Maybe I’m thinking about it because it’s COVID. One friend says that it brings up acute memories of an abusive childhood.
Maybe it’s just life’s little adventures, which occasionally make me remember my therapist telling me that I had “a frightenlingly high tolerance for abuse.”
Or maybe it’s remembering college in yesterday’s post. Because Hair proved to be my escape from an abusive relationship.
A Brief History of Non-Violence
I had a decent amount of acting talent. What’s more, I was deeply passionate about it, in a way that I wasn’t about the piano.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be forever grateful for my mom’s insistence that I study classical piano from the time I was, I dunno, 6? 8? I had great teachers, and learned the tedious discipline required when studying a musical instrument. And I can sightread like a bastard; I truly have a natural gift for it, which got me through many, many lessons where I hadn’t practiced a lick.
But from the time I was very young, I would transcribe storybooks—I remember Little Women and Winnie the Pooh specifically—by hand, on a yellow legal pad, into plays. I discovered plays at the Saratoga Library (Saratoga, California, not Saratoga Springs.) The first one I ever read was The Little Princess, an adaptation of one of my favorite books, Sara Crewe, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I loved the form, I loved acting out all the parts, casting them. Notoriously shy, the idea of having all the words written for me intrigued me.
Sadly, the neighborhood kids and my little brother didn’t appreciate my efforts.
Still, I knew very early on that theatre was for me. (Theater with “er” is a building; with “re,” it’s a discipline.) In high school, I desperately wanted to go to USC or UCLA. I remember Mom said, “California! Those schools are too radical.” We’d moved from the Bay Area to Idaho at that point, and I’d remained Californian in my heart. Going back seemed natural.
(I’ve only recently found out that my sister Becky was accepted to a pre-med program, and my parents wouldn’t let her go, either. On the education front, my parents’ ideas and track record = not so great. God love ’em. )
Mom and Dad instead decided that it would be ok for me to go to my high school drama teacher’s Alma Mater. So I went, to a much lesser school than USC or UCLA, in Utah, just a 4-hour drive from home in Idaho.
Sex Is Natural, Sex Is Fun, Except When Your Parents Say It Isn’t
I had it hammered into my head by my parents that sex was to be reserved for marriage. Seriously, I thought this was bullshit. I was a teenager, I was horny.
Furthermore, I’d had it hammered into my head, in those pre-Stonewall days and from reading Seventeen magazine, that if you didn’t have sex, guys would spread rumors that you were a lesbian. Horrors!
Well, I got to college and I started looking for a boyfriend pronto. God forbid anyone think I was a lesbian! (I’m so embarrassed to write this, but in the interests of truthful reporting, I’m just giving it to you.)
I had zero training in either a) how to manage my raging hormones or b) how to have a guy relate to me, appreciate me as anything other than an object of desire. After all, it was a big deal in our house that all four daughters were naturally pretty and tall.
Can it be much of a surprise that I lost my virginity to a very good-looking guy who turned out to be a first-class A1 abuser? Physical, emotional, mental, and probably a few other kinds.
The first step to getting away from this relationship was to leave my podunk Utah college, where I’d met Mr. Right, for the University of Utah. In a summer stock program for the first college, an alum of U of U said, go there. You’ll be so much happier.
(Bryan Bowles of Bountiful, UT, if you’re out there, I adore you. Thank you.)
I got into U of U’s BFA acting emphasis program as a transfer student, and my life changed.
One night, after a night class, a fellow student said to me words to the effect: You’re wonderful. You’re so pretty. We like you. Who are you?
I had a self-image you could slide under a door. That lovely human provided me with the first little layer that would make it not fit under a door that I’d received in a long time. You mean…I wasn’t ugly, fat, and worthless? I didn’t need to be Ashamed of Myself? (This was a frequent admonition from Mr. Right.)
A community had begun to sprout.
While I had busted loose of the previous college town, the boyfriend, of course, knew where I was. Still, I saw him less and less. But one night he stopped by, asked me if I was seeing someone else.
Well, of course I was. A super cute guy in Hair, the show I’d just been cast in. He was lovely and amazing in bed.
In reply to the query, I said, it’s none of your business.
He grabbed me by the hair, threw me to the floor, and said, what did you say?
I said, nothing.
He went on and on about blah blah this and blah blah that and wasn’t I worthless and disrepectful and blah blah blah blah blah. And he asked me again, was I seeing someone.
And I said, it’s None. Of. Your. Fucking. Business.
