I Am Strong

by Kathie Graydon, Director of Education & Community Relations

I am strong, intelligent, determined, focused, funny, sassy, and energetic.  Well, at least that is how my family and friends describe me. I specifically asked them to describe how I was as a teen and young adult, as opposed to now, over 20 years later, and their answers were much the same.

I can remember how I felt back then, and I believed all these things about myself (perhaps because I was lucky enough to have family and friends who wholeheartedly believed those things, too).  I also knew I was loved and supported by my family and friends and that if I confided in them that I was in trouble, they would have done anything they could to help. What I have pondered so many times since then, is, why did I keep it a secret?

Why was this strong, intelligent, determined, focused, funny, sassy and energetic young woman afraid to reveal the truth to the very supportive network that she relied on for so many other things? Why would she keep it hidden for so, so many years?

I wish the answer was simple. I wish that I had known what to do. If I think back long and hard, I can recall knowing I needed to do something. I knew it was wrong in every sense of the word, but oh, how complicated the situation had gotten.

I know now that I was lucky; very, very lucky.

I can hear the words coming out of my mouth and I know how absolutely crazy it sounds, but I was lucky that I had a boyfriend that cheated on me.  Lucky that I had joined a sorority and therefore had the benefit of so, so many eyes that night and so, so many hearts of gold that wanted the best for me, even though we had known each other for a fairly short period of time. Those eyes saw him with her at a dance club and although I felt hurt, deceived and embarrassed, my overwhelming feeling was RELIEF.  I was relieved that I finally had a way out.  Relief, because somehow, some way, having a boyfriend who cheated on me was more acceptable to others than the reason I really wanted to leave.

Making a Difference with The Yellow Dress

What I also remember is the day I was blessed with the opportunity to make a difference. I was given the opportunity to help bring the Yellow Dress to high school students. A local attorney within our child welfare system had seen a performance of the Yellow Dress and was just passionate enough to convince me we needed to bring this program to our local schools.

The day I first viewed a performance of the Yellow Dress, I sat in my office, as a professional woman, a woman with a Master’s degree now. A woman who was now a mother, too, and I wept. Somehow, some way, I still couldn’t grasp the courage to be open about my story, but I knew I had been given an opportunity to keep the same thing from happening to others.  I knew the agency I worked for would support this program because it made so much sense.  I knew my reaction was raw and intense because I saw myself in that play. I saw the young woman who was strong, intelligent, determined, focused, funny, sassy, and energetic. The young woman who was also a victim of an abusive partner.  I did it! See that? I just wrote that down for the very first time.

You see, I don’t identify at all with being a victim. I didn’t back then, and I don’t now.

It has taken me over 20 years, a gradual understanding, and a gradual admittance of what really happened, to be able to write that down and admit it publically. As I have matured and learned so much more about domestic violence, I realize much of why I was scared to tell had to do with me being fearful of what that meant I was and what others would think. How could this woman have gotten herself into this situation? You see, victims are weak, or at least that’s what I believed. I was not weak back then (or now), so I didn’t identify the need for help and I certainly didn’t identify with the word victim. In fact, I can remember just trying to figure it out on my own and never thinking that I needed to ask for help.

Victim Blaming

I have also done some research on victim blaming. According to the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, victim-blaming attitudes are one of the barriers that place survivors of relationship abuse in greater danger. What was that? Survivor? Now, that is a word I can identify with!

At their website, www.stoprelationshipabuse.org , I learned that sometimes victim blaming subtly comes out in our everyday language. Many times the focus is on the victim instead of the perpetrator. Check out these examples they share:

Victim Blaming in Language

One of the biggest sources of victim blaming is the way we talk about it; language surrounding abuse and sexual assault immediately puts our attention on the victim instead of the perpetrator. This is a demonstration developed by Julia Penelope and frequently used by Jackson Katz to show how language can be victim blaming:

  • "John beat Mary."  This sentence is written in active voice. It is clear who is committing the violence.
  • "Mary was beaten by John."  The sentence has been changed to passive voice, so Mary comes first.
  • "Mary was beaten."  Notice that John is removed from the sentence completely.
  • "Mary is a battered woman."  Being a battered woman is now part of Mary’s identity, and John is not a part of the statement.

As you can see, the focus has shifted entirely to Mary instead of John, encouraging the audience to focus on the victim’s actions instead of the perpetrator’s actions.

I by no means am suggesting that all issues surrounding domestic violence can be solved by simple language changes, but it is a part of the solution.  How do you think the following statements would be perceived by a man or woman who was in an abusive relationship?

  • “Nobody is ever going to treat me THAT way!”
  • “I would never put up with that!”

This could be said harmlessly in the workplace or amongst friends. When we consider what we know about societal norms, people are more likely to behave according to the behavioral norm. If victims think the majority of people wouldn’t allow the situation to happen to them, they will be less likely to come forward. They might even feel embarrassed and not understand how things got to where they are.

I can see how this contributed to my silence now.

Stopping Abuse

There are so many things we can do to prevent and stop relationship abuse. You are probably familiar with many key factors including:

  • Donating to domestic violence shelters
  • Educating yourself and others about the signs of domestic violence
  • Knowing where and how to get help
  • Another important factor, one that we focus on in our work promoting the Yellow Dress (a program of Deana’s Educational Theater) is teaching about what healthy relationships look like.

What I encourage you to also consider is the language you use when you speak of domestic violence. Consider the following:

  • Are you placing the emphasis on the victim?
  • Would you consider using the word “survivor” instead of the word "victim"?
  • How would someone who is currently in an abusive relationship perceive your words?

Remember, a strong, intelligent, determined, focused, funny, sassy, and energetic young woman just might be listening.

Kathie Graydon is the Director of Education and Community Relations at Heartland for Children. You can view more information about how the program the Yellow Dress is being offered locally through Heartland for Children, here.