Home The Op-Eds An Open Letter: Domestic Violence, Self Esteem, and the Right Kind of Support

An Open Letter: Domestic Violence, Self Esteem, and the Right Kind of Support

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Today, I watched a teary-eyed Tamron Hall share a segment that she created with seven women, telling their stories of domestic violence. The stories are undoubtedly painful – one woman spoke of being hog tied with duct tape; another spoke of how her abuser, upon realizing she was no longer responding to his abuse, squeezed her child’s thigh so hard that it turned purple – and, for many of us, sound terribly familiar. I cried while watching and, after pausing the show, cried some more.

That being said, when the fog cleared, I had a few thoughts I wanted to share. Yes, publicly.

Dearest Tamron,

I want you to know that I’ve been rooting for you ever since you joined the Today Show cast. I saw you on MSNBC, loved your commentary, and am happy to see you every morning. I was excited to see you rockin’ your coils and curls, and I love your sleek slicked-back look… and most importantly, I loved that you invited a nation’s worth of commentary on the styles even knowing how complex it can be for women of color to deal with that choice publicly. It exemplified the nature of an emotionally resilient woman to do that.

And again, this morning, when I saw you “shining a light” on domestic violence with your segments on August 18th, I saw not only that resilience but also vulnerability – the ability to cover such a difficult topic with integrity and compassion, without being clinical and sterile. It was the perfect way to give these women the space to tell their stories. Kudos for that.

Domestic violence is complex, something that I’m sure you know. As one woman in your video said, “This person brings down the moon and the stars out of the sky and gives them to you on a gold plate, and then uses it to destroy you.” We buy into fairy tale romance, we believe it to be unique and rare, we believe there’s one person – one soulmate – who is meant for you, and when we find that one person who makes us feel all these amazing feelings, we latch on and hold on for dear life, no matter the cost.

Yet, as another woman said in your segment, “You don’t go on a first date with a person, and they tell you ‘Six months down the line, I’m going to start beating you.'” Maybe it’s a feeling or emotion that lies dormant within them, prior to that ‘first date.’ Maybe it’s a change in jobs, a high pressure environment outside of the home that takes power away from them, leaving them to feel like the only place they can take that power back is through abusing their families. Maybe the abuser is a sociopath. It could be anything.

All I know, is that watching your segment gave me an epiphany.

When you spoke of the guilt you carry in relation to the untimely passing of your loved one, your sister Renate, I empathized because I, too, carry the same kind of guilt. I remember being in my teen years seeing a loved one, someone near and dear to me, have her delicate, pregnant body thrown against a refrigerator by her then-husband. When the crack era was waning, and its remaining victims were struggling to find both new victims and new dealers, her husband found himself in the middle. Desperate, helpless, and addicted, he felt like he had nothing – addiction and, subsequently, withdrawal can do that to you – the only way to feel like a man for him was to see fear in his wife’s eyes. So he hurt her, and he’d hurt her again.

I remember judging her, blaming her, accusing her. I remember feeling superior to her, believing I’d “never stay” if I were faced with that situation. I asked her condescending questions, wondering if she ‘liked it’ or if she were ‘weak,’ because a “strong black woman” would’ve known better.

But then, I grew wiser. And, upon choosing to marry my now-husband, I had a conversation with my mother. I told her of my decision to move our family to Brooklyn, New York, and raise our kids there. And her next words cut me like a knife:

“Well, okay….but just promise me you’ll always have just enough money to get a one-way car rental in case you need to get out of there. You’re far away, and we can’t get to you if we need.”

I’d felt offended – Eddy would never! – but who enters a relationship thinking their beloved would “ever?”

And the moment I heard her say, “No one goes on their first date and hears, ‘in about six months, I’m going to start beating you,'” I understood. We don’t know. We never know. We go in, hopes high, and sometimes it’s hard to come out. Who looks at their partner and thinks, “Yep – she’s gonna black my eye in a few months, but that’s cool. We can do this,” and forges onward? Who says to themselves, even after it’s happened a first time, “Yeah, it’s gonna happen again, but that’s fine by me!” and continues?

My question to you, most honestly, is the one that I think it was hardest to answer when your segment aired: how do we support one another?

