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But he was terribly possessive; he didn't like me talking to other men - and that extended to going out with girlfriends to places where talking to other men might occur. These things I interpreted then as romantic. There were other signs too; he couldn't hold down jobs, he had a sort of strutting, stereotypical masculinity; he could be very crude about women at times, and I found myself constantly justifying him to family and friends. Still, I believed these things would be ironed out with time. A mixture of youth, naivete and lack of recognition were to help seal my fate for the time being.
The violence started, as I now know it does, with name calling which escalated to pushing and hair-pulling, which escalated to violent battery. When it began, I disclosed to people whose general response was, "why don't you leave him? A sensible directive, to be sure, but not so easy to carry out. Peter made it clear that he would never let me go. He said that he would kill me if I ever left him. I was, he said, his forever. He beat me for even hinting that leaving might be on the cards. People also said "If you don't leave, it's your fault if he keeps hurting you. Those words fell on a totally receptive spirit; I believed it was my fault too, and that I could make it stop by being better. Initially, I also believed him when he said he was sorry. God, that sounds so stereotypical I know, but its power back then was huge.
People didn't seem to understand how scared I was. Because my fear was not their fear or because they could see Peter for the gutless wonder he was, they consistently seemed to think that my fear of him was an excuse not to leave. People still downplay the fear of abused women even though it has been clearly established that the greatest danger of escalated violence including rape and murder is when the woman is leaving or after she has done so.
Peter had other weapons too, ones that I found almost as powerful as the fear of being hurt. He had had a very bad childhood, and I felt a lot of empathy. If I intimated that I wasn't happy, or put forth a threat to leave, he would plead that nobody had ever loved him as much as I did, everyone had abandoned him: "Please, Louise, don't you leave me too. I'll die without you. Even though I was the one he had hurt, I cried with him. I saw this abandoned child, and could not hurt it. I guess it would have been nice if I could have put similar value on myself. And I had no idea that violent men often use stories of bad childhoods to manipulate their partners, and that they can and do turn their tears on and off at will.
I grew more and more ashamed ashamed, and covered the bruises.
Other things that were much more shameful than the beatings were happening too. Things that I would never have dreamed of telling anybody, nor even have assumed that I had a right to. A couple of months into our relationship, my partner began raping me. I could never at the time have called it by that name, for to me, rape was something that strangers with glazed expressions waited in alleyways to do. Although my experiences were similar to the unfortunate victims pulled into park bushes, I knew that I didn't have the same right of naming - not when my rapist was my partner, and somebody I stayed with. I felt that choosing him equated choosing the abuse.
I felt dirty beyond belief, and that grew and grew until the only sense of Louise left was the one he wanted me to have, the one that made it easier for him to control me. He raped me when I refused sex - consent was never an issue because he simply didn't care whether it was present or not. Sometimes, he used rape as a form of moral instruction, telling me he was doing it because I was a "slut", and he wanted me to learn what happens to "sluts". Being a "slut was anything that made him jealous - that might mean that a man had looked at me, or that I had worn clothing that made it plain I had breasts. At other times and ironically, he said he was doing it because I was a "prudish bitch" who needed a fuck.
He raped me for trying to leave: One night I told him I'd had enough of his violence and that he could get the hell out of my life. I began to pack his things. He looked at me as if I was crazy and asked me who I thought I was. Determined, I packed on. He knocked the bag out of my hand and dragged me to the bed. He raped me, and then told me that this would be repeated throughout the night until he couldn't get an erection any more or until I changed my mind. He told me the choice was mine. As he prepared to make good on this threat, I gave in. He stayed. In doing what he did, he repossessed me and reasserted control. In hindsight, I am able to see that he usually used rape as punishment whenever he felt I'd bested him in some way. Certainly, it afforded him a sort of ultimate power over me.
I thought I was all alone. I thought he did it because I was inherently dirty. Sometimes when it was over, I felt numb. If it happened during the day, I would do mechanical housework because the rote normalcy of that was comforting. Sometimes I cried; what he did opened up a terrible longing in me for love that I thought would never be mine, or that I didn't deserve. Mostly I just pretended it didn't happen and that was a wise course of action because calling him on it would provoke more violence. I survived, and learnt how to submit by taking the view that a screw wouldn't kill me whereas the beating I'd accrue if I didn't acquiesce just might.
