(Read the first part of Carolyn McCurdie’s reflections on this topic here.)
There are many, many victim-blaming questions that are asked. Most of them arise from cultural assumptions and I’m as much a product of this culture as anyone. There’s no blaming that anyone could do that I haven’t done to myself. One that caused me years of soul-searching is: but didn’t you see the signs? Surely you should have known.
Yes and no. With hindsight and maturity I can see that he was extremely narcissistic. Everything was about him. I didn’t recognise that. He was a heavy drinker. Every young man I knew was a heavy drinker. I wasn’t alert for trouble. I didn’t know I should be. There was no violence at all. This didn’t begin until about a year into the relationship. By that time I was committed.
So why didn’t I leave? Such a common question, and one much easier to answer.
Because I was committed. It had never occurred to me that mine wouldn’t be like my parents’ marriage – loving and for life. I blamed myself that it wasn’t like that. I took the responsibility for making it as close to that ideal as I could. With everything that happened, I asked myself: so how do I handle this? How do I make it manageable? For me, leaving would be the final humiliation, the ultimate failure. Because of the violence I decided not to have children. Marriage and children was a future I’d taken for granted and looked forward to, but I came to realise that I could not keep a child safe. Staying was a decision I could make for myself, but not for anyone else, certainly not for someone small and vulnerable. The situation deteriorated. During one tantrum I thought I might die. Eventually I arrived at a point where I saw that my safety and survival as a person that I recognised were on the line, and that I had to go. This felt like enormous failure. I felt, and to some extent still feel, ashamed.
But I did survive. What helped me? Firstly, my family. I and my sister and brother were the centre of our parents’ lives. We had no doubt about our worth to them. Love. Unconditional love. It gave me a base, a solid ground that wobbled but held me upright. Secondly, feminism. Just when I needed it, the Women’s Movement blazed into life in the early 70s. I read everything I could lay my hands on. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics put the subjugation of women in a context that was historical, cultural, as well as personal. I was astonished. So this was much larger than me, not my own personal fault. Around the world, strong female voices were speaking, I felt, for me and with me.
Thirdly, the further luck that meant I was the one to end the marriage. If he’d left me, I might not have done so well. If well-meaning people had stepped in, packed my gear and taken me away, I might not have done so well. Such a relationship robs you of agency. Someone else assumes control of your life. That I took charge, became the decision-maker for myself, was a moment of revolutionary healing. I was amazed to learn my own strength. It’s a knowledge that has changed everything since.
The experience has left me with questions that I will spend the rest of my life answering. There are always more insights and answers. It has left me with a self-distrust that I will probably never completely lose. I see the unreasonableness of it. But it’s there.
Almost I weep with relief to see how much our world is changing. With good, brave women, and good men, we will get to a place where such carelessness about the wellbeing of another human being is seen as a sick aberration.
Carolyn McCurdie lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. A writer, her work includes poetry, short fiction and fiction for children and young adults. She grew up in Dunedin, but lived for many years in the Auckland area, and in Sydney.
Read Part One of ‘Free with his fists: trying to make sense of it’.