You’d think a survivor of an abusive relationship would lend one of the most empathic of ears to women incarcerated for charges related to domestic violence. Women who committed crimes because their abusers forced them to. Women who, without the resources to buy a get-out-of-jail-free card, were caught up when the men who terrorized them broke the law. Women who ultimately erupted in one excruciating moment of self-preservation, one violent demand for freedom, and killed their abusers. Yes, you’d think someone who came close, but managed to avoid that final step, would be exquisitely understanding.
But I’m not. Or, to cut myself some slack, I wasn’t. I wasn’t at all understanding. I once condemned women who failed to protect their children from abusive partners. I had conveniently forgotten how grateful I was that I’d had no offspring with my abuser, how uncertain I was of what I might have done had I borne a baby into a violent family, how terrified I was that I might have taught a child how to submit, how to disappear into the background, how to cry silently, how to duck.
I, however, had gotten away, rescued by a woman who didn’t even know me — “I know what’s going on. Come home with me,” she said. Despite her generous gift of freedom, though, I grew stingy with those who had none, who were paralyzed by the fear of the next assault, who could do no more than cower among smaller victims. Instead of generosity, I offered criticism — perhaps to distance myself from the woman I once was, to deny I had ever been a victim “like that,” to refuse to acknowledge we are one.
Then in 1988, I looked into the disfigured face of Hedda Nussbaum, read the evidence of her 12 years of horrifying abuse and degradation, listened to the testimony of her sitting on the bathroom floor with the dying child her partner had beaten, and I realized what an unconscionable act it was to blame her. To blame a brutalized victim for failing to behave like a good girl, like a good mother — as though no fist had ever silenced her, no fear had ever paralyzed her, no foot had ever kicked her, no words had ever cut her, no weapon had ever shattered her.
Then in 2011, I watched a new documentary called "Sin By Silence," the story of the creation of Convicted Women Against Abuse — an organization formed inside the California Institute for Women to help educate the system about domestic violence ( click here to find screenings). And I read a new book, Razor Wire Women, edited by Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley E. Lucas, a collection of stories, essays, poetry and art by abused, incarcerated women and those concerned for them. And then I knew at once that even though I was free, I was only one kind stranger away from the other side of the wire. There or in my grave.
And in that knowledge grows empathy.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.