LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE A Battered Wife Survives
by Andrea Dworkin
This essay is now ten years old. Wife-beating is the most commonly committed violent crime in the United States, according to the FBI. In New Hampshire, I meet eighteen-year-old women who work in a battered women’s shelter. One talks about how she feels when women decide to go home and she has to drive them. In Toronto, I meet two women who travel through rural Canada in the dead of winter to find and help battered women. In a project called "Off the Beaten Path," Susan Faupel is walking 600 miles–from Chicago, Illinois, to Little Rock, Arkansas–for battered women. In a southern state, I am driven to the airport by an organizer of the rally I have just spoken at; the car keeps veering off the road as she says she is being battered now; when? I keep asking; now, now, she says; she has gone to the organizing meetings for the antipornography demonstrations with make-up covering the bruises on her face. In the South especially I meet lesbians, married with children, who are being beaten by their husbands–afraid to leave because they would lose their children, battered because they are lesbian. In Seattle, I find safe houses, secret from most feminists, for women being beaten by their women lovers. In small towns where there are no shelters, especially in the North and Midwest, I find safe houses organized like an underground railroad for women escaping battery.
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch–
The dread comes from memory. Memory of terror and insupportable pain can overpower the present, any present, cast shadows so dark that the mind falters, unable to find light, and the body trembles, unable to find any solid ground.
The past literally overtakes one, seizes one, holds one immobile in dread. Each year, near my birthday, I remember, involuntarily, that when I was twenty-five I was still a battered wife, a woman whose whole life was speechless desperation. By the time I was twenty-six I was still a terrorized woman.
The husband I had left would come out of nowhere, beat or hit or kick me, disappear. A ghost with a fist, a lightning flash followed by riveting pain. There was no protection or safety. I was ripped up inside. My mind was still on the edge of its own destruction. Smothering anxiety, waking nightmares, cold sweats, sobs that I choked on were the constants of my daily life.
I did not breathe; I gulped in air to try to get enough of it each minute to survive a blow that might come a second, any second, later. But I had taken the first step: he had to find me; I was no longer at home waiting for him. On my twenty-fifth birthday, when I had lived one quarter of a century, I was nearly dead, almost catatonic, without the will to live.
By my twenty-sixth birthday, I wanted more than anything to live. I was one year old, an infant born out of a corpse, still with the smell of death on her, but hating death. This year I am six years old, and the anguish of my own long and dreadful dying comes back to haunt me. But this year, for the first time, I do more than tremble from the fear that even memory brings, I do more than grieve. This year, I sit at my desk and write.
Rape is very terrible. I have been raped and I have talked with hundreds of women who have been raped. Rape is an experience that pollutes one’s life. But it is an experience that is contained within the boundaries of one’s own life. In the end, one’s life is larger.
Assault by a stranger or within a relationship is very terrible. One is hurt, undermined, degraded, afraid. But one’s life is larger.
A battered wife has a life smaller than the terror that destroys her over time.
Marriage circumscribes her life. Law, social convention, and economic necessity encircle her. She is roped in. Her pride depends on projecting her own satisfaction with her lot to family and friends. Her pride depends on believing that her husband is devoted to her and, when that is no longer possible, convincing others anyway.
The husband’s violence against her contradicts everything she has been taught about life, marriage, love, and the sanctity of the family. Regardless of the circumstances in which she grew up, she has been taught to believe in romantic love and the essential perfection of married life. Failure is personal. Individuals fail because of what is wrong with them.
The troubles of individuals, pervasive as they are, do not reflect on the institution of marriage, nor do they negate her belief in the happy ending, promised everywhere as the final result of male-female conflict. Marriage is intrinsically good. Marriage is a woman’s proper goal.
Wife-beating is not on a woman’s map of the world when she marries. It is, quite literally, beyond her imagination. Because she does not believe that it could have happened, that he could have done that to her, she cannot believe that it will happen again. He is her husband. No, it did not happen. And when it happens again, she still denies it. It was an accident, a mistake. And when it happens again, she blames the hardships of his life outside the home.
There he experiences terrible hurts and frustrations. These account for his mistreatment of her. She will find a way to comfort him, to make it up to him. And when it happens again, she blames herself. She will be better, kinder, quieter, more of whatever he likes, less of whatever he dislikes. And when it happens again, and when it happens again, and when it happens again, she learns that she has nowhere to go, no one to turn to, no one who will believe her, no one who will help her, no one who will protect her.
If she leaves, she will return. She will leave and return and leave and return. She will find that her parents, doctor, the police, her best friend, the neighbors upstairs and across the hall and next door, all despise the woman who cannot keep her own house in order, her injuries hidden, her despair to herself, her smile amiable and convincing.
She will find that society loves its central lie–that marriage means happiness–and hates the woman who stops telling it even to save her own life.
The memory of the physical pain is vague. I remember, of course, that I was hit, that I was kicked. I do not remember when or how often. It blurs. I remember him banging my head against the floor until I passed out. I remember being kicked in the stomach.
I remember being hit over and over, the blows hitting different parts of my body as I tried to get away from him. I remember a terrible leg injury from a series of kicks. I remember crying and I remember screaming and I remember begging. I remember him punching me in the breasts.
