I’m descending the main stairway in Hanson Hall. My boyfriend is waiting at the bottom, and I greet him with a smile. He says, “Is that what you’re wearing?” My smile falters. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt, the summer uniform of every college student in 20th century America.
“At least put a belt on,” he says.
I run back upstairs. When I return, he expresses distaste for the belt I’ve chosen. It’s my only belt. He says fine, I’ll buy you a new one.
Meet my college boyfriend. His name is Charlie. Wait. No. Let’s make it Pete. Or Jim. Can we think of a name that won’t malign somebody unfairly? No, it’s Charlie. We’ll just call him Charlie. Even though that’s not his real name (don’t sue me). (It is his real name.)
Charlie was charming. He spoke seven languages, read Kierkegaard for fun, and had the body of a Greek god. He was funny and smart and gallant. I fell for him hard.
Well, maybe not at first. I actually liked his brother (we’ll call him Roger, which was most definitely not his real name but the brother never did anything to deserve malignment by me, so we’ll let him use somebody else’s name). Had a crush on Roger from the first time I met him. But Roger had a girlfriend–a bat-sh*t crazy girlfriend, it’s true, but there it was.
Charlie, however, was available. And into me. He was cute, and interesting, and liked to talk about God, and Christian theology. He had a cool old car and great taste in restaurants. He was well-traveled and intense. A dream.
The first kiss was, admittedly, a little odd. Kind of cold and close-mouthed, but you know–first kisses are often a little awkward, right? He told me later–months later–that he was startled by how open and insistent my return kiss was. He told me this so that I would understand why he thought I was more “experienced” than I said I was. He always tried to help me understand things, you see.
I could tell you things about Charlie–and about me. How he misused my trust and my innocence, and then accused me of impurity and deception. How he gradually led me down a path of hate and insanity–his that became mine.
How I followed.
Why did I follow? I could tell you that, too, but not in an hour. Shall we just say that I understand why abuse victims often aid and abet their abusers?
I got out eventually, obviously, thankfully. It took me a year and a half, and I had help. I wish everyone had the kind of help I had. I wish everyone had the right sort of stories.
Let me explain. If there were an abuser’s manual (and maybe there is. I don’t want to know), step #1 on the to-do list would be: Isolate your victim. She must believe she is alone, with no one to help her. Turn her against her family, pry her away from friends, create a vacuum around her.
And for heaven’s sake, don’t let her get her hands on stories.
Stories, you see, are how we find out that we are not alone. That others have been down this path. They show us our options. They show us our truth.
In many countries where women are still treated as chattel, the men have a problem, and the problem is soap operas. Soap operas are not exactly known for their world-class literary quality or forward-thinking social agendas, and therein lies their power. What is the harm in a silly little story on a television screen?
The harm is that the stories, trite by Western standards as they may be, show women other ways of being female, other possibilities for themselves. They raise revolutionary feelings in their viewers. Before long, women start thinking they own themselves.
Why do you suppose slave masters, those worst sort of abusers, didn’t want their slaves learning to read?
Why was Malala shot in the head?
I think if I had had the Internet when I was dating Charlie, things might have gone differently. If I had had access to Google, that semi-anonymous search for truth, it might have allowed me to more quickly put context around what was happening to me. I might have found the right stories, the stories that paralleled mine just so. They might have shown me how to get out, given me the courage, and the belief in my own worthiness, to do so.
Nowadays, one of an abuser’s early jobs is to separate the victim from her Internet network. Perhaps he convinces her to share a Facebook profile with him instead of appearing on social media independently. Likewise, email accounts. He monitors her Internet use, watches what she’s searching for. Maybe he installs keystroke monitoring software.
An abuser’s job is so much more complicated than it used to be. Alas for technology, right?
In my college days, life was in some ways easier for an abuser. I didn’t have access to stories about abuse, wouldn’t have known what I was looking for even if I did, and certainly was not about to go ask a librarian to help me find them.
My friends and family, as much as they loved me, couldn’t reach me. I interpreted their attempts to talk reason into me as attacks.
One person, however, ultimately did get through to me. He didn’t try to talk reason into me. He just listened and… you guess it… told me stories. His stories are his to share or not share, so I won’t tell them here. It’s enough to say that they were the stories I needed to hear.
They were the stories that showed me I was not alone.
I think that if we humans have a primary job here on Earth, something concrete and actionable, that job is to tell our stories. To tell them out loud. To tell them without fear, shamelessly and truthfully.
I think our stories are the primary way we show one another love. Stories are how we give each other strength. By opening our stories to others, we light paths for them toward their own truth. I can’t think of anything more powerful and revolutionary than that.
And if anyone should end up maligned in the telling, well… maybe they should have behaved better.
You can clearly see how my clothing choices might have provoked ire in a caring boyfriend. This is several months post-Charlie and I’ve fallen back into my slovenly ways. Oh, that’s a plant press I’m collecting specimens into for field biology. It’s a shame I’m not dressed more stylishly for this activity.
*Nodding to Anne Lamott, from whom the title of this entry is stolen: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” from Bird by Bird.