So. Allegedly, a UNC student was raped, stalked, and abused by an ex-boyfriend – a fellow student. And she reported this through the University’s “proper channels,” which somehow involve NOT contacting the police and instead abiding by the school’s “Honor Code.” It did its own independent investigation – somehow, despite having no real clout – and apparently determined that the ex’s take on the matter was Nuh-Uh, She’s Lying. When nothing resembling justice seemed to be forthcoming, and when she filed a federal complaint about it, she made matters more public – still without naming the alleged perpetrator. And now SHE is the one being accused of “intimidating behavior,” and facing expulsion by the student-led campus judicial system. And this ex-boyfriend has faced no consequences, nor even the threat thereof.
In response to this issue, Alexander Baron has crafted an op-ed entitled “A Straight Look at the ‘Rape’ of Landen Gambill” which, as you can infer by the quotes placed around “rape,” is very nearly the Iliad of victim-blaming.
There’s no end of things to criticize in it, but I’ll focus on just one – one that seems to be at the core of it all.
How could he have abused her sexually for a long period? A one-off assault or act of rape, yes, but that is not what was alleged here.
It appears the internal tribunal did as good a job as could be expected under the circumstances. One of its members asked her: “Landen, as a woman, I know that if that had happened to me, I would’ve broken up with him the first time it happened. Will you explain to me why you didn’t?’”
That sounds perfectly reasonable. Her answers did not, and the adjudication concluded that her claims were without merit, or at the very least that they had not been proved. Reading between the lines, they thought she was a bit of a flake, apparently with good reason.
Yes, Baron seems to believe that persistent sexual abuse is almost ludicrously implausible, that no rational woman would not break up with an abuser immediately, that breaking up with an abuser would make one safe, and that Gambill – and, by extension, all other domestic abuse victims – is “a flake,” and, later, “an emotionally or mentally disturbed young woman.”
Further, he asserts that “Some women are just plain dumb.”
This is said to them, after enduring persistent sexual abuse, physical abuse, stalking, and harassment. I’m just not talking about the UNC case in specific; the facts of that matter are for the law to decide. It’s clear that Baron would say these things of any case, of any woman, of any human who has been abused by their partner. He, and others like him, say these things as if the dynamics of an abusive relationship do not make you hold yourself hostage as much as any sneering, snapping “partner.”
So why DON’T abuse victims leave? Why don’t women leave abusive partners? Why don’t men leave cruel wives? Why in the world would anyone stay? Why would you get into a relationship with someone so terrible, and why wouldn’t you leave with the first hit?
Because it happens much more slowly than you might think. Slowly enough that you think you can adapt, can follow that learning curve, and that it’s all going to be over soon. You’re both going to get through this together, you just have to be strong through the hard times and not make things worse.
Slowly, over months or even years, the abuser has isolated you. You do not have friends anymore – each time you spoke of friends, your partner grew more cold, acting as if it was a betrayal; each time you said no to coffee or a movie to instead watch TV with your partner, they seemed so much more kind. Soon you feel guilt for your friendships, and set them aside, because love is more important than selfishness.
The same can extend to family – through that same slow pulling-away of the rug, that same guilt, and often an appeal to your own strength. Mocking you, a grown adult, for wanting to talk to mommy and daddy – you just talked to them last week. A couple weeks back. Last month. You don’t need anyone else to make your decisions for you, you don’t need help; you know in your heart what to do. All you need is each other. Right? Or are you saying they’re not enough for you?
And you think you could leave? Where would you go? Who else would put up with you? You really think it’s possible to SAFELY betray the only person who will ever love you?
“You’re stupid if you don’t leave,” others say, as if it makes you safer – even though about 75% of domestic assaults reported to police have occurred AFTER separation.
As if you feel you HAVE the freedom to leave. As if you have the ability to get by on your own.
As if you aren’t made to believe, day after day, that your validity as a human, your permission to exist, hinges on how well you’ve appeased the irrational.
That, desperate for sense, isolated from others or any contrary idea, you don’t cling to the cardboard cutouts of Logic and Love that your most-adored enemy builds for you, holds up to you as real. Each day, pushing the grotesqueries closer and closer to you; each day, taking genuine Love and Logic farther away. As if, when you start to believe you don’t need them, don’t take that most tentative step away, they don’t falter, don’t quiver doe-eyed at your feet and beg to be washed in your mercy, don’t rend their clothes and recite the litany of I’ve Just Been Under A Lot Of Stress Lately, But I Can’t Make It Without You, I Need You, Or Else I Don’t Know WHAT Will Happen To Me; I’ll Just Go CRAZY.