One can remember that one had horrible physical pain, but that memory does not bring the pain back to the body. Blessedly, the mind can remember these events without the body reliving them. If one survives without permanent injury, the physical pain dims, recedes, ends. It lets go.
The fear does not let go. The fear is the eternal legacy. At first, the fear infuses every minute of every day. One does not sleep. One cannot bear to be alone. The fear is in the cavity of one’s ch
est. It crawls like lice on one’s skin. It makes the legs buckle, the heart race. It locks one’s jaw. One’s hands tremble. One’s throat closes up.
The fear makes one entirely desperate. Inside, one is always in upheaval, clinging to anyone who shows any kindness, cowering in the presence of any threat. As years pass, the fear recedes, but it does not let go. It never lets go.
And when the mind remembers fear, it also relives it. The victim of encapsulating violence carries both the real fear and the memory of fear with her always. Together, they wash over her like an ocean, and if she does not learn to swim in that terrible sea, she goes under.
And then, there is the fact that, during those weeks that stretch into years when one is a battered wife, one’s mind is shattered slowly over time, splintered into a thousand pieces. The mind is slowly submerged in chaos and despair, buried broken and barely alive in an impenetrable tomb of isolation.
This isolation is so absolute, so killing, so morbid, so malignant and devouring that there is nothing in one’s life but it, it. One is entirely shrouded in a loneliness that no earthquake could move.
Men have asked over the centuries a question that, in their hands, ironically becomes abstract: "What is reality?" They have written complicated volumes on this question. The woman who was a battered wife and has escaped knows the answer: reality is when something is happening to you and you know it and can say it and when you say it other people understand what you mean and believe you. That is reality, and the battered wife, imprisoned alone in a nightmare that is happening to her, has lost it and cannot find it anywhere.
I remember the isolation as the worst anguish I have ever known. I remember the pure and consuming madness of being invisible and unreal, and every blow making me more invisible and more unreal, as the worst desperation I have ever known.
I remember those who turned away, pretending not to see the injuries–my parents, dear god, especially my parents; my closest female friend, next door, herself suffocating in a marriage poisoned by psychic, not physical, violence; the doctor so officious and aloof; the women in the neighborhood who heard every scream; the men in the neighborhood who smiled, yes, lewdly, as they half looked away, half stared, whenever they saw me; my husband’s family, especially my mother-in-law, whom I loved, my sisters-in-law, whom I loved.
I remember the frozen muscles of my smile as I gave false explanations of injuries that no one wanted to hear anyway. I remember slavishly conforming to every external convention that would demonstrate that I was a "good wife," that would convince other people that I was happily married. And as the weight of social convention became insupportable, I remember withdrawing further and further into that open grave where so many women hide waiting to die–the house.
I went out to shop only when I had to, I walked my dogs, I ran out screaming, looking for help and shelter when I had the strength to escape, with no money, often no coat, nothing but terror and tears. I met only averted eyes, cold stares, and the vulgar sexual aggression of lone, laughing men that sent me running home to a danger that was–at least familiar and familial.
Home, mine as well as his. Home, the only place I had. Finally, everything inside crumbled. I gave up. I sat, I stared, I waited, passive and paralyzed, speaking to no one, minimally maintaining myself and my animals, as my husband stayed away for longer and longer periods of time, slamming in only to thrash and leave.
No one misses the wife who disappears. No one investigates her disappearance. After awhile, people stop asking where she is, especially if they have already refused to face what has been happening to her. Wives, after all, belong in the home. Nothing outside it depends on them. This is a bitter lesson, and the battered wife learns it in the bitterest way.
The anger of the survivor is murderous. It is more dangerous to her than to the one who hurt her. She does not believe in murder, even to save herself. She does not believe in murder, even though it would be more merciful punishment than he deserves. She wants him dead but will not kill him. She never gives up wanting him dead.
The clarity of the survivor is chilling. Once she breaks out of the prison of terror and violence in which she has been nearly destroyed, a process that takes years, it is very difficult to lie to her or to manipulate her. She sees through the social strategies that have controlled her as a woman, the sexual strategies that have reduced her to a shadow of her own native possibilities. She knows that her life depends on never being taken in by romantic illusion or sexual hallucination.
The emotional severity of the survivor appears to others, even those closest to her, to be cold and unyielding, ruthless in its intensity. She knows too much about suffering to try to measure it when it is real, but she despises self-pity. She is self-protective, not out of arrogance, but because she has been ruined by her own fragility.
Like Anya, the survivor of the Nazi concentration camps in Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s beautiful novel of the same name, she might say:
"So what have I learned? I have learned not to believe in suffering. It is a form of death. If it is severe enough it is a poison; it kills the emotions."
She knows that some of her own emotions have been killed and she distrusts those who are infatuated with suffering, as if it were a source of life, not death.
In her heart she is a mourner for those who have not survived.
In her soul she is a warrior for those who are now as she was then.
In her life she is both celebrant and proof of women’s capacity and will to survive, to become, to act, to change self and society.
And each year she is stronger and there are more of her.
"A Battered Wife Survives," first published under the title "The Bruise That Doesn’t Heal" in Mother Jones, Vol. III, No. VI, July 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.