Category Archives: abuse

Advice by moonlight

It’s 12:47 at night on Monday (Tuesday?).   Mondays are Mondays, which means it’s hard to get up in the morning, and they are long days, full of meetings, catching up on email, figuring out what I said I’d do over the weekend and didn’t, regular work, and then the highlight of my week, an hour with the kiddles at 826Michigan, followed by pub trivia.

This Monday was enhanced by a ribbon cutting ceremony at the library (a rather moving one at that), the excitement of losing my purse (I think/hope I know where I left it), and a young writer more interested in bolting out the door than crafting his personal nemesis.  So the columns, all in all, were left by the wayside until 12:47 or, by now, 12:50, when I’m tired but not sleepy.

And thus I offer a quick drive-by-fruiting (Mrs. Doubtfire?  Anyone?) of Prudence’s Monday live chat–which I always forget about until 12:47, or, by now, 12:51 on Monday (Tuesday?).

As Prudence says each week, (except, of course, this week when I want to quote it): Let’s get to it!


Yikes.  After reading the first three chat participants, I’m not sure “drive by fruiting” is the best approach after all.  Some pretty heavy stuff in this week’s chat.  Here’s a rundown, anyway, with key quotes included and sassy commentary withheld.  Have a look, if you want to read about:

  • “One of my close friends just announced his engagement to a woman he’s been dating for a few years. We’re happy for him, but many of us can’t shake the feeling that he’s making a mistake. In essence, the woman makes fun of him a lot in front of his friends, and not in a loving way.”
  • “A few months ago, my husband raped me in the middle of the night. He was asleep during the attack, and he believes that it is a disorder called sexsomnia…I feel like I will never be able to get over this and I will live in constant fear for the rest of my life…To make matters worse, I have recently started having an affair, because I needed someone to take away all of the pain….I still care about my husband, and I want to honor the commitment I made to him, but when I look at him all I see is a monster. Is there any hope that I can fall in love with him again, or should I cut ties and move on?”
  • “If you have done whatever you can to get any kind of income and you haven’t been able to find a stable job, do you take it as a sign that perhaps you’re supposed to be unemployed? I’m at my wits’ end, and this is how I’m thinking, more to save my sanity than anything else. What do you think?”
  • I work in a small, close-knit office. There is one “boss” to speak of, but we all work mostly independently. Most of our staff have advanced college degrees. My problem occurs during lunchtime. There have been quite a few times that the “boss” reaches on my plate and takes some food.

Thank God!  Something petty, at last!  From that point on, the chat is all over the map, with the nasty relatives, nosy friends, speech disorders, adultery, boozing, housekeeping (and lack thereof) and lazy co-workers we all like to see.

Not much cheery or inspirational in Prudence this week, I’m afraid.  Tell your friends not to marry jerks, ignore the jerks in your own lives, and do your jobs, everyone!  Happy Tuesday.  Since it’s now 1:08.


A Little Help Please: Savage Love edition — “It gets better”

In this week’s Savage Love, a reader asked about Billy Lucas, a high school freshman who committed suicide this month after being seriously bullied by his classmates, who harassed him because they believed he was gay:

I just read about a gay teenager in Indiana—Billy Lucas—who killed himself after being taunted by his classmates. Now his Facebook memorial page is being defaced by people posting homophobic comments. It’s just heartbreaking and sickening. What the hell can we do?

Continue reading

The Pragmatic vs. the Political

I’ve been sitting on this post for awhile, ruffling and unruffling my feathers and trying to think about what I want to say. The right “moment” has probably already passed–but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

It’s been a season of feminist blogger backlash against the advice columns. It started with restless rumbling against Lucinda Rosenfeld’s harsh critique of a young woman left in the street, drunk, by her so-called friends. Right on the stilettos of this one came Hess vs. Garner regarding Eva, who had been raped (but was reconsidering calling it that) by her boss, was raising the child that resulted from that assault, and wanted help winning back her ex-husband, who left her when she chose not to terminate the pregnancy.

But the bs really hit the fan, so to speak, the day after Thanksgiving, when Amy Dickinson advised a college student who was sexually assaulted at a frat party.

