Growing up, two very dear women I knew and loved died of cancer. One died of breast cancer and one died of uterine cancer. Both died quickly, as though death were easier than continuing to live.
One of these women was married to a wonderful man who happened to be gay at a time when men from the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania simply weren’t. For over thirty years they kept this secret. She produced three children and then moved from her husband’s bed to her daughter’s. By the time she showed her misshapen breasts to someone, it was way too late. She died within a year.
The other woman was one of my aunts. I loved her for the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled and the way she made every visit very special. But the visits weren’t very often. I had to grow up a whole lot before I connected my mother’s reluctance to let me stay at her house with her husband’s proclivity for sitting at a table with a glass of what looked like water in front of him. It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother was willing to tell me the whole story, the one that included the black eyes, the tears, the apologies.
In that generation, you married for life, especially if you were Catholic. There was no divorce, no separation. If your husband beat you, the shame was yours, not his. And so each time my aunt arrived at her mother’s house with another black eye, my nonna would commiserate with her about how hard men could be. She would offer a bed for the night and ice for her eye. And the next day, she expected that my aunt would, without question, return home.
Knowing this, I guess I wasn’t surprised when my aunt died within a year of her cancer being diagnosed. I think for her and my friend’s mother, death was the only release they were allowed from an unbearable situation. The difference was that in the first case, there were two victims. In my aunt’s case, there was only one.
We talk openly about domestic violence now. Men are no longer automatically exonerated and women are no longer expected to keep a stiff upper lip and bear the abuse.
Because we are so open about it, there is a tendency to think that we’ve handled the problem, that women will no longer stay in abusive situations because society now allows them an out.
But that’s not true. Not only is there still an entire generation of older women living with abuse because they were raised to be ashamed of it or are frightened at the idea of being alone, but there is a generation of younger women who think that so long as the man isn’t using a two by four, he must still love them. I interview these women all the time when I do my GAL reports for child custody cases. Too many women still say, “He didn’t beat me. He just used his fists.”
We read about horror cases in the mid-East where men abuse the precepts of Islam to justify killing women and girls. I think of the latest story in the news where a man killed his raped daughter because she disgraced his family and killed his younger daughter while he was at it on the off chance she might disgrace him in the future.
We are appalled by these stories and by the apparently blas� acceptance of this violence against women. We shake our heads and think, “Thank god I don’t live in that society.” While we may have learned to make disapproving noises when it comes to violence against women, we shouldn’t assume that we’ve actually ended the violence that happens in our homes, behind closed doors, amidst the pain and shame that infects one generation after another. That is a cycle yet to be broken.
My aunt had no choice because society’s attitude was that men will be men and women have to bear it. Now that women do have choices, I am beyond saddened that so many still accept the abuse as their lot in life. We are a long way ahead of the prevalent attitude towards women in the mid-East. But we are an equally long way from zero tolerance of domestic violence in our own communities.
Domestic violence is still an epidemic in Alaska. Surely we can do better than that for our mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, daughters and friends.