Victims of Domestic Violence: We're Not Who They Say We Are
The Prince That Soon Turned Into a Frog
When I was in college, I worked in a high-end retail store. One of my friends at the store was dating an exchange student. She was understandably excited when he invited her to visit his home and family in the Middle East. He gladly paid for her flight and all expenses.
She was so pretty, inside and out; she was also a good student and one of our top sales associates. She had many friends and a few admirers that often came to see her at the store. I admit, I was a little jealous of the news. She was bursting with excitement over her trip. She mentioned over and over and over that he was some kind of prince, which got pretty annoying and made all of us wish that she would just leave already.
She was only supposed to be gone for 2 weeks; as two weeks turned into three, our manager started grumbling to us that she would have to fire her if she didn't get her butt back to work.
Just as our manager had committed to firing her, her parents called and said their daughter was trapped in the Middle East. They said she wanted to come home, but as soon as she got to his palace - he really was some kind of prince - he took her passport, travel visa and money; he refused to let her leave. I'm not even sure how they got her home (although I'm sure it involved some diplomatic finagling). When she finally returned, about a week later than she planned, she was a different girl. The innocent sparkle was gone from her eyes.
I remember thinking she was faking it. That she just wanted to stay over there a little longer so lied about being kidnapped. But looking back, even a couple years later, at how drastically she changed in three short weeks, I knew that not only had he imprisoned her, but probably assaulted her as well.
She quit not long after getting back, and I never saw her again.
A Charmed Life
When I was little, it was expected that I would grow up and become something really special. It's not that I did grow up and become anything special, but it was always a possibility. People in my family always grew up to be something special. Being a woman had no bearing on anything; the women in my family did not necessarily go on to do great things on a global or even national scale, but many of them were well-educated and returned home to give back to their communities.
Until I was about 9, my life was perfect. I had a family that loved me. I was not abused. I had enough friends and enough relatives. My family had money. I had a pony. I remember getting spanked one time for piling all my stuff into my closet when I was supposed to be putting everything in its place. My mother felt horribly guilty for even that one spanking, and it was never repeated.
Then, in the late 1970s, everything started falling apart. We moved to another state. My parents divorced. My grandparents lost their farm because my grandfather fell ill with Alzheimer's. Then he died. My great-aunt had a heart attack and died the same year. All this was too much for my grandmother, who started drinking in earnest again not long after the death of my grandfather.
Soon after, my mother married a jovial yet violent, quick-tempered man. That lasted about a year and even though I knew he was abusive, I never really witnessed it. She remarried several years later to a really great guy who was more of a father to me than my own, oddball dad. So my life was pretty normal again. I finished high school, worked for a while, then went back to school on a music scholarship. I failed my core language requirement, French, so inexplicably took Russian instead. I loved it.
I started travelling to Russia in 1993. The second summer I was there, I met Sergei.
No, It Doesn't Make Any Sense but Yes, We Do Love Them
People wonder why we stay with men who beat us. Well, we don't. We don't stay with that guy, the guy that keeps hitting us. We stay with the good guy that shares that body, the one that treats us better than anyone else ever has, the one who takes excellent care of us, sometimes at the expense of his own health and happiness. We wouldn't ever stay with that other guy. We'd dump that other guy in a heartbeat; not only do we hate him, we are also deathly afraid of him.
We stay because of the good guy. Those men cry over us. Horrible, awful tears filled with such sadness that the angels cry for them. They profess their love - horrific, all-encompassing love - for us constantly. And regardless of how horrible that love is, we have trouble shunning the light.
So often, these men have been shattered and reassembled so many times that even they don't know how the pieces stay together.
Sergei's father was a terrible man. During his childhood, his father maintained a constant state of drunkenly cheating on his wife and beating his children. More often than not, he wasted all his paycheck on alcohol, most times before payday was over. His mother would howl and wail over it, mostly from the pain of knowing that, without the humiliation of asking her brothers for help again, they wouldn't be able to feed their two small children.
Sergei told me about the time that his father took Sergei and his younger sister to their garden plot, far outside of town, to weed through the vegetables his mother planted to make sure they'd have food to eat. His father dropped them off in the middle of the day, drove back into town, then got so drunk that he forgot about them. Sergei was about 7 years old and his sister even younger.
They spent the night sleeping between the garden rows, no blankets or pillows on which to lay their tired bodies, not knowing when their drunken father would return. Their mother was at home, frantic with worry; she had no idea where her husband had taken her babies. This was only one of many terrible stories Sergei told about his father.
I'm not saying this is a reason - especially isn't a good reason - to abuse another human being. But reason has no place in abuse. It's more like ... we're the only one who can crack that shell they've built to hide that pain, and they are so grateful for us seeing it, and yet hate us at the same time. Hate us with every spark of their being. And then they are overcome with sickness, and they think we are the antidote but we're not. And they hate us for it. They hate us so much they can barely stand it.
Of course none of this is our fault, but I admit that there were times I stayed because I felt tremendous guilt in leaving the poor, hurt Sergei that desperately needed far more help than I could ever possibly give him. But I certainly wasn't willing to die for him.
