by Angela Dejesus
When a person you love and care about is a victim or survivor of domestic violence and abuse, you will undoubtedly find yourself wanting to offer advice on forgiveness, forgetting, and moving on. But, if you’ve never experienced the vulnerability of self-loathing and the loss of identity at the hands of an abuser, it’s important that you take a step back and recognize that you have no right to tell this person they should do.
If you haven’t had the experience, how can you possibly understand what a survivor has been through? How can you speak the victim’s language of love and pain as joint entities, where confusion and despair are the foundations for hope? You can’t. And unless you can understand that you will never understand, you cannot empathize with the situation.
Failing to distinguish the difference between understanding and empathy is why it hurts when you tell that person to move on. It’s belittling to hear judgment, and instead of creating a safe place for your loved one to speak freely, you’re creating an environment of condescending judgment.
My own family has succeeded in making this mistake of false understanding and I now live on the precipice of isolation because their attempts at fixing my life were insincere and unnecessary. I wanted to fix thing myself with their support, not their direction. But let me explain.
I recently made the choice to separate myself from my abusive father and in turn put some space between me and my mother who is still with him. Instead of respecting my choice or even listening to my story, members of my family have taken it upon themselves to offer me advice on how to mend this broken relationship under the pretense of understanding that abuse can be easily forgiven and forgotten.
If you love somebody who is struggling with the mental scourge of domestic violence and abuse, please, please stop and think before you speak. Think about the message you’re sending and how that message will be received.
I have had the good fortune of reading books that I found extremely relatable to my life as a survivor (yet still a victim) of domestic abuse – books that I would highly recommend to any person who is or has been victimized by a domestic abuser.
1. Religion and Domestic Violence in Early New England: The Memoirs of Abigail Abbot Bailey
In the words of editor Ann Taves, “Abigail Bailey’s story is shocking and offensive because in it physical and psychological abuse stands side with religious piety and evangelical fervor… The memoirs is a tale of adultery, incest, physical abuse, deception, and finally divorce.”
Published posthumously in 1815, the memoir of Abigail Abbot Bailey chronicles a mother’s twenty-six year journey from the beginning of her abusive marriage to the end of the most harrowing fight for her children, her right to property, and a hard-won divorce that I have ever read.
Abigail had no idea what she was getting into when she married her husband and her religious faith and family obligations tied in with the absolute lack of agency afforded to women in early New England gave her no option but to accept her fate at the hands of God.
It takes decades and many painful, unimaginable events for Abigail to find the strength to leave her husband and find a way to legally and successfully divorce him. There is no happy ending to Abigail’s memoir and there were many times that I wanted to yell, scream and cry at her situation.
The events that occur in Abigail’s life may be shocking and even confusing for those who have never experienced the trauma of abuse. In fact, while discussing the book in class, a fellow classmate of mine asked, “Why did she keep having kids with him?” To which the professor replied, “Well, he was raping her.” This book is as real as it gets and if nothing else, it will remind victims that they are not the first and that they are not alone.
In this collection of short stories, Dorothy Allison focuses on poverty and how it affects her character’s lives. The story “Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know” speaks of the dynamics women face when they are completely dependent on the men in their lives for financial support because they have been subjected to a life of poverty. Desperation and necessity create a culture where abuse is accepted as normal and retaliation is frowned upon.
While I myself have not been in her character’s shoes, Allison evokes such feelings of empathy with her readers that it is impossible not feel connected in some way to at least one of her characters.
3. Fun Home
Why do our tormentors abuse us?
It takes an incredible amount of courage and maturity to not only ask for, but accept the reasons why an abuser is abusive. Bechdel does just this in her ruthless and evocative evaluation of her life and her father’s. She does what I can’t – she reaches into her past and discovers the man behind the monster.
Bechdel reveals reasons, not excuses, for her father’s behavior and attitude; and while many of those reasons may cause you discomfort, she forces you to question the violence that lives on the surface and face the tumultuous reasons for why her father was abusive. She then does the impossible and forgives him and in turn forms an honest and meaningful relationship with him.
If you want an inspirational story about forgiveness that is hard-won and painful, this is it. And if I ever forgive my father, it will have been because of this book.
1. Shadow Tag
A manipulative, obsessive father (Gil) and a resigned, alcoholic mother (Irene) who lives in denial and self-awareness. These are the parents that Louise Erdrich give to three children in her novel Shadow Tag. The dysfunctional marriage at the center of the novel is a game of possession and suppression versus agency and awareness; where the children are both pawns and prizes.
In the end, Irene loses her battle against her husband and he is allowed to continue to objectify her and essentially own her shadow (as a metaphor for her spirit, soul, and identity) when she no longer has the ability to mentally reject his power over her. Irene is forced to admit that he has manipulated her for so long that she cannot live without him. It’s a scenario that I found very familiar to that of my own parents.
What I love most about the narrative, however, is that it closes with the point of view of their youngest daughter, Reil, who is left to sort through her mother’s exposed secrets. Whether or not she forgives her mother for choosing Gil over her own children is for the reader to interpret.