As if you are not the lynchpin that keeps them from flying off the axle.
Or, more than that, the shock absorber trying to know everything, plan everything, predict everything, to diminish any unpleasantness to nothing. Dutifully absorbing all the damage you can to give them a smooth ride – and absorbing, on the other side, all the damage they deal out disproportionate when the slightest bump comes through into that isolated echo chamber – the smallest bump becoming a shake, becoming a tremor; as if all Armageddon is not due unto you because you allowed the imperfect.
The mangled metaphors are intentional; you can not waste your time trying to quantify just how irrational or convoluted everything is, because you are stripped of context and are busy just trying to survive it. You can only grasp at fragmentary metaphors. You want to deny what is happening, to deny how senseless, how meaningless it is, but you have no escape, and all you can do is hope against hope that, somehow, someday, it will have meant something.
Why didn’t you get out earlier? Why get out when things still looked safe, when the only hazards you saw could be avoided easily, when every assurance was that it would all be calm again soon, if you were just careful enough? Why, when everything bad is really only your own fault, and if you can just be a better person, be a better partner, nothing will go wrong? By the time you realized it was more than you could handle, it was already more than you could escape.
To give still another metaphor – it’s like a broad and gentle river, once peaceful and warm and almost impossible to drown in, that has grown ever rockier, ever swifter, and each time you tried to reach the shore it swept you back along. Soon it’s all a roar of rapids. Soon your boat is sundered on the rocks. And now that you’re being rushed downstream with a force you could never fight, now that you’re too sore, too tired to swim – now that the banks are too steep to climb, even if you could reach them, and too muddy and slippery and eroded by the river’s own force to give you anything to hold on to – now that you’re being battered on the rocks and close to drowning, you’re being told it is YOUR fault. It’s never the river’s fault for dashing you against the stones; it’s never the stones’ fault for being there, it’s your fault for getting in, your fault for not getting out, your fault for being in the wrong damn place at the wrong damn time. It can’t help the way it is, but you know that. Why don’t YOU help what you’re doing? Why don’t you watch where you’re going? Why don’t you pay attention? Why don’t you ever LEARN? Do you think the river actually LIKES pushing you around? It doesn’t, it’s just the way things are, and they can’t be otherwise – not as long as you keep making mistakes and causing trouble.
If it sounds like that diminishes the abuser’s agency, that’s because it does. They themselves don’t believe they are being abusive. “Abuse” is always an action at least two steps more harsh than whatever they’re doing now. They’re just venting. Just acting in the way that they have to act. They’re only being fair. The fact that it doesn’t feel fair to you is only PROOF of how selfish you are. This isn’t What Is Being Done To You Because I Choose To Do It. No, simply enough, This Is Just What Happens When You Screw Up.
It is the way it is. And, as they assure you in those lucid times, in the small hours of the morning, they tell you they are sorry and they tell you they are trying and they tell you it was a mistake. They really do feel better, though. It won’t happen again. They’re glad you understand.
You see, they’ve had a Rough Childhood. They learned how to be by watching other monsters, and you should be proud of them for growing claws so much shorter than their sires’.
And you are. And you do believe in them. And you do care. You do believe they can get beyond this, that it’s all temporary, that everyone’s given up on them but you. So you have to help. You have to give. You have come to believe this is Right, and this is Just, and if YOU don’t do this, who will?
Because you’ve seen the fragile good in them, the intelligence, the sensitivity, the talent – it shined out so bright, before, soul-true and clear, and it is why you first came to love them. And it’s not gone away, oh no; it’s still there, but it’s hidden, deep under layers of filth and talons. Nobody else can see it; nobody else takes the time to look. Even THEY have forgotten it, sometimes. Sometimes the filth and anger and dull-eyed dispassion covers it up for so long that not even a glimmer of The Real Them is seen anymore, and you start to doubt it all. You start to wonder if they haven’t really changed, if what matters more isn’t who they are on the inside but how they act, how they treat you, for most of the actual time.
And you burn with shame for your selfishness, because how dare you care so little for them? Helping them get better is the most important thing of all. Even if they have changed, that only makes it more important that YOU stand strong. If they’ve changed, and their life has changed, it only reaffirms that you can not.