The key points of Amy’s response were:
1) Making the decision to drink to the point where judgement and inhibitions are impaired is never wise–and that’s something you can choose to control
2) According to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, no matter what state either of you were in, if you did not consent to have sex, and it happened anyway, that’s rape
3) You must seek physical treatment and emotional support immediately through the resources available at your university.
4) Find a way to tell this dude that someone is onto him, and that whether his behavior is deliberately, violently malicious or terrifyingly, alcoholically ignorant, it’s not going to fly under the radar anymore.

The bloggers went to town on this one (among them, Hortense at, meloukhia of This Ain’t Livin’, Amanda Hess at The Sexist, and ginmar at A View From a Broad, henceforth, “the bloggers”), all of them generally re-stating Amy’s response this way:

“Yeah. That’s right. You stupid slut, you made your bed, now go lie in it. Everyone knows that going to parties at frat houses will result in rape, or sex that you will regret, and no self-respecting lady would ever attend such a party, for this very reason.” (that’s meloukhia)

Arrrrrrrrrgh. OK.

I think the advice columns are a fantastic source for social activists of any kind to identify the problems that burden our society. And rape on college campuses is certainly one one of them. I’m all for re-purposing these columns, pushing them out there to raise awareness, to be sure that men, women, parents, and children know that this is happening, and must change. There’s a social and political cause here, for sure.

But I maintain that for the advice columnists, the pragmatic comes before the political.

Amy is pretty cutthroat, no doubt. I agree with the bloggers that her first line, “Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment,” probably did not make “Victim(?) in Virginia” feel much better. That’s her style–she’s not a coddler. Carolyn Hax might have started the column with, “I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through, and the pain and uncertainty you’re struggling with.” But guess what? I suspect she would have followed it up with very similar advice.

Frankly, I’m not sure Amy is in a position to say, “yes, you were raped. ” In any case, it’s clear she didn’t feel she was in a position to say it. She’s not a doctor, a lawyer, or a psychologist. She’s never met or spoken to Victim, or heard more about what happened than, he quickly proceeded to go against what he ‘promised,’” which doesn’t give a lot of medical or legal information. It doesn’t help that the whole thing is clouded by (possibly illegal) consumption of alcohol (possibly by both parties).

This is so often the case, and I think must be the hardest part of being an advice columnist: rarely, if ever, can they safely diagnose. They can’t confirm that your spouse is cheating, they can’t tell you to definitely have that baby, they can’t help you get a girlfriend, and they don’t know whether you were raped. What they can do, and what most of them are quite good at (in different ways) is break down an overwhelming event into comprehensible chunks, and make recommendations for moving forward.

Another harsh truth of advice columns is that they can only advise the person who wrote to them. It does no good to say “Your mother-in-law sounds like a real bitch, she shouldn’t treat you that way” or “This criminal needs to stop raping people.” The mother-in-law and the criminal don’t care. All the columnist can offer is perspective and choices for the person who wrote.

So bloggers, use these columns to your heart’s content! Please draw notice to the fact that even in this day and age, a young woman can be sexually assualted, and the only place she can think to turn is a stranger, a face she’s seen in the newspaper. People need to know that. And we need to fix it. But keep in mind when you do that that face in the newspaper is trying to provide useful, accurate, honest guidance to an unknown person, on a terrible, delicate situation about which she has only 2 paragraphs of vague information–and about the same amount of space to respond.

You can expand upon, repurpose, and even totally disagree with what the columnist says, while respecting the fact that your audiences and purposes are very different ones. You can take a different tack, make something more of a column that you thought was fundamentally weak, without calling the original writer “one part incredible bitch and one part cover-your-ass scold” (that was ginmar).

For the record–I think Amanda Hess does that really well this time. She’s clearly disgusted by Amy’s response, but her commentary is nevertheless precise, logical and nuanced.

The trouble is, when you get so worked up about criminalizing the columnist, you force yourself to make everything black and white, to disparage everything she says for the sake of being right. For example, meloukhia is affronted that Amy didn’t “provide [the victim] with any resources beyond a tepid recommendation to go to the college health clinic.” Ok…the college health clinic is free, it’s on campus, they’re trained in dealing with students, and they could refer her to local doctors, hospitals, or rape crisis centers with much greater expertise than Amy could. What’s wrong with this recommendation, and how is a directive to go there “tepid”? I don’t get it.

