Dear Lily June,
We live in a world where domestic violence and sexual assault exist. I lived in a home where this was, for a while, the norm. You won’t grow up in that kind of home, learning the lessons I learned from first-hand witness. But that means the things you won’t be shown, you must be told. I hope to do honor to the telling of them. I will be talking about them with you a lot. What you do with what I tell you is your own, Lily June. When it comes to matters of your body, your heart, you have the agency, and you alone.
This time, as a jumping off place, I’m using Deborah Fulsang’s Huffington Post article, “You Don’t Deserve To Be Abused, And Other Things To Tell My Daughter.” For what it’s worth, not being from Canada, I don’t know a lot about the exact situation she’s writing about (the Jian Ghomeshi trial, from back in February of 2016). I have been made to understand that a celebrity took advantage of his fame and power and sexually assaulted women. I have been told his accusers have been everything from disbelieved to downright badgered. I have been told he is to Canada what Bill Cosby has been of late to America. And I know from research that Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges. That is all I know of the specific instigating event of Fulsang’s piece.
The larger lessons behind the article, though, are applicable to any domestic violence or sexual assault situation. Of course, I am going to problematize at points what I believe to be her oversimplification of things. She’s writing to her 11-year-old daughter, so I understand the need to make things black and white. And at the core, we are mothers who agree: Our daughters do not deserve to be abused. Indeed, no one’s daughters or sons do.
You, Lily June, matter. Whatever else I say is window-dressing to that all important fact. If you read that sentence with a hint of rejection, a whiff of denial, that, my dear, is where to start your self-examination. You should be able to read that sentence without the slightest discomfort, always with a knowing nod and never a shudder or cringe. YOU, LILY JUNE, MATTER. Any relationship in your life that doesn’t treat that sentence as a touchstone is one worth investigating. Know why you have it. And know, if you don’t want it or need it, how to eliminate it.
I’m going to take Fulsang’s lessons to her daughter step by step, one by one. I am going to put them into second-person, Lily June, so you know I’m applying them to you. They could, after all, be applied to anyone. Each quote below is hers, first. The opinions and elaborations are mine.
“I must tell [you] that there are people in the world who would take pleasure from [your] pain, that one must be strong and not be with these individuals, or that one is never deserving of being abused or attacked or harmed.”
Abusers aren’t always such simplified sadists. Some abusers will place your experience of pain secondary to their exercise of power; your pain won’t even register for them. Some will claim your pain is your pleasure and will delude themselves into thinking they are meeting your needs. Some will even take pain from your pain, will grieve alongside you and lament that they’ve harmed you in the first place. You need to recognize abuse in all of its variations and incarnations so that you can avoid it.
You also do not deserve to be abused or attacked or harmed, even by the rhetoric of those who would stand up with and for you. Too often, society implies that those would are with abusers are weak and those who leave are strong. And it is certainly a strength to exit a dangerous and harmful relationship. But there are strong women and men still inside of those situations who need to know their initial love, caring and concern for an abuser was not a weakness. In fact, their continued love, caring and concern for abusers even after they’ve left the relationship is not a weakness. Love is always a strength.
That being said, I do not want you to stay with someone once you spot the red flags of abuse, Lily. When I first started dating your father, I repeated early and often my two deal-breakers: infidelity and abuse. He knew that if he ever raised a hand to me once, I would not be there for it to occur a second time. Communication about what you want–and don’t–is key, even if it’s embarrassing to bring up. Even if it feels, as it did with me, kind of insulting towards your partner. I felt a little sheepish bringing it up, like I was accusing your father of something before he’d even done it.
As it turned out, my preemptive strike was never necessary. Your father has never, ever abused me or the sanctity of our consensual monogamy. But I’m glad, in hindsight, that I’d broached the subject. Because if he’d reacted with a moment’s hesitation–if the ultimatum early on had angered or ruffled him–it might have given me pause at the outset. Even though I was already in love with him. That’s the tricky truth, Lily June. Sometimes, your heart beats your mind to the finish line. But the race isn’t over until both are on the same side.
“I must tell [you] that no matter what a woman is wearing or saying, or where she happens to be, she is never ‘asking for it.'”
Fact. Simple, incontrovertible truth. I would add, of course, that men don’t ask for this abuse, either, and it does happen that way, too. No one’s clothes, or words, or location should invite attack. And you shouldn’t have to live in a world where you have to watch what you do in order not to be attacked.
