Editor’s Notebook: You can’t hit girls
October is Domestic Violence Month, and Tahoe Womens Services is planning many events to help raise awareness of abuse, as seen above. In this column, originally written in 1995, I have two stories for you on my own experiences with abuse: a somewhat frivolous one, and a very serious one.
The first and last time I hit a girl was in second grade. It was really kind of an accident.
Eight-year-olds have a peculiar code in their relationships with the opposite sex, a code which consists mainly of running around the playground screaming at them and/or avoiding them at all costs. Jaded adults watching a playground full of children may assume there is no pattern to the frenzied motions they see therein – but if they stare harder, then they’ll see the same chaotic mating dance that men and women carry on throughout their whole lives, just in a slightly embryonic form.
Misty, Jessica and Deanna were three girls that lived down the block from me. Day after day on the playgrounds at Hennessy Elementary School, we’d jeer at and tease each other from afar, every once in a while breaking into spontaneous chases around the jungle gym. The object of the chase was not to catch the chasee – it was the chase itself.
But one day, Misty caught me.
Misty, as I recall her, was a squinty-eyed, red-haired little thing who had a penchant for striped pleated pants (this was the 1970s, remember). She kept loudly telling anyone who’d listen that she was going to marry me someday, whether I liked it or not.
She caught me that fine spring morning on our third lap around the playground – winded, dusty and panting, we toppled to the ground in a heap, where she began chanting over and over again, “I’m gonna marry you! I’m gonna marry you!” The tone of her words made clear that this was nothing less than the most terrible, bone-rendering thing that could ever happen to an eight-year-old boy in the prime of youth.
My reaction to her tackling of me and her unending proposals was sudden, but not unwarranted in my eyes then.
I leaned back and punched her in the face.
It only seemed fair, I thought. She started it.
But from the sheer pandemonium that erupted on the playground, you would’ve thought I’d just poured gasoline all over a bus full of nuns and lit it. Misty was crying, the other kids were hollering, and I was bawling myself by the time the playground monitor plopped my sorry hide down inside the Principal’s office.
In those far-flung pre-PC days, corporal punishment was not only allowed, it was mandatory for trouble-making second graders who hit girls. I was firmly paddled by Principal Grewer, who then decided to take the opportunity to instill a few life lessons in me:
“You don’t hit girls,” he said.
To me, standing in the Principal’s office with a bruised bottom and wounded pride, this was insufferable. “But she started it,” I said.
“You don’t hit girls,” he repeated.
“No backtalk, son. You don’t hit girls. That’s all there is to it. Not,” he interjected, seeing me looking doubtful, “even if they start it. Got it?”
And that was the first and the last time I hit a girl.
A little less than ten years later, I met Melanie.
I was a junior in high school, and Melanie was, fate would have it, my first big love. We met in a theater group that we were both in, and after an afternoon wandering through the woods having one of those deep conversations you only manage to have rarely in this life, we became an item.
The first thing that caught my eye was her ferociously red hair – an amazing coiffure that I later found out was dyed – and her bizarre sense of humor. She made me laugh. Melanie was the kind of girl described by many of our classmates as “unique.” To me, she was a breath of fresh air amongst Barbie dolls and empty heads.
But there was a darkness there, behind the jokes and humorous asides. Melanie was prone to unpredictable mood swings, to fits of the blackest depression… and she possessed one of the worst self-images I’d ever seen. I didn’t know how to take this roller coaster of emotions, or what caused it, until I learned more about her family.
Melanie’s mother was an ex-hippie who’d found Jesus and lost him again, who’d run off and left Melanie in the custody of her father for almost three years. Her father made her troubled mother look like Donna Reed – a fierce disciplinarian whose ironclad authority turned to abuse. She was abused, mentally and physically, by her father for those three years until her mother took her back. But Melanie’s mother wasn’t a much better parent to her – constantly belittling her, hitting her, and periodically threatening to kill herself. One attempt left Melanie’s mother in the hospital – her first words to Melanie upon awakening were, “If you were a better daughter, I wouldn’t have done this.”
It was in this hell of abuse and terror that Melanie and I found each other. Unlike her, I had had a happy childhood.
It took me many years to learn that a lot of people don’t.
Several months into our romance, I learned the full extent of Melanie’s past. I thought I could help her and make her happy again, but I found that I was a man juggling hundred-ton weights over a bed of coals, overwhelmed and losing ground fast.
Our relationship didn’t last, of course. Melanie was the first abuse victim I’d ever known, and I was completely unable to understand her pains. I could not make her whole in the way she needed to be. And no sane relationship can be based purely on sympathy and compassion and expect to survive. Sometimes I wonder… if I met her today, years on, would I be a better man to her?
I loved her, as if that helped.
Any anger I ever felt with the way things worked out long since evolved into a murky combination of respect and anger – respect for Melanie, for simply going on where many might have quit; and anger for those who took a sweet, sunny girl with dyed red hair and hurt her so.
In the years since I knew Melanie, my experience with abuse victims has broadened. I have had friends who were raped, one by her father. I have become more intimate with the deep-rooted layers of pain that people can inflict on each other… and I have been heartened by the courage and strength with which each and every woman I’ve known has endured the abuse they never asked for.
It’s frightening for me to consider how many more of my close friends and casual acquaintances may be victims of this most silent and terrible assault without my knowing – perhaps without anybody’s knowing.
According to those who keep such statistics, one in four women will be abused sometime in your lifetime; by a fiancee, by a boyfriend, an acquaintance, a complete stranger. One in four of you will lose something very precious, and that something is innocence, the belief that someone who claims to love you can’t possibly hurt you. There is love, and then there is the desire to control, to possess another human being for yourself, no matter the cost to them.
One of those is wrong. One of them leads to abuse.
No relationship, no love, is worth putting up with abuse.
Nobody in the world is.
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