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The Vision of a Man
My earliest concrete childhood memory involved my mother standing outside of my father's car, begging him to allow me to return home. My parents had separated (and later divorced) before I was three years old and them fighting had become as commonplace as the "Hulkamania" Hulk Hogan t-shirts that everybody in my rural Maine town seemed to be sporting.
My mother was legally blind and it was this disability that provided my father with more occasions to enact power and humiliation over her. On this particular occasion, my father had agreed to give my mother a ride to one of my childhood events, likely regarding my involvement in the Head Start program. As we neared my mother's long driveway, she stepped out of the vehicle and I reached to open the door. However, I found myself unable to open it. Looking up, I saw that my father had hit the child safety lock, essentially trapping me in the back seat.
With an amused look on his face, my father informed my mother that he had, in fact, changed his mind, and that I would be returning with him. My mother broke into tears. She begged my father, sobbing, and reminded him that not only was I in her legal custody, but that she needed me to escort her back to her apartment as she could not see. Undeterred, my father maintained that he had decided not to adhere to this agreement. My mother continued to beg and cry and he continued to smirk. And I, already to such behavior, remained calm the entire time.
As an adult, I look back at that situation and fully realize the weight of what was going on. However, as a child I merely sat there calmly and waited out the storm, which leads me to believe I have repressed many memories, equally as traumatizing. Eventually, after he had gotten enough satisfaction out of humiliating my mother, my father unlocked the door and I gingerly climbed out, taking her hand and walking us back to her apartment. Inside, I recall attempting to calm my mother down, reassuring her that we were fine. I became the parent in that situation and others. On another occasion, I vaguely remember being locked in the bathroom when I defended my mother to my father and his friends.
Eventually, my mother began a relationship with a man who became my stepfather. We moved and my father began to slowly fade out of my life until he was eventually arrested for drug trafficking and we lost all contact completely. My stepfather reported that he was thrilled to finally have a son, as he had only had daughters in his previous marriage. I, however, was terrified of him. I was terrified of all men. Whenever a man would visit the house, I avoided all contact if possible. I would sit in my room and read a book until the left. One time, an elderly couple had volunteered to give my mother and me a ride to an appointment. When the man came to the door, I hid and cried until his wife came to see what was wrong. Following this incident, my mother asked me why I was afraid to get into the car with the gentleman. I was unable to verbalize my fear. Even though deep down I knew that he was a harmless elderly man, I couldn't help but feel that he could change into a monster at any moment. He could become my father.
When I was a small child ,my stepfather did his best to put me at ease, but as I grew into a young adolescent, and he grew more comfortable in the family, he became increasingly verbally abusive. He had little no patience in public and whenever my mother did something he deemed "embarrassing" i.e. tripping or walking into something, he exploded. I would watch my mother apologize multiple times and make excuses for something she need not make excuses for. The man I thought would finally set an example and help me overcome my fears of men was turning out to be just as controlling as my biological father, and in many ways, worse.
While my stepfather never struck me or my mother, he did some things that were far worse. As I entered my late adolescence my stepfather had all but abandoned hopes of turning me into the son he "always wanted". I had no interest in hunting or fishing and had no desire to learn car mechanics. Instead I preferred the solitary interests I developed during my time avoiding conflict: I read and listened to music. This greatly bothered my stepfather and he often used my perceived lack of inherent masculine traits in his verbal tirades against my mother. On a regular basis he attacked her parenting style and accused her of ruining me. He also took measures against me, opting to isolate me from my mother whenever he could. I was not brought along on trips and family dinners and if my mother did something as ordinary as enter a game of cards with me, she was criticized for not participating in his designated activity of watching television.
Eventually I began to channel my strong emotions of fear and anger into my class work. I was determined to graduate from high school with a transcript impressive enough to gain me admission to a college out of state. As a result of my hard work in academics, I was occasionally invited to various academic awards ceremonies and honor society initiations. I would pass each invitation along to my parents, and be met with a concrete "no" by my stepfather. He would follow up by reminding me that if I participated in activities he deemed more appropriate for a teenaged male (sports), he would attend; but he and my mother would not support my academic or philanthropic interests (I later would hear him referring to these interests as "nerdy" or "gay"). This denial of my interests and success ultimately led to my being forced to sever ties with my mother (a feat my biological father had not been able to accomplish). I would gradually confide and communicate with her less and less and seek parental attachments with teachers and friends's families. This did little to dissipate the strong feelings of resentment and betrayal these incidents built up in me towards my mother, however. To let a man treat her poorly was one thing. To allow him to sever our relationship was quite another. After graduation (in which my best friend's parents were the one to take me to dinner afterwards), I boarded the plane to my college in Maryland (my mother was not allowed to escort me) and wondered "Why would my mother not love me enough to fight?"
