Photo by: PASSERBUYS
Author Note: This essay was written in 2013 about my life in the early 2000s. Fortunately, things have improved on all fronts, but I’m happy to keep sharing this as I think it covers a subject women are often afraid to talk about openly.
In my thirty-seventh year, I divorced the father of my four kids after 16 years together, and I was arrested three times: once for assaulting him, once for assaulting his new girlfriend, and the last time for violating the order of protection he’d taken out after the first incident, when I upended a coffee table in his direction on Christmas Eve, two months after we’d separated. Aside from traffic violations, I’d never before been in legal trouble, never been in handcuffs, never seen the inside of a police station.
The third time was in some ways the most humiliating. I was arrested for incessant cursing at my ex. For almost a year, I used every interaction with Q.—every phone call, e-mail, and text—to insult and mock him, usually in vulgar language. He finally couldn’t take it anymore—he said the stress was killing him—and filed a complaint with the local precinct saying that I’d violated his order of protection. This was rock bottom. I’d always had rages and suffered from periodic depression, but what had happened in the year since I’d left my marriage was on another level altogether. I could sob for hours at a time, and the bitter poison that came out of my mouth when I got anywhere close to Q. was shocking in its relentless intensity. I felt out of control, truly crazy.
In situations like this, in which the criminal was a heretofore generally upstanding member of society, the police offer you the opportunity to surrender. So I did, per the advice of my lawyer. At 8 a.m. on July 31, 2007, I presented myself at the 84th Precinct in downtown Brooklyn.
Detective Sam Calhoun, with whom by this point I was on a first-name basis, checked me in, and instead of putting me behind bars in a holding cell, he offered me a dingy, windowless squad room. Except for when an officer took me to be fingerprinted and photographed, I spent the next 12 hours sitting on a plastic chair with my legs resting up against the wall in a sort of yogic position. Sam had permitted me to bring in two books and some newspapers, so I read Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I enjoyed so much I almost forgot where I was) and Betty Smith’s classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (depressing; it reminded me of where I was), then leafed through The New York Times, the Post, and the Daily News. When I finished those, a handsome bald detective took pity on me and offered what he had lying around on his desk: a volume on Celtic history, a stack of sudokus, and a book on New York State traffic law.
The police promised me that this was a bullshit charge—”What kind of pussy husband has his wife arrested for cursing at him?”—even though I’d indeed broken the protection order’s stipulation against verbal harassment. The police spent hours working with the DA to follow Q.’s request: Despite having me arrested, he didn’t want the judge to go beyond the “limited” order the court previously had granted; he still wanted us to communicate with each other about the children only. This negotiation lasted for what seemed like forever; at around 8 p.m. I was taken handcuffed in a squad car to Brooklyn’s Central Booking, where I’d be in a holding cell until I could get in front of a judge. My lawyer was pulling every string possible so I wouldn’t have to spend the night in jail.
. . .
Orange cinder-block walls, sticky brown floor, fluorescent lights; the cell stank, partly because of the toilet and partly because of the bits of old food lying around—stale cartons of milk, remnants of bologna sandwiches. It was packed with women: a whip-smart 16-year-old lesbian named Paradise whom I initially took for a boy, in for assault; two enormous women, lovers, who’d engaged in a domestic brawl—one bandaged above her left eye and dressed in a white nurse’s uniform, as if she’d been headed to work when the fight erupted. And then there was Melva, a teen who’d been living on the streets since she was 12; my heart ached for the girl. Strikingly beautiful with clear dark skin, classic features, and long, thick hair, she was so obviously alone in the world—and radiating fury. An older woman said she’d been arrested by animal welfare for neglecting her bone-cancer-afflicted dog (they do that?). DeMaris, a warm Puerto Rican/Polish/black 18-year-old, was in for shoplifting for her baby, she told me.
DeMaris was sharp, and over the course of the evening she started sharing her impressions of the assembled crowd.
“What about me?” I asked.
“You? You seem white.”
Meaning that while I have light brown skin and African-American features, I looked like someone with money. I was wearing a silk Calypso blouse, a black linen skirt, and some unobtrusive gold jewelry. I hadn’t given much thought to my outfit that morning; I’d put on something that seemed businesslike, I suppose. Would it have been better to wear sweats? I wondered.
DeMaris and I actually had a nice time of sorts, chatting and supporting each other. When I told the girls in my cell that I was going to be 38 the next day, a bunch of them remarked that I was way too old to be in jail for fighting with my ex. I ruefully agreed.
Did other women hit men, hit their husbands, their exes? Nobody ever talked about it, that was for sure.
