The video of the stop in Moab Utah.
Fair warning – It is hard to watch.
I heard the news this morning about Gabby Petito as I checked my feeds. The confirmation of my worst fears was there, displayed on the screen.
I heard there was a video of the interaction with law enforcement in Utah. I had avoided it until now. But now I needed to see it. I thought it was necessary – though, at the time, I couldn’t put ‘why’ into words.
Watching it reminded me so much of my own past with domestic and relational violence. The images hit close to home – the reverberation shaking loose forgotten things. In those forgotten images I pieced together the ‘why’.
I suddenly appreciated anew that I survived. That I escaped. I saw again how close I had skirted danger. I celebrated the ones I helped get out and I cried for the ones that died. And I was reminded of one gold brick put in a friend’s wall with his name on it. A figurative gold brick, but nonetheless one where we all paid a very high price.
I remembered something I had believed long ago, and I remembered how my experience changed me. So I’m going to say something no one is going to like to hear, and then I’ll tell my story.
I believe everyone needs to experience that powerlessness of being the victim of domestic violence.
I’ll soften that statement and say – ok, maybe not everyone. Maybe there are people out there who can understand that position without having lived it, but most people can’t.
I didn’t. I didn’t understand at all.
I grew up in a house that was poisoned. I won’t go into the particulars of that today, but I will describe what those years made me.
I was strong. I was stoic. I needed no one. I didn’t feel pain, not physical, not emotional, not mental. I never needed help. I was independent. I was hyperaware of everything. I knew my exits. And I knew to never admit fear or weakness because that was blood in the water.
This was me at 14, 16, 18 and on. So in those years when I heard of domestic abuse I was incredulous, even indignant. The lack of agency on the part of these women, the stuff they endured. How could they?
I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand.
I thought ‘I would have left.’ I would have got up and walked out. I would have, I would have…
Later, as I emerged into the world from the claustrophobic circles of high school I was convinced that every person was like my family, or like the evil portrayed on television, or found in the newspapers that I made myself a promise. If anyone ever struck me out of anger I would leave. There would be no second chance. There would be no reconciliation. It would be over and I would be gone.
So, why didn’t these women leave? I would.
I still didn’t understand.
And when I made this declaration on the first date – as was my practice – I saw very few second dates. As a matter of fact – the only second dates I had were with the men who would turn into my abusers.
What I didn’t know at the time – although I lived it every minute of my life – was that I wanted a rescuer. I wanted someone to come in and sweep me up in a romantic embrace, promise to never abandon me, and save me from my past. I wanted to be rescued from my life so badly that to someone abusive I must have looked like a neon sign.
And when my rescuers came I couldn’t see anything other than the ‘good’ that they presented at first. I ignored warnings from friends. My father knew – but he didn’t say anything – that’s a different story. These men became my rescuers – my romantic partner, my tormentor, my abuser.
I couldn’t reconcile the two realities. I was primed to believe that something was wrong with me. I believed that somehow I earned the disdain, the silence, the taunts, the threats. After all explosive violence was the legacy of my family – so, at least there wasn’t that.
Somewhere along the way that protective cocoon that he formed around me started to smother. I was isolated. Our finances were combined, we lived together. How could I leave? I couldn’t hurt him. He didn’t mean to hurt me.
Somewhere in those years, I began to understand why women (or men) don’t ‘just leave’ an abusive relationship. There are lives – jobs, obligations, a thousand little ties that connect you to where you are physically, mentally, and emotionally.
If you sever one thread there are still the other thousand to draw you back again and again.
And make no mistake those who would abuse another become skilled in playing their victim like an instrument. They are able to draw out any emotion they wish. To them, you are part toy, part safety blanket, part mirror, part captive audience.
My abuser had a distinct pattern that he moved his victims through. I stuck around long enough that not only did I get to see all the roles he shoved his partners into, I played those roles myself. When I saw the entire tableau, I helped the women he was grooming to leave before they were caught in the pernicious cycle. And they, in turn, helped me to leave.
Let me emphasize I was never struck. I don’t know if that is because of my declaration at the beginning or if I just got out in time. I suspect the latter. But, even if I was never physically hurt, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t wounded by the time I left.
Those years in the crazy-making, gaslighting, emotionally battering world stripped me of so much. When I finally fled I was a fraction of myself. And after you escape there is shame, and anger at yourself and them. There is the world not able to understand how you could leave someone ‘so nice’. There is a whole new landscape to navigate. And you start on your knees. Or, at least, I did.
But, I came away from those years with a new understanding, new compassion for those who live with violence. It is not something you can just drop and walk away from. You fight your way out of it. You fight to reclaim yourself. And I finally understood that leaving wasn’t the end. It was just the beginning.