The Ray Rice “story” and (thanks in part to the NFL’s clumsy, clueless handling of its role) the media’scontinued coverage of it is strange in a “wow” kind of way: people are talking about a sometimes taboo subject that I raise whenever I can.
Sometimes talk is only gossip, or herd mentality, or meaningless Facebook likes and shares and Twitter hashtag frenzy.
But talk where there used to be silence can lead to real change: according to Mary Riedel, President and CEO of Women in Distress, “In the week following the release of the video showing Ray Rice striking his then-fiancee Janay Palmer, calls to the Women in Distress 24-hour crisis line increased by 60%.” 60%!
Maybe some of the #whyIstayed reasons are shifted by the national conversation. Maybe women are calling crisis lines because they are reassured that the abuse they’re experiencing is not okay. Or that they will be believed. Maybe their friends and family are more supportive after seeing the video.
Let’s keep talking about this long after the gossip machine moves on. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We have a perfect opportunity for more awareness, more help, and less abuse.
I’m not an NFL wife, but from 1999-2007, I was abused by my husband, a charismatic man with a lot of friends who bordered on fans. Today is the seventh anniversary of my divorce.
I totally understand that the last thing you want right now is to be the centerpiece of a national conversation about domestic violence. The first thing you want, if you’re like me, and maybe you still believe that you can have it, is a happy marriage that matches the image you’ve worked so hard to portray, the image in your most deeply heartfelt hopes and dreams for yourself, your husband, your child, and your life.
I don’t know all the reasons you’ve stayed, but I stayed because I wanted that happy marriage, too. Here are some of the other reasons #why I stayed:
I believed him when he told me I was responsible for the way he treated me. If only I would be quiet ….
I believed him when he told me I wasn’t sexy, had no real friends, and was at my core a worthless person.
I kept what was happening so secret, so well, that I couldn’t imagine telling the truth.
I didn’t think anyone would believe that my funny, generous, church-going husband was abusive.
I loved him.
I thought I could help him be a better man.
I was too proud to admit that I couldn’t stop him from abusing me.
I didn’t want to get divorced.
I was listening to my biological clock and wanted to have a baby.
I didn’t want to leave my dogs with him.
I really, truly believed, right up until I didn’t believe anymore, that he was telling me the truth when he promised to change.
I’m sorry, Janay Palmer Rice, that the elevator tape wound up on TMZ. I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I hope you’re safe. I hope that when you’re ready, and only you can say when, you’ll write a list of #why I left.
On Valentine’s Day, I walked in the College Brides Walk to raise awareness about domestic and dating violence and to commemorate the life and death of Gladys Ricart, who was murdered on her wedding day by an ex-boyfriend.
That’s me dressed in white in the middle of the picture (Mr. Z said he didn’t know I owned any white clothes, but that’s another story). For more pictures (and this one), check out this Miami Herald gallery.
It’s the fourth annual event, and I was happy to attend for the first time. Going to events like this is energizing and affirming–so many other people focusing on an issue that is dear to me.
But by the sixth mile of carrying a sign with a photo of Kalyn Denise O’Barr, 19, who died on January 5, 2010, I was emotional. According to my sign, “She was attacked while sleeping and strangled with an electrical cord. Her husband was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for her murder.”
I walked (and I write and I speak) for Kalyn and way too many victims of domestic violence who cannot.
I repeat the mantra “lifeisshort lifeisshort lifeisshort.” Sometimes I add “getbusy hurryup domore lifeisshort ticktock.” I check an online calculator again—254 days until my 50th birthday.
Lifeisshort, I chant as I rush from my office to the Women of Tomorrow event before heading back to the office again. I talk with a group of high school girls about dating violence. I want to make a difference in their lives. Lifeisshort lifeisshort.
I tell my story of being in an abusive relationship, and the girls share theirs. One girl feels pressure to continue her relationship with her controlling boyfriend, and one of the other women in the room says, “Girls, you can take your time to find the right relationship, the right career, the right life. It may not seem like it now, but life is long.”
“Life is long”? Hmmm. Maybe for 16-year-olds. I am nearly 50.
