Emily January Peterson has an excellent post today, “Girls’ Studies: Violence,” over on her blog The Bookshelf of Emily J. I was going to leave a comment there, but I realized there was so much I wanted to say that it might be better to respond with a post of my own.
Emily J.’s essay analyzes a song, “He Hit Me,” originally performed by The Crystals. In it a girl sings about how her boyfriend hit her when he thought she liked someone else. It “felt like a kiss” to her because that’s when she knew he truly loved her. If he hadn’t, she tells herself, he wouldn’t have gotten so angry. At the song’s happy ending, the boyfriend takes the girl in his arms “with all the tenderness there is” and kisses her. That’s when she knows she “is his.”
After discussing the song and all it implies about power and ownership historically in relationships between men and women, Emily J. mentions her own first boyfriend. They were fifteen and in high school. He constantly did things to make her look stupid or hurt her, but she had thought his behavior was normal, if immature. Before doing this assignment for her “Girls’ Studies” course (she is in graduate school, working on a Ph.D. in English), she had never heard this song before. Now, after analyzing the song’s lyrics, she realizes that her boyfriend was actually violent rather than immature.
Reading Emily J.’s blog post sparked a memory of my own, something I haven’t thought of in years. There was a couple in my high school who had an abusive relationship. Actually he was the violent one; she just continued dating him. He was captain (or one of the captains) of our football team. In a small town like ours, where nearly every adult had graduated from the local high school and the whole town turned out for the Friday-night games, football players were a pretty big deal. All the guys in our school liked him. When we told them how mean he was to his girlfriend, they just said they had never seen that side of him.
One day in our senior year, the couple was walking down the hall in front of us between classes. They must have been arguing because suddenly she cried out and ran into the girls’ bathroom, where presumably she thought she’d be safe. He followed her inside.
My friends and I exchanged stunned glances.
And then something happened that thrilled me. Our newly-hired girls basketball and track coach must have seen what happened. Next thing we knew, she had rushed into that girls’ bathroom, pulled him out by the arm, shoved him up against the wall, and gotten her face right up in his. I don’t remember what she said, only that she was yelling at him.
Finally. Finally, someone was taking action and standing up to this bully. And it was a woman! Not the principal, not the football coach, not the other guys on the team.
Except we didn’t think of him as a “bully,” exactly. We didn’t even really have adequate language back then to define him or describe his abusive behavior. The phrase I recall us using was that he “treated” his girlfriend “badly.”
One edition of the “Chicken Soup” series of books for kids has an essay by a girl who was being molested by a family member. She didn’t know that’s what was happening, though. She felt very uncomfortable about the way the men in her immediate and extended family treated her but couldn’t express herself in a way that would make them stop. Then one Sunday a visiting preacher at her church gave a sermon that used the word “incest.”
Suddenly everything became clear to her. Once she had a word for it, she understood the concept. By naming the acts, she gained power over her circumstances for the first time.
It has been a long time since I read this incest essay, but I’m pretty sure it is in Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul. Pretty disturbing stuff. The comments on Amazon include several 1-star reviews from parents unhappy that their kids were unwittingly exposed to such graphic subject matter in a book that promised on its front cover “101 Stories of Courage, Hope and Laughter for Kids ages 8–12.” That age range seems quite young for stories of incest and sexual predation. Hardly the uplifting tales one expects from this feel-good franchise.
Yet, on the other hand, maybe kids shouldn’t be too sheltered. Without exposure to ideas and language, you don’t recognize what you’re seeing when faced with it for the first time. You feel helpless to act because you can’t articulate why something is wrong. And absent that articulation, you feel vaguely guilty yourself, like maybe somehow you’re at fault for the thing that makes you uneasy.
You confuse conflict and drama with romantic passion. You think anger is an expression of love. Getting hit feels like a kiss.
It’s confusing. I acknowledge the irony of my awed reaction to the girls basketball and track coach’s somewhat physical (violent?) response to the bully’s violence. Sadly, there’s even more irony to this story. This guy had multiple abusive relationships, and in the end he was shot and killed by the brother of a woman he was dating. Sounds like justice to me. What goes around comes around. But the brother went to prison.
Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are both credited with turning around the old Code of Hammurabi to say that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek, literally offering the other side of their face to be struck after someone has hit them.
I’m awed by the courage required for that response to violence, too.