On facing abuse
- This post is personal in nature, it focuses on domestic violence although it is not limited to domestic violence, and it describes what I've learnt of violence (mainly in relation to myself with reference to my class). It is by no means intended to speak for every woman, neither am I anywhere near certain that I've got it right. I've used the term 'abusive situation' as opposed to 'abusive relationship' simply because public discourse (in India) relating to domestic violence is largely limited to domestic violence perpetrated against wives by husbands and in-laws, almost completely ignoring other forms of domestic violence (including that perpetrated by natal families).
- I've also written of episodes of domestic violence earlier (here) in a post which isn't an accurate depiction of events.
I woke up from dream feeling happier than I had for a long time. I’d dreamt of a rape. Not mine. A rapist who was caught — I shot a gun at the wall behind him; I don’t know what I was doing there. Part of the wall disintegrated and shards went flying (like in The Matrix). The rapist transformed into a lizard, transported to gaol in a Styrofoam mug. In pieces. The rapist-lizard was in pieces, that is, but alive. The man from law enforcement in charge of the mug put it under the transportation jeep’s seat; the lizard escaped. And, after that, police files of the investigation began to go missing.
I woke up at that point, feeling happy. I’d shot in the general direction of the rapist. And a wall broke.
I believe that violence travels through generations, with each generation becoming trained to accept some degree of abuse (both domestic and otherwise) — when there are (or appear to be) no options available, abuse becomes the norm. I know that I don’t believe in the possibility of living life entirely free of abuse; I never have done so except over the last year or so, and I have no expectation of not having to deal with abuse in the years to come. The odds are simply not in my favour considering crime rates and anecdotal evidence.
Popular myth says that women who do not belong to ‘the lower classes’ escape abuse. In all probability, the myth achieves nothing apart from making it that much harder for testimonies of abuse (which do not fit into acceptable stereotype) to be considered credible. Abuse (especially within domestic and intimate relationships) amongst the so-called upper classes is rarely spoken of. The only people who have a voice are the privileged, and (unless it is perpetrated by someone of a ‘lower class’), for the most part, the privileged do not speak of abuse faced by their own — some are, of course, perpetrators of abuse themselves. Others largely choose to ignore that they know anyone who is abusive. The standard response to hearing of abuse within one’s own circle has always often been, ‘That’s not the man I know.’ And, of course, if no one acknowledges knowing anyone who is abusive within their own circle, the abuse itself becomes invisible.
Abusive relationships do not generally begin as abusive relationships. And sometimes, once abuse begins, it simply doesn’t follow patterns which resemble the generally accepted ‘cycle of violence’ (that roughly goes from a honeymoon period to a tension-building stage followed by an abusive episode and back again). Amongst the wealthy, in particular, the honeymoon period may simply be absent, the violence entirely unrelenting. The words ‘amongst the wealthy’ are misleading though; they should be ‘amongst the seemingly wealthy’ — within an abusive situation, the existence of money can be meaningless as far as a woman subjected to abuse is concerned; the image of her being wealthy can easily be ludicrous in comparison to the possible reality of her having access to no money at all, which is not to say that a lack of access to money is inevitable or that money is all that matters. (Even if a woman subjected to abuse does have access to money, considerations such as the lack of a support structure, custody issues, societal pressures and religious beliefs, among many other factors, can tie a woman to an abusive situation just as surely as the possibility of bankruptcy.)
I know that in abusive situations, I have never once seen a cycle involving a honeymoon period. And that, despite persistently feeling unsafe, I have never made the attempt to leave an abusive situation quite simply because it never occurred to me that leaving was an option even though there have been times when, by any ‘objective’ standard, I’ve had the resources to be able do so. And I probably would have if I hadn’t lost myself.
