Most of today was spent designing a book for my organization's newest domestic abuse program, which included a section of quotes from battered Jewish women. None of them were terribly dramatic; actually they were quite concise and matter-of-fact, which somehow made them even more powerful. I've met most of these women before - spoken to them at the domestic violence conferences we run every couple years - but to see their stories in stark black and white, sitting alone in my office with no distractions, that brought it home for me.
At first I was sad. And then angry. And then I started to shake a little because I remembered how easily it could have been me.
Our first inclination is to shake a finger at these women and ask, "How could you let it happen? Why didn't you just walk out the door?" We don't understand that it's impossible to see a situation as a "situation" when you're looking at it from the inside. Good God, I thought again and again today, it could have been me. I am so strong, so aware, my take-no-crap policy is so firm... and still it could have been me.
All the times my ex-boyfriend S snapped at me for singing in the car, when he squeezed my arm too tight and pulled me too hard while we were crossing the street, when he put me down with subtle comments only someone tuned into my deepest insecurities would know to use... His explosive, hair-trigger temper with strangers in shops, at the movies, on the street. The way he pushed and manipulated me the first time we had sex - I never said "no," but I didn't really have a chance to say "yes." Even when he would tickle me too hard and too long until I couldn't breathe, until I was begging him to stop. And of course there was the biting. Beneath all his affectionate gestures was an undercurrent of resentment and anger that came up slowly as our relationship wore on. From the outside it was a clear pattern of aggression -- made worse, I think, by the fact that he was nearly twice my size -- but at the time, in the thick of it, I couldn't see the forest through the trees. I wanted so much to make us work.
S works in law enforcement, and while we were dating he was involved in prosecuting a man who brutally murdered his girlfriend. I saw the photos; it was horrific. In the months he spent preparing the case S would wonder aloud, over and over, "I just can't understand how a man could do a thing like that." The more I got to know him the more I could hear what he really was saying: "I understand how a man could do a thing like that. I could do a thing like that, and I hope to God I never will." I think he finally broke up with me because he realized what he was capable of and it terrified him.
So why didn't I leave? Why did I try harder and harder to make it right when I should have just walked out the door? The same reasons all women stay: We had as many good times as bad and he could be so sweet, so charming. My family adored him. I adored his family. I felt responsible for him, almost maternally so, and I thought that with enough nurturing I could lead him to the inner peace he so desperately wanted to find.
And there was his dream of this "perfect life": With his connections (he had many) and my...whatever he thought I brought to the table, he envisioned us as a team that would send poor kids to college, end world hunger, and be the D.C. Power Couple everyone expected us to become. "You'll be the brains of the operation," he used to say, "and I'll be the face." (This is the danger in socializing children to desire a lifestyle, instead of a life of their own creation.) Most of what he promised didn't much appeal to me, but his ambition was infectious and I eventually warmed to the idea of a number of things, most of them material, that I've since cleared from my vision of the future.
S is not an evil man, he has a big heart and a serious behavioral problem, not unlike a hyperactive child. Last winter I agreed to meet him for a drink but he canceled at the last minute saying it was too painful for him to be in the same room with me knowing we couldn't be together. Last spring I again agreed to see him for a few hours and things quickly became uncomfortable. (I know, you're wondering what the hell is wrong with me, but understand that it's very easy to want to make peace with an ex when you're 100 percent confident that you will never, ever, ever want him back. Ever.)
I curled up in a chair at Starbucks. S sat next to me with his hand resting on my foot. He ran down a list of all his friends and what was new in their lives: Engaged. Married. New House. New Baby.
"I'm going to be 39 this year," he said, tracing my ankle bone with his finger. It turned my stomach. "I want to have a family. I think about you a lot and I know nobody will ever take care of me the way you could." I couldn't bring myself to say 'You must be fucking kidding me' -- he looked so vulnerable it kind of broke my heart -- so I let my silence speak for itself.
He kept smiling but I could tell he was hurt, and on the way out the door, when nobody was around, he started to tickle me. The mean way. He dug his fist into my armpit and didn't stop until my eyes stung with tears. A half hour later at home, I sat down on my bed and touched the tender spot he'd knuckled into my side, wondering why I hadn't thrown my elbow into his ribs, crushed his toe with my heel, something. The answer is the difference between S and me: I may have a wicked temper, I may think nasty thoughts from time to time, but when it comes down to it I just don't have it in me to willfully damage another person.
S called last week to wish me a happy new year and ask if I'd like to have lunch. "No agenda this time," he swore, "I just thought it'd be nice to see your face." I told him I was busy, but of course that wasn't true. It's simply time to stop playing this game. He's no longer my responsibility and no longer my problem. And let's not forget -- let's not ever forget -- it could have been me.