Why She Stays And What Needs to Be Done About It

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“That sounds an awful lot like rape and if I ever see him in person, I’ll kill him.”

It is a question that has long haunted me, why did my member of MENSA uber feminist mom stay with a man who beat her and then a man who hurt us and was an awful drunk. The older I’ve gotten, the more forgiving I’ve become as I’ve watched my friends, former students and ultimately myself become statistics. Vulnerable, young women without education are typically the image we have of the domestic abuse victim but what happens when she is Stanford educated, a role model with training, albeit with a self esteem problem?

I felt angry with my mom, she should have known better. We were poor but she’s smart, she raised me in such a way that I was giving feminist lectures in 5th grade. She can stand up in a room and dazzle any audience. And yet, I know she’s deaf on her left side from being kicked down a flight of stairs. She left her second husband when she found out he was raping us but he was a mean drunk who didn’t work to begin with and I remember being so angry with her for failing to leave both of them. But the first one held a gun to my head and threatened to kill us all if she left and she only escaped when her male friends intervened and made it physically impossible for him to hurt us anymore. The second guy was my sibling’s father and my mom was in a haze, she protected us to the extent she knew how but she too was vulnerable. Intelligence can’t save you from abuse, but your community and the police can.

I have my mother’s sharp mind, maybe even more so. And I am far more educated. I’ve been taught to recognize abuse, I have a special knack for seeing it, and I’ve made my fair share of CPS reports. A fiery radical, I’ve given my fair share of lectures on gender at parties, and I’ve taught the stuff. But all of that hides my vulnerability; my crippling insecurity and lack of self worth, my anxiety and PTSD and my almost impulsive need to try to understand and see the good in everyone. It’s a dangerous combination and it’s resulted in a lot of intimate violence. The boy who stalked me when he drank, the other one who harrangued me to lose weight and most painful of all, the boy who pushed me during sex to do things that physically hurt me. I thought I had safe guarded myself by choosing among my long term friends, but his struggles with work and depression brought out a dark side I couldn’t see and couldn’t have predicted. In Boyhood the mother marries a mean drunk and it’s easy to judge, but how could she have known?He was an educated guy with a job, just the kind of guy that people were judging her for not being with not five minutes in the film earlier. It’s easy to pass judgment on the screen but much harder when it’s not strangers.

I was saved by the men I call my uncles as a little girl and I was saved by my friends in my adulthood. They gave me a place to stay as I fled, countless hours of coaching and just kindness and love as they reminded me who I was. Nothing else saves women but their community, that’s why abusers always try to shut them off from their community. But in a world where I felt I had to apologize and feel embarassed for my failure to predict the future, how can we possibly protect each other? Something is lost when our communities no longer feel responsible for to each other and there are probably lives being lost because of that. But it’s also the same forces that protect rapists, we blame victims for crimes committed against them, crimes they could not have predicted or controlled. No man presents himself as a dick during the courting process and often the abusive ones are also the best manipulators and actors. We could try to stay a few steps ahead, they identify as nice and nerdy and then we finally catch on, they claim to be feminists and we catch on; they will adjust to what they have to adjust to. We have to stop asking women what they failed to do to stop monsters and start asking why the monsters exist and why we aren’t helping to fight them.

My mom’s high IQ didn’t save her. My best friend’s high self esteem didn’t save her. My Stanford degrees and training didn’t save me.

My community did.

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Social Change Requires Love

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Growing up I was something of a freak of nature trying to fit into a world that really wasn’t designed for me. Because of my family situation, I learned quickly that I was reliant on the generosity of others and this posed a pretty serious problem. Humans don’t seem to be designed to accept freaks of nature, it is the unknown and I was scary. So I had to be kind, I had to be soft and I had to be willing to see the beauty in everyone around. A sense of superiority was not an option and I was quick to disabuse people of the notion that I thought highly of myself. What resulted was a complicated status, I was the friendly and lovable alien with tech secrets. In this role, in having to find ways to connect with people, I ended up doing a lot of teaching. People trusted me more than their teachers in a lot of cases. If you had a question, you asked the walking enclicylopedia. I learned that people genuinely don’t know anything beyond what they are taught by their limited interactions with adults, and that adults are just the sum of their limited knowledge. I learned that most people were malleable and that when they believed something wrong, it was not willful ignorance in most cases and that in most of those cases where it was, the willful part came from pain. With the exception of those with real power who stand to gain from falsehoods and who have control over culture, most people just need to be taught differently.

I took a US history class while I was at Stanford that was popular with non-history majors. One day we were talking about why learning history mattered and I said that it served as the foundation of culture. I pointed out that the Black Panthers weren’t in U.S. textbooks and someone was appalled that I suggested they should be. And all across America millions of kids were never being given the option to make that decision. History is one of the most regulated and fiercely fought over areas of K12 education and for good reason, it has the potential to be the most subversive and most destructive subject because it is the subject through which we learn who we are as a culture. History has always served this function, the Bible is a collection of histories constructed to tell people where they came from and where they are going, that’s why access to the Bible and reading brought about the Enlightment, because for the first time people had the choice in how they interpreted source material. History teaches us citizenship and values. And most people never get to take it a level where they learn that it is a construct, so they learn to see the histories they are given access to as immutable.

Racism is a construct, that’s what it means to be an -ism. It is a world view about how the world works and should work. It is a lot easier to get people go along with your ideology if they are taught that it is just “nature” and are never exposed to the fact that people constructed it. Institutions reflect our beliefs, so by the time most people become adults, they’ve been indoctrinated at every level to believe in particular ideologies. Adults can relearn but 18 years of programming is hard to undo, much harder than simply changing the culture and education at an earlier age.

As I entered the classroom I met kids who had been indoctrinated with a lot beliefs and a lot of kids said, “well, no one explained it to us before.” Maybe if you had met some of my white boys before they met me you would have railed against them, calling them bad people and lecturing them on how evil and ignorant they are and they, out of natural self preservation would have rejected you. But I didn’t approach my work that way, they were all my babies, equally innocent, equally in need of love. I repeated over and over again:

“This isn’t your fault. You didn’t create this, but my job is to prepared you for the world you enter. To give you the information so you can make the choice. It is your choices that matter.”

I never met a kid who left my class ignorant and several of the kids, whose views I vehemently opposed personally when I met them are now hardcore activists in college and life. And the lesson here is that the ideologies we are fighting against can be beaten, that most people are good people and that education is critical.

But the lesson here is also that love is critical in the work we do. And so the fiery militant became a loving teacher and in that sense, my children gave me more than I could ever give them. And I’m hoping that you will take what I’ve learned and learn it sooner and faster than I did and spread the word.

Because if we had an army of lovers the conversation would change much more rapidly that any of us can imagine.

When you encounter someone who is ignorant, embrace them, love them in the way they should been loved and weep at their chains until they can unlock themselves, because love is really the most powerful force I’ve ever seen.