This past Wednesday, I experienced a repeat of an event that occurred in my natal home nearly 20 years ago. Only this time, it was with a man I had met just six weeks ago, whose only relationship to me was as my landlord. I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that he would like nothing more than for me to be quiet about what he did, as he responded to RCMP knocking on the front door with surprise and instant resentment. RCMP decided within a half an hour that they will be recommending charges, as I insisted that I will go to court if my presence is required to see that this incident follows him for the rest of his miserable life. A warning to fellow trauma survivors and people who have fled domestic violence and/or abuse: this post very likely contains triggering content, so it’s probably best for you to avoid it if you’re already having a really bad day. I am going to be referring to not just one, but two men, and they are both quite frankly terrible people who hate women and think that it’s acceptable to try to prove their “tolerance” for everyone else by constantly identifying people by the facet of their identity that leaves them socially marginalized (e.g., I’ve heard the phrase “My girlfriend’s a sex change” so often in the past six weeks, I’m temporarily liable to either instinctively hit the next person who says it, or just punch a hole in the wall immediately adjacent to their head.)
First, I just want to start by saying that I don’t use the words “domestic violence” without acknowledging in my heart that a lot of people get it a lot worse than I did (than I even have already, enough times that I’ve simply lost count). I’ve met countless women who have had to dial 9-1-1 with their eyes swelling shut or a broken arm. Or both. I’ve met the surviving family members and handled the chart notes of women who never made it to the phone. I’ve listened to countless stories of women who had successfully phoned the police (or to whom the police were called by friends or neighbours who suspected something was going on), who had to calmly refuse help while their assailant was still inside the home with them. The reasons are often complicated (and sometimes but not always involve children), but the point I’m getting at here is I was relatively fortunate, even just to be able to quietly dial 9-1-1 and step out and open that door to RCMP. I am also fortunate enough to have had the presence of mind (this time) to assert my rights instead of either getting blamed for it or told that I have to be the one to leave — or, as has actually happened to me before, being threatened by police with arrest and charges against me. I know many women aren’t so fortunate, if and when the police do arrive.
So, what exactly happened? Well, a little more than six weeks ago, I was homeless for the fifth time, and it had been over two months of couch-surfing while what remained of my entire life sat in a friend’s storage locker. I had an ad on craigslist, and Grabby answered it, offering me a room. I paid a damage deposit and the first month’s rent in cash, and started looking for another place to live the day after I got there. I had been transparent about my personal habits, finances (even though it wasn’t any of their business), and expectations — the two men I moved in with were deliberately deceptive. One is an alcoholic (I call him Drunky), and the other is a rage addict (that’s Grabby). I caught on quickly, as I had been born into this, and I did everything I could to de-escalate and keep my anger to myself. Grabby flipped his gourd at the end of the first month, when I informed him that there would be a delay of one business day in a small portion of my rent. I sought help from a local community mental health advocate when he served me with an illegal eviction notice. The night I served him with a summons to a telephone hearing over the residential tenancy law, he was jumped in front of Drunky, by 16 men who nearly killed him. At least one of those men is known to all of us.
Four days later, I was startled awake by loud noises. A shouting match started over Drunky smoking weed in front of one of Grabby’s young adult daughters. Then I heard Grabby going off about me, and I had enough. I confronted them both, and Grabby started yelling at me, swearing, stomping in and out of the kitchen, slamming doors in my face, and continuing to yell through them. There was pushing. He kept waving his hands in my face, as if this was the appropriate time to start playing “I’m not touching you”. I grabbed his hands and he shouted that I touched his face. More stomping, slamming doors, yelling, and shouting. I finally shouted “By the way, I fed your kids last night. You’re fucking welcome.” He called me an ignorant cunt, sprayed spit all over my face, grabbed me by the throat and pushed me up against the wall facing away from him before he started squeezing. When he let go, I went and phoned 9-1-1. I sincerely believe he just felt like because he couldn’t find back against those 16 men, he’d try throwing me around instead.
