Abused husband

My wife beat me for years and the one time I fought back I got fired for it.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 29, 2004 8:09PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I married this wonderful woman. She was (is) very well-regarded within her theatrical community. She had many friends and what appeared to be a strong family. We got married, and within a few weeks, she started beating me. There had been instances of extreme emotion and the threat of violence from her before we got married, but I thought I must have been a real jerk or something, and figured it was me. Anyhow, two years go by, and she continues to physically, emotionally and verbally abuse me. My predisposition to mild depression turned into a soul-crushing blackness, which clouded my every action.

One night, when I was changing our baby girl's diaper, my wife attacked me again. Something snapped in me, and for the first time in three years, I fought back. I pushed her away, and she fell over a couch. She told my boss what I had done, I was fired, and she moved out to live with him. She left our daughter with me. Now, in my community, and among her friends and family, it is believed I am a wife beater. This is a pickle, because what I did was inexcusable. I should never have fought back, but I did. She abused me in the extreme in many ways for years, and I lashed out once and I am labeled the monster and lost my job and my livelihood.

She continues to enjoy tremendous success in the profession. Now, after the divorce is final, she is coming back begging for me to return to her and start over. She says she understands she had a mental illness and is seeking help. What do I do now? Should I believe her and give her a second chance, or should I follow the adage that says people who are given second chances mess up over and over again?

In a Pickle

Dear In a Pickle,

Just take care of yourself and your daughter. Don't get back together with this woman. Consult a lawyer and a family counselor. Tell them you want to identify ways to ensure your safety and the safety of your daughter. Enlist their help. Put your trust in them. And stop saying that what you did was inexcusable. On the contrary, it was quite natural. When beaten, people tend to fight back.

I was sitting in my car high above the sea around the time of sunset the other day, trying to calm myself by thinking back to the moment of my birth. I tried to recall what it was like to emerge from that long, thumping swim into a screaming hostile air too bright for new eyes, and all I could recall was a searing feeling in my lungs, and a driving, white-hot desire to breathe and survive. The funny thing was, the determination of that tiny being to simply survive felt a lot like anger; in its focus, its single-mindedness, its desperate purpose. I felt myself like a fullback crashing through the line; I felt myself like a miler, covering the ground; I felt myself like a meditator doing the breath of fire; I felt myself like a bird, pointed like a bullet into the wind. It reminded me: Existence cuts the world like a knife; we have to make the place bleed if we're going to stay here and not be bumped aside.

This woman who's been beating you up, and this voice in your head that says you should take it: Somewhere you got twisted; maybe somebody told you that you don't have the right to exist. You have to change that; you have to get something straight: You have the right to exist. She doesn't have the right to hit you.

Maybe you were told by your parents you could never hurt your mother. Maybe every time you asserted your existence you risked killing your parents. I don't know the particulars; I only know that what you've described tells me that at some deep level you don't believe you have the right to exist, and you have to go back, perhaps to your moment of birth, to remember that existence is the one thing you have an eternal right to, as an animal, as a being, as a miracle that started as a single cell, and anything that threatens your existence you have a right to fight. You've got to go find what happened and regain your right to exist.

Have you ever boxed? Have you ever wanted to get in the ring? Do you believe that hitting people with your fists is not something you do? Have you ever hit someone with your fist? Were you beaten as a child by loving parents? Did you suffer at that moment the strangling certainty that if you hit back you would die? You have to go back further than that, to being a child who is suffocating. What would you do if you were suffocating? You'd struggle to survive. You'd lash out with your fists. What would you do if someone were beating you, killing you? You'd struggle to survive.

This woman who was beating you was trying to take your life away. You have a right to your life. You've got to go through the fiery doors of memory and fear, feel the burning in your belly as you start to remember what happened, how you got here. You've got to find that animal that wants to breathe and not be hit, that animal that knows how to turn and snarl. You've got to go back and find the time you gave up and took the beatings. You've got to undo it. You've got to find, maybe in the breath, the kernel of pure existence; and in that kernel you have to find the spirit to resist annihilation.

Maybe you can find an ally to help you through it, a therapist who knows how to work with the breath, a therapist who's not afraid of the anger at the heart of survival.

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Cary Tennis

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