A lot of bad shit has happened this year. One good thing that happened is that I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, her memoir about her and her super abusive white, queer, femme partner. I have been thinking about this book a lot over the past few weeks.
I have been thinking about the courage it took Carmen Maria Machado to claim her suffering, trauma, and pain. I have been thinking about how it probably took her (at least) a book to do it. I have been thinking about how we have written about abuse at the hands of police, judges, lawmakers, senators, friends, neighbors, and family, and how, though most people still think we’re too mad, too dramatic, too lazy, and too unworthy of love to ever be abused, some people think differently.
I have been thinking about the need for proof. And about the word “abuse.” About who gets to use this word. About who this word gets used against.
I have been thinking about how much of In the Dream House felt like it was offering me proof. That’s a complicated part of this book. We know that she knows that we know that women are not believable. Especially if they are queer, or trans, or not white. She knows we need proof. She gives us proof.
I didn’t know I needed proof.
I am a queer Black femme-leaning person. I am a lawyer. I am a Dr. Bronners label of “and furthermore — ” when letting people know how they’ve fucked up. Someone I was dating once stopped me in the middle of a ten minute rant about how “if you think your assumptions about gender are for a second going to determine which one of us carries our future child without any consideration for my assumptions about gender you better have another think coming — ” with a hand on my arm, and was like “um, you’re really good at advocating for yourself and I’m pretty sure it would be impossible to not consider your viewpoint on…anything.”
And I spent the first half of In the Dream House with that part of me that is still learning what trauma is low-key being like, “you really couldn’t stand up for yourself? You really couldn’t see how this was fucked up?”
I’m thinking about who gets to use the word abuse. A few days ago — between posts about the cops who have yet to be arrested for murdering Breonna Taylor in cold blood, Nike and Amazon assuring me that black lives matter, and the white publishing world setting itself on fire — I saw a post about a workshop on “Dismantling White Supremacy.” My friend had shared it to her instagram stories, adding a caption that the workshop had been really informative. I saw, with a jolt, that the workshop had been led by my ex — a queer, white, cis woman who is currently in graduate school studying whiteness.
The part of me that is still learning what trauma is was like, “that’s fucked up. Is that fucked up? I can’t tell if it’s fucked up. Am I fucked up?”
We broke up over a year ago. It started with what felt to me like coded racial comments about another Black woman, and me sending her an email requesting that we begin a joint process of trying to understand the racial dynamics of our relationship. It ended with her saying without saying that I was being abusive.
She never used the word with me; she didn’t have to. She had called her ex (a non-Black person of color) abusive enough times — for criticizing her too much, for being too angry, for letting their trauma about race harm the relationship — that I was able to read between the lines of our arguments. In these arguments, my ex would say that I “broke” her. That she didn’t — no one could — deserve my “rage.” That she couldn’t tolerate the amount of pain and destruction I was causing. That she felt like she was dying. She spent our therapy sessions unable to look at me. She said “your anger makes me feel so unsafe,” as she cried, hunched away from me on the couch, and I looked back and forth between her and our therapist, fuming at what I could have sworn were pretty blatant and egregious micro-aggressions, if not downright racism — but unable to square my anger and hurt with her visible, palpable — terror? Of me.
We never yelled at each other. I don’t think either of us ever cursed. We never called each other names, or launched personal attacks. I did not understand what she meant by my “destruction.” I had no idea how I was “breaking” her. I would weigh every word I said so carefully, to try to make sure it didn’t come off as an attack. And yet, there she was, sobbing. And so there I must be, abusive.
When we broke up, she handed me a used gift bag full of a book I’d lent her and a Patagonia fleece I hated, smiled sadly, and said “there really was a lot of love.”
It is so easy for me to take on the word abusive.
I am thinking about the need for proof. Carmen Maria Machado has described herself as white-passing, but she’s Latinx. Her girlfriend was white.
A lot of us believe that white women can be afraid, can be terrorized, can be abused. A lot of us believe that Black women, indigenous women, brown women — even white-passing brown women — can’t be. Especially if those women are queer, or trans or otherwise beyond the cis-binary. A part of that believing, which is to say, a part of that trauma, is that we’re supposed to know better. Reading In the Dream House, that part of me was like “um, of course that white girl is trying to fuck you up? You really don’t see that?”
You really don’t see that.
I spent months feeling so much shame about that time I abused someone I loved. Months of feeling so confused inside. There was a month of writing super careful emails with a lot of “I” statements, the word “love,” the word “sorry,” the word “pain,” and the never the words “rage,” “harm,” “fuck you,” and definitely not “whiteness.” There was that particularly raw month in which I sent her a letter saying “I wish I had known how to be softer.” The month when she sent me the Buddhist Prayer for forgiveness in response to my requests to please process what the hell happened.
Months of never being able to say, “you make me way too scared to be as angry as I think I really need to be.”
