April 05, 2007

Domestic Terrorism

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That's what terrorists want. That's what they feed on. That's how they exert control and influence, how they wield their power.

Once they've given you a reason to fear them, and it doesn't always have to be something big, they have you. They just have to make you believe they could do it. It. You know what I mean.

I know terrorists, because I used to live with one.

It's a long story. Today, I'll ask your forbearance to read it anyway, though I know most of you don't come here for personal anecdotes.

He didn't hit me a lot. Just a few times, really. Didn't even leave marks. But he'd fly into terrible rages that frightened me. He never had to reach for the guns he owned, never had to threaten to use them, for them to be constantly on my mind. Because it wasn't the bare fact of his owning weapons that made him so terrifying, but his clear lack of control over his temper. His viciousness.

He wasn't always like that, and I think he managed to realize where it was leading him in time. And by in time, I mean in specific cases enough to pull himself back from doing something serious, and generally over the years enough to mellow him out. There was enough that was good in him to lull me into acceptance time and again over our five year marriage, though I really should have just walked out.

That's what you're thinking by now, I know. That I should have just walked out. That it should have been a clue that at least one of our friends, about once every couple months, would tell me that 'if I ever needed a place to stay,' I could come to them.

You'd probably think that I should have known after the first year, when he'd already established a pattern of starting screaming fights with me just before bed time when I needed to get up the next day for work, that I should have left. That I should have recognized at once what it meant that I was glad I didn't know any of the neighbors at any of our apartment complexes. How could I have looked any of them in the eye, had they been my friends, knowing that they must have heard him yelling at me for not wanting to do certain things in bed?

Because when he did yell at me in front of people who were our friends or that we just knew casually, I'd feel humiliated for days. When he'd tell me loudly to shut up in front of them. That I'd ruined plans for group outings with my disorganization. That I was stupid and didn't know what I was talking about. One time, he started yelling at me in the checkout line at a grocery store. The person checking our purchase was one of the store managers, whom I'd approached only a couple days before for a job. I never went in that store again; I'd wanted to die as the man met my eyes oh so levelly, coolly, as he rang up our purchase, pretending not to know me.

Yeah, I should have left.

But then, I was 18 when we married. I'd been raised in a very sheltered, religious family that believed in strict and traditional gender roles. When I left home, there were a lot of things I didn't know about even taking care of myself and I'd been raised to be just a bit too trusting. I wanted to be independent, but I just didn't know how at the time.

I didn't have a driver's license and I was unemployed when we met. This defined the rest of our relationship.

He wouldn't let me learn how to drive; he said that because I didn't know how to ride a bike that I wouldn't be good at handling a car. He was my main transportation. There were times when he'd leave me waiting at work for hours after he'd agreed to pick me up. Even when he was on disability or unemployed, as he was much of the time we were together, he'd think nothing of leaving me to a bus trip to work that was two hours each way. Not even when that meant I had to leave the house at five in the morning after he'd been screaming at me until 1 am.

I could have demanded more, I guess, but he taught me my lesson early.

One Saturday night, we were visiting some friends for a small party and he wanted to talk for a while outside. He was worried about getting a late bill paid. We barely had the money and the offices were, of course, all closed. And I said, well, there isn't really anything we can do about it tonight. I suggested that we go back in and enjoy everyone's company, worry about it later. I don't know what it was about this suggestion that infuriated him. He told me that I was being irresponsible, that I should be upset, too. I said that it wasn't going to get us anywhere or change anything, I just wanted to enjoy the evening. He told me to take it back or he'd go home and leave me there. I wouldn't. He did.

Have you ever had to walk into your friends' house and ask them for a ride home because your husband drove off and left you stranded? Everyone was very nice, but I don't recommend it.

