Instead, I decided to take the academic approach. You see, school has shaped how I write in a big way. I have a Master’s Degree in English and have been teaching high school and college writing for ten years—that kinda changes a person. I can no longer write without the hassles of academic speak tugging at my shirt, without the conventions of English nagging at me from behind. “Did you just end a sentence with a preposition? Tsk, tsk.” While that voice does annoyingly sound like my fifty-year-old, 7th grade English teacher peering over her red reading glasses, it’s also a convenient way to write. It allows me to stand back and put some serious distance between myself and the work—and especially between myself and the reader-- a distance that’s always somewhat comforting and appealing. Because who wants to risk really connecting with people anymore? Putting a barrier between yourself and the other person brings millennials (and also those of us too old to claim millennialship [not a word, but should be]) a strange sense of security. Using academic jargon to avoid real connection is like pulling out your cell phone in an elevator to eliminate an awkward conversation. We feel cheap doing it, but the compulsion is still there.
So this article began as an investigation, instead of as a more direct and honest conversation. The word “investigation” itself suggests a prodding, a jabbing beneath the surface until something pops out. The critic goes in with a magnifying glass and pulls out what she doesn’t like; she puts it under a microscope and deflates it, torments it with her analysis. My inquiry (if you can call a predetermined end an inquiry) began on domestic violence message boards where I was trying to examine the responses people had to those personally suffering through domestic violence. I should have known better when one site’s rules made it clear that “you can’t conduct research” on their site. Instead of thinking about this and the implications of my own research… I went to a different site.
I knew what I was looking for before I even got there: cold, insensitive comments to victims who were trying to look for help. They would help me prove that society is still largely responding to victims of domestic violence in really damaging ways, and also show that we need to correct (well-chosen word for the task I set out on) how we relate to victims.
The evidence was easily found. I read comment after comment that stated things like “so why are you with him?” This particular comment came after one woman told a devastating story of her boyfriend beating her in front of her two kids. It’s a question we all ask of victims in our minds, but I was astonished this woman would ask it so openly, and I judged her for it. I mean we’ve all been coached so much on what to say in our politically-correct culture that we should know by now what NOT to say to this woman. And yet, at the same time, we’re all thinking “why not just leave him”. Who was I, then, to judge someone whose thoughts became words?
Another opportunity for judgement came when one woman in her 40’s told this same victim to take “power walks” for an hour at a time to escape her house and clear her mind as if it were just that easy for this woman to leave her house and to be alone. Many others on the board would ask the victims if they were suffering from a “substance abuse or a mental health issue”. When one victim told the board that she was getting help from a friend in another state, one responder jumped to conclusions and said, “this friend is a male I take it”. Over and over again, I pulled out these kinds of careless comments and catalogued them into a file in my mind, conveniently forgetting to catalogue my own insensitive thoughts on this woman’s case.
But I wasn’t prepared for what would happen when I read, what I then thought to be one of the worst of the responses. It was responding to an article entitled “Am I the Only Male?” written by a man in his late thirties. His story was an alarming tale of a husband abused by his wife while everyone around him questioned his sanity and his manhood. She threw knives at him, tormented him, slashed his tires, etc. The worst injury he suffered, however, was when she hit him unexpectedly over the head with a rolling pin while he was watching TV. When the police came, he was pulled aside and told that he “should be ‘a man’ about this”, that he shouldn’t want to see his wife in jail and that he “should not be wasting the police’s time.” I read this article and felt terrible for the man (but still surprisingly did not connect him with my own uncle’s traumas). I became obsessed with this message board which had a little under a hundred replies. One particular comment stood out to me from a woman in her forties. It is the last one listed in my notes:
My first reaction was shock. I had run into so many insensitive and mean comments during my search, but nothing of this degree. It was my golden ticket. Could I have hoped for a more offensive comment. But something was nagging me from behind, and it wasn’t my grammar-Nazi alter ego this time. I couldn’t help feeling a connection with this woman, a bond that was as unexplainable as it was problematic, and I felt a little queasy somewhere deep inside, a queasiness that comes when something is just too truthful, too beautiful, too real. If I felt such a connection with her, how, then, could I critique her so harshly, and yet, as a critic, how could I not?
When I spoke to Kate about where I was going with the article, about how I was a little hesitant, unsure, confused, she frowned a little and then, in the nicest way possible, told me I needed a sense of compassion. The way she said it, free of her own judgments on me, was refreshing, inspiring, affirming. When we grow up, correction is always an aggressive behavior. It comes with wagging fingers, red ink, and punishment. It comes in the form of the critiques that I was now attempting to do. But Kate instead led me to find the right path into this essay without ever telling me I was “wrong,” without finding fault, without sending me to “time out” to think about what I’d done. I knew then that I needed to stop prying, to stop profiting off of other people’s misery, to open up my heart to those struggling-- whether victims or perpetrators.
So the next day, I returned to the woman’s response and I tried to approach it uncritically. The first run through, I was unsuccessful. I still said things like, “what a horrible person” “how could she say such things?” But then I read it again, and something changed in that second reading. It was like the woman’s voice came into the room and sat down in the chair next to me and spoke, and at the table with us were my mother, my father, my aunt and my uncle, all of us, just trying to communicate with each other on a deeper level, all of us suffering with our inability to do so. And then it happened. I noticed something different in this woman’s tone. I read it again, and again, and again. And below her words I found a deeply troubled voice, a scared voice, a victim’s voice. What kinds of violence had she been suffering under to make her feel this way, to make her not trust this man, “every man” as she said? I read over and around her words, lifted them off the page and managed to feel her story beneath.
And then her words, freed from the constraints of the page, of language, of my critique, led me to new places. If this woman’s prejudice could be linked to a possible past trauma, can all prejudice and meanness and bullying be connected to prior victimization? And I wonder now whether we as humans are capable of this kind of judgement-free compassion, if we can free ourselves from our own egos (and what is academic writing but one big egotistical masturbation) so that we can make some real connections with the world. The writing of this article taught me a little bit about how to leave the critical me behind and to embrace communication with others, whether they be victims, aggressors, or my own family/past. I now see that this project may be as beneficial to me as it promises to be to those victims of domestic violence that it has set out to help. I hope that it touches each of you in as meaningful ways as it has already touched me.
Kristie Dowling, Native New Yorker turned proud Floridian, is a site editor and blog contributor for the Purple(dot)Yoga Project. When not blogging, Kristie is a high school teacher, writer, college professor, wife, mother of two rambunctious children, and a developing yogi. She’s seen the power of yoga decompress her body and mind after a long, stressful day and encourages others to try yoga and be able to live the benefits as well. Kristie enjoys cooking a wildly different meal every night, shopping on Etsy and trying different varieties of teas in obsessive amounts. Her dream is to journey to every single National Park before she dies. So far, she’s visited the Everglades, Mount Rainier and Glacier Bay, so still has a ways to go.