Lately, a few incidents have been beating around in my head. Some that I have been thinking about for a long time, and in the furor that comes with being a obscure pundit of marginal politics, I often ignore those urges to write about things which are anecdotal and personal. The old feminist refrain “the personal is political” comes to mind whenever I think about these sorts of issues. Yet, if anything, experience has taught me to distrust even my own anecdotes, and while the personal may be political, the political, in general, encompasses structures and reactions far beyond any individual, “personal” life.
This brings me to an incident I wrote about before, in my “why I wanted to understand feminism” essay. I can’t find that essay on the old blog, so I will recount the basic parameters. In 2005-2006, I was getting my MFA in poetry and living in a giant Victorian house on the edge of a poor and mostly black neighborhood beside a college. There was a lot of food traffic in the area because students from the college would often go into the “ghetto”–the ironies of that word are not lose on me–to get whatever drugs they wanted. It was a by far majority white and suburban liberal arts college surrounded by historical districts on one side and a historically black area no the other. Panhandlers used to come to house on a regular basis, and several lawn-movers were stolen. In this atmosphere, two of the people in my house began to carry guns. I already had one that I had inherited from the death of my grandfather. The other man who lived in the house was ex-army, and put a replica on display to “discourage theft.”
I don’t think it worked. In the year I lived there, we lost several lawn movers, but we generally left alone beyond that. I would go out to talk to most of the neighborhoods sometimes. I would give change to panhandlers as long as they did not come to my door. This sort of non-douche-bag behavior generally worked better than a replica .45. In also volunteered to work with the Habitat for Humanity store with a friend of mine on my off-days when I did not have to teach or take classes.
I also did some work with trying to do fundraising for woman’s crisis center. The overlap between the two was when one of the women I lived with told me she wanted my help with an issue. One of the volunteers at the Habitat store came in bruised regularly. My roommate wanted us to get her to the woman’s shelter and transitional housing attached to the Forum to Stop Family Violence in Atlanta. There was little for woman’s health in the rural college city we lived in, and the nearest shelter in the next city over was primarily for the homeless.
My roommate and her girlfriend asked me to escort them. I was a over-250 lb man, and had a gun if needed. I agreed, and then she asked if the victim, a woman with two children with graying hair that I put somewhere between 40 and 45 years old, could stay with us. We could not drive her to the Atlanta for a day and a half. I ascended, nervously.
The first day goes uneventfully with the exception of a Toyota pick-up circling the house every two hours or so. That night, sleeping with my then wife, I kept the Model 30 revolver by the nightstand. It was Georgia Spring, and trying to save on electricity, we did not run the air conditioner night. Instead, we bolted the first floor windows shut but kept the second floor windows open.
In the morning, there was kicking at the door. Some yelling as well, the pounding became thunderous in my head. I knew what it was without asking. I slipped on some pants and palmed the revolver. The ex-soldier had already answered the door, and I walked down with gun-cocked if needs be. I thought I may have to shoot this man: he seemed tense and feral, a one moment apologetic and the next threatening. The cliches apply here because they are rooted in reality even if they do, somewhat, resemble a Lifetime movie.
The woman staying with us went to the door, and went outside. She told me to wait, and that she was going to talk to him. There was some yelling, but no striking. Instead, she came in mouse-like and she said she was leaving with him. My heart sank. I knew her, although not well and not long. I know she was beat-up, and I knew her husband was violent.
In the first time I talked about this, I say this was when I realized that I did not understand the situation, and my assumption that this was something in films was false. If you asked me then, I would say “Stockholm syndrome” or the allure of male power. I didn’t understand. I took classes on feminist theory, did more hours with the women’s crisis center, and still do not understand. I did not understand the various Protestant and Catholic churches serving as the primary marriage and family planning. I did not understand the fear of government social workers, even though the Department of Family and Children’s Services had been an unpleasant backdrop in my own childhood. I did not understand the dark side of oxytocin, the way people can become confused and even addicted to the chemical bonds. I did not understand all the structural and social–even biological–complications.
In many ways, I have a lot more facts and theoretical frameworks for dealing with violence, and I don’t understand now. What I did understand is that women feeling at unease upon first meeting me made sense. It was not personal. It was structural and biological–and given the statistics of relationship abuse–smart even though it is not statistically likely that I am an abuser, the margin of error would lead one to proceed with caution.
Reading the NY Times the other day and read a study about the anti-oxytocin drug and its possible relationship to helping individuals break with abusive partners. Would that have helped my roommate’s battered friend? I have no idea, as other studies have indicated, oxytocin’s trust building manifests differently in different cultures. While the same oxytocin hormones and genetic releases exist in Koreans and Americans, Koreans in Korea react to oxytocin bonding between friends almost the exact opposite of the Americans in regards to confessing negative feelings to friends. While personality traits as this are highly heritable, one notices that a Korean American raised in the US context expresses the oxytocin bond in the same way as Americans. Meaning, I have no idea if just removing the love-hormonal would actually work to fix the problem.
Another thing I did learn is that the threat of violence is sometimes justified, but rarely effective against a party that does not have a rational calculation against the consequences of violence. It was this that begin a shift in my thinking about politic and about guns. Later, I would sell my revolver, which had been in my family since my great grandfather killed himself with it, to a pawn shop on the south side of Atlanta.
Now if you want a rant about gun control, I am not going to give it to you. I have lived in two countries with strict gun laws– Korea, where there are almost no guns, and Mexico, where gun violence is endemic despite the laws. Picking selective statistics to support or deny gun control seems to be a cop-out to a complex problem of violence, gun polity, and the mass shootings which seem common, but statistically are almost insignificant in the spread of violent crime.
But when I read Andre Dubois “Giving up the Gun”and relate to it, I also realize that I could psychologically survive if I had needed to shoot that husband that day. I was a husband too, and not always a good one and not always a nice one, but if someone would have beat my wife, I would have wanted to hurt them with a bang and not a whimper. Instead, I realized that with rare exception, all my rage would unlikely do much good.
That is not grounds for public policy; however, it would be crucial for my personal ethics. The personal may be political, but like I said above, somethings are far beyond that.