The Perfect Victim

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The latest news out of the NFL is that Ray Rice is appealing his suspension, the one that he got on the grounds that he publicly, egregiously abused his wife Janay Rice.  The news about this is news about him, not her; her part of the news cycle is over, and she is now stricken from the conversation, her name mentioned only as a detail in his story.

I don’t know her story, and won’t presume to tell it, but I can say with confidence that she, like most victims of domestic abuse, like most of us, was not a perfect victim.

The perfect victim is a white, cisgender, straight woman.  She’s smaller than her abuser, who is a man.  She never says anything cruel or unfair that might “provoke” him.  She’s supportive and loving, meek and gentle.  Her abuser is violently physical, and she finally leaves when he hurts her so badly that it opens her eyes.  She has to protect her children.  Or maybe just herself; that might be okay.
She certainly never, ever hits back.

She is as rare as a unicorn, and the rest of us, we imperfect victims, are deemed unworthy of compassion and support by comparison.

My brother and I saying goodbye just before freshman orientation at Hopkins.

My brother and I saying goodbye just before freshman orientation at Hopkins.


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.

Max was a short, skinny guy who still wore clothing off the boy’s rack.  He was maybe an inch taller than I was barefoot, and about a hundred pounds lighter.  He wasn’t really my type, but he was fairly nice to me, and his friend Mic* was dating my friend Zoe*.  We hung out together constantly, and I was more than ready to fall in love.
(*names changed out of respect for privacy)

There were warning signs from the first.  He was willing to “mess around” with me, and we spent all our time together, but he wouldn’t call it dating.  He slept with someone else when he went away for Christmas break. I rationalized that it was okay because, since we weren’t officially dating, he wasn’t really cheating on me.  When he came back, Zoe, Mic and I were moving into a new rental house.  He came in to help and got so mad at me for a joke I made about not wanting to move more stuff that he didn’t speak to me for a week. Those should have been red flags, but I was horribly lonely, and the attention he paid me the rest of the time made it easy to dismiss those things as aberrations.

At one point, he went away for a week and I didn’t call him once.  I hung out with my friend Samir*, who was actually nice to me.  I did other things.  I felt like myself, and like maybe I could be okay without him.  That’s when he finally said he loved me.  At the time, I thought it was because he missed me; now I think he felt me slipping away.

I might very well have slipped away eventually, if my father hadn’t died that spring.  It was sudden; a heart attack.  He was there one minute, gone the next.

To understand what that meant to me, you have to understand that my father was the parent I lived with.  While I loved my mother, I also fiercely resented her.  She was a strong, successful, capable woman, driven and focused, compulsively neat.  I was a disorganized, creative, fractured girl who had a great deal of trouble with focus and despised the tedious work involved in neatness.  I was loud and passionate, while she was reserved and found displays of emotion uncomfortable.  We got on like oil and water, so when I was fourteen I went to live with my dad, who despite his faults (many of which I share), was a very good parent for me.  Losing him was losing my home, my sense of place in the world, the only safe place I had to go back to.

When my father died, I was already struggling.  I was taking a mandatory semester off from school because I’d spent the semester before everywhere but in class.  I couldn’t find a job, and felt that I was failing my friends.  Max, for all his issues, was the only bright spot in my life, and he was graduating. When I found out he was moving to Hawaii to work with his uncle (a pediatrician) and try to get into med school, I decided to go with him.  It was by far the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

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.

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