Why the NFL conversation about Ray Rice is so important to me
My first memory is of my father throwing a plate of eggs at my mother’s head, like a frisbee. My mother had to duck to get out of the way, and the plate exploded on the wall behind her. His eggs hadn’t been cooked well enough, and this was his way of expressing that to my mother, who had cooked them. Then he punched his hand through a glass window. Blood and glass fragments were everywhere. I was 4 years old. I remember running to my bed and crying, and the already familiar feeling of hiding in fear.
My mother was a battered woman who didn’t leave her abuser. And that meant a bunch of things for her and for me and my brother. I cannot explain her reasoning, because I was a small child when most of the abuse occurred. But I can tell you it’s common enough, and it’s not even that hard to understand.
One of the aspects of this decision – to stay with your abuser or not – that I haven’t been hearing a lot of recently, in this whole Ray Rice-inspired nationwide conversation about violence against women, is the economics of it. The worst of my father’s behavior happened when he was unemployed and desperately unhappy with how his life was turning out. Once he got on his feet again he didn’t take stuff out on his wife as much or as often. I imagine that is typical, but what it means is that it’s extra hard to imagine managing a second household, with small children, on one salary, when it’s already a huge struggle to manage one. The economic reality of leaving your husband has to be understood.
Even so, the abuse didn’t completely stop, and it’s not like my mother never considered leaving my father. I remember I went away for a month, to communist Budapest, when I was turning 13, the summer of 1985. When I came back my mother told me that my father had pushed her down the stairs. Then she asked me if she should leave him. I said yes, but then she didn’t do it.
I will probably never really forgive her for asking me that, for putting that kind of responsibility on a child like that, and then not following through. Especially now that I have kids of my own that age, it seems outrageous to put that kind of decision on their plate, or even seem to. It was my last day of childhood, the day I realized there were no responsible people in my family, and that I would have to step up and be the person who negotiated reasonable boundaries or, failing that, call the cops. From then on I was my mother and my brother’s protector.
If anyone ever asks me why I am not intimidated by anyone, I think of that moment. When you are a 13-year-old girl who has decided to stand up for your mother and brother against a large and very strong man, who often becomes an enraged and unreasonable bully, you forget about fear and intimidation, because it’s just something you cannot think about.
Many years later, after I left college, my father engaged me in a series of ritualized revisionist history lessons. Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, maybe even on July 4th, he would bring up the bad old days and he’d mention how much I’d hated him when I was a teenager, and how he hadn’t deserved it, and how even when he’d been abusive to my mother, she had hit him first, and he hadn’t really wanted to do it but there it is. He often distorted facts, and he never explained why he was doing this.
It always sounded so bizarre to me – how could it matter that my mother had hit him first, not to mention that it was unbelievably hard to imagine? How could that be an excuse for what kind of fear and rage he had manifested on her body and on our family for so long? Answer: it isn’t an excuse.
It was very confusing, these inaccurate family history lessons in sermon form. It made me so angry I never could do anything except stay silent. I didn’t even correct him when he lied about the details, because he was evidently saying all of this more for him than for me.
It took me years to figure out why this conversation kept happening, but I think I finally know now. He was working through his guilt with me as his chosen audience. He was, in a sense, asking for my forgiveness. I never gave it, but what those conversations did accomplish for him was almost the same: he made it my problem for being so unkind as to not forgive him. After all, my mother had forgiven him, why couldn’t I? Looking back, I felt increasing pressure to forgive, but I never gave in. I didn’t even really know how.
Here’s why I’m thinking about this now. This Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson conversation, which I’ve been listening to on sports radio, has gotten me to thinking about this stuff. I am listening to these football guys, these pinnacles of macho masculinity, talking about men who abuse women and children, and describing it as unforgivable. Thank god for those men.
Because here’s the thing. It is unforgivable, but until now I hadn’t realized that I was allowed to think so. I’ve been feeling so guilty for so long at not being able to forgive my father, I never realized that I could just be okay with it. But now I do, and I don’t forgive him, and I never will.
After much deliberation, I’ve finally decided to publish this. To be clear, I’m not doing so to hurt my father or my mother. I’m writing it in hopes that by reading this, people will realize that this kind of thing happens everywhere, to all kinds of people, and that it’s always fucked up and wrong. We need to know that, the NFL needs to know that, and policy makers need to know that. We need to create stronger laws around this, that don’t buckle when the women refuse to press charges.
If this happened to you as a kid, it wasn’t your fault, and you don’t have to forgive if can’t or you don’t want to, and even if you don’t forgive them, you will probably still love them. Human beings are really good at conflicting emotions. Focus on not being like that yourself. My proudest accomplishment is that I have not perpetuated the cycle of violence on my own family. And good luck.