My introduction was young; at just four years old I stretched toward the phone to call the police while my mother screamed from across the room. I struggled to get to it, hung on the wall just out of a toddler’s reach. My mother’s boyfriend, Eric, took one long stride across the living room, leaving my mother crumpled in a heap, and ripped the entire receiver from the wall.
Days later I would sit in the bathroom with my mother as she examined the gash that ran the length of her calf. No one ever taught me about 911.
Sometimes now I wonder: How many times have I had to call the police to report an instance of domestic violence since then? How many more times will I have to?
Tomorrow marks six months since the morning my roommate’s ex-boyfriend burst into our house at 8 am, yelling obscenities and slamming doors. Eventually he left, only to crawl through our kitchen window that afternoon. Later, as I walked up my front steps, I would marvel at the amount of his blood that still clung to the sidewalk, even after a week; even after the rain. There are still drops of his blood on the dirtied siding of our house: the result of his drunken punch through the window of our front door.
Years ago, back in Amherst, I lived with my friend and her boyfriend for two years. Ernesto was an angry drunk and a serial cheater. My friend was a no-bullshit powerhouse; fierce and loyal and unwavering.
One night, months before I lived with them, Ernesto trapped her in their bedroom in a drunken rage. When she finally escaped he chased her through the woods behind their house. After they broke up he smashed the windows of her car.
They got back together. She defended him in court. I moved in.
They fought frequently; “You fucking junkie piece of shit,” echoed through the walls at night. We lived with the idea that he wasn’t dangerous as long as he did not drink. But at his most sober he texted continuously, questioning her company and her whereabouts. He demanded she dress modestly; he grew angry at her growing disinterest in sex.
One day, in the midst of a bout of food poisoning, I woke up to five missed calls from her. Ernesto had tried to trap her in their bedroom again. She escaped and ran to her car barefoot.
“What a piece of shit,” we agreed the next day, “he’s got a fucking problem.” And that was how we left it.
Weeks later I spoke casually of my roommates to a friend; “Why the fuck is she with someone like that?” he demanded, “And why the fuck are you living with someone like that?” I had never considered the severity of what was taking place in my house.
I left, eventually. One night she called me panicked, “Are you home? You need to leave. Ernesto and his brother are on their way there and they are really angry at you.” I had nowhere to go.
An hour later I heard the familiar slam of the front door and footsteps on the stairs. Outside my door I heard their gruff voices speaking not in their native Spanish, but in English. For my benefit: “I’m going to punch that fucking cunt in her fucking face.” My door opened. They stood in my room and watched me pretend to sleep for a few minutes before leaving. I couldn’t move.
As I packed my things into discarded produce boxes she glared at me, her pupils pinpoints of rage, and said, “You were never in any danger and you know that. Fuck you.”
Last summer my best friend made a long distance phone call to me while I was in Tel Aviv to announce me that she had finally left her boyfriend. She had moved in with him a few months before and things had been tense ever since. Then, one night, he got home to find her sleeping and woke her up to throw her against the wall and choke her.
Three months later, “I slept with Josh. Don’t judge me.”
Some months ago I said to my roommate, “You know, I was really, really worried about you and Mitchell getting back together after everything that happened.” I was referring to the time after they broke up but were still sleeping together nonexclusively and he took the liberty of going through her phone while she was asleep. He woke her up with a fast slew of obscenities and death threats, complete with a fist through the wall and hand on her throat. “But it seems like things are going really well and I’m really glad.”
Two weeks later he broke up with her. And then he stormed into our house to find her in bed with someone else. He refused to leave and instead shut himself in her bedroom with her and demanded over and over, “Do you like sucking his dick?!” I called the police.
It was strangely reminiscent of the times I had to call the police as I frantically drove to my friend’s apartment when I was just 18 years old. The father of her unborn baby would frequently become enraged and lock her in their bedroom and sit on the other side of the door. He often spent his days sitting outside of the restaurant where we worked to keep an eye on her.
Yesterday I found out that old roommate never did get the restraining order she swore she would all those months ago.
What are we teaching girls that creates such a consistent pattern of accepting abuse? There is an idea of a Strong Woman in our society who takes no bullshit, but most of my friends have fit that archetype. How many more women do I know who are keeping these secrets? How many women aren’t asking for help because they’re not supposed to be the kind of women who are abused? And why, why, why are there so many men doing this and being taught that they can get away with it?
When Eric came back into my mother’s life a few years ago I spent days feeling nauseous. I hadn’t spoken to my mother in almost 6 months but when things came to a head one night I got in her face and told her that she had better keep that man away from my sister. She denied the abuse that I had witnessed with my own eyes. She told me I was young and stupid. Those words were among some of the most frightening I’ve ever heard in my life.
My sister, now 17, has been going out with a boy for about a year now. They have had some rough patches; he has sent nude photos to other girls and been caught by my sister. When they patched up that particular incident my sister told me that there was now an understanding that she would be able to access his phone and online accounts at her will. I plead with her to realize the unhealthiness of a relationship like that, but she wasn’t interested. A few weeks back she messaged me with screenshots between her boyfriend and another girl in which he said he didn’t want to be with my sister any longer and wanted to webcam with this girl. They broke up and I breathed a sigh of relief. But now he has declared it was all a joke that he meant for her to see. And so the roller coaster continues, along with a heightened defensiveness to anyone who tries to reason with her about the negative ways he treats her.
And it is when my sister tells me things like this, when I am already mulling over the unhealthiness of so many relationships around me that I wonder: is this presentation of a poor sense of self-worth the first step? What kind of behavior will she defend next? Who will call the police for her?
And my heart breaks.