The Villains No One Prepares Us For

I Thought You Said The Bad Guys Were Strangers Dressed Up In Dark Clothes?

When I was fourteen, I knew what the bad guys looked like. They were the ones in dark clothing, hanging outside gas stations at night or waiting in the woods behind my house for me to go for a run by myself. They had tattoos. They held a cigarette between yellow, rotting teeth. And every once in a while, they cleaned themselves up, put on nice clothes, and pretended to be an overly friendly stranger that tried to tempt kids like me with candy or ice cream or a ride in their windowless van.

I knew what they looked like because I paid attention during my sixth grade safety assembly. I watched as the characters, similar to the one described above, performed a skit in the middle of a circle of desks in my classroom. I watched as the bad guys tried to capture an adult woman dressed as a little girl and convince her to do drugs. I watched her save herself by running back to her friends.

And I believed what I was told because it was the same version of the world I saw just about everywhere else. The classic villain, drawn with harsh accent and dark colors, and named things like Scar, Professor Snape, Cruela Du Vill; names that literally identified a character as evil. They were obvious, even to a four-year old, no matter how clever their disguise. They were scary, and strong, and sneaky…..but I was prepared for them.

What I was not prepared for was the transfiguration of the wonderfully loving, yet slightly wounded character that the audience immediately attached to. People warned me about walking in dark allies (a place rare in my suburban neighborhood.) My mother made me carry a cell phone when I went running in the middle of the day. My high school put locks on the door so that “bad people” could not get in. I followed the buddy system when I was hanging out with friends. And I never talked to strangers.
But no one told me that the people who would pressure me to do things I knew I “wasn’t supposed to do,” would be the same people who sat next to me in the safety assembly and signed their names on the petition right next to mine: the people who were supposed to be on my side. And no one ever warned me that the bad guy would be dressed up as my best friend, my boyfriend, instead of in a long black trench coat. That he would have the same eyes as the boy who loved me. That he would answer all of my wildest dreams before slowly and meticulously tearing them down. That Prince Charming might turn into the villain and try to kill me.
No one warned me about being in my own house, or explained to me that I had a greater chance of being hurt in my messy little bedroom, by my boyfriend, than I did of running into a bad guy stranger in the woods behind my house.
What I have realized recently is that one of the reasons the abuse that I experienced was so damaging to my life was that I was completely blindsided by it. I literally had no understanding or even hint of an idea that something like this was possible. There were no words I had to describe what I was going through. Nothing I did to try to solve things made anything better. Nothing I did to try to protect myself kept me safe. And the only thing I really felt was that somehow, everything was my fault.
After talking to other victims, I understand that I was not alone in my experience. One of the hardest lessons I have learned is that abusers aren’t always strangers. They come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, in fact many times, they are a person you know and love. The difficult part is separating the image or title of the person—attractive, loving, boyfriend—from the behavior—hitting, belittling, harassment, etc.; and understanding that “staying safe” is less about identifying only certain people and situations as dangerous and more about recognizing that no matter who the person is in relation to you, or what the situation may be that a behavior is associated with, abuse is abuse.


  1. "I literally had no understanding or even hint of an idea that something like this was possible. There were no words I had to describe what I was going through."

    That's exactly it. I'd heard of "battered women" but I pictured them older, in housedresses, cowering in a corner in fear of their husbands, who looked like the traditional villains that you described above. I didn't see myself, at 18, or my handsome, brilliant, 17-year-old fiance as fitting that profile. I thought he just "acted like a jerk sometimes", and that it was my job to avoid provoking him, and when that wasn't possible to suffer through it until he "grew up."

    Teens really need to be taught to recognize the warning signs early, so they don't risk their lives for years (like I did) while they struggle to figure out what's happening, and why their Superman is turning into a monster.

    Thanks for sharing this! I really enjoy reading what you write. <3

  2. Thank you for your post and for sharing. I pictured "battered women" the same way as you, and I couldn't agree with you more that there really needs to be more education about dating violence for teens. I'm working with Love Is Not Abuse Coalition to help make it a mandatory curriculum in middle schools and high schools. Hopefully things will change. I'm sorry that you lost years of your life to abuse and for everything that you have been through. So glad you enjoy my site. <3

  3. As the mother of a teen who was in an emotionally abusive relationship i thank you for your openness. It true that we did not expect her abuser to be an upper middle class kid from her parochial school. It took all of us too long to figure it out.

    I wish there were more on emotional abuse, it is harder to spot, but just as damaging.

  4. I am amazed at your wisdom and insight in many respects, but particularly as they are demonstrated on this topic. There is something more sinister about the Enemy Within than any stranger could duplicate. I thought you got the point across well and that the whole of your website is very healing.
    BTW as kids say these days: I am a sixty year old woman, coming to grips with the loss of a 30-year marriage to (you guessed it) an abusive man. You don’t have to be naive, young, or inexperienced to have these events happen in your life — I’m none of those things and yet they did. By the same token, your advice is as universally relevant and correct as anything written “for old folks like me.”
    Best wishes from Kathy

  5. Beautifully written x

  6. Thankyou for creating this inspiring site. I’ve recently split with my abusive boyfriend. i wish i had known all this at first, when i was love struck and hating myself cos i thought it was somehting i was doing wrong.

    i beg anyone reading this to try and leave, even if your in love, i thought i was, I WAS , I AM , but it is better once you’ve left.
    already my family and friends are noticing a difference in me
    i know it will take a long time to get over it and that i pine sometimes and especially after a drink

    but im out of the cycle – you can be to

    if your partner has degraded you, made you feel small, more than once, you are better off without them

    let all the phyco’s live together in a horrible world
    lets all us genuine people come together so they can all have eachother

  7. “The difficult part is separating the image or title of the person—attractive, loving”

    Its hard to think that a men can fell in this relationships, cuz most of the time, men are pictured as the abusive, the “villians” of the story… yet i was a victim.
    I fell in love with my soul mate and w shared everything…we liked the same thins, we did the same things when suddenly everything changed. I look back and i feel some kind of relief, but then again she was the love of my life.
    As katty said (on the previous comments) you dont have to be inexperienced,young person to have this events happened. Im not a naive childish kid but a grown man who was about to start a family with this person.
    Anyway its good to know that im not alone in this feelings.
    Very well written!
    greetings and best wishes!

  8. Finding this site has really been a lifeline after finding myself in a 5 year on and off again relationship very similar to the one you described. Thank you for sharing your story and the eloquence with which you described it.


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