Dierdre McKee, USA
June 11, 2003
I lived in a war zone once. It wasn’t very big, just the 600 square feet of apartment D-1 that I shared with my first husband, back in my early 20s. Despite its benign appearance, there was no doubt that it was, indeed, a war zone. In that apartment battles were waged, weapons—physical and emotional—were wielded, and people got hurt. Treaties were occasionally agreed to, if only temporarily. What few peaceful interludes there were would inevitably end when I breathed too loud at night or came home from aerobics a few minutes late. Over time the boundaries changed, and eventually whatever few feet of space that my angry, drunk husband and I occupied, whether at home or in public, was our war zone.
But I didn’t think of it that way at the time. Back then it was just life and my husband. It was normal. And since it was normal, it never occurred to me to ask for help. I never even imagined escaping until it was agonizingly clear that it was not normal.
So I stayed, I lived, and I learned. I learned that in war the only thing that matters is survival, and that the enemy, no matter how pretty their words, is trying to squash you like a bug. That in fact one of the things your enemy hates is how hard you fight to survive. That enemies love nothing more than your quiet acquiescence, whether it’s political, physical, or emotional. That enemies want you to be grateful to them, even as they steal your food or torture your children or rape you or kill your family or set your hair on fire while you sleep or carefully cut every stitch of clothing you own into shreds or beat you where it will never show.
In history classes, teachers talk at length about the causes of war—empire building, for example, or natural resources, or simply unbridled hubris. But the truth is that in the middle of a war, reasons don’t mean anything. Why did my husband beat me? I don’t know. I can tell you all about when, where, and how, but I have no idea why. If the counselors are right, then he did it to feel power over me. He did it because I was the only thing in his life that he could control. And I guess to a certain extent this was true—he couldn’t control his anger at being abandoned by his birth mother. He couldn’t control his own adoptive, alcoholic parents’ disgust with him for being an alcoholic. He couldn’t control his own drinking. He couldn’t control being kicked out of college. He couldn’t control his crappy job at a fast food chain.
But he could control me. Or, more accurately, he tried to control me and for a while it worked. I went where he told me to go, when he told me to, and only with people he approved. I drank when he told me to drink, had sex with him when he made me have sex with him, and wore what I knew would please him. But eventually I graduated from college, got a job, and had my own life outside of his. And, then, well, it didn’t work anymore. So, like any combatant, he increased his use of force. It wasn’t enough to manufacture arguments and scream at me all night so I couldn’t sleep. No, eventually bruises were the only thing that satisfied him.
I didn’t fight back—I defended myself, but I never struck him in order to hurt him. Think of Eastern Europe under Communism. Sure, there were attempts to revolt against the Soviets, but after those tanks rolled down the streets and the usual suspects were rounded up to fill mass graves or camps, there were many silent years of simply taking it. That was me; I just took it.
But like Hungary and Czechoslovakia and East Germany and Romania, I rose up one day, and simply decided not to take it. Like the noise of hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets, I heard the adrenaline rushing through my body as he drove me to work the morning after a particularly bad night. I was wearing a beret to hide the charred remains of my hair that he had set fire to the night before. I decided right then and there to oppose him, and when I stepped out of the car, I was giddy with the thought that the nightmare was over.
My simple rebellion was not to come home.
But it wasn’t that easy to get away. He couldn’t physically hurt me, but he had other weapons, like guilt and anger. A few days after I didn’t come home, he left a rambling message that sounded like a suicide threat on my parents’ answering machine. With the police in tow, we went back to the apartment to make sure he hadn’t gone through with it. The police officer broke the door down—he and my father went in, I waited outside—and they found him on the bed, liquor and pills next to him. He was alive, but just barely. I saw the look on my father’s face, heard the sudden commotion of the ambulance, and inhaled the sweaty, desperate smell of the place.
That smell—and everything that created it—taught me that in war, whether political or personal, we are hated by enemies who use whatever force they have to bend us to their will. And when we stand up, say no, march in the street, or simply walk away, our enemies hate us all the more. They hate us because we remove the shackles they want us to love. They hate us because we dismiss them and their hatred as irrelevant. And that’s what they hate most of all.
Dierdre McKee is a writer who lives in Philadelphia.