EDITED to add: !!!TRIGGER WARNING!!!, fix a minor typo, and add an injury I’d forgotten because brain damage.
The whole Ray Rice issue has had me thinking of our views on partner violence. There were many outcries of “she hit him first!” as a reason either to prosecute the victim or show that this was not a case in which one partner was clearly the victim.
How do we define the victim in a situation like that? Should she have cowered, cried, not responded at all? Does it make her less of a victim because she retaliated? How is a victim supposed to act or appear?
People hear the word “victim” and expect to see a mouse-like creature sporting large sunglasses and long sleeves and barely speaking over a whisper. We hear “victim” and expect flinching acquiescence to physical blows and barked verbal commands from her obviously violent and most likely drunk husband. We don’t expect them to fight back, because a REAL victim wouldn’t fight. But why do we think this way when the brain’s normal response in high stress, dangerous situations is stimulation of the amygdala, which controls the fight-or-flight response? Amygdala facts
If a person is being injured or fears being injured, the resulting adrenaline rush will make them respond violently to either escape the situation or defend themselves. It’s a survival mechanism. If violence has already been introduced into the relationship by the abuser, it becomes an acceptable response. We think: “They hurt me. Why can’t I hurt them?” If there’s a significant size/weight/strength disparity, we smaller and weaker understand we might get hurt more in response. But sometimes, after enduring years of mental and physical torment, we just don’t want to go down without a fight anymore.
I know from two separate personal experiences.
When I was a toddler, my mother remarried. They had two kids, my younger brother and sister. Her second husband had shown signs of being temperamental, but my mother didn’t know how far it extended. When she found out, her instinct to keep the family intact blinded her to how bad it really was.
He normally spanked us open-handed on the behind. Not one or two swats, but hard, full blows until he had either worked out his anger or we were screaming. He stopped doing this to me when I hit 13 and he legally adopted me, but I remember huddling in my room many times wishing I had the courage to jump in and make him stop hurting my brother or sister. He moved on to using a belt when I was about 9 or 10. Usually not the buckle end, but you knew it when you got the buckle end. Other than that, it was either open-handed slaps across the face, the kind that knock you sideways, or a flick to the head. I saw him haul my brother across the table once for telling some stupid joke, and I had a steak knife thrown at me for the same.
Even the dog didn’t escape his temper. I saw him throw her down a full staircase once. Another time he gave me a black eye when I scrambled to help him bring her inside because she’d barked and woken him up. It was unintentional, but he told me I deserved it anyway for being stupid enough to leave her outside so late. Stupid may as well have been my nickname. My IQ tested at 146 when I was a kid, but I was “stupid”. Between the physical and mental hurts, a deep anger and resentment was starting to boil.
Things hit a head when I turned 18. I was sick of it. I was sick of listening to the blows and my siblings screaming over offenses up to and including literally “looking at him funny”, I was sick of this man who did nothing to earn nor keep what he had but called us lazy and selfish, I was sick of constantly shutting myself in my room any time I heard the lower garage door opening and hoping nothing had set him off at work and nothing would set him off later.
One morning, I was getting ready for school. My mother couldn’t find her eyeliner and told my stepdad that she was sick of my sister and I borrowing her makeup and not returning it. To this day, we’re unsure if someone moved it or she just misplaced it. She left for work, and I heard the stomping begin. He threw open my door and told me we were both grounded until the eyeliner was found. I had been rebelling in little fits lately, and even though part of me was still terrified, I told him I hadn’t seen the eyeliner and refused to be punished for something I didn’t do.
His eyes widened, his face twisted, and he strode in and knocked me over onto my bed with a heavy shove to the chest. Immediately, all that rage that had been building exploded, and I kicked him in the stomach. He lunged at me, grabbed my throat, and began beating my face with an open hand. I thrashed. I kicked. I flailed. I struggled. I finally shrieked as fireworks burst behind my eyelids.
That seemed to kick him back into reality. He let go of me and walked toward the door. I sat up and lashed out one last time: “I FUCKING HATE YOU!! I never know when the axe is going to fall!!”
I was aware then that my sister was in there with me, sobbing by the door. I shakily got off the bed, glanced in the mirror and saw blood and the puffy lavender beginnings of contusions. There was an umbrella with a sharp end near my dresser, and I seized it and focused on the door, afraid he’d come back and start up again.
Sure enough, the stomping started again. Headed right for us. The door slammed open, and I cringed back a little but kept the umbrella in front of me, vaguely aware of how ridiculous I must look. He demanded his glasses that I had knocked off of his face. Not having my own contacts in, I crawled with my face close to the floor until I found them. He snatched them out of my hand and left again. When I heard the garage door and was sure he was gone, I called my boyfriend at the time.
He took me to the hospital, and I called the neighbor on the way to ask if she could have my siblings wait there until they left for school. I was afraid of what might happen to them if he came back. The hospital’s policy was to inform the police when an assault victim showed up. I pleaded with the woman not to do it, terrified that it would get me in worse trouble, but she had no choice. The investigator took pictures and my statement and assured me that my stepdad would be out of the house when I got home.
It turned out that I had a sprained jaw a broken nose, and a concussion. Six hours of rehashing, resisting pain medication, breaking down and begging for pain medication, and a cold hospital room later, my mother took me home and told us to start packing. She didn’t trust the police to do what they said, and it turned out she was spot on. As I was shoving clothes into my suitcase, the lower garage started to open. My blood froze. My mother frantically gathered us and our hastily packed bags and herded us into the car, instructing us to lock our doors. Later, she told me he had called her and expected to “talk about her daughter’s continued existence in his house”. His expression when he watched us drive away was disbelief and anger.
We stayed in a hotel that night. The next day was the beginning of months of courtrooms, disappointment, and then long years of misery that are all stories for another day. Suffice it to say that nothing happened to him. He ended up having to turn himself in, spent a night in jail before his sister guilt-tripped my mother into helping bail him out, and was ordered to go to counseling. Meanwhile, it would be years before I could find the help I needed. I hear he’s changed. I don’t care, even on the extremely unlikely chance that it is true. He is a person I do not care to know, and it may yet be some time before I do not wish every misery life has to offer on him.
Would a victim have kicked her attacker? Wasn’t the kick an extreme response to his shove? Would a victim hurl obscenities at her attacker after being beaten bloody? Wasn’t it just stupid of me to “provoke” him by standing up for myself, knowing he was bigger and stronger? I was a legal adult at the time, shouldn’t I have been held accountable for my actions? He seemed to think so, as he threatened to press charges against me for putting a scratch on his face.
The other incident is also a story I’ll save for another day. That was somewhat more emotionally exhausting than I had anticipated. I have decided to tell these stories though, own them, and air them in case anyone can take any solace in the fact that they are not alone. Most of us have not experienced justice, and we may never get it. The most we can do is pick up the pieces and try to assemble them back into something human-shaped. Some of us will never heal. Some of us will be driven to end our pain. Some of us, quite literally, were driven mad.
Victims are not victims because we are weak. Victims are victims because someone committed crimes against us. Physical violence is a crime. Defending yourself against it is not. No matter who you are or what the circumstances, you did not deserve what happened to you. Put your head down, ignore anyone who says otherwise and whatever ignorant reasons they might give, and push forward. One day, one step, one victory at a time.
We are not strong. We are strength personified.