Many friends left me because I would not leave him. Desperate to hang on to the few I had left, I started to lie and say he was not hurting me, that he'd changed. In six months, I was not the young woman he'd met. Life depended on keeping him happy so he wouldn't hurt me. And sometimes I continued to hope for better times. I had fallen into a cycle - one that I know now is common. In the good times - and there were good times - you hardly remember the bad, and you think that this time, it's going to get better for sure. It didn't.
It's hard to measure what was worst, because, in my experience, there are different kinds of "worst". There's physically worst, psychologically worst, morally worst. What was "worst" tends to have changed over time. In the relationship, the beatings seemed the worst. Certainly, they were the most physically dangerous issue I faced. I rarely gave the sexual violence a second thought. In the aftermath however, I would discover that the rapes had caused the deepest, most intimate damage, so in that respect, I would consider that worst. However, certain things do stand out above others.
One particular experience I remember was a time when I went away from my hometown with Peter to meet some friends of his. I was aware that he had run with a pretty wild crowd that espoused a strong ethos of real manhood proven by fighting, drinking and keeping girlfriends under control.
At this stage I was still determined to stand up for myself sometimes. Peter came on the receiving end of some ribbing about "his" woman having a bit of a mouth. It embarrassed him no end. He beat me twice on this visit and refused to give me my train-ticket home. The final punishment for being a little too big for my boots came after he went out with one of those friends. When they got home, I pretended to be asleep as he and the friend talked for a while.
Afterwards, the friend lay down on a couch in the room, and Peter got into bed with me. He immediately rolled me onto my back and attempted to mount me. I was incredibly humiliated at having another person in the room, and I struggled with him. The struggle was brief; I lost - my arms were pinned and he raped me. I knew the friend was awake and aware; aware that Peter could and would prove he could control me like a man worthy of membership in his friend's group. What I felt was a sense of impending craziness; as I cried, and as he swiftly thrust at me, I saw myself crouched in a rubber room.
I will never forget the friend's knowing, sly looks for the duration of our visit, or how I dropped my eyes, vanquished and ashamed. It didn't occur to me to wonder why he had, in his silence, championed my violation; this I already understood. Peter had shown who wore the trousers; my degradation was his restoration to real manhood.
What was morally worst about Peter was his disgusting lack of regard for the well-being of little children. There was another person in all this; my little son -a beautiful two-year old boy who took in a lot. Although Peter said he loved Darryl, he didn't give a damn about what he exposed my son to. I tried to shield my child from the violence but if Peter was really off on one, he delighted in hurting me in front of my son. That gave him more satisfaction because he knew how upset I got. At times like this, I actually contemplated killing him. One night, a friend left her children with me to baby-sit. There was a 3-week old baby girl, Shannon, and a two year old boy, Willie. Peter was on the rampage; for what, I don't remember. Because I still errantly judged him to have some decency, I picked baby Shannon up, thinking that he surely wouldn't hurt me with a baby in my arms. I carried her into the kitchen. But Peter followed, spun me around and hit me full in the face several times. I clung to that baby like the priceless treasure she was. Actually, something snapped in me then. I knew he was a monster and that it was just a matter of time before I would find the courage to leave.
The terrorism was worst too. One night after we split for the very last time, he came around and said, "If you don't come back to me, I'm going to kill myself." I chalked it up to the usual manipulation, and didn't buy into it. He left...but he didn't. He waited until my mother, with whom I lived at the time, had gone to work her night-shift, and came straight back in the door with a knife.
For the next two hours, he held that knife on me, forcing me to say that I loved him, slapping me hard every time I flinched, telling me how good I would look cut from my genitals up to my breasts. He sexually abused me, hurting my breasts, forcing me to feel his penis and say I liked it, jamming his fingers in my vagina with the hand that wasn't holding the knife. I went into complete survival mentality. By some miracle, like a fever breaking, he suddenly dropped the knife, burst into tears and said, "I came here tonight to kill you. I was going to kill you". Remembering that makes me love life so much more. I'm so lucky to still be here. Yet, experiences such as that have left behind recurring bouts of terror.
