(content warning: discourse of intimate partner violence)
In a poetry session with some kids in early March, we transition from conversation about International Women’s Week into talk about keeping young people, especially women and girls, safe from harm. A boy challenges the numbers, swears up and down that really it’s almost impossible for a woman to ever really find herself in these kinds of dangers. The question shifts into the question of how many people in the world actually seek to be given power and social capital by insisting on their own harm, and I, perhaps kind of stupidly, shift from there into the story of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.
I admit that part of it is because these kids are smart, and I’ve already told them from the first session when we were just humouring eager debates about school uniforms and writing poetry about our favourite pastimes that they are here not to gain something they don’t have, or to prove to anyone that they do or can have it, but because they’ve already earned the right to be here because they want to be here and are capable of challenging themselves. But the other part is, selfishly, to make sense of that kind of thing for myself. To hope that in a space of genuine, eager debate, even about the nasty stuff, I could shift some block in the way of all of our understanding, even my own, because if teenagers are smart (and they are), then there’s no reason they can’t teach me something in their own learning.
So, the givens: at the end of Amber Heard’s relationship with Johnny Depp, she accused him of an entire hidden world of physical and emotional violence that catalysed her decision to leave and find safety. But recently, months after her presence in the #MeToo Movement and her new, presumably safer relationship with Tesla mogul Elon Musk, Depp fired back through a lawyer’s statement suing Heard for defamation, asserting among other things that there was in fact abuse in their relationship, but Heard was the true aggressor—a question the entertainment blogosphere had had for just about as long, as they more frequently recounted Heard’s alleged history of violence in other romantic relationships than they did Depp’s.
Now, neither of these people are my friends. I can’t say one thing or another about what actually happened, although I have my own suspicions, as well as my own frustrations—like the fact that a lot of what I saw online at the time seemed to be not the attempt to genuinely assess harm, lead harmed persons toward healing, or even help abusers grow out of their tendencies, but to defend one’s fav above all else, regardless of the truth.
But I guess I should say the one thing about the story that stands out to me: this is the point where I have spent so much time wondering how much of any discussion about abuse and domestic violence actually matters to anyone or anything at all in our world. Not merely “what can we do to change this culture?” or “what is responsible for the aggression and disregard that blossoms in these relationships”, but… at what point are we all just talking so people can see our mouths moving and think that’s the work?
According to the news, Trinidadian track-and-field athlete Michelle-Lee Ahye abused her partner.
The givens are as simple as it is potentially incomplete: Ahye was charged with “assault causes bodily injury, family violence” in late June. Her partner posted Ahye’s mugshot to her now-deleted Instagram account, with the alleged caption “I don’t regret anything in my life but marrying you was most definitely one of them.” The Texas Sheriff’s Office says that she was released on US$2500 bail, and a Williamson County District Court administrator allegedly says Ahye has a court date in early August; Ahye, in a Facebook status, instead insists that no charges were laid against her at all, although that statement does seem to confirm a separation between her and her partner.
Now, neither of these people are my friends. I can’t say one thing or another about what actually happened, although I have my own suspicions, as well as my own frustrations—like how this is the instance that has seemed to awaken a certain kind of defense of victims, one which insists in Facebook comments and gossiped whispers. This defense is that lesbians, as a matter of being queer, are ‘playing man’, and that ‘playing man’ means inviting a spirit of intimate partner violence into oneself, which baffles me first and foremost for the simple reason that there are queer victims of intimate partner violence.
I think it’s… fearsome how simply we can find certain kinds of energies within us when it comes to intimate partner violence now, in part because those energies make it harder for certain kinds of victims to come forward in an already very fraught conversation because of the assumptions being made about, frankly, what is an ‘ideal victim’ and an ‘ideal abuser’, and what those assumptions allegedly permit common folk to do or say about either such person. For instance, some folk found no shortage of energy to spend not merely decrying Ahye’s alleged abuse, but to take it as an excuse to be lesbiphobic—mind you, not merely to judge or spite Ahye, but to spite all lesbians as cruel, violent, ‘mannish’ people. (Whether this included the lesbian who survived Ahye’s attack is apparently… a separate matter, perhaps?) No amount of energy was spent particularly worried about the partner, or engaging with how to be more aware of these issues in LGBTQIA relationships and how to distance discussions of community safety from assumptions of domestic violence.
