"Because I'm a karate man. A karate man bruises
on the inside, they don't show their weaknesses."
-- Billy Ray Valentine, "Trading Places"
What you're about to read is a terrible story that I feel conflicted about telling. I'm sharing it now, in part, because I think it has something to add to the ongoing conversation about sex, violence and entitlement, and also because I hope it will help someone else make better choices than I did.
That said, there's no way this isn't going to be really uncomfortable for you, reader, and me, so I propose a solution. When we get to the parts that will make us all feel the ickiest, I'll give you a heads up and you can put on a jaunty pop song that will make it go down easier. That's how I initially wrote it out (whiskey was also involved), and trust me, it works.
So cue up "Mmmbop" or whatever else does it for you and let's get through this.
First, a little backstory:
I was a sarcastic tomboy who idealized my older brothers, played sports and credited myself with being quite tough. I grew up in the privileged section of a blue-collar southern town. (The "privileged" section was right between the airport and the rock quarry... so I'm not talking "Connecticut" privileged, I'm talking "my dad was the part-time mayor so we had reserved seats at the high school football game" privileged.)
Once I became a teenager, the brooding, arty part of me began to settle in, and I felt more and more self-conscious about being so "upper crusty." So, when it came to guys, I'm pretty sure I started looking for ways to take myself down a peg or two.
My first serious boyfriend did not go to my high school, as did none of my boyfriends (see: snob). He was a high school dropout construction worker by day, poet by night who had long hair and wore women's pantyhose under paint-stained shorts. He was aggressively non-conformist to the point of insisting that brushing your teeth was yuppyish. He made me feel bad about myself, but also like I had "potential," as only a high school dropout poet boyfriend could.
He cheated on me twice and broke my heart, and by the time I got through my freshman year of college, I had dated and cheated on three boyfriends in retaliation.
That's when I met the guy we'll refer to as "My So-Called Life," because he looked the way that show felt.
"My So-Called Life" was a gentle-faced, lightly-goth young man who wore buckled Doc Martens, a corduroy hat and the kind of coat girls like me hoped to find at the thrift store. He wasn't into sports or drinking, wasn't physically imposing at all, and basically stood out at my southern university like a Joy Division fan at a Toby Keith concert. He was almost always alone, which appealed to the part of me that wanted to be the sort of woman a guy would feel "saved" by.
The first day we met, he took me to our college radio station where he had just started DJing and introduced me to John Cale, James, Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson. As far as first dates go, it was pretty great. On the third date, he cried in the library while telling me about all the women who had let him down and never loved him. I was hooked. He was an arty, wounded guy. I was an arty, preppy, jock girl who needed to be a better person. We were going to be in love forever.
CRANK THE HANSON NOW
The first time someone hits you, you can almost convince yourself you imagined it. "My So-Called Life" and I were sitting in his car arguing. We had been dating for a few months at the time. In the middle of the argument he stopped and tried to hug me, but I was upset and shrugged it off, saying, "I don't really want to be touched right now."
A few seconds later he hit me in the face. As I said before, he was not a strong, walking-frat-guy stereotype, but still, when his hand hit my nose I thought a car had rammed into us. The people on Twitter who said that Chris Brown could punch them in the face anytime, have clearly never been punched in the face, not even by a seemingly gentle man, much less by a guy who is literally Chris Brown.
The next few times it happens, you feel like maybe you're both in the wrong. Sure, he's wrong to take his anger out on you physically, but maybe you were wrong to be tired at 3:00 in the morning when he felt like talking about his mother. Maybe you were wrong to not call before, after and during class. Maybe you were being insensitive to his extremely complicated "My So-Called Life" feelings.
After that, you start thinking you have to protect him from himself. You have a family and friends who love you, teachers who respect you, people who would destroy him if they found out what was happening. He's the one with a sad family, sad past, sad feelings, and he can't take it. But you can. You start convincing yourself that you're on par with Batman, Clint Eastwood and Jesus because you can take a punch. You're deluded, but you can look at yourself in the mirror.
But eventually you realize that everything you felt before was wrong. You're there for one reason, one feeling, one thing that will keep you there for a long time. Shame. I had previously thought of myself as smart, strong and ballsy, so I couldn't deal with the idea of anyone finding out that I had become the sort of woman who would let someone hit her.
PAUSE THE MUSIC
As an athlete in elementary through high school, I had played three sports. I never broke a bone, or sprained anything and I rarely bruised. The only thing I did have was scoliosis. It started out as a 28-degree curvature of the spine but by the time I was 19 and dating "My So-Called Life" it was 48 degrees and my doctor began considering surgery. That will be important in a minute.
When you're in a situation you feel like you can't get out of, you wait patiently for forces out of your control to change things for you. It's the coward's version of assertiveness and I was beginning to realize that's what I was.
I began secretly hoping for one of two things: 1) for "My So-Called Life" to kill himself, or 2) for him to hit me in the face hard enough to leave an unmistakable bruise.
