A memory came into my head when I awoke this morning after battling a fever. When it broke, I felt a sudden release and relaxation and with it came the image of a cheap and small magnet of a cat, with its fur puffed up, looking grumpy under freshly fallen snow. The caption read something about hating cold weather. It was supposed to be funny, but it mostly encapsulated to me “corny mom humor” and gave me a chuckle more than a laugh when I first viewed it.
This magnet was owned by my abuser’s mother. It was one of the first things I spied when I met her in that tiny kitchen for the first time in a home tucked away and down a long winding small town road. I remember feeling happy to be meeting his family. I remember feeling closer to him. And I remember feeling sad because I rarely saw my own and didn’t feel good enough to invite my abuser to meet them. His mother was a simple woman who passionately loved her son. I felt it was unfair of my abuser and (upon later meeting her) his sister for putting so much pressure on this fragile woman. Like with many southern and poor families, their mother had to shoulder more of the responsibilities to raise them than she ought to have. After she left her first abusive and drunk husband and then when she married my abuser’s less-than-present current husband (who had walked out on several other marriages prior to theirs), all of the raising of the children and most of the providing for them landed on her shoulders. And in the spirit of a social system that never seems to account for the circumstances of women, they condemned her for all the failings the family experienced. She could never rise to the platform of where she ought to have been. How she ought to have acted. She was crucified by them while the men that contributed to her children’s creation blamelessly exited out the backdoor with a shrug and a swig of whiskey.
Strangely, the only trauma my abuser seems to have had stemmed from his mother. He was embarrassed by her slow brain and her simple tastes. He hated her emotional frailness and how she lived these days alone in front of her television mostly.
Back in those days, we spent a lot of time at that old musty wooden house. It had a rusted trampoline and walnut trees in the fenced off backyard. There was a worn-out white shed with a broken ping-pong table we repaired and played on for hours. There were three old dogs from his childhood that would follow us with smelly breath and matted fur. In those days, it felt like we were children again except with a lot of sex. He liked to have it all over the place including the shed and yes, even on the trampoline (I liked its bounce, but he hated it and told me to stop).
We played chess on the back patio.
We played kickball.
We lit a bonfire by the old rusted cars his father collected and it blazed to high summery heaven.
These memories were nice. They made me feel relaxed and happy. And they made me forget those occasional but increasing nights when he would get so angry. When suddenly not a chair or dish were safe. Where I’d be making phone calls in the morning to have another door replaced after he’d smashed it in. One day, a window inside his mother’s house got shattered because I couldn’t readily think of a quick enough and good enough compliment for a song he’d written. I remember saying I liked it, but he didn’t believe me. I hadn’t convinced him. And smash! Glass was broken.
Then there was the sex again. By that point it was becoming less fun and more expected then suddenly I was being coerced. “We used to have it all the time!” he’d inform me, listing off mathematically how often we’d had it our first year versus our third year. We had to keep up. We had to continue at that speed or else I didn’t love him. Or else we were boring like his parents. Or else I’m a prude. Or else his dick is going to stop working one day and then I’d be sorry.
He would say this in his literal childhood bed with his baseball hats and trophies shelved above our heads across from an ancient computer that still had the old games on it from the 2000s. The day I was raped surrounded by his boyhood mementos felt particularly surreal.
And I think….. I understood why he didn’t feel sorry for it. How my comfort didn’t matter. How my consent wasn’t of interest to him. I don’t know when he decided women were meant to pander to him. When he looked at his mother and thought, “you are the one I will now and forever blame for my dissatisfaction.” But it was clearly written in his soul now. And no one was correcting him. In fact, much of the world around us was reinforcing it.
Ironically, as he raged over his mother’s limited capacities and what she owed him, there was no one to tell me whether my feeling towards my father and his angry fists were warranted. I spent much of my life at the moment pushing the memories of that away. I was trying to make my peace with it. Although there was still a part of me that relied on my father and would call him if it got bad enough. Even though I know what he did to me was wrong. Even though I know that a child shouldn’t have been raised to memorize the sounds his footsteps made in the stairway. I needed him. I was still broken, and a piece of me he still had, taken and hidden inside of his back pocket somewhere. A piece I would occasionally come back and ask for as he’d fain ignorance and deny it all.
No one told me this might normalize what my abuser was increasingly starting to do to me. In fact, there was no mention in the books I read or the cinema I watched of domestic brainwashing or sexual coercion. There was no How To manual for when Prince Charming starts to smash dishes and call you a whore right after a pleasant evening with his family.
Already I was weighing my options. I was calculating the risks. And my own capacities. In truth, abuse was something I had handled before, and this time was different because I genuinely loved this man. With enough time and energy the behaviors will be corrected, I reasoned, and all that would be left in our memories would be the summer bonfires, the wagging of dog tails, and our tall leaps on an old trampoline covered in leaves.
