Lifestyle

Stop Calling Abusers ‘Monsters’

by Lacy M. Johnson

September 10, 2014
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Anyone who lives with even one finger in the Twitterverse likely already knows about the twin hashtags trending since Monday: #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. Both hashtags emerged in response to public criticism of Janay Rice—formerly Janay Palmer—who recently married NFL player Ray Rice even after he punched her so hard she fell unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator, even after he dragged her limp body down the hall. Rice’s controversial non-punishment of a two-game suspension ignited an important national conversation about domestic violence, a conversation that was ignited again earlier this week with TMZ’s release of footage of the incident.

Former NFL player Ray Rice, the center of the U.S.' latest domestic violence controversy, signing autographs in 2009

Now, as before, much of this conversation focuses on Janay Rice: what she should and shouldn’t have done, how she should and shouldn’t have behaved. More than anything, people ask: Why would she marry her abuser? Why on earth does she stay? This last question in particular so bothered writer and domestic violence survivor Beverly Gooden that she started the hashtag #WhyIStayed in response to what she felt was a misguided conversation.

In a matter of hours, #WhyIStayed, and its twin, #WhyILeft, were trending on Twitter, with thousands of people sharing their own powerful, and often heartbreaking, stories of violence and abuse. What these stories reveal about domestic violence that the national conversation often does not are the complex realities of women (and men) in abusive relationships, some of whom have logistical reasons for staying—“I had cancer”; “I needed insurance”; “He was the father of my children”—and others who have emotional ones—“Love was #WhyIStayed”; “He told me he would kill me if I left”; “His family acted like it was normal.” Some tweets under this hashtag reveal startling statistics, such as this one: “separation from an abuser increases a woman’s risk of being killed by 75 percent.”

I’ve been told the video released by TMZ shows horrifying footage of the abuse. Horrifying because it is real: private, unmediated, unstaged. Shortly after the video was released on Monday, Rice was suspended swiftly and indefinitely from the NFL. Janay Rice took to Instagram to voice her outrage: "To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love…just to gain ratings is horrific."

That last sentence is the one that seems to baffle the public, that is maybe what compels some people to blame Janay Rice for the abuse. I am not among them. More than a decade ago I spent several of the worst years of my life in a relationship with an emotionally and physically abusive man. I stayed because I loved him, and because I was too ashamed of loving him to admit the truth about our relationship to anyone, least of all to myself.

After nearly three years, I summoned the courage to leave. Six weeks later, I almost became part of that startling homicide statistic when he kidnapped me from a parking lot and took me to a basement apartment he had rented for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. I escaped and he managed to evade police and flee to Venezuela, where he holds a dual citizenship, and remains at large to this day.

People want to call abusive men—men like the man I used to love, and men like Ray Rice—“monsters.” But that term, with its connotations of the unnatural and uncontrollable, absolves the abuser of the responsibility for being human. It also makes it easier for people to blame women like Janay Rice — who admits to loving a man who has abused her — for staying in a relationship with someone “inhuman." Which, in turn, makes it easier for people to ignore another startling statistic being tweeted under the twin hashtags: One in every four women in the U.S. has been severely physically assaulted by an intimate partner. We can’t know why Janay Rice stays, or whether she will leave, but blaming her for a violence that affects one quarter of our nation’s women doesn’t help any woman anywhere, ever.

If there’s anything to be learned from #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft, it’s that women in abusive relationships need support, assistance, and empathy if and, good Lord I hope, when they decide to leave. Meanwhile, the rest of us have only one responsibility: to call violent men what they are and demand that they answer.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE. Lines are open 27/4.

If you think someone you know is being abused please visit www.thehotline.org for information on how to help. 

Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based artist, curator, teacher, activist, and is author of THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House Books, 2014) and TRESPASSES (Iowa, 2012). She is co-creator of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city], and her work has appeared in Dame, Tin House, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Poets & Writers, Triquarterly, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. She teaches interdisciplinary art at the University of Houston.

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Stop Calling Abusers ‘Monsters’