ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
I’ve finally left my abusive husband.
It took almost a decade for me to believe he was abusing us. No one ever ended up in the emergency room. I never had any bruises. He never controlled my finances or stopped me from seeing friends. What I was going through, I rationalized, couldn’t possibly meet the threshold of abuse, even in the more capacious definitions recently adopted across numerous jurisdictions. Instead, I must be imagining things. I must be exaggerating. After all, I made him angry. I was difficult. I was too strict with our children. I was uptight. I was cold.
I want to say that I was none of those things. That my husband was just employing a litany of accusations that he’d learned could be used to manipulate me. That he was using a vocabulary and a framework into which he’d been socialized from his earliest years. That this framework had been sustained and legitimized by multiple couples’ therapists who’d interpreted my anxious response to normalized male aggression as demanding, as an irritant to which he reasonably responded with violence rather than as a marker of fear and distress. But even after months of therapy and treatment for PTSD, I still can’t fully believe that none of this was my fault.
The turning point came when he smothered my youngest child. I was out at the time, shopping for paint; he was going to redo our bedroom before I had major surgery that would leave me bedridden for weeks. I learned of what happened when my youngest called me, sobbing, hysterical. “Daddy got angry and held me down on the bed under Mr. Fluffy! I couldn’t breathe!” Mr. Fluffy is a three-foot teddy bear that we’d given him a few months earlier for his birthday. I was forty minutes away when this happened.
Domestic abuse is understood better than ever before, especially by advocacy organizations and specialist therapists. This small field of experts has come to recognize that violence is an expansive category: that it includes threats of injury, aggressive actions, reckless driving, destroying property, and hitting walls. Intimidation is also now understood to be a form of violence, including threatening to cause physical harm, making statements that distort reality such as denying abuse, and using demeaning words or gestures. Other forms of abuse include the more commonly accepted categories of financial control, emotional abuse, and sexual assault.
While specialist therapists and organizations have gained a more comprehensive understanding of intimate partner violence, the legal system and general public have yet to catch up. Our culture diminishes violence against women, only naming it violence if there are black eyes, broken bones, dead bodies. In practice, courts and lawmakers across America largely support this view.
I think perhaps the first time I worried about what I still struggle to identify non-euphemistically was when I was pregnant with our second child. My husband had shoved past me in anger—just a small shoulder chuck. The hallway was small and, probably, he didn’t mean to do it.
Soon after that, I made him angry—I was good at making him angry—and he kicked huge holes in our front door. It wasn’t long before he smashed in the upstairs hallway, leaving indentations of fists and arms and shoulders deep into the plaster. I was still pregnant. Several months later, when our baby was a few weeks old, he smashed two large holes, each over a foot wide, in the lower stairway wall. He hit the wall over and over and over again. I threatened to call the police—but of course, I did not. I managed to calm him down; I persuaded him to call his dad.
A year later, at my therapist’s urging, we all moved closer to my family “for my fellowship year.” It was normal for PhD candidates to move out of town later in their degree, sometimes for research purposes, more usually to relish a change of scene. It was less common, I imagine, to move because your toxic marriage had left you a psychological wreck and you needed your family’s support; because your immigration situation meant you’d both have to leave the country if he carried through on his regular promise to walk out; because you were a poor graduate student and he was a poor adjunct juggling two part-time jobs with no health insurance.
But given that people rarely talk about domestic violence, perhaps many women left town because their therapists were scared for them, like mine was for me. She was frightened because my husband regularly accelerated at full throttle to scare me and maybe to hurt us all; because he told me to jump off a bridge; because he threw my keys in a tree; because he marked his fist in more walls; because he said he was leaving when our baby was four months old but I begged him to stay. Because he grabbed our eldest by the shoulders and shoved him against a wall.
Once we’d uprooted ourselves to move thousands of miles closer to my family, I found that I couldn’t get work either in academia or outside it. Nor could I retrain as a lawyer, as had been the vague plan prior to our return, because I had neither the financial nor the emotional resources to start all over. My PhD training, like my marriage, felt like a trap. I was vastly overqualified for entry level jobs, but with several dissertation chapters still to write, I remained substantially underqualified for academic positions.
So, I stayed with my husband because I couldn’t afford to leave. I stayed with him, too, because I loved him desperately. I followed him back to his hometown where he’d found a stable job. I briefly returned to mine, where my children and I lived with my mom and two siblings because the benefits system had changed and landlords could refuse to rent to someone like me. Our separation didn’t last: I loved him and wanted it to work; I was penniless and unemployed and thirty-one and living back home and could see no other way out.
It took another four years, after I’d miraculously secured a tenure-track position and a degree of financial security, to finally arrive at the decision to leave. In retrospect, the necessity of departure had crystallized some years earlier when I’d been interviewing for these now-rare jobs. It was a Sunday afternoon and he was taking our children on a daytrip so that I could prepare for my interviews. He was being too rough, too angry as he put on their coats and shoes. When I asked him to calm down, when I said that I would take them out instead, he lunged toward me and screamed at me to move. His fist was raised, his face red and twisted, his eyes distended. If I didn’t get away from the children right away, he threatened, “I’ll punch your fucking teeth out.” He stood between me and them. I stepped back.
