Fortunately it wasn’t raining that day in Portland Oregon when Dad sent my sister, Bonnie, and me outside. Still the windows to the trailer were wide open even if the curtains were drawn and the ensuing events inside were unmistakable. My mother whimpered softly as my father ordered her to assume the position. The sound of his large hands smacking the soft skin of her posterior was chilling to my eight-year-old ears. I wanted to cry but I flushed with rage instead. I remember resolving no man would ever humiliate me like that when I got older. My mother accepted her punishment with the proper measure of obedience and contrition. She promised Dad she would be good from now on.
I have no idea how many days or weeks elapsed before this next installment of my childhood landscape. It was 6AM on a weekday and Dad was already in commuter traffic on his way to weld ships or trucks or trains. His company made all three and his assignments rotated frequently. My sister and I came to the breakfast table in our small trailer and Mother had our eggs and toast ready of course. When she looked up to say “good morning”, my heart sank and my stomach turned. He right eye was purple, green and swollen; her lip was malformed with a bloody scab. I gasped as I said “Mommy, did you and Daddy have a fight last night?” Calmly my mother insisted it was NOT a fight, but a simple disagreement and everything was fine now. “But . . ” my naïve child’s mind insisted. She would not allow any further discussion of the matter. I lived out the next few days pretending that a mother with a brutalized face was the most normal thing in the world. My father never showed any remorse.
About a year later we moved from the city of Portland to a small rural town in Oregon called Carlton. My father’s mother and father lived there in a small rental house with a yard. We parked our trailer next to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house. It was a wonderful change for Bonnie and me to have a real yard instead of the tiny strip of grass allotted to trailer lots in trailer parks. One of my father’s hobbies was guns. He collected all kinds of them and reloaded his own ammunition. He opened up one of his rifles and inserted a piece of welding rod so that the gun was transformed from semi-automatic to fully automatic. One tug on the trigger would send every bullet in the clip flying.
It was just another average “fight” between my parents with my sister and I looking on helplessly as usual. I had tried to intervene once, only to be knocked across the room so roughly that I literally saw stars. I decided that as long as I was a little girl, Mother would have to find some way to defend herself from Dad. I just didn’t have the physical size or strength needed and now I knew he had no objections to hitting me if I did interfere. So today as the physical conflict escalated I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything but stand there and plead and cry as usual. I don’t know why Mother decided to do something different today, but as my father lunged toward her, she grabbed the fully automatic and fully loaded rifle. Her face was full of fear and rage. She shook from head to toe and spit flew from her mouth as she screamed at him: “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!”
Bonnie and I were standing next to Dad so if she did fire the rifle, we would be killed too. I knew how the rifle “walked” when it fired. The force of the gunfire literally would pull you along as it cut a swathe until the clip was empty. I hated my father so much in that moment I wished as hard as any child could that Mother would pull the trigger. My mind was screaming inside “Kill him! Kill him!” I knew it would mean my death too, but in that moment it seemed more than worth it.
Mother didn’t pull the trigger. Eventually, Dad talked her into putting the gun down. I was disappointed and afraid things would go back to “normal.” They did, but not immediately. Dad was more cautious around Mother for a few months after that incident. He certainly didn’t try to hit her that day.
* * *
A couple years later, my father decided to celebrate the advent of my getting brand new breasts by insisting on looking at them and as they got bigger, fondling them. I endured his sexual gaze, comments and grapplings for several years. Attempts to enlist my mother’s help were fruitless as she withdrew deeper into denial and self-pity. She was a battered wife, after all. How could she help me when she couldn’t even help herself? The year I turned 17, my revulsion to this daily fondling overcame my fear of being beaten or killed. As I was washing my hands in the bathroom, my father’s hands reached around from behind me to secure a firm grip on my 34B breasts and as he did, I swung around with years of anger and frustration forcing my fist deep into his testicles. I held my breath and waited for the end of my world as I watched him double over in excruciating pain, but to my surprise as his head came back up for air, all I saw in his eyes was shame. He hobbled out of the bathroom without saying a word. He never touched me in a sexual way again.