They call it denial, and they say it like its the simplest of summations to my experiences. But it felt more like I was at war with two entities– there was a tug-of-war between the man inside of my abuser and the monster that held court on occasion. It didn’t occur to me that maybe that monster was his true face. I couldn’t accept that. The monster was just a byproduct of pain. Overtime I’d find a solution and we’d banish him, and we’d do it together. Both he and I. Free to love each other. Finally free of the interference. But I know now with the absolute certainty of someone who expended all options. As someone who dove deep into places I knew there was no returning from unscathed. I touched that inky black void inside of him and with him. We both knelt and examined it. We talked about the solutions. What we had to do to pry it up and get it out of him. It didn’t occur to me that the void was him. Not an unwelcome guest. But him in essence. Whether that was by choice or not was irrelevant– there was no loosening that rock. It was embedded into his very Being. To lose that was to lose himself, and there’s nothing in this world, including me, worthy of that sacrifice.
“You know he hates you,” the voice in my head said to me after I was done recalling this memory of us from eight years ago. I got up from bed and walked downstairs.
I am unaffected by the voice now. I barely even acknowledge it because I have already conquered most of her arguments with the time and honest contemplation of last year. “No,” I told her. “He doesn’t hate me. He hates an idea of me that he created. ‘Me,’ as he understood it, never existed. I had no agency. What he hates is himself. That construct is merely a stand-in until he finds another woman to fill that role.”
“But you love him.”
“I loved him,” I quickly corrected. “And there is no shame in changing ones mind. I do not love him now. Nor do I hate him. And simply put, he doesn’t actually hate me either. To not actually be able to attach to someone– to only see them in the abstract– well, it’s why he almost killed me. I mean, it could hardly be called murder, right? To kill a woman that doesn’t actually exist.”
“But you do exist,” the voice pointed out.
“Yes, I exist,” I agreed. “I exist. And I am alive. And I existed then also. But ironically, the man beside me didn’t. Not really. The man beside me was an actor. And I was playing a role right along with him. But now I’m off the stage, and I’m home again. Breathing my own breath. Speaking my own thoughts, unafraid of the affect that might bring if I veer off from his script.”
“But how do you know you’re not like him?”
And there it was. The darkest thought that batters away at each victim when they’re finally outside of it all. The ball under the cup that zips around with a slight of hand. Where is the culprit? Who is the villain? Was her bruises really that big of a deal? Surely he didn’t actually try to murder her. And why didn’t she report the rape if it was so bad?
I took a deep breath and walked into my kitchen. What used to be our kitchen. I took a mug off the hook by the stove. It had a cat on it, and I filled it with hot water from the kettle.
“We try so hard not to cast judgment on others. To not tell them their reality is wrong. We try to stay humble and hear the words of the other side respectfully so maybe we can grow and better understand a thing or two we didn’t otherwise before. We don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people even though most of us are exactly that. We rarely pick a side or stand up for anyone if it means jeopardizing our own ambitious chances at getting something we want. We polish the thrones of those we admire without pausing to consider if they’re actually owed that allegiance. We are all so easily convinced to follow along even when something horrible is happening right in front of our eyes. We are all so very easily and completely complicit to the monsters that create havoc around us. Convinced its the fault of those being consumed. Who weren’t careful enough. Who didn’t make the right kinds of friends. Who spoke up when they should have been quiet or who were quiet when they should’ve spoken up….. The only thing I regret is my own silence. That, and that I gave away so much of my power. I might have had a fighting chance if I had kept it. Especially with how easy it is to cast doubt upon a woman’s words. But a fighting chance at what….?”
I found a box of ginger tea and put a bag in my cup. I let it seep and waited patiently.
“I still remember what he said to me– about how he didn’t mind taking everything away from me because he knew I could survive it while, if the roles were reversed, he couldn’t. It was honest, what he said. He meant it. And I knew it was true. He wouldn’t have been able to survive without what he’d stolen. And he knew, despite his demonizing me, that I could never harm him like he so easily harmed me. Remorse was simply not an emotion he expressed. And all those things he did he did out of desperation. To feed that beast which gives him no rest…..I know I’m not him because….. I didn’t need any of the things he took. I thought maybe I did. I thought I’d be ruined without them, but really, I thought I wouldn’t be believe. And I was right. But the weight of that betrayal is on those who operate in that world. Not on me. I shouldn’t have to be important to be believed. I shouldn’t have to even be liked to be helped. Not in the world I choose. And if the world he chooses to exist in does that. If the world he chooses to exist in gives him the space to exploit that…. well, that’s okay. I know I’m not him because I’m okay with the judgment. I’m okay with being condemned for my own sins, but they need to be my sins, and well…..”
I took out the tea bag and tossed it in the trash then blew on the top of my mug. “I’m not him because I can have these moments. These rare and perfect moments in my kitchen. At peace. Because I’m not hiding anything. I have no time for monsters or sycophants. I am no longer operating in denial– denial of what he was, denial of what he was doing, and denial of the violations to my own sovereignty.”
“You will never be the same,” reminded the voice.
And this was also a very real and sad truth that no longer drove me to the depression that used to scrap at my brain whenever it was brought up. Now, I merely ease into it– the reality I’ve come to accept. “No, I am not the same. I will never be the same. But at least I’m free now.”
I sipped from my ginger tea. Took the mug with me. And I started my day.