Hurtful words bruised my psyche

By Nancy Kirsch

“So, why did your husband hit you?” “What did you do to make him mad? “Hey, how does the other guy look?” These – and other – questions were posed to me when I was out and about earlier this month. The motivation for the questions, most likely, was the fist-sized, swollen and plum-colored bruise encircling my left eye.  Frankly, I found the questioners’ insensitive questions, all asked in a jocular fashion, more bruising and painful than the spectacular fall down eight steps onto the hardwood floor of my front hall that created the colorful and painful facial swelling.

Let me set the record straight. I have never been physically or sexually abused by my husband, former boyfriends or anyone else in my adult life. As I have not experienced domestic violence, I can’t put myself in the shoes of those who have.  I do know, though, how it feels to receive such teasing and joking about domestic violence, a subject that, frankly, should hold no humor for anyone.

More than 25 years ago, I attended law school in Washington, D.C. with Wanda, a woman who was abused by her husband, even before they married. If you didn’t know their history, he was charming, debonair, with a twinkle in his eye. If you did know their history – and few did – you knew that he took out his rage and anger on her stomach, back, breasts and thighs – places where her deep purple bruises weren’t readily visible.  More than once, I took her to the ER or lent her my car so she could leave, albeit temporarily, each time to return to him.  Despite knowing their history, I could never fully fathom why she stayed with a man who beat her into unconsciousness.  She earned a decent salary and they had no children together – why did she stay?  I wonder occasionally what happened to her, to them. How would Wanda respond to, “So, is your husband beating you?”

Fourteen years ago, Nicole Brown Simpson’s years as an abuse victim came to a tragic end when she was savagely slashed to death. Before and after that most infamous of domestic abuse cases, thousands of women – and men – suffer at the hands of their loved ones.  Haven’t we learned anything?

Just what is the rationale or motivation for such unfunny comments as, “He must have been really mad at you to leave you looking like that… “or “What kind of shape is he in?” Are people so uncomfortable with the subject of domestic abuse they can’t do anything but laugh about it? Would those same people laugh if they witnessed the aftermath of a car accident? Or a mountain-climbing accident?

As discomforting as the comments were, I can only imagine how much more painful they would be, had I actually been abused by a husband, boyfriend or other loved one. In any instance, these questions are neither helpful nor appropriate.  So, for those people who are truly at a loss for words, here are some suggestions:  “You look like you’ve been hurt. Is there anything I can do to help?” Should the questioner not have a relationship close enough to offer help, then he or she might simply proffer a sympathetic look and a comment, “That bruise (or cut, or broken arm) looks painful. I hope you’re feeling better soon.”

I knew almost everyone who threw these – and other insensitive questions – at me. They were spoken by intelligent, highly educated individuals who, as far as I know, don’t have a mean bone in their bodies.  Mean, no; thoughtless, yes. And, at least as many people did offer me sympathy and support as those who threw out the tasteless and unfunny comments.

This was not my first experience with such ill-advised efforts at humor. With an inner-ear imbalance and a general lack of coordination, I’ve had more than my fair share of ER visits, all caused by self-inflicted carelessness or, on at least one occasion, sheer stupidity. Here’s some hard-won advice:  Don’t read and walk outdoors at the same time – doing so led to my falling, breaking my nose and requiring several stitches.

It has to stop.  Both the domestic violence and the thoughtless jokes about domestic violence must cease.  I don’t know which must come first – a reduction in the cycle of domestic violence or a reduction in the ill-advised joking about it. Either way, it has to stop. Only the experts can help the abusers and the victims break their cycle of violence; I simply offer some sage advice about the commentary.

If – and when – you see a friend or an acquaintance sporting a cast, a sling or a battered face, repeat after me: “That looks painful. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

© Nancy Kirsch, 2009

A writer, editor and publicist, Nancy Kirsch received a Michael P. Metcalf Media Award in 2008 from Rhode Island for Community & Justice. She resides in Providence. Contact her at


8 responses to “Hurtful words bruised my psyche

  1. Joanne Carnevale

    Well said, Nancy. It’s a sad commentary on our society and these times that every woman sporting an injury is assumed to have been beaten by her partner. That she would be subject to such good natured playfulness about the matter makes it sadder still. Thanks for a great article on an important topic. I hope it is widely read and that those estwhile offenders take your advice.

  2. Kelsey Weinberg

    Excellent, excellent, excellent piece of work. Being personally close to someone who had been in a long abusive relationship, I whole-heartedly agree. Domestic abuse has lasting effects that no one really knows unless they have experienced it themselves. I guess joking can be a way to understand, as misguided an attempt as it is.

  3. Wow. Unfortunate to have to offer these words of advice to, as you say, people who should know better. Sometimes it takes bravery like yours to remind us of the power of our words. Thank you for voicing your experience so eloquently and pointedly.

  4. Jack Erickson

    Very gutsy, Nancy. Tough, in your face, and honest.
    Like you’ve been as long as I’ve known you.
    Get this published nationally; you deserve a large
    audience when you tell the hard truth that others
    shy away from.

  5. Excellent advice, Nancy, and I don’t think I’ve read it anywhere else. I hope some of the people who innocently made those jokes to you read this. I imagine many of them would be shocked to discover how their words came across–and then (thankfully) they’d never do it again.

  6. Shakay Kizirian

    Nance…very sensitive, accurate and insightful.
    I agree…this piece deserves a national audience.

  7. Thank you for your insightful article. I happened to chance upon this article looking for anyone to print anything about men who are abused by their wives. I was chagrined to find that, despite the admission that at least 15% of domestic violence is aimed against men, meaning one of 7, I found no help, no support groups, no legal aid available to men. I can tell you from my experience that, as women make the jokes you mention, so do men. But, even worse, men are supposed to “be a man” about it and swallow the pain and be there for the wife, stay together for the children, etc. On the list of what DV is, I have suffered almost every one of the forms of abuse. I can assure you that 15% is incorrect, that many men do not report and if they do, they are discounted. After years of insulting me in front of our kids for anything, pushing shoving, spraying detergent in my eyes, while laughing “I will tell them that it was in self defense.” I was hit above the eyebrow with a set of keys, after being told by a lawyer not to report it, found out later that that lawyer worked for a Jewish women’s org.
    At that time, already 9 weeks after the incident, I got another lawyer who told me to report the incident to the DA. I did immediately. The (female) DA said “Why did he wait 10 weeks? We are not going to prosecute, we are going to take care of the real victim.” That women’s org gave my wife a top notch lawyer pro bono while I had to get a novice for “only”175 per hour and her lawyer has made my life a string of court appearances and lost jobs and tens of thousands of legal fees, while the jewish org got my wife almost 100K of legal fees for free. If she would have had to pay 1% of the fees, she wouldn’t have gone through with the spurious claims. But why not wreak havoc with the family if it is for free and everybody can say, “poor victim.” No reason to look at oneself.
    The public agencies got so fed up that they told me that they consider the Jewish org is harassing me and several other Jewish men.
    It was refreshing to see that men were at least mentioned, between two dashes, in this article.

  8. Excellent advise. I will pass this on to a committee that I am on as well as to the students I teach about Healthy Relationships.

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