It’s been a quarter-century, and I can still hear clearly the sound of my own voice that night. It wavered with a plaintive, childish note as I spoke into the phone: “He hit me.” That sound, which I had never before heard in my voice, broke something. I started to cry.
I don’t remember what happened after that. Eventually he wasn’t there, and my roommate and her boyfriend were, holding my hand while I debated whether to break up with him.
A part of me is nodding along with the incredulous reader of this passage: debated whether to break up with him? In my defense, it wasn’t clear whether the blow was deliberate; he’d been gesturing wildly, and maybe he hadn’t meant for his fist to connect with my face. He’d never hit me before.
But the fact remained that he had been in one of his frequent, vehement rages, and he hit me. Another fact remains: I went back to him. And even with 25 years to think about it, I’m still pondering why.
I’m thinking about it now because of the disturbing allegations leveled against former New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who resigned Monday after The New Yorker reported that women have accused him of assaulting them while they were dating.
They stayed with him, too. And like me, they told only a few intimates. They didn’t tell their stories to the people of the state of New York. The voters knew Schneiderman as the man who was making loud noises in support of #MeToo and suing Harvey Weinstein.
Assuming their stories are true, why didn’t they speak at the time? We know why rape victims don’t come forward — the difficulty of proving that the sex wasn’t consensual, the shame that attaches to sexually active women in our culture. But if a man hits a woman, he will not get far arguing that he thought she wanted him to.
And yet, there is shame. Witness the fact that I debated with myself about whether to write this column. In fact, I wrote this precisely because of my discomfort, to prove that it is absurd.
And yet. Telling your story in public is remembering how frightened you were and how weak you felt. It is linking your professional identity to the word “victim.” And, sometimes, it is admitting our ambivalence, our poor decisions — it is confessing that we didn’t just get hit but we also went back in the hopes that he wouldn’t do it again.
In my case, he never did, so maybe it was an accident. But I wondered every day I remained with him whether he would hit me again. So why in heaven’s name did I go back?
That’s easier to answer to myself than it is to you. You’re picturing a rage-filled monster, an archetype: “the abuser.” I’m remembering the man, who was funny and brilliant. And who was, like Schneiderman, a staunch feminist. There were many reasons I wanted to be with him, and none of them were simple, because neither was he.
This is the reckoning we still haven’t had about #MeToo. When Bill Cosby was accused, and then convicted, the implication was that the real truth about Cosby had been unveiled, the monster lurking behind the kindly mask. But that image was as false as the plaster saint that preceded it. A truth had been revealed, but not the truth, because no human has only one truth. We want people who hurt women to be singular creatures, monsters, not men. But often they will be our brothers, fathers, husbands and friends; they will make great art or fight for good causes.
Dividing the world into men and monsters makes it harder for women to explain why they sometimes continue contact with their abusers, and therefore harder for those women to speak. When they do speak up, this false division makes it harder to believe them because, after all, that guy doesn’t seem like a monster. And it leaves us flailing when we realize that some man we love or need has, whatever his other virtues, still done something monstrous, and we can’t be with him anymore.
Megan McArdle is a columnist for The Washington Post.