(This post is part of a series reacting to an article by Ross and Finley in Indian Country Today.)
When I was teaching on the rez I had a special fondness for a family that was funny, intelligent, outspoken, and good-looking. Suddenly they were sad. Their father had left. He had gone to drink with the street people, who really ought to be called “alley people,” since they sit along the board fences that divide many yards from public space, joking and passing the bottle back and forth. They used to keep the bottle in a brown paper bag, but now they don’t bother. The police don’t roust them as long as there’s no violence and no one complains.
I spotted this father there and marched over through the weeds to talk to him. “How ya doin’?” and all that. He was friendly so I just asked him, “Why did you leave? Your kids need you!” He said, “Too much pressure. They want too much. I couldn’t take it anymore. Out here I’m free. I have friends. No one is mad at me.”
Dr. Val Farmer, well-named, is an advice columnist for rural people. This week his subject was wives who are so worried about how things are going that they almost attack their husbands, trying to get their attention, spur them into action, make something happen. He advises the women to try honey instead of vinegar. When I ran into this with my parishioners (even in the city it happens), I thought of it more as a wall that men put up to protect themselves and women pounding on it -- which caused the men to put up more of a wall. My advice was to somehow make a wall unnecessary. Talk. Make a gate. Throw peace offerings over the top. Whatever strategy works, but first you have to recognize the dynamic.
The accepted balance of forces in many modern marriages in the rural West is that the woman is the moral guide and the goal setter, while the man works as hard as he can. It’s understood by working classes everywhere that sometimes a man gets overwhelmed and manages to evade his wife, maybe at the local saloon. The woman has the man’s balls in her hand -- not sexually, but in terms of his pride and potency. If she can build him up, lure him along, things go better. If she begins to squeeze, he will evade, wall her out, and eventually maybe turn violent to get relief.
If he owns the ranch, he will not leave. Often it’s the woman who sets the alarm clock and says on the forty-below morning, “Get up! Feed the cows!” If she’s a good woman, she will have a hot breakfast ready, but it’s the man who has to go out and do it. Unless they find a way to make it a team effort. Breakfast is a start. Some women will drive the pickup and open gates. Some will go out there and feed the cattle themselves, because if the cattle die, no one will eat. A desperate woman may get violent with her husband, if she has one. They leave. Many story lines branch out from this basic situation.
A more romantic illustration of the pattern is “High Noon,” in which Grace Kelly sets the moral standard (non-violence), and Gary Cooper tries to meet it, but circumstances will not allow him to escape from using force. Not violence. I would argue that force is a necessary element of life, especially in the West. But it’s a thin line between force and violence -- which I would define as excessive or unjustified force -- and eventually Kelly’s character crosses the line, too. A reservation is part of the West. The assumptions and work can be the same for everyone.
When I was in Saskatoon as a minister, I attended a workshop for clergy that was presented by social workers exasperated by conservative pastors who sent abused women back to their husbands with the advice to do what he said because that’s what the Bible dictates. (The Bible was created in what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria, et al. Heard of Shiria law?) The formula these social workers gave us has been useful ever since. Their premise was that domestic abuse is about control: men (or women) frustrated by helplessness, despair, no hope for the future, and no emotional resilience, will try to control the family. Usually the man is the controller, because he brings in the money with a job or by working the ranch. It goes in concentric circles: first, he forbids his wife certain clothing or too much makeup. Pretty soon he wants her to sever connections with family and friends. Soon there’s secrecy, sequestration in the house, slaps, then fists, then a weapon -- all accompanied with verbal abuse. It can end up with lethal punishment. The victim, often a pleaser, is a frog being gradually cooked in a constricting set of circles. The perpetrator uses stigma to justify his actions: she was a slut, she was cheating on him, she was nothing but a squaw. (Ouch!) I'm entitled to treat her as I see fit.
After this workshop I realized that my congregation in their worry about the challenges of our small size was trying to control ME. After some thinking, I was the one who left. I had not found a way to satisfy them and I did not want to live behind a wall. I opened the newspaper today and saw instances of the same pattern in this town, on the tribal council, in the US Congress. It is pervasive, not just in intimate relationships.
Women trying to tough it out in a violent household usually leave several times and then return again before they manage to break the tie. The Saskatoon counselors taught us how to design a strategy. Stash a gym bag of the baby’s clothes with a friend. Make a backup set of car keys and hide them because the first thing a rural man will do is throw the car keys out into the snow to prevent his wife from leaving. Buy a bus ticket and hide it somewhere. Set up a separate bank account. Make contact with helpers. This kind of conspiracy seems dishonest -- but it can be lifesaving. A man out-of-his-mind, maybe on booze or meth, cannot be successfully confronted.
What happens after that depends on how far gone things have gone. Earlier is better with more chance to pull back from the edge of the abyss. A person has to set limits of their own: one blow? Or a beating? Or a series of beatings? If the woman is also on drugs or booze, all limits are erased. Status, income, safety of children, nothing matters at that point. It’s not about being Indian. It’s not about living on a reservation. It’s about out-of-control no matter how many concentric circles are drawn, no matter how many laws or jail terms there are.
(To be continued)