How thankful I am that no matter how scared I was or how far down the toilet my self-esteem, some fighting spirit in me never stopped making me think of freedom and ways to secure it. Occasionally that burned pretty low, but unlike some poor women, I was never totally broken. While I was busy telling him that yes, I was looking forward to marrying him so he didn't beat me bloody, I was secretly looking for a way out. I tried to leave several times - once I got the police to come and get him out. The lady across the road persuaded me to take him back. Unfortunately because I had not thought of any real safety plan, my efforts were bound to be Kamikaze missions that usually ended in battery and/or rape.
The clincher came when I could see what the violence was doing to my little boy, who was becoming more and more withdrawn. I couldn't have my little boy hurt any more by the scenes of violence. I didn't care very much about myself, but I cared about my child and what was happening to him. On top of that, my lovely sister was diagnosed with cancer. I was absolutely heartbroken, yet Peter still demanded that everything be about him, him, him. Something clicked there too: I was never going to see change, or have the partner I wanted. I knew that I had to make different choices. The ones that I had made in the past were made from a place of trauma or were based in false beliefs about him changing, and I no longer blame myself for them or his violence, but they were still choices.
I learned that there is a great difference between the things that we do to survive, and the things that we do to secure freedom. It's certainly true that some of my "survival choices" kept me alive so that I would ultimately see freedom, but continuing to acquiesce to the fear without thinking of other solutions was also ensuring on-going bondage..
I actually made arrangements to be "evicted" from the flat I lived in. I moved in with my mother, and told Peter that as soon as I could find a new dwelling, we'd move back in together. Of course I had no intention of doing that, but did not dare say so. I moved in with a friend, and a few weeks later I made the break when other people were in the vicinity. There were daily phone-calls, tears and pleadings, but I was determined that I would never go back. However, it was not over yet.
One night, three weeks after we split, he came to my flat as asked if we could "just talk." Why did I let him in? A couple of reasons: I felt so proud of myself that I had managed to stay free for three whole weeks, and I believe that gave me a false sense of confidence. The second thing was that I naively believed that since he was trying to get me to come back, he would conduct himself decently. That made sense at the time. But I was wrong, terribly wrong.
For many hours he cried and pleaded, badgered and threatened me. I was so angry with myself for not knowing how it would go. Every time I tried to leave the room, he slapped me back down again. Sometimes I nearly caved in, but I kept thinking of my relished freedom.
At about 3am , he finally agreed to go on the condition that I let him hold me one more time. I reluctantly agreed, thinking at that stage that if a quick hug would get him to leave at last, it was probably worth it. I attempted then to prise his arms from around me; I saw his face, hard, angry, and in that instant I knew he would not be leaving. He said "Bitch, you thought you could get rid of me? I'm going to hurt you like you've hurt me." He raped me again; it was particularly horrible and I remain traumatized to a degree by it.
To my surprise though, he seemed to be satisfied after this that I was never coming back. He came around the next day to tell me he was leaving town. I think he was delusional enough to think I'd beg him not to go or something. I was numb and ashamed from the night before, but I played the "pretend it didn't happen" role and wished him well.
I began to thoroughly enjoy my freedom. Then I missed my period. I was pregnant.
I tried to be strong. I told him that baby notwithstanding, I didn't want him back. I stuck to this for ten months. During my pregnancy he continually harassed, stalked and bullied me. The baby was another thing to be owned:"My baby, he said, in the same way you'd say "My car" Any remorse he'd pretended to have became unadulterated pride. Sometimes I was lonely and wondered if he would be better than nobody, but still, I didn't give in.
There were the usual oaths and threats and promises. One night he came into my home while I was in the bath. He said that his life wasn't worth living without me - but he evidently thought my life wasn't worth living either, because when I told him to get out, he held my head under the bath water for what seemed a terrifyingly long time.
After he left, I knew that if I didn't act my children were likely to be left without a mother. The very next day, I went to the courthouse and applied for a restraining order. It causes me grim humour now when I think about his response to the court summons; he called me and said, "I'm going to kill you." He rang again later, and said "You're going to come back to me and marry me immediately. If you don't, I will go to court and say you're crazy and have our daughter taken off you." His last words I've never forgotten: "If you mention the rape, I'll make it look like child's play. Call my bluff, bitch."
Nevertheless, I got the restraining order. Though he still had verbal digs at me, the violence ended. I was far from well; I had a brief stay in hospital for severe depression, and I still felt like crap. But I was free - at least physically, and the rest would follow.