You have made your commitment, and you will do your duty: you will protect them from all that troubles them. You will give them safe haven to drop their defenses. You will help them wash away the collected dirt of ages. You will endure the flinging of all the filth they’ve packed into their wounds like scars. You will not flinch at the claw-marks left on them, at the gouges that never heal, at the lifeblood that’s never stopped oozing away or the blazing red infection that’s spread out to taint almost everything in them. Your patience is a pitcher and your love is clear, cool water, and you will fill it to the very brim, you will balance it on your head and walk it to them, barefoot and mincing, not spilling a single drop or wasting any on yourself.
And when the closest wells run dry, you find one even farther. Because there are those precious evenings when Everything Has Gone Okay Today, when you see the slightest curl of a smile, and see that light sparkling in their eyes again, and the air tastes so much sweeter because you didn’t even realize how long you’d been holding your breath.
And you believe that, someday, if you can just be good enough, every day will go okay.
So you come to them and surrender your love to them — not trying to control what they do or how they do it or to do anything for them, of course. That’s not your place. And you know that you must respect only what they want, only what they need, only what they choose.
So you surrender it and you hope that they will raise it and wash themselves, sluice away the grime, wash out the wounds and soothe the burning pain. That they will raise it to their lips and drink deep, like a magic potion, that will shrink their claws and calm their rage and turn them from beast to man.
But you surrender it all before them, and wait for a moment in between work and smoke and food and game and drink where they have attention to spare for acknowledging you. And they take up all the love you’ve borne to them, but that great jar looks no bigger than a thimble in their taloned hands, and you realize how foul all the water really is. And they give you that reproachful look that says “I’d ask if this is REALLY everything, if you don’t actually have more for me, but I know you can’t do any better.”
You look down to the floor that you’ve memorized, and your chest grows tight and your teeth grind and you wish that shame made you invisible. But you are all too there, existing audaciously, full of that galling selfish habit of filling up the space that you’re standing in. You know you don’t deserve anything from them. You don’t deserve anything at all. You can only earn the right to give a damn about yourself when you adequately help your partner.
So you try to be even more patient, to walk even farther, still spilling nothing, spending nothing on yourself, and hoping that if you do this every day for enough days, it will all add up to enough. Enough for them to DO something with. Finally enough to matter.
Because if you stop now, nobody else will ever help them. Nobody else will even try. Because if you can’t do this for them, if you decide to give them any less than all of you, you are a disgrace. If you have ever had any question about whether you deserved the lashing-out they’ve given you, whether you really needed to endure the stink of it all, you KNOW that you’ll deserve – and get – even more if you try to leave.
You didn’t know what you were in for when you began this, but you can not stop until it’s over.
You know that what’s happening does not make sense. Still, you are stripped of anything else. You’re made to feel simultaneously useless AND crucial. You are worthless, but you are needed. Without you, everything would be even worse. Without you, they would hurt themselves. Without you, they would hurt their friends. They would hurt their family. They would hurt the pets. They would hurt strangers.
Isn’t it worth the pain if they just hurt you instead?
It’s not like you matter much, anyway.
And you’ll matter even less if you allow the only person who cares about you to sink completely into ruin on your watch.
Soon, you’re in that echo chamber, that whitewater, that seething mass of metaphors, seeing only what you’re allowed to see, responding only in the ways you’re allowed. And even though you don’t matter, even though you have no real power, YOU are the one who’s responsible for how things go. YOU are the strong one. YOU are the one in control.
Nothing bad has to happen at all, if you don’t make mistakes. If you don’t predict every possible bad thing and prevent it. If you don’t forget to put the laundry in the dryer, don’t drop the eggs, don’t make sure the restaurant still sells the combo meal they like before you say you’re going to buy one for them, don’t buy the wrong brand of soap, don’t change the channel when they’ve been out of the room for half an hour, don’t talk out of turn, don’t ask any uncomfortable questions, don’t look disapproving when they take their tenth shot, don’t wear your seatbelt when you know that means you don’t trust their driving, don’t smile when you should be frowning, don’t frown when you should smile, don’t look like you’re faking it, don’t just agree to everything you’re told but don’t you dare say no.
Is it irrational? Yes. But you are in a situation where rationality no longer matters. You can’t use reason as a tool to fix anything, help anything, stop anything, or remotely change anything; it’s like trying to pound water with a hammer, or reverse a river by turning it with a wrench. There’s nothing solid to strike, nothing solid to grab onto. The abusive relationship dynamic operates on irrational emotion. Nothing is “smart” or “dumb” or “right” or “wrong” anymore, nothing is “safe” or “unsafe,” “okay” or “not okay.” There is only what they want and what they don’t want, and whether you’re satisfying that want or not. The only way to survive is to adapt – to try to play along, even though the rules change all the time.