And finally…..(drumroll)…..I admit it: I don’t think Amy’s reinforcing rape culture by agreeing with Victim that her choices weren’t good ones. I believe (subtlety again, look out!) that there’s a difference between, “this probably could have been avoided” and “you deserved what you got, you hussy.”

I don’t believe that anything you do or don’t do, say or don’t say, wear or don’t wear, means you deserve or are asking to be assualted. I do believe that there are choices that make it more likely to happen.

Let me be clear: I am not saying women should wear habits, keep a 9 p.m. curfew, and avoid direct eye contact with men, lest the men be aroused beyond their control. I am saying that everything we do, and everywhere we go, falls somewhere on the spectrum of risk to our well-being: we could be hit by a car, we could get food poisoning in the cafeteria, we could meet a stranger in a dark alley–or an untrustworthy charmer at a party. The answer, of course, is not to cower under our beds (after all, the roof could cave in). But the responsibility to calculate those risks, and choose to take them on, or not, with a clear mind, lies with each of us alone.

Women have fought for autonomy, on college campuses and off, for years. Female college students have insisted, rightfully of course, that parents, house moms, dates, RAs, and older brothers have no place dictating, or even knowing, where we go, what we do, and when, even though just a few decades ago that wasn’t the case. But the corollary is that the responsibility for those choices is ours and ours alone. Being the victim of sexual assault is absolutely not any woman’s fault or rightful punishment. But choosing whether to isolate herself, while incapacitated, with a stranger in a strange place is in her hands, and no one else’s.

The trick of the advice column is that it has practical merit only if it’s directed specifically at what Victim can control. Unfortunately, that inevitably puts the focus on her choices and options, not his unacceptable behavior. Whoever this guy is, he obviously should never have lied to Victim, and then attacked her as soon as he got her alone. But Victim wasn’t able to stop him from doing it, and Amy certainly can’t do anything about it now, from her column. Victim just wants permission to call herself, well, a victim. Amy could give it to her–but what good would that do? What would she do next? Instead, she focuses on a plan of action, encouraging Victim to seek treatment, help, and closure, to reclaim the agency and control that she lost in this terrible episode.

To a wide audience of parents, students, feminists, voters, etc., “This should never have happened! Our society is broken!” is a powerful rallying cry. But to one woman to whom it already did happen…well, it’s not so helpful. We need both the political and the pragmatic, the activist and the advice columnist. What we don’t need is the ranting and the name calling.

When bad neighbors mean no fences

Prudence (whose Thursday column must have come out early because of the holiday–more reasons to be thankful!) responds to a query that, sadly, comes up in the columns more often than any of us would like: a reader who is almost certainly a witness to domestic abuse wants to know if/how to intervene, without further endangering the victim, or themselves.

Prudie’s response is right, I think, giving the writer, who is clearly disturbed by what’s going on, an extra kick in the pants to make the necessary phone call. But there’s one thing in her response that stands out as odd to me. See if you can find it:

Dear Prudence,
I am concerned about an ongoing situation involving my next-door neighbors. My wife and I moved into our apartment about six months ago. Not long after moving in, we were alarmed to hear our next-door neighbors, a married couple with whom we share a wall, shouting very loudly at each other during a heated fight. Since then, the arguments have continued with great frequency, and the language from him is so loud and abusive that we are now starting to feel as if we should call the police, especially because they have a baby, and we sometimes hear crashing sounds. But if we call the police, they will know that it was either we who called or their other next-door neighbors (there are only a few apartments in the building), and I don’t want that lunatic coming after us. When is it time to call in help?

—Next-Door Nightmare

Dear Next-Door,
Now is the time to call. Once, years ago, I lived below a similarly abusive husband, who regularly screamed vile things. One day, I heard the wife come home, cry out, and fall to the floor, which was followed by her hysterical sobs. I feared she had been attacked by an intruder, so I called the police. They came and left, and when I called the station to find out what happened, I was told: “It was nothing. Just a domestic.” The couple went on to have a baby and move away, and I’ve sometimes wondered about that miserable little family. Fortunately, today there’s a different attitude about “Just a domestic.” Your call doesn’t mean he’ll stop, or that she’ll leave him, but it does put them in the system and him on notice. You can call anonymously. And if you later feel in any way threatened by him, immediately make a follow-up call to the police.


