The country fell into collective outrage last month when footage from a security camera in an Atlantic City casino elevator revealed pro football player Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée Janay, punching her in the face before she consequently smashed her head on the handrail and was knocked unconscious.
The public became even more alarmed (and judgmental) to learn that Janay married that man about a month after that incident—and the day after he was indicted by a grand jury in Atlantic County for third-degree aggravated assault.
“Stupid girl,” they chastened. “She’s going to get herself killed,” they warned. “If she doesn’t leave, it’s her own fault,” some even said.
Janay Rice is sticking with her husband. She has defended him in the media. She said that she’s sorry “for her part.”
I don’t judge Janay Rice. I’ve been her. Because I have the unfortunate experience of being on the receiving end of domestic violence, I can tell you that it makes perfect sense to me that Janay married that man. I can even tell you this: The best days of their relationship probably followed that day in the elevator. The tenderness that you saw in their wedding pictures was completely authentic. They are in love.
Just like I was.
His name was Scott. He hailed from England. He had a sexy accent that made ordinary words sound exotic. His tongue was pierced and he had tattoos that ran up and down his thick forearms. He was five years older than me and unlike every single person in my town. Like Janay and Ray Rice, we met when I was young. He was my first.
He worked a construction job. Every Friday, his crew would end their week at the Clam and Oyster Bar in Babylon. The bosses would hand the guys envelopes of cash—their weekly pay. Scott liked to spend his at the bar.
It took me a while to realize that the shift in his personality came precisely after three beers, and that it accelerated once the beer shifted to Jack and Coke.
It took even longer to recognize that it was cocaine that made his mouth twist like that.
By then, we were living together in an apartment in North Babylon. We adopted a puppy and set up house. I was working in a deli in Seaford; Scott was building houses. Our days took on a cyclical routine of working, cleaning, cooking, walking the dog, and viciously fighting.
I never knew what would set him off. We could be making casual conversation when something I said tipped the scales toward confrontation. Maybe I’d mentioned something funny a guy at the deli had said, prompting him to cross-examine me to see if I was secretly attracted to someone else. Maybe an offhand comment insulted his lack of formal education. Maybe he didn’t like what I was wearing that day. But no matter how it started, once we were on the path of disagreement, there was no talking my way out of it. If I was too defensive, it meant I was hiding something. If I was too aloof, it proved that I didn’t care. It almost always escalated into a physical confrontation.
There were times when I hit first, when his face was pressed up against mine as he listed every hurtful and hateful thing he could find in his ample arsenal of cruelty, but most of the time, he did. And though he never punched me the way Ray Rice had laid out Janay, he pushed me up against walls, ripped my clothing, slashed my tires, and pulled out clumps of my hair. It was terrifying. And embarrassing. Even in the midst of our most heated battles, I was mindful of our upstairs neighbors. I wondered what they thought, how they were judging me. That shame kept me from telling any of my close friends at the time. Pride made me keep it from my family, who’d never approved of Scott. I didn’t want them to be right.
Once the adrenaline left his body, once his breathing slowed to normal, once he sobered up, and once the drugs eased up on their control of his mind, he was sorry. That sorry took on the form of tears, promises, on his knees begging of my forgiveness.
The truth is that forgiveness felt good to give to him. It was a relief to accept the comfort he offered. The days after one of those fights were some of the sweetest of our shared life. They were filled with long back rubs, quiet talks of intimate revelations, sex. I never felt closer to him. If someone had put a camera in my face on one of those days, I wouldn’t have said a bad word about him. I believed that our situation was unique, that I understood him in a way that no one ever had and that his behavior was the product of a terrible childhood that was my responsibility to help him overcome.
A part of me believed I had it coming.
It wasn’t until one of those fights erupted in front of my friend Kathy Lee that I finally left him. We’d been on a double date, eating dinner at that same Clam and Oyster Bar. We were setting up Kathy Lee with another construction worker named Tommy. Sometime after the beer switched to Jack Daniels, Scott concluded that I was flirting with Tommy. It escalated from the bar to our apartment, where Scott ripped out a fistful of my hair and kicked our dog. Somebody called the cops. Kathy Lee packed up my clothes and brought me to her house, where I slept for the next three nights.
I stayed away not because I’d had enough or had come to my senses, but because with someone bearing witness to our twisted relationship, I was too embarrassed to go back. I feared her judgment more than I feared what would have likely escalated into more severe abuse—possibly ending in my death. Eventually, I was far enough from our relationship that I was able to get the perspective to see that what I experienced wasn’t love. And it wasn’t okay.
Eventually, I demanded more from the person who professed to love me.
Janay isn’t there yet. I wish she was, but I don’t judge her. I understand her.
I hope she has a Kathy Lee in her life, someone who steps in at the right moment, and takes her home to heal. When she does, I hope the public withholds their judgment and shows their support.
She already has mine.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Wear purple to help raise awareness about this insidious epidemic. If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, there are organizations that can help. Call the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224. The following websites are also useful: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Battered Women’s Justice Project, National Center on Domestic & Sexual Violence, National Network To End Domestic Violence, End Abuse Long Beach, Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, The Safe Center LI