There is a dent in a wall of my parents’ house that is the exact size and shape of Mama’s head.
I rarely say, “My father beat Mama.” I say, “My parents fought,” because that is how Mama described it. They fought. Her word became my word. Her way of describing her experience became mine.
My father beat Mama implies helplessness, victimization. Fighting suggests a battle between foes of equal strength.
The fight that caused the dent happened when I was about seven years old. I don’t know what started it. A child of seven can never make sense of why her parents are yelling and screaming at each other.
My three older brothers hustled us three younger girls outside while my parents fought. I’m sure the neighbors heard the yelling and the sounds of bodies bumping furniture, of head hitting wall. Such fighting was not uncommon among the working-class, blue-collar families who lived on our northwest Detroit street in the 1970s. The men who, like my father, worked in the auto factories would come home at the end of a long workweek—usually drunk—and silence smart-mouthed wives with closed fists. The neighbors who peeked between their blinds that day, peering through the branches of the twin maple trees that kept our house cool in summer, would have seen us children standing outside on our porch, unharmed. Some of them would have walked away from the window then, though some of the wives might have kept covertly watching our house for a time. They knew that, some other night, it would be their turn to get hit and that Mama would be peeking through the corner of her window shade when their anguished cries crackled like lightning in the middle of the night, followed a second or two later by the thunderous roar of an angry husband and the solid thud of a fist connecting with flesh and bone.
Because my older brothers hustled us outside, I didn’t actually see the dent being made. Sometimes, I imagine how it happened. I envision my father, who, at six-foot-two, was a whole foot taller than Mama, grabbing Mama around the shoulders and driving her head into the wall, like a battering ram. Or perhaps he punched her, sending her stumbling backward and flying into the wall. The dent was the grave marker of that fight, the last physical fight my parents would ever have. There was no blood.
Mama would want you to know, if she were still alive and reading this, that her metal dust mop handle was also bent in this fight. This bend, while not quite the exact size and shape of my father’s head, resulted from her slamming the mop handle down on my father’s skull. I remember Mama showing us her bent mop handle, holding it up like a safari kill. Mama always claimed that when she fought with my father, she gave as good as she got. Because Mama refused to see herself as a victim, it was hard to argue otherwise. Yes, probably she would have conceded that my father used more force to dent a solid wall than she used to bend her dust mop, but while she suffered the greater pain, her triumph was that she made him suffer, too.
Mama often boasted that she was never afraid of my father. In her view, a woman could remain married to an abusive man without relinquishing her power. It wasn’t staying that made a woman weak—it was fear. Mama spoke openly of that fight, that dent in the wall, only once that I can remember. She said she told my father that if he ever laid hands on her again, she would kill him. She believed the only way to make a man stop hitting you was to show him that if he was willing to go hard, you were willing to go harder. Even if it meant one of you wound up dead.
If I had ever felt comfortable talking openly with Mama about the dent in the wall and the bend in the mop handle, I might have reminded Mama that the mop eventually made its way out to the curb along with the rest of the trash, but the dent in the wall stayed there for the rest of my father’s life, and then the rest of Mama’s life, and it is still there now.
I might have told her that the damage she and her children suffered was as permanent as the dent.
• • •
Shortly after the dent appeared in the wall, a heavy, full-length mirror showed up in our home.
My siblings had complained for years that we had no full-length mirror. For years, Mama had ignored those complaints. And then, suddenly, it was understood and accepted that people needed to be able to check their full reflections in a mirror before going to school and work.
The mirror was designed to be wall-mounted and had a wire hanger on the back, but our walls—walls that could be dented by a human skull—were too flimsy to support a mirror of that size and weight. So the mirror was propped against the dented wall, in the hallway between my parents’ room and the room I shared with my sisters. Propping the mirror against the wall was dangerous, but we were old enough to know not to play around the mirror, not to risk having the mirror fall down on us.
