The anger of a man is something that felt familiar to me. At the age of sixteen I had just come from the house of my father’s anger. The house of my mother’s passive anger overflowing on the backburner. Sixteen, and a cool simmer. I had come 2,284 miles to the white-hot anger of another man. Boy really. Boy-man. When I saw that emotion that was to be seen and not felt, I leaned into its familiarity.
Do we seek out the familiar? I think we do. I think we are drawn to people that remind us of our most difficult relationships and we explore the wounds that way. Finger the pain. Worry over it. We explore ourselves and our feelings through iterations of the same relationships. In this way we learn and learn nothing at the same time. We are Sisyphus. Lift the boulder, watch it roll, repeat.
My mom has a young Sisyphus story she likes to tell. I hear her begin it and I relinquish control of my narrative thread, feel something akin to relief that this is the memory she keeps coming back to. A time before sentience. A time where I am an outsider looking in on my life’s story. It is a strange and distancing experience to hear someone talk about you from a time you can’t remember. I settle in for the retelling.
She always begins the same: “I remember the sand dunes. You must have been, what?, two years old.” My older sisters and cousins were playing at the top of a steep sand dune off the Mendocino coast and my mom says I wanted to join them. This line makes me squirm a bit. Here she is inferring my thoughts. And even though this is her memory, not my own, this intrusive assumption bugs me. My parents say I clawed my way up. Dug my doughy hands in, a look of firm determination on my face. I slid back. Set my jaw. Began again. “Finally,” she laughs, “you made it to the top with no help. Sheer will.” She says I looked pleased when I reached the crest of the dune. But by the time I had made my way up, the other kids had scattered, moved on to another hill of sand.
My parents talk about that time, proud. They say I am still that way, determined. I wonder why, in the retelling, they never talk about the descent, alone.
I first wrote about my abusive relationship for a memoir section of a creative writing course in college. I found it excruciating and crucial. Something devastating I had to get out of me to process before it consumed and Medusa-ed me. I spent that time poking and prodding at that piece of writing like it was a dead and bloated thing while every touch was a nerve and neuron firing: We’re still alive, goddammit! I wanted, no, I needed to have strangers’ eyes pour over my word-wounds and acknowledge that this had happened. This happened. Something I couldn’t admit to friends, family, myself. I had to feel visible. Needed someone to see me. I wrote cathartic confusion and anger. I wrote and I wept. I wrote and I trembled thinking of other people reading my pain into an existence outside of myself.
I wrung hands over hurting him. That writing down my experience, in and of itself, was a betrayal of the five years we had been together. I felt guilty. Complicit in the things that had happened to my body.
And when the teacher asked why? Why had I written about such a “tough subject” for an entry level creative writing workshop, I could have punched the mild manners off his mustached face and countered, “Wrong question.”
Write again. Watch the words fall short. Repeat.
“I’ll wring your neck!” These words sound vaguely silly. Remind me of childhood, perhaps of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Words that smack of cartoons and pretend. In reality, wring seems the wrong word. Wring doesn’t properly demonstrate the interruption of air-flow with a force that ensues from that motion. That movement. Of wrapping fingers and hands around another’s throat rendering them incapable of breath. Essential life function.
Let’s start with when he noticed me. I was sixteen and upset. At nothing or everything. I don’t remember. I was upset and head-phoned and had just walked a few miles at a clipped pace to walk-dance another few miles in the forest with music loud and no one around. So it was jarring that in the transition, in the walking to that solitary place to be physically alone with my body in the world among the winding manzanita and the golden grasses and the canopies of green of Lo Gap Park, he was watching me and I didn’t know. He ran out of his house, barefoot, to greet me. I like to think that I was a welcome distraction from the college applications he said he had been filling out all day. I like to think that he noticed me and greeted me without intention. I never asked him why he ran out to see me. I was too startled out of my own head to think. I agreed to stop and see him on my way back into town.