I made a mistake balancing our checkbook one time during our first year, and ever after, he took all my paychecks and deposited them in an account that only he had access to. I had to ask for clothes, which he usually only remembered to buy for himself; unless it occurred to him to take me to the thrift store if there was something left over after he finished his shopping. I once went two years without a new pair of underwear. I rarely had money for lunch and usually had to scrounge out of the change jar to afford snack food out of the vending machines at work. I didn't get an allowance, so every request for money had to be separately negotiated.

I had work of one kind or another almost the entire time we were together, but saw virtually none of what I made. I had no say in how it was spent. I didn't have a personal budget for entertainment of course, but when I'd ask to see a movie, I was sometimes told that he didn't want to go because he'd already seen it with one of his friends while I'd had an evening shift. I was afraid to say that it seemed like a bad idea to go out for $80 dinners in months when we were barely coming up with rent. But he made it hard for me to keep a job, even though we needed the money.

I'm a bit of an insomniac and always have been. I sleep poorly and have a hard time getting to sleep or waking up early. Must have a defective internal clock. When I can't get sleep for days, I start getting more migraines, I fall asleep uncontrollably during the day. Some activities themselves just make me sleepy (god, I hate long meetings), but there's a big difference between an employee who's nods off at the occasional meeting and one who falls asleep at their desk for 15 minutes at a time seemingly at random. He never got around to caring about this. He'd keep me up late almost every night and I lost jobs over it.

Later, it progressed beyond that. After we'd been together three years or so, and I'm a little sketchy on the timeline because I try not to think about it much, I ended up with a decent-paying job far enough away that he could usually be persuaded to drive me in. He started insulting me and telling me what a bad person, what a bad wife, I was. He'd long called me his 'wif' when we were alone, saying that I hadn't earned the 'e' due to my immaturity, but this was worse. I often went into work crying, unable to really get settled right away. Then he started calling me up in the middle of the day. The calls would usually start off nice enough, but it didn't take long for them to reprise what had become the ritual morning argument. I'd end up in tears again at my desk.

When my manager walked by sometimes after one of these episodes, he'd look at me as if he wanted to ask, but never did. I think he just didn't want to embarass me and was never unkind. At that job, I still managed to get my work done and made a lot of friends, whom I found out later had been approached by our manager to find out if I was all right. So I didn't lose my job, which I was glad about, because I had a lot of quiet time alone and nice people to chat with at lunch or when I'd join them for smoke breaks. I don't smoke, but danged if the smokers didn't manage to get outside and stretch their legs more often than everyone else.

Then there was the day when I got my hand smashed in a car door. It really was an accident. I'd been on a weekend trip with a friend who had an old 70's car with heavy doors. Her mother, who was elderly and didn't have the best eyesight, didn't see my hand when she slammed the door. It hit across the back of my hand, though it didn't hurt bad right at first. Then it went cold and I could barely move it.

We didn't have insurance, both of us were temp workers. I knew we couldn't afford to go to the hospital, wasn't he always telling me how short of money we were? I put my hand in a brace, glad none of my fingers had been hurt, and struggled at work. Nobody believed me at first when I told them it had been an accident. Nobody. If a coworker hadn't been at the same event that weekend, they probably never would have. Anyway, I didn't ask to go to a doctor.

Two weeks later, while my hand was still aching but more functional, he went to a sporting goods store and bought an $800 set of golf clubs. So he could spend more time getting to know the managers at his job, maybe get hired full time. When I looked annoyed, he loudly told me, so that everyone in the small store could hear and presumably be impressed with what a high roller he was, that I should go next door to the Ross(TM) and pick myself out a dress or something.

A month or so later, he told me that I was such a bad wife that he wanted to send me away to stay with some friends of ours for a while. He'd been telling me for over a year that it might be better to divorce me to save on his taxes, which terrified me, because I didn't feel like I had anywhere to go. I'd always told myself he was joking, but somehow his threat to put me on a plane and just send me somewhere like a package felt qualitatively different.