The mirror covered the dent so well, it was easy to forget the dent was there, until it was time to dust or sweep behind the mirror. No one ever talked about the reason the mirror was purchased or what it was designed to hide. Nor did we talk about the fact that propping the mirror against the wall distorted the image the mirror reflected, making us look taller and slimmer than we actually were. We liked what the mirror reflected and ignored what it hid or disguised. When we held the mirror up straight, and our true reflections stared back at us, the truth became the distortion.
• • •
You give as good as you get, and you never show fear. That was the prevailing narrative in my household whenever the subject of men beating women came up. Mama cheered women who fought back and had contempt for women who showed fear, who cowed before a man, any man. She was afraid of him was the strongest indictment Mama could leverage against an abused woman.
One of Mama’s favorite stories was about how she helped a friend of hers—let’s call her Rose—get rid of her abusive husband. Rose was married to a man who would come home drunk and beat her up. And Rose was afraid of him.
Mama went to Rose’s house. She told Rose to go into her kitchen and take out the largest pot she owned. Mama filled the pot with water and set it on the stove. As the water heated up, she helped Rose pack her husband’s things in garbage bags. She and Rose put the garbage bags on the porch.
When Rose’s husband came home and saw the garbage bags on the porch, he demanded to come in. By then, the pot of water was boiling. Mama told him he had two choices: he could force his way in and risk having a pot full of boiling water thrown at him, or he could take his shit and get the fuck on out of there.
After carefully weighing his options, the husband chose to take his shit and get the fuck on out.
Mama’s story of triumph over my father was far less dramatic. She never put a pot of boiling water on the stove and threatened to scald my father with it. It seems that bending a mop handle over his head did the trick. They never really stopped fighting, though; they just switched formats: my parents argued almost every day until the day my father died. Yet leaving my father—or forcing him to leave—wasn’t an option Mama seriously considered. She believed leaving would have jeopardized her children’s futures. Most of the women she knew who left their husbands wound up for a time on welfare. Mama often said that she wasn’t about to try to raise six kids on aid when our father worked at Ford.
Mama didn’t want us to go through what she had been through. To us, her three daughters, she preached the need for education and financial independence. Don’t ever be dependent on a man, she would tell us. We were advised not to marry a man like our father. But what did that mean? There were a lot of things I liked about my father. He wasn’t a gentle man—he was taciturn and gruff—but he never treated me the way he treated Mama. He was the father who never hesitated to put a school administrator in her place. He was the sports fan who kept me giggling with his dry commentary as we watched sports on television together—complaining, for example, that with men in scoring position, Tigers slugger Willie Horton couldn’t buy a hit if you gave him fifty dollars. When I decided, at nineteen, that I was grown enough to drive across the Canadian border and spend the night with my boyfriend at a hotel in Windsor, we called my father the next morning when my boyfriend’s car wouldn’t start.
Why wouldn’t I want a man like that?
As I got older, I understood that I could both love my father and hate the abuse I had seen him inflict upon Mama. But I couldn’t talk to Mama about the difference between hating the abuse and hating my father, which I refused to do. When my father died of lung cancer during my second year of law school, Mama resented the grief we children felt. Our tears made her angry.
“You’re mourning a man who didn’t exist,” she snapped at me a day or two after my father’s funeral.
In the weeks and months following my father’s death, I found solace in talking to friends who were dealing with their own complicated relationships with fathers who were good dads but lousy husbands.
• • •
As a young adult, I vowed not to repeat Mama’s mistakes. My friends and I were smug in our conviction that domestic violence only happened to weak women. “If a man ever put his hands on me, that would be the last time,” we said. We had listened to our mothers. We were strong black women, high achievers, who would never be financially dependent on our husbands. We would not be forced to stay with abusive men to ensure our children were being cared for. We were Harvard Law students, and soon, we would be lawyers. We would know our legal rights, and we would enforce them.