And I spat in his face,
I remember the sound still: this weird thwack as his fist hit me in the eye. I don’t remember it hurting, but I do remember literally seeing stars. In what seemed like slow motion, I brought my hand up to my face and it came away bloody. I thought, shit, my eye is gone. My dad had one eye; one had been removed in his 30s because of a childhood injury that had left him half-blind.
And I remember thinking, God DAMMIT. Will I have to borrow an eye patch? (The brain goes to the weirdest damn places in moments of duress. At least, mine does.)
On the floor, the abuser stood over me. I took my bloody hand and wiped it down the leg of his impeccably creased beige pants. He was a sporty dresser.
He said in a horrified voice, my god, what have I done?
Seeing the look in his eyes—an abyss, I remember it still—I felt an icy, violent, rock-hard joy.
I went to rehearsal for Hair. The abuser drove me, fairly blubbering the whole way. Him, not me. To this day, I remember that feeling of having steel bones, and I am proud.
After rehearsal, I had to perform that night in another show, a Harold Pinter monologue, The Black and the White.
In between rehearsal and performance, the lovely good-in-bed guy asked me, “He did this, didn’t he?” Because I was telling everyone, with the kind of quiet fury where no one asked further questions, that I had walked into a door and Was Fine.
(A reviewer of the performance commented on the “lurid scratch over one eye….she’s a zombie prostitute.” It still makes me giggle. Are there any reviewers quite as pompous as college reviewers?)
I just nodded. He said, ok. You stay with me now.
And yet, I think, though don’t remember clearly, that after the show, the abuser drove me home. He held me in his arms in the twin bed in my apartment. It must have been like holding a plank. He was shaking, and I realized he was terrified.
I remember lying there like a stone, feeling a dead sort of power. I had seen an idea in a magazine to paint my ceiling a white tinted blue and walls in a white tinted pink. It was restful and pretty. My parents had helped me, excited for me to have this new beginning. I’d been surprised and touched. Now I looked, in the night, at that pale ceiling. Freedom would come with the light.
He left the next morning, I think. I got the hell out. Stayed with the lovely guy, who proved to be not so lovely in the end.
But things worked out ok.
And meanwhile, by the time the abuser showed up again—I’m sure he was afraid I would press charges. It never occurred to me to do that, and I still don’t know why—I was outta there.
And the tribe had my back.
More importantly, I knew it.
They embraced me. Maybe, probably, they knew I could barely stand on my own two feet.
They held me up.
(In the photo above, I am the very pale woman—19? Is that a woman?—in the middle, to the right of Yolanda, the one with the gorgeous long dark hair.)
It still mystifies and, very slightly, embarrasses me that it took the black eye to leave the abuser. After all, I hadn’t left after two attempted stranglings; he stopped before he left bruises. He was no dope. And was, after all, Just Teaching Me a Lesson.
I wasn’t just scared. I was brainwashed. I believed the effusive apologies afterward. I believed in Making the Best of Things, in the God of Second Chances.
But then I got my tribe.
That’s, they’re what it took to get out.
So Please. Get Out.
First off, it’s been well-documented that domestic abuse is rising during COVID and lockdown. So if you are being abused, click this link to find out how to get help.
As for me, the black eye, the physical evidence, the support, gave me what I needed to finally end the relationship. My parents had hated the guy from the beginning, but were dealing with a technical adult in another state and had limited power. Once I finally came clean, they were protective and wonderful.
I am stronger now. But I still tend to have people take advantage of me if I am not very, very careful. My capacity for abuse is in direct correlation to my inability to suspect an agenda.
Based purely on my experience, I think that many people end up in abusive relationships not because they’re weak doormats but because they’re kind. And some people will just take advantage of that.
I don’t have a huge readership. But if you or someone you know needs to start forming a tribe that will give you the courage to see the beautiful human you are, the one who does deserves respect and fair treatment and absolutely does not deserve abuse from anyone, please email me directly: nan@lechoufou. (Just copy and paste that into your email app. I don’t use Outlook and don’t know how to set up a direct link that doesn’t pull up Outlook, and whenever I click on a link that pulls up Outlook, I am filled with rage. Because I really freaking hate Outlook. It seems like a harmless thing on which to vent a little rage.)
I will be honored to be one of the first members of your tribe.
And I love you.
The Marcus Aurelius Moment* for 22-May, 2020
From my abuser, that I will not be you. Ever.
*In the first part of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman ruler details what various people in his life have taught him. To read the full intro to why I care about Marcus Aurelius, click here.