things you can do for someone in an abusive relationship

comforting friend

I’m not entirely sure why I haven’t written this post yet– of all the things I should be writing about, this is probably one of the more important. Every so often I get an e-mail along the lines of “I think my son/friend/sister might be in an abusive relationship– what can I do?” and I always take the time to answer these individually, and will continue to do so. However, over time, I’ve realized that there’s a few things I say to pretty much everyone, so I figured I should collect them into a post.

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Before we get started, there’s a couple terms I need to clarify: abusive behavior, abusive relationships, and abusers.

Someone who is not an abuser can engage in abusive behaviors. Human beings are quite capable of hurting each other, sometimes very deeply and consistently. Our relationships can be unhealthy and co-dependent, and can have various features that are abusive. Those relationships can sometimes be healed, and sometimes they need to be ended. However, there is a difference between someone who does abusive things and an abuser.

An abuser is what American culture tends to think of as a “sociopath,” although it is extremely important to point out that not all sociopaths and psychopaths are abusers. Sociopaths and psychopaths are mentally ill people, and with good and effective treatment can live productive, rich lives, filled with healthy relationships.

An abuser, on the other hand, lacks empathy, a moral conscience, and is driven completely and totally by their own-self interests and in protecting their self-image. They will go to any length to get what they want, and they do not care who they hurt. They are primarily interested in maintaining control in their life and over the lives of their victims.

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One of the most important (and most complicated) questions should be talked about right up front: should you report it to the police?

The answer: “it depends.” The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that it is extremely difficult for police investigations to move forward without the cooperation of the victim– if the victim denies it, which they are quite likely to, then the investigation will probably stop there, and the victim will face punishment from their abuser for telling anyone “exaggerations” or “lies.” If the victim has confided in you about their abuse but are unwilling to report it themselves, then you need to be extremely careful about what you do with that information. Chances are you could endanger the victim even further. If you break their trust, then they are also unlikely to trust you in the future, when they might be more willing to go to the police with you.

If they confide in you that they are being abused– and they recognize it as abuse– then you should encourage them to make a report. Make sure they know that they have your support– that you will go with them, that you will be there, that you will defend them. That you will not leave them no matter what. That you have their back.

Do not say things like “if you don’t report this, then s/he could go on to do this to someone else. This is your duty.” It is not their responsibility to report their own abuse. Yes, the police can rarely ever do anything without them. However, their only “responsibility” is to themselves. They could quite literally die if they report it, and quite often they are the only defense between their abuser and other people, such as their children.

Individual circumstances might be different, however. If you believe that the victim’s life is in serious and immediate danger, then that changes things dramatically and you should probably notify the police. If the abuse has escalated to that point, then it is possible that a police investigation could be successfully conducted.

Again, all of this depends. Every situation is different.

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comforting

One of the first things I encourage people to do is “be a safe place.”

People, in general, don’t enjoy having their choices criticized, and while remaining in an abusive relationship isn’t actually a “choice” since their autonomy has been suppressed by their abuser, they tend to think of their relationship in those terms. If you criticize their choices, then they could respond defensively, and the only thing you’ve accomplished is entrenching them even further into their relationship. You will become someone who just “doesn’t see him/her the way I do” or who “doesn’t understand what is really happening.” Frequently, victims see themselves as being necessary to their abuser’s well-being. They are helping their abuser to get better. They’re not blind to the problems– they just see those problems in different terms.

Victims need to know that you love them. That you accept them. That you are trustworthy. That you take the time to understand. Sometimes, they might even approach you with “haha, my partner did this the other day, isn’t that crazy! They’re so funny!” They want someone to confide in, but they want to do it on their terms.

Listen. Be perceptive and alert. Ask leading questions, and see if they might be willing to give you details. Ask things like:

Have they done something like this before?
How does it make you feel when they do something like that?

Try to see if they can be honest about what their relationship is like and what the problems are. Establish patterns– that it’s not a one-off, that what they’re doing fits into things they’ve done before. It’s important to avoid the “every relationship has problems” pitfall, however. Yes, relationships take work, but there is a difference between two people working on figuring out their communication problems and abuse. Do they think that this would ever be “normal” in a healthy relationship? Contrast what they might be rationalizing as “problems that need work” with what are actual real-life problems that need work.

In an abusive relationship, a problem is “I must never, ever go to this person’s house ever again because they would not like it.” In a healthy relationship, a problem is “I should probably talk to my partner about why they don’t like it when I spend time with that person, and I have the ability to make up my own mind and form a compromise, if I want to. They trust me.”