He did however beat me up shortly after that. He had just sent my boyfriend away with a warning that he would kill him if he ever tried to speak to me again. As Dad announced the news to me, I told him I would kill him if he killed my boyfriend. I knew how to shoot a gun and I was dead serious. My dad proceeded to drag me by the hair of my head across the living room, pin my arms down with the weight of his legs and pummel my face with his fists. He must have pulled his punches because I only walked away with an egg-sized welt on my forehead. I of course left home that day and went searching for my boyfriend. A week later, Mother talked me into coming home to give my father “another chance.” Since my boyfriend had run off for good and didn’t want anything to do with me, I ended up coming home for about 9 months until my eighteenth birthday. For whatever reason, Dad didn’t beat me up again.
* * *
After I left home I established a pattern of dating men for only a month or two if that. I didn’t take any guff off of anyone and had a reputation in college of being someone you didn’t walk up on unannounced. If you were unlucky enough to catch me by surprise, I might deck you before I could ascertain who you were. I was involved in feminist politics in college. I helped to organize a “Take Back the Night” march in Corvallis. I was trained as a volunteer for a Domestic Violence Shelter my senior year. I wore a pager and would get up in the middle of the night to do an intake and share a pot of coffee and a box of tissues with a woman who was afraid of her living situation with a violent man. I would try to be very convincing about her prospects on her own without “him” and worry that she might go back. Most of the time the women did go back. That was sad.
Once I graduated from college, I met a man at work that I fell deeply in love with. He was heavy into drugs and threw fun parties. His personality was outgoing and most people really liked him even if they thought he was a little crazy. We quickly moved in together. We fought from the very beginning. In many ways, the relationship felt “right” because of the fighting. It was familiar to me. Obviously it conformed to his experience of “love” too. It wasn’t long before the fighting took on a physically violent form. He would often tell me to shut up and I would just get in his face all the more vehemently. Often I would initiate the violence. I always got the worst end of it. I was no match for his size and strength but I had vowed long ago that no man would make me cower or back down no matter how big he was. Despite my education and training in Domestic Violence issues, it seemed to me I had only two choices: a life of safety all by myself or a life of danger with a man that “loved” me.
It was confusing to me because I didn’t get hit for burning the toast or anything. It was more like we would be arguing and we would both get violent during the argument and then I would wind up hurt the worst. At least that is usually how it went. One fight stands out in my mind particularly vividly. We were very high on cocaine and shouting at each other about goddess knows what. I had him cornered in the bathroom and was screaming into his face, when his mighty fist came blasting into my coke-laden nose. A series of about three blows connected with my nose and lips until my bright red blood splattered all over the toilet, sink and bathroom walls. Almost immediately, he felt remorse and started apologizing and trying to “fix” it. He wrapped a big bath towel around my head and put me to bed. He held me tight that night while we both sobbed our brains out. The next morning I woke to find the towel, my pillow, the sheets and as I dug deeper even the mattress soaked in my blood. I had no idea one person could bleed so much and still live. I wasn’t even weak. My entire face was swollen and bruised and scabbed over. I looked hideous. When he awoke to see the aftermath of his actions, he sulked in the living room and contemplated suicide for being such a despicable person. I’m sure seeing the remorse my father had never shown my mother felt satisfying to me in some perverse way. I proceeded to clean up the blood in an attempt to make it all go away.
Towards the end of our relationship, we had another “knock out, drag out.” This time he fared worse. We were having another one of our shouting matches when he said “If you hate me that much, why don’t you just stab me in the heart with these scissors”? I didn’t give it a second thought as I sank the scissors about a quarter to half inch into his chest where his heart lay. I didn’t feel any remorse. I felt he deserved it and since he was a man, I could use him as a punching bag or stabbing bag as the case may be and it wouldn’t really hurt him. I thought it was funny. He still bears the scar to this day. Shortly after this episode, I left my fiancée (somehow we had gotten engaged in between all this violence). I quit drugs and alcohol and began attending 12-step meetings. He increased his drug use and began stalking me. I looked into getting a restraining order but didn’t think I could afford it or that it would solve much anyway. After living my life in fear for about a month, he lost interest as he had found another woman to take care of him. I began the long process of recovering from drug and alcohol addiction as well as incest and domestic violence and codependency. It was 1985. Recovery had just taken a huge role in American culture as all the baby boomers started drying out and the feminist movement made ever more impressive strides against rape, incest and domestic violence. I picked a perfect time to get well. The resources were far more plentiful and varied than they had been even just 3 years before when I was in college.
