Before I go, I have something to say

Loving a Violent Man

Lately I’ve been thinking about my ex-husband. The reasons are three-fold: 1) I watched Ken Burns’ series on the National Parks, which included a lot mountains, which he loved; 2) a friend asked me what drew me to him in the first place; and 3) it’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Chris – I use his real name because he’s no longer alive – felt at home in the mountains. It was the reason he moved from Iowa to Colorado. It was the reason he enrolled in Outward Bound, a wilderness survival camp that featured a “solo” at the end, in which each member was sent out to fend for himself overnight, armed with only a few matches and little else. describes a course he might have taken: “Your backpacking expedition will teach you about challenge and accomplishment. You learn that by choosing your path, instead of letting it choose you, you can go further than you ever imagined you could. Discover your true abilities and potential – and gain a genuine sense of accomplishment.”

He enjoyed the adventure thoroughly, and was proud of having done it. I heard all about it when he flew me out to Denver to visit. I loved the mountains, I loved him – we’d been high school sweethearts, though I had broken it off once I landed in college. So it made perfect sense to me that we get married, and I move out there, away from my family and all of my friends.

The Public Television series brought so much back to me. The grandeur of the mountains, how awestruck they make you feel, as if you’re in an outdoor cathedral. The sacredness of that space, framed by enormous peaks, still covered in snow even in July. So many of the photos I have of Chris situate him in Rocky Mountain National Park, whether standing by Big Thompson Creek, his blond hair caught in a ponytail, or smiling in the sun with Long’s Peak, which he climbed, behind his left shoulder.

Happy memories, sure. Except that the marriage ended in violence, or rather, descended into abuse halfway through, when our son had just been born. (Our son, who loves the outdoors and would spend all his free time backpacking, kayaking, or hiking up the steps of Machu Picchu.) That I got out of it alive still seems a wonder to me.

The front page of this morning’s paper features the story of a man who lost his daughter to domestic assault. She was trying to divorce her husband, and he had threatened her with a gun, all of which her family knew. Now this father despairs over what he could have done, should have done, would have done had he realized what danger she was in. He would have flown to North Carolina and taken her home, although, speaking only for myself from my own experience, she might have resisted leaving.

I know; I left Chris twice before I left him for good, and even that was beyond difficult. He called, he begged, he pleaded. I was exhausted, learning to be a single mom, and was sorely tempted at times to go back. But I held firm. Even though there was one day when he came to see the kids and hadn’t eaten and I cooked dinner for the four of us as if nothing had changed, I cooked that dinner in my own apartment, and did not go back to him.

Have I answered my friend’s question about why I was in love with him, why I stayed so long? No. The second part of that question is easy. I spent years lecturing and writing and penning plays about why women don’t “just leave.” They’re tired, they don’t make enough money, they don’t want to leave home when he gets to stay there. I answered that question for years, and can only hope a few people got it.

It’s the other part, which asks, What was good about your marriage? that I want to try to explain. Because I loved him. And why did I love him? Because he was cute, and funny, and understood me like no one else ever had. We had inside jokes. We liked to do the same things, mostly. (I never climbed a mountain, but I loved to drive up there.) He gave the best hugs ever, and his kisses weren’t bad, either. We had a long history together. Not to mention two children, whom, despite frequent evidence to the contrary, he loved.

He was not a monster. Most of these men are not. Something gets turned on in their brains, though, that makes them possessive and mean and violent. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there in your own living room. For a woman already beaten down both literally and emotionally, it can be awfully hard to give up the sweet Dr. Jekyll. Believe me.

He once saw me in my robe and ratty cardigan, doing the breakfast dishes, and started laughing at how I could look so pretty while dressed in such a ridiculous get-up. That’s a memory I treasure, that kind of close, funny moment between a husband and wife only the two of them understand. In the end, it wasn’t enough to hold me. Once you introduce a gun, or a fist, or an endless torrent of nasty words into a marriage, it can’t be withstood. What God has joined together sometimes must be put asunder. It’s okay to cherish the good memories, but you still have to get out. In the words of Outward Bound, you have to choose your own path, instead of letting it choose you.

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