When I was a baby, my parents told my brother that he was not, under any circumstances, to hit me, pinch me, or slap me. Anything at all, really, that might hurt me.
He was to be a protective big brother.
He took that seriously.
He never laid a hand on me.
And never has.
Even when I tickled him to the ground and walloped him in the face at age two, my age almost-six brother took the beating, because he knew he was not to hurt me.
Mind you, I wasn’t supposed to hurt him, either… but I hadn’t been read the riot act yet.
My parents had no intention of dealing with black-and-blue children every day. And my brother’s relative power — he was always at least a foot taller than me — made that likely if we really got into it.
This way, it didn’t matter if he was bigger and stronger, or if I was annoying and he could shut me down quickly.
That is not what your hands are for.
For Lego, for building things, for unpeeling oranges, for holding, for high-fives. Yes.
But not hurting.
My father served as a police chaplain for many years, and worked many weekend nights doing “ride-along” shifts. He’d done a great deal of police training as an extension of his role, and he’d qualified to carry a weapon, so he was a welcome addition.
He loved those hours on his “beat”: the camaraderie, the chance to help people, the in-the-moment problem solving… even the unpredictability of it all, in comparison to his usual tasks of sermon writing and hospital visiting and bible study leading.
He has endless stories of wacky traffic stops and breaking up wild parties and dealing with town crazies, but violence — and the after-effects of violence — were a sobering element of his experience. And one of the most difficult situations for any cop to deal with is a domestic violence call.
There’s nothing straightforward about those visits, even when a situation might seem straightforward from the outset: if a partner hurts a partner, someone will end up riding away in the back of a squad car.
The problem is that the mingling of “love” and violence becomes as confusing as it is toxic, and as complicated as it is obvious.
A woman calls to report that her husband is throwing punches… yet when the police arrive, she cries and begs them not to take him away. A man calls to say his wife is throwing things at him… but one look at her puffy, purple-blotched face tells the responder that she’s doing it out of defense, not offense. A wife calls to say she’s being threatened… but her husband has been dodging the the fireplace poker she’s been drunkenly wielding for over an hour, unprovoked.
Sometimes the neighbors make a “noise call”, and cops discover a scene that looks more like badgers trying to tear each other apart than a couple in the midst of a disagreement.
You never know what you’re going to walk into, or how horrifying or sad of dismaying or scary it will be. You try and do the right thing… but sometimes it doesn’t take.
When my brother was planning to become a cop, my dad wondered aloud if he would be able to walk into a situation where a woman had been hurt, and not be tempted to mete out a little “justice” on the spot to the man who had hurt her. After all, this was his son who had never laid a hand on his sister, who had been raised by a strong mother who taught him to cherish women, who knew from his father what it looked like to be a man.
How would he hold himself back, knowing that the man sitting on the sofa in handcuffs was going to come back and do it again? How could he impress upon that man that what he was doing was wrong, really wrong?
That is not what your hands are for.
He didn’t become a cop, but that stuck with me.
What would I do in that situation? How would I avoid losing my temper with someone who had lost their temper? How would I avoid answering violence with violence?
Common sense says losing your cool doesn’t help when someone has already lost their cool. But then there’s the question of what’s “deserved” — a murky, dangerous place that cops try not to go (at least the good ones.)
Years later, when I ran a camp weekend for single moms and their kids — some of which had escaped some truly rough situations — I heard stories that made me red in the face, in much the same way my dad’s stories did.
And in the time since then, I’ve heard stories from those even closer to me — the closest — about the impact of violence, and it makes me feel sick to my stomach every time. I want to defend everyone, change things for everyone, pull everyone out of where they’re stuck, and heal terrible memories.
I can’t imagine if I had to convince myself I didn’t deserve to be hurt, that I wasn’t responsible for what was happening to me, that I needed to ask for help somehow, and that there was another life possible for me than what I was drowning in. And I can’t imagine running out of options, because that’s the most horrifying thing of all.