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As a part of removing a victim’s agency and autonomy, abusers will do everything they can to remove any sense of self-worth, value, and confidence. They might make the victim feel as if they are illogical, as if their own thought processes cannot be trusted. That they are stupid. Ugly. That no one else will ever want them.

You must do the opposite. Let them know that they are a smart, funny, capable, competent, wonderful, valuable person. That you value your relationship with them, that their presence in your life means something to you. That you like them. That you believe in them. That you have hope for their future. That they are fine just they way they are, that they do not need to be “fixed” by their abuser’s “reforms.” Give them something to believe in besides what their abuser is telling them.

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Be watchful. Pay attention. Abusers can be extremely talented manipulators. They can be charming, friendly, and popular. They can seem extremely well put-together; fashion conscious, meticulous, educated, articulate. They can be someone you’ve known for a very long time. They can be a respected figure in your community, a self-giving public servant.

They can be anyone.

They are usually the person you would never suspect.

They don’t usually have beer-bellies and stubble. They don’t keep a baseball bat near-at-hand. They don’t have to be alcoholics. They’re rarely obviously stupid. They don’t have to be overtly aggressive and domineering, yelling and slapping people around.

It’s not at all unusual for you to second-guess your instincts about a person or a relationship. No one wants to believe that someone we know could be hurting someone else we care about, and we can go a long way in rationalizing behavior we see. Oh, they just had an off day. They’re stressed. It’ll pass.

What an abusive relationship looks like in public can be very difficult to spot, especially if you didn’t know the other person before the relationship began. There can be signs, however– things like does s/he stop a sentence in the middle after their partner/parent gives them a significant look? Does s/he acquiesce to everything the other person wants immediately, even when it’s obvious that’s not what they want, and they don’t resist? If they disagree, is one of them consistently “winning” with hardly any input from the other? Do they try to anticipate what their partner/parent wants and seem stressed if they don’t know how to figure out what that could be? Have you ever seen small aggressions– pinching, pulling, being physically insistent, grabbing tightly, leaning in to whisper angrily? Have you seen them cuss their partner/child out, using degrading and humiliating language?

Keep in mind that while we tend to think of physical abuse as horrific and physical violence as unacceptable, verbal violence is just as damaging, sometimes even more so.

All of these, on their own and in isolation, could mean absolutely nothing, which is why they’re all easily to rationalize. However, if someone is making you uncomfortable, trust that feeling. If you think that something is off, pay attention. Just because they seem to be overtly affectionate in public most of the time, one act of physical aggression completely overrules a host of “I love yous.”

Start keeping a written record of everything you’ve personally witnessed, no matter how small it might seem at the time, and make sure you have a date/time and what the general circumstances were (“at so-and-so’s birthday party”). If they confide something in you, write that down, as well– and try to put things in chronological order. Abusers tend to escalate their behavior over time. Having a written record could be extremely useful later if they decide to report the abuse to the police, for personal reference, and for helping the victim establish patterns.

Also, for victims, the abuse is easy to all blur together and they can lose track of dates and events quite easily– did this happen at this outing, or that one? Was it in summer, or winter? It’s all a monotonous wreck to victims, so having a record can be extremely useful for keeping their memories clear, especially when they go the police who can be antagonistic and disbelieving.

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comfort friend 2

Don’t let the abuser isolate their victim from you.

This does not necessarily look like the victim suddenly cutting off all contact with you under orders from their abuser– although it absolutely can. More often, however, the abuser is going to be paying close attention to their victim’s relationships and friendships. Any minor disagreement, any falling out, any tussle, any fight– s/he will use that against you. Things that you would ordinarily never give a second thought about will become knives that the abuser uses to cut you out.

“Wow, she was such a bitch to you. Are you going to let her get away with that?”
“You deserve a better friend than her. She doesn’t care about you.”
“She’s just out to destroy us. She never liked me. She’s jealous.”

One of the most common ways that an abuser will isolate their victim is to make their victim start behaving in a way that makes you, their friend, not want to be around them. She used to be an incredible person– but since she’s been with him, she’s such a bitch. I just can’t stand being around her anymore. She’s changed. I thought our friendship was worth something, but I guess not.

And, it is quite possible that your relationship didn’t mean that much to them, and they really are just treating you badly. But Heaven knows I treated my friends like total shit– it’s an effective tool for isolating victims, because not only does it remove you from a place where you could see their abuse, it also makes you less sympathetic.

