In the heated public conversation around the horrific video of pro football player Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious in an elevator, one of the more frequent questions has been, “Why did she stay?” A host of Twitter users generated the hashtag #WhyIStayed to share their own stories of abusive relationships.
Personally, I saw it trending nearly every time I logged onto Twitter within the first forty-eight hours after the elevator video landed on the Internet. After a few days, I finally dove in and started reading these micro-testimonies . The tales came mainly from women with male partners, but there were also men who’d been abused by women, men who’d been abused by men, and women who’d been abused by women. There were also stories from people who do not conform to the gender binary and who are disproportionately victims of violence in our society.
It was scary. It was moving. It was awful. It was illuminating. And it made me think.
When I was a kid, my mental image of a “battered woman” was copied from melodramatic television shows and films. They were always meek—the kind of women who apologize for everything even when it’s not their fault. They were always small—tiny, bird-boned, delicate little creatures with no heft. They were always sweet and gentle and hopeless.
I felt bad for these women but I couldn’t really muster a sense of empathy. Why would any woman stay with a guy who hit her? What could possibly be a good reason for not just getting up and walking right out the door?
Of course, there was never a battered man in those TV shows and movies. And I sure couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that a woman could abuse a man. Weren’t men always bigger and stronger than women? Wasn’t it only abuse if one person were smaller than the other?
So when I was an adult and I socked a boyfriend in the jaw after he made what I thought was a mean joke, that wasn’t abuse. He made me mad. That was me standing up for myself. That was me being a strong woman. Right?
What I’m trying to say is, I was ignorant. What I’m trying to say is, I was stupid. What I’m trying to say is, I was wrong.
Because it didn’t matter what he said, and he didn’t make me feel anything. Unless I needed to defend myself, I shouldn’t have put my hands on somebody else. Period. End of story.
“There’s no hitting in this relationship,” he told me immediately. “I don’t care if it’s you or it’s me doing it. That’s not something that happens here, and I don’t care if you think I’m weak for saying it.”
I apologized. He forgave me. He stayed.
It may sound like a minor event to you – nobody called the cops and nobody got knocked out – but it was a real wake-up call. I tried really hard to control my anger. I talked about it in counseling. I haven’t lashed out like that since. And while I haven’t learned from every mistake, I’ve learned from that one.
My understanding of domestic violence evolved as I got older and had friends who dealt with it. I learned that some people wear long sleeves in the summer for reasons other than fashion. I learned that makeup can be used to hide more than acne. I grew to have sympathy for folks who stay in abusive relationships, learning through trial and error that the last thing an abuse survivor needs is someone else telling her how she should feel. I guess it’s like anything else—your stereotypes get knocked down real quick when you bear witness to someone’s lived experience.
Which brings me to #WhyIStayed.
Thanks to #WhyIStayed, I’ve read hundreds of different tales of abuse from so many different perspectives. If you think you know what abuse looks like, or you think it could never happen to you (because you’re a strong man or a strong woman or a real badass or whatever), please go ahead and read it.
I saw stories about people who stayed because they couldn’t afford to leave, or because they thought their kids needed to grow up in a two-parent household, or because they were afraid for their lives, or because they believed the abuser would change his or her ways. What I learned more than anything else is that shame is an enormous factor in why more people don’t speak openly about abuse. Abusers don’t talk about it, and abused individuals don’t talk about it, and our society in general doesn’t talk about it. It’s embarrassing. It’s dark. And that’s exactly why we need to shine a light on it—not to punish people or to brand somebody as either a villain or a victim, but to actually deal with the issue.
A few years after I punched that guy in the face, I was with a different guy now, in what felt like a different life. Our relationship wasn’t serious. We kept it pretty light.
One night, it was late, it was dark, he was wasted, and I had done something he didn’t like. You know this story, right? It’s an old one. Maybe this is how most abuse happens—quietly, behind closed doors, with no bruises left behind and no elevator camera rolling. And nobody called the cops, and nobody broke anybody’s bones, and it didn’t even hurt much, to be honest. It was one time. It was no big deal.
And on some level—maybe because I had hit somebody once; maybe because I didn’t like the person I was at that time; maybe because I didn’t want to wake up anybody else in the house by making a scene; maybe because nobody in that room looked like a clear-cut hero or a villain; definitely because I thought I deserved it—I stayed quiet. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to attract any attention. I didn’t want to get him in trouble. I was ashamed.
And that’s why I stayed.
I’m still ashamed, years later, long after we parted quite amicably (quite awhile after that night, actually.) I’m ashamed because I didn’t tell a counselor until much later. I’m ashamed because I acted like everything was okay. I’m ashamed because I was too scared to be alone, even more scared than I was of being smacked again, or hurt worse the next time.
Look, I’m not Janay Rice and you’re not Janay Rice. We do not get to tell Janay Rice how to feel. But we do get to tell our own stories, and claim our own truth, and do our best to figure out how we want to treat others and how we want to be treated.
So go on over to Twitter. Read #WhyIStayed. And ask yourself what you’d do if physical abuse happened in your life. The answer may be more complicated than you’d expect.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.