No one I know grew up in a mythical "Father Knows Best" family, where mom and dad nurtured the kids with Hallmark card philosophy and "You can do it!" bravado. In TV-land, mom didn't drink or get hooked on Valium or crack, and dad didn't have affairs or complete sentences with the back of his hand or a belt.
My childhood, while not idyllic, contained few truly violent moments, not the kind that included physical contact, anyway. In retrospect, my peculiarly dysfunctional family had an aversion to touching each other at all; I can count the spontaneous hugs I received from my parents on my fingers and still have enough left over to type this column. My parents—dealing with chronic depression and addictions to alcohol and overwork—simply weren't available much to my sisters or me unless we were doing something wrong.
I should be happy that I was mostly just ignored instead of living in fear of physical abuse like some folks I know. After considerable soul-searching and therapy, I know now that they did the best they could. But ignoring a child is just a different kind of brutality. I grew up a lonely, isolated kid, always competing for love and attention with people older and bigger than me. I didn't know how to be happy for someone else, because it was so rarely demonstrated. It's a skill I had to learn and practice as an adult.
Being starved for attention led me to relationships with clingy, immature and abusive men, the latter of which was more than happy to shower me with attention right up to the point I had the audacity to disagree with him.
That's a common trait among abusers. When a partner professes love too fast, making you the complete focus of his interest, showering you with outrageous compliments, it should be a warning sign, not an invitation to go ring shopping. Abusers look for vulnerability that welcomes inordinate attention.
For someone like me, it was a mind-blowing ego boost to suddenly have a man who couldn't get enough of me, who put me up on a pedestal and told me how wonderful I was, and how lucky he was to have found me.
It was as if someone finally saw who I really was, despite all my flaws. He came into my life when I was at an extremely low point; I was vulnerable, weak and ready to believe.
Hindsight is a marvelous thing, especially given the alternative.
But abuse isn't about elevating one's partner; it's about power and control. The buildup, the time when an abuser provides strokes to a woman's ego, soon turns into darker and more painful "strokes." In my own relationship with an abusive man, "You're the best" turned fairly quickly into "I'm the only one who loves you," along with overt attempts to demonize my friends and isolate me.
Our nightly forays to the local bar didn't help. He was a mean drunk. Somewhere along the line the pedestal became a cage. In the end, he controlled nearly every aspect of my life: my money, my friends, what I could say, what music I could listen to and like. Disagreeing wasn't a good idea, he taught me.
It took several attempts to finally get out of the relationship. In case you didn't know it before, let me assure you: Misery and suffering are addictive. Sometimes the devil you know is a lot less scary than the devil you don't.
Today, I'm grateful to have the experience behind me. It has made me into a stronger, more capable woman, and hopefully I've gained a bit of wisdom. Reporting on women and men in similar circumstances has helped me put my own abuse into cold, clear-eyed perspective; it has allowed me to understand my abuser in ways I couldn't before.
Still, my understanding isn't what Buddhists call "idiot compassion." I have a sign taped to my office door: "Never Another Battered Woman." Men who subject women to violence can change, but first they need to face real, hard consequences for their actions.
For too long in Mississippi, the legal community—police, lawyers and judges—have seen domestic abuse as a problem best dealt with at home. Women bring violence on themselves, the thinking goes; they should just do what their men tell them to. That's changing in this state, albeit slowly, and only after a lot of work by smart and dedicated people.
I commend the lawmakers who have introduced anti-violence bills this session. In the House, Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, sponsored four bills, including one to provide more accountability when our esteemed governor decides to pardon a killer (HB 155). Meanwhile, across the hall, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, has sponsored three.
HB 1309 and SB 2961 both redefine stalking in Mississippi so that a victim does not need to prove her stalker is threatening her life, just putting her in fear of danger to herself, her loved ones or her property. HB 657 and SB 2344 prohibit health-insurance companies to classify domestic abuse as a pre-existing condition. HB 769 proposes adding strangulation to the list of domestic-abuse violations, a red-flag offense for potentially lethal actions later.
It's a damn good start, even if none of the bills has yet to see the governor's desk. At least they are still alive in some form. Other than HB 155, I fully expect lawmakers to move ahead with enacting these laws and amendments. (Gov. Haley Barbour, I think, is loath to restrict his power, even to save lives.)
Nonetheless, I'll take whatever improvements the Legislature provides, without ever stopping my demand for more. Jones and Blount aren't the only Mississippians who continue the campaign to save women's lives: Count among that number Assistant Attorney General Heather Wagner and her team; the women and men of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Sandy Middleton and her crew at the Center for Violence Prevention; Donna Ladd and the women who organize the annual Chick Ball, Linda Francomb and Heather's T.R.E.E, and many, more. Battered and abused Mississippi women aren't alone any more.
Happiness is not a constant. It is something you and I often experience fleetingly when our hearts are open enough to let it in. There's freedom in not expecting to be happy all the time; it makes every happiness worth celebrating, just as every sadness is worth mourning. When it comes to abused women, we've mourned enough, though, don't you think? Keeping women safe is as worthy a cause as I can imagine.
Thanks, Ronni. You did a masterful job on this piece!!!!
I concur on a job well done, and unfortunately I don't remember hugging or touching my mother except once, although she lived to be over seventy. I understand what you're talking about on affection note.