Do you see it? “I feared she had been attacked by an intruder, so I called the police.” Really, Prudence? After hearing this going on above you for weeks, months, whatever, when the screaming escalated to violence, your first thought was, “Must be a robber”? I don’t buy it. Which makes me wonder why she felt compelled to say that. It sounds like she’s trying to justify her decision to call the police (if she’d known there was no intruder, she wouldn’t have called?), which is odd, since the point of her response is to convince the ambivalent writer to make the call, not let it go. Weird.

Misunderstandings and Misnomers

Today Carolyn printed a letter from a man looking for a clear definition of “abuse” so he’d know more easily whether or not to leave his relationship. My first instinct is that if you have to ask, there’s clearly something very wrong, and you should probably get out anyway. Carolyn offered similar advice: In his situation there were no physical attacks, and arguments were littered with sort of garden-variety name calling. Carolyn didn’t send him to an abuse hotline, but said regardless of what you call it, clearly the relationship was not a productive or healthy one.

However, I think she misunderstood something that he said, which to me makes all the difference.

Dear Carolyn:

How do you know if your partner’s behavior during a fight is abusive? I think that label would make breaking up easier. I wouldn’t feel like there was still something we could do to save the relationship.

The fight was about her (in my opinion) overreaction to something I did, which I didn’t think was that bad. There was name-calling, including accusations of being a liar and a cheater. She was out-of-control angry. The thing that causes me the most PTSD is that she pulled the emergency brake in the car while we were on a highway ramp. No harm done, thank God, but is that abusive?

Carolyn seemed to think that this guy was throwing around the term PTSD to describe how upset this guy got when his girlfriend did this. This, I think, ticked her off a little and colored her advice back to him. This is an excerpt from the middle of her response:

Certainly the brake-pulling, which could have sent your car out of control, was reckless and beyond the pale.

If her volatility is a pattern that leads you to alter your behavior, then that’s a form of control.

But you don’t need labels any more than you need the diagnosis (come on, PTSD?) on your horror. The tantrum tells you all you need to know about her: She’s not mature enough for a serious relationship.

I read the letter differently, however….it sounded to me like the writer actually HAS PTSD, and that pulling the emergency brake on the highway was a trigger known by both him and his girlfriend, that she used on purpose to upset him. Which, I think, I would consider abuse.

Hm, but now I’m reading it again, and I think Carolyn’s right after all. He’s using PTSD to describe his state after their fight, not after being in a war zone. So, never mind. Carry on.

Taking it personally?

I was recently informed by a former reader that he’d ditched this blog when he was offended by something I’d written earlier this fall.

Of course, pissing people off is a major sign that you’ve “made it” as a writer (and for such glory, I’m willing to accept a readership of 3 people rather than 4! Maybe).

Nevertheless, I wanted to address the issue, since this is the first time I’ve been boycotted, and that seems worth marking in some way.

On December 16, I posted a response to a letter from Annie’s Mailbox, written by Ann Landers’ former editors. The letter was from a young woman in college who was unhappy in her relationship with her back-home boyfriend, who sounded like less than a treat. He had a history of emotionally and verbally abusing her, she said, as well as a history of mental illness in his family that seemed to be manifesting itself in his behavior. He was, at the very least, unstable and easily angered. And yet her question was whether she should break up with him, or if instead she should “throw her life away with the wrong guy.”

My main beef with her letter was the way she phrased her question. Not “I’m afraid of my boyfriend and don’t know how to end the relationship” but “Should I throw my life away on the wrong guy?”

Seriously, those were her words. And I commended Marcie and Kathy for looking past what she said, and getting to the heart of what she seemed to mean: that the bf was scary and unstable, and she wasn’t sure how to end it.

However, I also felt that their advice might not be so helpful. The writer (not me, but the writer) described the boyfriend as abusive, unstable, and potentially mentally ill. As a result, I didn’t think that Kathy and Marcie’s advice, to become so obsessed with her studies that he wants to break up with her out of boredom, would be very effective. If he is all the things that the writer (again, not me) says he is, than I think he’ll be more focused on controlling her and the state of their relationship than rationally considering whether or not they still have anything in common.

My former reader was put off by the fact that I described the boyfriend as potentially schizofrenic–but that came from the writer herself, not from me. More personally offensive to him, though, was my parenthetical sidenote wondering whether there was a “creepy age discrepancy” between the two.