I’m a proud feminist proponent of the idea that you don’t teach girls “not to dress slutty;” you teach everyone “not to rape” and society “not to accept rape” when it happens. That consent is what matters.
I want you to understand contexts and realities. That your clothes and your words and where you chose to be all convey unintended arguments about who you are and what you want. In an ideal world, you could wear fishnet stockings, for instance, to any occasion–a wedding, a funeral–and what would matter would be the you inside, not the packaging you’ve chosen to adorn it with, and thus, no one would throw shade your way. But that isn’t this world.
In this world, you are presented with a barrage of choices. You can stay in at night. Or you can go out with friends to create strength in numbers. Or you can walk, as a woman, at night, alone, but you can arm yourself–with knowledge, with options if things go wrong. You can have an exit strategy for any situation.
Just because you shouldn’t have to prepare for the worst doesn’t mean you don’t go ahead and prepare for it anyway. Just because you weren’t asking for it doesn’t mean you don’t get it, and aren’t blamed for the getting of it. We can talk about ways to work together to make the world less this way. I will stand beside you and fight for a better future–for your daughters and sons, too.
But in the meantime, you have to be smart. Don’t limit what you do; Just know which choices make you vulnerable, which vulnerabilities you’re willing to accept, which actions you can take to lessen your risks of those vulnerabilities being used against you.
You are worth protecting. You are strong enough to be your own protector, too.
“[T]here are people in the world who enjoy hurting others…There are good people in the world and there are bad people–people who choose to be destructive to others–and this is a truth. This is true in the bedroom and in the boardroom, in politics and in religion, and it is true in every country of the world.”
Yes, there are people, Lily June, who enjoy hurting others. There are also people who won’t admit–even to themselves–that what they do does hurt others. Psychological studies tend to show most abusers are in extreme denial that their behavior constitutes abuse. They find ways to justify what they do, to the point where they excuse away even some actions they might otherwise abhor. You need to be aware of this, because it makes learning who an abuser is more difficult than just avoiding everyone wearing a “Bad Person” t-shirt.
There are people who do good things. And people who do bad things. Sometimes, there are people who do both good and bad things. Those people are called “everyone.” You need to know, again, Lily June, that if you harm another human being, we can get you help. And if you are harmed by another human being, we can get you help. Nonconsensual violence is never okay (and that is, to me, a truth), and you are never deserving of, or entitled to, such treatment of yourself or others. Those, to me, are the truths.
“…[I]f someone is mean to [you] or hurts [you], or God forbid, ever hits [you], [you] must leave them.”
Okay, there is a mom-truth and a truth-truth here. The mom-truth is, yes, if someone hurts you, I will want, with every fiber of my body, for you to leave them. The truth-truth is that you may not want to leave them. The truth-truth is that YOU are in control. You have the power to make choices over your life–no matter what anyone else, including your partner or spouse or lover or mother, might say.
When and how you might choose to leave will be up to the situation. A woman is never at greater physical risk than when she is extricating herself from an abusive relationship. It takes time. It takes planning. Sometimes, it even takes creativity to leave, as the following Superbowl commercial makes evident:
In the commercial, a woman calls 911 but pretends to be ordering a pizza to keep the operator on the line. That is always an option. In fact, you wouldn’t believe the number of apps and options available these days to aid you in leaving, if that’s what you want to do. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. It took your grandmother Raelyn, my mother, almost two decades to leave, amidst his threats that if she did so, my father would hurt her or her children or kill himself.
Your aunt Loren got out much quicker, but as a result, ended up living in a shelter for a while, losing custody of her kids when her abuser issued an emergency protective order claiming she was the abuser. Society has not advanced in terms of how they view women who leave. In court for her custody battle, my sister was repeatedly asked to justify why she went back so many times, despite the fact that this is more common than not in women who finally, ultimately, escape their abusers.
It may be worth it to leave. But it will not be easy. You need to know–for as long or as many times as it takes–I will be there to help you leave, if so you want to. All you have to do is want to. But that may be the hardest obstacle of all.
“[You] cannot fix a person like this, change this person, heal this person. That responsibility belongs to the individual alone, not to [you].”
Abusers can, and only will, change on their own volition. Nothing you do will change them. That’s true of everyone, Lily June. You can’t change someone you love who doesn’t abuse you, either. In fact, if you’re trying to change your partner, your friend, anyone, you’re not loving them for who they are. Don’t fall in love with anyone’s potential; fall for their actual.