Sometime around then, he started telling me that he was having a lot of bad dreams. They were making him paranoid. He started locking even the door to our bedroom at night and keeping his rifles on the floor alongside the bed where he slept. He said he was worried someone would try to hurt me.

I asked a friend at work to help me get some things in the middle of the day and leave. I was told I could stay at their house until I got something else sorted out. My husband hadn't let me have a key to that apartment, I don't remember why, so I had to tell the manager some silly story to borrow the extra one from the office.

We were separated for a bit over six months or so before he convinced me to come back. He was very charming about it. That's usually the point in the story where it ends up being like a horror movie for most women. 'Don't go back into the house!' It wasn't a fun experience, but really, I got incredibly lucky in that regard compared to many. Being left actually woke my ex-husband up to some of what he was doing, though I know that in many cases, women may be more likely to be attacked or killed when they try to leave.

He was nicer when I moved back in, but we started having the same arguments. I still wasn't allowed to have my paychecks, he said he just managed our money better and they needed to be part of a household budget I still had no say over. He still wouldn't let me learn how to drive and I had no money to pay for lessons, though he'd leased himself a brand new car during the time we'd been split up. Then he got into yet another argument at work, quit his job before what surely would have been getting fired yet again, and sunk all our money into a multi-level marketing 'business.'

I'd used to barely be able to look our friends in the eye because he'd humiliate me in front of them, then it was that he tried to sell things to all of them.

I finally got a good job with a good company. They liked me in the department and I was able to be very helpful. I worked whatever overtime I could get, glad to get away and knowing we needed the money. I made friends with a woman who let me carpool in with her. Then he got a job, finally. Things were a little better, but I couldn't handle the arguing and the insults anymore. I asked for a divorce.

Then I got pregnant. Then I was diagnosed with ovarian cysts, miscarried, and had to have major surgery. As I've written about previously. It coincided with the first time in our relationship that either of us, and it was him, had health insurance. Or I probably wouldn't have asked to go see a doctor, and I'd be dead now.

He held off on the divorce paperwork until I was better, to make sure everything was covered, though we still ended up with big medical bills. For the first few weeks afterwards, he took care of me around the clock. He even set the alarm clock for every four hours at night, waking up to bring me the pain medication I needed. We discovered on my first night back that if we didn't do that, I'd wake up in agony about five hours after the last dose, and it would take about half an hour before the next set of pills could kick in.

So in the end, he actually saved my life. I'm grateful for that. I'm also glad as hell that we don't have any contact with each other at all anymore.

What prompted this outpouring was a pair of diaries on Daily Kos today about a woman whose former lover and father of two of her children murdered her and her boyfriend after years of abuse. I was a lot luckier than she was. But I bet she and I could have talked for hours about the feelings of humiliation that kept us from just walking out right away. About the bone weariness of having the same argument for hours or days until you'll say or agree to anything, anything at all, just to make it stop.

But my ex-husband was able to stop himself turning from domestic terrorist into a true monster. Alicia Sears wasn't that lucky. Worse, because she wasn't married and lived in Ohio, the Defense of Marriage act in that state prevented the repeated abuse she suffered from being treated like domestic violence, which isn't really taken very seriously by law enforcement anyway. Even though, as this excellent diary chronicling the extensive impact of such violence points out, one in three women will be abused by a partner in her lifetime.

That means you, yes you, know someone who has been or perhaps is right now being abused by her partner. It's simple math. She might not have told you, but I guarantee you that it still affects her. Even if she was lucky enough to escape 'undamaged' like I did.

I know this happens to men, too. That in similar circumstances, they feel the same humiliation, the same self-hatred, the same rage at their total loss of control over their lives and fates. But it sure doesn't happen to one in three of them, and they'll never get the help they need while abused women are marginalized, are not taken seriously by law enforcement, or are told that it's all their fault. Men socialized into a macho society will always have a hard time admitting that something that women are blamed and mocked for, something that women are supposed in some bizarre way to 'deserve,' has happened to them.

