I’ve never been a victim of physical abuse. Verbal – a little – but not on the scale experienced by many others. I thank God for this. Especially as I’ve recently had the tiniest taste of what it might be like.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe, tapping on my computer. An elderly man asked if he could sit opposite and, smiling, I said, yes of course. My phone rang and I picked it up. Mum, with an update on dad’s chutney making. We chatted and I was careful to keep my voice low. (Bad enough I have to hear about the exploding jam jars, let alone anyone else). But after a few minutes, the man facing me started to become noticeably unsettled. Muttering. Then gesturing. Making fun of my accent and my face. Shouting. And then pushing the table repeatedly into my (pregnant) stomach. ‘Mum,’ I said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ I hung up. Moved my chair backwards. Said nothing. Then got up and left.
Afterwards I felt like I’d been tumble-dried. Vulnerable. Angry at myself for not saying something. Angry at this man for trying to hurt me. Confused. Had I imagined it? Was I shouting? Perhaps I’d done something to provoke him. Perhaps he was angry about something else. I put it out of my head. But it kept popping back.
Today, I was drinking a coffee in the same cafe and talking on the phone with a friend. There were other tables free, but the same man came and sat opposite. This time he didn’t ask. But in any case, I was on the phone and said nothing.
Automatically, my shoulders tensed. I’d been talking quietly anyway, but now I started to whisper. I reasoned with myself. He was just an elderly man and it was a public place. It would all be fine.
After a few moments, he started muttering. He insulted and made fun of me. Told me to shut up and gestured in my face.
‘Why are you whispering?’ said my friend on the phone. ‘Are you okay?’ Fine I said, but I really, really wasn’t.
He started pushing the table towards me again and into my leg. I called Glen (who works nearby) and told him what was happening. ‘Where are you now?’ he said. ‘I’m here’ I said ‘and this man is shouting in my face.’
Glen arrived and calmly asked, ‘were you shouting at my wife?’ The old man stopped and stared. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen this woman before in my life. She’s making it up. She’s crazy.’
‘She’s my wife’ said Glen. ‘and she’s not crazy.’ But the man denied everything. And then I spoke.
‘Last week’ I said, ‘ You shouted at me, insulted me, kicked at me and pushed a table repeatedly into my stomach.I was talking quietly and there were plenty of other seats free. Now you’re doing the same thing and it’s completely out of order.’
He looked out the window, laughed and made ‘crazy woman’ gestures.Which is when I lost my breath and couldn’t even speak. ‘Here’ he said to Glen, ‘take my seat’. And he walked away.
And that was it. A nasty encounter. But nothing major. Nothing compared to what millions of men and women endure over years and years and years. Nothing like the verbal and physical abuse that breaks them over and over and over again.
But for the rest of the day, I felt like I’d been peeled and kicked. I cried in the cafe and I cried as I walked home. I couldn’t meet the assistant’s eye in the supermarket. And I curled myself around my tummy like the shameful, weak and crazy person I felt that I’d become.
Why had he picked on me? Because I looked weird? Because I acted like a victim? I didn’t deserve it. I did nothing to invite it. Yet I was left with the overwhelming sense there was something in me that must have attracted his abuse. Something in me that deserved to be squashed. Something in me that was ugly and shameful and had no voice. Something tearful and angry and powerless and weak.
Writing about the Cosby rape allegations in today’s Atlantic, Ta Nehisi Coates says this:
“Rape constitutes the loss of your body, which is all you are, to someone else. I have never been raped. But I have, several times as a child, been punched/stomped/kicked/bumrushed while walking home from school, and thus lost my body. The worst part for me was not the experience, but the humiliation of being unable to protect my body, which is all I am, from predators. Even now as I sketch this out for you publicly, I am humiliated all again. And this happened when I was a child. If recounting a physical assault causes me humiliation, how might recounting a sexual assault feel?”
When someone violates your body – in even the tiniest sense – they violate you. I’m feeling it especially keenly right now as I’m pregnant – and everything in me wants to protect my child. But this man invaded my head as well as my space. I feel like I was somehow to blame. I can’t trust my own judgement. A mother who can’t deal with the slightest knock. A crazy overreaction.
I should pull myself together. But I can’t. I feel broken and unsafe. I spent most of the afternoon at home and I don’t want to leave. I look at my body and I look at my face. I think, ‘what’s wrong with me, that a stranger would single me out?’ I don’t know how to handle it. And I don’t know what to put my anger and my shame.
So I pray.
To the God who became flesh and took on a body that was violated in every way.
The God who was pinned naked to a piece of wood. Spat upon, mocked and pierced.
The God who was humiliated before all men. Scorned and despised and abandoned and torn apart.
A God who loves us. A God who protects us. A victim and a victor. The Lord who scorns shame and makes it His glory.
This is where we take our pain and this is where we take our hurt. We don’t pour it out on others and we don’t drink it down ourselves. We give it to Him – the God who understands. The God who’s been there and who promises a wholeness – not apart from brokenness – but on the far side of it.