Why I Thought Abuse and Violence Was the Way of the World

September 27th 2014

Twenty years ago the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law. It has since been re-authorized twice, and this week Vice President Joe Biden, the author of the legislation while in the U.S. Senate, talked about how different things were when he began to advocate against abuse and domestic violence. Back then, domestic violence was called "a family affair," he recalled.

I never really knew or understood what violence against women was, even as it flooded through so many parts of my life.  It’s almost like I never knew the things I saw were considered a crime. Incidents hadn’t reached a level of violence where women were being killed, or bones were broken.  There was a lot of noise when I was little.  Vague memories of screaming and banging things.  One of my first memories was calling my grandma crying because I was afraid.  She picked me up and whisked me away to her house where I always felt protected and safe, and got all the chocolate malts I wanted.  What I later learned was my grandparents would have epic fights.  The kind where dishes were broken and eyeglasses were stomped on.  These stories were told to me as “funny tales” of the quirky marriage they shared.

I was probably eight years old when the teenage daughter of my next door neighbor ran from her boyfriend who was choking her.  I was just a little girl and she seemed so much older than me.  I didn’t understand what happened or what it meant.  She was crying and I picked flowers in the front yard and asked my mom if I could take them to her.  She was still shaking, with red marks around her neck, as I handed the flowers to her.  She said thanks, not looking me in the eye.

My mom had to have several stitches when a guy she was dating either head-butted her or rammed her head into something, I never knew the full story.  I was probably 11 or 12 and he had a Sega video game player so I liked him.  When they got home from the hospital she made him tell me what he did to her.  He lied, pretending it was an accident.  The Sega was gone the next day.

But then there was my friend Jana.  She was stunning, brilliant, talented, hilarious and everyone loved her.  We met in college and became close friends on our first campaign together in 2004.  I once spent a week at her place hanging out in a favorite coffee shop as she studied for the LSAT’s. 

When they found her body in her ex-boyfriend’s house, she had been missing for about 24 hours.  He took off driving across country to deliver his children to his ex-wife who had also filed previous charges of domestic violence. That’s where he was caught by police and where, shortly after, he hanged himself in his cell.  That week was a blur.  Friends and family set up camp in a meeting room at the Holiday Inn gathering photos and telling stories.  Sometimes laughing sometimes crying. Her funeral was the hardest moment of my life.  We got Jana’s favorite State Senator to speak and she delivered a flag to Jana’s mom that hung over the State Capitol on the day Jana was killed.

Sometimes I think if I just avoid Kansas (where we went to school), if I don’t talk to anyone there, if I don’t go back, then maybe I can push it far enough away that I won’t be sad anymore.  But of course it doesn’t work like that.  I carry her memory with me everywhere.  

Two weeks ago I swore I saw her.  I was at a metro stop headed home and I saw a woman walking away from me.  She was tall like Jana with dark curly hair and her walk was spot on.  I followed her for a bit, ignoring any possible logic and hoping just for a moment that maybe it might be her.  But of course it wasn’t.  The woman turned to cross the street and the profile didn’t belong to my long dead friend.  Embarrassed and sad I turned back to my train station and went home.

A few years ago my mother begged me to speak to my step-sister.  “Just talk about what happened to your friend” she asked telling me that my step-sister was being beaten by her boyfriend.  At one point he choked her until she was unconscious. “Maybe it will help her understand she must get out.”  But, I couldn’t do it.  I think very highly of her, she’s an amazing and strong woman who did eventually leave him and file a Victim Protective Order, but these are not things I have actually spoken of out loud before. 

I don’t write personal stories like this often, but it was important for me to convey that it wasn’t long ago that I realized that this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be and that my experience was not the norm.  I honestly didn’t know - I thought it was “the way of the world.”  Oh, sure, I met plenty of men who are nice and sweet and thoughtful. But it wasn’t until probably six or seven years ago I realized that most men don’t want to hurt the women they love. Watching the women in my life being hurt, beaten, killed, raped, cheated on, and used set me up for a perspective that has held a particularly narrow view.  It’s been difficult not to be afraid.    

An ex-boyfriend and I were talking once when I said I didn’t feel comfortable drinking a lot at a conference we attend each year. “I don’t want to get raped,” I said explaining an honest fear without even thinking about how abnormal that is.  “You should be able to have fun and relax without being assaulted by one of your peers,” he said to me.  It was almost like I didn’t even understand I had that right.  I always assumed that one day I’ll be sexually assaulted - I always assumed one day I would date someone who slaps me and I’ll have to be prepared for how to handle that.  I just thought that was what normal looked like. 

This week has been hard to watch the news and be immersed in stories about so many women who are touched by violence.  When I told my best friend back home about listing out these stories, some of which I never really even realized were examples of domestic violence, she said she doubted I was alone.  “I don’t think your story is all that unusual,” she said to me. “Most women don’t think about their experiences as abuse or violence.” 

Why so many women stay in relationships even when they turn physically violent is often because emotional abuse begins long before. If you’re made to believe that you’re worthless and no one will ever love you but him it’s hard to justify leaving, especially if 80 percent are good days.  But when the 20 percent of bad days end with bruises and broken bones you begin to add in your head whether it’s better being alone (because you’ve been made to believe that no one will ever love you) or continue to take the 20 percent.

One in three women are abused or stalked.  Fifteen million children each year are abused.

Vice President Biden said that 20 years ago we didn’t speak about these facts; they were a private, personal matter.  But in talking about it, we can remove the shame and victim blaming and recognize that these stories are not normal and in fact, unacceptable.  We can begin the slow march to respect and value women as individuals - as fellow humans - and not objects to be used for men.  It’s easy to rape an object. It’s easy to pay an object less money, to hit an object.  But if we can somehow build a ubiquitous understanding that women are people, maybe we can locate our humanity.