It could also look like the abuser saying things like :

“I just want to spend time with you. Just the two of us.”
“I don’t like big crowds of people. Let’s just stay in.”

And… they slowly drift away until you don’t see much of them anymore. Some of this can be due to the first-blush infatuation; people in love do like spending all of their time together, and tend to stop hanging out with their friends as much. However, if your friend completely falls off the face of the earth, reach out to them. It could be nothing– or it could be an abuser isolating them.

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And, lastly, get a bunch of information ahead of time.

  • Find the rape crisis centers in your area and collect their addresses/websites.
  • Get a list of the rape advocates in your area, their phone numbers and organizations.
  • Know where you could go to get them into a domestic violence shelter.
  • Know which police service has jurisdiction in what area. Sometimes it’s the city police, sometimes it’s the county sheriff.
  • Know who has jurisdiction at the victim’s house, at the abuser’s house.
  • Have the phone numbers to call to file a police report.
  • Know how to get to the police station.
  • Keep a list of local hotlines available (suicide, rape, domestic violence).
  • Gather brochures for shelters, crisis centers, etc.
  • Have a few books about what abuse is like in relationships, like Why Does he Do That?
  • Be familiar with public services for rape and abuse victims, like the SANE at a hospital.
  • Know what procedures are like; what the victim might have to go through to have a rape kit done, for example.

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I realize that a lot of what I said here could be simple, non-abusive things. Sometimes people have social anxiety and they really, legitimately, don’t like big groups of people– or going out at all. That’s ok, and if their partner is consenting to that and wants to support them in that, that’s fine.

However.

There’s a reason why abusive relationships happen, and it’s because all the abuse can seem so totally normal. It can all be so easily explained, justified, and rationalized away. All of it. When taken individually, what they do isn’t even really that bad. And it slowly builds, and the abuser slowly escalates, and suddenly they’re “tripping” and falling down flights of stairs.

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That is all I have for now. I will probably periodically write more posts as more things occur to me and I receive more questions– they will be linked to this post.Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments, to help make this post better.

“Captivating” Review: ix-xii, the Introduction

broken heart
[art by papermoth]

Today, I’m covering pages ix-xii from this edition of Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul, the introduction.

Last week, some of you said that you’d like to read along with me, which I think is fantastic. When you comment with your own thoughts on this section, write “Book Club” in the first line of your comment, then hit return/enter, just so it’s clear who’s commenting on the book  itself and who’s commenting on my post (although your comments can be a mix, of course).

It is obvious, all throughout this book, that John and Stasi are trying, diligently, to avoid the pitfalls of other Christian gender-specific books. Stasi makes it clear that what she wants to communicate to her readers isn’t another “book about all the things you’re failing to do as a woman,” that she doesn’t want to give us another list of things to do in order to achieve “godly femininity.” She acknowledges that there isn’t only one way to be a woman, that there are Cinderellas and Joan of Arcs and neither one is necessarily the way to go.

However, struggle as they will to avoid those pitfalls, they can’t help falling into them:

Writing a book for men was a fairly straightforward proposition. Not that men are simpletons. But they are the less complicated of the two genders trying to navigate love and life together. Both men and women know this to be true.

How do we recover essential femininity without falling into stereotypes, or worse, ushering in more pressure and shame on our readers? That is the last thing that a woman needs. And yet, there is an essence that God has given to every woman.

I’m sorry, I do not know any such thing. My partner, a cisgender male, is exactly as marvelously complex as I am. He is interesting, dynamic, full of nuances and surprises. He is a human being, and that makes him complicated. Over the brief two years we’ve been together, I have found that every single element that could possibly be attributed to the “men are simple, women are complicated” stereotype is due to American culture.

His interactions with other men may seem to be more “straightforward” and “less complicated” because a) anything that could make male interaction “complicated” is read as “feminine” and thus suppressed, and b) we are trained to see male interactions and male behavior as normal, and female interactions and female behavior as deviant and abnormal. Being male is the standard through which we evaluate whether or not something is “simple” (and thus male), or complicated (and thus female). Because of this reality, it’s not that our interactions, feelings, and lives are more or less complicated, but that we are taught to evaluate all of these things through the lens of the male experience. Our dominant social narratives have been constructed, almost exclusively, by rich, white men– and because that male viewpoint is the one we absorb on a daily basis, of course it’s going to seem “simple” while viewpoints that differ from it are going to seem “complicated.”