Two days later, I sit at my dining room table, coffee within easy reach, Sunday’s New York Times spread out in front of me. Frank Bruni’s op-ed about maturity and Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos’ 37-year-old quarterback, is a celebration of experience: “With a bit of age has come a better grip on the fact that a game, like a life, is long. Stay calm. Hang in. Wait for the inevitable break. Trust your training.”
Now we know that the inevitable break never came for Manning on Sunday night, but I remember Bruni’s column. “A game, like a life, is long.”
I google “Frank Bruni age” and smile. Of course. He’s 49 and he’ll turn 50 fourteen days after I do. 268 to go, Frank. Do you really think lifeislong?
The next day I read, as I do most days, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog, which linked to a story about Janet Yellen, who, at 67, has just become the Chairwoman? Chairman? Chair? of the Federal Reserve. “Life is long,” says the article, which continues, “It’s a liberating notion, really, to think that you don’t have to accomplish everything in your life – or ‘have it all’ – simultaneously; that leaning back during one life stage doesn’t preclude leaning in later.”
I haven’t had it all, at least not in any conventional sense or in any conventional order, but I notice that phrase again. Lifeislong. And Janet Yellen, at the top of her game, the beginning of the peak of her professional life, at 67, inspires.
Okay, if Anyone is coordinating this onslaught of “lifeislong,” I’m listening. I’m thinking.
But maybe this is mere coincidence; maybe everyone is saying “lifeislong” now and I’m just noticing. Is this the new YouOnlyLiveOnce?
I google again. The search leads me not to urbandictionary.com but to this quote from a Chris Rock movie, I Think I Love My Wife: “You know, some people say life is short and that you could get hit by a bus at any moment and that you have to live each day like it’s your last. Bullshit. Life is long. You’re probably not gonna get hit by a bus. And you’re gonna have to live with the choices you make for the next fifty years.”
And then I click on stanza V of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
So. A woman advises girls. A man praises Manning’s long game. Janet Yellen has it all, in her own time. Chris Rock calls “bullshit.” I shake my head at the beauty of Eliot’s words. I pay attention.
Lifeislong invites exploration, slowing down, mixing in at least a little rest and reflection with the urgent drumbeat of “getbusy hurryup domore lifeisshort ticktock.”
Over the next 254 days, I’ll write a series of 50 posts. 50 posts before 50. They’ll be less “lifeisshort” bucket list and more “lifeislong” what’s next?
I hope to have some guest posts, too, maybe even 50 of them, from women who have already looked 50 in the eye, as well as women who still look forward to it 500, 1000, 2000 or more days from now.
Is life short or long? I don’t know yet. I hope to have a better idea by my birthday.
I know two women who left their abusive husbands over this New Year’s mid-week holiday. As soon as the new apartments were ready, while the men were at work, with careful planning and the help of friends and family, they shed possessions and made a break for it.
The moment of leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous one possible for the victim; it is the instant when the batterer (statistically most often a man) loses what he has sought above all else, what he has sought to obtain via physical, emotional, or financial abuse: control over the victim. It is the moment when he is most likely to be most violent as he attempts to regain what he is losing.
To those courageous survivors who left today, may you be safe. May you inhale the fresh paint smell of your new apartment and know that your life will never be the same, that you’ve done the hardest thing already, that each day will get a little easier.
And to the rest of us who are already safe in our homes tonight, may we remember those who left and maybe even our own leaving, and may we take whatever risks we need to take now in order to have the lives we’re meant to have.
As Women’s History Month continues, I am happy and grateful to share stories of women’s education and empowerment by women who are dear to me.
Of course, the first is by Jeanne Hewell-Chambers.
If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship (and I sure hope you haven’t), you know how it goes: he asks you out, courts you fiercely, wants to spend every available minute with you. He can’t live without you. He can’t wait to see you again. He’s never seen anybody so beautiful. All this lavishing of attention is endearing, proof of his deep love and affection for you – he see you, he really sees you, and loves you like you never dreamed possible.