Anyway, he didn't bother taking me to court. He faded from the scene, and although I couldn't totally rest easy, I began to go into life in freedom from violence. It was a tough transition learning that I could be really loved, and that I didn't have to flinch at raised arms any more. Ken and I were married thirteen months after meeting. In the week before my wedding, the phone rang one afternoon. "Louise?" said a voice I recognized only too well. Peter. My heart pounded and I began to shake; I hung up before another word passed.
I couldn't wait to get married, not only because I loved Ken but because I somehow associated the change of name with becoming a different person than the one Peter had degraded so badly.
After my marriage, I tried hard to bury all thoughts of that relationship. Although I felt depressed and fearful sometimes, I rationalized that since I was in a relationship with a good man now, I ought to be able to put it behind me. I thought I'd nearly succeeded.
About six months into my marriage. I was watching television when the news came on saying a local man had been arrested for murder. The newsreader named the perpetrator. It was Peter. My heart stopped; I saw my-ex partner, the man who could have killed me, walk across the screen flanked by police but still sneering and displaying his middle finger. I felt desperately sick. I was shocked, but not surprised because I knew that he was indeed capable of it.
People asked me if I was scared of him getting out of jail and coming after me, and the answer was yes, but I decided that it would do me little good to spend the next decade being afraid. Nevertheless, his crime was a catalyst for the emergence of memories and feelings that I had, with some success, put from me. Back they came. In the next three months, I often felt more emotionally sick and frightened than ever. I had lurid nightmares, and thought I might just be going mad. I didn't know what was wrong with me; I just knew I felt really lousy. I couldn't stop thinking about the rapes, the beatings, or the times Peter had threatened my life - and the murder seemed to underline just how seriously endangered my own life had been. I decided to see a counsellor. I was convinced she would think I was crazy too, but she told me about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly known as PTSD; she said that many people who have experienced traumas that are life-threatening and over which they have little or no control, experience PTSD. This at least helped me to know I wasn't losing my marbles.
Within a year of Peter's incarceration, my husband applied to adopt my daughter. Peter, of course, was granted the right to have a say, and refused permission. Given that he was in jail, however, the Supreme Court overrode his wishes and gave my daughter to my husband. We were overjoyed and we had a little party to celebrate. The only hiccup there was Peter's mother and sister ringing to warn me that he was furious.That did scare me in terms of the future, but for the next few years, I successfully swatted away thoughts of his release. I comforted myself with the thought that if he started any nonsense, I'd get a restraining order.
However, the year before he was due to get out, I went into a frightened meltdown. It was time to confront the fear. I did some good work with a counselor, who told me that my fear was not abnormal given that Peter was dangerous. Rather than finding a magical solution to banish the fear, we worked together toward the development of strategies to help me manage it and respond to it in more powerful ways.
It gave me some relief to find out that he would not be moving back to my town to live. But he still had family here, and I knew that an encounter was probably inevitable. About three months after he got out, I was shopping on the second floor of a department store. I was browsing some CDs, and when I turned, there was Peter. He looked straight at me. Two mechanisms operated in me - the one telling me to get the hell away fast, and the other saying calmly, "Okay Louise, it's happened, there's Peter. Don't show fear, but casually give the CDs another interested shuffle. Then walk, not run, to the escalator. Do it calmly and remember to breathe." I was proud of myself, because even though he was so close to me that I literally heard a small popping sound his lips made when he opened them, I looked right through him as if he was a stranger. To me that denoted my growth and strength.
Nevertheless, when I got off the escalator, I had a quick, frightened look over my shoulder and when I saw no Peter, I bolted to the safety of my car.
I ran into his sister, who told me that whatever he was like when I was with him, he was much worse now. Apparently he'd had had several girlfriends after getting out, but had beaten them too. He spent a short stretch back inside for being in custody of a knife.
People sometimes assume that when a woman leaves a violent relationship, she will be fine from that point. Because some people downplay the seriousness of women attacked by their partners, they do not realize that the life-threatening nature of domestic violence means that a woman has ongoing terrors and other emotional difficulties for sometimes decades after leaving. I have certainly had my share of nightmares, flashbacks, depression and all the other little accoutrements of trauma.