After being released, I drove straight to my weekend house 60 miles north in Cold Spring, New York. It was the house I’d bought after our separation, the first place in my life that was all mine and where I felt truly at home. Alone in the middle of the night, I tried to find solace in the pictures of my children I had all over the place, in the colorful fabrics I’d optimistically chosen for the furniture. Here I was, nearly 40, divorced and essentially orphaned—my mother was dead, and I hadn’t spoken to my father since my early twenties—and I had to figure out how to get on with things. Did other women hit men, hit their husbands, their exes? Nobody ever talked about it, that was for sure. It felt like a shameful secret, although the truth was, I’d been everybody’s favorite source of gossip for months; half of my Brooklyn neighbors knew about my altercations with Q. How was I going to stop these rages—verbal and physical—and find some peace for myself, not to mention for my family?
. . .
I grew up in a turbulent environment. I lived with my mother, a black independent filmmaker, and my younger brother, Emilio. My parents divorced in 1975, when I was six, and my father—white, a compulsive philanderer, and a charismatic poet/painter/commodities trader/onetime inmate—visited us only sporadically and only at the insistence of my mother. My mother was brilliant, vibrant, and sharply funny, and we adored her, but she was usually preoccupied with her work, often depressed (her own mother had died when she was a baby), and chronically broke. Sometimes our house was filled with strangers for weeks at a time, the cast and crew of whatever film she was trying to put together; other times, it was eerily silent, the only noise the sound of her pounding away on the typewriter or the murmur of her meditating behind a closed door.
Beyond the occasional mild spanking, my mother never hit us, but she’d yell and scream in a way that left me frightened that our small family could disintegrate at a moment’s notice. I wasn’t afraid of her, but the tantrums made me feel terribly alone. Who was this wild woman?
Between my parents, the anger frequently turned physical. When I was a toddler, my mother discovered that my father had a child with a woman he’d impregnated six months after I was conceived, and during the ensuing fight, she tried to fling herself out of the ninth-floor window of our apartment. In another altercation, she hit Dad on the head with a beer bottle, and an ambulance took him to Bellevue Hospital for stitches. Emilio remembers Mom throwing pots at Dad and a general sense that when our father visited, he was always late and she was always furious. In the dozens of confrontations I witnessed over the years, the anger was so thick I could feel the violence even if neither of them laid a hand on the other. And as much as I dislike my father—for leaving, for cheating, for never taking care of me—he wasn’t the initiator; from what I saw, it was all her.
At 14, I slapped my best friend across the face in the hall at school—the first time, as I recall, of physically lashing out at anybody other than my brother. Our friendship had become tense: I’d started spending more time with my first serious boyfriend, a senior on the football team, than with her. I was a classic mean girl—physically developed, bossy—and she was my sidekick, flat-chested and shy. While I loved her, I can see now that I used her, depended on her adulation to make me feel important. As she began befriending other people, we started to argue. Our final fight culminated in the slap. I was enraged by her rejection, by the loss that loomed, even as I was the one who’d “left” for my boyfriend. I fell into the first significant depression of my life, marked by months of tortured journal entries.
Q., a new hire in the firm, was 34, a Princeton PhD physicist and rising star in the burgeoning world of quantum finance. At 6’2″ and 190 pounds, he was built like my father. They had other things in common: college crew, talents for math and science, an assured indifference. Confident and masculine, Q. had large hands and a quiet strength that made me feel safe. In me he found his extroverted other half, someone with whom he thought he could build a life. Within a couple of years, we were married in a downtown loft, and at the same time I started an exciting, all-consuming career as a literary scout, wrangling books for European publishers and Hollywood. I got pregnant on our honeymoon, so quickly added to the mix was beautiful Violet, the first of our four children.
In the 16 years Q. and I were together, I can think of at least five times that I hit him, usually in the face. (If asked, he might come up with a few more.) Apart from recent events, the first time is the most vivid: We’re in the living room of our SoHo loft on a Saturday afternoon, having just returned from the Museum of Natural History. Four-year-old Violet is down for a nap, and after a long week at work for both of us, I’m hoping for some intimate conversation, some kind of recognition that I matter to Q. He’s been silent all morning, focused on Violet and the dinosaurs, not me. So begins the argument that we have at least weekly: I tell him that I need more “connection”; he says he doesn’t know what I mean, doesn’t understand the words I’ve chosen. I say that I’d like him to kiss me goodbye when he leaves in the morning. He shrugs. I suggest regular date nights; he says that’s a contrived waste of time. The argument escalates. I’m crying. “I feel like I’m living with a wall, like I don’t exist!” He grabs a coat, threatens to walk out. I can’t stop yelling, berating, wanting to discuss the holes in our union. In a frenzy, I slap his face. He looks at me appalled: “What is wrong with you? You’re crazy.” But he doesn’t leave; he goes to his study and locks the door behind him. For the moment, I get a small consolation. He stays.
