He came home from work one day in the mid-1970s, went right to the fridge, opened the door, then slammed it shut and warned, “There’s no milk!”
Fighting words. Nothing grated more than to be accused of neglecting some trivial aspect of my role as a wife. He drank a lot of coffee with a lot of milk. Milk on display in the fridge assured him I thought of him first, had feelings for only him, loved only him.
“What have you been doing all day that you couldn’t get milk?”
He really knew how to escalate things. I did too.
“I’ve been busy washing your clothes. Go get it yourself.”
“You are a lazy selfish bitch. You never think about anyone but yourself.”
“And you are a fucking spoiled brat. Go home to your mother if you want to be treated like a little kid.”
He grabbed my throat with his left and slugged me with his right. As he ran out the door I screamed, “Don’t ever come back!”
The dentist asked me why I was icing my lip. I grabbed the box of tissues next to the chair as I cautiously unclenched my fist to reveal two front teeth in the palm of my hand. I didn’t want to part with them. In the short bleary-eyed drive to the dentist, I’d clutched them like a totem, a symbol of an uninterrupted life; a life where men didn’t punch you in the face. I asked the dentist if he could put them back. He couldn’t. He cleaned me up and told me the skin tissue was so damaged above my lip that as I got older it would collapse and wrinkle. He wanted to file a police report. I blew my nose and said, “No. No. I don’t want that.” As I was leaving, he held out my teeth and asked, “May I discard these now?”
And there went my innocence, dumped into the heap of damaged parts. It took another three years before I left.
These days I’m often in ad hoc conversations with friends about a news story describing a violent husband. Inevitably someone tsks, “why does she stay with him?” Or worse, “It’s her own fault. She should have left him the first time.”
Why do we stay? Because we often:
- Feel the abuse “isn’t that bad”
- Think we can change the guy
- Believe it will never happen again
- Believe that we deserve the abuse
- Are dependent on him
- Have no place to go
Many of us think twice because we can’t leave our pets. These and other reasons seem unreasonable to those who have never walked in our shoes. We know this. It’s the reason we keep our secrets.
Tennessee was the first state to outlaw wife beating. In 1850. Until the 1870s, courts in the United States supported the right of husbands to physically “discipline” their wives. In the 20th century, police were intervening in cases of domestic violence but arrests were rare.
The Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. It required coordination in domestic violence cases between courts, law enforcement, prosecutors and victim services. It has provided financial support to community-based organizations that help domestic violence victims find temporary shelter, even with their pets.
Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative, evangelical Christian group opposed the original bill. One senior fellow said it “ends up creating a climate of suspicion where all men are feared or viewed as violent and all women are viewed as victims.” In April 2019, the Democrat-controlled U.S.House of Representatives passed a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Action came to a screeching halt in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate in November 2019. The bill is dead.
Why do we stay? We’ve been helped and protected for only 25 out of the 240 years of United States history. That’s why.