After he was arrested, he was given conditional orders not to return to the property until after I leave, and to have no direct or indirect contact with me. He phoned up Drunky instead, and the two spent hours on the phone while Drunky monitored my every move and pulled a proxy passive aggressive power trip. In between phone calls, Drunky accused me of being a meth addict, told me to “go play tough guy with somebody else, bitch”, and denied witnessing how far the situation escalated while implicitly blaming me and declaring Woe Is Grabby. Drunky disconnected the internet on Grabby’s orders, so I began using my mobile data to call for help getting myself and my personal belongings out of there. I don’t know what they figured would happen if I didn’t have that option, or how much further the situation would have escalated between Drunky and I. I’m actually shocked at how few people responded at all, and that at least half of them were people I’ve never met before. I had a place to go and did not want arbitration or intervention of any kind — just a one-way ride out of there to my destination. This experience is the reason I am writing this blog post today.
When I was a kid and this was happening in my natal home, there was no internet or social media. For most of the past ten years, however, there has been, and I’ve been using it to my strategic advantage. More and more survivors are using social media to vocalize what they have experienced, what they need, and how you can recognize the signs of domestic violence to get someone else help. More and more survivors are using the internet to hold their assailants publicly accountable. This is a good thing.
DO respond to these postings if you come across them, especially if it’s someone you know, even if it’s just to acknowledge that while you’re not sure what to say or if you can help, you’re not ignoring them. It’s OK to just not be sure if you can do anything, or even if you feel safe stepping in to take direct action.
DO NOT ignore these postings or sit silently and idly while waiting for someone else to say something appropriate. You may be afraid that you’re going to say something insensitive or even upsetting, but it’s better that you say you’re worried about saying the wrong thing than to say nothing at all. Take my word for it — your silence is not only observed, but felt, and it is not a good feeling at all.
I presently have just shy of 400 contacts on Facebook and 80 on Twitter, and just about a dozen on Facebook and a half dozen on Twitter responded to me the day this latest event happened. I had posted status messages all over my own pages, sent out private messages to a few people (one of whom never even responded — I will not soon forget that), and I even posted on a group boasting a membership of 500 locals. Just 20 people paying enough attention (half of whom were neither local, nor have ever met me face to face) out of nearly a thousand is not a happy statistic.
DO ask if you feel you can take any action at all, if there is anything specific you can do. If it’s not immediately clear whether or not they have phoned the police, ask if they have or even if they can (note that someone in a domestic violence situation may not always be able to). Ask if you can bring them something to eat, or if they need help trying to find a crisis line or someone else they can call just to keep themselves calm until help gets there.
DO NOT tell them that they should be phoning the police or getting their ass over to the police station (asking is one thing, but assuming that this is possible in all cases is another). Do not tell them that posting online about it is a waste of their energy, time, and/or resources — posting online about it is a resource.
Having been through this now so many times that it makes my head spin just thinking about it, I’ve learned to be very specific in the help I am requesting. I was also explicit in updating as often as possible about phoning the police and learning when criminal charges were officially pending (and not just recommended). I also shared information about the conditional orders Grabby was given. Out of the locals who responded to me, many of them didn’t have access to the type of vehicle I needed to get out in one trip, so they shared the word, and someone finally answered who was able to get me out of there in the early afternoon the next day (or I would have had to wait an additional two days).
DO ask if they are safe, or if they have a strategy in place to secure their safety in the event that they are not. Asking if they are safe is a million times better than asking if they are OK, simply because one does not simply go through something like domestic violence, vocalize it to as many people as possible, and then say “Oh, I’m fine! But thanks for asking!”
DO NOT tell them to get the hell out of there (sometimes this isn’t even possible, would put children in serious danger, or a strategy is already being worked out that just can’t unfold fast enough). Most people in this situation will already know that they need to get out of there, or will know exactly why they can’t. Telling them what they already know (or giving them commands as if you know their situation better than they do) is not being helpful. At the very least, try to put your concern in the form of a question, and be prepared to receive an answer you might not expect.
Almost everyone who did respond asked me if I was safe, or if I was going to be OK for the time being, until I was relocated. I was angry, I was rattled, and I wasn’t eating. I was in a bad space in my head, and the events that had just happened were unfolding over and over and over again in my mind. I couldn’t sleep because I was too nervous about the possibility of further escalation and violence (especially at night). I wanted to eat something, but I was concerned about what might happen if I left the house with everything I have left in the world still inside. I needed to focus on getting out of there to a safe place, and then I needed to focus on recovering once I was there. I was not OK and I was not going to just snap out of it once I got out.