I had become my mother.
Most all of our arguments followed this same script: I’d feel trapped, truly like an animal in a cage. Enraged, I’d push or slap him, anything to feel heard, to make him understand that I was suffering. It never worked. In the short term, hitting would end the fight; the shock of it usually calmed me down and impressed upon him my desperation. I had become my mother.
Q. never hit me back until the Christmas Eve fight, and even then it was really in self-defense; I was going after him like a panther. He was living in a rental down the street from our Brooklyn house, which I’d been granted in the divorce, and he’d called me, slightly drunk and sad. The kids were asleep, and I decided to walk over to his place to talk. What I wanted was for us to somehow comfort each other, to find forgiveness, maybe even to come back together in some way. But it quickly turned into a rehashing of all the old anger, pain, and betrayal. I threw a book at him, he told me I was insane, and then I pushed the coffee table toward him. He kept telling me that I’d never be happier without him, that I didn’t deserve more, and I started slapping his arms, pounding against his chest. A brawl ensued, worse than any we’d had. He not only fended me off but threw me against a wall, cutting my arm where it hit the baseboard, and blocked the door so I couldn’t leave. All this with one hand because his cell phone was in the other; he’d called 911 and wanted me to keep fighting—he knew the operator was recording the argument, giving him proof of my attack.
When most people think of domestic violence, they see Rihanna’s bruised face or Farrah Fawcett being beaten and humiliated in The Burning Bed; they think of men brutalizing women. Before the women’s movement of the 1970s, however, domestic violence barely registered in the public consciousness. Wife battering was a private matter, even a husband’s prerogative, not a pressing social concern. That began to change in the 1980s, as shelters and hotlines were established, and the police and courts began to reform policies that minimized the crime or blamed its female victims.
Against this backdrop, the notion that women, too, might be roughing up men became a controversial subject, most classically in a landmark paper by Suzanne K. Steinmetz, who, prior to her death in 2009, was director of the Family Research Center at Indiana University. In her 1977 paper, “The Battered Husband Syndrome,” Steinmetz, drawing on an exhaustive analysis of the 1975 National Family Violence Survey, proclaimed that “the percentage of wives having used physical violence often exceeds that of the husbands, but…wives also exceed husbands in the frequency with which these acts occur.” Steinmetz’s article infuriated academics and laypeople, men and women alike, who thought she was obscuring the bigger problem—male on female violence—when it only had begun to be addressed. Steinmetz was the object of an unsuccessful letter-writing campaign to deny her tenure; she received a bomb threat at her daughter’s wedding, and hundreds of researchers launched studies to repudiate her work. This perception—that any acknowledgment that women hit men undercuts efforts to combat wife battering—has helped keep the issue out of the public arena for the past 40 years.
Within academia, however, there has been some change in perspective, such that it’s now more accepted that although men disproportionately perpetrate the type of domestic violence that leads to injury and death, significant numbers of women also attack their partners. According to the 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey, about 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are assaulted by their partner each year (though this estimate may be low for men because they’re more reluctant than women to report being hit, some experts believe). Meanwhile, in the book Behind Closed Doors, Steinmetz and her colleagues documented that in nearly a quarter of violent marriages—”violent” being defined by any sort of physical assault, whether biting, shoving, punching, etc.—only the woman is physically abusive. And a California study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that domestic violence convictions grew by 131 percent for men between 1987 and 1999, and at an incredible 1,207 percent for women.
According to researchers, there are two main types of violence. So-called “intimate terrorism,” overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, is embedded in a general pattern of power and control; typically, money is part of it. The woman often can’t buy anything without the man’s permission and is socially isolated, every second of her time tracked. When she’s hit, it’s “her fault” for failing to obey her husband. This is the classic battered-wife syndrome, in other words. What I engaged in, and what women and men engage in roughly equally, according to Penn State sociologist Michael Johnson, PhD, is called “situational couple violence.” The author of dozens of papers and a book on domestic violence, Johnson says the situational type doesn’t permeate a couple’s life but bursts out when specific tensions ramp up. “Sometimes this involves some back-and-forth, but it rarely becomes life-threatening,” he writes. “Motives vary. A physical reaction might feel like the only way one’s extreme anger or frustration can be expressed…. It may primarily be an attempt to get the attention of a partner who doesn’t seem to be listening.” (Bingo, for me.)