For example: men simply “duke it out” in order to solve conflict, right? Of course, I’ve never actually seen that in action– in my experience, boys and girls were equally as likely to get into a physical tussle. There were girls who did not like violence, and there were also boys who did not like violence. The difference was, the girls were culturally rewarded for this dislike, while the boys were punished for being a “sissy” (a word that derives from “sister”).  As mature adults, men solve their differences the exact same way women do– through communication. I’ve seen people approach conflict resolution in a stereotypically “feminine” way, and I’ve seen it done in a “masculine” way– but the people involved could be men, women, neither, or both. Both approaches, however, had the same elements if the situation was resolved and relationship restored– the communication included honesty, humility, and respect from all parties.

By embracing gender essentialism, Stasi and John have set themselves up for inevitable failure. If your basic assumption in beginning a book is that men and women are inherently and drastically different from one another and that these differences are not caused (or even exacerbated) by culture, then you cannot escape the conclusion that at least some of the “stereotypes” that Stasi finds so damaging are true, and based in an unassailable reality. If you believe that God has given every single last woman on the planet the same “heart” and the same “desires” regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, upbringing, sexuality, social class, and education, then you are working from a list of “10 things to be the woman you ought to be,” which Stasi condemns as “soul-killing.”

Sometime between the dreams of your youth and yesterday, something precious has been lost. And that treasure is your heart, your priceless feminine heart. God has set within you a femininity that is powerful and tender, fierce and alluring. No doubt it has been misunderstood. Surely it has been assaulted. But it is there, your true heart, and it is worth recovering. You are captivating.

It is paragraphs like that one that show me exactly why this book has been compelling to so many women– as a thought, it’s beautiful. She’s telling me that I am fierce and powerful and beautiful– it is a similar sentiment to what I tell my friends in order to encourage them. I like thinking of myself as fierce (and since Fascinating Womanhood, “competent” has become one of my favorite compliments).

But there’s a problem, even here. Not all women are feminine, and this is not because their “femininity” was lost, damaged, or assaulted– or that they’re burying it because they’ve been hurt, as Stasi will claim later. I am a cisgender woman– I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. Most of the time, I “present” or “express” as “femme.” These things, my supposed “anatomical” sex, my gender identity, and my gender expression, are not the same thing. While I have never struggled with my identity, I have often struggled with my gender expression.

For example, these two images are of the same person, Gwendolyn Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth on HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation of Martins’ A Song of Ice and Fire:

gender expression

On the left, playing Brienne, Gwendolyn is shown with a host of Western-culture masculine signifiers– armor, sword, short “undone” hair, grimness, and the masculine parts of her stature/musculature are exaggerated. On the right, though, she is wearing glamorous makeup, her hair is long and angelically flowing, and her facial expression is evoking something more stereotypically soft and feminine.

Then there’s things like Meg Allen’s photography project. As far as I’m aware, all of these women are cisgender (please correct me if I’m wrong), but none of them present as femme. It’s even possible for a non-binary person to choose to present as femme if they/ze want (see @themelmoshow and @awhooker –they’re incredible).

Insisting that there is something “essential” about a cisgender woman’s heart, and part of this “essentiality” is femininity is problematic in a variety of ways, but it contributes to the culture that allows transphobia to flourish. It’s part of the culture that allows trans women of color to be arrested for walking down a street and for trans men and women to be one of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

It also perpetuates the kyriarchal systems that force men and women to conform to a rigid set of gender-coded images, signifiers, behaviors, and interactions and refuses us all the ability to explore who we actually are.

seeing old stories in a new light

light through trees

I suffer from mild insomnia, and since it takes me so long to even approach something resembling “sleepy,” I usually putter around on my phone– I jot down blog ideas, play CandyCrush, and catch up on my blog reading. About this time last year I was scrolling through blogs in my WordPress app and something I read leaped out at me.

I wish I could remember the name of the blog or enough of the post to find it again so I could share it, but what I noticed had less to do with the topic of the post and more with something that they did. In the last ten years, I’ve gotten used to sort of skimming over Bible passages in books, articles, posts . . . reading the first line is enough for me to recall the entire passage and so I usually just skip it. This time, though, they referenced a passage that I’d read a thousand times before, but what they were applying it to was . . . radically different.

