Behind Closed Doors
A successful academic shares her story of being the victim of domestic abuse.
This essay is as timely as it is unlikely. Timely, because many studies have correlated economic crises, such as the one corroding the academic job market as well as so many other career prospects, with a rise in domestic abuse. Unlikely, because I am far from the type of person whom one would expect to chronicle personal experience in this area.
None of the stereotypes apply. I am a professor at a respected university with what many people (not just my mother) would describe as an international reputation in her field. The product of a white, upper-middle-class professional household, I seldom heard my father raise his voice to my mother -- his raising his hand would have been inconceivable. Their marriage was perhaps not one made in heaven, but neither was it an instance of cruelty by any stretch of the imagination. And I did not and do not have a pattern of involvement with abusive partners; indeed, for the past 22 years I have enjoyed a very happy and stable relationship with a compassionate and supportive man.
I had thought I had every reason to anticipate a happy and stable relationship in my erstwhile marriage as well. My ex-husband and I shared many cultural interests and were anticipating careers in the same field within the humanities, with similar pedigrees and similarly strong academic records. By chance my career, however, started more smoothly than his, despite his impressive credentials and abilities, indeed gifts. I finished graduate school a year before he did in the ‘70s — shortly after the precipitous decline in the job market -- and obtained a tenure-track appointment while he was completing his dissertation. We then moved for compelling personal reasons, and I was fortunate enough to find an academic position again, but he did not do so.
My ex-husband had slapped me once early in our marriage when, because I had not understood and hence had not followed his instructions during a household repair, a small amount of water fell on him. I was shocked, but I viewed the episode as an aberration. It was not.
That event suggests that the recurrence of such abuse cannot be wholly blamed on his not having a job. And after all, many unemployed people do not descend into such behavior, while many who are guilty of it hold stable jobs. Nonetheless, the timing persuades me that my ex-husband’s not obtaining the sort of position he had hoped for contributed significantly to the recurrence of wife-beating. For shortly after we had moved and I, but not he, held an academic appointment, physical abuse started again. He pinched, shoved, and hit me with some regularity over a period of about a year. Not by any means the most violent wife-beating, but quite enough, thank you, to leave significant black-and-blue marks on one occasion and less visible scars on the others. The physical abuse was accompanied by persistent belittling remarks. Throughout all this, my ex-husband continued to appear in public as a charming and highly educated gentleman and a courteous husband. I later learned that this Jekyll-Hyde scenario is a common symptom of pathologies like his.
Why did I put up with it? Barely able to believe that this was happening between people like us, I made excuses for him, justifying his behavior as a regrettable but understandable response to his unemployment, which was clearly all the more difficult for him because I had an attractive job in the same field. The contrast between his public and private behavior made it harder to confront the events squarely, as did the ways the situation sapped my own self-confidence. Like many victims of domestic abuse, I began to blame myself, not realizing that although I had made real mistakes, such as occasional tactless remarks, they neither explained nor justified this physical and emotional maltreatment.
Moreover, like many wife-beaters, he repeatedly seemed to repent. On the several occasions when I finally resolved to leave, he admitted that situations for which he had blamed only me were in fact in large measure his responsibility, and he promised to get therapy. These apparent reversals were, I was to discover, as much a pattern as the violence itself, and the therapy never materialized.
His career not only got back on track but flourished after that year of unemployment — a good though temporary job one year, a tenure-track job the next, the publication of a well-received book by a leading press, and so on. The physical abuse stopped shortly after he gained those academic positions, though the emotional analogues to it did not, and for that and many other reasons I finally, belatedly, got a divorce.
What I learned is relevant to anyone, man or woman, suffering domestic abuse.
Realizing that stressful circumstances outside the home -- and one's own behavior -- may have contributed to tension is a very different matter from excusing the behavior or shouldering all the responsibility oneself. Distinguish compassion from submission: it's healthy to understand the financial pressures that might bring out this type of violence in some individuals, but no one should accept its continuation. Be alert to connections between the physical and verbal, recognizing that physical abuse often merely goes into remission or resurfaces as verbal wife-beating. Apologies and promises need to be backed up with concrete and reliable evidence for believing that change will occur.
But one step must precede and accompany all of these: Avoid the temptation to excuse or deny the abuse by saying, "This isn't really occurring, and it will stop any minute because things like this don't happen to a professional couple like us." They can. They do. And, sadly, in this academic job market, they will.
The author of this piece, who asked to remain anonymous, is a tenured professor.
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