The Fear of Believing Survivors
Many times, my mama describes to me the moment she knew my dad was plotting to kill her. The details are always consistent: the way his lips turned white, dried up, and quivered; the quiet and the chill of Riverside Park. Even though my dad used to beat my ass, the possibility of my losing my mother was too frightening to believe. It couldn’t be real. Not me. Not her. Not him. Not us. But she keeps repeating the story, the knife she felt in his pocket, the cold, his lips. How she said she needed to use the bathroom and quickly walked away. Each time she tells it, I feel her desperation to rid herself of the story, to offer me this thing I don’t want. When she tells the story each time, she tells it with her chest jumping and falling, her voice running through details with enough rage and volume to fill up my head and an auditorium full of listeners, but not without expressing how scared she was. Is. Something in her necessitates that someone else also be enraged at how she is forced to feel. Telling it is how she attempts to expel it. It’s too overwhelming to let it to consume me: her anger, her fear, the thought of my dead mother, and the possibility that I could one day be her angry, scared, or dead body too.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes the way we “know and don’t know” that the system of mass incarceration imprisons more African Americans today than there were people enslaved right before the civil war; how we “know and don’t know” that we’re moving about our lives, business as usual, without responding to this atrocious social crime. The grotesque and horror of this reality leads to our justifications of a system of racial inequity with, “well they did the crime, they do the time,” or, “those people just need to learn.” We deflect complicity or any acknowledgment that our inaction is permitting the taking away of lives from people who commit the same crimes white and wealthy folks perpetrate at the same rate (if not increased rates) without facing the same hefty consequences. We’re too scared to admit to our grotesque. The notion is so overwhelmingly frightening that we convince ourselves that it cannot be true.
This willful, self-serving, and low-key protective denial is why we often don’t believe survivors when they speak, especially when the person that causes harm is someone we love or recognize as a leader. It hurts to believe that someone would do something so wild and “out of their character.” It hurts to consider that we might have been exposed to harm, ourselves. It hurts to feel betrayed. It hurts to feel fooled. We make up explanations or place blame in ways that align so comfortably with oppressive practices that have settled in us over time. Usually that means blaming survivors, the same way we blame black and brown folks for the identical crimes white and wealthy folks commit, but are excused for.
Throughout my youth, I was angry at my dad for gaining my trust and breaking it so often. After beating my ass he would ignore me for days until he broke the ice with the offer of money or anything else I might want, but an apology. Never an apology. Still, he would regain my trust, over and over again, because I wanted him to love me. I would blame my mom for letting him humiliate her, for letting him hit me, and having me and my siblings all walk on eggshells so as not to ruffle his feathers. Why didn’t she clap back? Why didn’t she grab his hands? Why did she, also an adult, let him scare her? In other ways, my mama demonstrated love for me. She caressed my head in the dark, spoke to me with clarity but compassion when I acted selfishly, and cried when she read my runaway letters. Because of her emotional perceptibility, it was easier to place blame on her than to demand an apology from my father. I saw my father as a threat. A tender-proof wall. On the other hand, my mother was safe, accessible. This dynamic maintained a hierarchy and didn’t just make my brother, my sister, my mama, or me more susceptible to harm, it also made us susceptible to blaming each other (and we did) for the harm my father perpetuated.
But even as I watched him emotionally brutalize my mom and physically hurt me, I wouldn’t believe that he would try to end my mother’s life. I thought that was a boundary he would not cross. I justified my own disbelief. I told myself, and her, that she was paranoid or so distraught by my dad’s abuse that it was causing her to see and feel things that weren’t real. Imagine that: abuse causing someone to imagine abuse. On numerous occasions, she mentioned to me the times she saw my dad following her in public and hiding behind cars, walls, and bus stops. I thought, my dad is a jerk, an asshole, but he wouldn’t do something as goofy as stalk my mom, his own wife, despite the fact that he would verbally shit on her in front of her kids. He was so steadfast in his ability to control others. He reminded my sister and me, frequently, that he owned our bodies and our belongings. I couldn’t imagine him ducking and diving from any of us. It wasn’t until I turned 20 that I believed her, not because I learned how to become a better advocate for my mom, but because I caught him in the act.
I found him hiding beside the wall of a college campus building, where my mom took English classes as part of a community ESL program. These were classes he so vehemently didn’t want her to take. I was proud that she insisted and took them despite his disapproval. But the day I caught him, I was overcome with shame, surprise, and anger. I was surprised that he was actually hiding from someone he had spent more than my lifetime controlling. It had disrupted my image of him as someone so secure in his dominance. I was embarrassed. I couldn’t see it then, but despite the fact that his dominance brutalized me and my family, he was also the closest example of what the opposite of insecurity looked like. In this single moment, the façade told on itself. He looked so vulnerable. I felt angry at the fact that he had always stalked my mama. In a single moment, her descriptive delusions turned to reality. I wanted to punish him.