Growing up, going to church, going to Bible college, one of the ideas you hear thrown around quite a bit of evangelical America is how amazing it is for Christians to read the Bible– they can read the same passage over and over again, and every time get something new out of it. It’s one of the things that makes the Bible special, and, of course, they’ll mention the gift of the Holy Spirit as an afterthought. I heard that in my fundamentalist church, as well, but I never really understood it. They talked about it like coming to the Bible each time was something new, fresh, exciting . . . but I had to work at seeing the same passage in different ways.

In fundamentalism, even though they might pay lip-service to that idea of seeing the same verses anew each time you read it, what I experienced was that each passage had a specific interpretation and application– there was a correct way to understand it, to “rightly divide the word of truth.”

We also had a lot – a lot– of passages that were only ever about “The World” or “Carnal Christians.” One of those was Matthew 25:31-46, The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The way it was taught to me, the sheep in this passage were “true Christians” and the goats were carnal people who professed salvation but in actuality were not saved; so, pretty much anyone who wasn’t an Independent Fundamental Baptist. Every time I would read this passage as I was “reading my Bible through in a year,” that was how I interpreted it. There were many people who were professing Christians that Jesus would send to Hell, and those people were probably liberals.

Then I read it again, as a progressive-Pelagianist-errantist, and it about bowled me over:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we seek you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me.”

There are some Sheep who don’t know that they’re Sheep.

What the.

It took me a little while to wrap my head around it, but it was the passage that was the push I needed to start looking into Inclusivism. I’m still not entirely sure where I’ll fall on the Universalist-Inclusivist-Annihilationist spectrum, but wherever I am I’m far away from the understanding I was taught as a child.

But, every time I read this passage now, I’m a little boggled as to how something so obvious was something I completely missed. I know that cognitive dissonance is a powerful influence on us, but wow. Every time I encounter something that makes me think how in the world have I never noticed this before I’m usually simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated, because I wasn’t reading these passages on my own. I had books and preachers and sermon tapes and radio shows all shouting the same things into my head. I didn’t come up with these interpretations on my own– and they were the only interpretations I was allowed inside fundamentalism. Now that I’m out, it’s like my life has turned into a Jimmy Cliff song.

There’s a lot of passages now that have opened up for me– verses I’d once believed only applied to non-fundamentalist Christians I’ve flipped around to apply to fundamentalist Christians and spiritual abusers. Turns out, the Bible actually has a lot to say about how we treat the oppressed, the abused, and the marginalized, and very little input about being a white, cisgender, heterosexual, male, middle-class, college-educated American.

my abusive relationship was typical

while a student at PCC
[in PCC's Student Commons, taken during the relationship]
{content note: abuse, sexual violence}

Last week, I wrote an article for xoJane and I shared some things about my past that I haven’t shared on the internet before. I don’t enjoy talking about my abusive relationship at all, and I especially avoid thinking about my last semester at PCC, which was nightmarish with exceedingly few good memories. I was extremely vulnerable in that piece, knowing that there would be people around the internet that would shit on it.

And shit on it they did. Thankfully xoJane actually moderates their comment section and they don’t allow rape apologia, so most of the truly horrific comments have been removed. However, several people expressed confusion about the events I had related in the story, and I was slapped in the face, again, with how much people just don’t know about what abusers do and how abuse functions in relationships. Most of them thought that the events, as I related them, falsified my story in some way and opened the door to some “other side” that could offer an alternate explanation.

Before I start talking about what these people don’t understand, I’m going to share a brief timeline so that the basic facts are clear.

  • I started officially dating “John” in February 2008, although we’d been casually dating since September 2007.
  • He’d always used emotional manipulation and coercion, but he escalated this in March.
  • The physical and sexual abuse began during summer break.
  • He proposed in August 2008.
  • He raped me in January 2009.
  • He raped me again in July.
  • We had a rather significant fight during the first week in September, and then another. On September 14 I told him that he could not call me a “goddamn fucking bitch” anymore.
  • He ended our engagement on September 25.
  • He began calling my dorm room/cell phone repeatedly, even after I told him to stop.
  • He began physically stalking me.
  • I was assigned a chapel seat near John at mid-terms.
  • I went to Student Life in early November, requesting a seat change. They refused.
  • I stopped going to the cafeteria for meals, afraid that he would be there.
  • He stalked me for six straight hours on Thanksgiving. The last two hours was a constant barrage of “why won’t you just talk to me?!” that ended with me screaming at him.
  • I started spending most of my time in my friend’s apartment.
  • I graduated in December 2009.
  • He sent me a facebook message on New Year’s Eve, which I ignored, which led to him sending me another dozen messages saying “Sam. Sam. Sam. Sam. WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME.”
  • He sent me another facebook message during the summer of 2011, saying “I was thinking about you, if you ever wanted to talk…” I told him to never contact me again, then blocked him (again, not sure how he became un-blocked), blocked his entire family, and blocked  any “mutual” friends we had.

