Of monsters and men

The house I grew up in has two bedrooms on one side of the house, a long hall, and then a master bedroom. I remember the living room as a sterile space with indentations in the dark brown rug. The TV we used to have sat there, before my father got drunk one night and heaved it through a window.

This place was supposed to be an escape from a much worse neighborhood. It wasn’t.

Remembering the sound of my mother in pain still puts a knot in my stomach. I can recall that right now and it makes me cry uncontrollably. This day, hearing my mother rattles me from my far away mind state. My father is yelling. I don’t know what to do. And exactly what I am thinking is lost on me as I move to the voices.

When I come through the door, it’s like time has slowed to a crawl. My mother is crying. But it seems all I remember hearing is the wall.

My father has my mother by her upper arms. She is facing him. Their faces are inches apart. I remember him shouting something as he pounded her against the wall. Once. Twice. Three times.

I am motionless as memories flash, as does ache. I can’t make words. I learned long ago that communication skills are a survival strategy. Right now, the only thing functional are tears streaking my face.

Time starts again the moment I put my hand on him. I want him to let her go, but don’t have the courage to hit him. I’m sure he’s surprised I am even here, let alone touched him. He lets her go and comes at me.

The overhand left he throws only partially connects because my mother grabs him. The force of the punch knocks me over. I think the flare of pain is in my neck or shoulder. He misses my face.

This is where I usually wake up.

It is intimidating to truly express how these instances are, even years later, defining moments in my life. I don’t want to admit I often walk alone late at night, still trying to lose from my memories the sound of flesh hitting walls. I look for answers to questions I don’t know how to ask. Violence at home shaped who I became. It is why I shake inside still when people yell. It’s trying each day to not be ashamed of who I am. It’s that conversation with someone I hoped would love me, who thought I couldn’t be a good choice because of my broken home. It’s trying to reconcile knowing I came from there, but it’s not me.

Above all else, I appreciate how I am lucky. I was a boy. Many women never get to live to see the morning.

I can’t tell you anything you don’t know or have not experienced regarding the matter of partner violence. I am not exceptional. I am merely a byproduct. I write about my experience now because it is important for men to see and to face, if the incidents themselves are not enough, how violence against women affects their children. Few such men see how their acts resonate into our lives years later. They may not understand how witnessing partner violence as children affects our ability as adults to have healthy relationships, to trust, and to love. I have become okay talking about the most difficult part of my life because it might change an outcome for someone else.

Violence by men against women rots our souls, our hearts, our compassion and our hope. It scars women. It stains the children who grow up around it. It is so normalized, the world looks upon misogyny as just another story, rather than a tragedy whose history will live on. Yet even when we’re not touched by these crimes, they haunt us all.

My father, in his onerous and confusing way, taught me to struggle in this world and to work tirelessly. He believed people of colour, men particularly, would only be accepted and respected in a certain light. I talk to men of colour who’ve had similar experiences. We had families who saw our value to the world in our hard work, and our strength.

However, this perspective for him and even today is also in no small measure informed by fear.

People of colour live in a particular state of fear that is hard to talk about or describe, even in an age of Tumblr. It goes beyond white people’s discomfort. It goes beyond Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin or the names we forgot. It’s the subtle sizing up of our characters, and our value to power. There are the historical moments white people would prefer we get over. There are the daily moments we have to swallow and move on. There are those instances where we will never forget we’re Black and Brown because they won’t let us. And there is realizing we can’t be that either because it too is a conflict. Along with the outright racists are those with the harmless words, obfuscations, cultural fetishes, small digs at what we see and the ways of encroaching on our lives that generate our own desire to be of value. Whatever feelings of inadequacy historically we have in this society are preyed upon, and we fashion children of color to fit in.

Fear sometimes makes people do unspeakable things.

None of the pain of this society justifies treating upbringings as a chance to toughen us up for the world, or justifies violence against women. Men like my father don’t appreciate how they taint our futures and dishonor our shared past in privileging our power as men. Violence against women in our communities needs to be understood for what it is: a scourge passed down from father to son. In failing to educate their sons to cope with an inhospitable world with little more than anger and a stare, they doomed many of us — like my father, who grew up amid partner violence — to repeat the cycle, and hurt women physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The fortunate sons end up like me, fighting for the rest of their lives to become human.

Along that road from the desperation I lived, I discovered the need to open up about memories. Smart kids with self-aware parents still have to learn to interact well just like the rest of us. Those from more austere circumstances have to fumble along a little more. In my search for calm, I’ve found a voice. I also learned to understand my own history in the context of systemic problems.

I believe masculinity is unhealthy because it is predicated on performance of force. It is force we show, we want perceived or is the root of an aura of dominance we are conditioned to think ensures respect and desirability. Young men are socialized to understand power over women is an unspoken but real part of this exchange. In a world in which so many of us are powerless, I came up among men who believed such hallmarks of manhood made us strong. Yet these things never changed our economic and emotional poverty. For women, masculinity and men do and have done far more harm.

Misogyny robs people of colour of our compassion in ways I have only started to grasp most fully. Gender-based ideas of power and subordination as well as patriarchy inform our collective notions of oppression. Strength and weakness is gendered in this context. The either/or of discourse that pillories other oppressed people, including varied ethnicities and women (white as well as of colour), rather than a both/and understanding of oppression traces its roots to our own reeducation as colonized people by male power, racialized to be sure but also a power men of colour possess.

Part of undoing the cycle of violence for me has been growing empathy for each other, our own struggles and our contradictions. Our common enemy is misogyny, violence against women and children’s tormented recollections. Wherever we may differ, around these matters my hope is always that we are clear about such unity.

As the child of an alcoholic, finding a sense of normalcy and peace has been a lifelong journey. Healing, I have come to see, is being uneasy about people knowing truths I don’t talk about, precisely because men don’t talk about them. It also means exploring collective and individual fears. Maybe baring myself will help someone come to terms with their own pasts. Maybe it will make another male think about how they’re living the present. Perhaps the best way of honoring my mother’s many sacrifices for her children is to make an impact on someone else, so they don’t go through what we did. I’m honored to get to tell you. Many before me never got the chance.

Ernesto AguilarErnesto Aguilar is the program director at KPFT in Houston, a writer for Air Media, and serves on the board of The National Federation of Community Broadcasters. You can find more of his writing on Medium. Follow him @eaXLR.

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