That summer day, with ice cream in hand, I decided to surprise him in the act. When I approached him with, “what are you doing?” I wanted to see something different than a hardness on his face. “Protecting you mother,” he responded, turning his legs away from the raised lawn by the building, placing himself in full sight. “By hiding? In broad daylight, though?” I asked him, licking my ice cream, reveling in the crumbling image of himself. Like he and the nation had taught me, I became good at castigation. After I turned towards the entrance, he was gone. I waited for my mama alone and felt overcome with shame for not believing her. The shame deepened when I explained to my mama what I saw and she responded, “didn’t I tell you?”
The family had dinner at the apartment that night. Nobody talked about what happened, what was always happening. I didn’t want my dad to keep lying about protecting my mama, or to remind us that he owned us. I didn’t want to make my mom to have to retell her stories aloud or secretly in her mind, in my dad’s presence. I didn’t know how to hold all those possibilities, my own rage, and turn my dad’s defiance into regret. I couldn’t be a good advocate for my mama. I couldn’t get my dad to admit to causing harm.
Aggressors sometimes won’t believe the level of harm their actions are causing survivors. Their gaslighting and denial is sometimes an unwillingness to see the grotesque within themselves. Like bystanders, both physical and those who survivors open up to, they are frightened of the possible level of torment and harm they cause survivors. Like bystanders, they place the blame on victims. Phrases like “I didn’t hit you that hard,” or “you provoked it,” are common messages fabricated to cope with the possibility of being a monster.
My dad always used to tell me, and still tells me, that I’m always going to have conflict in my life. I “talk back” too much. I don’t respect authority. He once told me that I would end up with a lover that would hit me because of “that attitude” of mine. Necia. Comparona. Sinverguenza. Our mouths are filled with rhetoric that exists to silence survivors and normalize abusive behavior by not calling it abuse, and not calling resistance to abuse exactly what it is.
Nope, I don’t do well when I’m being forced to accept actions against my own well-being. Yup, I respond with rage when I’m cornered by power. And yes, I did date a lover for two years that both literally and metaphorically pushed, cut, and made me bleed, but thankfully, unlike my mother, after finally understanding what I was in, I had the material resources and emotional capacity to leave. My resistance to and distaste for injustice against myself is not the cause of my conflict. For my father to absolve others of behaviors like his own is to uphold his own innocence. Because he’s echoing the rhetoric bounced inside the borders of Dominican Republic as a child and confirmed by US patriarchy as an adult, this was easy. This is how to uphold abuse. We justify it, validate it, create coded language around it (Morrison), and even reward it because we’re scared of acknowledging the ways we enact and enable it. That would turn us into monsters.
These coping mechanisms, meant to turn a blind eye to harm, perpetuate it. We cope by rewarding stories with protagonists that cause harm but lack any complex internal landscape capable of reckoning. We cope by fantasizing about and fetishizing violence in American movies, music, and sensationalized news. We tell ourselves, if it is outside of us, if it is “those people,” or that impossible or hilarious scene or plot, then it cannot be our beloved, or us, even as we witness ourselves and/or our beloved cause harm.
I’m not above it. I was born and raised a Dominican-American. My home, this country, and my parents’ country have taught me how to cope by not believing and not seeing, and ironically, by also believing that the quickest and most potent way to access some version of power is to translate anger into violent expression and action as a means to feel heard and seen.
It hurts to look at how we refuse to recognize abusive power in order to survive. I bury the fact that I have been and could again be subjected to harm, so I can engage in relationships. I bury the fact that the lack of fair compensation for the work I do is not unrelated to the coercion of bodies and minds in instances of sexual assault, so I can show up for work. I bury the daily awareness that my or my child’s life could be taken away any day due to someone else’s willful ignorance, so I can step outside of my home. In similar ways, we bury the harm our beloved cause when survivors force it into our awareness.
Patterns of abuse are upheld using binary thinking. We’re monsters when we mute survivors who cause us discomfort. We’re monsters when we enable and defend those who cause harm. We’re monsters when we cause harm. We can’t break toxic patterns until we prioritize ending abuse over avoiding depictions of ourselves as monsters. Abuse isn’t one dimensional because people aren’t one dimensional.
I added to my mom’s isolation by not believing her. I had to see how my hiding from parts of my trauma, by refusing to acknowledge how bad it was, was enabling abuse against her and myself, and how attempting to dilute my mama’s pain was retriggering and deepening it. I believe my mama when she tells me she’s afraid. I believe her rage is fully informed with reason. I want my father to acknowledge that his actions were harmful, and to honestly wonder how the violence he witnessed and experienced as a boy forced him to also cope in dangerous ways.
I imagine how agonizing it is for my mama to remember. I imagine how isolated and betrayed my father might feel while reading this essay. My own rage, my father’s pain, my mother’s fear are all braided into my consciousness and haven’t escaped this essay. I can’t think of a more important step to take towards healing than to stop attempting to cancel our own experiences, and stop using our own experiences to cancel others’. One doesn’t make the other nonexistent. How else are we going to tap into the wound that needs tending than to use pain and rage as marking points towards its source? This is how I want to love and be loved. To believe and be believed.