June 25, 2001
I have put this off for a long time. It is something I have wanted to talk about for years, and yet I always put it off. It is that elephant standing in the middle of the living room that we all pretend isn’t there.
I assume you all know what the word “denial” means nowadays. Denial is when a person suppresses or represses that which is real, usually because they are too afraid to face it.
Just as a person can be in denial, a whole society can be in denial, too. There is a level of child and spousal abuse in this country that is epidemic and claims God knows how many lives or emotional souls each year. When I say in this country, I am talking about right here, right now. Right here being us in Warwick, Florida, Monroe, Chester, and throughout the Hudson Valley. If this doesn’t apply to your life, then I have no doubt it may to your neighbor or someone else that you know.
Years ago, I was living in a house, along with my then wife and about six other people. There was a couple — I’ll call them Tom and Shirley — who had the downstairs front bedroom, right off of the living room. I considered them both friends, especially Tom, with whom I was working on a project. Shirley was very sweet and pretty. Tom, among other things, was a poet. They seemed to make an okay couple, but I was busy then and perhaps not paying a lot of attention. We lived together for a year.
Some years after that, I ran into somebody who was a good friend of theirs. He told me that Sally had finally left Tom, and that the whole time that I had been sharing a house with those two people, Tom had been brutally beating Shirley on regular basis.
I was surprised to hear this, but knowing what I know now I suppose I shouldn’t have been. The sad fact is that every eight seconds in the U.S., a woman is beaten by her spouse — at least, according to the cases that we know about. It is called spousal abuse, and there is way too much of it.
About ten years ago, I was attending a professional workshop. At the workshop, I met a wonderful young woman who had just moved to town. She was attending the workshop more as a way to meet new friends than because she was interested in the subject. We hit it off, and since she was new in town I decided to take her under my wing and help her find her way around.
Over time, we became good friends. Good enough that she told me the truth about her childhood — something that she had never spoken of to anyone else. She was a champion athlete in her school days. Beginning when she was thirteen or so and her sister fourteen, her father regularly arranged for his best friend to rape both of them. Like so many children who are tortured in this way, both kids felt so ashamed and guilty that they never spoke of it. This young woman was now twenty-five years old, and terrified that this experience had scarred her for life.
It is called child abuse, and there is way too much of it.
People find me easy and trustworthy to talk to. During my life, I have had many female friends, women who felt safe confiding in me. The number of women I have known who suffered childhood sexual abuse and/or spousal abuse is staggering. Talk to any cop, and he or she will also tell you what they see. Talk to any therapist, and they will tell you what they see. Look around at the bookstore and the number of books about child abuse will tell you all you need to know. From a purely statistical point of view, it is likely that you were or know someone who was abused as a child or as a spouse. That’s just a fact.
I have been married and divorced twice. I have a wonderful thirty-year-old daughter. During both of my marriages, arguments were not uncommon. When I got angry, I blew. I have never hit a woman, but verbally, I could beat any body to a pulp. I thought I was just angry.
Both of my wives would try to tell me that there was something wrong with my anger, but I never really heard that. Heck, if I was angry, I had a right to be angry and to yell. And yelling and hitting things was pretty normal in my childhood neighborhood.
My temper was tested when my daughter became a teen, when she turned into a typical, pain-in-the-butt, occasionally obnoxious teenager. When she got into her teens she grew more stubborn and more likely to talk back to me, and I would sometimes just explode with what I now understand was rage.
One day, I blew up at my kid for what I thought were good reasons. It never occurred to me, though, that as a reasonably big, strong, powerful adult guy, just how frightening I might be to my daughter. And this time, she held her ground. After I was more or less through with my adult temper tantrum, she looked me firmly in the eyes. She said, “Dad, that is verbal abuse. It’s abusive, and I am never going to take it again. I will not talk to you again until you stop!” She then put on her coat and walked out the door.
At that point, my heart just fell through the floor. Finally somebody, perhaps the only person who I could have heard the truth from, had gotten through to me. The next day, I took a scheduled flight to Tahiti for a scuba-diving vacation. I spent the first three days in my cabin just miserable, hating myself and convinced that I might never see my daughter — who I loved more than anything — again. After three days of meditation, I convinced myself that this tendency to abuse the people I loved had to go. Right there and then, I made a commitment to understand that aspect of me, uproot it and get it out of my life. I never again wanted to cause someone I loved to suffer from my problem.
With the help of some good books, some good friends and an even better therapist, I learned where my behavior came from. Then I was able to gain control over it. It took work on my part, and took looking at some difficult truths about myself. Now, my daughter and I talk at least three times a week. She is proud of me.
