I can’t watch this movie. I just can’t.
And yet, I do. And I am. Right now…as I am typing this post.
It was a long time ago, a world far away that I was a victim of domestic violence. Yes, I know you are not supposed to say “victim”. It’ s not empowering enough for most feminists. It makes you sound weak, pitiful. Yet, when you are going through it, you ARE a victim. You can pretty up the words all you like, make them sound less pathetic, but the point is…you are still a victim until the moment…you’re not. That’s when you can change your moniker from “victim” to “survivor”.
Or, the moment they place you six feet under and you become what your headstone says you were.
When we talk about women who died at the hands of their lovers, we don’t call them survivors. They didn’t. They were victims. They succumb. I will always consider myself a “victim” of domestic violence in some aspects, despite the fact that I survived, because of movies like “Sleeping with the Enemy”. Because the scent of “Polo” still makes me significantly ill. Because being in my home alone, I am still plagued by the inability to sleep peacefully. Because I still feel my breath catch in my throat when I hear a certain type of gruff male voice. Because certain songs can still make me break down and cry (I’m looking at you, November Rain). I can’t wear red lipstick. It reminds me of bloody mouths and bleeding noses, broken teeth and cracked jaws.
It reminds me of 33 broken bones in just under 3 years.
Yet, when I watch the part of “Sleeping with the Enemy” where Laura “dies”, (This is not a spoiler and that aside, the movie is 23 years old. If you haven’t seen it by now, well…not my problem) I realize that the funeral scene could have just as well been mine. The irony of all this is that the release of this movie came the same year as MY release from this relationship that has scarred me for life. Maybe it’s not irony. Perhaps coincidence. I never get those two right and neither does Alanis Morrissette, so I don’t feel too badly. The ironic part really is who I first saw the movie with.
Yes. My abuser. The love of my (then) life and the enemy I slept with.
We saw SWTE in a movie theater in Suffolk County, Long Island, shortly after its release date in February, 1991. We had a good day that day. No fighting, no arguing, no yelling, no throwing things. It was what I would come to call a “safe day”. I never put a time limit on those days. The morning could start one way, the afternoon could end another way and the evening could bring us back to the “safe day” status once again. I lived moment to moment with him. I counted every breath with him. Measured. Careful. Always concerned about not changing my facial expressions too often. Never looking left, never looking right. Straight ahead, always. That night at the movie was no different. As I watched Patrick Bergin beat Julia Roberts, I kept the hand to popcorn to mouth ratio well timed. Counting my breaths…in 2…3…4 out 2…3…4…
I wouldn’t dare give him the clue that inside, I was terrified, watching my life play out on the big screen in front of me.
I felt like everyone in the audience was staring at me. I felt that familiar hand squeeze from him. He was putting me in check. His way of saying, “Keep it together, CP. Don’t you dare betray our dirty little secret.” I sat up a little straighter in my seat. I crossed my legs casually. I leaned my head on his shoulder. [LOOK AUDIENCE WE ARE A VERY HAPPY LOVING COUPLE THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN IN OUR HOUSE YOU BELIEVE US RIGHT] My body was giving me away. My breath was giving me away. My silent count in my head was not working. I inhaled deeply, the scent of the popcorn nauseating me. I dared to glance sideways, to see how he would react to this man on the screen beating this beautiful, gentle woman.
He kept eating popcorn as though it didn’t matter at all. And I suppose, to him, it didn’t.
When we left the theater, I couldn’t gauge his mood. His affect, as always, a blank canvas. Over two years into this bloodbath of a relationship and I still could not read him. We drove home in silence when suddenly he says, “I’ll never understand how a man could hit a woman like that.” If I wasn’t so exceptionally trained in controlling my facial expressions, I would have given away the “are you fucking kidding me” that filled my mouth, but never left my lips.
“Mmm hmmm,” I said.
“Well, I mean, he basically hit her for no reason. You know what I mean.”
“You know that when I lose my temper, it’s because you provoked me.”
“Yes, I know,” I replied.
“But I love you. I always love you.”
I smiled. He was staring at my side profile looking for that smile. The smile that says, it’s okay, this thing you are doing to me. I’m fine with it. He reached over, squeezed my knee, patted my thigh before stroking it, firmer, higher. Oh, okay. Right. Sex. Got it. The way you right the wrong. The way you remind me you are still in control of this thing. The way you pretend that I’m okay with all of this. Sure. We’ll have sex after we get home. It was his version of the “reboot” button for us. Anything that happens prior gets erased, thrown in the recycle bin and permanently deleted. But, it also means I will have at least 5 hours of peace and quiet once you fall asleep…to shower you off my skin. To brush my mouth clean of your kiss. To throw up. To cry. To take my makeup off and assess the damage from earlier in the day.
And it was also during those moments of sweet repose for you that I would plan my getaways.
Watching the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” alongside him, I knew my nights of plotting and planning would be forever destroyed. There would be no more squirreling away of funds. No more leaving clothes in hiding places. No more hiding the spare key to the car in the back of the toilet. He would now be forever aware that women definitely do plot to escape their abusers. Even though he didn’t see himself in that light, I knew the lesson wasn’t lost on him.
I spent that night in terror.
When he wakes, will he start the scavenger hunt in our home? Will he find the coins in the kosher salt container (It had that pull up lip that you could slide change and dollars into easily. Plus, it was made of cardboard, so it wouldn’t rattle like say, a coffee can. Yes, these were the things you had to think about) or the key in the bathroom? Would he realize that in our car, where the spare tire used to be, there were spare clothes instead? Would he look in the bottom of my daughters toy box and find copies of our birth certificates, medical records, anything I would need on the fly for when we fled? I debated whether to start finding new place for all these things. No. No, I won’t. I will leave everything the way it is. To start moving things or getting rid of them means I no longer had a safety net. I needed that safety net.
It’s all I had.
When this movie came on my television screen, just now, 23 years later, I watched only the beginning. I only paid attention to the fear, not the inevitable victory. I don’t need to watch that part…her transition from victim to survivor. I don’t need to watch Julia Roberts get paid millions for a role I lived. Julia lived happily ever after. (Now, that’s a spoiler, Folks. Sorry.) But sadly, just like in the movies, sometimes real life comes with alternate endings. This is not the reality for many women and it certainly wasn’t mine. My story of morphing from “victim” to “survivor” would include hospitals, three months in a bed, a brain now laden with epilepsy, physical and emotional therapy and the inability to remain in safely in New York state.
Still, my outcome is better than those who died at the hands of their abusers. Now, all these years later, I have a different reality. I don’t sleep with an enemy, but my best friend. I am safe in my home. I am safe in this life I have made for myself 1300 miles away. And, despite knowing this, I still can’t watch this movie til the end. I still can’t listen to those songs. I still get queasy from the scent of Polo cologne. But, I am alive. Divinely alive. Happily alive.
Phrase it any way you’d like, but I will always be a victim who survived.
I can live with that.