Johnny Depp and Amber Heard dominating the headlines has brought old memories to the surface of my mind. Unhappy memories, yes, but sometimes those are the ones that need to be shared the most.
I grew up blissfully unaware of what domestic violence is. It didn't occur under my roof, and back then, sadly, the topic wasn't broached in social circles. If abuse took place behind closed doors, that's where it stayed. It has been a long journey dragging the horrific situation to the public eye, which is why when I was finally confronted with the ugly truth of abuse, I'm not sure I acted properly.
I have been witness to two instances of domestic violence in my life. It is easily two too many, and at each occurrence I probably failed in my duty to do the right thing.
The first happened when I was in college.
I lived in Milwaukee, WI, in a three-bedroom apartment. My roommates were Jack--someone from my hometown--and Matt, a stranger.
Matt arrived via a vacancy in the apartment and an ad placed on the student housing board. Matt's girlfriend, Samantha, had seen the ad, contacted me, and basically done all the legwork for him.
Matt was affable enough, but in a dimwitted way. He got drunk nightly, his credit rating was in the toilet, and his car was about to be repossessed. He was both a waiter, and enrolled in the police academy. Matt wanted to be a cop.
Matt and Samantha had a relationship that was as unhealthy as possible. He would cheat on her constantly, and a multitude of women called the apartment nightly. Back then, cell phones didn't exist, so they left message after message on the answering machine. Matt would try to delete them before Samantha came over.
He would stay out late, leaving her to call repeatedly into the wee hours, sobbing, "Matt... it's three a.m., where are you?"
Matt would return home drunk, laughing as he listened to her growing ever-more-anxious voice.
When they fought, I rolled my eyes. I was young enough to believe they were perfectly damaged and wonderfully stupid enough for one another, and didn't recognize how unhealthy the situation was. Samantha pined for him, and Matt treated her like garbage.
Over the course of several months, their nonsense grew tedious. You could set your watch by their arguments, whether on the phone or in person. She would cry "Infidelity!" and he would tell her she was being silly, this despite the fact he had just returned from a date with one of his co-workers.
They were in the middle of a particularly heated argument in Matt's bedroom when it happened. Both were yelling, and Samantha was crying.
I remember it clearly; the sound of a slab of meat being slapped down on a butcher's counter. The fighting stopped. Everything went dead silent.
He just hit her.
The certainty of that thought sat in my mind for about ten seconds, then I stood up calmly and walked to Jack's room. I knocked on his door; he opened it, innocently asking, "What's up?"
"Matt just hit Samantha," I explained. "Do you want to deal with him, or take her home?"
Jack didn't flinch; "I'll get her out of here."
There was no discussion between us, no wondering what to do or hemming and hawing. We went to Matt's room and gave them no choice in the matter: Samantha was being escorted out, and he was staying behind with me.
I sat Matt down, and if he said anything I don't remember what it was. Did he apologize, deny hitting her, admit to it, or even feel guilty? The gray matter in my head hasn't retained that knowledge.
I told Matt he was done; that he had to be out by the end of the month. The sooner the better, in fact. Whatever happened wasn't going to take place under my roof again. I offered no second chance and waited for no penance.
Matt was gone shortly thereafter; I never heard from him or Samantha again.
I did, unfortunately, learn something new while meandering down memory lane. Wanting to get this story right, I emailed Jack and asked, "Hey, completely random, but do you remember if Samantha said anything the night you gave her a ride home after Matt hit her?" Jack responded, "Wow, that is random..." and then told me about a night he gave Samantha a ride home after Matt had hit her.
Except it wasn't the night I was asking about.
Jack described a night memorable to him involving Matt's swinging fist, one I hadn't known about. This means the ugly episode happened more than once.
The second instance of violence I was witness to...
...the backstory is almost too long and convoluted to explain.
I was in love with, and sleeping with, a woman named Judy. Judy was in love and in a relationship with a lout named Jim; she was seeing me on the side. Judy and I worked at a restaurant together.
One weekend she called in sick to every one of her shifts. Because of our "situation," she asked me to come visit her at home.
As it turned out, she wasn't sick.
She was hiding.
When I arrived I knocked on the door with the innocence of ignorance and was greeted by horror. Judy opened the door; one eye was a swollen, purple mess. I was stunned. She had given me no heads up.
Judy actually half-laughed at my surprise, because she had gotten so used to seeing herself in that condition. To her credit, Judy didn't try to lie and say she fell down or any such nonsense, she owned right up and admitted Jim punched her. Judy did, sadly, brush aside my concerns with some of the ugliest words I've heard regarding domestic violence: "Oh, Jim never does this. I deserved it. I was egging him on..."
I deserved it.
The statement made me want to throw up.
At the time, I felt powerless. I wanted to kill Jim, to be a violent champion of the woman I treasured. Judy warned me not to do anything, because she loved Jim. She said she would never speak to me again if I went after him, and considering I was wrapped around her finger... a pathetic but true excuse for my inaction. In the end, I did the only thing I could, which was to remain her puppet. That's what made her happy, so that's the role I retained.
I'm not sure there is anything you can do for someone determined to stay in a damaging relationship. Should I have called the police on Matt, or Jim? I don't know. Considering neither Samantha nor Judy would have pressed charges, it would have done nothing productive. I did the best I could at the time, even if it probably wasn't good enough.
I do, however, know this: violence begins at home, and I have two children.
Maybe I didn't act as appropriately as I could have back then, but I can raise my son to be better than the Matts and Jims of the world. My son will be raised to respect women, to respect people. He will understand violence is an action of the weak, not a show of strength.
I can also make sure my daughter knows that no matter what, no matter the heat of the moment or the passion involved, no hand should ever be raised against her. Furthermore, no matter what threats are made, she cannot be afraid to talk about violence, should something awful happen.
All lessons come from emulation. When my children see me treating their mother with respect and love, they will expect and offer similar treatment in their own relationships. They will watch conflict-resolution between their parents take place verbally, not physically. There may be raised voices from time to time, but never a raised hand. Non-violence will be infused in their bones.
The memories I have of domestic violence used to burn in me. With the birth of my daughter, those embers became an inferno.
The stories I have just told are my failure to act as appropriately as I could have, and my contribution to the conversation. Hopefully people reading them can determine what they might do in a similar situation, and prepare to act more appropriately.
And hopefully, someday, we won't be reading about domestic violence in either the gossip pages, or the news.
more nonsense at www.nathantimmel.com