Feature: Of Essays and Exes
By Sonya Huber
Some relationships fall apart in a gradual and mutual cooling, and others rise toward a crescendo of irreconcilable differences. Still others are threaded with periodic or daily heartbreak and even violence. Imagine living a love in which every moment was a breakup, and every next moment was a reunion, over and over and over. The essay of domestic violence is the essay of a living bonfire of a breakup, an extreme breakup in slow motion, and in this writing we can see essayists shining a light on heartbreak, but also on thornier issues of identity and personal safety.
Many of the best essays in this genre have to deal with misconceptions about domestic violence first, since the query applied to an abused person in a relationship is often: “Why didn’t she leave?,” why wasn’t a simple breakup the solution, as if the abused had a decision to make and then failed to make it correctly. For some people affected by domestic violence, though, the breakup hovers as a longed-for destination, an impossible shore to reach. Others fear the breakup due to real hazards and the effects of trauma. And so the question reveals the asker’s naiveté. The nature of violence is that it won’t simply be left. Violence pursues, damages, threatens, and changes the reality that contains it. Several notable essays have dealt with this painful truth.
In her essay “I Understand Why Some Women Stay,” Vanessa Mártir delves into the details of the dismissive question, revealing her emotional, material, and logistical challenges: “I wasn’t sleeping or eating. How was I going to do it? I’ve been doing it the same way I started nine years ago: one day at a time. Being a mom on my own is the hardest thing I have ever done. I get why so many women are terrified of it. I get why some stay. I get why some leave. I ain’t nobody to judge.” Mártir layers in a chronology of her childhood exposure to violence, citing her own clear-headed and fierce response to aggression directed toward those she loved before detailing her own response to partner violence. She intersperses between these recollections the mantra, “I stayed.”
Jane Eaton Hamilton’s “Never Say I Didn’t Bring You Flowers” explores the complexity of a decision to leave when one’s physical existence is wrapped up with one’s relationship: “I was disabled and getting sicker faster and fifty-seven. I would have no income since I was too ill to work . . . I was leaping into a very deep well. I did not believe that I could survive separation, and indeed, according to a cardiologist, I was only ten minutes from the truth.”
So many who find themselves in the dangerous situation of trying to leave blame themselves rather than seeing themselves as part of a larger social phenomenon. But writing about the prevalence of abuse in relationships and break-ups can help to mitigate some of the socially imposed shame that leads abuse survivors to go down this road, and these works can help survivors seek help earlier.
Being abused by a partner changes the body and the mind, seems to change the past and the future, and perhaps alters even one’s conception of what it means to love and be loved, so the essayist often takes on not only the dramatic moments but also the nature of those life changes. Many survivors of domestic violence also at some point doubt their own ability to interpret reality, and this epistemological uncertainty threads through many essays on the topic, as authors grapple with the narratives that work their way to the surface unbidden. Stacia Fleegal writes in “Surviving Domestic Violence and Congressional Indifference” that she had intended to compose “a quirky little essay about why I put clear quartz crystals on every windowsill of my home,” but her material resists her, and she finds herself exploring the ways that her memories of intimate violence emerge and take center stage instead.
It might seem as though these essays would be all about the abusive exes, but, in truth, many of them focus on the relationship between the narrator and her own questions about the nature of her experiences. Scenes with the exes appear, but usually these characters fragment under the gaze of a narrator pursuing larger investigations of violence, love, trust, and rage. The narrator, in the meaning-making exercise of the essay, must move beyond the scenes and moments to weigh the meaning of a human relationship, to explore the difference between being loved and being threatened.
Kelly Sundberg’s now-iconic essay “And It Will Look Like a Sunset” addresses the problem of interpreting a traumatizing situation while still embedded in it. To capture the sense of danger and apology, of jarring switches between violence and calm, Sundberg opts for a simple staccato list to reflect the thoughts she tried to hold onto even as her abuser revealed himself as unpredictable and dangerous: “Caleb wanted to change. He got therapy. He went to anger management. He did everything right. We were allies. Together, we were going to fix this problem.”
