It could be you

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It was a normal part of a normal day. One of our three SheSaid columnists had submitted her column, and I was ready to read and edit it. But I wasn’t ready for my reaction to her words.

The essay was Ka Vang’s graphic account of the physical and emotional abuse of “a friend” who had recently left an abusive marriage. I didn’t know Ka very well, but I was aware of a few of the details of her life and her marriage, and there were some clues scattered throughout the column that suggested the friend was really Ka herself. I knew in my gut it was.

I felt afraid when I read her words. Not afraid for her. Afraid, selfishly, for me. Afraid that I would have to act. Afraid that when I picked up the phone, she would rebuff me. Maybe she would be offended. Maybe it really wasn’t her, and she’d be angry. Maybe it was, but she would say it wasn’t.

My concern for her was overshadowed by my worry about how she would react to me. It was all about me. How silly. How wrong!

Domestic violence is such a huge topic that it is hard to know where to start. My opening, of course, was the column. When I asked her if she was writing about herself, she didn’t hesitate. Yes, she said, a little surprised that I’d put the pieces of the puzzle together.

After making sure she was OK, I settled back to listen. She was getting a divorce. She didn’t want people to hate her soon-to-be-ex. He wasn’t a horrible person. For years, they’d had a good marriage. And then things had changed. He had changed.

This was a hard message to hear. I wanted to hate him. I didn’t want to think that a good marriage could turn bad, that without warning, someone could become abusive. I didn’t want to hear that the situation was more complex than that.

We know not to blame the victims. We know that nothing justifies abuse. We would never say, “She asked for it.” But it’s easy for us to think that women who are abused should have known better (even if we don’t say it out loud). That they chose the wrong men. That they should have known this would happen.

We have come a certain distance in our understanding of domestic violence; we know that abusers can be corporate executives and factory workers and poets and mechanics. We know that nothing justifies raising your hand to another person. But many of us still think it couldn’t happen to us. That we wouldn’t choose the kind of partner who would turn out to be abusive.

If we believe that, we are wrong. It is a more sophisticated way of blaming the victim instead of focusing the blame where it belongs: on the abuser.

I was uncomfortable with Ka’s not wanting people to hate her husband. Based on what Ka had written, I wanted to hate him. I wanted him to be made an example of. I wanted her to feel that same way. I was not listening to her carefully enough. I was not understanding that she was wrapped up in grief and a certain amount of disbelief about what had happened to her. I was not respecting her right to go through the emotions she was entitled to feel, to let her feelings evolve as she came to terms with what had happened.

In the end, Ka did decide to go public with what had happened to her. She went through the emotions she needed to feel and then she wrote the second column that appears on this page-a column about hope and growth and healing. It’s a beautiful column, and an honest one. Ka is a survivor. She is the strong woman she always was-stronger, perhaps, for the events that took place at the end of her marriage.

In writing about herself and her marriage, Ka has done us all an incredible service. By being brave enough to be honest about her life, she has helped me-and all of our readers-understand some of the nuances of domestic abuse.

Thank you, Ka.

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