The reality is, leaving an abusive relationship is not only emotionally complicated, but financially as well. In a city like New York, where the rent for even a studio apartment can easily engulf everything you’re earning that month, when the neighborhood you can afford feels more dangerous than the person you’re in the relationship with; when the expense of decoupling and moving somewhere else starts looking like a few month’s salary… where can you go? What can you do?

When your extended family is in the same awful financial straits as you are, who has the money to help you? And, when they feel shame in not being able to help you, do you acknowledge the sadness they feel, or do they turn it around on you? Blame you? Judge you? Shame you, much like I did to my own loved one?

Domestic violence is psychological warfare. It is someone using your emotions, your connection to them, and your purest intentions – your love – against you. It is a systematic effort to break down the person you thought you were, and be rebuilt into the eyes and desires of another human being. One woman in your segment spoke of how her abuser told her he wanted to see her wear baggier clothing, and she [then] thought favorably of it. If you dress in a way that makes you happy, they try to take that away from you and put you in a place where you are wholly insecure… where your sense of self is wholly reliant upon what they’ve told you. And they thoroughly attempt to remove every other person from your life who could counter their efforts. It is manipulation in its purest form. It is psychological warfare.

Many of the women spoke of “not loving themselves.” “If I had loved myself,” “If I were taught to love myself,” it was a sentiment that many of the women seemed to share. Over the years of talking with women who’ve believed that “if they’d loved themselves, they would’ve” done any number of things, from “eating better” to “treating their bodies better” to “thinking higher of themselves,” I’ve developed a different perspective of this.

I don’t think it’s a matter of the women not loving themselves – I think they all grew up with their minds set on what it means for them to love themselves – as much as it’s a matter of our idea of “self love” being very frail. As one of the women put it, “If I had learned, when we talked about sex, that there are certain things that a [partner] cannot do to you…” and I think that’s key. We visualize “self love” as being about perfectly-polished nails, perfect hair, and things that others can see… when do we ever learn that there’s more to it? When do we learn, in a world that demands silence and complacency of women, that standing up for yourself, speaking up for yourself, and demanding to be treated with respect is and should be components of self love, as well? How many of us ever got that message?

When I read that your ultimate goal is to raise funds to help teenagers get this message now, I cried even harder. (Mad makeup was ruined in the making of this blog post.) A compassionate approach to our young people can be life-changing for so many. It can, in fact, save a life. When adolescents, teeming with hormones and devoid of the common sense needed to manage them, grow accustomed to accepting abuse (or delivering it) without intervention, they grow up, as one woman said, “believing that it’s okay for a man to hit you.” When little over 9% of high school students report being hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their significant other – contrasted with how one out of every three adult women report having been abused – we are well on our way to a collection of people who think violence is a natural way to communicate… especially since one in five adult women and one in every 7 men who’ve once been abused report having first experienced it as a minor.

I didn’t mean to write you a novel, but your segment really spoke to my heart. I was a woman who loved herself, but associated that love with strange things that didn’t make me feel better or more powerful or more understanding of my emotions and how the people around me made me feel. It’s why, when I speak with women, I try to explain that it is time for us to associate “self-love” with new traits – defining self-care for themselves, defining what “respect” means to and for them, and helping them create boundaries. And, while they’re busy repairing the emotional damage, providing them with the resources to leave – not merely letting them stay at your house, but calling on support networks who’ve been there for decades and will be there decades more to help guide you both through this experience.

Many of us may never have the experience of being in a domestic violence situation, but some of us will. Even more of us will know someone who will, who has, and who is. We need to know the best ways to support our loved ones through these awful times. We need to understand how to lift ourselves out of these kinds of relationships. And, most importantly, we need to know how to protect ourselves and prepare for leaving if it becomes apparent that this needs to happen. Tamron, I believe your reach and your resources can put together this information and share it with the masses. And I would like to publicly pledge as much of my time and energy as I can to help, and encourage any and everyone reading this to do the same. As my site shows, I believe in compassion and positivity for women, and if I can help you save one more woman from this fate, it would be my most sincerest honor.

Again, thank you for helping me look compassionately at my own past with domestic violence, and for adding to this conversation.


Erika Nicole Kendall

A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss

To support Tamron’s ultimate goal and donate to her efforts, please check her out at http://www.crowdrise.com/tamron. Reach out to her at @tamronhall on twitter to share your support.

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