But before you know it and without even realizing it, you’re isolated from the world around you. When it’s just the two of you – as it almost always is, except when you’re with his friends or his family – you hear a constant barrage of hissings spat at you through clenched teeth and lips curled back over those animalistic teeth – things like “You are the ugliest girl I ever laid eyes on, and you’re just lucky I’m dating you cause if it weren’t for me, you’d never have a date.” or “You are the stupidest, dumbest girl I ever met, and you’re ugly to boot. Sometimes I wonder why I’m dating you.” Day in and day out you are torn down, stomped on, and reminded of your worthlessness, a horrendous experience made even worse to a girl who sees herself only through the eyes of others.
Oh, he’s always sorry afterwards and nice like he was in the beginning. He always promises he’ll never do it again, and eventually he always wishes you hadn’t done that thing or said that particular thing that caused him to have to behave the way he did. It’s always your fault – always – and there is nobody – nobody at all – to counter his words, his slaps, his . . . let’s call it what it is . . . his abuse.
With you he rules with an iron fist, with others, he’s fun to be around, always ready to lend a helping hand, very easy going. He smiles, he laughs, he agrees with everything anybody says. His friends obviously enjoy being with him. You can almost hear them thinking how lucky you are, and deep down inside you know that nobody will never believe you, even if there was somebody you could tell about how he behaves when they are not around.
Though the situation is all too familiar to far too many girls and women, the “you” in this particular story is, as you may have already guessed, “me.”
The Prom is coming up in a few weeks. The Senior Prom. I’ve asked and received his approval on what I will wear – it’s a dress I’m sewing for myself. I’ve ordered the fabric – black with sparkling gold threads forming geometric patterns. The gold sequins I’ll use to trim out the neckline and cuffs give it definition – and just as I start to lay out the pattern, I decide that I like the looks of the wrong side better, so for my prom dress, the wrong side of the cloth becomes the right side, the side everybody will see.
About two weeks before the Prom, I show up in the office where I work fourth period of every day. I go quietly about my work, always alert to any boys who might enter the office because months ago when he – let’s call him Bob because that’s not his real name – walked by and saw another male student in the same office where I sat working, I received my first fist to the cheek. Now I am constantly on edge, trying to do my job without encountering any boys or men, without engaging with anybody, male or female. Instinctively remaining close to open doors, always trying to put as much space as possible between me and anybody else, all the while trying to take up as little space as possible. This particular day, the two school secretaries – we’ll call them Fran and Marcia because those are their real names – wait for me, usher me into a private office, close the door, and ask, “Who’s taking you to the prom?” They are smiling. I tense up. I can’t help it, it’s an involuntary reflex by now – smiles scare me because smiles portend meanness and pain. I tell them “Bob,” strangely unaffected by the question which they surely must know the answer to. Their smiles grow larger. I back up towards the door. They follow. “Oh no, you’re not,” they tell me, and they look pleased. Excited. “We’ve made other plans.” They tell me that they’ve contacted a friend of mine who graduated the previous year. He’s in the Marines now, and thanks to the pocketbooks of Fran and Marcia, he’s already got his plane ticket and his dress blues. He is coming to take me to the prom. He will call me tonight.
I shake uncontrollably. Tears well up. I open the door behind me, backing out. “No,” I say. “No. No. Thank you, but no.” I can’t breathe. There is no air in the room, there is no color. My stomach is one big, painful, somersaulting knot.
“Oh yes,” they insist, “and we’re going to tell Bob right now. Right this very minute.” And with that they each take a shoulder and turn me around gently. Fran holds one hand, Marcia holds the other as we walk down the central hall. On any other day the hall would be a constant bustle of sound as entire classes go back and forth to lunch, but today there is only the sound of stylish pumps clicking against the linoleum. I feel their hands squeezing mine tightly, I see their chins raised resolutely, defiantly, confidently. These are women on a mission, and they will not be dissuaded or denied. The buzz of the lunchroom grows louder. We turn left, enter the open doorway, and easily spy Bob laughing and cavorting with a table full of his friends.
“Bob,” Marcia says as we stop at the end of his table, “Jeanne has something she wants to tell you,” and when not a single word will fall out of my mouth, she says firmly, her chin lowered only enough to make eye contact with him over the top of her glasses, “Jeanne will not be going to the prom with you.” With his fork in midair, still full of round green peas on the way to his mouth, he shrugs and says “Sure, okay.” He is just as nice and agreeable as ever. Nobody will ever believe me if I tell them things he’s said and done to me. His smile, his bright, toothy, friendly smile remains unwavering. Only I recognize the subtle shift of the eyes and the smile, shifts that warn of what awaits me after school.