To anyone who has escaped an abusive relationship, or to someone who knows how abusive relationships operate, this will all seem very familiar. There isn’t a single thing about this timeline that isn’t shared by thousands of other intimate partner abuse victims. However, to commenters on xoJane and reddit and other places, this timeline makes me seem like a liar.

He broke your engagement?
Why didn’t you break it off with him if he really raped you?
Why would you be engaged to someone like this?
Seems like you’re just a bitter bitch because he dumped you.
Why would he want to talk to you if he broke it off?

All of these comments revealed that an awful lot of people have absolutely no clue how abusers work. Which, in one sense, I suppose is a good thing. I learned first-hand, and I would never wish this experience on anyone. However, the one thing that these people desperately need to understand is that my story is typical. There is nothing unusual, or in the words of one commenter, “fishy” about it.

There’s plenty of amazing resources already written on things like the Cycle of Violence/Abuse (first written about by Lenore Walker in Battered Woman Syndome). We also know that it can be extremely difficult for people, especially women, to escape intimate partner violence– and that many women have attempted to leave their abusive relationship six or seven times. Complicate all of those factors with the ingrained belief that you are literally ruined for any other relationship and no one else will ever want you, and you have something close to approximating my situation.

Most of the commenter’s questions oriented around what happened after he ended our engagement, though– if he broke it off, why would he follow you all over campus begging to talk to you? Couldn’t it be possible that you were exaggerating how bad things really were and he’d had a change of heart? That he really did want to be with you? That he’d changed?

First of all: there’s a reason why the Cycle of Abuse is so damn effective, and that would be it. Women don’t start believing in the Cycle of Abuse because they’re in an abusive relationship– they already believe it before the abuse even begins. Every single time the abuser apologizes and they enter the “Honeymoon Phase,” that is exactly what the victims says to themselves. It’s not actually that bad. Look, see, he’s trying. I just have to make sure he doesn’t lose control again [hint: abusers don't actually lose control]. And we believe those thoughts because they are given to us by our culture.

Second, abuse is about dominance and power. Abusers abuse because they want to control other people. Just because John had ended our engagement does not mean that he no longer wanted to control me– in fact, it was the exact opposite. When he broke it off, his justification was “I just can’t trust that you’re going to be a godly, submissive wife.” He ended our engagement because I was finally only beginning to realize that I could stand up for myself. I looked him in the eyes and said no and enforced that no. That was why he ended it– it was a tactic in order to re-assert control.

For a month, it even worked. For four miserable weeks I was eager to prove to him that I could be submissive. That I could obey. That I would be what he wanted. For those weeks he manipulated me– encouraging those thoughts, telling me that he didn’t really want our relationship to end, that he’d consider getting back together.

But then I got angry. Furious. It was like I woke up from a dream and I finally saw all of his fucking shit and I got mad. I was angry at him, angry at my parents, angry at my friends, angry at the world, but mostly I was enraged with myself. How could I have let him do that to me! I didn’t understand anything I know now– that I’d been groomed basically my entire life for an abusive relationship by complementarianism and biblical patriarchy. So, one night, when he called my dorm room at one o’clock in the morning asking if we could have a “do-over,” if we could just “erase everything that happened,” if we could just get back together like nothing ever happened

I told him no.

I said fucking hell no.

And that’s when he started stalking me.

Because he’d lost control.

He knew that I’d woken up– that I knew who he was, and he was desperate to make sure that everyone believed that he was the victim, that I was the stone-hearted bitch that wouldn’t take him back, that I was the crazy one, that he was doing everything he could, but, well, I was the problem because I didn’t “want to make it work.” I became the bad guy, and he made sure everyone knew it. He’d lost control of me, so he’d control what everyone else thought of me. He would not allow anyone to believe me.

That’s what abusers do.

learning the words: self-esteem

mirrors
[art by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli]

Today’s guest post is from Rachel. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

A boy, about two years old, realized that his parents had left the house. It was a big house, so he wasn’t sure. He ran from room to room sobbing and bellowing out his fear, anger and frustration. I followed him to make sure he was safe, knowing that he wouldn’t be satisfied until he had searched the whole house– he would keep crying with the abandon of a two-year-old until he got tired of it or was distracted. I’d seen it before. His crying didn’t offend me. My frustration was that his parents left without telling him so they could avoid dealing with this scene.

