Abuse And Responsibility

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This is at the bottom of the spousal abuse thread. It's a shame that it got buried. It's worth pulling out, as I think it points to a rather difficult catch-22. How do you empower people without giving them agency and responsibility? And how do you tell them any agency and responsibility, without blame?

I once heard Bill Cosby try this while talking to some kids in jail, most of them who had been abandoned by their father's. He told them that someone had hurt them, and that that wasn't their fault, but that, ultimately, they'd be the ones who'd have to fix it. It's an unfair deal. But there's really no other way. Anyway, here's someone who'd know better than me:

There's a lot going on in this comments thread. And I haven't taken the time to carefully read all of it, though I've had a good skim over it. Honestly, I can't quite bring myself to read all of this in too much detail. My hands are already shaking just having read the piece Ta-Nehisi linked to.

I'm an abuse survivor, and Linda Hirshman's piece and the majority of these comments just don't have anything to do with my experience. I'm not doing a very good job structuring an argument here because, well, I'm not looking to be logically compelling, refute points, or even advance any particular assertion...except that I would really encourage everyone who is discussing this stuff here, and Hirschman, if they want to understand why women stay in abusive relationships, to trying asking a woman who was in one. And then five or ten more, because reasons vary a lot.

Somebody wrote something above, poking fun at an abused woman because "he left HER ass" or something to that effect. Well, I was left by my abuser and not the other way around. It took me a year after he left to figure out that it was abuse. If you want to ridicule someone, ridicule me. When I got together with my abuser, I was the head of a feminist organization at the university I attended. My feminism didn't prevent me from getting into an abusive relationship, unfortunately--in large part because, like others mentioned here, I thought it was something that happened to other people. Once the abuse began, I was so ashamed of having gotten into that relationship that it prevented me from reaching out to others and getting out. The problem wasn't that I was a feminist, of course. It was that although I was a feminist, I didn't know enough about intimate partner violence--both how to recognize it in its initial stages and the fact that the shame that isolates you from others is one of the most potent tools that abusers have.

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I've been in support groups with a wide variety of women who've been through domestic abuse, and if there's one thing I can tell you about all of them, it's that they are in no danger of not taking responsibility for their abuse. The struggle, actually, is to begin to hold your abuser responsible for what they did and to stop being so paralyzed by shame that you can't heal. The fact is, women who are abused are getting the message every day that's it their fault--from their abusers. It's hard sometimes to walk the line between denying women's agency and avoiding blame. I understand why people have a hard time finding a balance between the two. But if what you really care about is the well-being of abused women and not some kind of abstract notion of personal responsibility that it's tempting to apply to them, it's not that difficult: don't apply blame, or anything that is likely to sound to an abused woman like blame. Because shame, guilt, and blame are the basis of abuse. My shame hurt so much more than the blows I suffered. And every time I felt more shame, it pushed me further into my self-destructive relationship and made me feel that I had less agency.

I don't know if I'm actually getting this across very well, but I felt compelled to say something about this. There's been a lot of "I don't really know much about this, but here's my two cents" kind of talk on this thread. I would ask that people please try to refrain from making spurious assumptions about domestic abuse. Please, if you're really interested, read some good books about it, or if you know a woman who's been through it who is willing to talk, ask her what her experience was like. Or, heck, ask me. Mostly I would just ask that you open your mind to the possibility that maybe you don't already understand everything about this topic. Because being in an abusive relationship feels really different from imagining you are in one.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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