Last week, Megan Short, 33, posted a request to Facebook, asking for help moving on August 6. Only weeks earlier, she had commented under an article posted by a friend, saying she was leaving her husband. The article, written by Leigh Stein, was titled, “He didn’t hit me. It was still abuse.” In it, Stein explained that, while working at a diner, her boyfriend made her shower twice a day, so she “wouldn’t smell like French fries after work” and so that she could shave her entire body, “or else he wouldn’t touch me.” He also told Stein she “wasn’t sexy” and that, therefore, he needed to sleep with other women. Stein didn’t see her relationship as abusive, at the time, because her abuse was invisible — there were no bruises to prove it. “I didn’t know what to name what I couldn’t see,” she writes.
Like so many other women, Stein had learned that red flags were, in fact, “romance.” She writes, “I felt like I was in a movie — how quickly we moved in together and isolated ourselves from friends and family, because all we needed was each other.” Women are groomed to become victims of abuse, in this way. We watch movies that send the message that stalking, jealousy, and force are romantic — signs of “passion,” not control. The fact that we don’t recognize psychological abuse for what it is, and only accept “abuse” that looks like physical battery, doesn’t help — women are tricked into complacency, and learn not to trust themselves. They are unable to “prove” to themselves or to others that something is very wrong, often until it’s too late.
“Today when I tell someone my story, whether a stranger or a friend who didn’t know me in my early 20s, I always get the same question: ‘Was he physical?’ I wonder if they are imagining what my face would look like black and blue. I know they are asking for proof that my relationship was, by popular definition, abusive, and then they want to know why I stayed. The truth is that the few times he was physical with me were tiny blips on a long timeline of subtle manipulation, public humiliation, controlling behavior, and gaslighting.”
Stein’s story is similar to my own, in that way — the trauma of my own abusive relationship has little to do with the physical attacks, which never left me with any serious injury and were few and far between. The trauma was in the mind-fuckery — the constant verbal abuse, the manipulations, the humiliation, the isolation, and the carefully crafted lies. This, too, was what made it hard to leave and hard to recover from. I saw a therapist for years afterwards, who told me she feared that if I had stayed I would not have made it out alive.
Megan Short didn’t.
On July 23rd, Short, who had met her husband, Mark, seven years her senior, at only 17-years-old, commented under Stein’s article, posted by her neighbour, Angie Burke: “It really does a number on your mental health for sure… This is why I am leaving my marriage Angie. 16 years.”
On August 6, Short’s planned moving day, she was found shot to death alongside her three children, her husband, and their dog in the family’s Pennsylvania home. A “murder/suicide note” was found “near one of the deceased adults,” according to the Berks County District Attorney Office.
As is often the case, things looked well and good between the couple to outsiders. The Reading Eagle reports:
“On Facebook, Mark and Megan shared dozens of photos of their children with friends and family. Mark’s cover photo is a side-by-side with his wife.
‘She’s still the most beautiful girl that I’ve ever met,’ Mark wrote in a comment on the picture. ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have her as my wife and the mother of my three amazing children!'”
Abusive men will often cultivate an appearance of a happy couple, fully in love, while behaving in entirely opposite ways at home. This kind of behaviour is commonly described as a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality, as there is a distinct and irrational switch from one extreme to another — oftentimes based on a “public” persona and a “private” one — as though women are dealing with two different men.
“The World Health Organization recognizes four types of intimate-partner violence: physical, sexual, emotional or psychological, and controlling behavior. These often coexist, and verbal aggression early in a relationship frequently precedes violence. Some studies have shown that abuse in the form of degradation, fear and humiliation is more psychologically debilitating in the long term than physical violence; psychological abuse can in fact sustain the relationship, as the victim becomes consumed with self-doubt, depression and low self-esteem.”
One of the most frightening consequences of society’s limited understanding of abuse is exhibited in Short’s fate. Controlling, abusive men may not leave bruises the world can see, but are no less dangerous than the ones who do. We know that 75 per cent of women who are killed by their partners are murdered when they try to leave or after they have already left. Mark’s victim, like so many women, was punished for naming the problem and for trying to wrest herself of her husband’s grasp. (In fact, Heavy reports that Megan had temporarily left Mark for another woman.)
In the most vile news story I read about Short, two NBC reporters pushed a narrative of a “good guy” who did all he could to “keep the family together,” despite an apparently cruel wife who “planned to leave” regardless. The reporters quoted a cousin of Mark’s endlessly, who said:
“Don’t think any less of him, because he’s a really, really good guy. He would do anything for anybody… You don’t know the situation, so don’t try to judge.”
An addendum beneath the article read: “If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.”
“Suicide” is not the problem, here. Nor is “mental health” or any other host of problems we continue to use as excuses for male violence like “love” or a “broken heart.” We need to stop glorifying the idea of “keeping the family together” and start encouraging women to trust themselves. “Families” clearly do not do any better when they remain a unit, if that unit includes an abuser.
We also need to stop defending men who aren’t overtly violent or brushing off verbal and psychological abuse. These misunderstandings and efforts to “stay positive” or “not pass judgement” isolate women and empower abusers. Our unwillingness to take “invisible” abuse seriously and understand that psychological and verbal abuse can be equally as damaging as physical abuse clearly has dire consequences.