Because that makes them part of the underclass, and the best way to preserve an unfair hierarchy is to convince certain members of the underclass that they have an automatic leg up on others, to turn them into enforcers and tell them that they can be Big Cheeses, too. If they get victimized in the same way as mere, lowly women, then the gig is up. If they admit it, that is. The only way to help those men is to stop treating domestic violence like a punchline.

My story is personal, but as they say, also political. The horror of it for me was long years in fear and constant anxiety. Years of having no meaningful control over my life. Years of being ruled by the whim of someone whose mood I depended on absolutely for my well-being, privileges and favors.

This is the dynamic, also, of the feminist demand in politics.

Women want the right to decide whether or not to have children, and to have equal footing in sexual relationships. Women want the right to pick our own medical care. Women want the right to have a say over how money we have a part in earning is spent, whether that money is part of our household budget or part of the national budget. Women want equal protection under the law from violence perpetrated specifically against us by intimates, just as men can expect protection from the violence that may be perpetrated against them by strangers.

Women want not to be threatened for asking for these things, which should be our right and due as human beings. We want dignity and independence, and we will demand it if it isn't given. Even though it may take a while before we speak up for it.

Today, I read the story of Alicia Sears and it brought up a lot of old hurts that still carry with them their attendant feelings of humiliation. I don't like to tell people these stories, I feel embarassed. But maybe if more of us could get over those feelings, Alicia Sears wouldn't have had to die. Maybe someone would have taken her seriously and her children would still have their mother.

And so I ask you, please, take domestic violence seriously.

Know that it could be happening to someone you've befriended, or enjoy reading, or have loved. Know that sometimes, it takes so little to save someone in that situation; that when their sense of self has been thoroughly shredded from years of abuse, sometimes it only takes some respect and support to help them realize that they can walk away.

(Even though, on occasion, it might be prudent to help them leave in the middle of the day and not mention where they're going when the infuriated ex-partner calls you up demanding to have their victim turned over to them for more of the same.)

Update: Amanda at Pandagon linked to this post and a lengthy discussion and recounting of tales proceeded in the comments. For everybody who added their own stories in the comments either here, at the DailyKos x-post, or at Pandagon, thanks. That's exactly what I was hoping would happen.

Domestic abuse is a problem that feeds on secrecy, humiliation, and its general out-of-viewness. Whether it occurs between spouses, unmarried partners, or parents and children, and no matter the severity, there are common threads. It's characterized by controlling behavior, inexplicable nastiness, manipulative behavior and concern trolling that can make the target begin to question their sanity.

The perpetrators are often people who can start off, or merely pretend to be, charming. Yet their unquenchable dissatisfaction, irrationality, unwillingness to self-examine, desire to control, lack of empathy and immediate boredom in calm situations can lead them to very dark places indeed. They are relentlessly unhappy, but more than that, they insist that the source of their unhappiness is everyone but themselves. They lack self-control, and in a perverse reversal of the pop-iconic 7 Habits, they decide that the way to regain a sense of control is to force those in their power to comply with their out-of-control, constantly fluctuating and unexamined expectations.

It isn't okay even if no one is ever hit or killed.

It isn't okay even if no weapons are involved.

It isn't okay even if the only obvious symptom is absolute financial dominance.

These behaviors and attitudes are unhealthy. A society that doesn't recognize them as unhealthy creates a fertile ground for truly dangerous people to escalate them to the level of criminal behavior.

It's like racism, in a way. Which is to say that while racist attitudes, behaviors and institutional racism still exist, it isn't publically acceptable and is properly labeled as an unhealthy state by the majority of people. You'd now be hard pressed to find someone willing to say that an incident of racism isn't bad just because, in a particular case, nobody got badly beat up or shot. As that perception has taken hold, that it's racism and not a particular symptom of it that's bad, it means that fewer people actually get beat up or shot, it means that the roots of the problem can begin to be addressed.

