I hear that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’m glad the old white men who decide these things set aside a month to think about it, so that we don’t have to ALL the time.
Being a dude myself, I don’t really know the best way to approach the conversation, so I’ll tell a story. I was around 10 or 11, or 12 or 13 – I don’t exactly know why, but almost every memory from my childhood is blurred together and I always say I was 12.
Anyhow, my dad had fallen on tough times, he was on crack, and we had a lot of crack heads in our house, including this woman Elaine and her four kids. There were two younger boys, I don’t remember their names. There was a daughter, Debra, who was the same age as me. Then also she had a son Chris who was 17, and he had a friend, Rio, who was always over at our house too. My dad took pity on her and the kids and let them move in. My bedroom was taken away from me and given to Debra, and the spare room in the house was given to all of the boys. Debra told me on numerous occasions that the only reason my dad let them stay was for sex from her mother.
This was a major period in my life where I learned to withdraw into myself and ignore everything around me – “just get through, just survive, ball yourself up, shove everything down – it’s the only way to make it” – could have been my mantra.
I remember one dealer in particular that would come around often – to me he looked just like a dealer you’d see on TV – larger than life, black as night, not dressed fancy, you could tell he wasn’t big time, but dressed better than you, and with style – chains, shades, cocked hat.
I’d be sitting there, glued to the TV (my escape from my surroundings) – probably MTV (Yo!MTV Raps was my favorite) or stand up comedy on Comedy Central. The music videos took me away, and comedy taught me how to laugh amidst chaos. They’d walk past, never making eye contact, and go into the bathroom and lock the door. I don’t think you need many guesses as to what unfolded behind that door. Thinking back on it now, I nearly blocked things out as fast as they happened. I didn’t want to know what happened behind closed doors, I just wanted to get through the day. I also didn’t want to know that my dad wasn’t the man I thought he was. He was my favorite person, and the more I saw, the worse it was. I couldn’t accept that, he wasn’t bad, they were. “Block it out, ignore it, just get by.”
Nearly a year into Elaine and her kids living in my dad’s house, things had completely fallen apart. Dad and Elaine argued viciously. I’d heard and used most every cuss word you can imagine by this point, but the WAY they said things to one another was with a spite and hate I’d never heard before, and didn’t understand. I knew I felt uncomfortable, but I also knew not to let it show – “play it cool, keep it under the surface, just get by.”
The worst fight I can remember was over the fact that she had, despite her promises, only paid rent once during their time there. My dad worked a job delivering pizzas at Pizza Hut, and was upset because he was supporting this entire family on his meager pay, without much help from Elaine. Add that to the fact that he delivered in a neighborhood where they used pizza delivery as an ATM – call up, order a pie for the house down the street, rob the pizza guy, go get some crack. Easy Peasy. Dad had just been robbed a few nights before – hit with a stick in the face, and had a big gash running from below his eye to under his nose. He was responsible to replace the money lost in the robbery, or he could lose his job. All of this resulted in he and Elaine screaming at one another 15 feet away from where I sat – watching TV of course – wishing I could be sucked into the tube to some other place.
“I’M SICK OF YOUR SHIT, BITCH!” (I will NEVER forget those words) SLAM! I looked up from the TV to see my father, the man I loved most in the world, my hero, my model, the coolest person ever – with both hands around Elaine’s throat, slamming her against the wall. I remember the choking sound she made, the gurgle. He slammed her against the wall with a force that made the house shake. He finally let her go and stormed to his bedroom – slamming the door behind him, shaking the house again, like an aftershock – leaving her crumpled on the floor, sobbing. I remember not moving a muscle, holding my breath, staring at the TV intently as if I could make myself invisible so I didn’t have to be a part of this reality before me. “Just get by, just get by, just get by.”
I wish this was the only story I have of some kind of chaotic trauma that I’ve witnessed or been victim of. I wish that men had a better way to deal with their insecurities than physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of boys and women.
Domestic violence and rape are not a woman problem, it’s a man problem. Men are broken. Broken by a generation of fathers raised in a culture where it was acceptable to treat women, blacks, gays, children, like lesser creatures, here for amusement and servitude. Those same fathers, like mine, were beset by the realization at some point in life that they’d never do as well as their dads did, and were looked at by society as less-than men because of it. To prove themselves they created hyper-masculinity – a show, an act, peacocks shaking their tail feathers.
Society doesn’t make it easy for men to change, either. We have a lot to unlearn, and when we stick our necks out, we’re called bitches and pussies for it. You may say “stick and stones” – but it still affects us, and stops us from doing the good work of climbing out of the man box. This isn’t “poor me, men have it tough.” I’m just laying it out there.
We don’t need to teach women how not to get raped. We don’t need fingernail polish that detects date rape drugs. We need to support men. Like any community that empowers itself, all of us need to stand together. We know that if a man physically, sexually, or emotionally abuses, he was probably abused as well, and never got help, was made to feel like a punk if he didn’t just brush it off the shoulder.
I don’t have all the answers, and probably haven’t advanced the conversation by writing this. What I do know is that men need help. We aren’t strong enough to do it on our own; I can admit that. Men need each other for support. Men need women and society to give them room to grow and change and redefine masculinity and manhood into the beautiful, caring, love filled thing that it IS; because it is all of that. We are not the song that glorifies the objectification of women, nor the action movie that glorifies violence. We are lovers. We love beauty, we love women, and we love love. We need to learn to be OK with that.