The tragic story of the murder of Kassandra Perkins at the hands of her boyfriend and father of her child, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, has renewed the conversation about domestic violence in America. Journalist Goldie Taylor penned a brilliant piece sharing her intimate experience with the topic for MSNBC this week. As I read her words, I immediately felt a sense of familiarity and sadness, for her experience was all too real.
I grew up in a family of strong women. My Grandma, Mom, Aunties and church mothers always admonished me to demand respect, to never “let” a man mistreat me in any way, and to stand up for myself. I can recall studying domestic violence and Battered Women’s Syndrome in high school. I knew better. But my knowledge didn’t help me when I was actually confronted with domestic violence and abuse in my own life.
My first experience with domestic violence took place when I was fifteen years old. I lived with my Grandma but often spent the weekends over at my Mom’s place, visiting with her and my younger siblings. My sisters were eight and six years old at the time. While talking and playing with them, my six-year old sister casually informed me that our mother’s live in boyfriend, who we’ll call Doug, had beaten our mother after I left on the previous Sunday. My sister watched as 6’6 Doug pummeled our petite 5’3 mother until she fell to the floor bleeding. As trained to do in an emergency, my sister ran to the phone to call the police. Doug grabbed the phone from my sister and threw it against the wall. My mom screamed at my sister to just go to her room and not call the police or anyone else, and that was the end of it. I don’t know whose nonchalance bothered me more. If my sister had not told me about this, I wouldn’t have known it had happened. There was nothing different in my mother’s demeanor. Even more disturbing was the fact that the image my sister had painted of my mother, beaten and bloody on the floor, simply didn’t match the woman that I knew and loved. How could MY MOM, this brilliant, bold, opinionated and feisty woman- who wore pants to church events even though she knew our pastor didn’t like it- how could THIS woman ALLOW a man to hit her? How could she stay with him? My mom wasn’t like ‘those women’, those weak victims who didn’t love themselves enough to demand better (or so I thought). Domestic violence and abuse were not our problems. Confused and unsure of what to do, what to say and how to react, I simply did nothing. My Mom’s relationship with Doug lasted for two more years and his abuse was never discussed. Dealing with it was something one of us could bring ourselves to do, and I reacted to it by putting it in a gray area.
Five years later, however, the issue would resurface and I would be thrown into the gray all over again. I was twenty years old at the time and in a committed relationship that felt very much like love to me. My boyfriend, who we’ll call Michael, spent all of his time with me. He dropped me off and picked me up from work, as I had no car of my own and didn’t know how to drive. Though I didn’t move in with him, we quickly settled into a domestic routine, with me sleeping over at his apartment 3-4 nights a week. I saw and hung out with my female friends less as my time became devoted to him. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I had met the man of my dreams and envisioned us getting married within a few years. So when I felt the sting of his hand across my face, I didn’t know what to do. He had been in his bedroom talking on the phone for an hour when it happened. I came in the room, asking him how much longer he would be because I wanted us to spend quality time together. He answered me by standing up and backhanding me. I burst into tears, which didn’t move him at all. He told me to stop whining and leave the room, then went back to his phone call. I left the room as I told me to, trying to process what had just happened. HE HIT ME! WHY would he do that? I had done nothing to deserve that! He was supposed to love me and had treated me so good! The man I thought I knew would never do that…but there I was, my face still smarting from the feel of his hand across it. And I knew what I was supposed to do, I knew I was supposed to march out, leave and never talk to him again…but I didn’t. I made excuses for him. He didn’t mean it. He was just angry and lost control, but he really loved me. And when he hit me the second time-this time across my face with a hanger-I did the same thing. And when he held a knife at my face, commanded me to take off my shirt and bra, tied me to a chair and then menacingly waved the knife past my bare breasts, threatening to slice off my nipples, I simply put that in the same gray area that I’d put my mom’s abuse five years earlier. It wasn’t domestic violence, it wasn’t abuse…it was just a misunderstanding. Sure he occasionally physically harmed me, but 90% of the time he was good. So I told myself to focus on that.
It took me twelve years to admit to another soul what this man had done to me, twelve years for me to call it what it was. And as I read all the articles on Kassandra Perkins and hear the continued chatter about Rihanna and Chris Brown I still don’t have the answers. Many have expressed contempt towards women like Rihanna who continue relationships with abusers. I’ve found myself thinking of women that same way. But I have to face my hypocrisy, and admit the true reason for my contempt. I see my mother, myself and millions of women in the battered faces of others, and to this day I hold such pain, anger and confusion towards myself and my society alike for not being able to confront it.