• • •
The first thing everyone in my family remarked upon when they met my now ex-husband, Jim, was how much he looked like my father. Like my father, Jim was a big man—tall, heavyset, strong. He had the same smooth brown skin and the same silky, curly hair. Like my father, he was a blue-collar man from a blue-collar family. Our families, distantly related, had grown up together in the same small Mississippi town, and both families had moved north—mine to Detroit and his to Philadelphia—during the Great Migration. We met at his mother’s funeral. I was drawn to the fact that, like my father, Jim was intelligent well beyond his years of formal education, and he had a quick wit and dry sense of humor. It was easier for me to relate to him than to the men I’d met at Harvard, second- and third-generation college graduates, who grew up in suburban communities and knew Detroit only from national news broadcasts about “the murder capital.” By the time my family met him, we had been living together for six months, and I was pregnant with our first child.
For years, I told no one how much like my father Jim actually was.
Jim was a master of emotional abuse. Almost every day, he told me I was fat. I was a slut. I was so dumb, it was hard to believe I actually graduated from Harvard. I was a bad lawyer, a bad mom, a bad cook, and even a lousy driver. And I was lucky to have him because no one else would ever want me.
Despite my vows to myself and to my friends, and even though I was the one with the money, the job, the resources—I stayed with him. The damage showed up in the weight I gained and in the battles I had with my own self-confidence whenever I handed in an assignment at work. Somewhere, deep inside, I believed every belittling word.
• • •
Jim hit me for the first time in the labor and delivery ward.
I remember my excitement when I felt my first labor pains. I called my second-oldest sister, who was pregnant with her second child, for guidance. She had already had one baby and could be trusted for the unvarnished truth about what real labor felt like.
She was skeptical. “What does it feel like? Does it feel like a bad period or something that could kill you?”
I had to think about that. I’d never really had a bad period. The only time I’d had cramps that were memorable, I was standing on a stepladder trying to reach something on an upper shelf of my dorm room closet. The cramp hit me so hard that I fell off the stepladder and collapsed to my knees. The labor pains were far worse than that.
A few hours later, they were unbearable. My water hadn’t yet broken, but I knew from the pregnancy books that that didn’t always happen. I told Jim we had to go to the hospital. He reminded me that our apartment in Brooklyn was only a few blocks from Long Island College Hospital. I told him I needed to go to what was then Columbia-Presbyterian in Washington Heights, where my ob-gyn had hospital privileges. For some reason, this made him angry.
As the livery cab made its way from Brooklyn to Washington Heights, Jim droned out the name of every hospital we passed on the way, like a dirge. NYU. Metropolitan. Mount Sinai. Lenox Hill. St. Luke’s. Harlem. He told me delivering a baby was something anyone with basic medical training could do. He reminded me that he had been a medic in the Army and could have done it himself, if push came to shove. The yeasty smell of the beers he drank as we rode to the hospital suffused the closed air of the car.
We were quickly ushered into the labor and delivery ward. I was put into a room that looked a lot like the room I’d dutifully checked out a few weeks earlier, just as the baby books advised. It was a spacious private room, warm and inviting. Still guzzling the beer he’d brought into the hospital, Jim kept telling all the doctors and nurses that this was bullshit, that a baby could be delivered anywhere, that we didn’t have to leave Brooklyn for this, and that he could tell I wasn’t even in real labor yet. The doctors and nurses acted as if they didn’t hear his pronouncements or smell the beer. Through my nervousness at delivering my first child and my embarrassment over Jim’s antics, I tried to breathe and find some measure of ease.
After I had been connected to monitors for a couple of hours, a doctor who was not my doctor told me my labor wasn’t far enough yet for them to admit me. I begged them to keep me anyway. I even asked if I could be induced. The doctor shook his head and left, ignoring the chorus of I-told-you’s coming from an even angrier Jim. The nurse disconnected me from all the equipment and told me I could get dressed.
As soon as the nurse left the room, Jim punched me in the side of my head.
I jumped up, ran into the bathroom, and shut the door. In the bathroom, next to the toilet, was an emergency call button. If I had pressed the button, the nurse would have come back to the room. If I’d told her my partner had punched me, she would have called security or the police. Jim would have been arrested. They might have kept me after all.