He had put a lightbulb in a sock and asked me to punch it. I asked why. He said I seemed upset. Or flustered. He said whenever he was angry, he would do this. Punch a lightbulb. The sock was so I wouldn’t cut my hand. I remember thinking it was strange, and sweet, and sweetstrange. Dumb girl. I should have been wondering why he needed to break something when he felt a feeling.
If I write this into an existence outside of myself will I be free of the shame? Will I lift the onus off of myself? Did Sisyphus ever wonder what would happen if he achieved his goal?
I think shame is why I don’t tell this story. Shame and the lack of a formal narrative. It comes to me in fits and fragments. When I’m alone in the bathroom and find myself vacantly staring at a towel rack and thinking about the time he slammed my head into the pointed metal of such a bar after locking me in a bathroom. When I see broken wood and think about guitar bits flying like shrapnel. Or I see a busted window and think about his fist flying through the back windshield and me standing in a spray of glass and him conditioning me with what story to tell his parents. Or when I see the potato bulb of a ceiling light fixture with bugs cupped in its curved glass and I find myself back in a flipped armchair with his hands around my neck, wringing. Writing this now, my heart beats faster, feels constricted. I find it hard to breathe. It feels like it happened to another person. In another life.
The shame comes in the staying. In the blaming of self. I don’t have the empowering leaving. I don’t have the calling him out for his anger and violence. For the pain he caused. It ended with a whimper. Not a bang. It ended as a slow thing bleeding out. It ended in me trusting no one, not even myself. Because I did stay. And because I stayed, how could I love myself? I became a hollowed thing in the staying. Hid words like vestiges of self in notebooks and journals and shelved them.
He would always apologize. These were the only times I saw him cry. He would always say he didn’t mean it. He was too drunk. He couldn’t remember what he had done. Or if he did remember he would try other tactics. Remind me that he helped buy my groceries, helped me out when I overdrafted my account, fixed my beater car every time it broke down. He reminded me of how much I needed him. That I was a balm to his anger. That he would do better. And I was young. And he was all I had ever known. And I wanted to believe that he was sorry. That he didn’t mean to do it. That he never meant to hurt me.
[And how do you bring this up to friends? To your family? When he did his best to keep you separate of those people. Your family lived in other states. He drove a wedge between you and your friends. And when you did hear a scrap or two about a friend of a friend in an abusive relationship you will remember your friend saying, “She is so dumb for staying.” And those words will ring around your head like a bell every time you want to say something. And you never say a word. Not for many years. ]
And when encountering reactions to imagined scenarios of domestic violence in Hollywood the question I always hear people ask was Why’d she stay? The onus always on the victim and never on the transgressor. Why did I stay?Domestic abuse is just as much psychological as it is physical.
There is a stigma around the idea of victim. Blame put on the victim for perpetuating the cycle.
Abuse does not occur in a vacuum. Abuse is not binary. There is no black and white. It is a muddied, breathing thing.
Is is folly to summit a mount when the descent is inevitable? Am I determined to write words over and over again attempting to find a narrative thread? Pushing my Sisyphus shame up a hill. I will never know why. Almost to the top, with a look of firm determination, I will never summit. The shame boulder rolls down. Words fail me. I feel it in my gut. How well I know these depths. My Sisyphus shame is heavy. I slowly plod uphill, only to watch it fall just at the cusp. The descent is the hard part. The descent is for introspection and reflection. The questioning of why I shoulder the burden.
I think about the wounds I carry and their invisibility. How they manifest in me thinking about fingers. Writing about them. Dreaming about them. Equating them to birds, their graceful and flapping movements, at once demonstrating thought and thoughtlessness. Sometimes fluid, sometimes thwacking and clumsy. I see them, fluttering about me. Even when there are no hands. When I am sitting on my own, biding time, trying not to touch things. Trying not to worry over scars that cannot be seen. I touch. They touch me. His fingers always at my throat.