What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?
Nothing. You’ve already told her twice.
I’ve heard this joke my entire career. Just about every single year, someone on the job will feel inclined to recite it to me usually in response to domestic abuse that has occurred on a call or in the news. Once even, an officer who wanted me off his truck, out of the blue yelled this joke to me over the roar of the Engine on the way to a grass fire. When a fireman (it’s always a guy) tells me this joke, often in front of other firemen, and always with a chuckle, I’ve tried to remain silent and pretend it didn’t bother me. I know they’re trying to get a rise out of me, sometimes in an ignorant but rather innocent way, and I haven’t wanted them to know they’ve succeeded. Normally I fall silent, struggling to hide my feelings, and if I have the opportunity, I walk away demoralized by the thought that they don’t care. About women being hit that is. Despite the gallows humor, it honestly doesn’t seem to matter to them.
I heard this joke again recently on a domestic abuse call between a father and his daughter. We pulled up in the Engine to a nice neighborhood with cop cars in front of the house, their lights illuminating the darkness in flashes of red and white. For South Florida, it was freezing, and a middle-aged woman stood on the sidewalk holding a bag of frozen veggies to her face. As I approached I saw her cheek swollen to the size of a softball and her eye beginning to close. Her father had punched her in the face something good. My partner and I gave her an ice pack and comforted her, while my Lieutenant took the report. We were there for a while as my LT typed away on the pad and the police officers took the drunken, combative perpetrator into custody. We stepped aside while a police officer took pictures of the patient’s face and that’s when my partner, a really good guy, turned to me and said, “Well, you know what the say, Gea.”
Why does a woman have two black eyes?
Because she didn’t listen the first time.
For a decade this joke has saddened and demoralized me. Now, finally, it just pisses me off.
This joke asserts that the woman made the mistake, not the man. Getting punched in the face (twice!) is her fault. She didn’t listen. Even after you showed her the first time. The context of the incident is irrelevant. And the joke-teller rarely stops to consider the history of his audience to whom he’s telling the joke. What is her background? Did her father ever hit her mother? Did a boyfriend or ex-husband ever hit her? Does she have a sister being abused or an aunt or a cousin? Or a best friend? These questions don’t even occur to him. He doesn’t relate to the victim because he’s not female. He sees it from the oppressor’s perspective, not the oppressed, and there’s an underlying assumption, usually subconscious and not thought through, that the oppressed deserve their lot due to some kind of inherent weakness. This is the reasoning humans have used to justify slavery, genocide, and even date rape.
Any one who has grown up in an abusive, alcoholic family (they tend to go together) knows that it is never funny. Prolonged exposure to systematic aggression may make you stronger or tougher but it rarely makes you laugh. This time, when my partner on the Engine, a very thoughtful person whom I adore, began to make this joke I cut him off. “I’ve heard that for eleven years,” I said. “I’m done. It’s the same as me making a racist joke.” My partner is black and he immediately fell silent. I know he had no idea how many times I’d heard this joke or how it would make me feel. It’s something he too, no doubt, has heard his entire career and was repeating without considering what it really implies. I am not a huge proponent of political correctness, especially as a writer, but there are times when it is wise to consider one’s audience. And with all the horrific violence going on in the world toward women, (ISIS is a prime example) it’s time firefighters considered the message behind this joke.
I walked to my sobbing patient while her husband wandered about on his phone looking indifferent. Her eye was almost closed and the skin was turning black. I put my arm around her and whispered, “Don’t cry. Get angry. You should be pissed he did this to you.”
My stepfather, the toughest man I have ever known, was prone to explosions of rage. He would go along for a while, containing it and containing it, until something set him off (usually my mother, no placid soul herself) and he would explode like a bomb going off, anywhere or anytime–at home or in the car on on the side of the road. My mother was an emotional woman, and in their 40-year marriage she cried so many tears I eventually grew numbed to them. She was beautiful, creative, and highly sensitive, but she also had a vengeful side and was easy to anger. She was inclined to think wrongs done to her were not her fault in any way, and every time my stepfather turned his weakness on her, she didn’t feel sorry for herself, she got furious.
