By now, we all know the story.
Well, we know part of it at least. We know the chapter of the story revealed via a few moments of grainy elevator footage on a video released by TMZ. We know that Ray Rice once hit his fiancée so hard that it knocked her out cold. We know that he dragged her unconscious body out of the elevator, that he pulled her by the arms as if she were a piece of furniture instead of a human being, much less the woman he supposedly loved.
We also know that just one month later that woman married Ray Rice.
Not surprisingly then, as the NFL and the rest of that world reacted to the release of that video, many people questioned Janay Rice. Why on earth would someone stay in an abusive relationship -- much less marry that person?
I can't speak for Janay Rice, but I can say this: The answer can be as simple as it is complex.
Those answers came into focus as thousands took to Twitter to share their experiences through #WhyIStayed.
The stories, all told in 140 characters or less were powerful, with recurring themes of self-loathing, a sense of worthlessness, a fear that life without that person would somehow be worse than with him (abuse can be propagated by both genders of course, but overwhelmingly it's a man-on-woman crime).
Another Twitter topic soon followed, #WhyILeft. Here, abuse victims explained what finally made them (willingly or not) to leave the relationship.
For the last few days I have read through these posts with respect.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 31 percent of women in the United States have been physically abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. That number is from the agency's recently released National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
My guess is that the real numbers likely reflect just a fraction of the truth. Because if there's a common thread among those who've been abused, it's that we tend to blame ourselves and, thus, we keep our goddamned mouths shut about it.
Out of fear, out of shame, out of confusion.
That's certainly at least one reason why I stayed. The reasons are many. The reasons are complex -- too complex to fully do justice to here, but I can at least give you some of the bullet points that highlight the lowest points of my life:
- I felt alone, like I had nobody else
- I worried about being able to survive, financially
- I felt shame for "allowing" myself to be treated that way in the first place, a shame that kept me captive in a vicious holding pattern
- He loved me. We were better than this.
- He could change
- I should change
- It was my fault anyway
And then finally I left. The list of reasons why is shorter:
- I'd rather be alone than dead
- I'd rather be broke and destitute than dead
- My family loved me; they wanted me around
It's been upwards of 20 years since I finally left that relationship for good but the remains of it still haunt me. Do you know how many times I've asked myself why I stayed? For the record I don't need anyone's goddamned judgement, I can shame myself just fine.
For years I mostly refused to even acknowledge that relationship. I divided my life in two: Then and Now. I made new friends -- leaving behind, very consciously, many of the people who represented even the shallowest part of that old life. It would take me years -- years -- before I even admitted to most people that I had been in that relationship, much less what it had amounted to.
It would be years before I could talk about the kick to the ribs, about the punch to the jaw, about the time the neighbors called the police, about all the times I didn't tell someone what was happening to me.
I still have nightmares about it. Sometimes -- more often than I'd even like to admit -- I still blame myself for staying. I should have known better.
But it's never that simple.
There are so many things I'm not telling you here. So many details. So many stories about the worst moments and also about the moments of epiphany that changed my life. I'm not sharing those right now, not so much because it's still hard to recount them, but because this is not just my story; it's not just Janay Rice's story. It's every woman's story.
The details are just the devils here.
Don't ask someone why she stayed or why she still stays. Instead, offer a nonjudgemental lifeline. One that is extended 24 hours a day, seven days a week without question. Offer an ear. Offer a hand. Offer refuge. Or offer nothing other than unconditional acceptance.
Sometimes even that is enough to help pull someone through.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.