That’s what Joan says, with a defensive tone, looking at me as if I was talking s**t about her husband. I haven’t said anything. She’s actually the one doing most of the talking. I’m just sitting there, drinking my coffee, listening to her story.
She met Dan when she was 17. She was the good girl, the one with the good grades, the one who would go to college (in a communist Eastern European country of the 80’s that was a big deal). He was the bad boy, the soul of the party, the rebel. She fell in love, obviously. We’ve all been there. We all have a bad boy crush in our teens. Some of us grow out of it. Some of us don’t. Joan is of the latter category. She married Dan as soon as she graduated from high-school. He was 20, handsome, unemployed and had no penny on his name. She still wanted to go to college, but Dan didn’t agree with that. “Why would a woman need to learn so much?” he’d say. “You know how to cook, how to do stuff around the house and that’s enough” There was no changing his mind. Their first child was born a year later – a daughter, Andy. Joan looked at the little girl in her arms and her heart sank at the thought of all the challenges she’d have to face, simply for being a girl. She thought of the Dan her daughter will meet, the Dan who will tell her she doesn’t need to know more, she doesn’t need to be more. She promised to her daughter, in the first hour of her life, that she won’t let any Dan ruin her dreams. Four years later, Dean came along. Their beautiful, green-eyed son. To everybody around, they seemed the epitome of a happy family. But they were far from it.
Joan had always thought that Dan’s partying would stop after they’d get married. She hoped he would get a job and live up to the responsibilities he had towards his family. He didn’t. He kept on doing what he used to do before – partying, drinking, occasionally gambling or doing drugs. One day, soon after Andy was born, Joan had the imprudence of scolding Dan for being home late and drunk. That was the first time he hit her. She put it all on the booze, thinking he’d apologize the next day. He didn’t. He never did, in 30 years of marriage. He did, however, keep on hitting her, every time she had the guts of saying something “out of place” or, simply, every time he was angry and had no other punching bag in sight. Then he started hitting the children. They were too loud, he needed rest after partying with his friends all night long. They needed to be educated and disciplined.
I wish I could tell you a story of strength. I wish this paragraph was about the new Joan, the one who took her children and left Dan behind, to drown in his own misery. Unfortunately, I can’t. Joan is still living with Dan. She got used to the beating, to the drinking, to the two jobs she had to take on in order to support her family. Her children are grown up by now. Andy is 30, Dean is 26. They both got their lives. Andy moved away from her hometown and she lives with her boyfriend, but she told her mum she never wants to get married and have children. She urged Joan to leave Dan numerous times, but Joan says she can’t. Therefore, Andy only visits her parents on Christmas and/or Easter, for a few days. She can’t stand being around her abusive father. Dean is not speaking to his father. He still lives in his hometown and sees his mum for coffee occasionally. He only goes to visit when his dad’s not around. When I talked to him, he told me something that might sound a bit harsh. He said “Both me and my sister tried to take her away. We both asked her to come live with us, to have a safe home, for once in her life. She refused every single time. What are we to understand from it? Maybe she likes it that way, maybe she just doesn’t want to get away. If that’s the case, she deserves him” Upon thinking about his words, however, they seemed less and less harsh and more and more true.
Joan looks at me and says “You understand, don’t you?” I wish I could I say I did. I wish I could give her the approval she obviously longs for. But I can’t. Because the truth is I don’t understand. Women have fought for their rights for centuries. Hell, they still are. There are thousands of women out there who want to get away from their abusive husbands and they truly have nobody to help them. Joan has two wonderful children who were more than happy to take her in. She had numerous exit signs handed to her on the proverbial silver plate. She turned all of them down. She made a conscious choice of standing beside the man who abused her and her children for 30 years. There is no understanding that.
Joan’s story is touching, but it’s not a story of bravery. It’s a story of cowardliness and pusillanimity, of lack of self respect and confidence. Joan still has a chance of a happy ending, but it’s unlikely that she will take it. Don’t be like Joan! We can all write our own stories and choose our own endings. There is no destiny, no “written in the stars” for any of us. Our life is made up of choices, consciously made choices. If we don’t make those choices for ourselves, somebody else will. And we all deserve more than that. We can be more than that. In the words of Gloria Steinem “we shall overcome”