October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. I’m compelled to write about it given the experience of my mother opening our family home in New Jersey as a shelter for battered women and their children. This was in the 1970s, before the idea of shelters for abused women was part of the social consciousness. The experience put me in close contact with people whose lives had been impacted by violence, a particular kind of violence done by someone who says they love you or someone with whom you are raising children or someone who lives in your home, often all three. It’s intimate violence: the perpetrator knows your weaknesses and insecurities and the resources you have or don’t have available. They know where you’d likely go to get away and they know the color and make of your car, if you have one.
By the time I left home in 1980 to go to college, I was ready for a new lease on life. I wanted to find out who I was without the daily sadness of knowing too much about the ways women got hurt. (And, yes, my awareness was focused on women because at that time there was not much public discussion about violence in same gender relationships).
Yet, two years later, I ended up in an abusive relationship. It lasted for three years, and at twenty-two I was engaged to be married to this man. The violence was largely emotional abuse: controlling behavior, extreme jealously, and isolation. Thankfully, we ended up at different law schools and the distance, combined with me having some space, allowed me to end the relationship during my second year of law school.
The irony of finding myself in such a relationship still haunts me. Yet, I see that my low self esteem was the biggest contributing factor. As an example, when he first asked me out I assumed it was a fraternity prank. It makes me sad to say that, but it’s the truth.
Self-esteem for women and girls is an issue that is getting airtime these days because of social media and the impact I has on self-image. But 21st century social media wasn’t an issue when I was growing up. The only thing I have in common with today’s young women is my gender, and like many girls today I felt deeply inadequate in areas involving my brain, my body, and my beauty. The standard of what I thought I was supposed to be came from television, magazines, movies, school, advertisements, my peers — essentially anywhere I received messages about what girls should look like or how they should behave. Apparently, my uber-feminist household was not enough to counter the conditioning of the forces at play around me.
So, in honor of domestic violence awareness month, please read something to further educate yourself, speak to someone you know who is in an abusive relationship, and donate to an organization working to end violence against women and girls. If you have boys and young men in your life like I do, connect to an organization working on promoting healthy manhood.
Growing up my mother had a sign in our home, “world peace begins at home.” So true. I’d humbly add, “World peace begins with you and me today.”