There Are More Skeletons in the Closet: Domestic Abuse and #MeToo


They whispered to me about the beatings, how he stood over them with different objects—ropes, belts, whips—thrashing their bodies bloody for simple chores not done precisely the way he wanted them. They told me about a man I knew to be kind and gentle and I learned of his history of brutality. They whispered their stories until the whisperings swelled like an incoming tide, until they discovered their voices, realized and understood that their stories were important and that they could make a difference.

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These women are my mother and grandmother who, like me, were born and bred on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. They carried these stories with them from the Caribbean to the United States, staying silent for decades. My grandfather beat his wife until he thought she was dead. He thrashed his mentally disabled sister. Not only did he publicly lambaste his children, he pulled a gun on one of his sons and fired. But it wasn’t until my grandfather was incapacitated by a fall—resulting in three brain surgeries—that the women in my family felt safe enough to share their memories.

This is the power of abuse and assault. Whether the abuse is verbal, physical, sexual, emotional or financial, the abuser convinces their victims that what is happening is normal. That power dynamic is reinforced by society and culture: stories become secrets, abuse spreads, abusers grow more powerful. As a society, we have become belatedly aware of how this dynamic has enabled decades of sexual abuse in the workplace. In spite of the parallels and, often, overlap between sexual assault and family violence, domestic abuse remains a topic that many overlook or choose to ignore.

The unraveling of my family’s history of violence began with a question I asked my mother when she’d come home from the hospital after my grandfather’s fall: Why does grandma want grandpa dead? My mother told me of a beating that’d haunted her for over three decades. When my mother had no more answers, I turned to my grandmother. Their memories swirled like a strong current around us, building to a torrent, and I realized I needed to record these stories that had never been recorded before.

Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad

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In my memoir Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, published earlier this year, I draw from the stories my mother and grandmother had told me as well as my own. Trinidad and Tobago, a third world country (and no doubt a patriarchy) did not even have a term for violence against family members during the period my book takes place. Domestic violence wouldn’t enter our country’s vocabulary and the law until the 1990s. In the United States, “wife beating” was made illegal by 1920, but domestic violence wasn’t considered a serious crime and a public matter until the 1970s. How then was Trinidad and Tobago, a country still reeling from colonization, going to fare? As men rose to power under the guise of reorganizing and restructuring a nation for independence, what were the chances that women would be protected? While I chronicled the ways abusive patriarchy played out within my own family, I began to understand how deeply rooted and accepted violence was in our cultural and societal mindset. As #MeToo unfolded, I saw how important it was for domestic abuse to be a part of this movement.

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The unraveling of my family’s history began with a question: Why does grandma want grandpa dead?

Historically, the two groups most likely to suffer and be ignored during times of political upheaval are women and children, and this was true in Trinidad and Tobago. My grandfather was a rich man who held status within his society, making it difficult to report him. If my grandmother called the police, she would have been have been fighting a losing battle, one that would have cost her her life. But the problem has not gone away. In 2017, domestic violence in Trinidad and Tobago reached “crisis levels,” according to the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Reporting on a string of violent murders of women in February 2017, Al Jazeera wrote that “one third of the 52 murders police have recorded so far this year were related to domestic violence. Other groups say the numbers are even higher.” The response from Prime Minister Keith Rowley was victim blaming at its most extreme. “I’m not in your bedroom, I’m not in your choice of men,” he said. “You [women] have a responsibility to determine who you associate with and know when to get out.” His stance on domestic violence was clear: The responsibility for a man’s actions lies in the hands of a woman.

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The heart-wrenching fact is that many abusive relationships in the Caribbean and elsewhere end with a husband killing his wife. Last month, the United States’ Violence Policy Center released a study that showed 93 percent of the 1800 women murdered by men in single victim/single offender cases during 2016 (the most recent year available) were murdered by someone they knew. The same report showed that murders of women by a man were on the rise, up 11 percent since 2014. In the face of these appalling numbers, Congress may still let the Violence Against Women Act—which financially supports social service agencies that help victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault—expire at the end of December.

#MeToo’s message—I see you, I hear you, I believe you—applies equally to domestic abuse survivors.

But if a woman speaks out against her husband before she is killed, she is often attacked, looked upon as a woman choosing to break up her family. In a place like Trinidad, many women who come forward are shunned by family and friends, making it difficult to sustain themselves financially. When the leader of your country says that the half of the population being victimized is at fault and he will not help them, there should be an uproar heard around the world. The victims are never to blame. I must say this again: the victim is never to blame for being assaulted. Whether here in the U.S.A. or on a tiny island like Trinidad, the stigma associated with being a survivor of domestic violence needs to end.

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We have seen how powerful the #MeToo movement has been in ending the stigma around sexual abuse, but it is not enough. From its inception in 2007, Tarana Burke had a vision for #MeToo to focus on sexual assault and violence against women of color, the most vulnerable members of our society. Since then, #MeToo has shifted and grown to include everyone, not just women of color. Why can’t it also include domestic abuse? Why the need for a qualifier to assault? Violence is violence, abuse is abuse. #MeToo’s message to sexual assault victims—I see you, I hear you, I believe you—applies equally and powerfully to domestic abuse survivors.

There is something specific to domestic violence that makes people pause. Violence within the home, happening in an intimate environment, with our families, is a gray area and so people shy away. For too long domestic violence has been considered a private matter we should not get involved in. Too often a woman is perceived as having a choice: Why didn’t she just leave? We forget that abuse comes in numerous forms and can occur over a long period of time with no record of evidence, further stigmatizing victims and encouraging their silence.

Five women die per day in the United States at the hands of men—there is no word for that. While the rise of murder of women at the hands of men ought to solidify domestic violence as one of our most serious national issues, it feels like Americans are talking about it less and less. We’ve witnessed the power and traction of the #MeToo movement, especially when it widens the scope of its vision beyond Hollywood celebrities. Why not open those borders to include domestic violence? Doing so may allow family abuse to join this culturally central space, destigmatizing conversations about domestic abuse and saving lives.

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Phrases like ‘dirty laundry’ leave the victim wanting to cover up what happened to them.

Over the course of ten years my mother and grandmother shared their memories of violence with me. They also gave me their blessings to write my book, knowing how important it was to create and sustain dialogue around all forms of assault. But other relatives threatened me when they found out I was writing about my grandfather. Years before publication was on the horizon, without knowing what my book was about, my family questioned the legitimacy of my mother’s and grandmother’s stories. They chose to stand by and protect a man who was already dead, a man who was a product of their islands. They defended my grandfather fiercely. Why are you airing out our dirty laundry? These skeletons are best kept in the closet. We should never speak ill of the dead. They made it about him and not his actions. The very language used to describe these memories is meant to shame survivors and keep us silent. Words like ‘dirty’ or ‘skeleton,’ steeped in secrecy and embarrassment, turn the focus from the perpetrator to the victim, leaving the victim wanting to cover up what was wrongly done to them.

How could I speak and write ill of my dead grandfather? A good man who, I was repeatedly reminded, put clothes on his children’s backs, put food in their bellies, and sent them to school? I can do it because he could have done all of those things and more without beating his wife, sister, and children within an inch of their lives, without aiming a gun at one of his sons and pulling the trigger. I do it because I refuse to silence women.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is being abused, help is available at the National Domestic Violence Hotline website or 1-800-799-7233.



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