Phone Calls

I was seven years old the first time the call came. It was my friend from over the back fence. She was eight. Her older sister babysat my sister, brother and I from time to time. My friend was crying. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Down the line came the sounds of her sister screaming as her father pounded her teenage flesh.

I didn’t know what to do.

I was seven. I knew you called 911 in the event of a fire. I knew you called the police when bad people did bad things. But this was her dad. A father. A person I should have been able to go to if there was any “stranger danger’”. Next day at the bus stop, there they were, my friend and her big sister. The wide 80s hairstyle couldn’t hide the teenager’s black eye, or the bruises that covered most of one side of her face.

Thirty-one years later, the phone calls still come. The women change: the class lines, the economic lines, the age, the race, the culture – but the men all seem to be the same. They believe they’re entitled. It was only because she made him angry. Or because he’d been drinking. Or hadn’t had a drink. Or because he needed her to go. Or needed her to stay. Or because she didn’t understand that he was stressed.

It’s the children that leave me feeling I’ve failed the most. When they call telling me that their mother is hurt, that their daddy won’t stop, won’t listen, that they’ve called the emergency services twice and nobody has come.

I still don’t know what to do.

When I was young, it was simple – she should leave. But now I’ve tried to track down these places that can supposedly assist. They are full, defunded, there is a waiting list, or nobody knows where to go since the last place shut down. The mother tells me about her worries that if she leaves, her children won’t be able to eat. Where will they live? How will she find a new job? How will she get the children into a new school? How to afford new uniforms? New books? Better to risk staying, she almost always decides, so long as he doesn’t hurt the kids. Too much.

So I find myself sometimes seeing these men face to face. It is tempting to tell them to “go to hell.” But if I ever followed such an impulse, I am sure it would only make it worse for her that night.

I still don’t know what to do.

I’ve looked at the community of men around the world, who, in various ways, have touchstones, milestones and ceremonies about becoming a man. Churches preach about men being head of the household. The military promises to turn boys into men. There are slaps on the backs, jokes over beer and male bonding away from female eyes.

I can’t see that any of this is working. Somehow these things – gatherings, institutions and traditions –are not getting the message across of what it means to be a real man. That real men are present fathers for their own children. Real men don’t beat their lovers and families. Or the girls who say no.

It is not all men. I know. But these half-men are more than the random bad apple. I read the vile comments in news sections. I watch despicable males get voted into authority “because he makes economic sense.” I hear victim-blaming drop off the tongues of judges, police officers and leaders in communities. I watch rape crisis centres being defunded. I see people campaigning for women’s health services to be shut down. I hear the hate.

I don’t know what to do. Probably because it shouldn’t be my problem to fix. Or hers. All these years, I’ve heard joke after joke after joke about women’s hormones in flux: PMS or PMT or that “raging” time of the month. I’m done. Dear men, control your own rage first, and remind your friend, and his friend, too.

Thirty-one years of phone calls. I don’t know the answers, but I have learned a few lessons along the way. That these men won’t look me in the eye, but will seek out my husband behind my back, to talk “man to man”. That the police and emergency services will respond faster if I tell them there is a child who might be in danger at the scene, because a woman’s life is not always enough to make them respond. That in some communities, my accent gives me privilege, in which case one call from me in the middle of the night will be more effective than three from the woman dodging the man’s blows. I’ve learned that in certain situations, calling the emergency line is pointless. In such cases, the thing to do is to track down somebody who knows somebody who can give me a cop’s direct number, one who will care. One who will keep the woman alive for another day. Until the man gets angry again. Does it again. Or hunts her down and finds her, wherever it is she went.

But no matter what I do, it doesn’t feel enough. Does it to you? Do you give to rape crisis centres? Have you told your crass friend to knock it off with jokes? Have you reconsidered your vote? Because saying, “I don’t hit my wife” isn’t enough.

To give to Rape Crises click here. It will only take a few minutes of your time.

Originally posted 19 January, 2016 on Books Live

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