Not long before my mother died, she and my stepfather were living in the mountains of Southern California, surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness. The horses were all gone and her family were all dead save me who lived across the country in Florida. It was just my mother, stepfather, and her dogs up there in the middle of nowhere and a neighbor a quarter-mile down the dirt road. Mother loved animals probably more than people and treated her dogs, all rescued, like family. To her, they were. The land was not fenced and one day Rosemarie–her wayward Airedale, wandered to our neighbor’s house, grabbed his chihuahua and throttled her. The chihuahua (minorly injured) lived but Rosemarie was not so lucky. My stepfather, 76 at the time and still hard as hell, got together with his neighbor and refusing to consider a more peaceful solution, shot and killed Rosemarie. Mother was devastated. She cried and cried, and then with a fierce passionate conviction that comes from reading entirely too much Shakespeare, she cursed them both to God. Not two weeks later my stepfather and neighbor had hard falls. My stepfather cracked his ribs falling from a ladder. Mother felt not an ounce of guilt. She said she was glad. They deserved it.
I realize this is a strange story, and I don’t suggest anyone curse their husband to the Gods or will anyone off a ladder. But I can now appreciate my mother’s strategy. It was one of defiance. She responded to callousness not by submitting to it and wallowing in self-pity, but by fighting back in her own mysterious way. When you turn your spirit toward defiance instead of submission, you become powerful. Women have a tendency to direct our hurt and anger inward, toward ourselves, and as a result can become passive victims. We must annihilate this tendency. I’m not suggesting physical violence. I’m suggesting emotionally defending and protecting yourself as vehemently as you would your best friend or your own child. Or your dog Rosemarie.
Sometimes bad things happen to us and it’s not our fault. Sometimes we don’t deserve what we get. Sometimes someone else is simply being a mean bastard. So don’t feel sorry for yourself when someone tries to hurt you, whether in a little or a large way. Get mad instead. The world is drowning in anger and we all need to guard against fanning the flames, but occasionally anger is called for. Hatred isn’t the opposite of love, indifference is. And it’s hard to passively surrender when you’re seething with righteous anger.
The night of the domestic, we ran on multiple weeping women. Although I preach compassion and try really hard to practice it, I do not have great tolerance for prolonged emotional self-indulgence. There is always an element of surrender to it, and I prefer defiance. The fact of the matter is this: Life is hard and occasionally brutal. Don’t expect others to protect you. (If they do, guard that person fiercely.) Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves. We are women, not girls, and there is no knight in shining armor coming to save us. That is a fairy tale. We must save ourselves. It is hard but worth the fight. Why expect anyone to protect you, if you’re not willing to fight for your own freedom and dignity? But the gift is this, and it may be a universal law; once you are willing to fight for yourself with resolve, others are more likely to fight with you. Not for you, but with you. And even God or the Universe may align to aid you, in spirit, if not in deed.
The thing about victims, and this goes for the fire department too, men may pity them, feel sorry for them, a few may even want to protect them, but no one respects them. It may not be fair, but it’s true. So don’t be a victim. And when someone starts to make a joke about a woman being hit or raped or sold into slavery, nip that shit in the bud.
For a decade this joke has saddened and demoralized me. Now, finally, it just pisses me off. I’m done being the quiet girl who walks away when someone laughs at a woman being beaten.
And for anyone who has been victimized: though someone else put you in that cage, only you can break your way out. It will be the most important thing you ever do in your life. Don’t waste too much time feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t expend needed energy feeling hurt or unloved or ignored. Feel defiant. Foster defiance. It’s time we stopped being quiet and taking it and hoping someday it will end all on its own. All because suddenly other people have become more enlightened or kinder or wiser or more compassionate. Don’t wait for those people to grow up or evolve. Don’t believe their lies when they suggest it’s your fault. Don’t surrender to their intimidation. DEFY THEM! And if you are unable to do it physically, in a concrete way, for reasons of survival, then do it in your heart. In your heart NEVER SURRENDER. In your mind and spirit, stay strong.
STAY TOUGH & NEVER QUIT!