Misconceptions About Female Victims of Domestic Violence
I admit that I was very foolish to stay with Sergei, but it was difficult to leave someone I loved so much, and who did so much for me. He would go for many months without so much as raising his voice at me, but we would inevitably fall back into the pattern of abuse. There was a moment when he almost took my life, which was the moment that even my love couldn't overcome. I left. He nearly killed me again but I pushed through that, too.
Although I know now that I was quite foolish for loving him so much, I get tired of seeing victims of domestic violence portrayed as backwoods mental incompetents who can barely read, let alone fend for themselves. I also grow tired of the idea that educated, strong women can never fall victim to an abuser. I'm here to tell you that any woman can be a victim. And that chance increases with every drop of love you put into a bad relationship. These are just a few of the misconceptions about abused women:
- Our self-confidence is lacking. Sergei was not only handsome, but also funny and smart. He had a prestigious career as an officer in the Russian National Honour Guard. He was a student at one of Russia's best colleges. When we went to visit his mother in the south, he was welcomed home like a National Hero. People imagine abusers as they're portrayed in Lifetime movies: Clumsy, stupid, inarticulate, and unable to hold a job or maintain friendships. In other words, caricatures that almost never exist in real life. Many abusers are highly desirable men whose dark, inner selves are never betrayed by their shiny, happy exteriors. The women they choose to date are equally attractive, interesting and intelligent.
- We know how abusive they are early on. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know how to spot an abuser now, but before, I fell for the "Knight in Shining Armor" façade hook, line and sinker. Abusers are the most perfect people you will ever date in your whole life. They never argue with you. They never contradict you. They do things that seem very nurturing and caring, but to the extreme. (Have you ever thought how weird it would be for a guy to put his coat down on a muddy street for you to walk on it? Yeah, they do stuff like that.) They create the sense that you can rely on them for anything and everything, to the point that you stop relying even on yourself. They flatter you beyond reason. They prop you up when propping is not required. And the funny thing? Most women will fall for it, and fall hard. And then it's too late. And the worst part is that when the abuse starts, everyone watching from the outside still thinks he's the perfect catch; no one has any idea of the horrors he is visiting upon you.
- We're weak and don't stand up for ourselves. How many rounds could you last in the ring with Mike Tyson? That's what it's like, fighting these men who are far stronger and faster than we are. Many of us fight back verbally and even physically. I constantly fought back, but always had to give up because Sergei was so much stronger and faster than me. In fact, there was a time when he was in training to be a boxer; his slender build hid his fantastic speed and strength. I can't even remember what we were arguing about, the night he broke my rib. But I remember going into the kitchen to get away from him and him following me, and him being so angry! One blow nearly broke my rib in half. I had trouble breathing; when I complained about the pain, he started in on beating my arms black and purple. I could hardly breathe and couldn't lift my arms. He imprisoned me in our apartment for 3 days; it was on the ninth floor of an apartment building in a far away suburb of Moscow, and it was the dead of Russian winter. The neighbors heard me calling out for help - they couldn't not hear me - but no help came. He even tore the phone out of the wall. Tell me: Does that make me weak?
- We're looking for someone to take care of us. In a way, this is true. I can always pick out the "Strong Woman" because she's the one who's tired. Exhausted. FED. UP. WITH. EVERYONE. It's a lot of work, carrying the load of everything on your back. And we're not selfish enough to be Atlas and just shrug it off. So we look for strong, interesting people who live with passion and take risks. And if we find that person, we hold on to them. And unfortunately, if they're abusive, then we'll probably end up clinging to them to the bitter end, regardless of how much we resent it.
- We're too dumb to figure out how to leave. In Russia, your passport is worth several times its weight in gold. Sergei took my passport and travel visa for "safe keeping" and wouldn't give them back. And then he "gave it to a friend," so for a while I really had no idea where it was. He took the little money I had. My airplane ticket had expired. Because I hadn't registered my travel visa, even if I still had it, I was pretty much in the country illegally. The door to our apartment could be locked from the outside, so he would leave for hours, locking me in my 9th floor prison with no possibility of escape. I had no way to get into Moscow, to the US Embassy. An embassy, by the way, that is infamous for not helping US citizens with anything, ever. Yeah, I could have called the police (if the phone was working), but I had no ID and was afraid that I would be arrested. Finally, Sergei agreed to take me to the doctor at his regiment. Finally, they did an x-ray that proved I was telling the truth about my chest hurting, and that it was painful to breathe. (No, he didn't believe me before then.) That was two weeks after he broke my rib. He made me lie to the doctor; even though the doctor knew I was lying, he couldn't do anything to help me. I left the doctor's office more desperate and more certain of my isolation than before. Sergei cried for forgiveness all the way home; even though I initially vowed to never forgive him, after a week of sobbing, sincere apologies and heartfelt, tender gestures showing his love for me, I agreed to stay. In any case, I had no way to leave because he still had my passport and visa; and if I left him, I would have to go all the way back home. All the way back home to America. Forever.
© 2015 Carrie Peterson