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 email@example.com.