experiences for years because I thought people wouldn't believe me; it was only after I got some distance from the Circle that I felt safe enough to speak out.  Speaking out is hard.  I'm sure there is a tiny percentage of people who lie about this, but I have no reason to believe that either of these women are part of it.

Speaking out about domestic violence is important.  Silence provides safety for the abusers and harms the victims.  I speak out because I want to live in a culture where hitting your partner is considered worse than hitting a stranger on the street, not better.  I want to live in a culture where a person who's been abused can speak up, confident in the knowledge that she or he will be believed.  I most certainly want to live in a world where abusers are made to face the consequences of their actions.  That world doesn't exist yet, and it won't until people speak up and speak out.  This is me doing my small part.
  

4 comments:

  1. "Joan has no reason to lie about what her ex did."

    This. Right here. Yes. In our culture, there's really nothing to gain by admitting (we even use the word "admitting," as if we've done something wrong) that we've been or are being abused.

    If you're a woman, it's absolutely certain you'll be accused of being hysterical and you may be questioned about why you "let it happen;" if you're a guy, you may be accused of being hysterical and it's absolutely certain that you'll be questioned about why you "let it happen."

    When my ex and I were in the process of breaking up and I finally got around to talking about what things were *really* like between us, he accused me of lying.

    At the time, I paused and said to him, "Really? Why would I do that? Think about it. What do I stand to gain? That doesn't make sense."

    That was the turnaround point for me; the point at which I figured out that while I might, in fact, be crazy, he was crazier than I was - but not in a "legally unable to distinguish between right and wrong" kind of way. He was perfectly capable of making that distinction; he'd just created a "special case" in his own head pertaining to our relationship (or, presumably, all romantic relationships, as apparently things went down the same way for the person who came after me, though she took way less crap from him before walking out, presumably because she was a bit older and wiser by then).

    He clearly believed himself when he accused me of lying to our friends about his behavior; in short, he really did think it was acceptable to isolate me from my friends and family, humiliate me in public, threaten me, take my money, and throw hard and breakable objects at me.

    That does not, however, excuse him.

    We don't let people off easy when they've created an internal "special case" about it being okay to treat Black people or folks in wheelchairs or the elderly badly. We call them on the carpet instead. We don't allow that kind of thinking to excuse their crimes against other human beings.

    We continue, as a culture, to make an exception for abuse within relationships.

    For what it's worth, I have heard plenty of women make the kinds of statements you're talking about, here. I say this not to put you in the wrong, but because I think it casts light on the fact that, at least in some places, even women's culture hasn't gotten the memo yet.

    It may be that I live in a far more backwards part of the country, where in some ways many women still live in the 1950s and have internalized more stupid cultural crap about themselves, or it may be that women will say things to gay guys that they wouldn't say to or in front of other women, or both, or something else entirely -- but there are more than a few women around here who are just as guilty as men of throwing their sisters (and brothers) under the bus, especially when they think the abuser is "a perfectly nice person."

    For what it's worth, I'm glad you're speaking up about all this stuff. I'm glad your blunt, honest, loud voice is out there, when most of us are busy trying to find ways to put all this stuff that won't shock and offend people. Maybe people need a little shock and offense now and then.

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  2. I completely agree that women buy into it too. It's really all a part of the same cultural edifice as rape culture, and that's omnipresent.
    None of the things that I was specifically addressing were said by women, but other women have faulted my tone any number of times, and they frequently are willing to enable abuse or protect abusers in the name of fairness. Many women tend, in my experience, to embrace the idea that fault must be mutual and mostly equal in almost every situation. This leads to excusing inexcusable behavior and victim blaming.

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  3. I think that particular manifestation of it is a result of the large amount of pressure women experience to be "nice". Fair is part of nice, after all, and it's not "nice" to call someone an abuser.

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  4. I will add that Joan visibly flinched when I offered my hand to her, to shake, when we first met. It reminded me of my late dog, Vera, when we first got her -- clearly she'd been mistreated and didn't react to a hand as a potential pat but as a potential strike. It took months, but eventually Vera stopped flinching and started dancing for joy when the pettins happened. I hope that like Vera, Joan can recover knowing that the people around her are good and want the best for her.

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