I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for #1. Fortunately, it didn't happen. But neither did #2, which baffled me. This guy beat me with his Doc Martens for five minutes. He hit me three times in the eye with his elbow because he got off at the wrong exit on the way to Atlanta.
But there was nothing. No bruises, scratches or scars to inspire an awkward conversation with my mother or a professor. I would never be Talia Shire to my brother's James Caan minus the toll booth shootout.
Then, finally, one day, something amazing happened.
CUE THE MUSIC
I walked into "My So-Called Life's" apartment to find the place completely torn apart. After a few minutes of ranting and raving I was able to glean that he was enraged due to $17 in overdue library fees he just found out he had.
I began playing my new favorite game, "How long until he decides this is my fault?" It was about 27 seconds. He started screaming at me about how I was with him when he checked out the books so I should have reminded him. He often would find a way to blame me for small misfortunes, but he had heretofore not destroyed his apartment while waiting for me to get there. So this felt different.
After the screaming subsided I made a huge mistake: I attempted to be rational. I said, "You're extremely angry and out of control at the moment, so I think it's best if I leave for the night and we'll talk later after you've calmed down." At first he didn't respond, so I turned to walk away.
A couple of seconds later, I was sitting on the floor, gasping for breath, having been slammed in the back with a giant art book. I think he was screaming at me, but I honestly couldn't hear anything. All I was thinking was, "I have scoliosis, I might be having surgery soon, and this [hyphenated expletive] just hit me in the back."
As soon as I could breathe, I stood up and walked out of the apartment. He followed me into the breezeway and kept screaming. I stopped and turned around. He was standing three feet from me screaming at the top of his lungs about what a horrible person I was and everything went silent. I stared at his puffed face and red eyes as he ranted on mute. I'm not sure how long I stared at him but it was long enough to decide I didn't care if his life was destroyed by my actions or if anyone knew that I had ever let him hit me.
And then I clocked him.
I hit him so hard the crack echoed through the breezeway for several seconds. I hit him so hard when he looked back up at me he already had two black eyes. I hit him harder than he ever thought about hitting me, and certainly harder than he ever could. It was possibly the worst feeling of my life.
After he regained composure he laid into me like a goth Tasmanian Devil. Swinging both of his fists wildly, pummeling me in the head, face and body. After a few minutes, he tired himself out, stopped and walked back into the apartment. I sat on the ground, wondering if I would finally have a bruise.
Twenty minutes later, he came back out into the breezeway and said, "I think my hand is broken, you need to drive me to the hospital."
STOP MUSIC. TAKE THAT [EXPLETIVE] IN.
He broke his hand hitting me in the head. After all the things he had done to me without leaving one mark, he had two black eyes and a broken hand after I hit him once.
In the weeks that followed, teachers and friends would take him aside and ask him if everything was ok, if he needed to talk, like he was the one being abused. We made up lies about how he hurt himself and I was the one frightened of being arrested for domestic abuse. I wish I could say that this was the end of our relationship, but it wasn't. In fact, this was merely halfway through it.
Was I weak? Yes. Was I making bad decisions based on poorly reasoned arguments? Yes. Had I concocted a completely unrealistic standard for what relationships were supposed to be and somehow convinced myself that being hit by this man fit into that? Yes. Had my outsized ideas of who I was and where I came from given me a portrait of myself that was more grand and more diminishing than could be sustained? Yes. Did I stockpile all of my anger and pain until it exploded in one act of aggression that would make me feel even more ashamed and without options? Yes.
Are those things all on me? Yes.
But here's what wasn't on me: I was afraid. I was afraid of what this man would do to me or himself or to others if I left him or told anyone what was happening. He was physically weaker than me, but his lack of restraint in lashing out was formidable and terrifying. You can straw-man it all you want by saying we're whining or crying wolf when women talk about the fear of violence, rape and harassment, but being made to feel afraid by someone who is willing to hurt you and possibly others is not a woman's fault. It is not hyperbole and it is not fake.
Women you know -- funny women, smart women, sassy, sarcastic, badass women -- have been made to feel fear by someone in their life. Reasonable, actual fear. And often they hate themselves for it because they're conditioned to think that it's their fault.
My story ends well. I eventually did leave, and I did find myself again. The sarcastic, smarty-pants tomboy who knew how to stand up for herself was still there ... just deeply hidden and ashamed. I grew up, learned some things about actual accountability and compassion, and I think I became a better person.
Moreover, 20 years later, I've finally forgiven "My So-Called Life." I hope beyond hope that he eventually got the help he needed, because he did need help (not a girlfriend to save him or scapegoat his rage). And now, so many years later, it's almost as though it never happened. It's like Sam Beckett leaped into me for that five years and then leaped out and I didn't have to experience it.
When I look at myself, there's no trace of that angry young man, his shoes, his fists or the hours upon hours of tears, shame and fear that came with him. I'm not defined by those five years, and, if he did get help, I honestly hope he isn't either.
But there's one inescapable element -- one that I'm thinking about at this moment in time especially -- that could have turned this unpleasant story, this horrible learning experience, into something else entirely.
Neither of us, at any time, had access to a gun.