Sundberg reveals the ways in which a relationship marked by domestic abuse is not a fixed landscape but instead one that offers sinkholes. The nature of love’s obligation and the definition of love itself become urgent problems, unexpected pitfalls, and Sundberg explores this by examining the definition of words in the marriage vow for some kind of guidance: “In sickness, and in health. Those were my vows in that little church in Idaho where we held hands while sunlight filtered through stained glass and spring lilacs bloomed outside. Caleb was sick.”
Jane Eaton Hamilton, meanwhile, wrestles with a similar question about the intersection of untreated mental illness and the possibility and reality of violence, tracking the medication and diagnoses of her partner: “I gave her every benefit of doubt: She didn’t mean to hurt me. It wasn’t the real her who did those things. The real her was the good her.” Hamilton recounts making charts about the percentage of time the abuse was happening versus when the relationship was “good,” trying desperately to make a decision—but, most importantly, to hang onto reality and understand violence in the midst of its complex maelstrom.
Intriguingly, these essayists often go out of their way to resist demonizing their exes, even when they have more than sufficient reason to do so, instead pursuing deeper questions they faced during and after the relationship, including the active need to understand and predict a human whose behavior swings between extreme poles. Framing an essay around the narrator’s struggles at meaning-making is an important way of decentering the violence and the abuser. Consequently, these essays are anti-rants, thoughtful probing meditations on the nature of human identity, violence, mental illness, the meaning of fidelity and commitment, and the life-changing effects of exposure to this level of extreme behavior.
One of the effects of traumatic experience is that the past often bedevils narrators of the domestic abuse breakup essay. The past with one’s partner can invade the present, as Debbie Weingarten reveals in “Mule Deer”: “He is standing inches from me and his eyes are rage-filled, like he wants to fight. There is potting soil from the greenhouse in the creases of his fingers, under his nails . . . Our wedding reception was held in this barn . . . I wore peacock feathers and flowers in my hair. A friend made my dress from a three-dollar lace curtain.” Weingarten layers in the physical evidence of her commitment to her partner to underline the depth of his betrayal and also the way in which the past rears up to muddy and confuse every moment. The closing of Weingarten’s brilliant essay loops back to the opening image of a dying deer she once struggled to help, emphasizing the dilemma that faced her: “I curse my own meddling, the way I have never been able to let something die.” The fact that the narrator’s faith, love, hope, and persistence all become poisons underlines how hazardous partner violence can be to the narrator’s sense of her own agency and self-worth.
Many essayists also look closely at the initial boundary violations of childhood that left them prone to dissociation, that potentially set them up for the painful experience of love mingled with pain. In “Underwater,” Kelly Thompson recounts her abuse at the hands of her partner and writes,
I know this kind of love. An old remembered intimacy. My mother’s remorse. I’m sorry. You have a black eye. To my father: Look what I did to her this time. She hid me in my room. An Eskimo pie for dessert, dinner served on a tray. The taste of ice cream and chocolate mixed in with tears, the tender flesh that swelled around my eye. Tell your teacher you fell down the stairs. I learn that wooing, loving comes after the hurting. First, pain.
In essays like this, the ex, already hard to know behind the veil of violence, becomes a part of a multi-generational story in which the narrator’s identity has been significantly affected by earlier harmful experiences. Essayists who take on this nearly impossible material do us a great service because they draw in the reader while defusing the weapons of intimate violence. By simply recognizing, these essayists reveal how the psychological manipulation of violence ensnares. And they do much more than assault the reader with traumatic scenes, going well beyond listing the horrors and instead examining danger and safety in a way that makes for urgent reading.
A fiery rant about the issue of domestic violence is probably a catharsis, and has its own positive effect, but the best literary essays on the topic set about defusing the larger bombs of stigma, silence, and judgment. And those essays explore the complex psychological dynamics of abuse that entrap these narrator-survivors. In examining cycles of violence, and in carefully addressing the question “Why didn’t she leave?” these writers reveal that breaking up is hard to do, and that escaping the reverberations of violence is even harder.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, a collection on life with chronic pain. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the Low-Residency MFA program. More info can be found at http://www.sonyahuber.com.