the escape

Four years ago today I left my ex-boyfriend, Aaron. We were engaged, and we’d been dating three weeks shy of six years. I was a first-year PhD student; I’d begun dating him as a junior in high school. He was, at this point, in his final year of graduate school.

I assume that A. started off innocent, tabula rosa, although his mom told me more than once that he was a “colicky baby.” By elementary school he was picking fights on the playground. He went to a prestigious boys’ boarding school which, if you ever talk to him, he’ll likely brag about within the first 15 minutes of meeting you, but the separation from his family for many of his childhood years seems to have made a negative impact. As soon as he started dating, he started abusing women, manipulating them, stalking them, etc. When he was in high school and college he dated a girl who he hit and choked; she brought charges against him (he was sentenced to “counseling,” yay justice). By the time he dated me he had this down to a science, and showed all the classic signs of emotional/mental, sexual, and physical abuse. Moreover, he really loved alcohol, and with it had done irreversible damage to his internal organs by the age of 27. He’s not a person with the humility or strength of character to go through AA.

A. and I had broken up in mid-October, but I was still living in our apartment until I could move out Nov. 1, and not really aware of the dangers of being near an abusive person when one is trying to leave him or her. On Halloween night I wanted to go reverse-trick-or-treating, i.e., go give out candy at people’s houses (this is a blast. try it), and I eventually convinced A. that this was not a totally idiotic idea (as all of my ideas were). So we went out, gave out candy, stopped by Chelsea’s birthday party (happy birthday, Chels!), and returned home around midnight.

Once home I called Martin, who I’d begun dating when I broke up with A. This infuriated A. and he made me hang up the phone (it’s hard to describe how a person like that “makes you” do something– if you’ve been in a relationship like that with a lover or parent, you know what I mean). Then I heard the tell-tale clinking of the ice as it hit the sides of the crystal highball. I had long since learned to count the clinks, because A. was predictably unpredictable after 3 drinks (scotch) and it was necessary to be alert and defensive if I wanted to, say, sleep at night rather than be raped, hit, or scolded. He drank like this every night, usually averaging 4-5 stiff drinks.

M. asked a mutal friend, Andrea, to call me after A. had instructed me to hang up, and she did. She timidly asked if I was okay– she didn’t really know what kind of Mr. Hyde A. was capable of being. She told me that M. had asked her to call, and I think this was the first time I really understood that the kind of physical and sexual violence A. had demonstrated in our relationship up to this point could escalate dramatically on this, our final night under the same roof.

Because I’d recently been staying at M’s, I had a duffel bag packed. I needed a few more things and I placed them carefully in a grocery sack while A. was in the kitchen. I hated the grocery bag for its too-loud crinkly noises, but A. didn’t seem to notice. Everything was in high relief– every filament of the carpet beside the bag is burned into my memory, the exact wattage of light in the living room, the clinking ice and the crinkling bag.

I was lucky– A. didn’t hear, or didn’t register, the sounds of quick, furtive packing. I was almost free, and the date of Nov. 1 shone in my head like a beacon, a safe harbor, the difference between life and death. But first I must get out. I wanted to get out before A. came out of the kitchen, but I had to move cautiously, quietly, couldn’t throw open the door and run, must open the door quietly. The sound of the bolt turning in the door was so horribly loud, and A. said “Jessica?” from the kitchen. I walked out the door and shut it as quietly as I could behind me, and then ran as quietly as possible down the four flights of stairs. But A’s alarm had sounded, and he was behind me; he hissed my name as I ran down the stairs, but I had enough of a head start that I was out the front door of the apartment building and had reached my car by the time he reached that door. As I rushed to the car, seeing every familiar pothole in the pavement, my car key burned in my hand and registered deeply pressed in my memory– perhaps the first and last time I have ever not fumbled with my keys. I thought, “this would have been easier if I had brought my remote car-door opener.” The time it took to fit the key into the car door lock was excruciating. I flung my bags into the car, flung myself into the car. I don’t remember starting the car, just putting it into reverse and thinking that if A. came upon me now, I was safe inside the car. I drove to Martin’s, the location of which, luckily, was a secret from A., and he had not had time to follow me. Into the soft warm night-glow of the foyer, Martin opened his door.