But instead of pressing the call button, I sat on the toilet and cried. With shaking hands, I put my clothes back on. I left the hospital with him, got into another black livery cab with him, rode in silence past all the other hospitals, in reverse, all the way back home to Brooklyn, and went back with him to the apartment we shared.
I told no one that he had hit me.
When we got home, I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and put it under my side of the mattress. I told him if he hit me again, I was going to use it. I was ready to give as good as I had gotten. But I didn’t call the police. And I didn’t leave. Instead, the next day, when my labor kicked in for real, I got into another taxi with him, rode back up to Washington Heights with him, went back into the same hospital with him, and delivered my baby. He cut the cord and took pictures like the proud father he suddenly was.
Almost four years after the first time Jim punched me in my head, I got pregnant with our second child, a son. We were married a week before he was born, in 2001. I believed a woman should marry the father of her children. I believed a woman should sacrifice her own happiness to keep her two-parent household together, the way Mama had done.
I didn’t realize what don’t marry a man like your father actually meant until I already had.
• • •
The door of my kids’ bedroom sported a crater that was roughly the shape and size of the back of my head.
At the time, we lived in a four-family brownstone, which I had purchased several months before our wedding, on a rapidly gentrifying block in Harlem, near the City College of New York. A Wall Street executive and his wife lived in a lovingly restored townhome a couple of doors down. We lived between two vacant brownstones. One was home to squatters, who occasionally defecated in front of our house; the other sheltered a rapidly growing family of feral cats. My house came with tenants, but my broker assured me that this was a tremendous benefit: their rent would help pay the mortgage if I chose to keep them, and if I wanted to take over the entire building, the law was on my side. I had bought the house with the idea of converting it into an owner’s triplex, with one rental unit. After the closing, I discovered that my tenants, too, were effectively squatters because, although they had signed leases, they refused to pay rent. Accordingly, my grandiose renovation plans never came to fruition; by the time I finally managed to evict the last non-rent-paying tenant, my marriage was over, and the money I’d intended to use for renovations—the portion I hadn’t spent on lawyers to evict my deadbeat tenants—wound up being spent on divorce counsel.
Our last Christmas Eve together, Jim and I fought. I wanted us to go shopping for the kids’ Christmas presents together, as a family. He had chosen instead to drive to Philly to shop with his adult daughter. He came home with a bag full of cheap toys he had purchased from a mall store having an “everything must go” bankruptcy sale. He handed me the bag with pride. I looked inside and was incensed. I was wrapping the presents I had bought separately for our kids. He expected me to add the toys he’d brought home to my gift-wrapping pile. I told him that since he had gone shopping on his own, he could wrap the cheap-ass toys on his own.
Our kids were sleeping in my bedroom, which I no longer shared with Jim. He had moved into one of the vacant apartments upstairs. We were in the kids’ room, supposedly preparing it for Christmas. The room was strewn over with boxes of toys and wrapping paper. We started screaming at each other. I closed the door so as not to wake the kids. The small bedroom, filled as it was with the kids’ bunk beds and toy bins and boxes and boxes of junk, felt even smaller.
And so, we fought.
I can’t remember what led to the shove that sent the back of my head crashing into the door. I ran for the phone and dialed 911. Jim snatched the phone out of my hand and hung up, but the cops came anyway. When they showed up, I lied and said I pressed 911 by accident and that everything was all right. I didn’t notice the dent in the wood until I went back downstairs to finish wrapping the presents and clean up the kids’ room.
The kids, asleep in my bedroom, remained blissfully unaware of it all.
The kids didn’t see the fight, and as far as I know, they didn’t hear us fighting, so I don’t know what story—if any—they told themselves about the door. I don’t remember if they ever asked what happened to it. The door was just another feature, another broken thing in a house full of broken things. The house, like the marriage, became something irreparable, something I had to walk away from before it destroyed me.