“There,” they say on the walk back to the office, smiling, still holding my hands but more relaxed now. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asks Marcia. “I think it went very well,” Fran agrees. I still shake. Back in the office, Fran opens her purse, takes out a set of keys, and hands them to me saying, “Here’s my house key. Nobody’s home, so I want you to go there and spend the rest of the afternoon. Fix yourself something to eat. Take a nap. Watch tv. Do whatever you feel like doing. Just stay there all afternoon, and don’t come back to school today.”
I drive to her house, let myself in, sit in the chair closest to the door, and let the silence wrap itself around me. With only these two women knowing where I am, with the entire afternoon stretching before me, the shaking stops and the tears come – enough tears to put out a burning 42-story building.
I cry for the girl who suspected that something was amiss, the girl whose bones were too young, too inexperienced to know for sure. I cry for the girl who, with so much constant coaching, believed herself to be so totally, thoroughly, woefully unworthy. I cry for the girl who thought everything that happened, everything he said, everything he did was her fault. Eventually I cry for the kindness of Fran and Marcia, for the courage they showed that day in taking a stand against abuse. Fran and Marcia didn’t stand back and wait on me to ask for help, they stepped into my life unbidden. They didn’t worry about the political correctness of their plan, they didn’t worry about being scorned – they simply knew that this girl needed them, needed their support, needed their shelter. And that was enough for them to take action.
So how do I thank Fran and Marcia? I thank them, in part, by introducing them to you in this teensy little bit of my story. Occasionally I thank them in ink on paper sent in a stamped envelope. Mostly I thank Fran and Marcia (and all the other women since then who have held me and encouraged me and nourished me) by supporting other women – and not just abused and violated women, though that surely is a pet cause of mine – but women who sometimes feel alone and in the dark and empty and powerless. I don’t have a checklist or a treasure chest of The Right Answers, but I do know how to listen deeply and without judgment. I don’t have a key to press into a palm, but I sure do know how to make people laugh just when they thought they’d never hear that beautiful sound again. And I can’t pick up the phone to find a replacement prom date, but I can bear witness to women claiming, reclaiming, and proclaiming their gorgeous genius and genuine glory so they can take themselves to the prom. And it all feels like gratitude to me.
Once dubbed a “wonder bra for the human spirit”, Jeanne is a complicated simple red dirt girl fluent only in English and Southern, Charming and Cranky. She feels most beautiful when wearing earrings that dangle and skirts that caper and most at home when making other laugh or holding cloth in her hands.
Married long enough that the mere mention of her wedding anniversary sparks applause, Jeanne has survived two teenagers, a Cesarean delivery without anesthesia, a mugging on the sidewalks of New York, hanging wallpaper with her husband, and Christmas 1993.
Though she’s received many awards and honors for her work as a professional speaker and community volunteer, and though she has a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Master’s degree in Transformative Language Arts, Jeanne’s most proud of the fact that she’s never, ever had to attend a PTA meeting under an assumed name.
I picked at my scrambled eggs and cantaloupe this morning as I watched her sitting at a nearby table, tapping on her phone.
Last fall we’d met at another fundraiser. We were both team leaders, and she and her team were the top money-raisers.
Then, as today, she looked beautiful, strong, and self-assured.
She stood to speak, and I assumed that she was going to talk about the good things Women In Distress does, and she did, but she also told her own story of being a survivor. She told of the disconnect between being with an abusive husband at night and going to work in the morning as a successful gynecological surgeon.
People have said that they are surprised when I tell my story. I was surprised when she told hers.
Tonight I am most surprised by my surprise. I thought I understood that there is no clear victim-identifier. That the fact that one in three women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime means one in three women. Period.
Apparently I needed a yzwoman’s reminder.
Many thanks to my yzwoman friend Jeanne for the ingenious title which helps me to complete my abecedarium on this leap day.