That day an adult who was respected in the Christian community I lived in also watched this scene unfolding. He made a comment about this little boy being “bad.” Although I was just a teenager I challenged this idea. He was just upset. How could that be bad? And the answer was only surprising in that it was applied to this particular situation. It was an argument I was very familiar with: we are all bad. Born with sin. Separated from God and incapable of pleasing Him. In short, on our own, we are worthless. Apparently, even a two-year-old who threw a fit when his needs weren’t met was evidence of this.

It was, I think, a fairly “mainstream” evangelical community, made up of members of a number of different denominations from a number of countries. They were missionaries – people who had fairly extensive training in biblical interpretation and who had committed their lives to reaching the “lost.” Although they tended to share the general evangelical suspicion of secular psychology, they generally had not written it off completely.

But the term “self-esteem” was sometimes criticized. Phrases like “We shouldn’t have self-esteem, we should have God-esteem” rattle around in my memory. When a counselor asked my teenaged self why I had poor self-esteem I was confused. Was there any other kind?

Whenever I hear someone criticize the concept of self-esteem I think: “Everyone has self-esteem. It has to do with our understanding of who we are. It just refers to the idea a person has about what they are worth. Healthy self-esteem is a realistic sense of worth. Unhealthy self-esteem is an unrealistic sense.” It doesn’t mean being proud or having an inflated sense of our abilities.

For a while it seemed pretty simple to me. As Christians, why shouldn’t we have not only a realistic sense of our worth, but even a positive one? After all, God thought that we were valuable enough to die for. He wanted to have a relationship with us. He made us his children. Lists of our identity in Christ just confirmed this idea to me.

But in spite (or because) of this complicated dance of “I no worth on my own but I great worth with God” I realize that I have spent most of my life feeling that I am falling short. Whatever God might think I’m worth, the “me” I deal with every day is still a raging two-year-old demanding to have my needs met. There is still a gray-haired man standing by declaring that I am bad. Maybe if I were healthier, more athletic, less emotional, more organized, or spent more time reading my Bible I would feel more worthy. Maybe I would actually be able to see myself the way that I have been taught that God sees me.

Or is the problem that this is a really muddled way of seeing the self? Do we really know ourselves in relation to how God sees us? Can that really be part of our everyday consciousness? My pastor, a wonderful man, often starts out his sermons saying, “I have nothing worthwhile to say. But I hope that God will speak through me.” This bothers me a little, since he is a man with skills and abilities. I feel that he should take some credit for the work he has done and the thoughts he has assembled.

For some people, maybe it’s all about being filled up and directed by God. But for me I suspect that there’s the spiritual reality I’ve been taught about, and then the physical reality I know from experience. The one where people evaluate me and give me grades. The one where I don’t keep my house clean and last autumn’s leaves are in the process of killing this spring’s grass… But I know that I’m a good cook. That I’m good at having empathy for people. I think I’m good at listening to my children. I desperately want to be good at helping them have a healthy sense of who they are.

So I don’t know what to do with the “We are all worthless sinners without the grace of God” mentality. I guess I start by saying that Jesus died for us before we made the decision, so our worth is not based on whether we get that part right. Because I look at my beautiful baby and I know that he is so much. That even if he never believes right or does right he is worth everything I pour into him. And I hear my five-year-old say “I’m really good at tracing” and I want him to hold on to that satisfaction. I want him to be comfortable with who he is – to feel that he is enough. I want him to know that striving is good, but it doesn’t give us worth. I want them both to know that having needs doesn’t make them bad.

I want self-esteem for my children to be about something other than fighting the sense that at their very core they are worthless sinners. Or even fighting to hold on to the idea that they are loved by God. I want them to have a sense of just themselves. I want them to stretch out in their skins and know that it’s acceptable for them to scream out their rage, to dance out their joys and to rest when they are done playing. I want self-esteem to be about knowing that they have a place in the world that they don’t have to earn. I want them to know they have a value they don’t have to prove.

Captivating: Introduction to the Review

captivating

I finished my review of Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood a few weeks ago, and started reading John and Stasi Eldredge’s Captivating. I also have Wild at Heart, although I won’t be going through Wild at Heart the same way I did Fascinating Womanhood and will be going through Captivating, but I might allude to it every so often. My fantastic partner will be reading Wild at Heart, and will occasionally be chipping in with his thoughts on it.

