I planned to write something about my Mom on her birthday again this October, focusing on her multiple roles as mother, breadwinner, domestic violence victim and evangelical Christian in that post. With the TMZ-released video of Ray Rice and the public response to the NFL’s misogynistic hypocrisy making the issue of domestic violence front and center this week, it makes sense for me to talk about my experience and my observations via my Mom this week as well.
First off, thanks to all the brave women who’ve tweeted, posted on Instagram, Facebook, WordPress and other places their experiences with domestic violence. Thanks especially to Beverly Gooden (@bevtgooden) for creating and using the hashtag #WhyIStayed in response to the barrage of criticism leveled at Janay Palmer Rice for marrying Ray Rice after his brutal act of violence against her. I know domestic violence and child abuse firsthand, as I watched my Mom experience the Isshin-ryu-Karate version of a knockout and concussion on Memorial Day ’82 at the hands of my then stepfather Maurice Washington.
For seven years and sixteen days after the day my childhood ended, my Mom and Maurice lived together as husband and wife at 616. I can say with one hundred percent clarity that there wasn’t a day between Memorial Day ’82 and the final fight that led to my late ex-stepfather moving out that I didn’t feel some sort of dread, a cloud of lethargy hanging over my head, even while at college at Pitt. That was partly because I’d made a point of running interference and taking abuse to make up for not calling the police on that day of days.
I didn’t know why my Mom couldn’t find the strength to kick Maurice to the curb, at least not before the middle of ’89. But there was an incident between me and Maurice about a year before he finally moved out, one where what he said afterward gave me additional insight into my Mom’s inaction.
At least, I had to believe that, right? It just seemed we’d been through too much with a man who’d never paid a month’s rent, a phone bill, a Con Ed bill, a cable bill, and only bought Great Northern beans, rice and cabbage for his kids (my younger siblings) on the handful of days he decided to contribute to our malnourished family.
So finally, in the months after he left 616 for good, I asked. My Mom’s first answer was, “He fooled me. He fooled us all!” Her answer was completely unsatisfying, considering that I ran away from home to get away from Maurice when I was nearly nine years old.
The summer of ’89 wouldn’t be the last time I’d ask. Over the years, my Mom has given various explanations. “I thought he was a changed me,” she’d say, referencing their six-month separation in ’80-’81 and Maurice becoming a Hebrew-Israelite and “Judah ben Israel” in the interim. “What good would that done?,” my Mom would ask me in response, implying that she wanted to avoid a physical confrontation.
Really, I spent thirteen years reading in between the lines, asking relatives questions about my Mom, doing research and boning up on domestic violence and child abuse from a social science perspective, all for more substantial answers. Really, my Mom’s domestic violence experience, our fall into welfare poverty, and my child abuse experiences were the first reasons for me wanting to write what would become Boy @ The Window in the first place.
By the time I did the family intervention in January ’02, I knew why. I knew that despite my Mom not remembering much from the beating, knockout and concussion she took in May ’82, she lived in fear. If for no other reason than from seeing the look of hurt on my face whenever the subject of her beating came up. Maybe not a constant, shaking-in-her-shoes fear, but the idea of having to force a six-one and overweight yet powerful man out of 616 probably scared my Mom. But that wasn’t her only fear. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window, “[w]e were already the children of one divorce, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see another one so soon.” I’m more than sure that my Mom felt the same way about herself and her relationships with my father Jimme and Maurice as well.
I also know with certainty my Mom would never want me to write about her, especially about her as a victim of domestic violence. But she wasn’t the only one to experience it. I may be able to live my life successfully despite it, but I’ll never be able to un-see what I saw nearly thirty-two and half years ago. It put me on a very long road, one that involved my own conflicting feminism and sexism (though with zero tolerance for violence against women). Or, what I call damsel-in-distress syndrome, where I always want to help, even when that help is unwelcome.
There are millions of reasons why women get married or stay in relationships and marriages, some of them rational, some based in fear, many who stay because abuse does untold damage to self-worth. I may not fully understand what it’s like to be a woman who’s been abused, but I do understand what it’s like to be the son of one. Most of us who don’t know of these horrors need to be quiet, read, and listen more.