TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses instances of sexual assault.
Editor’s Note: This article original appeared in Gawker as “This is a [unfinished] story about violence”
30.25° N, 97.75° W—I am in Austin, Texas, two thousand miles from home, asking strangers on the sidewalk to talk about the epidemic of abusive men. I am asking people I don’t know to be brave. This is a story about bravery.
Last summer, Jeff From and I drove 10,00 miles around the United States and asked strangers to show support for survivors of domestic abuse. We did not stand on sidewalks and in parks seeking survivors, though some identified themselves as victims. Violence in homes is so common, so familiar, the numbers make it impossible to talk to large groups of people without some having stories of their own. We photographed members of the public as well as employees and staff of domestic violence service centers and asked them all to answer one question, “why is it important to support victims of domestic violence?” In response, participants hand wrote statements of support, which we overlaid on their photograph to make a series of portraits.
My whiteness, his whiteness, his manhood move us more powerfully than this car. We are too fair to threaten the imagination of strangers and the men who threaten mine often can recede into the spaces between Jeff’s fingers and toes. Maybe my white skin is my shield, and maybe I’m just not allowed the sword. This is an elegy to my unearned protection. This is a story about perception.
36.17° N, 86.78° W—It was the fourth night. I walked alone to the empty parking lot because some days I want too badly to believe that I can be my own protector. I only needed my toothbrush. I don’t know if women without men smell differently, or shine differently, but it didn’t take long for me to be in the company of four men. Immediately, one approached me. And I told him to leave. He asked me why I didn’t love him, why I didn’t want him. He asked about my mouth and why I didn’t want him.
The five of us were alone, my phone was dead in my pocket and I couldn’t find the keys to lock the car. I assumed if I left, they’d take everything we had, and leave us stranded in a city we hadn’t yet met. So I stayed. I wonder if Jeff’s exploration of our hostel that night—which lead him curiously through two unmarked doors and onto the parking lot—that the trip lasted more than just those first four days. The boys threw my stolen sword back at my feet, and apologized only to my “protector.”
30.25 N, 97.75 W—It is the fourteenth day and I am trying to make friends with the courage we need to really begin this project. I am traveling with a man, being trapped by men who only apologize to other men. I am scared, in the fist space above my belly button, to test strangers, to see if other people care about something I am sure, is too important. Measuring my life through the existence and absence of fear feels similar to measuring love through tears—but sometimes that’s just the kind of love it is. This story is about that kind of love.
35.67° N, 105.96° W—Behind us stands the American Indian War Memorial, and across from us, the gazebo houses a man who holds long limp balloons that silently beg the passing children to pull on their mother’s sleeve and ask permission for the magical man to turn rubber and deep breaths into puppies. The couple in tie-dye who walks by in arm and hand and say good luck but no, they aren’t interested in participating. I wonder about their relationship to each other’s fears.
The woman in running gear stops and talks about how violence is a cycle—how we teach what we’ve been taught, we hurt like we’ve been hurt, we dominate like we’ve been dominated. The man with the blue goatee says he doesn’t believe in violence at all—not terrorism in lands we’ve never tried to understand and not terrorism in the spaces between two people who share beds and forks and children.
34.05° N, 118.25° W—We hear the news. He chased his wife down the street and stabbed her, again and again. He killed her. This has never been a story about saving lives.
37.78° N, 122.42° W—I can’t see the blue sky clearly through the wires and flags overhead. The trolley is yellow and the signs are red. The man with his dog listens to our tale, suggests a place to get clams, and says this isn’t something he can talk about. I wonder if he is scared. A mom pushes a stroller and we speak above her son’s head. I wonder if he will ask her questions about violent men and I wonder if she will talk to him about his father or uncles or himself one day. The man smoking a joint walking down the street stops and tells us about AIDS, the importance of condoms and living each day like it’s the only one that will ever matter at all. I wonder if I will die before I am ready, too. The woman with the backpack answers, “Because we are human.” I wonder if this could ever be a story about humanity.
41.71° N, 73.92° W—I am in Poughkeepsie, New York, two thousand miles from Austin, Texas, curious about what the trip meant. The portraits have been published into a book filled with a hundred people and an index of hotline numbers, power and control wheels, safety plans and addresses.
I think about the women who live lives so stifled by structural violence that photographs and phone numbers don’t mean much at all. This book can only be for women who have a telephone, women who have access to services with waiting rooms, women who can read, women who speak English or Spanish. When I imagine who may flip through the pages, I imagine the women I work with at the local domestic violence service center. This may be a story about them.
One in four women in this country are survivors of abuse. I imagine the book read by a young woman in a blue-lit waiting room. She hadn’t before known of the National Domestic Violence hotline. A mother reads it. She hadn’t understood her daughter’s abuse. She had never seen charts that drew her son-in-law’s face so vividly. A gay man reads it. He didn’t realize it was still abuse if he was a man. This isn’t a story about saving lives. But maybe this could be a story about planting seeds.
I wonder what it means to talk about abuse everyday—what it means for women to profile men who hurt, everyday. I’m not sure where to place the abusive men in my life I know and care about, and some I love. I wonder what it means for me that I think I know the red flags, in my dreams. Abusive men don’t yell, don’t manipulate, don’t use their hands or words as weapons on the first date, or the second and most likely not the third. Men often become violent only after love and trust and piety. Could I dismiss violence, dismiss the flags I had always painted red, seem only to be theory or chart words? Will I fall in love with an abusive man? I don’t know. I think this is a story about me.