Friends of mine, a couple, told me about an incident that underscores how varied the meaning and impact of situational violence can be. The wife, Julie, was deeply frazzled—undone by a move, a job change, insomnia, two toddlers, bedbugs. One night, she and her husband, Stephen, had a fight, and Julie smacked him hard across the face. She’d hit him once before, days after the birth of their first child; he didn’t hit her back. This time, however, Stephen pushed her down onto the bed and silently left the room; he felt furious, bewildered, emasculated. But over the next days, Stephen realized that he’d done the bigger thing by not hitting Julie back—after all, they both knew he could “beat the shit out of her” if he wanted to. When she offered a heartfelt apology, he accepted it, coming to see the slap as an indication of how frazzled his wife was. “I was at the end of my tether,” Julie told me, seconding Stephen. “Words failed.” And she couldn’t help but notice that, eventually, the incident did provoke Stephen to give her more help and support. “Spare the rod, spoil the husband?” Julie jokes. That may sound offensive, but Julie questions whether her rare slaps of Stephen are any more corrosive to their relationship than her reflexive nagging. It’s all on a continuum of ugly stuff that, if it becomes too frequent, could doom her marriage.
That’s basically how I feel about the violence in my marriage, that it was part of a larger destructive dynamic. Had I just howled at Q., never touched him, I’m pretty sure that the pattern between us would have been the same—with me hysterically raging and begging for attention, my husband confused and disgusted and unable to respond. The remedies for situational violence are usually some form of couples and/or individual therapy. (With intimate terrorism, however, many counselors refuse to see spouses together, for fear that the husband will physically retaliate if the wife says something that exposes or angers him.)
Problems are always sexier than solutions.
Since Q. and I divorced, couples therapy was out of the question, but after my night of reckoning, I began to deconstruct what was going on for me with a psychologist and in one of the journals I’d kept since girlhood. I just couldn’t carry this proclivity into my next relationship—assuming I’d get to have one. I’m feeling too old, too worn out; I can’t spend any more of my time living in a cold—and hot—war zone. I also want to show my kids something different. Witnessing domestic violence as a child is a risk factor for becoming a violent adult; one study found that men who’d seen their parents attack each other were nearly three times more likely than others to have hit their wives during the previous year. Even children who don’t see their parents assault each other may be harmed, studies (and common sense) suggest. hyper-attuned to the household atmosphere, children absorb the conflict and may feel anxious about protecting one or both of their parents or even responsible for the blowups. My kids are not little anymore—I know some of the damage has been done—but I want to do whatever I can to ameliorate it now.
So how did I change? Problems are always sexier than solutions. In fact, you might say that all my drama distracted me from what was so hard for me to bear. With professional help, introspection, and writing, I came to recognize the ways in which I was replicating my childhood in my marriage: finding security with an indomitable figure, then exploding when that person maintained a distance that seemed to preclude any show of vulnerability or even acknowledgment of deep feeling. In my marriage, as in my childhood, I felt achingly alone.
Dating after my divorce, I initially took the predictable route. I went for guys who were Q.’s opposite: effusive, pliant, and, ultimately, too reliant on me to run the show. I didn’t want to date another Q., but I didn’t want to be him either. So I ping-ponged to the other extreme: men who made me feel like I was in bed with Q. and my parents. One in particular, a successful writer/director from L.A., had all the delicious hot points—brilliant, reserved, mysterious—but he was epically withholding. We dated for two months but barely kissed; as much as he professed to find me gorgeous and sexy, there was always some reason we couldn’t actually be together. When we called it off, I plunged into a weeks-long, in-my-room-with-the-shutters drawn, face-bloated-from-crying depression.
After him, there were a few similar men, and with each I got better at simply experiencing how sad and unbalanced the strong/remote combo made me, whereas in the past I relied on anger to blot out the pain of it. Drip by drip, man by man (I apologize, boyfriends past, for my steep learning curve), I internalized that there is a middle ground between all-powerful and totally dependent—for me and for the opposite sex.
I’m now in my first long relationship since my marriage. Joe is super smart, funny, and adventurous. He’s definitely not a pushover, but he has moments of neurosis and frailty that can unnerve me (like when he asks if I still love him—Q. wouldn’t have done that in a trillion years). Tolerating the discomfort of his neediness—which is how I see my task—is well worth what I get in return: a loving, affectionate man who can hang in there with me. Joe doesn’t seem to perceive me as “too much,” the way other men have, or if he does, maybe he’s decided that it’s something he can tolerate. And lo and behold, when we have moments of tension or conflict, my anger barely registers on the old scale.
It’s certainly possible that I haven’t been tested yet, that Joe and I are still in the fairy-tale phase, but I do think I’ve changed. I’ve learned to detect my danger signs with men, and I’ve also put some of the inner storm of my girlhood to rest. Without quite so much internal suffering, I don’t have as much pain to spread around.
This piece originally appeared in ELLE.