During the 2014 NFL season, the league aired an advertisement representing their shame. Earlier that year, the league dropped the ball on domestic violence; a Baltimore Raven named Ray Rice was caught on tape punching—and subsequently knocking out—his fiancée, and the action was responded to with a shrug. This made the public unhappy, so the NFL flip-flopped, puffed its chest, and turned a slap on the wrist into an indefinite suspension. It was an awkward attempt to show how in touch with women’s issues the league was.
The public wasn’t buying it, so the NFL went one step further, creating the “No More” campaign, a series of commercials meant to raise awareness of domestic violence. One commercial had players look directly into the camera, silently trying to muster up the ability to discuss the problem. I think that promotion was well intentioned, but off kilter.
Discussing abuse is easy. Knowing what to do is difficult.
I have been witness to two instances of domestic violence in my life. It is easily two too many, and at each occurrence I probably failed in my duty to do the right thing.
The first happened when I was in college.
I lived in Milwaukee, WI, in a three-bedroom apartment on Park Place. The apartment was a long rectangle; there was a bedroom up front, one in the middle, and one in the back. I had the middle bedroom.
My roommates were Jack—someone from my hometown—and Mark, a stranger.
Mark arrived via a vacancy in the apartment and an ad placed on the student housing board. Mark’s girlfriend, Sarah, had seen the ad, contacted me, and basically done all the legwork for Mark.
That should have been a warning sign; she was obviously his doormat.
Mark was affable enough, but in a dimwitted way. By that, I mean he didn’t have his shit together. Mark got drunk nightly, his credit rating was in the toilet, and his car was about to be repossessed. He was both a waiter, and enrolled in the police academy. Mark wanted to be a cop.
Mark and Sarah had a relationship that was as unhealthy as possible. He would cheat on her constantly, and a multitude of women called the apartment nightly. Back then, cell phones didn’t exist, so they left message after message on the answering machine. Mark would try to delete them before Sarah came over.
He would stay out late, leaving her to call repeatedly into the wee hours, sobbing, “Mark… it’s three a.m., where are you?”
Mark would return home drunk, laughing as he listened to her growing ever-more-anxious voice.
When they fought, I rolled my eyes. They were perfectly damaged and wonderfully stupid enough for one another. She pined for him, and he treated her like garbage. Over the course of several months, however, their nonsense grew tedious. You could set your watch by their arguments, whether on the phone or in person. She would cry “Infidelity!” and he would tell her she was being silly, this despite the fact he had just returned from between the legs of a co-worker.
They were in the middle of a particularly heated argument in Mark’s bedroom when it happened. Both were yelling, and Sarah was crying.
I remember it clearly; the sound of a slab of meat being slapped down on a butcher’s counter. The fighting stopped. Everything went dead silent.
He just hit her.
The certainty of that thought sat in my mind for about ten seconds, then I stood up calmly and walked to Jack’s room. I knocked on his door; he opened it, innocently asking, “What’s up?”
“Mark just hit Sarah,” I explained. “Do you want to deal with him, or take her home?”
Jack didn’t flinch; “I’ll get her out of here.”
There was no discussion between us, no wondering what to do or hemming and hawing. We went to Mark’s room and gave them no choice in the matter: Sarah was being escorted out, and he was staying behind with me.
I sat Mark down, and if he said anything I don’t remember what it was. Did he apologize, or feel guilty? The gray matter in my head hasn’t retained that knowledge.
I told Mark he was done, that he had to be out by the end of the month. The sooner the better, in fact. Whatever happened wasn’t going to take place under my roof again. I offered no second chance and waited for no penance.
Mark was gone shortly thereafter; I never heard from him or Sarah again.
I did, unfortunately, learn something new while meandering down memory lane. Wanting to get this story right, I emailed Jack and asked, “Hey, completely random, but do you remember if Sarah said anything the night you gave her a ride home after Mark hit her?” Jack responded, “Wow, that is random…” and then told me about a night he gave Sarah a ride home after Mark had hit her.
Except it wasn’t the night I was asking about.
Jack described a night memorable to him involving Mark’s swinging fist, one I hadn’t known about. This means the ugly episode happened more than once.
* * *
The second instance of violence I was witness to…
…the backstory is almost too long and convoluted to explain.
I was in love with, and sleeping with, a woman named Judy. Judy was in love and in a relationship with a lout named Jim. Judy and I worked at a restaurant together.
One weekend she called in sick to every one of her shifts. Because of our “situation,” she asked me to come visit her at home.
As it turned out, she wasn’t sick.
She was hiding.
When I arrived I knocked on the door with the innocence of ignorance and was greeted by horror. Judy opened the door; one eye was a swollen, purple mess. I was stunned. She had given me no heads up.
Judy actually half-laughed at my surprise, because she had gotten so used to seeing herself in that condition. To her credit, Judy didn’t try to lie and say she fell down or any such nonsense, she owned right up and admitted Jim punched her. Judy did, sadly, brush aside my concerns with some of the ugliest words I’ve heard regarding domestic violence: “Oh, Jim never does this. I deserved it. I was egging him on…”
I deserved it.
The statement made me want to throw up.
At the time, I felt powerless. I wanted to kill Jim, to be a violent champion of the woman I treasured. Judy warned me not to do anything, because she loved Jim. She said she would never speak to me again if I went after him, and considering I was wrapped around her finger… a pathetic but true excuse for my inaction. In the end, I did the only thing I could, which was to remain her puppet. That’s what made her happy, so that’s the role I retained.
I’m not sure there is anything you can do for someone determined to stay in a damaging relationship. Should I have called the police on Mark, or Jim? I don’t know. Considering neither Sarah nor Judy would have pressed charges, it would have done nothing productive. I did the best I could at the time, even if it probably wasn’t good enough. Again, I don’t know.
I do, however, know this: violence begins at home, and I have two children.
Maybe I didn’t act as appropriately as I could have back then, but I can raise my son to be better than the Marks and Jims of the world. My son will be raised to respect women, to respect people. He will understand violence is an action of the weak, not a show of strength.
I can also make sure my daughter knows that no matter what, no matter the heat of the moment or the passion involved, no hand should ever be raised against her. Furthermore, no matter what threats are made, she cannot be afraid to talk about violence, should something awful happen.
All lessons come from emulation. When my children see me treating their mother with respect and love, they will expect and offer similar treatment in their own relationships. They will watch conflict-resolution between their parents take place verbally, not physically. There may be raised voices from time to time, but never a raised hand. Non-violence will be infused in their bones.
The memories I have of domestic violence used to burn in me. With the birth of my daughter, those embers became an inferno. The NFL “No More” advertisements end with the plea, “Help us begin the conversation.” The stories I have just told are my failure to do the right thing, and my contribution to the conversation. Hopefully people reading them can determine what they might do in a similar situation, and prepare to act more appropriately. And like the Baltimore Ravens after public opinion turned up the heat, domestic violence will take place in their life nevermore.