It should be enough that abusive behavior is, well, abusive. That it's mean, as the discussion at Pandagon noted. That it devalues and dehumanizes the victim. That it destroys their sense of self and worth. These things are plenty bad enough, they are things that human beings shouldn't do to each other.

It's a general tolerance for abusive behavior that, I would contend, led directly to Rush Limbaugh being able to say in public that the Abu Ghraib photos looked like nothing more than a bad fraternity hazing. It's why too many people don't understand that David Hicks' intense and prolonged isolation at Guantanamo Bay was an incredibly damaging form of torture, even if it didn't mark his skin once.

To abuse another person, to stifle their individuality and humanity, to seek total control over their thoughts and behavior, to seek to force them to validate a view of your own exceptionalism, these things are wrong. They proliferate abuse and reactionary depression, add to the general unhappiness of humanity, and damage people's ability to live up to their full potential. They are the base of every other-destructive and bigoted impulse known to humanity.

When more people recognize the scope of abusive behavior and its hallmarks, that means there's a better chance that it can be stopped before it gets out of hand. There's a better chance it will be taken seriously. That more people will be able to recognize when they're in relationships that are unhealthy and leave them before something bad, whether violence or too many wasted years, happens that can't be walked back from. Before anyone has to bury another Alicia Sears. Before anyone has to bury another John Mitchell, her boyfriend, who died because he loved someone with a violently abusive former partner.

Posted by natasha at April 5, 2007 02:18 PM | Women | Technorati links |

Tonight I saw an interview with Ishmael Beah, who'd written a book about his years as a child soldier, and now read your piece. Not to put the burden of comparison on you, but a couple of similar things struck me in your stories:

1. It's utterly amazing that people can survive soul-destroying experiences for years, and emerge as such clear writers and thinkers. Must say something about these particular individuals...

2. Both stories, like you said, demonstrate the political via the personal: child soldiers can actually get their humanity back (thanks to UNICEF, in his case), and abused women can regain their independence, with some help from friends.

Still, damn.

Posted by: dkon at April 5, 2007 05:54 PM

Thanks, that's quite a compliment. Though as Tom Petty says, everybody's got to fight to be free.

Posted by: natasha at April 5, 2007 06:18 PM

Wow. Thank you for writing this. And for being so courageous.

Posted by: Roxanne at April 5, 2007 06:52 PM

My daughter was in such a relationship many years ago and I fully understand your pain. She did not tell anyone about it until she had her baby When her baby was 5 weeks old, she called home for us to save her. We did rescue her. That experience made her a strong person when she was able to get away from the fireworks and think clearly.

I facilitate a support group for divorced people.

Some have been in your situation. The one defining difference in those who survive abuse is that they have an inkling of self-preservation and that is what saves them. It is a hard journey back. Never, never allow anyone take away your spirit. Your "terrorist" and he is a terrorist, is a bully, who in reality has such a low self esteem, he has to work all day at being the tough guy. He pretends he knows all and his victim is his way to feel powerful. What a shell of a human being!

If you would like some confidence building go to my site at Butterflyintonewlife.com then click on the EzineArticles link for more articles.

Best of luck to you in all your endeavors.

Posted by: Pat Hubbard at April 5, 2007 07:19 PM

It sounds to me like your terrorist wanted you utterly dependant on him--his "care" of you after your surgery is a perfect example.

I know that shame. I know.

You're brave for telling your personal story, and I applaud you.

Came here via a link on Pandagon.

Posted by: Edie at April 5, 2007 08:17 PM

Thanks. I hurts to read this, so I have to imagine it took a lot to write it.

Posted by: greensmile at April 5, 2007 09:52 PM

Amazing. You may know better, but when it's happening to you, you think you're the only person it's happening to.

