Three weeks ago, American comedian Beth Stelling made the brave decision to talk openly about something that had caused her some shame.
She posted photos of herself – bruised and beaten – on Instagram with a frank and heartfelt message that has been ‘liked’ 25 thousand times. She admitted the photos were an “uncommon” sight, despite stemming from a sadly “common” problem.
“I’ve had an amazing year and you’ve seen the highlights here, so these photos are an uncommon thing to share but not an uncommon issue. You may be weirded out but do read on. I have a point. There are many reasons not to make an abusive relationship public, mostly fear. Scared of what people will think, scared it makes me look weak or unprofessional.
When I broke up with my ex this summer, it wasn’t because I didn’t love him, it was because of this. And I absolutely relapsed and contacted him with things I shouldn’t have, but there are no “best practices” with this. When friends or comics ask why we broke up it’s not easy or comfortable to reply; it doesn’t seem like the appropriate thing to say at a stand-up show, a party or a wedding. It’s embarrassing. I feel stupid. After being verbally, physically abused and raped, I dated him for two more months. It’s not simple.”
It certainly isn’t simple.
There isn’t a single aspect of domestic violence that is decent. The physical abuse, the psychological trauma, the scars it renders, the lives it ruins and the fear it instils are among the litany of horrors it leaves in its wake.
And yet when you speak to a victim, or read a survivor’s account, it is impossible not to conclude that the most bitterly heart-wrenching consequence of living in an abusive relationship, is the personal shame victims carry because of it.
At being hit. At being trapped. At not being able to stop the abuse.
Personal shame is just part of the complex web that has, for a very long time, kept victims of abuse hidden and silent.
This was one of the most heartbreaking things Sarah Ferguson heard time and time again from victims while filming the ABC documentary Hitting Home.
“They were embarrassed that they were hit,” she told Mamamia. “It broke my heart.”
Yet they decided to speak anyway.
“Women are now understanding they are one among many,” Ferguson said. “They want to use their experience to help others: everyone who spoke to us said that.”
It’s a feeling that seems to be gaining momentum: there is power in numbers.
Initially Stelling felt compelled to keep quiet. To say nothing and pretend it didn’t happen. To spare him, his friends and his family the indignity of her being honest, and save herself from the indignity of being harassed by any or all of them or starting a war.
It’s an internal tug of war that is likely to resonate with anyone who has found themselves on the wrong side of abuse. Keeping quiet is the prerogative of any victim, but so is speaking out if that’s what they choose.