A woman (it’s almost always a woman) comes forward stating that she’s been abused by her partner (almost always a man). How she does this isn’t important. Although- if she doesn’t press charges she’s assumed to be lying and simultaneously blamed for letting her abuser go free. If she does go to the police, she’s assumed to be overreacting and blamed for destroying a good man’s life over one little mistake. She can’t win.
The next thing that happens? People go to the partner. They ask him for his side of the story. Invariably- yes, invariably- he either denies everything or downplays what happened. Maybe she’s making it up. Maybe she really wanted it at the time. Maybe she provoked him and her provocation was just as bad, wasn’t it?
So he says that he didn’t do it, or that it isn’t something we should bother worrying about.
Why does this surprise us? Why does it make us less likely to believe her? What do we expect him to do? Do we think that someone would abuse their partner but feel that lying about it is crossing a line? Do we expect them to put their hands up, saying “damn, you got me!” and offer to be led away? Maybe break down in tears ashamed of what they’ve done, giving the rest of us a hefty dollop of superiority and the feeling of justice being done? Is that realistic? Really?
What do we expect abusers to do?
Yes, I’m talking about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. This week. If you’re reading this in six months or five years, swap those names for whoever the most recent accuser and accused are. While I don’t want to dismiss any particular case, this isn’t really about the specifics of one couple. It’s about a pattern: here is what happens when a woman accuses a man of domestic violence, relationship abuse, or rape. I specify ‘woman’ and ‘man’ deliberately. Gender dynamics always play into our closest relationships, as well as affecting how others see them.
Abusers aren’t monsters. They’re (almost) the same as the rest of us.
Are abusers monsters, or are they ordinary people?
If an abuser is a monster, what would a monster do when they’re caught? Would they put their hands up and say “yeah, it was me”, or would they scheme to get out of it any way they could? What is a monster, anyway? Is it someone who is somehow inhuman? Someone who doesn’t bother following the same social contract that binds the rest of us to act relatively decently towards each other? If abusers are monsters, then why would we take their word for it? Wouldn’t we expect them to deny their monstrosity?
What if an abuser isn’t a monster? Abuse is common. If 1/5 of women have experienced some kind of domestic violence, we have to face up to one of two possibilities. Either monsters are everywhere, or abusers are human and closer to the rest of us than we want to admit. What if someone who abuses is an ordinary person who can’t handle not getting what they want? Or who takes out their feelings on others? If abusers are ordinary people, shouldn’t we expect them to try to get out of trouble?
Abusers are people. You and me, almost everyone has the potential to do abusive things. The difference is that some do and others don’t. If you don’t think that you could? I don’t believe you. I’d believe you, maybe, if you say that you never would. Most of us know how to handle our darker impulses. But don’t even try to tell me that you’ve never daydreamed about destroying or hurting someone who screwed you over- not even for a second. Yeah, for most of us it stays there: a harmless moment where we indulge in the fantasy of punching that asshole’s lights out or keying their precious car. So let’s acknowledge the dark, scary thing that most of us don’t want to: the difference between you, me, and abusers is whether you’ve done the things that most of us have daydreamed about. That’s not a thin line, by the way, and nor is it a small difference. There’s a chasm the size of the Great Rift Valley between doing and not-doing.
When we talk about abusers, let’s remember this: what they do is the same stuff the rest of us daydream about. That’s why it’s so easy for us to justify their actions. We know what it feels like to be so angry that we feel a hairs-breadth from losing control. So hurt that we have no idea how we managed to stop ourselves. We’ve all snapped and said something we regret. Most of us, though, have stuck to our side of that line. That Rift Valley that feels like a hairsbreadth from the inside.
We could talk for hours about what causes someone to cross the line. Maybe someone was raised a victim of violence and abuse and never learned a healthier way to relate. They could live with so much privilege that they’ve forgotten how to cope with not getting their way. They could be worn down from so many hurts that they don’t care anymore. Addiction (be it to drugs, power or something else entirely) could destroy someones sense of perspective. Or maybe they’re just a manipulative ass and always have been.
The details aren’t important. What matters is this: people have destructive impulses. We have reasons for those impulses. When we want to harm someone, you’d better believe we feel that person deserves it.
It doesn’t matter if they really do or not (but spoilers: they don’t). What’s important here? We all justify our most destructive acts. Why would we expect abusers to behave differently? What do we expect abusers to do?
Everyone justifies themselves
How does it feel to be wrong? Not to discover that you’re wrong, or to know that you are. Simply to be wrong. How does that feel?
I think it feels exactly the same as being right. Isn’t that why it’s so difficult to admit that you were wrong all along? It’s why we need to take some time to calm down after a big argument before we can look at what happened rationally. Even if we’re wrong, it’s tough to admit it. It’s tougher to realise it. Until the second you realise that you were wrong, being wrong feels like being in the right. It feels justified.
Take an everyday example. Let’s say I bump into you on the street. I’ve been having a shitty day, I’m late for where I’m going and you didn’t get out of my way when I said “excuse me” so yeah, I push past you. According to me, you’re the asshole who wasn’t listening and took up half the street on a busy afternoon. You’re the asshole. According to me, I didn’t shove you- I barely touched you. And besides, you were standing in the middle of the street. According to you? You’ve been having a shitty day and you’re in your own world trying to work out what to do about all the things that happened to you, and then some asshole shoves past you without so much as an “excuse me”. And besides, there’s plenty more room on the street. I’m the asshole. Both of us think that we’re justified and the other person is the asshole. We’re both halfway right- we were both inconsiderate and should have paid attention to the people around us.
Imagine someone tries to point that out to either of us. How likely are we to listen in the moment? Pretty unlikely. In our own minds, our actions are justified. We know what led up to us being where we were at that moment. We know how we felt.
Of course, in an incident as trivial as that I’m sure either of us would apologise to the other the next day. It wasn’t a big deal, right? We both know that people overreact when they’re stressed. Admitting our bad behaviour doesn’t say anything about who we are as a person. We don’t risk being labeled shovers or street hoggers for the rest of our lives.
Let’s go back to Depp. Far as I can see? If he did abuse her, you bet he felt justified. His mum had just died. Don’t know if you’ve ever been through grief but let me tell you, there is a time after a major loss when nobody can do anything right. Your reactions to everything are completely out of whack and yeah, you can definitely internally justify doing things you shouldn’t. I’ve been hearing elsewhere that he was jealous over Heard having close lesbian friends. If that ain’t a cliché- straight guy can’t handle bi partner’s queer friends/exes/self- I don’t know what is. And let’s not even get started on the guy’s acknowledged history of drug and alcohol abuse. I’m not saying he definitely did it. I will say this: domestic abuse is common. Rich, powerful white men get away with abusing others all the time. Women who report abuse are almost never believed. If you start by believing women when they report abuse, you’ll be right most of the time. Speaking for myself? I believe Amber.
What do we expect abusers to do?
It’s true that we don’t know anything for certain. But if he did abuse her, what would we expect him to do? If he’s a monster, would a monster really admit to their monstrousness if they thought there was a way out? And if he’s an ordinary person who did an inexcusable thing, do you really think he isn’t excusing and minimising it to himself right this moment? And do you really think that in a world where ordinary people get away with abuse every day, one of the highest paid actors in the world isn’t capable of either lying, or convincing even himself?
That’s what we need to ask ourselves. In a world where we expect criminals to deny their actions, why do we take an abuser’s word when they say they didn’t do it? What else would we expect them to do?