I was 22 year’s old the first time a man put his hands on me. Up until that very moment, I wholeheartedly believed that I was too “strong” to ever fall victim to domestic violence. I had seen Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” enough times to know not to date the controlling, rich guy with the explosive temper, but no film or television special could’ve prepared me for the torture I endured at the hands of my ex-boyfriend. Before him, I was convinced that I was too smart, too strong, and too cute to let somebody’s funky lil’ son put me through such a thing. Yet there I was with blood pouring from my right eye, pleading with the man I loved not to hit me again. It wasn’t until I became one of the one in four myself that I realized that domestic violence can truly happen to anyone, from the strongest of us to the presumed weakest of us. As I sat with my knees pressed to my chest, blinded by my own blood, I wondered how I had gotten so low. It took me 22 years to learn how strong women, women like myself, become victims of domestic violence.
It wasn’t encouraged where I grew up, but partner violence was certainly tolerated. Tolerated in the sense that men weren’t shunned from the community when discovered to be abusers. Instead the women were whispered about, looked on with pity and bewilderment. And while everyone adopted an “If she like it, I love it” attitude, they blamed their collective inaction on the likelihood that she might return to her abuser. I didn’t know it at the time, but the dynamic between my community and it’s inability to expel toxic members was indicative of some much deeper, long-standing issues. Issues that ultimately created a climate where Black people were expected to consistently choose secrecy over sanction.
Given the tumultuous relationship between the Black community and law enforcement, matters of right or wrong over time became issues of loyalty or betrayal. Black people began viewing the justice system as too biased to fairly handle in-house issues and so the women continued suffering in silence while the community prayed for their abusers. But a bigger issue than the community relying almost entirely on faith-based practices and religion to resolve domestic issues, is that their collective inaction spoke volumes about the value assigned to the victims themselves, which is nothing new. Its commonly been argued that the most unprotected and undervalued person in America is the Black woman. And in a community where the well-being of the abuser is more valuable than the life of the victim, everyone suffers and Black women suffer exponentially.
Women between the ages of 20-24 are said to have a higher risk of domestic violence than anyone else. Factor in race and socioeconomic status and you have a smorgasbord of reasons why 22 year old me should’ve been on high alert. I was aware of our financial insecurities growing up and I was informed as to how that might affect me in the future. I knew paying for college would be a struggle and setting out on my own might come with some extra difficulties, but I’d never been told that poverty would affect my dating life as well. I didn’t know that domestic violence was both more prevalent and more severe in low-income neighborhoods. I didn’t know that it occurred more in households facing economic challenges, and I didn’t know that when you combined those factors, the incidents of violence increased dramatically. I didn’t know that children who witnessed domestic violence were more likely to recreate those circumstances as adults. I didn’t know that men with chronic unemployment were five times more likely to exhibit abusive tendencies. I didn’t know that all of these factors perfectly described the community I lived in. Not only was I high-risk, everyone around me was too. And weren’t just at risk of becoming abused, we were at risk of becoming abusers.
Among all children born in the US, 10.5% experience persistent poverty which is the state of living below the poverty line at least half of one’s life. For Black children, this number is 38.5%. I was one of these children and so was as my ex. Seventy-seven percent of African Americans live in disadvantaged neighborhoods and we had that in common too. Five million children witness domestic violence each year in the U.S., my ex was one of them. Every obstacle he hadn’t overcome yet should’ve been an indication to me that he still had some internal work to do before he could ever be a part of a healthy relationship. Had we been educated on the factors outside of our control that rendered us both at risk of unhealthy relationships, we could have avoided the woe altogether. Instead, I interpreted his brokenness as an opportunity for me to demonstrate my healing powers. And while I was working on him, he was working on me.
People often say that domestic violence is about the monopolization of power, I slightly disagree. There were an overwhelming number of incidences where I felt powerless and under the complete dominion of my former abuser, but there were also moments of surrender and submission on his part that gave the illusion that power was being exchanged. He would stumble into my apartment after a long night of drinking and fly into a jealous rage with no justification, only to be be curled up in a fetal position, begging my forgiveness by morning. It’s the constant back and forth, the extreme highs followed by extreme lows, the gradual but intentional application of isolation, confrontation and manipulation that make victims feel like there’s even the slightest chance that their attachment will payoff. It’s not their weakness that keeps them struggling to repair two broken people, it’s the delusion that they’re strong enough to do it in the first place. The characterization of Black women as noble punching bags is the reason so many of us devote our time, energy, safety and sanity to the salvation of broken men. We believe we’re better for having endured, suffered and survived, overlooking the fact that it’s impossible to rise while you’re “holding someone down”.
The goal for me was simply to be enough, meek enough, calm enough, docile enough, agreeable enough to settle the demons inside of my abuser. But as I found myself bending and contorting to make room for his legion, I realized there was no room for me. So I abandoned myself, becoming just a shell in case he needed more storage for his baggage. But looking down while we walked and avoiding eye contact didn’t cure his irrational jealousy. Dressing modestly didn’t cure his possessiveness. Isolating myself from friends and family didn’t cure his paranoia. And while I willingly sacrificed chunks of myself in exchange for pockets of peace, I subconsciously created a jail for myself and made him warden. A bottle of Belvedere vodka to the face would be the final straw for me and every victim faces that determining moment, a choice between her peace and her project. That decision almost cost me my life. There’s a reason the Justice Department says the majority of domestic assaults reported to law enforcement take place after the couple separates. Abusers spend their time carefully grooming and priming their victims. Gently at first, only applying pressure to ensure their victim stays the course. And with every low low there is an equally high high and a temporary shift in the power dynamic, giving victims small glimmers of hope in the midst of their destitute reality. Now imagine putting in all of that time and effort and still losing control of your prized possession. You’d do just about anything to get it back and my ex did just that.
After being hospitalized for bleeding on the brain and a ruptured cornea, I abandoned everything I had and moved to Dallas, TX. It would only take 13 days for my ex to locate me. Breaking into my apartment on the evening of April 17, 2010 and beating me for over an hour before trying to force me over my third story balcony. I, like every other survivor, know what it means to endure and to withstand. Victims of domestic violence are not weak women, they’re unprotected women. Far too often we exonerate abusers by making their victims the responsible parties for their psychological and emotional deficits. But men who prey on the devotion of women who foolishly attempt to love them through their pain and their mess deserve to sit with the ugly realities of their choices. We can acknowledge that many abusers were once victims themselves while still holding them accountable for projecting that internal chaos onto the people around them.
I am a survivor of domestic violence. As I look back on that period in my life, I can honestly say that that’s the strongest I’ve ever been. Women aren’t weak because a man chooses to subject them to abuse, they’re not naive for believing that the men who love them shouldn’t want to hurt them and they’re not deserving of abuse of any kind, no matter how many times they return. We show our support, not by silently pitying them, but by being vocal and supportive at a time when they may be unable to do so for themselves. I know how strong women become victims of domestic violence because I did. And it’s that same strength that allows me and other survivors to tell their stories. We have to accept that this ongoing epidemic in our community won’t be cured with secrecy and silence. It will take awareness, honesty and a collective commitment to protect all women, including the strong ones.