My stepfather is one of my favorite people.
He came into our lives when I was four, and I’m filled with an all-encompassing gratitude to the universe for his role in my life. Over the last 20 years, he has inspired, supported and encouraged me, and is my first port of call when I need to flesh out some twisty relationship-thing over tea.
He is, for all intents and purposes, my dad: brush your teeth, be home by this time, please be safe, have you done your homework, how are you feeling, what is this disgusting splat on the kitchen floor? Everybody knows him as an understanding, mild, thoughtful man.
But when I was 12, I caught my mom plastering makeup over a black eye, highlighted and ugly underneath the visual scream of fluorescent light. She hugged me, and whispered that it was going to be OK.
The thing is that my stepdad has a dark temper. Something can happen, some disagreement or misunderstanding, and suddenly he’ll be pacing around the house like a lidded pot on a high heat. I will usually try to engage him on the ideology of it, and talk it out, let off some of the steam.
In a strange twist, I know how to do this because of his own coaching, how he has raised me.
I think I’m the best at defusing this tricky situation. My mom and brother can be emotionally clumsy. I’m nodding and waiting and asking non-judgmental questions; in my head, I’m brandishing a pair of long-nosed pliers at a ticking bomb, and the background violins are sawing away at fever pitch.
I want to protect my family from him because when I was younger, and things were really bad, I couldn’t. He would get angry and my mom would ignore him, or get angry herself, or try to escape, and the day would descend into a screaming match.
My mom would turn against him eventually, swearing, hitting his chest with her fists in frustration. By that time I’d be hiding upstairs, crouched behind the door, nauseated by the swirly black powerlessness. I never tried to drown out the fight with music; I had to know exactly what was going on. What if something bad happened?
I never knew exactly what “bad” meant, in the context. Maybe I was going to call the ambulance.
The worst part of a fight was when the shouting stopped, and there was just the piercing silence of wrestling. I guess that was the Something Bad. It only happened once or twice, but that’s the thing about violence: it sure knows how to make an impression.
My parents were so lost in their rage that I don’t think they were even aware of us. Once, I put my crying brother onto my hip and took him with me into the line of fire, screaming at them helplessly to look at what they are doing to their toddler. I knew that using a child for a last grasp at emotional manipulation was wrong, and even then it didn’t work. They hardly saw us through the hazy intensity of their anger.
I wasn’t at home the time my stepdad hit my mom, and I’ll always regret it. She had been carrying my brother on her hip, and the repercussions of that blow rippled far enough to leave marks in his blossoming mind, in his dreams, in the sandpit of his playground. But he’s a teenager now, and doesn’t remember.
My stepdad has apologized, sincerely and repeatedly. It has never happened again. I don’t think of myself as someone who had a “hard childhood." I'm trying to explain a harsh period in an otherwise happy household.
My stepfather is a wonderful human being, and I am incredibly lucky to have him in my life, and he has a dangerously dark side. I do not think that these ideas are mutually exclusive.
I have noticed a move in feminist circles toward humanizing our discourse about rapists. They are people who have done disgusting things, but they are still people, and I feel strongly that demonizing rapists does not help to stem the violence. It encourages the stereotype of the dark alleyway, the stranger with a knife; it means that a rapist cannot be a person who loves his mother, enjoys Mexican food, has good taste in music, has made a terrible mistake.
I don’t think that the impact on the victim is different, that the crime is a lesser one. But these people do exist, and it is possible for a rapist to understand an inkling of the soul-crushing impact they’ve had on another person’s life. The person who jumps out of the darkness with a knife is so many worlds away from me that I cannot even think of how to reach him. But some rapists are human enough to be reformed.
I feel the same way about wife-beaters. Categorically, my stepfather is one of these people. But he has had a metric shit-ton of therapy to deal with his own demons, and this happened over a decade ago. I don’t like the feeling that I have a dirty secret, that the man who raised me is actually evil in his core, and all the beauty and goodness he has brought to our lives is simply a veneer.
It confused me awfully at the time because I couldn’t fit this occurrence into my worldview. Isn’t there some kind of slogan, “If he hits you once, he’ll do it again”? And I know that does happen, for lots of women. But it didn’t happen in our family, and the overwhelming message of disgust and repulsion at wife-beaters didn’t leave any space for me to contextualize my experience.
People do bad things. But it doesn’t always mean that they are bad people.