I get it, but I can’t bear to watch

I’ve wanted to post something for a long time, but I was waiting for something good to occur to me, something that spoke to my writerly existence, but also to the bigger world beyond my office window. Yes, I am aware that there’s an outside world. I read about it sometimes. Hee.

Last week, I watched the Grammys. I love awards shows (but only the big ones; I don’t watch the technical Oscars, for heaven’s sake). They’re like high school and holiday work parties and cheap voyeurism all rolled into one. For me, they’re just a happy, empty, chip-fuelled time. I like to gawk. I don’t always want to think. And last week I wasn’t, quite happily.

Until Chris Brown and Rihanna happened.

I knew that they had gotten back together. I even knew they would probably show up at the Grammys together, but still I wasn’t prepared for seeing them together on television, moving around, holding hands. I wanted to cry.

And then Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp happened. And I really did cry.

Listen, I’ve spoken in public about gender-based violence, written about it at length in all of my books. Clearly, it’s an issue that’s important to me. But it’s not just important. It’s deeply, painfully personal too. I was once young and insecure about how much or how well I could be loved. I once chose a man who wasn’t interested in loving me very much or very well and yet I was still grateful to him for showing any interest in me at all. I thought I needed to earn him, to prove that I was worth his time. I tried to be cool and worldly and urbane, terrified that he would find out I was just the opposite: skinny, underwhelming and sensible enough to contribute regularly to my RRSPs.

Soon after I met him and we spent the night together for the first time, I found myself in an emergency room, lying on a narrow bed, being asked questions about bruises and consent that I didn’t even know how to answer.

I saw him only once after that, when he came to my door to collect a few things he had left. He asked if he would see me again. I said, I don’t think so, and shut the door in face. Half of me wanted to open the door again and run after him. The other half wanted to throw a steak on his face and release a trio of starving mastiffs.

Rihanna and Reeva are famous. They have famous partners. They’re also beautiful and rich. I was never any of these things, but I see me when I read about them. Women who have been subjected to abuse aren’t stupid and they haven’t made bad decisions about what they wear or how they act. They are caught in a relationship that makes them feel loved in a way they believe will not exist with anyone else. Their partners make them feel whole, sometimes. And it’s for those moments they accept the punching and the yelling and the violent sex and whatever else happens. But acceptance is not the same as asking for it, or deserving what they get. Acceptance is when you grit your teeth and breathe through it. When you say, it’ll get better. When you understand that this is what your relationship is but you don’t know how to change it.

I know that young women push at the limits of their sexuality and relationships. It’s what we do instead of bungee jumping or street racing. Yes, please do ask yourself questions about whom you should be with and how you want to be loved and go out and put all of that into practice. Please do. But do me one favour: know that you’re whole and lovable and complete without a partner, that you should be grateful for your family or your friends or your job, not for the man who tells you you’re perfect except when he’s in a rage. You’re perfect anyway. Without his input.

I understand Rihanna. I understand Reeva. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch.

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