That’s something which isn’t often clear to people who are not in an abusive situation: it isn’t entirely about abusive episodes alone, relentless or not. It can also be about having your identity chipped away at till you no longer know who you are, till you can see nothing good in yourself (assuming you can see yourself at all), and till your entire being is consumed with nothing beyond doing whatever it takes not to ‘provoke’ (so it seems to you) more abuse — which, as it turns out, is invariably impossible because the bar is always set higher and higher, setting you up to fail, eroding a little bit more of yourself each time you ‘invite’ more abuse by failing. It may seem as though the only person who can make you feel better is the abuser, and you could easily become more and more desperate for validation from, ironically, the one person who’s left you in pieces and who is supremely unlikely to ever give you any validation. Except that you may not see that, and the thought leaving may not occur to you. It may not even occur to you to define abuse as abuse at the time.
This is obviously not the only reason why women remain in abusive situations; there are other stories too, and the list of obstacles women face when it comes to leaving abusive situations is seemingly endless.
What I’ve learnt though is asking ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ is one of the most unproductive questions it is possible to ask, not to mention one of the most intrusive. The fact of the matter is that women who are abused do not generally choose to be in or stay in abusive situations because they have any particular desire to do so or be abused. If there are questions which need to be asked, they are questions which address why an abuser was abusive, how an abuser can be stopped from being abusive, and what society (and State) could do to attempt to keep from failing to provide women who have been abused the infrastructure and support required to be able to safely exit abusive situations.
Abuse is not a relationship problem; it is a legal offence if not a crime. To place the onus entirely on a woman who has been abused to leave an abusive situation is ridiculous. If not anything else, in the case of abusive relationships, the time when a woman leaves and immediately after is likely to be the most unsafe time for her. And leaving aside considerations of physical safety and societal support, even if one has the best of intentions, and is attempting to respect the autonomy of a woman who has been subjected to abuse (by suggesting that she handle it and by leaving the choice of whether or not to leave to her), as Autumn Whitefield-Madrano has explained, unless that respect is coupled with an understanding of abuse it 'can too easily lapse into a hands-off approach'.
The degree of autonomy and capability which women in abusive situations have is questionable, to say the least. And, although women may be obliged to participate in abuse against themselves by their abusers, contrary to popular belief, women do not teach abusive men how to treat them. As has been argued: ‘To say that we are treated the way we teach others to treat us [makes women responsible for male violence against themselves, and] is to speak from a dominant point of view, dismissing the reality of females completely, not to mention the reality of all dominated races & classes’.
Autonomy, sadly, doesn’t magically reappear in full force upon no longer being in an abusive situation. It isn’t necessarily about just about the ‘big’ things; it’s also about the ‘small’ stuff. Getting up in the morning and deciding whether to fry an egg or boil it could seem like a daunting decision to have to make — when your sense of self is eroded, having to make even the most insignificant decisions can potentially feel like having to face a series of insurmountable obstacles.
Being in an abusive situation feels a little like being imprisoned. You take each day as it comes, and focus on surviving that day without considering anything but the present. It’s only later, when you’re no longer in an abusive situation, that it’s possible to truly make sense of the past, to connect seemingly independent events so as to view the past as a coherent whole (in all its wretchedness) — something it may have been impossible to do whilst still in an abusive situation simply because of having had to focus on getting through each day independently. And, for exactly the same reason, constructing a vision of the future could seem every bit as difficult as making sense of the past.
It may feel as though there is no future when one is in an abusive situation; there may just be the present. Once one is no longer in an abusive situation, accepting the past and integrating one’s knowledge of it with what one imagines of the future isn’t easy. It’s a long, often arduous, journey which (even if one is lucky enough to have support) is not made any easier by the seeming omnipresence of triggers that have the potential to remind one of abuse.
Knowing that there may not have been much you could have done to change the course of events in the past detracts from the 'kindergarten spirituality' (to borrow a term Mark Doty used in Heaven's Coast in another context) which enables all of us to believe that each one of us alone charts the course of our own life. And knowing that violence has an awful tendency to travel through generations is anything but reassuring.
Update: It's also worth bearing in mind that the line of thought which says that abused persons should file cases against their abusers often completely ignores both the dynamics of abusive relationships and ground realities. If not anything else, invoking and 'working' the legal system requires more attentiveness than most of us have on our best days; to expect an abused person to be able to leverage the legal system to address abuse is optimistic (to say the least).