I am thinking about who uses the word “abuse” and never thinks about the idea of proof. I am thinking about who never uses the word “abuse” and always think about the idea of proof. I am thinking about the ways in which Black people, indigenous people, brown people have been taught always to feel like it’s normal to be shamed, humiliated, and feared, and never that it’s normal to be angry or afraid.
Everything about my ex’s reactions: her tears, her inability to look at me, her visceral, physical fear of me, the fact that she could talk so academically correctly about whiteness, made me believe her. Everything about me — I’m a queer Black person who knows how to tell when white women are fucking with me — made me believe her. The certainty with which she leveled her claims: you are violent. You are destructive. There is no place for this in a healthy relationship — scared the shit out of me, and definitely made me believe her. Because as a queer Black person, of course I am violent. Of course I am destructive. Of course there is no place for me in a relationship.
My brain was like “uh, is this white girl trying to fuck you up?” My body? My trauma? Was like “I don’t know, I guess I must have really fucked her up.”
I’m thinking about proof.
I spent hours writing the email that ultimately led to us breaking up. I thought a lot about how it might make her feel, and how to try to be caring. I thought about how to make sure I was being accountable, while also asking her to be accountable. I took the steps Black, indigenous, and brown people take when trying to talk about our feelings to white people.
In it, I said things like “When you say things like you feel criticized when I share my feelings and ask for what I need, that our conversations about (my) difficult emotions have felt unsafe, or that I (your POC black queer partner) needs to disrupt the narrative that I feel unheard because it’s too hurtful to you to consider that we have not yet learned how to listen deeply to each other in moments of fear or crisis, I get extremely triggered. That is my trauma, and I need to work on it — on my own, and with you, hopefully with a therapist.”
And like, “This isn’t to say that you don’t feel criticized, hurt, and unsafe. You do, and I hear that you do. I don’t want you to stay in or ignore your feelings. I don’t want to dismiss them or politicize them away. I want to understand and address the role me and my trauma are playing in making you feel that way (am I actually just criticizing you? Am I bringing things up in really destructive and inappropriate ways? What am I unaware of? How am I acting destructively out of my own trauma, and hurting you?).”
And “In other words, I need to feel safe, and have my safety acknowledged as important and valuable.”
I got a lot of texts back. A lot of “how could you ever say these things to me?” and “your trauma is destroying our relationship.” I felt so confused about her replies. In an email, she said things like:
“To me it sounds like there is an assumption that I am not doing those things.”
And “If I were doing those things you ask for, do you assume that my conversations with you would sound different?”
And “I ran what you shared here and the 2 follow up examples you sent by black friends, queer black friends, and POC friends who are deeply politically active, who I trust to both see me and to hold me accountable.”
And “People did not think this was asked of me in the right way or at the right time. The response I got from these people is that I am being analyzed beyond reason and criticized in a way that is not healthy in partnership; that people should not criticize their partners to this extent.”
Even though my gut reaction — I ugly cried for twenty minutes to my therapist — made it clear that her email had deeply hurt me, I still was like “I guess I’m making assumptions she’s not doing the work? I guess she must be doing the work? I guess I must be fucked up to have not seen that she is doing the work?”
In couples therapy, I asked “do you get how painful it was for me to feel like you and a group of Black friends dissected my email together and then listed how it was…wrong?”
She said, “I regret that that was in the email.” And then cried, because my anger was too harmful.
I’m thinking a better word for “proof” is “witnessing.” I’m thinking that private reckoning is not enough, sometimes.
I know “shit happens” in relationships. But — does “shit” happen in relationships? Or does the same violence, trauma, pain, and abuse that happens outside of relationships happen inside of them— even the best of them, even the ones where there’s a lotta love — but get a pass, because it’s private?
My private self is always low-key saying, “I don’t know, maybe you fucked up?”
Am I capable of being abusive? Yes. Was I abusive to this person? Maybe. And if so, I can hold that part of myself. We all can be violent. We all can be abusive.
But I also know that when I say “we all” my body still freezes at meaning white women, white people. Because shouldn’t we know better than to put ourselves in situations with abusive white people? If we’re in those situations, doesn’t it mean it’s because we’re fucking up?
I know that I never once asked whether this person was abusive to me. I know I said and thought things like “she’s hurt,” “she’s traumatized” or “you traumatized her,” and “hurt people hurt people.” I know it took me over a year to say “your actions were scary as fuck.” To say, “I know I harmed you. You harmed me too,” and not feel a kick to my gut, an internal voice whispering but did she? I mean, she was really fucking kind? And all her friends did say it was you. Maybe you just don’t realize how violent you are?
I know that what happened privately, inside of our relationship, felt like the same shit that happens publicly to Black people at the hands of police, judges, lawmakers, senators, friends, neighbors, and family. I know that the mental and emotional gymnastics I had to do to counter that inner voice that keeps asking “but, isn’t it you that’s fucking up?” is the same gymnastics we do in light of public harm.
I’m thinking about proof. I wish we didn’t need proof. I think we can need witnessing. I think I need witnessing.