October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Ms. Blog will be publishing a series of posts detailing the impact of domestic violence, including personal essays and more, throughout the month.
“Bitch, I’m gonna kill you!” he yelled, so loudly that it woke us up in the apartment next door. There were no more words after that. The bangs and crashes spoke for themselves. My husband, Matthew, and I had never heard any fighting from Angela’s (not her real name) apartment before. We called the cops right away. After that, my instinct was to run to her rescue; Matthew’s instinct was to beg me not to follow mine.
“You don’t know who this guy is. He could have a gun,” Matthew cautioned. He was right. This was the South. Living here, it seems like everyone besides us owns a gun, and indeed, I had no idea who this guy was. I suspected it was her boyfriend, but I didn’t keep track of Angela’s dating life. All I knew was that she was a nurse who worked at a local hospital in the newborn intensive care unit and that she had always been kind and considerate to us.
But heeding Matthew’s warning, I didn’t run next door. Not until after the police arrested the miscreant I prayed would be charged with attempted murder. We watched through our peephole. Once the elevator doors closed, Matthew felt safe enough to go back to sleep, and I felt safe enough to go next door to check on Angela.
She was bruised all over. I never knew bruises could form that quickly. Mine tend to result from innate clumsiness, and every time I notice them, I have to do detective work to recall their source—nearly always inanimate objects that seem to love getting in my way (doorknobs, corners, fences etc.) and nearly never the act of another human being. Save one childhood fight with my sister, I’ve never been willfully struck by someone who was supposed to love me. Having no idea what that felt like, I didn’t know what to say. After Angela invited me into her home, I asked if I could give her a hug. She warmly accepted, with a warning: “Be gentle. Everything hurts.” I gave her the lightest hug I’ve ever given another human being, and we sat down in her living room.
She knew Matthew and I had been the ones to call the police, and she thanked me for it. I told her exactly what we had heard through the walls and that we would both be happy to testify to that effect. She thanked me again, noting that she had only been dating the lowlife for a few months and that she was finished with him. I told her that she didn’t have to explain anything to me and that I just wanted to make sure she was OK. When I stood up to leave, to give her some privacy, she asked me to stay, so I did.
An awkward silence ensued. Not knowing what else to say and too clueless to embrace the power of silence and pure presence, I let the lawyer in me overtake the human. I told her that her attacker ought to be charged with attempted murder, in addition to assault and battery. I told her that I could help her get a restraining order. I told her again that Matthew and I would gladly testify to the “bitch, I’m gonna kill you” statement. Worst of all, I told her that she was “lucky” that her attacker had proclaimed his exact intentions so loudly, as our testimony could destroy any doubt regarding his intent to kill.
Angela’s response to my criminal law tutorial was pure grace: “You don’t have to be my lawyer; you can just be my friend.” She was right. So I quit talking and started listening.
It’s easy to think that domestic violence doesn’t affect you if you’ve never experienced it firsthand, but it’s also dead wrong. I wouldn’t say that global warming doesn’t affect me just because my house hasn’t burned down in a wildfire. Domestic violence affects all of us. Every day, we interact with its survivors and its perpetrators, whether we know it or not, and every day, we have an opportunity to be the kind of person, the kind of friend, who doesn’t just lecture, but who listens.