I’m excited to start digging into Captivating because it is the exact opposite of Fascinating Womanhood in every possible way. Fascinating Womanhood was . . . well, I hate to say “obviously ridiculous” because so many people still believe what it says, but it was far too easy to mock– and it was far too easy to show how she was wrong about almost everything she said. When all you’d really have to do is put up a post with a list of quotations to show how awful a book is, that’s not really a review.

Captivating, on the other hand, is far more subtle, and it’s obvious from the opening pages that John and Stasi are going to be straining with all of their might to make what they teach seem palatable. That makes it more interesting to discuss– and I’m looking forward to having posts with more nuance and less open annoyance. The best thing about engaging with Captivating, I think, will be showing how a lot of what is going on in Captivating is unconscious– it will be much closer to pointing out how sexism operates in modern evangelicalism, which I think will be much more useful for me– and us.

If you’re not familiar with Captivating, this is what appears on the back of the book:

Every woman was once a little girl. And every little girl holds in her heart her most precious dreams. She longs to be swept up into a romance, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, to be the beauty of the story. Those desires are far more than child’s play. They are the secret to the feminine heart.

And yet―how many women do you know who ever find that life? As the years pass by, the heart of a woman gets pushed aside, wounded, buried. She finds no romance except in novels, no adventure except on television, and she doubts very much that she will ever be the Beauty in any tale.

Most women think they have to settle for a life of efficiency and duty, chores, and errands, striving to be the women they “ought” to be but often feeling they have failed. Sadly, too many messages for Christen women add to the pressure. “Do these ten things, and you will be a godly woman.” The effect has not been good on the feminine soul.

But her heart is still there. Sometimes when she watches a movie, sometimes in the wee hours of the night, her heart begins to speak again. A thirst rises within her to find the life she was meant to live―the life she dreamed of as a little girl.

The message of Captivating is this: Your heart matters more than anything else in all creation. The desires you had as a little girl and the longings you still feel as a woman are telling you of the life God created you to live. He offers to come now as the Hero of your story, to rescue your heart and release you to live as a fully alive and feminine woman. A woman who is truly captivating.

It’s just the back of the book, and already I got problems.

As far as how it’s been received: it’s got about 230-240 reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble each, most of which are overwhelmingly positive, and there isn’t a single negative review at ChristianBook; most of these reviews have something along the lines of “I want every woman to read this book!” Out of the 18,000 reviews on GoodReads, 11,000 gave it 4 or 5 stars. It’s been well-received in the evangelical community– my own church regularly uses Captivating and Wild at Heart for both the married-couples and segregated men/women small groups and Bible studies. I’ve had it recommended to me at least a half-dozen times by different people, each person claiming that Captivating is a different sort of book– it’s not those other books that I don’t like. It’s better.

I’m going to be working with the “Revised and Expanded” edition that was released in 2010, but the book was originally published in 2005. It’s got 12 chapters, so I’m hoping to do this in about three months, although it might take a bit longer than that since I’m anticipating having to more thoroughly parse out– or put in broader contexts– what the Eldredges say in order to show how what they teach is problematic or unhealthy.

Also, can I comment about how I’m more than a little annoyed that the authors are John & Stasi Eldredge when Wild at Heart was just written by John? Why does John get to be one of the authors of a book subtitled “Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul”? Oh, right, I forgot. Silly me, thinking women were capable of writing books about our own gender on our own.

(A possible alternate explanation is that Captivating quotes Wild at Heart pretty heavily, which comes with another set of problems.)

*edit: I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier, but this would be fantastic. This doesn’t just have to be a review– we could also make it into a book club. If you already own Captivating or don’t mind spending money on it, we could read it together. I’ll post my review every Monday, and then whoever’s read it can pitch in with their own perspective. Brilliant, no?

Pensacola Christian College & Me

August 2008-1
from August 2008, while I was still a student at PCC

If you’ve never meandered around xoJane, well, now is your golden opportunity. I’ve been a loyal reader for almost a year now, and it’s a pretty cool place. So, when an xoJane editor reached out to me and asked if I’d be willing to tell a piece of my story for them, you can imagine that my reaction looked a bit like this:

my little pony clapping seal

I’ve never really written out the entirety of what my experience was like after my rapist ended our engagement, although I’ve alluded to it a few times. I try to keep what I write about here focused on bigger-than-just-me things, although my story is a good example of what being at PCC can be like.

You can read the whole thing here.