And there is nobody in your life but them. Even you aren’t really there anymore. Nobody else sees what’s happening. The few times you’re with others, your partner acts just fine, and nothing shows, even when their friend goes on about that new product they bought – the same one that your partner spent GOOD MONEY ON last month but broke just because they threw it at a wall during the first week when they were mad and they KNOW the store has a return policy but they lost the receipt because YOU didn’t take it out of their pants pocket before doing the laundry and you had the BIG FUCKING MOUTH to tell them that it wouldn’t cover damage from throwing it at a wall and they said it shouldn’t fucking BREAK so easy, and they’ll pick up the shoddy plastic piece of shit and speed back to the store even though you and your fat fucking mouth are saying it’s probably closed by now and OH LOOK, CLOSED, I BET YOU THINK YOU’RE SMART, and DON’T YOU TELL ME TO CALM DOWN, I’M CALM ALREADY, DO YOU WANT TO SEE ME GET MAD? And it’s not ABOUT this plastic piece of shit they don’t even WANT it it’s about the PRINCIPLE of it but it’s NOT EVEN ABOUT THAT anymore because YOU have to act all SCARED JUST BECAUSE THEY SPEAK THEIR MIND AND WANT WHAT’S THEIRS and they are DONE talking to you, don’t you say ANOTHER FUCKING WORD, just GET IN THE CAR and you do and they throw the plastic thing at you and you don’t make a sound, and they speed back to the house you’re supposed to call home, pausing only to puke rum and bile on the roadside, and you say nothing all night and try to wait it out and you sit on the couch and watch stupid TV and something makes them make that little sound that they make instead of really laughing anymore and you think the storm has passed but then the commercial comes on for that stupid plastic product and their face goes hard again and you memorize the floor again and you don’t know whether they want you to say sorry again or if you say sorry one more time you’ll have a reason to be sorry and you just say nothing and wait again, and eventually it’s time for Well Are You Coming To Bed Or Not and you know that not’s not an option and you just say nothing and wait because tomorrow will be a different day and maybe everything will go okay. Maybe everything will go okay. Just as long as you never ever mention that product or that company or that store ever again and are willing to see them angry at you all day if they so much as see a billboard that reminds them of it all. But here’s their friend, going on and on about that very thing and how great it is, and your partner somehow keeps their cool. And when, later, with surgical caution, you praise their strength and calmness, they tell you it was only a big deal earlier because they owe you their honesty. That only you get to know the Real Them. Only you can be trusted with it. Everyone else sees a mask, but they give you the truth, both good and bad, because That’s What Love Is.
You’re not saying you want them to be the same fake person they are for everyone else, are you? You DO love who they really are, right? You don’t think that they’ve put this much work into the relationship, been SO patient, been SO trusting, only for you to wish they treated you like everyone else, DO YOU? Because that would be pretty fucking ungrateful, wouldn’t it. That would make you a real piece of shit. But you’re not like that, are you. You’re the only one who really loves them, you know. Who knows what would happen without you. Aren’t you glad that they TELL you when something’s wrong? Aren’t you glad they can SHARE what upsets them, glad they can yell and punch walls and break things and make a mess and make threats, without being judged? Aren’t you glad that they know how to handle their emotions – that they don’t come looking to hurt you, but they only push you if you’re in the way? That they sometimes just need to THROW things, and if your head wasn’t there it wouldn’t have been hit, now would it? That sometimes, they just NEED what they NEED and you just need to understand and give it to them and save your selfish “no” for a day that’s not bad enough already. Because it’s not healthy to keep it all bottled up, you know. You wouldn’t want them to just keep it all in until they EXPLODE, would you? You know better. Aren’t you glad they can be so open and honest? Isn’t that what love is?
Love is their honesty.
Love is your silence.
Love is their freedom.
Love is your caution.
Love is their freedom from consequences.
Love is your suffering so they don’t have to.
Love is telling you every way you’re wrong.
Love is never telling them no.
Love is trusting them, even in danger.
Love is being stronger than your fear.
Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others.
It is not self-seeking.
It is not easily-angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Even when you have lost all faith, even when you are shorn of all hope, you still have that love. And you believe they still love you. And no matter how hard things you get, you stay, and you hold on. You hold on for dear life.
Because can you imagine how it would end if they DIDN’T love you anymore?
Can you imagine how things would end if you left?