These questions led to my activist life. When scanning the freshmen seminar class list shortly before graduating high school, my interest was piqued by a course titled "Gender, Literature and Culture". As an avid reader, I was sold on the literature part, but had great reservations in regards to the "gender" part. I had long since rejected the role of masculine male (or had it rejected me) and it had become synonymous in my mind with fear and abuse. However, I also had a mild sense of misogyny regarding women, due to my resentment and feelings of abandonment in regards to my mother. Still, I decided to take the risk and sign up anyway. That decision changed my life.
As I sat in the class, I was taken aback by how genuinely interested and non-combative both the men and women were, and how willing they were to listen to and discuss opinions on gender that were outside of the norms that I had grown up with. The males in the class, whom I initially suspected would intimidate me and reject me outright, were accepting and nurturing. Perhaps, sensing my skittishness around them, they took the initiative to approach me. They, along with the phenomenal women and instructor in my class, understood and emphasized that strict gender roles and the misogyny that occurs as a result of them harm both genders, and that not all men desire a power system that equates to little more than domestic violence. It was their kindness and example that allowed me to further acclimate to the college experience and to not have to walk around eggshells around others because of who I am. That is not to say that I never experienced harassment or rejection by male peers, but I was able to feel better about myself and recognize that better, feminist, womanist and humanist men do in fact exist.
That is not to say that I don't still face obstacles resulting from being raised in a home full of domestic violence. In fact, is in the area of developing my own romantic relationships, i continue to struggle. Having long since come to terms with my identity as a gay male, it wasn't until my early adulthood that I even desired to take a risk on establishing a romantic relationship with another man. Whenever I would feel attraction develop between myself and another I would become uncomfortable and paranoid that they would quickly display the anger and verbally denigrate me the way that my father and stepfather had done to my mother and me. As a result, I would alter my behavior. In order to never be vulnerable or even set the stage for a disagreement, I would alter my personality in order to best suit those around me. If their interests were different from mine, I would alter mine to fit theirs - just like an abused woman with an violent man. If they had a completely different philosophy on love or relationships or politics that I did, I would agree with them. I became terrified that in the end they would reject and leave me and changed myself so much that, ultimately, that is what they did. In turn, I would blame myself and my self-loathing would intensify. This has gotten better over time, thankfully, and as my confidence has grown it has allowed me to develop successful romantic relationships. But I would be lying if I claimed I never caught myself today avoiding healthy disagreements with my parents or having nagging fears of worthlessness and inferiority. Those insecurities will likely be with me for the rest of my life. But if I continue to work on them, I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I respect myself and the potential of other men enough to try.
Survivors of domestic violence households, both men and women have to undergo a journey filled with developing the ability to trust and the willingness to become vulnerable again. When my stepfather died in 2008, I found myself drawn back into the household in which all the verbal abuse and emotional neglect had taken place for me. His death, which was sudden, had thrown her into a state of depression and shock. I was thrusted into the role of caregiver for somebody that I barely knew, and whom only wished to discuss how wonderful a human being my stepfather was. For days I seethed in silent anger, until weeks later it hit me; hating him will not repair the relationship I have with my mother and it will do nothing to prevent violence against women for anybody else. My father and stepfather may have been complacent carrying on the cycle of abuse, but I will not be. My mother is worth more and I know that all human beings are worth more. Violence against women has taken a lot of childhood happiness and milestones from my life, and it will likely impact me in ways I don't even realize for years to come. But I consider myself fortunate enough to have a voice that is able to raise awareness of all of the victims of this epidemic. To me that is the epitome of a real man.
Eric Danforth is a social worker, proud feminist, youth advocate, independent scholar and pop culture enthusiast whom resides with his cat Biggie Smalls in New York City.