This part is more upsetting to make smaller. Again, how do we do the work in these spaces? What can we learn? What can we… know?
You know how, in the G.I. Joe cartoons, the little PSAs at the back had the tagline, where the kids learning not to, like, play with matches or run in the middle of the street will go, “‘Cause now we know!” and then the Joe of the PSA will look right at the invisible, drawn-in concept of a camera and say directly to the viewer…
The part that used to actually upset me as a kid (on the incredibly rare chance that I ever saw an episode live) is that, while it is implied in the word ‘battle’ that you can now go up against the thing you know… they never ever tell you exactly what the other half of the battle is.
What am I expected to do in this instance? Am I expected to just take up arms based solely on the knowledge? Or is there some greater introspection, some consideration beyond simply having a fact? What do I think about now? Am I even really prepared to battle against the unknowable forces of my world now just because one of them is just a little better known?
That sounds like a nitpick, but it isn’t. In this context, especially, it was never really like you knew anything. You were told something—and it was true—but you didn’t ever truly fathom it. You learned what was necessary to navigate it as a child—and I’d even argue you didn’t learn enough even for that. Whenever that thing was ready to ask for more of you—whenever you’re made to consider whether you can make someone else safe, or if the lessons you’ve learned for your own safety are whole enough—you will just have to act on the little you can glean.
Here’s the hard part: the battle is huge. Knowing, then, is indeed exactly half—but you’re gonna have to know a lot, and fathom it constantly, and the part they never tell you is that fathoming is indeed the other half of the battle. Wrestling with your knowledge all the time, in public and in private, planning and striking and licking wounds and returning to the theatre of war to start all over again. The first half is stationary, binary. It’s either ’cause now you know, or you know nothing yet. The second half is always in flux.
No one ever tells you that you can still lose that battle. Only that you’ve just engaged in half.
You don’t know the half of it, kid.
Every other week I seem to learn something new and get to see it in the past. I’m handed a glimpse of something I hadn’t known there was a word for, something I would have debated the genuineness of as a young adult, and asked to reckon with it alone.
DARVO is one. Baiting is another. Testing is yet another.
Reactive Abuse. Proxy Recruitment. Invalidation. Rejection Sensitivity. Threats of frivolous litigation.
Each time a new story pops up in the world—Depp and Heard, or Ahye and her then-partner, or the whirlwind of names that opened in the tabletop roleplaying space after Zak Smith, or before that, or before before—someone seems to have another piece of the puzzle of ‘why did this happen?’ to fill in, and when I see it, it gives what was then this thing I still struggled to believe a sharpness, not only in clarity, but in cruelty.
The thing is, each of them comes with a revelation: that knowing is only half the battle, and that the other half is constantly wrestling with your own knowing. Having to revisit, to reapproach, to ask over and over whether that knowledge is real. To reckon alone, asking yourself what it really means, if anything.
Revisiting it is more distressing than not knowing, actually.
The truth is that people who want those who suffer to keep so revisiting, to linger in their trauma for as long as possible—they know things, too. They know that they can say that they’re hurt and upset that someone else would dare colour themselves as traumatised; they know that they can call it a distraction, paint themselves as the victim by arguing the news is getting in the way of their work; they know that it’s just as easy to say that calling them out on such a callous thing is the same as abuse, proof that you mustn’t trust the people they want to keep alienating; they know how to use the language of safety, security, and righteousness to keep each little memory sharp.
The truth is that if you’ve gone through the reopening of that kind of wound, if you’ve stopped to clarify each moment and can refer to each hurt with stark memory, and can even point out all the times those they’ve recruited to deny it have looked you in the eye to challenge the credibility of things you know with your own body, it’s just as easy for a motivated narcissist to take the same things you now know, fabricate entire moments to support them, and then render the discourse of your body moot.
