It’s been a quarter-century, and I can still hear clearly the sound of my voice that night. It wavered with a plaintive, childish note as I spoke into the phone: “He hit me.” That sound, which I had never before heard in my own voice, broke something. I started to cry.
I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. Eventually he wasn’t there anymore, and my roommate and her boyfriend were, holding my hand while I debated whether to break up with him.
Some part of me is nodding along with the incredulous reader of this passage: debated whether to break up with him? In my defense, it wasn’t clear whether the blow was deliberate; he’d been gesturing wildly, and maybe he hadn’t meant for his fist to connect with my face. He’d never hit me before. But the fact remained that he had been in one of his frequent, vehement rages, and during that rage, he hit me.
Another fact remains: I went back to him. And even with 25 years to think about it, I’m still pondering why.
To be honest, I’ve tried not to ponder it much over those years, and mostly I’ve succeeded. But I’m thinking about it now because of the disturbing allegations leveled against former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who announced his resignation Monday after the New Yorker reported that three women accuse him of assaulting them while they were dating.
They stayed with him, too. And like me, they told only a few intimates. They didn’t tell their stories to the People of the State of New York. The voters knew Schneiderman as the man who was making loud noises in support of #MeToo and suing Harvey Weinstein.
Assuming their stories are true, why didn’t they speak at the time? We understand why rape victims don’t come forward — the difficulty of proving that the sex wasn’t consensual, the shame that still attaches to sexually active women in our culture. But if a man hits a woman, he will not get far arguing that he thought she wanted him to. And not even the most purse-lipped Puritan would suggest that getting slapped and choked was some sort of personal moral failing.
And yet, there is shame. As witness the fact that I debated with myself about whether to write this column. In fact, I decided to write this precisely because of my discomfort, to prove that it is absurd.
And yet. Telling your story in public is remembering how frightened you were and how weak you felt, and sharing those memories with strangers. It is linking your professional identity to the word “victim.” And, sometimes, if we are honest, it is admitting our own ambivalence, our own poor decisions — it is confessing that we didn’t just get hit but we also went back in the hopes that he wouldn’t do it again.
In my case, he never did, so maybe it really was an accident. But I wondered every day I remained with him if he would hit me again. I had known this was how it would be. So why in heaven’s name did I go back?
That’s easier to answer to myself than it is to you. You’re picturing a rage-filled monster, an archetype: “the abuser.” I’m remembering the man, who was funny and brilliant. And who was, like Schneiderman, a staunch public feminist. There were many reasons I wanted to be with him, and none of them were simple, because neither was he. He was a human being.
This is the reckoning we still haven’t had about #MeToo. When Bill Cosby was accused, and then convicted, the implication was that the real truth about Cosby had been unveiled, the monster lurking behind the kindly mask. But that image was as false as the plaster saint that preceded it. A truth had been revealed, but not the truth, because no human being has only one truth.
We want people who hurt women to be singular creatures, monsters, not men. But often they will be our brothers, fathers, husbands and friends; they will make great art, or fight for good causes, or have other qualities and do other things we value.
One of the most striking moments in the New Yorker piece was when the friends of one woman told her not to speak up, because Schneiderman was too important a politician for the Democrats to lose. It goes without saying that there is no man so important that he should get away with assault. And nonetheless, we have to reckon with the real temptation to compromise that principle for pragmatic or personal reasons.
Dividing the world into men and monsters makes it harder for women to explain why they sometimes continue contact with their abusers, and therefore harder for those women to speak. When they do speak up, this false division makes it harder to believe them because, after all, that guy doesn’t seem like a monster. And it leaves us flailing when we realize that some man we love or need has, whatever his other virtues, still done something monstrous, and we can’t be with him anymore.
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