october 25, 2012 by camille hayes leave a comment
Old dudes have always liked me; I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the South and consequently call everyone “sir,” or perhaps it’s because one of my grandmothers was almost lethally imperious, which left me with a healthy respect for the elderly. Whatever the case, I collect old-guy buddies wherever I go, and I’ve come to value their curmudgeonly opinions. When an old guy tells me something, I listen, unlike the rest of you whippersnappers.
So when one of my old-man friends from the gym told me, about six months after I’d started working in domestic violence, that it was definitely not the job for me, it made an impression. Not the kind of impression that caused me to question my work, but the kind of impression that made me question how other people saw it. I’ll never forget how he looked at me when I told him I what I did—he actually made a face, a little moue of distaste, and shook his head. “Why are you doing that job?” he asked. “It doesn’t fit you, you’re such a nice girl.” Having no idea how to respond to this, I smiled (nicely) and changed the subject.
And there I had been thinking I was doing something good.
In fairness to that old guy from years ago, he may well have thought I was doing something good too, in the moral sense. But he also definitely thought I was doing something unpleasant, and probably questioned my job out of some misguided urge to protect me. Even though he expressed himself in a skeevily paternalistic way (this is ever the risk you run with old dudes), it’s not too far off from what most of us feel about the issue of partner battery: it’s awful and we don’t want to think about it too much. Most people are tactful enough not to tell you that to your face, but I know the look. So I’ve learned to sidestep the gory details in polite conversation (though god help you if you’re a family member, because I will talk to you about murder rates over dinner and you will like it). If you meet me at a party and ask what I do, I’ll use blurry platitudes like “rewarding” and “fulfilling” to describe my job, maybe throw in a statistic to show that THIS IS SERIOUS, and then I will ask about you. Trust me, it’s more pleasant for both of us that way.
I bring this up because I sense that the problem the old gym guy had with domestic violence—that it’s just so horrible at its core that he didn’t think nice people should have to deal with it—is the same fundamental problem that has kept society as a whole from conceptualizing the issue in a way that’s fully realized, or fully useful to those of us looking for solutions. The way we most often talk and think about the problem is in terms of a higher-order, socio-political analysis that definitely explains a lot, but is also several steps removed from the actual people who are suffering and dying from this thing every day. The question of individual psychology—what kind of a person is a batterer, anyway? Who look at his wife’s face and wants to smash it?—is one that, in my opinion, we haven’t yet had the stomach to really face. Because batterers aren’t inhuman monsters and they aren’t, for the most part, sociopaths.They’re horrifically damaged people, but they are people whose actions could be comprehensible to us, if we could only bear to look closely enough. Until then, I’ll probably just keep trying not to upset old men or be a drag at parties. I’m a nice girl, after all.