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30 Responses to the escape

  1. Steven Fama says:

    That’s a truly scary tale, even with the liberation at the end. So glad you made it out and on, though I know you may never really leave all that happened.

    That said, there is more than some cause here for celebration – of your initiative, courage, and ability to “process” what happened to the extent that you have. Have a wild (and safe) Halloween.

    Boo!

    Forgive me for pointing out a small detail — at the start of your post you state you were starting PhD studies. I think you meant MA studies.

  2. Jessica Smith says:

    Nope; I began PhD studies at Buffalo. I just didn’t finish them. I transferred, taking my MA. It’s a technicality, which you’ll appreciate ;-)

    It is kinda scary– and this was the good night!

    I’m debating whether to wear a costume to school today.

  3. Ian Keenan says:

    In Discourse Networks the events that set in motion the PTSD are not described, which isn’t necessarily wrong, it just adds to its spareness and time-specificity. If you are going to get around to describing events triggering PTSD then it would be interesting to work the ‘cause and effect’ into a single book which could be appealing both from a therapeutic context and as a personal/ literary memoir.

  4. Jessica Smith says:

    That’s the long-term plan– as I said on the old blog, I want to write a Proust-sized novel about memory, love, sexuality, time, travel, etc. but from a woman’s perspective.

    This is not what led to PTSD. It was rather a series of as-yet-undescribed events that occured over years of living with A. that led to “complex PTSD” of the nature that develops in women and POWs after periods of captivity (there are certainly much worse incidents of captivity than this, I know… but more on that later– what I’ve learned from others telling their stories– too).

    But I’ve been waiting a year to write this post, I wanted to write it on the anniversary, so it feels good to get it out.

  5. Ian Keenan says:

    The POWs endured more but the flip side is you have more of a sense of guilt and responsibility left over from the traumatic events. That’s one nugget that can be easily transmitted from Deleuze’s essay on Masochism: that the abundance of guilt within the Superego develops an entrenched, supporting relationship with the narcissism and fantasy in the Id through repetition (D is big on repetition as u know) which makes the Superego more difficult to reconstruct.

  6. Steven Fama says:

    “It’s a technicality, which you’ll appreciate ;-)”

    er, um . . . touché!

    That’s two misses for me in as many days on graduate school stuff (yesterday, I had no idea the school paid you). My (imaginary but appropriate) costume: a dunce cap.

  7. Jessica Smith says:

    Also, this is the story behind “flores para los muertos” on OFC p.32 (throw in some Albee and T. Williams). One place where OFC tries to give an impression of something that is too hard to describe– too complex– for one page or one book. As I process events more for myself, they become more narratively complete.

  8. Jessica Smith says:

    Steve, in general, the diff. b/t an MA program and PhD program is that PhD programs pay you to work (teach) and study, while MA programs generally but not always require you to pay tuition. So it’s always better to get into a PhD program, even if you only plan to take the MA (which you can get at the end of the 2nd or 3rd year of your program, depending on how it’s laid out). Thus, it’s a “technicality” in terms of receiving degrees, but more than a technicality in terms of how many thousands of dollars one either saves or spends. Sometimes people choose to get an MA at a prestigious school like UVA even though it costs a lot because it prepares them for getting into good PhD programs. Better-ranked PhD programs pay more. At Buffalo I was making about $9k (+ tuition, etc.); here I’m making $16k; at Cornell, M. is making over $22k. There’s a “business” of being in grad school, as you can see. Sometimes schools are able to increase their funding for graduate students in order to attract a talent pool that the school’s reputation might not otherwise attract; this is the case with Emory, which has plenty of money because they own the patent for Coke.

