I was thinking about the neighborhood I grew up in today. Specifically, about the two battered women who lived on our street.
The first was the mother of two small children, the two girls being my earliest friends.
They were hurting. I knew they were hurting. At four or five years old, I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t place the bruises. I didn’t know what it meant when my parents said that the older child was trying to help. I didn’t know that the black eye was because her father had punched her in the eye when she tried to use her tiny body to physically stand in front of her mother and protect her.
What I knew was that people were looking down on them. That my parents weren’t happy if I stayed overnight with that family. What I knew was that there was gossip. She’s an intelligent woman, why doesn’t she leave him? She should get her children away from this. I also knew that you could gossip but never talk to them directly about it. When you saw them, you were supposed to pretend that everything was okay.
So we did. In our games, we pretended that their father didn’t exist, that their mother was also their dad and that we were happy.
A few years later, their mother managed to get away from her abusive husband. She did it without help. Because there was no help to be found in this neighborhood.
The other woman did not get away. Her husband is a belligerent alcoholic, they have no children. This one just withered away. Where I was still allowed to play in the house of my friends, we were not allowed to go to that house to play. Not because the woman didn’t want us there, but because belligerent drunk husband was unpredictably violent (while charming sober wife-batterer predictably only hit his wife and children, being much too circumspect to risk being reported to the police).
This second woman has been married to her abuser for 35 years now, living in the same neighborhood for nearly as long. For 35 years she has moved about the street like a ghost, silent and almost invisible. Since her husband is intolerable, most people have stopped greeting them decades ago. Note how I say them. They’ve stopped greeting them both.
I don’t visit home often but it’s still a few times a year. The last time I saw her must be almost a decade ago. I talked to her then. Against my parents’ wishes because talking to this woman is inviting the wrath of her husband. A five minute conversation about the most superficial things. I wonder how often she even gets that.
I thought about these two battered women today. And I thought about my parents. It’s not our business. There’ll only be trouble if we try to interfere. We can’t help anyway. It’s the woman’s own fault if she doesn’t leave. That’s what I learned from my parents before I was even old enough to learn how to read or write. Is it any wonder that I didn’t feel like I could share with them when years later as a teenager I was the one being abused? That I didn’t think they would help?
I can’t tell whether they would have helped after all. We’ll never find out. What we found out, though, is, that their teachings didn’t take. I never accepted their bullshit. I’ve got anxiety and depression and every so often bouts of PTSD – but I’m fiercely protective of my friends. When that oldest child of the neighboring family needed to go to a shelter when we were 15, I made my mother drive us. When my parents tried to forbid me being friends with a girl who was being sexually abused because it would get them in trouble if I didn’t shut up, I didn’t listen.
Abusers want you to react like my parents. They want you to be scared. They want to silence you and they want to isolate their victims. Don’t do them that favor.
You don’t need to be loud and you don’t need to change the world. You can’t change the world. I can never help half as much as I want to. But I can do this much. I can not look away when I see signs of abuse. I can ask. I can believe. Not only believe the victims’ stories but also believe in them.
It isn’t much. It’s never enough. But it’s a start.