Part of the difficulty is that we all want to believe that we are good people. In order to do that, we often solve the problem of our own self-image by blaming our bad behavior on the other person. “She asked for it. She deserved it. She liked it.”
Going public with a story like this is not easy. But somebody has to start somewhere. If you are being abused — or have been — there is plenty of help out there for you. There’s even the opportunity to recover, but only if you acknowledge it. If you are an abuser and willing to admit it — at least to yourself — then you too can be helped.
I could lay a whole bunch of statistics on you about how prevalent abuse is. I could reveal mounds of data that is hidden away where nobody sees it. But data and statistics don’t change us, don’t get us to honestly look at ourselves or those people who say they love us right after they assault us.
It’s important to know that abusers follow predictable patterns. They assault, then immediately apologize, swear their love and promise to never to do it again. The problem is that they do do it again.
The abused follow patterns as well. It is called Abused Spouse Syndrome. The abused give over their personal power to the abuser, so the longer the abuse lasts, the less and less powerful the abused feel. The abused also tend to blame everything on themselves. They buy into the abuser’s narrative about what is going on. They keep hoping, believing that the abuser will change. The worst part of this syndrome is that unconsciously, the abused person often thinks that she or he deserves it. More often than not, abused spouses also suffered abuse as a child.
Abusers were typically abused as children as well. It becomes a continuous cycle until you decide that you are going to end it and not pass it on.
I can’t tell you the number of abused women I have met who stay in an abusive relationship or stayed in one too long. “But he said he loved me,” they usually say.
But loving ways do not include being hit, screamed at, or cheated on.
There is never an excuse for hitting someone that you claim to love. And that is truer for men than it is for women, if only for the fact that as a rule men are bigger, stronger and more violent by nature. Unfortunately, some guys just enjoy the feeling of power that dominating a woman gives them. If you are one of those guys you should be put six feet under until your muscles atrophy and what little brain you have just flatlines.
In thinking about this topic I went to a few online booksellers. I searched under the topic of spousal abuse and found…nothing! Then I looked under the subject of “abuse.” Wow, lots of stuff there. I read through a listing of almost 700 titles. Most of the titles were about alcohol and drug abuse. Interesting, but not what I was looking for.
But there were an enormous number of books about childhood sexual abuse. That should tell you something right there.
Most noticeable, though, were how few books there were about spousal abuse. Like just three or four — that was it. Curious, huh? Well, maybe it’s not that curious. Maybe we just don’t want to admit it in this country; maybe we feel it is just about what men do to women. It is about women who are made to feel too ashamed to speak of it, much less write about it.
And you can call me paranoid, but it is also about the fact that publishing houses are dominated by men. It is about that big elephant stomping around the living room. But too many of us say, “Elephant? What elephant?”
This is an issue that each of us can change in our own lives — books or no books. It starts by taking a hard, sometimes very painful look at ourselves and asking questions and not ducking the answers.
“Do I really feel loved? Is it possible that what is happening to me is what is called abuse? Why am I so willing to live with it?”
Or maybe you need to ask yourself, “Am I abusive? Has my mate or child ever said anything to me that suggests that they fear me? Am I doing something that I know is wrong? What would happen if I promised my wife or girlfriend that I would really listen to them — not respond angrily, but just listen to them — and they told me that they are afraid of me?” These are questions that not only can be asked, they need to be asked — and probably on a frequent basis.
There are many resources out there. Therapists and counselors can help. There are hot lines in Orange County, and shelters for battered women. There are a number of groups for abusers.
And then there is your own deep knowledge of what is right and wrong. The road to healing begins with lifting the veil on what we want to believe is true, for whatever reason, and looking at what is really true.
If you are a woman in an abusive relationship, know that you are not alone. You guys, if you know that you are prone to just losing it sometimes, there is help for you, too. I am proof that you can regain healthy control over those destructive impulses — but you have to start by looking at reality.
Healing from these issues is just one step away every day. It begins with the commitment to explore who and what we really are.
This may help with that commitment: we know that children who were abused usually become abusive adults or continue to be abused as adults. Do you really want to pass that on to your kids?
Can’t you decide instead that the abuse stops with you? Sure you can.
Start by going to the library or a bookstore. Look under “abuse.” Read some books and see if you recognize yourself or your mate in them.
Sisters, you can take your power back. Brothers, we need to get our act together and become the loving spouses and parents we are all capable of being.
Start by taking responsibility for yourself and how you behave and, before you know it, the change process has begun. It just takes that first step.