It becomes a battle of knowing. DARVO is real, but who is the denier? Is it the one who says in their tweets that they “have faith that you will all see the truth?” Or is it the one who knows with their own body that knowing is a whole battle, one waged alone, where you can have that knowledge now and still lose because it never really mattered what happened to you?
Reactive abuse is real, but who’s the baiter? Is it the one who deliberately enters the space of someone who told them in no uncertain terms that they never want to be in their space again—sitting right beside them in public places knowing that either there will be a scene or there will be silent trauma; mentioning the day they were assaulted in vivid detail but labeling them the abuser, selling the mention for money, and sticking a disclaimer about its reality onto the flyleaf; deliberately hinting at the threat of legal action for simply repeating the event again, but claiming some greater grace is holding them back from following through, as if the threat alone is not a threat; insisting they are the ones truly having trouble speaking the truth of that trauma in the open? Or is it the person who has to find somewhere private to challenge that trauma, who has to tell his boss he’s fine in another room when the man is literally asking why you’re shaking, who has to tell his friend politely that he can’t run an errand with her because now of all days he saw a silhouette of something that makes him feel weak, who makes another excuse as to why he cannot even sleep or leave home?
At that point, does it even matter? If anyone suffers judgment, isn’t the work being done?
Here’s a thing about knowing: playing the victim is actually a tremendously easy thing to spot. You can tell that it’s insincere when the thing that bothers someone isn’t an actual lingering suffering, but some more nebulous lack of power or access.
A case study, Side A: a prose writer I won’t name was called out for unsafe behaviour months ago, in the earlier moments of the movement to challenge abuse and harassment, and he decided immediately that even though his privilege clouded his ability to see it, he believes those who came forward, and wants to do right by them. He wasn’t made to apologise. He wasn’t even made to give up some of the power that he willingly and immediately relinquished, just because he didn’t want to also be a cause of pain for people who hadn’t yet come forward. He took responsibility.
Side B: in the face of similar and far more fearsome allegations, another creator publicly decries that people are only saying that so they could stop him from making art, getting paid, being noticed, and going to conventions with his friends.
Another, Side A: an editor stands with their friend, a writer in the industry, as they come forward with traumas they’ve been holding in for months or years because the final straw has been broken, as the person who hurt them years ago has just been given even more power at an event where they were once hurt.
Side B: a popular and socially active filmmaker has a small portion of harrowing stories of their misconduct come out in social media spaces around the release of one of their films, and fades out of the limelight following the accusations. Several months later, that filmmaker seems to reemerge silently within the industry to shop another work, only for even more stories to come forward, specifically about how there is a pattern of their waiting for things to cool off during their violations in order to continue their work.
Another, Side A: a writer is faced with accusations of wrongdoing on their part and not only goes out of their way to rectify that situation, but to remain available to other men as a process of accountability, helping disengage from the often latent attachments to gendered control that we have learned without challenging them.
Side B: a writer, claiming to stand against trauma in their own space, privately insists upon the unsafe nature of organisations working in the same atmosphere, but also deliberately tells another victim that they definitely did not experience the trauma they’ve mentioned to them so many times before their newfound calling, and insists that said victim calling him out for such denial is only happening to cast him out and shut him down.
Gaslighting is real. DARVO is real. Playing the victim is real. But… who is the real victim here? Is it the writer who deserves to get paid, or is it the one who wishes they could finally find somefuckingthing else to talk about than the moments that are allegedly unreal in the reflection of their own body?
Is it the person who laments having to bear the cross of speaking over other people, and wishes people would just respect that and give him the mic to do it?
Or is it the one being spoken over, who says the same thing over and over knowing that all that it does is put him in the places where other people’s assumptions of weakness win?
I hear knowing is half the battle. I’d like to get half of that battle out of the way.