  9. Logan Ryan Smith says:

    I want to write a Proust-sized novel about memory, love, sexuality, time, travel, etc. but from a woman’s perspective.

    i’ve got a better idea: write a novel about sexy robots with amnesia looking for love in all the wrong places thru time travel, from a woman’s perspective.

    i’d read that book.

  10. speterme says:

    Wow. That’s the scariest Halloween story I’ve read in ages. I hope my daughter never gets involved with a guy like A. Great fucking escape. Celebrate your freedom and take care of yourself. It sounds like you’ll be much better off finding decent men once you are out of grad school. And I’m with Logan on the book concept.

    peace, love and understanding (never give up!)

    Steve Petermeier
    no man’s land
    minneapolis, mn
    usa
    word verification: pkaaejum
    (that’s a beauty)

  11. shanna says:

    that was a very good move, j. very brave. it was hard. i know.

    and your stiletto didn’t even break causing you to tumble and twist a dainty ankle! and your car actually started! ;)

    um, sorry, i had to joke. it’s how i manage.

  12. Jessica Smith says:

    logan: whoa dude, that’s such an original idea! thanks for letting me in on it. will you want a cut of the royalties? :)

    steve p: i hope no one’s daughter ever goes through that, but it’s not something one can really prevent. 1 in 4 women are raped; 1 in 6 are in a domestic abuse situation in their lives (these stats include childhood, which as seth pointed out in the previous blog, is a time of equal opportunity for both genders to be abused! yay!). the best you can hope for is to give your daughter the tools to get out of a situation like this if she gets into one, and to work for systemic change.

    shanna: off-color humor is the only way to handle these things properly. what else is one going to do, but laugh (if bitterly)? hugs–

  13. Logan Ryan Smith says:

    hey, i’m FULL of original ideas. if you’d like any more, just ask. i could totally sculpt your career as a novelist. and gladly.

  14. speterme says:

    Right you are. No one should have to go through what you went through. My daughter is only 11, but I think she is already learning the tools to hopefully prevent as well as extricate herself from such situations. Just as important is teaching my son to be part of the solution. All beings should be respected and live free of abuse and violence, and free of suggestion (as the Fugazi song goes).

    peace, love and understanding (never give up!)

    Steve Petermeier
    no man’s land
    minneapolis, mn
    usa

  15. Martin76 says:

    I have never said anything on this blog, but since this entry concerns my life history too I feel that I have the right to say something, since I was seriously hurt by Steve’s comments that it sounds like Jessica will “be much better off finding decent men once [she] is out of grad school.” I don’t you know you, Steve, and you don’t know me, but you have no reason to assume that I am not a decent man, as your post implies. Indeed, I think it would have been hard to find any man in his twenties who was more aware of the issue of violence against women and its mechanisms and more committed to change the thought patterns that lead to it. I certainly don’t want to take any undue credit and I want to emphasize that Jessica saved herself and should be proud of that, but I was consistently supportive and understanding, as Jessica herself has often testifed to (see for example the acknowledgments to Discourse Networks). All this concerns things that are dramatic and painful episodes in my life too, so it is very hurtful to be implicitly villanized by a stranger on a blog concerning these events.

  16. speterme says:

    To Martin: I apologize for hurting your feelings. You are right. I don’t know you. But, I did not mean you specifically. I was thinking specifically of A, who Jessica detailed so vividly yesterday, and the more recent concerns she expressed about men at UVA. It was something of an offhand generalization, and I regret its implications in regards to you personally.

    I’ve been happily married for 17 years. I don’t know shit about finding decent men or grad school for that matter.

    peace, love and understanding (never give up!)

    Steve Petermeier
    no man’s land
    minneapolis, mn
    usa

  17. Jessica Smith says:

    sandra: i don’t have a good enough imagination to make this stuff up, if you’re implying that it’s fictional. the stories i could tell would rot your socks off, but i keep them mostly to myself.

