As kids, many of us were taught about “stranger danger.” Our parents told us that if anyone picked on us, we had to tell an adult, that hurting people was wrong, and that there are just certain things you can’t do. For many of us, home is a safe place away from bullies, toxic relationships, and the cruel realities of the world we live in. However, what happens when violence starts at home?
What do you do when your dad’s temper ends in bruises covered by sweaters and scarves? What do you do when your mom’s drinking habits end in a barrage of insults? What do you do when your cousin slips into your room at night and touches you – but don’t you dare say a word because that’s not nice. What about when you become your husband’s or your wife’s punching bag – when their hands and/or their words injure you? What about when you’re so depressed and locked inside yourself that you hurt yourself and pray to die every night because your life has become unbearable?
How do we talk to kids, our friends, our neighbors – our own family and tell them that there is safety when they live in a state of constant torment and fear? What can we do for that trembling child who’s molested every night? What can we do for that battered woman or man who’s threatened into staying? What can we do for those who drink away their pain and those who have to face their drunken wrath time after time?
It’s difficult to say because victims of domestic violence are so good at hiding it. They’ll draw up excuses to explain away bruises and we’ll be skeptical but we’ll believe them because it’s easier than facing the truth. It’s easier than realizing your neighbor is aggressive, it’s easier than admitting that there’s a rapist inside your family (maybe even inside your home), and it sure as heck is easier to pretend that when the alcohol is speaking, nothing is said in earnest.
It’s harder when the victims are children because they don’t understand and because the power dynamics are so great that they become powerless in any situation. How can a child explain what’s going on if they don’t even possess the vocabulary and the comprehension of what’s being done to them? Plus, under the threat of upsetting their parents and being bad kids, they do whatever the grown up tells them because they’ve been taught not to disobey. What power can we give an innocent child facing danger at home?
And for those battered men and women, how do we encourage them to leave when they have everything to lose? If they don’t have a job or a home of their own – where do they go when they leave? How do they avoid being a burden to others? And if they have children – yes, leaving is good because your children won’t think abuse is okay but leaving is worse because they lose a parent, a home, stability, and many times an income.
It’s hard to talk about this and it’s hard to come up with viable solutions because what seems so obvious becomes unclear when you’re at the mercy of fear. To many of these questions, I have no clear answer. I think we need to come together as a community and create answers. Offer our neighbors a home if theirs is broken. Really listen and read between the lines. Don’t let bruises and scars be explained away. Tell children that adults aren’t always doing the right thing and that the danger doesn’t always come from a stranger. Remind a person that being intoxicated is not an excuse to hurt yourself or others.
We cannot allow our victims to stay victims. We need to help them rise above – to become survivors. We need to remind them of their beauty and their worth. We need to validate their experience whether it happened today, 2 weeks ago, 6 months ago, or 20 years ago – because it happened and it counts.
Maria Cardona is a senior at Ashland University and an intern with the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.