I also hear that the battle is huge, and therefore so is this half.
But I would still like to know.
And I also hear knowing is as easy as discernment, as being aware of who talks and how and why and what they are doing with that presence. Are they leveraging that they are the person most capable of talking about these issues? That they are being cast aside by an entire industry for speaking truth to power, and that is why you must come to them and honour their work?
Or are they telling their own story?
There is a difference between saying what happened, repeating the fact that you feel unsafe and frustrated and made lesser by their increasing attempts to be more powerful than the harm that they’ve caused,
and going out of your way to say that someone who says that they were hurt is only doing that so you could stop getting a chance to make it big, and that’s why we should never listen to them, but to you, because you know, and knowing is half the battle.
Because the truth is, always wondering whether half the battle ever even matters in the scheme of things is the other half of the battle.
Wondering about all the things you were told, all the times you were a target not of lost power, not of resource theft, but just plain violence, and then remembering the time someone asked if you were perhaps doing something that deserved to be punished, is the other half of the battle.
Wondering how to prove who owned any of the now-deactivated Tumblr accounts that were used to tell you that someone committed suicide and if you ever truly loved them you’d follow them down is the other half of the battle.
Having a therapist explain to you that you shouldn’t keep a weapon locked away just because all of the digital evidence of someone else’s cruelty is deleted is the other half of the battle.
Wondering why someone would argue that another witness to your abuse had their mind poisoned with lies, not so they could take it out on the alleged real victim, but to take it out on that someone, because losing a connection was the real loss, is the other half of the battle.
Wondering why someone would tell you not to think about the story that says that everything you know with your own body didn’t happen, why that person said just as much to everyone else that asked on the day it came up, and then that same person would later insist they never claimed such, that they were always planning to confront a real harm with that poem, knowing full well that they say that they were there when it happened, and they were, and they say they never saw what you experienced with your own body, and still think they’re the good guy of the story, is the other half of the battle.
Wondering whether you should say anything at all when at any point someone will follow through with the literal threat to take you to court for things that you know, but you can’t say nothing because it happened and you live in a world of reliving it all the time, is the other half of the battle.
Wondering whether the pit in your stomach or the numbness in your arms when you want to ask why people keep letting this person into your space, not any space, not space in general, but your own space where you are trying to stay sane is somehow glee like they say it is or actual pain is the other half of the battle. Wanting to not be told there’s a staff mandate to aim for presence in these spaces is the other half of the battle. Being wary of new places because despite all sense you wouldn’t want to run into someone is the other half of the battle. Wanting people to stop telling you that feeling better is as easy as suddenly not giving power to the pain that you feel is the other half of the battle. Working yourself wild just to afford one therapy session where you can make sense of knowing is the other half of the battle. Wanting to relearn how to write anything else is the other half of the battle. Realizing that nothing else matters but getting right, and then struggling to figure out how to get right, is the other half of the battle.
Wondering whether it matters or not is the other half of the battle.
Here’s the other thing about knowing: when you know, when that knowing is tight in your joints, then seeing others and knowing becomes easier, becomes less of a guess.
But then you have to fight the other half of the battle: the reckoning, the constant guessing, the frustrated awareness of what and why.
A fellow creator, someone I care about deeply, sat with me a few days ago and shared the tense story of how a relationship even I thought was concrete and full of love had suddenly fallen apart in hostility and cruelty. Up until one moment months earlier—a moment I other-half-of-the-battled about, made all kinds of justifications for—I had known that this friend was in a relationship that shared only brief glimpses of similarity with my own, and was sure by how my friend was handling it that it would work out, that it was a sign that these things could work if the other was willing to see the truth of my friend’s affection for them and willingness to compromise.
And then, the story began.
Save for very minute differences (and by ‘minute differences’ I mean ‘lacking weapons’), it resembled mine in ways that left me shaking with rage and doubt.
This is the other half of the battle. Or one sortie in it at least. That moment when you are faced with a story of the same kind of unbelievable confusion and manipulation and fear and can say clearly, “that’s not okay”, and then that voice in your head asks,
“Are you talking to your friend, or yourself?”
