When I met my ex, I was a fat, shy, bisexual nineteen year old, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. Although I’d had a short, torrid fling with my roommate at boarding school, I hadn’t dated a boy since the brief period when I was thirteen and the size of my newly formed breasts was enough to distract from the size of the rest of me. I was many of the bad stereotypes about young girls of a certain size; lonely, desperate for affection, a bit boy crazy. I smoked hand rolled cigarettes, wrote a lot of poetry, and had a long string of crushes, none of which I really expected to pan out. Already, I wasn’t a perfect victim.
What followed was a slow transition from behavior that was simply occasionally dismissive or erratic into outright abuse. What had seemed like a fondness for binge drinking (a standard social activity in our crowd) became, when it was just the two of us, more and more obviously a drinking problem. He was a mean drunk, and sometimes a violent one. At first, he just threatened to hit, balling up a fist, even pulling back his arm, but not striking. I told myself he wasn’t actually violent. I told myself that I was bigger than he was, so he couldn’t actually hurt me anyway, so it wasn’t abusive. I wasn’t a perfect victim.
Later, when we were living in New Jersey, Max did hit me, over and over again. He bit me, leaving tooth shaped bruises on my breasts. Those were the only marks he left on me; he was too weak to actually bruise me with his fists. I told myself again, he can’t hurt me, so its not abuse. When he tried to rape me one night in the middle of a particularly bitter argument, I told myself it didn’t matter because he didn’t succeed. Meanwhile, he was telling me I was worthless, that no one else would want me. He was encouraging me to gain weight because he got off on the control, and on the idea that my size kept me with him. He sabotaged my diets. Much later, he threatened to leave me when I considered surgery.
At one point I almost left him, but I had nowhere safe to go, not for more than a few days. I went back. My friends thought what he did was wrong, but also that I was “difficult”, that I should be easier to live with. I wasn’t meek or submissive. I argued with him. I didn’t let him win. I wasn’t a perfect victim.
We had a restaurant in New Jersey that we went to regularly. We’d have a nice dinner, Max would get drunk on Guinness, and he’d drive home (I wasn’t allowed to drive our only car). On the way home, he often turned violent. We’d argue, and he’d hit me. He knew he could hit me in the car; when he hit me elsewhere, I could sometimes catch his arm and (as gently as possible) stop him. In the car, if I caught his arm, he couldn’t drive. He had free reign, and he made use of it. One night in particular, he was doing this after threatening to crash the car and end it all for both of us. I was terrified and panicked and angry. I was angry. Perfect victims don’t get angry. I wasn’t a perfect victim.
When we got home, he hit me again and I lost control. I hit him back, again and again. I hit him hard against a banister. I could have really hurt him. While I hit him, I said over and over “You’re never going to hit me again”.
There are very few things I’ve done in my life that I’m more ashamed of than that. What I’m more ashamed of yet, is that there is some part of me that’s still there, still angry, still pounding at him, trying to get him to stop hurting me, and that part of me just wants to keep going until he can’t hurt me ever again. Violence is not a solution to violence. I know that, but I didn’t that night. That night, the years of torment, of physical harm, and emotional abuse, pushed me to the breaking point, and I made a very, very bad choice.
I’m not a perfect victim.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, I believed Max when he said no one else would ever want me. I believed that this was what love looked like. After seven years of abuse, I still agreed to marry him. I didn’t leave then, nor for another five years after. When I did leave, it was because I realized I’d be happier without him, not because of some violent incident that finally let me see the light. It took me several more years to come to terms with what he’d done to me, to admit and understand the full scope of the abuse, in part because I wasn’t the perfect victim.
The perfect victim never hits back. The perfect victim says “no” and struggles. The perfect victim is flawless and blameless, and has never done anything that can be used against her in the court of public opinion.
I am not a perfect victim, but I am a victim. The fact that I did something very wrong once in my relationship with Max does not negate the years of violence and abuse that occurred before and after that incident. The fact that I was larger than him did not prevent him from hurting me, from hitting me, from threatening me with a knife, or using my body without my consent, or likening me to a barnyard animal. The fact that I called him out on his behavior and demanded change did not justify the names he called me, the gaslighting, the insults to my intelligence, my integrity, by body, and my spirit.
There are women in prison because of this, because they weren’t perfect victims, because they killed their abuser rather than let him kill them. We don’t have great statistics, but the numbers we do have, as referenced here by Victoria Law of BitchMedia are staggering; in CA, 93% of women in jail for killing their partner were abused by him first. In NY, the number is 67%. Of these women, most sought help in the system repeatedly before defending themselves when the law wouldn’t. I have to wonder how many of these women were arrested, tried, and convicted because they weren’t perfect victims?
Requiring victims to be perfect is a way of assuring that we won’t be believed, that our abusers won’t be prosecuted, that we will be deemed unworthy of the law’s protection and the empathy of those around us. After all, how many of us truly fit the bill? It’s easy to claim that we were combative, or that the abuse didn’t leave enough marks, so it doesn’t count; people can say that we hit back once so we’re the same as our abuser, or that we’re crazy so we obviously imagined the whole thing. Discounting abuse is simple, as long as the victim needs to stay high up on a pedestal to be believed.
We are none of us perfect, victims included. If we demand perfection of victims, what we’re really doing is giving leave to abusers to abuse, and refusing care and protection to those who need it most.