Posted by: julia at April 5, 2007 10:53 PM

When I told my children's father I was leaving him, he ran to the closet and grabbed his gun. I didn't run screaming. I stood there thinking, "I can't let him think I'm taking this seriously." I mustered up the most disdainful look I could give him. He leaned the gun up against a doorway. Then he took the gun and left the house. God was I lucky.

I left him. All the next year he terrorized me and I was sure it would end in him killing me. In our little town the police, who were his friends, looked the other way and I had no protection. It's long over now and I'm still alive. God was I lucky.

Just plain lucky - and a lot stronger now.

Posted by: MM at April 5, 2007 11:09 PM

You're very strong to have written this -- as someone said above, it does hurt to read, but it's so important that it's there for other people to see. Thank you.

Posted by: kathryn at April 6, 2007 05:53 AM

[Note from natasha - Didn't I ban you years ago, you sick freak? What makes you think you'd suddenly be welcome to come back and have your say here? Stay away from this site and stay away from me.]

Posted by: DavidByron at April 6, 2007 07:59 AM

Bless you for your strength and your candor! (I am new to your blog, and came here via a link from Pandagon.) It takes courage to tell a story like that, just as it does to live it.

My parents were violent alcoholics, and I was very nearly killed on a number of occasions. When I was quite young I was married briefly, not to one of the nice, kind men who'd asked me, but to someone unpleasable, witholding, and emotionally cruel. Fortunately I got out, realizing that he would never change, and that I had married him because domestic cruelty felt "normal" to me. My soon-to-be ex was absolutely furious that I'd had the audacity to move out. Not just "out," but a few months after separating, I accepted a job thousands of miles away from him.

Now I've benefited from lots of effective psychotherapy, have been married more than twenty years to a wonderful man, and we have three teenagers.

I hope you'll live happily ever after, at least the majority of the time. What you once thought of as a dirty little secret is shared by many, many people, and I for one am pulling for you. IMHO, therapy is worth every penny. As difficult as it is to finance and undergo, it's an investment in your future. Better times ahead! With affection, Mrs. B

Posted by: Mrs. Tarquin Biscuitbarrel at April 6, 2007 08:03 AM

As a graduate student in English, I feel it's my responsibility to give DavidByron a lesson in reading comprehension. DavidByron says:
Your marriage would have been better and you'd both have benefited if you'd learned to drive it seems. The fact that you didn't is not one persons fault.

During her post, Natasha makes these claims:
He wouldn't let me learn how to drive; he said that because I didn't know how to ride a bike that I wouldn't be good at handling a car.

He still wouldn't let me learn how to drive and I had no money to pay for lessons. . .

Additionally, DavidByron, recall that Natasha was 18 when they married; it is not that unusual for people to wait a few years past 16 to get a driver's license. Perhaps you could actually read the post next time before you start bleating like a deranged sheep.

Posted by: batgirl at April 6, 2007 09:07 AM

I had a boyfriend like this when I was 18. He did manage to inflict enough emotional damage that I started cutting myself, even though I was far away from him in college.

Posted by: Nymphalidae at April 6, 2007 11:47 AM

Natasha--thank you for this. This was excellent, and very brave. I dealt with that shit for too long myself.

I'm sorry you have to deal with another ignorant, misogynist, abusive suckhole, aka, David Byron. He has a long, pathetic history on the internet.

Posted by: Sheelzebub at April 6, 2007 01:41 PM

Natasha, thank you for this. It's excellent, and you are very brave to write about it. I've been through this shit before myself.

As for the abusive loser suckhole David Byron, he's got a long and pathetic history on the internet.

Posted by: Sheelzebub at April 6, 2007 01:44 PM

I thought this was very well done. Some people go completely apeshit about domestic finances at parties you now? Or, only very few, very strange people.

The last four or five paragraphs really get it really well. Three cheers for some reality in a conversation about this subject.

Posted by: Dave at April 6, 2007 06:34 PM