* * *
During the next five years, I explored my identity as a victim and a survivor at length. I wrote in journals, went to meetings, attended groups, saw private therapists and read tons of self-help books. I became politically active again too. I came out as bisexual and was a staff writer for the bisexual magazine, Anything that Moves. My interest in feminist issues was renewed and I often wrote about topics specific to women’s rights.
My life was complete, or so I thought. I dated both men and women and had had several relationships with depth and meaning. I had enjoyed a romantic relationship with a woman for over a year and had been with one boyfriend for two years. I focused on deepening my relationship with my higher power and myself. I established hard-won healthy boundaries and learned to detach. I took a women’s self-defense class called Bay Area Model Mugging and felt my body confidence surge.
And then the phone rang.
It was him. My ex-fiancée was newly sober and eager to talk recovery. Would I speak to him? Yes. Would I meet with him? Oh no, well not yet. We began speaking on the telephone almost every night. It had been five years and we had a lot of catching up to do. We now spoke the common language of recovery instead of drug abuse. Would it be enough? Would things, could things really be different? I felt hope and happiness flood my mind and body.
We met in a neutral city half way between his city of residence and mine. I knew I enjoyed speaking to him on the phone. In fact I enjoyed talking to him more than anyone else I could think of. But would I still be attracted to him? He was only 30 days clean and sober. His body had been ravaged yet he still had what it took to send me into an erotic tailspin. My entire body was electric with desire and anticipation. I had not felt this alive sexually or emotionally in all the time we had been apart.
My intellect told me that was no doubt the rush of addiction. I knew domestic violence and codependency feed off an addictive cycle of emotions. Of course I was no match for these feelings and we began a romance immediately. There was never any waiting with us.
I drove home alone that weekend wondering if I was the biggest fool ever born. With all the knowledge and recovery at my disposal, how could I be making the decision to renew a relationship with my perpetrator? No matter how many ways I examined it, I couldn’t get past my need to know. I needed to know if there was even a small chance that things would be different now that we were both sober. Nine months later, we moved in together and a year after that we got married. In over a year and a half there was not violence between us. We still fought like crazy. But we never let it go too far. As far as I could tell, sobriety had healed both of us for good.
* * *
But a month into the marriage everything fell apart. I felt like I was turning into my mother. He reminded me of my father although not nearly as controlling or violent. My husband would tell me to shut up or else while he held his hand up as if to slap my face and to my astonishment I would eventually do just that. Why and how was I shutting up when told to? I had vowed as a little girl that I would NEVER shut up for any man! One night I refused to shut up and I got in his face defiantly. He grabbed me to attempt to control me and I felt his hands slip around my throat. I struggled free and ran for the phone. I called 911 and told him to leave now. He did. I had the locks changed the very next day and filed for a restraining order. He came for his stuff a few days later and I had a close friend who happened to be a butch lesbian at my side for confidence and back up. He didn’t cause any problems but was annoyed. It would be a few days or perhaps a week later when he asked me if we had any chance of getting back together. I told him unequivocally that the only way I would consider any kind of reconciliation instead of a divorce was if he took a year of MOVE (Men Overcoming Violence). Over the next two years, we remained separated as he attended MOVE, I went to private therapy and twelve step meetings for Domestic Violence survivors and we attended marriage counseling together.
My husband took his recovery in MOVE very seriously. He must have truly desired to change because he did. And much to my surprise, instead of being happy with each of his improvements, I found them threatening. When he chose a non-violent response to our disagreements and life’s problems I would secretly judge him a wimp. Sometimes I would try to push him into a fight. As he became transformed, my violent nature became more obvious. I had always believed that the problem in most if not all domestic violence situations, is the violent nature and culture of men. If only we could change men, the world would be a less violent place to live. All my therapy, training and feminist education had reinforced this worldview. I felt disillusioned when I realized I would have to learn to be non-violent too.