What I really needed to hear, throughout all these years, was that regular intimidation is, in fact, abuse. I needed to know that actions that are meant to appear threatening and to induce fear are themselves violent, even if no physical contact is ever made. I needed to learn and come to terms with the fact that witnessing domestic violence was damaging for children and a good enough reason to leave.
In the copious research I undertook in the summer before I filed for divorce, intimidation was more commonly described as an act of violence than in the earlier years of my marriage. A growing number of domestic violence organizations are recognizing, in line with the most current academic research, that intimidation is undoubtedly a form of abuse. But the weight of more traditional forms of violence—a black eye, broken ribs, sexual assault, even financial control—always, in my head, won out.
My story never felt serious enough compared to what other women experienced. My husband had only ever threatened to punch my fucking teeth out; he’d never actually done it. He’d only broken laundry hampers, a highchair, a kitchen cupboard, and many walls; he’d never really touched me. He’d only acted like he was going to headbutt me; he’d never carried through. He’d only picked up our bed with me in it and flung it around as I recovered from extensive surgery. He’d never actually picked me up; he’d never actually flung me.
There was always a barrier, however small, between his actions and my body. I knew, though, that what he really wanted to do was punch me, that it was me he wanted to tear off my hinges, that it was me he wanted to smash against the floor. Various ordinary household objects were simply the conduit, and the buffer, for his rage.
I don’t know how much he hurt my children before things escalated. My eldest is very loyal, so he’s unlikely to share. The incidents he did tell me about he later retracted, even though his younger brother had confirmed his accounts.
I do know that, toward the end, my husband strangled our youngest on several occasions. This is the word I use now: at the time, we all still spoke in euphemisms. The one time it happened when I was nearby, my youngest announced, in tears: “Daddy put his hands around my neck!” I confronted my husband, but he downplayed it and I demurred. I’m deeply ashamed that I was so acculturated, or scared, or both, that I didn’t tell him to leave right then. My husband would have been furiously angry; the most dangerous time for an abused woman is when she tries to leave. Still, I continue to beat myself up with should-haves and what-ifs.
Only later did I learn about the severity of these attacks. Only after I’d started working with a new therapist in our new town, having walked into her office to talk about gender-based harassment at work and ended the session with a small sentence: “Also, I’d like to talk about my marriage.” Only later did I gather the courage to ask my children more, after I’d started and had to stop reading Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, a groundbreaking feminist text which I’d bought for both personal and academic interest but which had a far more profound impact on our lives than I could have anticipated.
Manne’s discussion of intimate partner violence clarified the extent of my husband’s abuse. Manne takes misogyny seriously, redefining it as an epistemological system rather than a personal act. By defining misogyny as a structure of thought that operates with very real consequences throughout a patriarchal society, she also describes how an avowed feminist like me could be coerced into minimizing violence.
Manne’s opening theory of misogyny felt far more personal than I’d expected because she builds her argument through research on strangulation. She magnifies the socialized minimizing of this act and explains that strangulation is the strongest predictor of fatal injury in domestic abuse. She describes a process of silencing with which I was uncomfortably familiar, and which, drawing on the work of philosopher Kristie Dotson, she recognizes as epistemic oppression. Manne explains, “You can train her not to say ‘strangle’ but rather ‘choke,’ or better yet ‘grab,’ or best of all, nothing. It was nothing; nothing happened.” I realized: I had only ever admitted that my husband had “put his hand around my son’s neck.” I had failed to recognize the truth. My husband had strangled my son.
And so, when my youngest mentioned a scratch on his neck from an aggressive classmate, I thought of Manne and my therapist, and I asked, “When Daddy puts his hands around your neck, does he squeeze?” “Sometimes!” said my youngest, cheerfully. He was matter-of-fact and very detailed; he was happy to talk. I returned to when his father had smothered him under his teddy. At this point, my eldest chimed in, detailing several occasions when my husband had pinned him down, too, under bedding, when he was scared and couldn’t breathe properly or move. And then, abruptly, he ended the conversation: “I think we should stop talking about this now.”
It’s not like no one told me. My first therapist had made clear that she was worried, and she’d encouraged me to return to be near my family where I’d have support. (Recently, she expressed her relief when I emailed about the divorce, writing that she’d always feared things would escalate.) A good friend pointed out that she thought my husband was abusive; she itemized behavior and she pointed to the cycle of abuse that addresses power, control, and relative calm. Another friend repeatedly confirmed that smashing walls was never okay; she undertook research on how best to support a friend who was reckoning with domestic violence; she pointed me toward resources that might help. But when I was in the midst of it all, I didn’t, or couldn’t, believe they were right. And at the point when I was finally, after eight years, emerging from the fog and searching desperately for stories to affirm what I could slowly, sporadically admit to be true, I found no stories that echoed my experience.