Which is why I can’t quite wrap my mind around it when people don’t walk away when walking away is possible. I get the psychology of it on one level… but I don’t know how to respond to it.
Celebrity domestic violence is something that occupies an increasing amount of space in our newspapers, on tabloid TV, and in online gossip. We’re treated to an endless parade of paparazzi and mug shots, and vague police, publicist, and lawyer-crafted statements — the latter of which dance gracefully around the facts, and say things without saying things.
It feels gross and invasive, though maybe sometimes we’re glad the aggressors are being shamed, or we’re hopeful that something might actually be done about it… now that everyone “knows.”
One of the survivors I worked with told me she had read a story in People while sitting in a hospital waiting room waiting to be treated for a broken hand: a beautiful actress had been beaten by her handsome live-in partner, nearly to death. They were considered a “power couple” in Hollywood… some of the best and the brightest. A light bulb went on in her head.
“If it could happen to her,” she said, “… then what I was going through might not be because I was ugly, or we were poor, or I was stupid, or anything else he said to me when he hit me. Maybe it’s just that some men hit.” And there it was.
But she couldn’t see that from the inside. And maybe the woman she was reading about couldn’t, either.
When Chris Brown beat his girlfriend, Rihanna, in his sometimes-moving, impossible-to-escape car in 2009, the media went mad with questions.
How did one of the most glamorous couples in pop music end up like this? Why did he do it? Did she bring it on herself (as if she could have)? And why, even when a photo of her painfully injured face was released, when the facts were out there in court, when his guilt was plain as day, did she never really condemn him for it?
Here was a girl with beauty and confidence and talent, who could afford to be guarded and safe 24/7, who had money and a home of her own. She didn’t need him for anything. She had all the power over her own life, if she wanted it.
People were on her side, too, ready to be fans, supporters, and post-Chris celebrators of her new life.
Granted, she gave interviews at the time about wanting to be an example and leaving the whole situation behind, but there was always a sense that she excused his actions more than she let on. That she believed the violence she experienced was a function of his upbringing as the child of an abused woman, rather than a facet of his character that he’d let control him. That she thought he could change, and then they would be together again.
And she did, of course, because now they are, years later.
Attractive, young, at the top of their “game” in the industry, and a couple despite what happened, despite what people think, despite bad publicity.
Since 2009, many in his industry have reviled Brown… but just as many have continued to work with him.
He’s lost the respect of many of his peers… but he’s also earned a Grammy award.
People point to figures like Ike Turner and James Brown and Sid Vicious and Phil Spector and Bobby Brown and Axl Rose and Rick James (to name just a few): men in the music industry who were equally bad at toning down their tendency toward brutality, but who were rarely — and usually only temporarily — reviled for it. Hell, we joke about it.
It’s just the artistic temperament, right? Or the cycle of violence? Or drugs and alcohol?
Let’s write an album about it! Let’s make a movie about it!
Anything except telling them: that is not what your hands are for.
And because this happens on our TV screens, and in our homes, and happens again and again without people standing in the way of it, and because beautiful young women do not walk away, I feel compelled to convey a few things to the young men and women I know:
That violence is not acceptable, whether it’s man on woman, woman on man, woman on woman, or man on man. Ever.
That no one is “asking for it.”
That we are responsible to help people who cannot help themselves, and to recognize when they need help.
That no one “has it coming to them.”
That what abusers come from and have seen and been through is not an excuse but a factor… and not something others are responsible to bear.
That they can choose something else, even when someone they love or admire does not… or won’t.
That words matter, too; that “bitch” and “whore” and “slut” and “useless” and “stupid” and “ugly” and all the words we use as knives are not acceptable, in any relationship, at any time.
That choosing violence should have consequences: losing access to someone you love.
That there are a million more choices you can make in the heat of the moment that don’t leave bruises and scars.
That we can all do better, because our kids are watching.
And simply, plainly, always: that is not what your hands are for.