DO tell them that what happened is totally not OK and that there are simply no excuses ever for domestic violence. When police are called to the scene of a domestic violence incident, they are required to do diligence on the matter of exactly who said and did what on both sides of the event, in order to determine if what happened meets the criteria for a violation of the law. They ask very difficult questions that often feel to the victim like they are being painted into a corner for standing up for themselves at all and not just being a punching bag. Their questions are invasive and often sound like victim-blaming. This serves as a major disincentive to reporting domestic violence, and the answers the victim receives can sometimes make them feel at fault for what happened. They need most to hear that what happened isn’t their fault.
DO NOT ask or remark about how this happened or keeps happening. Not only does this make it sound like it’s somehow their fault (e.g., “I don’t know what you keep doing, that this just keeps happening to you“), but it shows your social privilege in painful spades. As domestic violence against women and trans* people in particular is disproportionately more violent than anything men face when the roles are reversed, victim-blamey remarks like this reveal that you’re not thinking about how much society actively promotes a very palpable hatred of women (which effects trans* people just as much, if not also disproportionately more and in distinctively high-risk ways). The evidence is everywhere — it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out how this happened.
Two of the twenty people who responded said something to this effect to me before realizing what they were saying and how insensitive it is. Multiple RCMP officers had also asked me for specific details on what exactly unfolded, until one finally explained to me that assault charges in a domestic violence situation don’t hinge upon who the first or primary aggressor is or even who the first person was to lay a hand on the other; rather, that it’s about who gave way more than they received. Grabby told the RCMP that I poked his face to try and defend his self-appointed entitlement to spit all over my face and grab me by the throat, but it didn’t fly with the members who responded to my phone call. And while I’m really glad this is the case, the “how this keeps happening” remarks were about the least helpful thing I’ve ever heard. I was born into it. It’s been happening my whole life. I’ve even written volumes about it, and speak transparently about my experiences to keep that dialogue open because I have nothing to be ashamed of for being the target of so much aggression. There really shouldn’t be any question remaining of exactly how this keeps happening to me.
DO follow up a day or two after, to check up on the person who has just been through what is often a rather traumatic experience. Some people are able to handle it relatively well — for instance, I finally got some goddamned sleep and have actually been eating since I got out of there — and some people emotionally plummet or break down once they finally have a safe place to begin grieving in. Some people want to be alone and will generally be able to tell you if this is the case, while others really need to be around people a lot for the first couple of days so that they can put their head back together.
DO NOT continue ignoring the ordeal in the hopes that it will go away or that there will be no repercussions to them in the days following their ordeal. I know it’s hard to deal with as an observer, and it only gets harder the closer you are to them. But you need only imagine, even momentarily, how much more difficult it must be to actually experience such an event in order to recognize how much more hurt they could be feeling, relative to your own discomfort. It’s relatively easy to just set aside your discomfort to briefly acknowledge that while you don’t know all the details, you hope or are glad they are now safe.
I’ve been taken aback a bit by how many more people jumped at my call for help with a temporary loan of a small amount of cash, following this event, and how much more quickly they responded when I finally said something to the effect of “Can anyone spot me a $20?” (For the record, I’m good for now, but because I’m severely financially disadvantaged, I certainly won’t say no to more help at any point in the future — I can always use help.) Some people even kept answering and offering to throw money at me after I said “I’m good.” I’m grateful for all the help I’ve received. Really, I am. But all the post-trauma check-ins and hugs I’ve received have helped me so much more than cash has. It’s something else I can think about to get my mind off all the flash-backs. It’s something else that tells me that I did the best I could, given the situation and my disadvantages, and that I’m doing the right thing; not only for myself, but for every woman who can’t phone the cops and press charges, or who isn’t taken seriously if she does.
I’ve managed to get through all of this without breaking down as often as I previously would have, and without receiving any condescension about a pity party I’m not even looking for. I hope I don’t have to go through something like this again, but unfortunately, I’ve learned to expect it. The very least we can all do between now and the next time someone we know is subjected to violence, is try to keep the conversation going on how we can be better allies on their side. If you have suggestions based on your personal experiences, either of directly facing domestic violence or helping someone out who has, I encourage you to come forward and share about it here so that others may learn from your insights and share with still more people. Together, we can all empower each other to take a stand against people who commit acts of domestic violence (and with the people who they are committed against). When enough of us take a stand together, and when the victims and survivors don’t have to stand up against it alone, the abusers suddenly don’t feel so big and tough.