When it came to concrete details, to narratives, to histories of what it looked like and felt like to be abused, I couldn’t find what I needed. The published stories I encountered were of physical violence, sexual assault, or financial coercion. But stories of women who experienced regular threats made but not carried out, of the ways in which these threats establish a climate of fear, of the extent to which this is most definitely abuse? These I couldn’t find.
My story is so old: a woman whose magical relationship gradually turned into years of escalating violence; whose quick pregnancy, after only a few months of dating, was also a warning sign, an indicator of the likelihood of a controlling partner. A woman whose willingness to stay with her abusive husband was in part because the violence proceeded so slowly, and seemed so out of character; who couldn’t leave because of low wages and temporary residential status in a foreign country. A woman whose dad was abusive, who’d threatened to kill her when she was fifteen, and again when she was eighteen, who’d repeatedly kicked in the bathroom door when she was hiding from him, who’d once thrown a vacuum cleaner at her in anger. A woman whose grandfather, too, was abusive and had terrorized her grandmother, who had threatened to kill himself when she tried to call off the engagement.
A woman who was so accustomed to abuse that her husband’s anger seemed acceptable until his violence spilled over and was channeled at her children: at their actual bodies, at their necks, at their throats.
There’s something so incredibly ordinary about this story, something so totally routine and normalized. I need to constantly remind myself that what my children and I experienced is, in fact, horrific. That when my husband broke household objects, smashed in walls, and tore cupboards off their hinges, he wasn’t just angry—he was terrorizing us. That when he shoved past me in anger, or flung around the bed with me on it, he committed assault. That when he put his hands around our youngest’s neck, he strangled him. That when he held him under a teddy bear nearly equal to him in size, he smothered him. That this experience that for years felt so ordinary has been life-threatening and psychologically debilitating. It continues to have profound effects on our lives.
Recently, my youngest told me cheerfully, “That’s why I sharpen my teeth! So I can bite Daddy when he hurts me.” My youngest has beautiful teeth. They are a little bit sharp.
Writing this story triggers my PTSD. It makes my blood run hot and cold, down my neck, down my arms, into my fingers. It makes my heart beat too fast and my chest clench and shoulders tighten. It makes my fingers tingle and go numb. It sends me to bed for hours under a heavy comforter and a quilt, aided by clonazepam to calm the panic. It forces me to lie on my office floor with encyclopedias piled on top of me, attempting—not unsuccessfully—to recreate the deep pressure of a weighted blanket.
PTSD is deeply unpleasant, and the idea that “trigger” is a metaphor for “disagree with” or “feel angry about”—a charge commonly leveled at liberal professors like myself, or at my liberal students—is, I now know on a visceral level, profoundly incorrect. To be triggered is to be in a form of bodily pain, one that corresponds with deep psychological and affective distress. Curiously, I only have PTSD because I managed to leave him. Before that, my feelings were buried so deeply that I couldn’t feel them; this was how I survived.
I currently have full custody of our children, although only for a short period, after which, subject to his meeting certain provisions for changed behavior, he is no longer restricted to supervised visitation. It’s insufficient but it buys time, I tell myself, for my children to be older, stronger. According to my lawyer, this was the best way to protect my children; a judge could well have allowed him unsupervised access right away. There’s a slight chance, I suppose, that his required anger management classes and therapy will make him a better parent. But given that he won’t admit that he’s been abusive, the chances are low.
My children have been in therapy and it has helped and is helping. They are doing remarkably well: they are resilient and loved and I’m filled with pride for who they are and how they’ve survived. I’ve started my second round of EMDR to treat my PTSD. EMDR is brutal and devastating, like being broken into tiny pieces in order to become whole again. I think of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which I was teaching when he first told me he was leaving, and of how Rhys understood trauma in the most complex of ways. “Break her up” is the repeated refrain. And I’m pretty broken. But even though life is hard, it’s getting better. I can finally show my children what a healthy family environment might look like, what love can really be.
I wish I were brave enough to publish this essay under my own name. Doing so would, I think, be helpful, certainly for other survivors, possibly for me. I’m writing it pseudonymously largely because I don’t trust my ex-husband not to use the essay’s publication against me. After all, I have no legal decision in my favor: we settled out of court and he was always very careful to leave no visible marks. The need for anonymity is also because I’ve internalized the cultural narratives that intimidation isn’t violence and that a man’s anger is a woman’s fault—that I’m to blame for the violence with which my children grew up.
There’s another piece, too: a shameful piece, an impulse that I still battle against, largely unsuccessfully. Publishing the essay pseudonymously is a way of continuing to protect him: his feelings; his reputation. After all, being an abuser is—and should be—deeply shameful. Yet it’s me who still carries that shame, that protective impulse. I’m still protecting my abuser, even after all this time.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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