When it asks if you’re sure now. If nothing can take that assuredness from you.
When it asks days later if that assuredness is still there, and when you open the assuredness to check, it is fading again.
I don’t know Johnny Depp or Amber Heard. I don’t know Michelle-Lee Ahye or her ex-wife.
What I know is that reactive abuse—the tactic of goading someone into emotionally intense responses only to label their responses characteristic of their own behaviour and not of the provocation—makes it hard to know what’s happening.
I don’t know how to foster more responsible discourse about how to create safe communities for male and queer victims of abuse that others cannot problematically use to delegitimise all victim testimony or wield as disenfranchisements of marginalised communities. I don’t know how to tell you how many survivors are being pushed further away from support networks by people who claim to be against abuse only because they don’t know the person telling them the story is leaving out a vital half.
What I know is that proxy recruitment—reaching out to others under the guise of one’s own safety, but actually using their engagement to further alienate, delegitimise and disorient their victim—makes it hard to tell whether someone is aware of, participating in, or attempting to resolve something.
I don’t know how to bridge the gap between the publicly perceived conversations about how to make safe communities and the real, trying, complicated work of actually caring for survivors and helping perpetrators grow to be more accountable and responsible members of their spaces.
What I know is that self-victimisation—the insistence that one is the true sufferer of lost power or access as a result of someone else documenting their own trauma—can sometimes muddy the waters somewhat regarding who has actually done wrong.
I know that if you think the things you’ve felt as real are nebulous and untethered to you, they’re even more prone to reconstruction by others, where each thing you can refer to specifically and deliberately is subject to the simple work of those who hurt you, or those who side with them, denying it with a smile and insisting your own pain exists just to disenfranchise them. I know that when it happens, it will look like two sides to a story, that to some it will look like one person taking advantage of the most unimaginable hurt just to make another lose a job or a friend or a space, and to others it will look like one dismissing actual trauma over their own ego, and to yet more it will look like nothing that matters at all. I know that all of those assumptions still leave one person in real pain, and I know that two-thirds of those assumptions still leave another just barely ever having lost any power at all, but still with the power to leverage some dreamt-up loss or fear over the actual pain of others—even over the pain of the people they claim to be protecting.
I know where my own body was. I don’t know what people don’t know or claim to not know. I know where this body was when it was struck in the face with multiple open palms and closed fists, when it had a knife thrown at it, when it had its own property thrown across a crowded coffeeshop at it. I know where it was when it responded with rage and frustration at those who, for good or for ill, told me not that they didn’t know or think they didn’t know, but that they knew it never happened.
I know where my body was when I was told that not only did it never happen, but that it happened the other way, out of me instead of upon me, that my own eyes were on backwards for my own body’s doings, and that I should let someone say so not in an attempt to change my life for some supposed better anyway, not because I maybe am so wild that I needed to be reformed in the starkest possible way, but because money was at stake and if I let it go this one time then I’d never have to think about it again.
I know where it was when I had to hear from people who loved me that those same people said I robbed them—not my abuser, but those who stood by my abuser—of money and access and visibility simply by being aggrieved in public. I know where it was when those same people that loved me insisted that I was in the wrong for ever making a fuss, and regaling me with imagined futures where I would soon realize that ‘this is a terrible thing to hold a grudge over’.
I know where it was when colleagues told tired stories about others seeking their own catharsis over the actual safety of others, and asking me calmly what I planned to do about it, as if I was in a position to know.
I know where it was and what took place for every moment, and I know that even if just for me, I have to remind myself constantly that my knowledge matters and has not gone away.
With each new day, a new knowing is available. And with each day, some people have to get up and piece together the rest of the battle beyond that point, with all their anxieties and doubts intact, in the hope that no matter what else happens, no matter what else matters, at least finding some actual peace beyond it will come.
I don’t know much else.
I only know that fact now—that knowing is only half the battle.