“As the product of a ‘creepy age difference,'” he said, “I was offended.”

However, this post was hardly about age difference in relationships on the whole. I caught a whiff of what sounded like it might be an age gap, and pointed it out. When a relationship is already abusive and unbalanced, a discrepancy in age that gives the abuser an even more unbalanced amount of power and authority over the other person becomes creepy, whether it’s a difference of 3, 9, or 20 years.

In contrast, I truly believe that relationships between people of compatible and balanced emotional, social, and intellectual levels can and often do thrive, no matter the numbers involved.

To sum up–my problem wasn’t with the age difference, which I inferred (it was never confirmed in the letter). I simply felt that if there was such a difference, it would only compound the unfortunate situation in which this young woman found herself, and make it more difficult for her to get out of the relationship.

I stand by my original answer, though this episode was a good reminder to me that the odd phrase can put people off so much that they totally stop reading.

“That’s what you would do if a columnist did something like that, right?” the former reader asked me.

Nope. I’d write in to them and voice my opinion. That’s what I’ve done for years, and I’d encourage readers here to do the same! Conversation is what keeps this interesting. I don’t have all the answers, and whether or not we agree, I’d like to hear what others think.

And your question would be….?

Often people who write in to advice columnists seem to just want a chance to vent, receive justification for their feelings, or confirmation for a choice they’ve already made. Too many of their letters end with “Was I right?” (How boring…at least give the columnist more wiggle room than “yes” or “no”)

But sometimes I really have to wonder. Did you need help with this one? This is from “Annie’s Mailbox,” an advice column maintained by the women who were Ann Landers’ editors. And they were more patient and generous with this chica than I would have been.

Dear Annie: I’m a sophomore in college and live far away from my hometown, so I rarely see my friends or family. I wouldn’t mind so much except that I’m in a long-distance relationship with “Rob,” whom I have known since I was very young.
I know such relationships can be difficult, but this one is completely over the top. Rob has always been emotionally and verbally abusive, but now he has gotten so bad I’m afraid he’s becoming mentally unstable. Schizophrenia runs in his family, but he refuses to seek counseling.
Here’s the real problem. I’ve met another guy. “Alex” is funny, sweet and kind, and he loves me a lot. The feeling is mutual. What do I do now? Should I dump Rob and risk making him angry? Should I ditch Alex and be miserable? Should I throw away my life for the wrong guy?

— Didn’t Mean To Two-Time

I’m sorry. The “real problem” begins with the fact that you’ve met an apparently normal human? “Should I throw away my life for the wrong guy?” Yes. Yes, that sounds like an excellent plan! What???

Marcie and Kathy picked up on the fact that this girl is likely afraid of her scary boyfriend, and mostly talked to that issue. Wise and kind of them, as I mentioned:

Dear Didn’t Mean: So you’ve outgrown Rob, who is unstable and abusive, but you don’t want to make him angry because he’s a little scary. You can talk this over with one of the university counselors. Then tell your parents that you want to break up with Rob, but you are worried about his potential for being abusive.
It would be best if you could find a way to separate yourself gradually and naturally. Be nice on the phone and in your e-mails, but not too friendly or romantic, and don’t contact him too often. Don’t say you miss him or love him. Talk about class to the point where he’s bored. Your aim is to convince Rob he’d like to move on, too.

But I sort of feel like a potentially schizofrenic, undiagnosed, untreated, manipulative person is not going to get bored and move on if she turns cool, cordial, and really really academic. He’ll just get mad about how little attention she pays to him and freak out that she doesn’t love him anymore. Which is true. She should just make a clean break, as soon as possible. (Also, it’s weird that she’s known him since SHE was very, very young, not since WE were very very young. Sounds like there’s potential for a creepy age discrepancy here.)

Also: do not jump right into a relationship with Alex! If he’s macking on you when you’re clearly already in a relationship, and one that is unhealthy, there’s something weird going on. Is he drawn to your neediness? Sadness? His ability to comfort you and make you laugh when you’re being made miserable? What’s he going to do when you’re no longer in misery? You want to be with someone who wants you when you’re healthy and happy. And even if Alex turns out to be cool, and not into suffering, stifled girls, you’re not going to get healthy and happy jumping right into something else. Be single for awhile.