  18. kfd313 says:

    “calls into question its content”???? are you kidding me? you either must be very (luckily) naive about the facts of abuse or you have a very poor sense of how a literary person might choose to narrate a traumatic event. how sad and insulting….

  19. Jessica Smith says:

    sandra, it seems to me that your comment might be read in two ways.

    1. Perhaps you’re arguing that I should narrate such an event in dicier language, a la ecriture feminine; that the language/form is too smooth for the content. That’s a point well-taken, however, as I’ve said, I’m not at the point of writing about this as literature. I’m just at the point of telling people what happened. So a grittier narrative will have to wait until I can apply art to trauma.

    2. Perhaps you’re arguing that the whole thing is false, in which case, as Kristine says, your comment makes you look very naive and rather cruel.

    I think it’s important to talk/write about these things in the open, because silence is what entraps and kills women in such situations.

  20. Jessica Smith says:

    Perhaps it is a failure of the imagination to say that I’m not ready to write it “for real” yet, but it’s true. You can read the more artsy version of the story on OFC p. 32–which is sort of the impressionistic understanding of events. Now I am developing a narrative for myself, and perhaps it’s cliched, but it’s true. Traumas like this (I mean, this was traumatic, though not at the scale of so many other things that happened) take awhile to process. I imagine that in a decade or so I’ll be ready to write things down in an artsier way. Now I’m still sort of swimming in the memories.

    I didn’t post this as a workshop piece. I guess it’s necessary for some people–you and Andy, for two– to critique it at the level of art, because the level of life is beyond your comfortable comprehension.

  21. Jessica Smith says:

    (Apparently I should be writing more like this. God help me.)

  22. Tony says:

    Well, if you wrote more like Ssimonds, you might actually write something interesting.

  23. Jessica Smith says:

    Right. I’ll keep that in mind.

  24. Jessica Smith says:

    Wow, it’s amazing how even great writers can be made to look like rubbish when handled by poetasters. I’m really rather impressed.

  25. Joseph Massey says:

    So, if Sandra is a “poetaster,” why is she appearing in your anthology, Jessica? How many other “poetasters” have also been accepted for publication in that book?

    Just curious.

    Joe Massey

  26. Jessica Smith says:

    Oh, plenty. The anthology is meant to show the plethora of things going on in poetry right now, not just the “best” things. I’ve said that before.

  27. Jessica Smith says:

    sandra, i just don’t see why you feel the need to critique a post that’s obviously about something important and damaging that happened to me.

  28. Jessica Smith says:

    ok, sandra.

  29. Jessica Smith says:

    Thanks for the offer– I think I’ll pass.

  30. Steven Fama says:

    All agree the tale is true. Some say the narrative is (“completely”) cliched.

    The assertion of cliche is not backed by any reference to anything but un-named movies. More fundamental, the criticism is oblivious to the point that telling the tale as it was told may be the only way it can be told at present.

    Go read the US Dept of Justice website (or any number of other authoritative sources) on sexual assault victims and their responses to the trauma, and how those responses can change over time. I believe a person’s response to abusive relationships in general is similar.

    The sequential straight-head narrative telling seems to fit into a recognized way of responding to such events. Plus, some who counsel victims suggest that a coherent summary be worked up about what happened, to help with the fragmented, frantic way memories often come up (although some adopt a tightly controlled approach from the get go, which can be problematic in itself).

    At this point then, how this tale was told may be either the way its always been told, a step forward towards assimilation or moving on, a continuing means to organize an moment that otherwise seems incoherent, or some combination thereof.

    And even if the manner of telling doesn’t fit some recognized way to be, it’s the way it works for this particular person. Who is anyone to say anything about how it is told?!

    More pointedly, to critique the manner of narration (how it is told), and even continuing with the same critique after the writer concedes that she might write it differently with more time, seems to me uninformed, obstinate, graceless, or rude.

    Somwhow I think this post is about an hour too late. And is about an hour too long. Going to publish it anyway….

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