The typical response to public incidents of domestic violence, like the recent elevator one with Ray Rice and Janay Palmer or the older one between Rihanna and Chris Brown, is often shock and confusion. Why won’t she leave him? Why does she put up with it? Most people are savvy enough to know that domestic violence rarely happens once. So why would anyone stick around for more?
I was one of those people. An ardent feminist, I was all pro-choice and pro-empowerment. I led the National Organization for Women chapter at my high school. I shaved my head. I listened to Bikini Kill. I didn’t let men push me around. I was strong and independent and I didn’t take any shit from anyone, so why would these women? How could (why would) any woman stay in a situation which was not only emotionally debilitating but physically destructive?
Now I know how — because it happened to me.
I was in my early twenties when I met him, fresh out of college and fresh to New York. I had friends, but I had not yet built an extensive support network. The guy I had dated in college was a typical New Englander, averse to passion or emotion. So when I met John (not his real name), he swept me off my feet. The complete opposite of college boy, John lived for passion and emotion. He was a musician, an artist, and he felt things. And he made me feel adored.
Never having experienced this sort of thing before (and why would I have? I was a tough and independent woman!), I didn’t see the warning signs. Not having a ton of close friends, I didn’t have anyone around to see them, either.
John started slow. This, I gather, is a common maneuver. They start slow so that you hardly even notice what’s happening, so that all the rules and restrictions somehow seem logical and normal and justified.
John liked to control where and with whom I spent my time. I had to tell him when I was seeing anyone else, male or female friends but especially my male friends (and there would often be a fight after I saw a male friend, despite having gotten permission before). I was only allowed to see my closest female friend once a week. Of course, I started seeing other people less and less because it was such a hassle, and I preferred to avoid the inevitable arguments. Plus, John was so exhausting, that when I wasn’t with him, I was often too wiped out to go out with other people.
Looking back on it now, it seems ludicrous to think that I thought this was okay, but at the time, somehow, it did. Perversely, it was precisely my strength and independence that drew him to me — because he wanted to break me.
There was a tricky combination of wanting to please him at play, too. Partly it was that I didn’t want to make him mad, but it was also that I liked making him happy, because when he was happy, he was divine. The passion and romance and love was so intense, I could drink it. He asked me to marry him in spectacular fashion, with a full dinner set up on his rooftop, Christmas lights twinkling everywhere. I had a gorgeous ring because of course I said yes.
When he was happy, things were magical. The chemistry was fantastic, except for the mornings when he reeked of vodka. The chemistry was fantastic, except for when he would have temper tantrums in the middle of the street or on the subway stairs — and then he was like a three-year-old denied ice cream, only times ten.
He never physically hurt me. I was never slapped or beaten or punched. I was definitely intimidated and, sometimes, restrained hard enough to leave a bruise. But his weapons were mainly verbal.
Even during the thick of it, part of me knew this was bad. I knew I didn’t feel safe with him. I had a key to his apartment but I always managed to find an excuse not to give him a key to mine. I knew that there would be times when I had to go home and lock the door and know he couldn’t reach me — and there were times like that. There were times he would come to my building and shout at me, but he couldn’t get into my apartment. Even while I couldn’t break up with him, I knew how important that piece of safety was.
He couldn’t get access to my apartment, but he did everything he could to get me to move in with him. Even though I had the ring on my finger, I dragged my heels. He told me he would get me a cat, but she would have to live at his place. He asked me what he needed to redecorate in his apartment to get me to move in. I spent most nights there, anyway, but I couldn’t give up my safety net. I knew that once I had nowhere to run, I was done for.
By this time, I basically didn’t have any friends left. I really would have had nowhere to go if I gave up my apartment.
I can’t remember what the breaking point was, but eventually, in a dramatic fight, I threw his ring back at him and ended it all. He didn’t take it well. He showed up at my work, having temper tantrums in the street (security wouldn’t let him in the building). Eventually, after countless nasty emails, he gave up.
I was lucky.
I knew that then, and I know that now.
But still, the fact that this happened to me still unnerves me. Because I know how much stronger I am than most. I got sucked in, and I had a hard time getting out. It could have been so much worse — and I know it is for so many others.
So I don’t judge Rihanna or Janay. I know how hard and complicated this situation is. I imagine that Ray, much like John, can be magical and charismatic and sweet. I’m sure he can sweep Janae off her feet when he wants to. I’m sure she loves him. I’m sure she wants to help him. I’m sure she thinks she can.
I know that, after I left John, I made sure to stay single for a while. I was so scared that this happened to me that I wanted to figure out what I needed to do as a person to make sure it didn’t ever happen again. I do hope that one day Janay figures out how to make sure it doesn’t ever happen again to her, either.