By Michelle Chouinard
About two weeks ago, I got the first black eye of my adult life. I was playing fetch with my dog Lyssa, who weighs 70 pounds and has a head made of adamantium. I threw her rubber bone, then made the mistake of bending over to pick up a different toy as she returned. Lyssa must have skipped physics class because she doesn’t quite understand that two solid objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time; she didn’t bother to stop (or even slow) when I bent down in her path, and her unstoppable noggin rammed into my right temple at full speed. The resulting shiner formed almost a full moon around my eye in shades of purple that ranged from wine to carbon.
I didn’t think much about it until I went out into the world the next day, but from that point on, I’ve thought about it quite a lot. Because when you see an adult woman with a black eye, a limited set of possible causes springs to mind. Unavoidably high on that list is domestic violence. Fairly low on that list is fetch-related collision. And the glances, stares, peeks, and gawks I got made that very clear.
Nearly everyone I interacted with did a double-take, then hurried to adjusted themselves; faces went blank while they maintained precise eye-contact that avoided the injury itself. Some started to say something, but then thought better of it. Regardless, for that split second before they caught themselves, I saw almost universal dismay.
Everywhere I looked, I caught people staring at me. Most turned away when caught, although some continued to stare. Some of the expressions showed concern, some were horrified, some were angry, some were scornful. The accompanying body language was tense, rigid. Most of the faces were easy to read. “Poor woman, look what he did to her!” “Is she safe? Is she going back to him?” “Stupid woman for putting up with that.”
Let me be clear: I am not the sort of person who gives a pink rat’s tush whether someone stares at me. I’ve been known to wear crazy hats and dance on tables, just because. I’ve been a successful public speaker most of my life. I am not intimidated easily by someone’s, or many someones’, disapproval. I should also be clear that I’ve had other visible injuries, and have dealt with the swarm of questions that come with, say, a sling. This was light-years different.
Despite my normal confidence, I found myself hurrying to explain. To make “You should see the other girl” jokes to put people at ease. To wear my sunglasses wherever I could manage it. And by the end of the week, the weight of it all was so much I canceled an outing with friends because I just didn’t want to deal with the stares and the explanations all night long. If you’d asked me a week before would I cancel for such a reason, my answer would have been a resounding, scornful ‘Hell, no.’ But in just a week, the situation had changed my behavior. And me.
I can’t imagine what it would have done to me if I actually had been beaten by my husband.
After a few days, I started to get angry. Because despite all the stares and pained expressions, not one of these strangers asked if I was okay. Not one offered help. In fact, only one person even had the courage to ask me what had happened. For all the concern, for all the tension, for all the judgment I was seeing, the complete dearth of any action to back up those emotions was akin to a deafening silence.
But what, I asked myself, did I expect them to say or do? And what would I have wanted them to say or do if I really was a victim of domestic violence? Would I want to just be left alone? Would any question or comment from them compound my humiliation that much more? If someone had offered me help, would I have told them to go to hell? Or would maybe their compassion and offer of help have changed my life?
And if I were one of the observers, would I have been willing to risk offending or humiliating, or getting slapped down? Of being wrong? In those seconds or even minutes, would I have been able to sort through the possibilities and work up enough courage? No, if I’m honest, I probably would have done the same thing. I’d like to believe I would have come up with a humorous quip designed to open the door of communication, but I can’t be sure. And I don’t know what the right answer is, regardless; don’t know what those people should have done, if anything.
But what I do know, now, is how isolating and humiliating it is to be in that situation. To be trapped, your dirty laundry literally written all over your face, and to walk like a zombie through the silent faces screaming thoughts at you. I also know that how people dealt with it just wasn’t good enough; their reactions added to the problem rather than helped solve it, put up a wall between me and them that would have made it harder for me to get help.
And I believe it’s past time to have a conversation about that.
Michelle Chouinard has a Ph.D in psychology from Stanford, a caffeine addiction, and four cats and a dog. She writes mysteries, suspense and literary fiction, and will never again bend down while playing fetch. You can find her on Twitter at @mishka824 and on her website,www.michellechouinard.com.