My younger sister is a 21-year-old college student who is “trapped” in an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who is 35 years old. She first met him when she was 19, fell in love with him and eventually moved in with him. After they started living together, she discovered that he was emotionally and verbally abusive, to the point that after six months, she had had enough, broke it off and moved out. The problem now is that for over a year, he refuses to accept that their relationship is over. Although he has not physically abused her, he has “forced” her into his car, screamed at her in public, in front of her professors and classmates, snatched her cellphone out of her hand to see if she has been talking to/texting other guys. He stalks her, physically, following her around town, staking out her apartment, and electronically, constantly checking her cellphone, email, Facebook, Amazon accounts, etc. (During the time that they were living together, he managed to get access to these accounts, and somehow manipulate the password access such that he continues to have access, despite my sister’s attempts to change passwords, etc.)
At one point things became so bad that she went to the police to file a report. She told me that the police were very unhelpful, reluctantly took the information, and seemed very unlikely to do anything unless/until he threatened her with physical harm. She says that she feels powerless to escape. At least that’s what she claims. I say this because she is by her own admission “not 100 percent certain” that she never wants to see him again. She is certain that there is no romantic future for them, but she claims she still has enough of an emotional tie to him that she is not entirely sure she wants him entirely out of her life.
Because they both live in a small college town, she cannot avoid him. He has no problem causing scenes in public which, to avoid, causes my sister to yield to his demands to talk, which often lead to screaming, crying fights, including threats on his part to commit suicide if she does not maintain contact with him.
She has told my parents and me about his abusive behavior, but because she attends school across the country, none of us have seen or can physically confront her “ex.” We are also hindered by the fact that she seems unwilling to do whatever it takes to get this psycho out of her life. It seems like during the time they lived together, he almost brainwashed her into thinking that she will never be able to fully escape his hold over her. We cannot be entirely sure that she is doing her utmost to escape his clutches.
What can I do to convince her that she needs to do whatever it takes to get him completely out of her life? And, assuming I can get her to see the light, what practical things can she do, without jeopardizing her safety, and, as much as possible, avoiding public humiliation and drama, which he has been all too willing to turn to in his efforts to control her?
A Concerned Older Brother
Dear Older Brother,
One thing that will help is to impress upon her how dangerous her situation is.
As the group AWARE points out, “Stalking is a serious, potentially life-threatening crime. Even in its less severe forms, it permanently changes the lives of the people who are victimized by this crime, as well as affecting their friends, families, and co-workers. Law enforcement is only beginning to understand how to deal with this relatively new crime.”
Send her to the website for AWARE — “Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment” and talk with her about what she finds there.
Also, womenslaw.org, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a good explanation of the state-by-state variations in restraining-order law.
The fact that the police were initially unhelpful should not deter her. She will need to be persistent and thorough, and follow the often maddening and apparently senseless procedures outlined by the courts.
An understanding of how women have been historically denied their rights and mistreated by the courts will also motivate her. Perhaps it will make her angry. Anger may be what she needs. The consciousness-raising that women did in order to gain rights and public understanding took time and involved much conflict.
Perhaps I can also provide a little personal history to show how difficult it can be to disentangle the personal from the political.
When women first started talking to men about our abuses of women, many found it hard to accept that the behavior we had been taught by our older role models was in fact harmful and hateful.
It was hard to change.
Many of us men did change. Some resisted loudly. It was not easy for us to give up behaviors that we had worked hard to master in the first place. What I mean is, when you’re an adolescent boy, you turn to your dad and other older males to find out how to treat women. You ask them what women want, how to treat girls, and in my case, my elder male role models were all sexists. So they taught us, their sons and nephews, to be sexists also. They didn’t call it learning how to be sexists. They called it “becoming a man.”
And then, after practicing what they had taught us during the sexual revolution in which sexual mores were loose and women were often compliant, we suddenly had to change. Women were suddenly demanding not only equality in the workplace but in the intimate spheres of romance and social life. Suddenly we were supposed to do the dishes and cook.We had not been taught even these elementary tasks of domestic maintenance! We were taught that there would always be women to do it! How crazy is that? And yet it’s true. There were degrees, of course. Some families were less sexist and more sensible than others. But for many, many men, this much was true:
We had to throw out what our fathers and uncles had taught us about how to treat women. We had to defy our fathers and uncles in this very intimate and emotional arena. It wasn’t easy.
Nor was it easy to give up our male privilege. It was not easy to give up our power. But many of us did. We saw that the assumptions we had been taught to make about women were wrong. We saw that how women were portrayed in movies and on television was wrong. We saw how this connected to women’s real unhappiness. I saw this in my own mother and in other women of her generation. I saw it and it hit home emotionally. I saw that how husbands and fathers treated women led to lasting harm. But it was not easy to give up what my father had taught me.
It was not easy and it was painful.
For there were bonding moments between men and boys that, though injurious to women, were emotionally satisfying. Sharing in the snicker and the leer, the knowing comment about a woman’s legs or breasts — these were our initiation into our fathers’ world, and with them came longed-for gestures of acceptance. These pitiful moments served as rites of passage: I whistled at a woman. I guess I’m a man now.
The courageous work of women over the past century has enshrined many rights in law and custom. Because much seems now settled, it may be hard for younger women to grasp the ways men still use the conventions of romance to oppress them. That’s what this man did. He used the conventions of romantic love to oppress your sister. Now he is using the vestiges of romantic love to render her vulnerable to further attacks. And he has turned to tormenting her in ways that could probably be prosecuted. Yet when she goes to the police she finds herself rebuffed. Here, too, she is confronting the vestiges of a centuries-old center of male power. When a young woman approaches an older policeman to complain of emotional torment arising out of a romantic relationship, vestiges of the old patriarchal order are reenacted.
So naturally she feels rebuffed. She feels as if her complaint was meager and unimportant. She has been patronized. She has been stripped of her dignity and power. It may sound hyperbolic to say this, but it is commonplace.
Knowing the larger picture can give one courage.
If your sister will educate herself about her history as a woman, she may make connections that motivate her psychologically and emotionally. That is what pioneering feminists did. That is why they met in consciousness-raising circles: They understood that if they were to succeed, they had to motivate each other. It was not only knowledge that they were transmitting, but courage.
This courage is what your sister needs. Women’s groups in her area will gladly provide some of that courage.
As for what else you can do, it might help to actually go there and talk with her. Go to the police station with her. Help her contact a lawyer who can talk to the police and frame the situation in such a way as to get a legal stay-away order.
There was a column a while back in which I was widely viewed to have given a too-lenient view of a domestic situation in which the man displayed traits that to many indicated that he was dangerous. So perhaps I can make up for it this time by insisting that this man’s behavior be treated as dangerous.
You can help by regularly checking in with her on the situation. You can also help by aiding her in changing her passwords. I don’t know the technical situation but it’s possible he knows not only her passwords but her supposedly safe “hints” — you know, the supposedly personal information only she would have. So please consult with someone about computer security and help her change her passwords in a more foolproof way.
In general, commit to giving her regular calls and pep talks to keep her motivated and confident. Visit her if at all possible. Impress upon her the seriousness of this man’s behavior. Be there in any way you can. Help her find a lawyer who can advocate for her in the courts. Don’t be discouraged. Be there. It’s what an older brother is for.