The first time my boyfriend hit me, I was 15 years old and late for a basketball game.
I was late because he had stolen my basketball shoes from my locker, and I had gone chasing him through biting January cold across the campus of the elite prep school we attended, trying to get them back. He lured me all the way past the gym and up the stairs into the lower school chapel before he stopped. I told him I'd miss my game if he didn't give my shoes back. He told me he saw me talking to another boy.
"Who?" I asked, "Who was I talking to? When?"
He dangled my shoes just out of my reach, leading me back to the vestibule.
"You know what you did," was all he would say.
This part was not new. He had grown increasingly controlling over the first year of our relationship. He had opinions about what I wore, where I went, how I behaved. Rather than risk provoking his jealousy, I had started skipping lunch in our school dining hall, smuggling bagels and oranges into the library to eat over my books instead. I thought that because I loved him, I should put him above all others. If it made him feel more secure to find me alone in the library rather than lunching with friends, then I would do that in order to prove myself to him.
Even as he began to punch me, holding up his fist before each blow, saying, "Tell me or else," I was still trying to reason with him. It was the first time anyone had hit me in anger. I had never had cause to fear somebody I loved and so at first I wasn't afraid; I just wanted my shoes back. When I gave up on my shoes and tried to leave, he knocked me away from the doors.
I was quick and athletic, but he was bigger, faster, and stronger. I thought maybe I could fake him out and get past him, but he beat me every time. I scrambled out of his reach up to the balcony but then I went back and forth between two staircases and each time I tried to descend, he and his fists were waiting. It ended when I made a run for it, flying down the stairs, trying to take him by surprise. But the moment I reached the bottom landing, he sent me sprawling, the back of my head hitting hard against a marble step. I stayed where I fell, not because I had lost consciousness, but because I was out of options.
The sight of me splayed out on the stairs must have frightened him. He dropped to his knees beside me, begging my forgiveness, begging me not to tell anyone, promising to never do it again. We were the same age, born just days apart. I had fallen for him in a way I never had before; my first romance, all so new and exciting. There were tears in his eyes, his hands trembled as he lifted my head from the stair. I agreed to everything. Then I took my shoes and ran. I told no one what had happened, not even when a teammate gave me a hard time for missing warm-up, not even when our coach benched me for my tardiness, promising wind sprints later.
I don't know how long it was before he hit me again. Days? Maybe a week? The incidents happened so frequently over the remaining years of high school that they all blend together in retrospect. There is one I remember clearly from that same winter. We were at a car show with his family. All year, my boyfriend had been talking about a particular sports car, the 3000GT, convinced his parents would buy it for him when he turned sixteen. He had told everyone at school about it, all of our friends. But when his mother asked my opinion, I told her that I thought it was a bad idea. I worried he would drive recklessly, get in an accident; I didn't want to be a passenger in that car.
He watched me with his mother and then asked me to come for a walk with him.
He was smiling and holding my hand as he led me away, so I didn't sense any danger. In a hallway just around the corner from where his parents stood amidst the crowd, I thought he was going to kiss me. Instead he pinned me against the wall by my throat, dead-legging me with a knee to my thigh—my consequence for undermining his desires. He no longer cried or apologized. Now he threatened to hurt me worse if I went back out there with anything but a smile on my face.
By then our routine had been established: I would endure his violence and when it was over, we would speak of it no more. It went on for the rest of high school. He hit me in stairwells, unoccupied classrooms, music practice rooms, in the assembly hall, outdoors, behind buildings, in his car. Some of it happened at home. He pinned me to the floor of his basement, punching my upper arms, clamping a hand over my mouth to prevent me from calling out to his father upstairs. He slapped me around in the basement of my house while grandmother baked a cake in the kitchen and my little sisters ran around the house. He hurt me at friends' houses and parties, in bathrooms and backyards and garages and bedrooms. If anyone ever walked in on us, they assumed romantic involvement and apologized, leaving quickly, asking no questions.
I had bruises up and down my left thigh and arm because he liked to interrogate me while speeding down the highway where he knew I wouldn't fight back or unbuckle my seat belt to get out of his reach for fear he would crash and kill us both.
When I needed a back brace for part of my junior year, I told my parents and the orthopedist they took me to, that I had fallen and been stepped on in basketball practice. I told my coach and teammates something else. I told no one that my boyfriend had thrown me down in a bathroom the night before, slamming my back against the toilet.
There were plenty of people I could have turned to. I was a nice girl from a nice family, with loving, supportive parents cheering me on in everything I did; close friendships I had maintained since early childhood; caring, committed teachers and coaches I liked and trusted. Yet I hid my secret from all of them. I protected my boyfriend because I loved him, because I thought what we had was worth protecting, because I thought that's what love meant.