I did find a twelve-step group for violent women in San Francisco. I started attending that. But the contrast between what MOVE was doing for the men and what this women’s twelve-step group was like for the women, was frightening. Each week, my husband would return from a MOVE meeting full of shame and remorse for his past violence. He would also have been given lots of practical tools for non-violent problem solving to practice that week. I would come home from my Domestic Violence meetings for women pumped on an adrenaline induced high. The women in my group spent most of the hour bragging about their perpetrations. It didn’t matter if the story was about hitting a husband over the head or holding a knife to a cheating girlfriend’s throat, all the stories elicited smiles and muted laughter. We did everything but high five each other. Sure everyone made an attempt to agree that violence was wrong, but we actively bonded around being “butch”. Needless to say, I made little progress on my problem with violence.
When I felt safe to be around my husband again, we moved in together again. We had been separated almost two years. We still fought a lot and there were some minor perpetrations on his part such as throwing the television remote control or blocking me in a doorway when I wanted to walk past him. I treated even the most minor infractions as a sign of possible relapse. We continued our marriage counseling and he continued to work on his rage and his control issues. Although I knew I had a problem too, it seemed so much more critical to me that we focus on his behavior because he is a man. I still felt that I was in more danger of being a victim than he was.
* * *
I don’t know when we passed each other and reversed roles. Somewhere along the line, my husband became completely non-violent and I moved in for the kill. I beat him savagely over the head on several occasions but never drew blood or left any marks. Because of this I thought I couldn’t really hurt him. I always felt justified not only by the circumstances of the moment but by the years of abuse I had taken from him. Then one day during an argument, I saw him flinch and pull back in anticipation of being hit. I recognized the look on his face. I had seen it on my mother’s face when I was child.
Last year we celebrated 8 years of marriage by returning to Yosemite, where we had gotten married. One night I was driving the truck back to our cabin and he was riding next to me. I had one hand on his knee and the other was steering the truck, very much like my father use to drive with my mother next to him. We were making small talk and seemed to be getting along well. Then I realized he had lied to me about something. I really hate to be lied to. The hand that had been squeezing his knee affectionately suddenly flew up to backhand him across the face. His glasses went flying and he cried out in pain. In that moment I felt a poisonous mixture of pride and shame knowing I had so completely come to resemble my dad.
It’s been a year since that night. I wish I could tell you I haven’t hit my husband since. I certainly felt a great deal of remorse about it. I cried and apologized and promised never to do it again. I know the speech so well by now.
Unfortunately, it was probably six months ago when I hit him last. No matter what I do to him, he won’t hit me. But he is sick of feeling like my punching bag and when I would not stop hitting him this last time; he put his fist through the living room wall. I respect that. He showed me he still has balls, and today he is man enough to choose NOT to hit me no matter what. I guess that’s what I need: a new male role model. A long time ago, I knew that I didn’t want to play my mother’s role in life. Being young, I bought into there being only one other choice: the role of my father. I also learned all those years ago that the only way I could protect myself from sexual perpetration and violence was to hit. My husband has shared a lot from MOVE with me. He told me it is not only OK to keep the violence that saved me from being fondled, but necessary. The point is to NEVER use violence unless you are being sexually or physically attacked or your life depends on it.
Seems like such a simple truth. But a part of me still buys into the whole female victim/male perpetrator mentality. I now believe that in most situations in life, there is more of a blending of those dynamics. We live in a violent culture and it has infected all of us whether we are male or female. I am struggling to see myself more honestly and stop feeling sorry for myself. All perpetrators feel like victims, feel justified and feel sorry for themselves. It’s no excuse for violence if you are a man. It’s no excuse for me.
Veronica Monet is a professional public speaker and a writer.
Originally posted at www.batteredmen.com. © 2001 by Veronica Monet