CW: This essay discusses domestic violence.
By Zoë Brigley Thompson
So a student e-mails me. She works at a domestic violence shelter, and she has a question.
Many of the women I meet, she writes, have been abused not once but multiple times by different people. But why?
I think about the problem logically. I see what she is thinking – how perhaps without realizing it, she is shifting the blame from the abusers to the women. I send her a study from the Department of Justice on “repeat victimization.” I point out the victim-blaming. I do not say that I know repeat victimization very well. I keep the personal to myself.
There is a well-known saying: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, and it applies so well to what people think about repeat victimization. But this framing of victims as masochistic is just another way for abusers to excuse responsibility. People often ask about victims of intimate partner violence, Why didn’t they just leave? But they don’t understand the emotional and psychological power that abusers have over their victims, especially in repeat victimization.
For me, the second victimization was different to the first, yet intimately connected to what had happened before. I started university in a precarious place. At eighteen, I had already survived two long years in an abusive relationship with an older man, where sexual consent was dubious at best.
When patterns of violence reoccur, victims are often thought of as weak-minded, pathetic, or timid. I was far from that. I could be confident, determined, even opinionated, but I carried a shame that overwhelmed me at times. Then I met someone dazzling.
He was very different to the first older lover. He was spontaneous rather than logical; cultured instead of down-to-earth; poetic rather than practical. He had a long, handsome face, and large, white teeth, and he walked around as if he was about to break into a run.
We were both writers. We were both ambitious. We were thrown together with the same friends. He charmed us all, writing sensuous poems about women, poems that celebrated all that was gorgeous and joyful about the body.
When people write about IPV very often they leave out the dizzy, glorious parts for fear of being suspected as liars when it comes to the rest. But we were happy at first. Very quickly we became lovers. In bed, he read poems from Ted Hughes’ Crow: ‘He gives her her skin /He just seemed to pull it down out of the air and lay it over her.’ Sometimes, he would lift me off my feet on the street, and carry me away over his shoulder, and how incredible to find such laughter, such unexpected joy.
There were long conversations at night before sleep, when he cross-questioned me, and I answered sleepily. I told him everything, and he loved and accepted me, just as I needed him to. I was so grateful. I did not know that I was slowly handing over my own power.
In hindsight, there were warning signs. On Valentine’s Day, he turned my bedroom into a greenhouse of flowers: sweet peas, daffodils, tulips, and of course roses, the most romantic of all. He wrote about a woman imprisoned in bed, her only visitor a man who kissed with his teeth and the buckle of his belt. Walking home one night, he knocked me off my feet with a sweep of his hand. I got up from the pavement, and he performed the same action again, still laughing.
As a child, he and his siblings would follow their mother to a locked room upstairs, then wait while the father hammered the door, the doorframe quaking under his fists for hours. When we visited his family, his father screamed abuse at the bedridden grandmother. The old woman replied that she would have saved the world a lot of trouble if she had given birth over the toilet bowl.
We moved in together, and it began. A push. A slap. A cracked mirror. A hand on my shoulder to stop me from leaving the house. And I was never quite sure if he was cheating on me. But despite it all, he almost never stopped giving me pleasure as a lover, never hurt me that way, because it would have broken the spell of his power.
At the end, he taunted me. You’re just a girl who wants a good fuck. It was more complicated than that, but without him, I wasn’t sure if I would ever find joy.
For a long time, I felt the tug to see him again. I couldn’t trust myself because the feeling was so strong. For years I blamed myself. Hadn’t I allowed myself to be hurt? Was I a masochist? Could that terrible desire emerge again unfathomable and destructive?
Now I know that it wasn’t masochism but mourning. When I faced losing him, it also meant accepting what had happened in that first abusive relationship, which I had been avoiding all that time. Because I had been a victim in the past, I became one again, and, finally, I realized that it was not my fault.
Zoë Brigley Thompson is Visiting Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, and has two poetry collections The Secret (2007) and Conquest (2012), both of which were Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She also edited the volume Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives (2010). She won an Eric Gregory Award for the best British poets under 30, the English Association’s Poetry Fellows’ Award, and a Welsh Academy Bursary. She was long listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize for the best international writers under 35, and she was a finalist for the Autumn House Books Poetry Prize. Her poems and articles have been published in Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Review, Platte Valley Review, The Manhattan Review, and The Manifest-Station. Zoë’s third poetry collection, Hand and Skull, will be out in 2018, and she is currently working on a poetry/prose hybrid ms, The Brooch Pin and the Eye.