One year, trying to get a handle on things, I tracked our relationship in my calendar, putting a black X on the date for every abusive episode, a blue check for every happy time. At 17, I was heartened to find far more checks than X's, the prevalence of blue proving our relationship more positive than negative. At age 30, finding that old calendar in a box of memoirs, it was horrifying to see the frequency with which he hurt me. There was a single Wednesday with four X's on it.
My boyfriend and I didn't discuss the abuse. Between episodes, we acted like it never happened. When things were good, I didn't want to rock the boat with a heavy conversation. When things were bad, they were acutely bad — discussion was not an option. But one time he let me know offhand that if I ever tried to tell anyone, he would make sure nobody believed me. He would say I was exaggerating, that I was an attention-seeking liar. He would make up sick stories about me, and people would believe him because, in his words, he had charisma. I suppose he did. He was a flatterer, a philanderer, obsequious with adults. Years later I was shooting hoops with one of my aunts, and she asked me, "Whatever happened to that boy you dated in high school? He was such a nice guy..."
What I told myself was that to love was to forgive. Church lessons emphasized selflessness, compassion, enduring hardship, turning the other cheek. If there was ever a sermon about standing up for yourself, about getting out of a bad situation in the name of self-preservation, I must have missed that Sunday.
I didn't get out because I wised up; I got out because I got lucky.
I left the Midwest to play field hockey at Stanford University. Pre-season for fall sports started a month before the beginning of classes, and my introduction to college life was living in a house off campus with a dozen of my new teammates. We spent all of our time together — three meals and multiple practices per day. For four and a half weeks, I was never alone. Even showers were communal events. In that setting, certain truths about my relationship were harder to hide.
This was the summer of 1996. Smartphones didn't exist. I wasn't on email quite yet. The only way my boyfriend could reach me was by calling the house phone and hoping I was there. He called constantly. My teammates answered and grew tired of having to come find me or, worse, having to tell him that no, I still wasn't at home, and no, they didn't know when I'd be back.
When he did get ahold of me, I would sit on the floor in the kitchen, speaking low so my teammates wouldn't overhear, obediently recounting every male I had seen or talked to that day. I answered questions like, "Did you touch him?" with answers like, "I don't know, I think I shook his hand when we were introduced."
Then he would want to know how long my hand made contact with his. Then if he'd touched me anywhere else. Then if I had plans to see him again, if I was lying. It was exhausting. I couldn't help but notice the way my older teammates began to roll their eyes when he called again.
I broke up with my high school boyfriend at the end of preseason, the day before classes began, sitting on the floor of my freshman dorm hallway to get privacy from my new roommate. We talked until late into the night. I had the cordless phone pressed against my ear until that side of my face went numb. I wish I could say that I broke up with him because of the inequality in our relationship, because I finally understood that jealousy and violence have no place within love, but I didn't say any of that. I might not even have been explicitly aware of it myself.
I broke up with him because I met someone else, someone "nicer" than he was — in some sense, exactly the thing he'd been afraid of. I worried that his family would think I wasn't so nice myself after that. I had spent a lot of time with them over the years, and I still cared what they thought of me. I thought about calling them up and letting them know that I was the injured party. That he had pushed me to this with years of battery, deceit, and manipulation. I never did.
I went on to date other people, all of them better, none of them hitters. But it took me years to start talking about high school. I wanted to. Yet I suppressed the impulse—why seek attention for bruises long since healed? Why burden anyone else with my dirty old past? I told myself it was all behind me. I was in California. He couldn't reach me anymore. But as time went by, the desire to confide in someone only intensified. For years, I struggled with depression, poor self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness.
My junior year of college, five years after that day in the chapel, I finally told someone. I was in Kenya with the National Outdoor Leadership School, and one night, sitting up late by the fire with two other NOLS students — also Americans, college kids on semesters abroad like me — I confessed that I had been in an abusive relationship in high school. It was an odd choice to burden those girls with such heavy information; I wasn't particularly close to either of them. Perhaps I chose that moment simply because I couldn't contain the secret anymore; I had begun screaming in my sleep, plagued by nightmares. More likely it was because those girls were completely separate from my life back home — I'd never met them before and would never see them again, so there was little danger in telling them my secret.
As I recall, their reactions were unsatisfying — murmurs of, "I'm really sorry that happened to you" — but it was an important first step to just let the words escape my lips and see how the sky didn't come crashing down around me. The week I returned to the States, I told one friend. He was a far better recipient of my secret than the girls had been. For a while, I told nobody else. But he knew, and every time I saw him, I knew that he knew, and I had to get used to that before I was ready to take another step.
