When you see a bruised, battered face like the one I’ve reluctantly posted here, what immediately comes to mind? I can imagine what does for most people, because during the weeks that I braved the streets of Kraków while going about my daily life looking like a victim, I myself was at the receiving end of the very same gut reactions that you yourself are probably feeling right now. Omg, what happened to her? How awful! Who did that to her? Poor woman! Or perhaps less sympathetic reactions might come to mind, even though you can’t possibly voice them consciously. Uugh, she looks like a tough woman who gets into fights. Probably poor. Working class. Alcoholic. Maybe on drugs. Neglectful mother. Hysterical wife. Probably asked for it.
During the couple of months that it took my facial wounds to heal, I really did feel like a victim. But not at the hands of a husband or lover or random attacker. No, I felt like a victim of all the pre-programmed, prejudiced conjectures of the public. Of course my closest family and friends knew what had happened, and eventually so did everyone at work, but even now I sometimes wonder if my explanation of I bumped into a lamp post was actually credible to some. The fact that my husband and I split up barely eighteen months after that photo was taken, and that he is famous round here for indulging in a few beers on the occasional wild night, only gives more credence to the lingering uncertainty of some doubting Thomases. My God, poor Wendy! the disbelievers secretly might have thought. A battered wife? – whoever would have thought it! Just goes to show, you never really know what goes on behind the closed doors of a marriage.
At this point I feel it necessary to apologise to all truly battered wives of violent men. So I will address you directly now.
Dear injured women, I am not one of you. I was not battered – I honestly did walk into a lamp post. It happened one evening a couple of years ago. I was on my way to a concert, daydreaming as usual as I strolled along a badly-lit street, glancing sideways through the window of a nearby café and thinking how cosy the candlelit interior looked … and then next thing I knew – BANG WHAM! Stars in my head, in the air, blood dripping from my head, splattering the pavement and my shoes; dizziness, nausea, confusion … I had literally walked into a lamp post! No kidding. I am not trying to make excuses for my husband, who is neither violent nor living with me anymore. I am telling the truth. And the fact that I am so desperate to tell the truth – to make sure that everyone knows it didn’t happen to me, honest! Please believe me! I’m not a battered wife! – makes me feel all the more empathy and sorrow for all you women somewhere out there who really are battered. You’ll have received similar wounds to the ones in my photo, similar pain upon first impact, similar stars and shock and blood and dizziness, but for diametrically opposed reasons. Your lamp post was a fist or some other instrument of violence; your wounds were caused with malicious intent; your pain was very soon overshadowed by shame and denial and the need to hide.
I too wanted to hide, the first day I ventured out with our dog after my lamp post attack. I took her on our usual walk up the tree-lined avenue on the hill near our house … ah, such a pleasant walk, greenery all around, birds singing, squirrels playing in their airborne domain of leafy trampolines … but as soon as I came across the first passerby, it was no longer such an Elysian place to be. Furtive glances, avoidance of direct eye contact; and then the next passerby – overtly gaping with an expression that relayed shock and distaste; then the next one, and the next, and the next, some of whom I recognised as fellow dog walkers over the years … and every single one of them either avoiding me with palpable unease, or staring with voyeuristic intrusiveness. And I …? Inwardly cringing as though I had committed some invisible crime.
Is that why so few of you scarred women are seen out on the streets in your injured state? Because you want to hide away at home and conceal your ugly wounds? Not ugly just in physical appearance, but in the message they convey? I am a battered wife, the implication being: because I live a rough life / I drink / my husband drinks / my children witness regular scenes of violence …
Isn’t that what the general assumption is, upon seeing a black eye on a woman? Either: you poor thing, or you rough and coarse thing?
Never mind if you are none of those things. Never mind if you are neither rough nor coarse nor alcoholic nor a neglectful mother nor a banshee wife who apparently deserves brutal treatment. Never mind what the reality of your individual situation is. Maybe it was a one-off act of aggression which never happened again, and the perpetrator of it was truly contrite. Maybe the perpetrator of it was a sophisticated husband or partner – or another woman, for that matter. Maybe you yourself are sophisticated, educated, not a down-and-out single mum who lives in poverty and roughness. Or maybe you do lead a rough life. And a tough one. One that you never asked for. One that should never have been preordained for you in the stars before your conception. But it’s what you were lumped with. Whatever the case, you never asked for those war wounds to mark you as some sort of condemned woman.
The point is, walking around in public when you have a black-and- blue face brings out all the submerged, preconceived ideas so many of us have, and very often just can’t help having. In some ways I’m grateful to that lamp post for allowing me a rare glimpse into the dangerous and alien world of true victims.
And by the way, it really was a lamp post, I swear it …