For International Women’s Day I’m sharing a piece from Ali Millar-McKeeken about her experience of domestic abuse.
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By the time he takes my keys I don’t think anything of it. I don’t think I’m locked in a flat with a toddler. I don’t think I’d arranged to meet friends and planned to do the weekly shop. I don’t think it’s strange either that he’s taken my phone. Easy to do he says, when he gets home at 6.30 and places them both on the kitchen work surface, just grabbed them when I left this morning.
Easy to do, I think.
My mother always said to me – if someone hits you, leave them. I thought knowing this made me a strong woman, I thought this made me savvy. Grabbing someone by the arm and pulling them down the hallway is not hitting. Constantly poking fun and laughing at someone for the things they like is not hitting. Undermining someone, telling them they will fail at all the things they want to try, telling someone what to wear, what’s acceptable, what makes them lovable, desirable, these things are not physical, and so it is not clear cut, this injuring of someone. Hard then, to know to leave, when all the little daily tricks mess with your mind and you learn to accept the situation you’re in, because there’s nothing wrong with it, is there?
Apart from maybe that nagging feeling that there is something wrong. Something somewhere feels terribly wrong, but it must be you, right? You’re the one to blame cos there was that time you wore the wrong skirt or didn’t smile when you were told to or didn’t have the dinner on the table at the right time or looked the wrong way at the guy serving drinks – it’s always your fault, and the only thing that’s wrong is you. Best then to try harder, to listen more to the voiced ideas that everything about you is wrong and try to change and try to work harder, try to look better, try to make the house shine more, try to make your child behave more, look more cute, post more pictures of perfection until you’re so fucking tired from all of it that you don’t have the energy left to remember something was wrong in the first place. It’s just life isn’t it, just the pressures of being a grown up. You’re too young to know better, too old to be so naïve.
Violence, and more specifically violence against women, is a male issue. 90% of murders in America are carried out by men. You can’t argue that away.
It’s not as clear cut as if someone raises their fist. If only it were. If only it was about being hit, it would be so much easier to spot, so much easier to do something about. Bullies, though, are sneaky, which is essentially what every domestic abuser is. At the heart of the abuse is someone hoping to gain control, to exert more control, to make themselves feel better. Fragile egos seek fragile women. Or, fragile egos seek strong women to belittle. Or even, fragile ego seeks woman. That’s how the classified would read, the Guardian Soulmate section.
Yes, women are also domestic abusers – but not to such an extent men are and I don’t want to dismiss the issue of how many women suffer here – but when it comes to violence, it’s essential we begin to look at it as an issue of gender. A refusal to look at it in this way doesn’t help anyone. In the wake of Trump trumpeting on about the Muslim threat a meme started to do the rounds, stating maybe Trump might want to ban white men; I can’t help but think maybe he might want to ban partners, with 11,766 women dying as a result of partner abuse between 2001 and 2012. A staggering 30% of domestic violence in the UK begins during pregnancy, calling into question exactly who the abuser is abusing.
But there’s a step from violence to domestic abuse, surely. Violence, we believe happens outside the home. We like to think that violent crime is something that happens to other people, much like aging, it’s something we’ll escape, something we can do something about. And so we make sure we walk home on well lit paths or take a cab or install burglar alarms and better locks to keep ourselves above crime, we barricade ourselves in our houses where we are safe, where it can’t happen.
Only it can. And that’s the terrifying thing. But in the home surely the motivating factors for the abuser are different than the drunk in the pub brawl, the opportunist mugger out after dark. The intent, it’s possible to argue when it comes to domestic abuse, is worse. It would also be possible to argue the abuser doesn’t know what they are doing, to blame it on personality disorders, upbringing, problems of their own. But then, most people with personality disorders don’t hurt people, and don’t hurt people they’re supposed to love. Best then not to argue it away, and look at the ugly facts head on. Best then to learn how to recognise when a pattern of behaviour is damaging, when it’s not quite right, when patriarchal roles – which some people live contentedly within – tip into an imbalance of power, and intended damage to the other person, whether it be physical or emotional. Not knowing what you’re doing isn’t an excuse, at some level you know it’s wrong to damage another person.
When he took my keys I was so far removed from an understanding of what was a healthy functioning relationship, that it seemed normal. It was my normal. A few weeks later, slightly drunk and in a pub toilet cubicle, I saw a poster listing signs of domestic abuse. I sat there with my pants round my ankles, not too sure what to think. The writing was on the wall, quite literally, and I knew I had to do something about it. I knew it wasn’t me, knew I’d been played and all the times I’d been told I was mad, crazy, hard to handle, difficult to love, maybe those things weren’t true either, there was the glimmer of the possibility that maybe, maybe I might be sane after all.
I thought being abused made me a weak woman. I thought it made me foolish and gullible, I thought how pathetic, that the only person who’d love me was a bully who didn’t really love me anyway.
How wrong I was.
A wise friend recently said to me, you can’t change what happens in life, the only thing you can control is how you react to it.
It’s in the aftermath, the reaction, that the test of strength comes. My vulnerabilities certainly made me susceptible to the type of relationship I found myself in, but I wasn’t to blame for the behaviour of someone else. Now, I do not blame myself, I only wish I’d realised what was happening sooner, and left sooner than I did.
Ten years and a whole other life later, I am faced with the responsibility of raising both boys and girls. I won’t tell my daughters that if someone hits them they leave, I won’t let life be that clear cut. My oldest is nearly 11, she’s already facing bullies at school, snide remarks from boys about her appearance, and so we sit and talk about what maybe the boy is really feeling. Is he feeling undermined, is he fragile, is he weak for doing this to her, we do the same when girls are being nasty. I am teaching her, I hope, to recognise bullying behaviour as a weakness on the part of the other person, that what they say only reflects the inadequacies they feel, and not something that’s wrong with her. I hope that in doing this, and continuing to talk about the issues that come with being female, that she learns how to keep herself safe.
As for my sons, I often feel raising boys is a huge challenge, everyone says oh boys are so much easier, they’re like dogs, feed them and let them run around, and yes, to a point they are. My boys are pretty feral, they need lots of exercise, lots of food, but they are also fragile little things too and it’s so easy to see how the psyche of a boy can be damaged early on by dismissing the more complex parts of their personality and telling them to man up. I won’t tell my boys to man up, I won’t tell them to stop crying because that’s not what boys do; I won’t teach them either that mummy does everything for them and is only there to serve their every whim. Just as because you’re a girl isn’t a reason for anything, because you’re a boy isn’t either. Just because violence is currently a male issue, it doesn’t mean it needs to stay that way. The only way to change things and to challenge the norm is to talk about them, the more we talk about this, the more we see domestic violence as an issue that can be solved without resorting to victim blaming, the more hope we have of a better future, for both genders.