A year after college I turned to a psychiatrist for help; he pumped me full of pharmaceuticals and when that only made things worse, I grew desperate, cutting myself with razors, flirting with suicide.
I did not truly begin to heal until I met my husband. When I first started dating the man I would go on to marry, I was living with friends in San Francisco, trying to climb out of another cycle of depression, trying to figure out what to do with myself. He was an aspiring musician and a substitute teacher, living paycheck to paycheck. I offered my story to him like a gift, like a challenge, like it was the only thing I had in me to give. And he took it. And he knew what to do with it. He couldn't afford to miss a paycheck, and yet he told me to call him anytime, anywhere, and he would come to me. He would turn down a paying gig just to sit by me if I asked him to. He believed in me, and he believed in honesty — even, and perhaps most importantly, when it came to uncomfortable subject matter. He showed me there was no shame in what I had been through, no shame in talking about it. He normalized truthfulness until I stopped hiding my past, stopped being afraid of it. Little by little, the memories lost their power over me.
The last contact I had with my high school boyfriend was in early 2006. I was living in New York, newly married and pregnant, stable and several years free of depression, hopeful I had left it behind for good. One morning I opened my email to find a message from him, subject line: "Making things right..."
I would appreciate the opportunity to express my regret for the ways I mistreated you. I understand the impact I made on you in our high school years and beyond and I seek forgiveness. I was wrong. I hurt you in ways I cannot imagine. I wish to apologize so we can live in the present without the past with which I am so ashamed. I hope you have been able to escape the hurt that I caused, I have not been able to escape the guilt and shame I feel for the way I treated you.
Are you willing to speak with me by phone? Please send me your phone number if you are willing to speak with me. Please respond by email if you prefer only to communicate by writing.
I hope to create closure so we can move on. Are you interested?
I didn't know what to do with it. I perseverated on it for a week. He was requesting clemency for deeds committed as a teenager. Who was I to deny him this? I thought about amazing acts of compassion, about parents pardoning their children's murderers. I put myself in his place and imagined how difficult it would be to move forward so laden with guilt.
Then a more cynical side of me wondered if it was pure coincidence that brought this urgent desire for resolution just as I was beginning to be more vocal about what had happened between us. A dozen years after that day in the chapel, and I had only recently stopped shying away from the topic among mutual acquaintances. It was not inconceivable that word had made its way back to him, just as word of his burgeoning business career had made its way to me. Our high school claimed him as a successful young alum, the unexpected sight of his face in the school magazine like a knife in my belly.
Could it be he was after more than closure? Could this be a bid for some sort of damage control? What parts of the past would seep into the tenuous security of my happy new life if I allowed a line of communication to open between us?
In the end, I decided I owed him nothing. I had already given him so much of my time, so much of myself, and now he had reached out of my past to steal another week from me, a week in which I felt distracted and emotionally dysregulated, a week in which I wanted to be enjoying my new marriage, my first pregnancy. Our baby was due in the spring, and when that time came I did not want even a corner of my mind to be occupied by unpleasant memories. I wrote back to say I did not want to be in contact with him now or ever. He said he wouldn't bother me again. So far he has kept his word.
I am 37 now, very married, mother of three, a final fourth on the way. I’ve sat on this story for so long that even our unborn baby is closer than I am to the age I was that day in the chapel. There is some fear in dredging it all up again. It is not that the horror of the past still has any hold over me, but I worry it is not worth exposing those who love me to the distressing of hearing it, to the new pain of knowing it.
I asked my husband how he thought people would respond, fretting they would think I was courting sympathy, that I would end up with a mess of oh-so-sorry I didn't want, didn't need.
"Explain to me why you want to share this story," he said. "Why is it worth the risk to you?"
And I told him how it could have helped me to have heard stories like mine, to be able to identify through them that what I was experiencing was abuse, not love, not a thing worth holding sacred in any way. I told him how I have come to learn of others in my life who have been similarly mistreated and when I have shared my story with them, how they have each been relieved to know they were not the only ones. There are too many others still suffering as I once was and I want them to understand that they are not to blame, they are not weak, not wrong, not alone. That they should do whatever it takes to get themselves free and one day, maybe years away, they will wake up and find themselves whole again.
It is something I wish someone could have said to me twenty years ago. I was lucky. I got out and I have found peace in life. But it could have gone another way. I could have stayed with him, gotten pregnant, gotten married, and the cycle of abuse might never have been disrupted. Or even if I had escaped, I might have carried my story inside me forever and never healed, never spoken up. It happens to other people. It is happening right now.
Lindsey Fisher lives with her family in northern California.