Identifying Non-Physical Abuse of Women by Their Men
By Mary Susan Miller, Ph.D.
This is the story of Ellie - Eleanor Ames, living in New York, born in Norwalk, Connecticut, daughter of Martha Lapone, a housewife, and Jonathan Shattuck, a lawyer. It is simultaneously the story of all the other Ellies and Sarahs, Lorrie-Anns, Corishas, and Rosas in America and truly throughout the world.
Ellie: graduated fifth in her class from Norwalk High and in 1944 from Pembroke College with a B.A. in English, a Sigma Psi pin from her boyfriend, and very little in her head. She worked as a gofer in her dad's law firm for three months before marrying that Sigma Psi brother, Roger Ames - second lieutenant shiny-fresh from a three-month stint in Officers* Candidate School, about to embark overseas for a destination unknown.
Two years later he was back in Ellie's arms, discharged and unscathed, and with his wife in tow headed for a studio apartment in New York with a one-year lease and a job as third assistant to the second assistant of an editor at Time.
Forty-nine years later they are still married and still have a studio apartment in New York but have added a ten-room Tudor in Mamaroneck, four children, nine grandchildren, and two dachshunds. Ellie became a paralegal after her second child, then worked on and off until the last one entered junior high school. It was then that Gloria Steinem and Company raised her consciousness, and she worked full-time for three feel-like-somebody years, until Roger's complaints about tv dinners and late work nights turned every evening into a dirty political campaign. She conceded his victory like the good wife she was brought up to be, quit her job, and settled down to home and husband with quiet resentment.
Ellie looks back:
"I walked into marriage like Cinderella into the ball: Roger was Prince Charming, all-knowing and all-powerful, and I the adoring chosen subject. I had no doubt that we'd live happily ever after; with his wise leadership and my eager submission, what could go wrong?
"You know, I wasn't really a moron. Everyone was like that. It was 1946: the war was over; our men had come home alive; we were lucky to be married; and we knew our place. But soon it was the 1950s and 1960s. If the prince treated me with a little less charm, I refused to notice. So what if he wouldn't let me have a checkbook? He assumed that I was dumb in math and would bollix it up - which wasn't true because I had gotten the highest mark in the class in calculus - but he said men should handle the money. My dad did, so it sounded all right to me. It killed me having to ask for a few dollars to go marketing or buy the kids shoes - like a beggar. But that's the way it was.
"I tried not to notice how he made fun of opinions I expressed on anything, whether it was politics or an author we'd read or something as stupid as the weather. As for making decisions, forget it. I wasn't even allowed a say in where the kids went to school or what we did on vacation. He always knew best. He knew everything. At a teacher conference once he actually told me to shut up because I didn't know anything about education; I think the teacher was as embarrassed as I was.
"He took charge so completely that he even started telling me what clothes to wear - said I looked like a hag in red, which he knew was my favorite color - and I kidded myself into believing he was right and wanted him to be proud of me. Until one morning when I couldn't find the red suit I continued to wear once in a while. I was hunting in every closet while he followed me. 'You're wasting your time,' he finally said. I can still see him leaning against the open doorway, smirking. 'I gave it to the Salvation Army.'
"Can you believe it? I couldn't then, but I can now when I begin to look back and realize that our whole marriage had been leading to this. From the very beginning, if Roger didn't get his way, he would make me pay. Sometimes he wouldn't talk to me for weeks or wouldn't eat, even when I cooked his favorite dinner, and believe me, I tried. Oh, how I tried! And there were weeks when he wouldn't have sex with me unless I pleaded - naked on my knees - and promised I'd do whatever he wanted."
Roger Ames was behaving in a way that kept his wife in full submission, and Ellie Ames was doing everything she could to please him. What neither of them was able to realize, though, was that she could never do enough. Just as a desert traveler can never reach the mirage oasis toward which he staggers, so Ellie could never meet Roger's demands, which on the verge of attainment forever moved further from her reach.
Roger was a wife abuser. No one knew it, though - not even Ellie - since he was not recognizable from news stories and pictures of bloodied and broken women. Nonetheless, he was an abuser, who controlled his wife through fear, isolation, emotional and sexual withdrawal, and humiliation. He didn't have to lay a hand on Ellie; he made her submit to his will without a fight, and neither labeled the relationship abusive.
It is difficult for a man who punches a woman or throws her into a wall to not know that he is an abuser. It is equally difficult for a woman who sustains a black eye and body bruises not to know she has been abused, although both of them find rationales to avoid reality. However, the subtle manifestations of nonphysical abuse usually escape acknowledgment - at least for a long period of time. Although a man can't help being consciously aware of depriving a woman of money or social contacts or of drumming into her that she is stupid and crazy, he can be consciously unaware that what he is doing is legally abusive. Similarly, a woman, cognizant that she is systematically being made miserable, may not recognize what is happening as abuse. The netherworld environment in which they both live, therefore, keeps abuse alive and thriving until - and if - the woman steps into the reality of the real world by demanding a halt.
Ellie wouldn't have denied her unhappiness - even her parents saw that; nor would she have denied her confusion over Roger's behavior or the hurt that poured out in frequent tears over his coldness and the distance he kept. However, the word abuse never entered her mind. "He's under stress, and I have to be patient," she'd tell herself, or "I expect too much." And then she would try still harder to please Roger and fail again . .. and again . . . and then again.
Although her Cinderella dreams had long since reverted to pumpkins and ashes, she never lost hope because she knew that if she could just make Roger happy he would become Prince Charming again. Having embraced Roger's teaching that she was to blame for the problem, she accepted the fact that she was also responsible for its solution. Leaving him wasn't the answer; after all, she was his wife. What she had to do was wave the magic wand that would enable her to do things right so that Roger could love her again. But Ellie could never do things right because for Roger there was no right.