When we’re confronted with abuse, we feel the urge to do harm to the abusers. Josh Hanagarne reflects on his experiences, and his impulses.
Details have been changed to protect the people involved.
The woman got off the elevator and trudged to the reference desk, bent as if she was wearing a backpack full of rocks. Maybe 5’5”, 135 pounds at most. Early forties. She had blond hair, bent glasses, and her left arm was locked into a ninety degree angle by a plaster cast the color of a new bruise. Staring at the floor, she said:
“Can you help me find something about recovering from abuse?”
“Of course,” I said, my voice was already shaking.
In situations like this, librarians don’t pry with follow-up questions, but as I took her to the section, she talked. “My husband broke my arm a week ago. This was the worst it had ever been. He always yelled at me, and he’d hit me a little, but just slaps…” she trailed off but showed me the cast. “And now he’s got my fifteen year old son mad at me, and he’s got him thinking that I deserved what I got, and now he’s living with him. He picks him and I’m the one who’s here looking for— ” Her shoulders slump, lower, lower still, and there are tears on her cheeks. “My son is all I’ve got. And he hates me. Because of his dad. He was supposed to take care of us.”
I showed her the books. “I mean, this stuff might be useful to you, but listen, we have resources I can give you,” I said. “Shelters. Places you can go and be safe. Places for women who—” Now my voice is breaking and I can’t stop it. She look at me with astonishment on her face and says, “Are you crying?”
If I hadn’t been, I was now. I hugged her, she hugged me back, and we sat there sniffling in the stacks for a couple of minutes. A strange scene, the unnaturally tall man and the tiny, diminished, broken woman, embracing in the books.
“Well what’s the matter with you?” she said. “How’d you get so sensitive?” And we both laughed and let go of each other. But then I stopped laughing and knelt down so I could see her face better.
“Men who hurt women should be put down,” I said.
Now she laughed. “I’m going to tell him you said that. I doubt he’d mess with you”
“No!” I said. “I mean…what I mean is, why would you tell him anything at all? You’re not going to see him again, are you?”
She hugged me again. “Thank you for the books. I’ll be back.” Then she was gone.
It’s been a few months. I haven’t seen her since.
Two months after my sister got married, I got a call from my mom, who was living in Canada at the time. My sister’s new husband had been abusing her. I’d known the guy for years. He was no paragon of virtue, but I hadn’t expected this. That night I drove the four hours to her city to bring her home with me and deal with whatever I’d need to deal with. As I drove, I was terrified by how angry and crazed I felt. I thought I’d been mad before, but this was different. Not only had this man hurt a woman, the woman was my sister. With each mile I grew more afraid for him and for myself. I wondered whether I’d be a murderer by the time the sun rose.
Luckily for us both, he wasn’t there. I packed a bag for her, got her in my car, and we drove back to Salt Lake without saying much. Occasionally I’d reach over and squeeze her hand. She was smaller than the last time I’d seen her. Diminished.
The lady from the library did tell her husband about our talk. He came in full of swagger, a small man with a big sneer. “Are you Josh?”
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“Well, you can tell why you and my wife were telling lies about me and why you think you’re some sort of a badass who’s going to do something to me.”
“Your wife was the woman in the cast?”
I sat back down and started checking my email. There was a time when, had you asked me how I’d react to this, I probably would have said, “I’d break his neck!” or something equally blustering and unlikely. But when I saw him, I couldn’t even work up the energy to feel angry.
“Hey!” he said.
“I’m not talking to you,” I said.
I looked at him. “It makes me feel sick. I just can’t. I literally feel sick talking to you.”
Violent people understand violence. He expected me to posture, or maybe even to fight. He couldn’t figure out what to do with my reaction. He made fists, then unclenched them. He tried to stand a little taller and flare his back out like a cobra, but it lacked the intended menace.
“Yeah, well, I’ve disappointed a lot of people,” he finally said, but his lip was still sneering as he searched for a way to stay defiant. And in that moment, he just seemed pathetic.
I had a lot of emails. When I finished, he was gone.
The man who hurts a woman because he is physically stronger is the weakest, most pitiful creature around. When he hurts the woman he is supposed to protect, love, and cherish…I’m not much of a moralist, but if anything is truly evil, that has to qualify.
My dad is my hero and has been a wonderful influence. He taught me to work, to respect women, to strive, and to stand up for people who can’t or won’t do it for themselves. He taught me to fight when I have to fight, and to back down when that makes more sense. But it’s been the women in my life who have shaped me, guided, me, made me understand the importance of compassion and kindness. The women in my life are the answer to the question, “How’d you get so sensitive?” Who would I be without them? I’m glad I don’t know. Every time I meet a woman who has been abused by a man, I don’t just see the shaken, battered body. I see the people that woman won’t be able to influence because maybe she’ll never know her worth again. Maybe she’ll never recover an identity of her own beyond what she’s worth to a domineering man.
Don’t be the man who hurts women.
Don’t be that weak.
Don’t fool yourself, there’s no excuse.