I almost never use the very outdated and almost meaningless phrase “trigger warning” on posts. But in this case, I’m making an exception, because my own reaction to Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s photography and accompanying narrative was nausea to the point I thought I was going to vomit. If discussions or depictions of domestic violence disturb you, consider this your warning before reading further or clicking on the various links below.
Never read the comments. It’s an internet truism, at this point; I don’t know a single person who reads comments on unmoderated posts. And yet, sometimes, it’s hard to escape the comments, especially when the comments become the story.
Last week, the comments became the story, as Salon wrote about the internet blaming a photographer, an abused woman, apparently everyone possible except the abuser, for an incidence of domestic violence caught on film. Time reposted the photo series, originally made public in December, partly in response to Congress delaying VAWA, and the internet erupted. I’ve been a bit busy and distracted lately, so didn’t see the furor until about 30 minutes ago.
I started to scan the Salon article, shook my head at the proof one should never read comments, and clicked over to the Time article to see the photo essay. Within just a few clicks, I could see what was coming based on body language. And in just a few more, the documentation of abuse started and, to my shock, I felt bile rise in my throat as my stomach flipped and then flipped again.
“That was me, that was me, that was me,” whispers in my head, louder and louder, keeping time with the heartbeat I’m suddenly so aware of, the waves and swells of nausea as I cannot look away. I click through further, seeing Maggie thrown against a counter and for a minute everything swims and it’s not Maggie being thrown, it’s me, down a hall, against a wall, to the ground.
Clicking, clicking, and the officer is photographing Maggie’s bruises. The doctor is examining my knee, avoiding eye contact, ignoring the finger-shaped bruises on my shoulders.
“They never stop. They usually stop when they kill you,” the responding officer tells Maggie, trying to coax a statement out of her. At this point, the tears come – the gratitude that Maggie got a response I never did: someone called the police, and more importantly, the police took the steps necessary to reach Maggie, protect Maggie, get her out of that situation before it escalated further.
It escalates so, so much further.
The rhetoric with police departments has changed, and for the better. But for some reason, social rhetoric hasn’t changed, hasn’t kept up. Congress had to debate whether or not VAWA should be renewed, even though we know that one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and that most cases of domestic violence are not reported to the police because women don’t believe they will be believed, that the police can do anything to protect or help them, or that they have any other choice in life.
I am in that one in four statistic. I was almost in that one-third statistic. The internet commenters would say that I deserved it – but no one deserves abuse. The internet commenters would say that I stayed because I liked it – but consensual BDSM is not the same as abuse. The internet commenters would say that I should have seen it coming, that it was my fault, that I made him do it, that if I wasn’t such a bad person,…
The internet repeats the words of abuse used by abusers, continuing to victimize those who have already been abused.
Most pervasively, there is this idea that you were abused because you did something to deserve it. Maggie deserved it for seeing someone while she was separated from her husband; I deserved it because he was older; Maggie deserved it because she had two children by the time she was 19; I deserved it because I left high school early; Maggie deserved it because she was poor; I deserved it because I didn’t live with my parents; Maggie deserved it because of all the reasons people try to use to justify abuse rather than confront the idea that people can and do abuse. People try to justify it to escape the idea that they could abuse someone, that someone they know could be abused. Not them, not me, not us.
Which is why, as much as I feel nauseated, as much as I want to run to the restroom and throw up, I think it’s important to stand up and be counted, to say “yes, her; yes, him; yes, me.”
When we judge those who are abused, who stay with their abusers, like Rihanna, we do more than just comment on figures who have made their lives public, by choice or celebrity. We comment to those one in four women around us, the ones whose bruises are hidden, whose abuse doesn’t leave a visible mark, and we devalue and degrade and ultimately dismiss their experience. We continue to create a society where escape is hard, and asking for help is harder. Where it is easier to face the idea of dying at the hands of the person who theoretically loves you than it is admit you didn’t just trip and fall because you’re just so damned clumsy.
There’s no quippy way to end this. I’ve sat here watching the blinking cursor hoping for inspiration, hoping for some way to sum up the idea of not being the kind of people who make those comments that continue to perpetuate a culture that accepts violence against women. Some creative turn of phrase to say stand up, don’t tolerate that kind of language amongst your friends, do your best to be the kind of person like Salon’s Jina Moore, or the unnamed police officer who convinced Maggie that her life was in danger and she needed to get out. But there’s no quippy way to write off the very real reality of abuse and death in America.
If you need help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.