I called Mama one morning when my kids were about seven and not quite three, after dropping my daughter off at school. Parked in front of my daughter’s private school, sitting in the driver’s seat of the luxury SUV I could ill afford, I wept as I told Mama everything I had been hiding from her, my family, friends, colleagues, and, sometimes, even myself.
“You’re describing my marriage,” was Mama’s response. And then I realized I was repeating the cycle of abuse I’d witnessed as a child. I had a vision of holding the same conversation with my own tearful daughter years into the future, saying to her, “You’re describing my marriage—and your grandmother’s marriage.” I didn’t want that for my daughter. Nor did I want to raise my son to be abusive toward his partner. I knew I had to break the cycle.
During a different conversation about my marriage, Mama said to me what I’m sure she had said to Rose years before: “You’re afraid of him.”
I didn’t try to deny it. I was afraid of Jim. I couldn’t give as good as I got. He was six-foot-two and solid muscle, just like my father. At five-foot-four, I was just two inches taller than Mama and nowhere near as strong—physically or emotionally—as she had been when she was my age. I told her that, yes, I was afraid of him. In response, she bought a plane ticket to New York.
Mama, now in her seventies, didn’t have time to set Jim’s shit in garbage bags while a pot of water boiled on the stove. Two hours after she landed, she was rushed to the hospital, having suffered her first heart attack, the first known sign of the heart disease that would take her life five years later. As I waited alone, while she was in the cardiac catheterization lab having stents implanted to open the blocked arteries of her heart, I knew I had to get a divorce.
I had actually been considering this for a while and had even consulted a divorce attorney, but there were lots of arguments against going through with it. Like Mama, I didn’t really want to raise my children alone, and in the back of my head, I kept hoping things would get better. Plus, divorce is really expensive. I knew people who had remained in unhappy marriages because they were afraid of losing everything they had worked so hard to acquire. When I filed for divorce in 2004, no-fault divorce did not exist in New York, so everything had to be litigated. Jim and I couldn’t agree on anything—including the grounds for divorce. We had no choice but to each pursue our case on the merits. In an ironic twist, we both filed for divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment.
I knew I would wind up losing the majority of my assets—whether through sharing them with Jim or in the exorbitant legal fees I had to pay to protect my rights and those of my children. For me, the money was insignificant compared to the toll my marriage was having on my body and spirit. I liquidated my retirement accounts, used up my savings, and sought a buyer for the brownstone I could no longer afford.
As the higher-income spouse, I was ordered to pay my attorneys’ fees, his attorneys’ fees, fees for the court-appointed forensic psychiatrist and law guardian who represented the children, and numerous other court costs. In time, I was broke, Jim was broke, and our lawyers fired us as clients.
In the end, my lawyer firing me was a kindness. He knew one thing that I didn’t at the time: I could tell my own story better than he ever could. At some point during our collaboration, I had told him about my writing aspirations. When he fired me as a client, he told me about his daughter, a successful essayist and memoirist. Her latest book had just been released in paperback, and he gave me a copy for inspiration. He then met with me several times, at no charge, to help me work through how to tell the judge my story in court. It was like working with a director who took the fragments of stories I’d related and helped me reshape them into a cohesive and compelling narrative.
Our trial took place on September 6, 2005, the day after Labor Day. I dropped the kids off at school then headed straight to the New York State Supreme Court. I didn’t stop to marvel at the beauty of the Supreme Court building, made famous by the TV show Law & Order. That morning, I was too rushed to pay attention to the white marble columns that framed the entrance. I scarcely noticed the intricate wrought-iron railings on each level of the building’s open, circular design or the ceilings painted with murals depicting lawgivers from Hammurabi to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.
It was a cool late summer morning, and I wore my best suit—a navy pinstripe, two-button with a straight skirt. I wanted to look professional, as if I were an attorney representing a client other than myself, but as I exited the subway and headed for the tall marble steps of the courthouse, I felt like a fraud. My specialties were intellectual property and commercial transactions. I had no idea how to conduct a trial. I didn’t know how to enter documents into evidence, how to cross-examine a witness, or how to raise an objection. I would have to rely more on my storytelling skills than my legal skills.
