Trigger Warning: This essay discusses abuse.
By Lindsey Fisher
Nineteen years have passed since I left him, a decade since he last tried to contact me — time enough that I can almost forget the sound of his voice, can almost imagine that the things he did to me happened to someone else long ago and far away. Except that they didn’t. They happened to me. On October 23rd, I published an article on Vox.com about my recovery from the violent relationship that consumed my teenage years. Two weeks later, my former abuser reemerged, like an unwelcome ghost from the past, to make good on his decades’ old threat to me: just like he said he would, he denied everything.
I had left his name out of my article, scoured it of identifying details about him, his family, where we grew up, our school. He was so far removed from my life that revenge was beside the point. I wanted to use my story to help others, to take a terrible thing that happened to me and make some good come from it. To that end, I think I was successful: my article was shared several thousand times on social media. Teachers and parents wrote to say that they would use my story to help guide the teens in their lives toward healthier relationships. A friend used my piece as a springboard to come forward about the abusive relationship she had endured in her twenties. A college junior reached out to share that my past was hers, too. She had felt alone, as if no one else had been through what she had, but my story gave her hope that she would find her way to a happy, healthy adulthood.
In early November, a different kind of message began trickling into my inbox. My former abuser had identified himself as the unnamed boyfriend in my story and composed a rebuttal, cutting and pasting it into private messages and emails, seemingly sending it to anyone who dared to share, like, or comment on my piece. He called my story “fiction” and suggested a variety of explanations for its existence, from the lure of a writer’s paycheck to unethical sensationalism on the part of the Vox.com editorial staff. “Is it plausible,” he wrote, “that over the course of 19 years she convinced herself that these things happened?”
My initial response was, strangely, relief. He had last contacted me in 2006 with a remorseful email, writing, “I hurt you in ways I cannot imagine.” He had said he was filled with guilt and shame for how he had mistreated me and asked for my phone number so he might apologize for the pain he had caused. Although I refused to give him either my phone number or my forgiveness, I was never certain I had made the right decision. Had it been fair of me to hold a twenty-seven-year-old man accountable for what he did to me as a teenager?
There was a point when he was at the epicenter of my life, my whole being attuned to him, his moods, the fluctuations in his estimation of my value. Sometimes my world was no bigger than the inside of his Jeep, where he reigned by fist and volume and speed over my safety, my autonomy, my purpose and pain. But my world grew when I walked away from him, and as I shaved away the layers of damage he had done to me, it continued to expand beyond him, until the only lingering malignancy was that last sliver of doubt over whether he deserved my final forgiveness. Now, at thirty-seven, he had effectively finished the job for me, excising any last bit of himself from my concern.
He had written several versions of his rebuttal. As person after person, close friends and more distant acquaintances, forwarded them to me, I saw that they grew longer and increasingly embellished with each passing week. He claimed my article had been fabricated at his expense, writing, “Whatever her motive, her act of publicly posting false information about me is as cowardly an act I have ever witnessed.” He implied that the school community stood in solidarity with him, recounting the “remarkable support” he was receiving from “many friends on four continents”, including coaches, teachers, and a representative of the school administration. “Their support has helped me through a truly brutal time,” he wrote, making himself out to be the victim. He became uncharacteristically active on our Class of ‘96 Facebook page, liking posts and pictures, declaring that he would attend our upcoming reunion.
My husband is an academic, a professor of clinical psychology. As I pored over the forwarded messages of the man who had spent his high school years using and abusing me, deliberating about how to respond, my husband met with a colleague of his, an expert in domestic abuse, to better understand the motives behind these messages. His colleague explained that it was classic abuser behavior — he was attempting to maintain a position of power by isolating me from my hometown community. If he could successfully make me look unreliable, if he could rally our school to his support by calling me a liar, he would win the privilege of discounting my claims. He would be allowed to continue to perpetuate the façade of who he hoped people believed him to be. Fact: abusers will lie and deny and continue to abuse for as long as they can get away with it.
The most dangerously compelling argument in his messages was a plea for rationality as a means for deducing the validity of my narrative:
“… if I may ask one thing of you it is when reading the article please try to do so from a neutral perspective and contemplate the content objectively before passing judgment of my character past and present. Is it possible for someone within the small [prep school] community to be subject to physical abuse to a sum of 100’s of times … and not have a single friend, coach, parent, sibling, teacher, administrator or public bystander report a single incident? Not one reported incident?”
He well knew the answer to that, but he was banking on other people believing that they would be able to tell if something sinister was occurring right under their noses. This is a common misconception. It makes people feel better to imagine that nothing like this could happen to someone around them without them noticing. In truth, it is so very likely for abuse to go undetected and unreported that my former abuser had unwittingly sent this query, meant to prove his innocence, to five different women who had themselves been quiet victims of abuse — more than one while attending our same small school.
Once, sitting in AP Economics, I looked up to see my boyfriend at the classroom door. He made a violent gesture: his fist hitting the palm of his hand, and I spent the remainder of class trying to think what I had done to upset him. If anyone else saw him, no one was alarmed enough to remark on it. Even I began to doubt myself, wondering if the gesture was perhaps a joke intended for someone else. After dismissal, I lingered by my teacher’s desk, asking questions, making small talk, until he finally had to ask me to leave so he could work. I didn’t know how to speak up. I didn’t know how to say to him, “I’m afraid to leave your classroom. It might not be safe for me in the hall.” So I left. Within minutes, my boyfriend was at my side, steering me down the hallway with his hand gripping the back of my arm hard enough to leave fingerprint bruises the next day. There was no way to wrench myself free without making a scene, so I walked on, following the path of least resistance out to his car, calling out to no one, my smile never faltering, giving no reason for anyone to be suspicious.
I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe this was one of the times he only argued with me over some imagined infidelity, or maybe this was a time I withdrew inside myself and waited for the pain to be over because I knew that if I could ride out the bad times, there would be good times on the other end. Maybe this was the day I tried to throw myself from his car at an intersection to avoid the rain of blows to my shoulder and thigh. It doesn’t matter. The point is that there was no way for anyone to see that I was trapped until I was able to get myself far enough away that I could safely find my voice again. For me, that took great distance, both in years and miles.
I now have a choice. I can leave well enough alone, knowing that I have already helped people with my story. I can stay away from our reunion, let him have my hometown and alma mater and whatever friends and faculty want to believe in him. It would not cost me all that much; I live two thousand miles away and have made a full life for myself beyond anything he can touch.
But other victims don’t have this privilege. They may be financially dependent on their abusers or share parenting responsibilities with them or, for myriad reasons, be unable to pick up and move far away to start afresh. For them, it can be devastating to find the fortitude to come forward with their stories only to have their motives questioned, their sanity and credibility challenged, their reputations tarnished. So they hide their bruises and their pain beneath sweaters and smiles, swallow their voices in a million promises, and allow their abusers to continue to avoid facing the repercussions of the cruelties they have committed.
Maybe I should fight back for their sake. Maybe I should continue to speak up because I know I can. Maybe I will go to that reunion with my head held high and let him try to say to my face that he never laid a hand on me.
Lindsey Dunagan Fisher is sitting in her kitchen in Northern California late at night eating leftover birthday cake and wearing a bathrobe she’s had for twenty years. Tomorrow she will run in and out of the house seventeen times to remember the keys! And his backpack! And my water bottle! And let’s go, let’s go, come on, let’s go! But at this very moment, when the children are asleep and her husband is asleep and the dog is curled up at her feet, she writes.