Why I went back to the man who hit me

It has been a quarter-century and I can still hear clearly the sound of my voice that night.

It wavered with a plaintive, childish note as I spoke into the telephone: "He hit me."

That sound, which I had never before heard in my own voice, broke something. I started to cry.

I do not remember exactly what happened after that.

Eventually, he was not there anymore and my roommate and her boyfriend were holding my hand while I debated whether to break up with him.

Some part of me is nodding along with the incredulous reader of this passage: debated whether to break up with him?

In my defence, it was not clear whether the blow was deliberate.

He had been gesturing wildly and maybe he had not meant for his fist to connect with my face.

He had never hit me before. But the fact remained that he had been in one of his frequent rages and, during that rage, he hit me.

Another fact remains: I went back to him. Even with 25 years to think about it, I am still pondering why.

To be honest, I have tried not to ponder over it much those years and, mostly, I have succeeded.

But I am thinking about it now because of the allegations levelled against former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who announced his resignation after The New Yorker magazine reported that three women had accused him of assaulting them while they were dating.

They stayed with him too.

And, like me, they told only a few intimates.

We understand why rape victims do not come forward - the difficulty of proving that the sex was not consensual, the shame that still attaches to sexually active women in our culture.

But if a man hits a woman, he will not get far arguing that he thought she wanted him to.

And yet, there is shame. As witness the fact that I debated with myself about whether to write this column. In fact, I decided to write this precisely because of my discomfort, to prove that it is absurd.

And yet. Telling your story in public is remembering how frightened you were and how weak you felt and sharing those memories with strangers.

It is linking your professional identity to the word "victim". Sometimes, if we are honest, it is admitting our ambivalence and our poor decisions. It is confessing that we did not just get hit, but we also went back in the hope that he would not do it again.

In my case, he never did, so maybe it really was an accident.

But I wondered every day I remained with him if he would hit me again. I had known this was how it would be. So why in heaven's name did I go back?

That is easier to answer to myself than it is to you. You are picturing a rage-filled monster, an archetype.

I am remembering the man, who was funny and brilliant. And who was a staunch public feminist.

There were many reasons I wanted to be with him and none of them was simple because neither was he.

He was a human being.

A truth had been revealed, but not the truth, because no human being has only one truth.

We want people who hurt women to be singular creatures, monsters, not men.

But often, they will be our brothers, fathers, husbands and friends. They will make great art, fight for good causes or have other qualities and do other things we value.

One of the most striking moments in the New Yorker piece was when the friends of one woman told her not to speak out because Schneiderman was too important a politician to lose.

It goes without saying that there is no man so important that he should get away with assault.

But, nonetheless, we have to reckon with the real temptation to compromise that principle for pragmatic or personal reasons.

Dividing the world into men and monsters makes it harder for women to explain why they sometimes continue contact with their abusers and, therefore, harder for those women to speak.

When they do speak out, this false division makes it harder to believe them because, after all, that guy does not seem like a monster.

And it leaves us flailing when we realise that some man we love or need has, whatever his other virtues, still done something monstrous and we cannot be with him anymore.


• The writer is a columnist and author.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 24, 2018, with the headline 'Why I went back to the man who hit me'. Subscribe