It’s one thing to help a person get better if they are sick. It’s another to expect someone to become something they aren’t–a person who wants kids or a career or neither or both, for instance–for you. That, in itself, is a kind of abuse, and a way, conversely, to recognize it. Does your partner have constant suggestions for who you could be, how you could improve, rather than praise for who you are, what you currently achieve? Take it as a red flag, and decide whether that, in itself, is a deal-breaker.
“…When you grow up, if [you] ever find [yourself] attracted to someone–even loving someone–who is not good for [you]…this is not healthy. And if [you] ever obsess about someone like this, [you] should engage a professional therapist for help in understanding why [you] believe [you] deserve this type of treatment.”
Low self-esteem thrives on your not being able to recognize it. Low self-esteem makes you swallow the lie–that you, Lily June, do not matter–over and over until it becomes as familiar and unavoidable as swallowing saliva. And learned helplessness is a thing. If you tell yourself you’re worthless long enough, even if you start to believe you should change, you don’t necessarily believe you can.
But you can. You can, even if you don’t think you have the time to go to a therapist. You can, even if you don’t think you have the money. You can, even if I have to do the believing for you for a while. You have to understand that I think you are capable of anything–honestly, anything–you put your mind to. And I will help you.
No one else should be your sun. You, Lily June, revolve around no one. You are your own sun, moon, stars, and Earth, too. And the person you love is theirs. You are not incomplete or anyone’s “other” half. You are whole, and the person who loves you will make you feel that way, will honor that wholeness instead of chipping away at you. But you have to start with that simple sentence: You, Lily June, matter. True love can show you just how much you matter to someone else. But you have to matter to you, first.
“…[In] stressful situations where [your] account of a story is being questioned, [you] must speak confidently, carefully, and truthfully, and not let anyone else put words in [your] mouth–no matter how intimidating they are, how educated or fancily dressed.”
I have the feeling, contextualized to the Ghomeshi trial, that would mean something very different to me. But Lily, I once testified on your aunt’s behalf at a custody case, and I know how many people, her own lawyers included, wanted my sister to change her story. And sometimes, they were wrong. And sometimes, they may have actually been right. The truth gets very messy very quickly, especially in domestic violence and sexual assault cases where the abuser has way more practice constructing a narrative to fit their version of things. They start with the lie in the mirror that tells them they aren’t abusers. Everything else must fit the reflection they believe they see.
Know this: I will support and believe you, always. If you tell me something happened to you, that narrative will become gospel to me. Society may not be so forgiving, and you need to be prepared for that. They may ask you to defend your words, your self, your very lifestyle. They may say you deserved things no one deserves. They may say you asked for things no one asks for. They may say you lied about things that almost no one, really, ever lies about. Do not join your crowd of skeptics.
Write your truth down. Put it in a safe place. If you can’t get it out, keep it in your mind. Repeat the truth to yourself at night. What you say to others–and how they may mischaracterize, misinterpret, or outright distort it–isn’t as important as what you’re able to say to yourself. As what you’re able to hold onto as truth, as fact, as real. Let the whole world question you, but believe yourself and recite your own memories. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do. And it’s all we have of integrity, Lily.
“…[You] need to trust [your] gut–it will save [you]. When I am not there, when I’m long gone, I must tell [you] to trust [your] gut. It is what [you] and all wise women must do.”
There’s an implied judgment in Fulsang’s piece that rubs me the wrong way–that actually hurts after being raised and loved by strong, wise women who stayed in abusive relationships. But I do agree with her that you should trust yourself, Lily. A red flag is a red flag, and we’ll do a lot of talking about what these are and how to spot them. But it’s up to you, if you see them, not to justify or accept them. When you love someone, that’s harder to do than to think about.
It’s the first red flag you can’t ignore. The excusal of one moment of violence–physical, sexual, emotional–sets off an avalanche of excuses for others. And you can, too easily, become buried underneath. Especially when the first red flag comes from you. When the first red flag is your denial or discomfort at hearing the all-important core message of your life: You, Lily June, matter.
What you do to others, accept from others, will change the course of your and others’ lives–your parent’s, your children’s–forever. You hold our hearts in your hand, my daughter. You hold your own heart, too. Be safe in who you give it to.
- By Denitza Tchacarova – Flickr: Open your eyes – against women being abused, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31436800