Jim and I represented ourselves at trial as pro se litigants. As we fumbled our way through the proceeding, the judge was kind, often entering objections on our behalf that we didn’t know to raise. When it was my turn to take the witness stand, the judge’s first question—“What is it that you say [Jim] did to you that gives you grounds for divorce against him?”—tested every ounce of my resolve.
It was embarrassing and humiliating to admit that I, a Harvard-educated lawyer, didn’t use the law to protect myself. As tears welled up in my eyes and emotion restricted my throat, I recalled the verbal, physical, and emotional abuse I had endured. Talking about it made me feel as if I were being abused all over again.
To my surprise, Jim didn’t deny any of it. He was unapologetic as he told the judge he had “smacked” me while I was in labor with our daughter because I was “hysterical.” He testified that he felt “less than” during the marriage because I made more money and paid all the bills. The verbal abuse I recounted was nothing but mere words to him. But the more I talked, the freer I felt. I had told my story to Mama, my attorney, and now, I was telling it to a stranger, the judge. And with each re-telling, I began to understand and embrace the power of owning and controlling my own narrative.
In the judge’s decision granting my divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment, one line encapsulates the struggle I endured in my marriage. The judge wrote that Jim’s “obvious resentment” of me supported “the Court’s conclusion that he attempted to regain control of the situation and to reassert himself in the relationship through the use of both verbal and physical abuse.”
My husband sought to reassert dominance and control in our relationship by being verbally and physically abusive. Growing up, I’d watched Mama wrest control in her own marriage by declaring she wasn’t abused at all. For Mama, it was important to reframe the abused wife narrative by emphasizing that she, too, had mental and physical power; she, too, was able to dominate. Mama both told us and showed us that we didn’t have to cower and be afraid of a man because of his physical strength; women, too, could fight back. Being a strong woman empowered Mama. But I was not Mama. Trying to rely on her type of strength had nearly destroyed me.
I gained power by admitting I was being abused by my husband and by telling the story of that abuse. Denying that I was abused kept me trapped. Once I realized I was not choosing between strength and weakness, but between momentary humiliation and freedom, the choice was easy.
• • •
In June 2009, my children and I visited Mama for the last time. Although she was in good spirits, her words conveyed the sense that she was already looking back, summarizing what her life had meant and acknowledging her achievements and regrets. One day, we were sitting together at her dining room table, in the same spot where she collapsed and died two months later. I had a glass of wine, she had a cup of tea, and we chatted less like mother and daughter and more like friends.
At that point, I had been legally divorced for about three years. Mama asked if I was seeing anyone. I said no. I didn’t tell her this, but at that point, I had been celibate for five years, beginning when my ex and I first separated. I had started running, trying to lose some of the weight I’d gained during my marriage. Losing weight made me think about dating again, but I wasn’t brave enough yet to join a dating site. Jim’s claim that no other man would ever want me remained stuck in my head.
I asked Mama why she never dated anyone in the seventeen years after my father passed. I expected her to wave me off, to say something about not wanting to be bothered with some man coming in and trying to control everything. Her answer surprised me.
“I don’t know. I have to admit: it would have been nice to have had a man to hold my hand,” she said.
I batted back tears, mourning how fear had robbed her of the opportunity to spend her final years with a deserving partner. After she died, I promised myself I would start dating again. It took me almost another year to make good on that promise.
I have been divorced for more than ten years now. In that time, I have had one semi-serious relationship, which ended in 2014. I have not dated seriously since then. I remember the dent in the wall, the crater in the door, and I am afraid. I fear allowing myself to be vulnerable; yet I am ashamed of the despair that leads me to believe that my only choice is between victimization and loneliness. I remember Mama’s words: it would be nice to have a man to hold my hand. It is hard to be alone. And yet, it is easier to be alone.