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.