What has been the hardest part of healing is dealing with the sexual abuse. It has taken a long time. For thirteen years, I feared sex because I knew that, especially coming from somebody who loves you, it could become a weapon. I was ashamed of having a woman's body; it felt as though the curve of my breasts was an invitation to rape. These reactions seemed to have a life of their own. I interviewed a counselor for my book, and I quoted research that said women raped in relationships often carry longer-term effects than women raped by strangers. I asked her why she believed this was so, and she answered, "The woman raped by a stranger is much more likely to get community recognition that her pain is real and that a crime has been committed than the woman raped by her partner."
That was certainly true for me. After I came out of that relationship, and the memories of rape began to flood me, I looked around and saw that while people showed empathy to survivors of rape in other contexts, the woman raped by her partner was routinely blamed and told that since her rapist was her partner, it wasn't "real" rape. Women such as myself were being told that our pain was an overreaction; the fact of being in a relationship meant that any sexual rights were voided. The rape recovery literature was tailored towards survivors of stranger or date rape, and even many domestic violence manuals tended to subsume rape under the heading of battery without giving any focus to the special issues that it may present. The few people to whom I had disclosed rape by Peter tended to look at me as if I was crazy, or, even more hurtful, put it down as a non-event. Even my counselor, who was a rape counselor, didn't really seem to get the issues. The late eighties, in which I was trying to deal with these things, was a time of relatively high rape awareness, yet survivors of marital or other intimate relationship rape were still largely invisible. Although marital rape was a crime in many western countries, the wonderful Women Against Rape UK were still some years away from winning their long fight to have it made illegal for men to do to their wives what they wouldn't get away with doing to other women.
One day however, I asked myself, what if the feelings of women raped by partners are actually what are truth, and not the social views? What if the collective "they", who brand wives and girlfriends "unrapeable", thereby simultaneously denying and condoning violations of them, were wrong? I knew I'd found truth in that, and I began to heal.
I had three young children, but I went to university at night because I wanted to get professionally qualified to help other women who'd experienced what I had. Whilst there, I had opportunity to study domestic violence and I chose to focus on rape as a form of relationship abuse. I wasn't to understand, until I was in the middle of writing a literature review on marital rape, that the sexual violence, which still sat in me and shamed me so badly, was absolutely real. Although that realization brought about the reliving of much fear and pain, I healed.
Dealing with shame and blaming myself was a huge hurdle. I think that we tend to internalize social views and make them our own, and as such, I believed that the rapes were my fault because I had had a relationship with Peter. I hated myself for not having left the first time it happened, and felt embarrassment at telling people that it was an ongoing thing. People seemed to believe that if you go back to partner who has raped you, the rape magically transforms itself into consensual sex - or at very least, it can't have harmed you much.
Yet, while I couldn't change the past, I could change the meaning of it in ways that didn't damage me anymore. I learned that while I could own that some of my choices were not terribly wise, they did not make me responsible for what he did to me. Peter chose that, he was responsible. Looking back at that scared, confused eighteen year old that I was, I can no longer attack and blame her for not knowing how to respond better to her predicament. I understand that I didn't "make" him rape me, that it hadn't happened because I was dirty. He did it to control and hurt me. I think Peter knew he had met with something beautiful, and was prepared to destroy it rather than let it go. I embrace that young Louise. I see that she was as strong as she could be. I love her. I'm glad she survived.
I decided I would equip myself with all the knowledge I could on rape by partners, so I could reach out to others and let them know that they are not alone, and that there is healing for them. Studies in the UK , USA and Australia have shown that rape by present or past partners is a highly prevalent context for rape - yet even though it's in theory a crime, men are still doing it with impunity. Judges still sympathize with men who rape their ex-partners, seeing it as a crime of passion committed by a sad man rather than a violent act of revenge and ownership. Women and girls think still think that forced sex is a normative part of a relationship, and sometimes they remain or return because they are unable to recognize that what has happened to them is rape.
Healing the effects of partner rape has come in waves over the last eighteen years. Learning about it, and validating my feelings has helped. Personal adaptation to feminism has been an asset. Bonding with other survivors for mutual support and friendship has been wonderful - I have done this through activism; I am also the moderator of an online rape survivor community, Pandora's Aquarium, and the grace of some of the beautiful souls I've encountered there has shifted the last vestiges of my shame. I took back my sexuality and freed it from what Peter and rape had stamped all over it.
I feel very lucky to have been able to draw something positive with which I can serve others out of my experiences. It's all about making something work for you and not against you.
I'm not a victim, I'm a winner.
*In Nov 2013, a new book I am coediting will be available - see this page.*