I am still in seventh grade, but I have made two friends. A girl at school. And another girl in my neighborhood. Stephanie.
Stephanie is about two years younger than I am, but she is tall and willowy. She is part Cherokee and part white, and her long black hair shines. She talks of almost nothing but horses and dreams of one day being a professional jockey. I talk ballet, and she talks horses, and we both agree that it’s best to be quiet at school and ourselves here on our street.
The problem is, Stephanie has a brother.
Joel is nothing like her. He is younger but bulky and freckled with a round, pink face. He smells of raw sausage and dried jerky. His hair is sandy-brown, and his bedroom is decorated in plaid and fabrics printed with cacti and spurs and post-and-rail fences. He has a bunkbed for no known reason. He dips his thumb into a jar of peanut butter and scrapes it off on his dog Major’s nose. He laughs wildly as the dog tries to lick off the out-of-reach peanut butter. He goes around singing the theme song to Rawhide:
Keep them doggies movin’, Rawhide
Don’t try to understand ‘em
Just rope ‘em, throw, and brand ‘em.
My brother complains about having to play with Joel every time I want to hang out with Stephanie. I suggest he stay home, but he doesn’t. I think he’s a little afraid of Joel, too.
Stephanie and I shoot hoops, and then we sit on the curb in front of her house and talk about Camp Casey and horses and ballet and everything we will do when we are older.
One day, I am sitting on the curb with Stephanie, both of us with our hands thrown back in the grass, our faces up to the sky. Maybe we had just beat Joel at a game. Maybe we had teased him. Maybe he had just felt a surge of anger, and even he didn’t know why he did it.
But suddenly, something slams into my back and folds me over my knees. Someone heaves me up by the waist and then shoves me forward until I am sprawled out, belly-down, on the pavement. Spread eagle in the sunshine.
It is still spring, though, and the pavement is astonishingly cold.
Suddenly, someone is on top of me. I know it is Joel. Only Joel could be this heavy. I can’t get up. He has me pinned down.
And then, he starts to punch me.
He has no idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t go for my ribs or my spine or my kidneys. He just punches my hamstrings. My butt. Ineffectually. He’s trying to hurt me. I can tell by the way he grunts with every punch.
For an instant, when he first pinned me to the ground, panic seized me. I was terrified. It was my father’s attack all over again.
But this time I can breathe. This time it just pinches a little whenever he hits a nerve in my legs.
I laugh with relief.
Out of glee. He can’t hurt me as bad as I’ve been hurt before.
My laughter is meant to be defiant. And he hears it that way.
So, multiple times a month, sometimes several times a week, he grabs my shoulders and jumps onto me until I fold forward to the ground. Or he gives me a good shove, and as soon as I lose my balance, he pushes me again and I land on the concrete, peeling a layer of skin off my palms. Holes torn through the fleece leggings at my knees. Every contact point with the ground stinging and oozing.
However it starts, the next phase is always the same: He jumps on top of me, which always hurts my back, and starts punching me.
Stephanie shouts at him to get off, to stop it. But he doesn’t. Allan, my brother, simply watches.
One day my brain gets tired of it. I dissociate. I don’t have the word for this then, but it becomes an escape during the worst attacks. I am suddenly standing in the street, alongside Stephanie and my brother, watching Joel lay into me, his hands clenched into fists. I feel amused. Removed. I am curious. Why does he do this? Doesn’t he know he’s just a kid? He can’t hurt me. What an idiot.
One day he knocks me down in the road. For one of the only times, I am terrified. His rage is palpable. I scramble under a car to get away from him.
He grabs my feet and yanks me towards him. Skin skims off my palms as I try to cling to a tire.
He squats on my calves, pinning my feet.
My kneecaps feel like they’re going to shatter against the concrete. My chest is pressed into an oil stain. Pebbles bite into my cheek.
I become terrified the parking brake isn’t on and the car might start to roll. I cannot move.
But the torrent of punches to my thighs, my butt, my lower back never hurts quite as much as I expect.
After all, he is not a grown man. He is not my father.
This fills me with triumph, and again, I laugh.
“You’re so weird.” Stephanie says to me one day with the deepest sadness. “Why do you just laugh when he does that? I don’t get it. Why don’t you fight back?”
I shrug. “He never hurts me,” I say, as if this explains everything. “I never bruise.”
I think it is a sign from God. I am protected. Chosen.
Even now, it is hard for me to number his beatings among my assaults.
* * *
And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?
It isn’t just that sometimes violence is ethical and sometimes it isn’t. It’s that culturally, we Americans believe violence from certain people is normal.
A nine-year-old boy who regularly beats other children for fun or for payback—it’s normal to a lot of us. It was to me. And if I had admitted that he hurt me, if I had admitted that sometimes my laughter was just for show, that would mean I was weak. That I couldn’t even tolerate normal behavior.
But these boys grow into men, still believing their violence is normal.
You should be able to take it on the chin without whining about it.
Joel regularly mounted me in a sexual position, intending to hurt me. His violence was predicated on the belief that if he could overcome someone physically, then that person belonged to him. He could do as he wished. He had proven his superiority, and I didn’t get any say.
The only way to have a say is to be violent back. To participate in the violence.
This is a terrible lesson for any child to learn.
If I had been a different child, if he had attacked me before violence broke my heart, I would have hit Joel back. Or I would have told his parents. But I was me, and from a rough-and-tumble child who had wrestled boys and pummeled my brother, I had become someone else.
Violence made me heartsick. And I no longer trusted any adult as fully as I once had. Not even Frank.
I didn’t hit Joel back because I couldn’t stand to hurt anybody. Not anymore. I valued my own life less than I valued extricating myself from the violence.
Trapped in his own ravenous need for violence and dominance, the problem with Joel was that he had figured this out.