It is well-known that victims of abuse rarely speak up, and while we generally understand that this is due to vague “social” factors, this understanding of abusive relationships is incredibly shallow and ultimately perpetuates the culture that supports abuse. When a victim of abuse does speak up, what makes them do it?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
The first time my former partner hit me I was sixteen years old. He kicked me in the ribs, punched me in the face and pushed me down onto the road while at least six-people watched and averted their eyes. Not a single person, man or woman, stepped forward to stop a 21-year old man pummeling a girl still in her school uniform. I fled the scene as soon as I could. I didn’t talk about it then. I didn’t tell anyone.
Well, I was a 16 year-old schoolgirl dating a 21 year-old college graduate. Who was I going to tell when I was already living most of my life in secret? I knew exactly what talking about it was going to yield. People were going to ask me why I would be with this guy. Others were going to call me a slut. Still others would just call me a liar trying to get attention (because women must be crucified for that above all else). I also didn’t talk about it because on some level, it felt normal, and even surreal. It was the single most exhilarating experience of my life until that moment and while that doesn’t necessarily mean I liked it, it does mean that I was drawn to the violence. I was sure that if I said that people would tell me I had asked for it and probably even wanted it. I was sixteen, not an idiot, by that age “what will people say” has been properly understood by most women. I know now it felt normal because of what I had seen in society growing up and that it felt surreal because it was and that is part of how trauma-bonds form. I didn’t understand this then.
I just understood that I wasn’t supposed to talk about it.
Eight years into that relationship when I finally left, I understood a lot more than I ever imagined I would. You can get a degree in it, but you can also attain an equivalent (or at least equally respectable) level of knowledge about abuse, predatory behaviour, violence and trauma by loving an abusive man (or person). Very early into this relationship I began to understand and take note of the abuse, this didn’t make me leave, and on some level might have even contributed to the artistic curiosity that made me stay, but it compelled me to try to understand the mechanisms within a relationship that foster and enable abuse. Of course the complete reasoning behind not leaving was far more complex because abusers will strip you of independence, confidence, stability and sanity, and that impacts ones capacity to make reasonable decisions. Being the kind of person who is drawn to abusive relationships also comes with its own psychological challenges that enable and motivate you to stay in the relationship. I stayed because I wanted to. I say I loved him (and I did) but more than that I think I believed the suffering gave my life meaning. I believed I was sick in the head and he was accepting of my sickness.
I knew for sure I wasn’t supposed to talk about that.
Yet from a completely theoretical, but personally rooted, standpoint I wanted to talk about it, so a few years before leaving my former partner I started to write about our relationship under cloak of anonymity on the internet. Unknowingly I began to elucidate the complex relationship dynamic that exists between victim and abuser. In writing I was shocked to discover there were thousands of women all over the world who had stories just like mine. Writing is a powerful tool, because the process is analytical it encourages you to take information apart and synthesise it into coherent conclusions or question it further until you do. It was because of the writing that I learnt exactly what was going on in my own life. It was because of the writing that I was able to guide other women to understanding the abuse in their relationships. I was blown away by the impact of this. When you write the news or scripts for the news, it’s very cold and impersonal, and that is comfortable, but when you write your life, it is harsh and visceral. I was blown away by the impact of the visceral.
While I wrote about victimology from the perspective of a victim, I also noticed how domestic violence in the news was covered. The one thing that is common in the coverage of all victims is their innocence. Innocence is an interesting concept in that I believe it is mythical. In abusive relationships we have a very monolithic view of people, they are either the monster or the innocent. This view of victims is what excludes so many of us from the community and having our stories believed. It excludes us because we do not qualify as innocent. Because, am I innocent? Well. With regard to the abuse in that relationship? Absolutely. I did not deserve abuse, no one does and it violated my legal rights. But am I an innocent? No, thank you. Aside from not fully knowing what that means I can say with complete confidence that if someone wanted to legally assassinate my character in one of those dramatic trials that don’t really exist anywhere, they would be able to do it. I am a woman. We are as complex as any other human being. We do good things and bad. We make good decisions and poor ones. We are not innocents and we are not demons. We are navigating life.
And that is why I decided that I would always speak openly about abuse in my own relationship.
I decided I would speak openly because women like me deserve a voice too. Uninnocent victims of abuse deserve to be represented, if for no reason other than the fact that a sixteen year old girl might read this and realise she is not alone. When we paint singular narratives of vast concepts, what it really leads to is alienation. I didn’t speak up for many years because I was weighing my own morality to decide whether I deserved the right to speak but the person who abused me never seemed to question his. I should worry about speaking because, what will people think? But he didn’t worry even as he hit me in plain view of supposedly respectable adults. Victims are supposed to quiet, naive and innocent but the power of a victim who isn’t is the most dangerous thing because you cannot control the truth if the person speaking it is no longer afraid of it. I decided I would speak up because the fact that healing and transcendence is possible deserves as much of a voice as the fact that abuse exists. I decided to speak because it is more important to protect the sanity of those suffering right now than the identity of those who make others suffer at their hands.
I am no longer afraid of speaking my truth out loud and with enough personalization that if you know me in “real” life this might be hard for you to read. It should be hard. The longer we depersonalise victims and think of them as the mute being represented by loud activists and lawyers, the longer we will let the silence around this continue. But people still ask me, why I speak about this things out loud, and why I am not worried what people will think of me?
I am almost thirty. I’ve lived as a precocious teenager. As an outspoken woman. As a journalist. As an activist. As an openly promiscuous woman. As a troublemaker. As an artist. As a deeply intense romantic. As a shamelessly foul mouthed feminist. What are people going to say about me now, that hasn’t already been said?