I woke up this morning to find Chimdinma Onwukwe’s story, Women Like Me Don’t Die on my Facebook newsfeed. Lately, I’ve been reading quite a bit of writing by young Nigerian women and I’m struck by how bold and fearless they are.
Chimdinma and I were raised in different worlds. She in Nigeria, I in the United States. The details of our stories might be different but the essence is the same. I understand what she’s talking about. Yet, as a young woman, I never had the courage to speak the way she does. I was alone in the dark. I didn’t have other strong women, or a network of writers and artists, both male and female, to support me.
I was raised in Los Angeles, a city considered liberal by any standards. One might assume I grew up with a greater sense of freedom than the women of Nigeria. This isn’t so. It wasn’t until the age of forty that I even attempted to speak out about the abuse that I suffered for so many years of my life.
I left my husband after seven years of marriage when I was thirty years old. My daughter was four. We were living in London and I packed one suitcase and got into a plane with my daughter. I went back to my parents’ home in Los Angeles.
I had the courage to leave. Why didn’t I have the courage to talk about it?
When my daughter was born, my mom came to London to help me for a couple of weeks. She stayed with a friend, in the flat above us. Late one night, I sneaked out while my husband and our baby slept, intent on telling my mom the truth of my life. I climbed the stairs and raised my hand to knock on the door. I stayed like, my hand poised to knock, for what seemed like an eternity. I gritted my teeth, I cried silently, I prayed for courage, but in the end, I went back down to my hidden life, defeated.
Fear kept me silent. I literally could not let the words out. I had lived for so long tending to my carefully preserved facade. Each wound was heavily wrapped in layer upon layer of pure white gauze, new layers continuously added to keep the blood and the stench from seeping to the surface. No one suspected the festering infection beneath, or so I thought. There were people who knew. But none of them helped me.
Of course, there is more to the story and I have written about it in Letters from Purgatory. When I finally found the courage to leave, I had nowhere to go except back to my parents’ home in Los Angeles. I was thankful my daughter would be surrounded by a loving family. However, I was returning to the place where I had learned submissiveness in the first place.
As a young girl growing up, I was taught from the pulpit and at home that women submitted to the authority of men. The Apostle Paul was often quoted:
“A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness.” Timothy 2:11
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:22
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet.” I Timothy 2:12
“Wives, in the same way, submit yourselves to your husbands, so that even if they refuse to believe the word, they will be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.” I Peter 3:1
Oh, how I wish I’d been empowered enough to shout the truth! But I couldn’t. It was enough of an accomplishment that I had left my husband. But to talk about it? No. I remained withdrawn, isolated and quiet. Most assuredly, I suffered from PTSD.
I was told to see a Christian counselor and I did. A man. When I explained my situation, he advised me to return to my husband. The only reason for a woman to leave was adultery. He chided me.
Do you love your husband? Love endures all.
I didn’t know if I still loved my husband. But now, I felt guilty that perhaps I didn’t.
It’s never just one person’s fault in a marriage. What can you do to have a better attitude? How can you better serve your husband?
I was stunned by this. And then even more guilty. Yes, of course, there were things I could do better. If I had cut the onions thinner he wouldn’t have felt compelled to throw his dinner across the room. If I had ironed his shirts without a crease in the sleeves, just as his mother did, he wouldn’t have threatened me with the iron in my face. If I had chewed my apple more quietly, he wouldn’t have screamed and ordered me from the room. When I was pregnant, if I had controlled my coughing when I was sick, he wouldn’t have made me sleep on the floor in the other room. If I had moved more quickly down the subway stairs, we wouldn’t have missed the train and he wouldn’t have kicked me on the platform. As an artist, if I had obeyed his advice about my paintings, he wouldn’t have punched me in the face.
If only I had been a better wife. If only I had anticipated my husband’s needs. I wouldn’t have had to kneel down and clean up the food and my own blood from the floor and the walls.
Why couldn’t I be a better wife?
The counselor told me that even if my husband was wrong, even if he did beat me, I should endure in silence. This would show him the error of his ways and lead him back to Jesus. It was my responsibility as a Christian woman to do this.
Pray for him. Love him. God will reward you, if not here than in heaven.
So, I should just take the abuse?
He nodded, quite impatient with me by this time.
If he begins to act abusive, leave. Go to a safe place. When he calms down, return. Pray for him. And for yourself.
When I got home, I explained to my parents what the counselor had said. I told them I was still resolved not to go back to my husband. Once before, when my husband and I had visited my parents together, they had found out he was abusing me. But my husband had prayed and asked God’s forgiveness and my parents had sent me back with him. He had tried to strangle me and I had been truly afraid I would die.
This time, my parents said I could stay. But like always, I had the feeling that it was all my fault. No one ever rebuked my husband. My brothers never threatened him to stay away from me. They never told him what they thought of him. I wasn’t comforted. I wasn’t told I would be protected. Everyone still treated my husband with respect. When our family went on a holiday to Hawaii, he was invited along, my parents thinking that perhaps we would get back together and everything would be fine.
Years later, a friend told me when he and his brothers found out his sister was being abused by her husband, they went and broke both of his arms. He was never allowed near her again. I often wondered what this would be like. To have brothers or a father stand up for me instead of making me feel like I was the one with the problem. This feeling of judgment and isolation was a terrible burden to bear.
Living with my parents meant returning to the church I had been raised in. When I made the decision to divorce my husband, the church elders came to visit me. They did not approve of a woman divorcing her husband, except for adultery. A standard needed to be upheld for the women in the church and I was in danger of bringing that standard down.
The seven elders sat in a semi-circle around me. I was six feet tall, but felt small and weak. I was sunk into the sofa while they sat on tall, stiff chairs, looking down on me. I felt guilty and ashamed. I felt exposed.
But I was determined. I was not going back, no matter what they said. There was also my daughter to think of. She wasn’t going to grow up like that. Maybe I deserved such treatment, but she didn’t.
The interrogation began. They demanded embarrassing details. They quoted Bible verses stating that the only reason for divorce was adultery. I should have said, fuck off, and stormed from the room. Instead, I meekly told them all they wanted to know. I was so used to submitting to the authority of men. Much as I hated myself for doing it, I went from obeying my husband to obeying the elders of that church.
Only one of the elders seemed to have any empathy towards me. He spoke in a kinder tone and encouraged others to accept me into the church. The decision wasn’t unanimous, but I was allowed to stay and to participate in communion.
It’s hard, perhaps impossible to completely escape one’s upbringing. I can see how in my entire life I had believed I should silently bear the pain; the problem was with me; if I had been a better Christian, a more submissive and loving wife, all of this wouldn’t have happened.
To speak up would turn me into a crass complainer. It would prove that I was a rebellious, selfish and fallen woman and no doubt deserved what had happened to me.
As a young girl, I had such a desire to do right. To be good. To follow God’s will. To fulfill the plan God had for my life. I listened to my dad and obeyed him. When I sinned, I repented. If I stole a cookie, I got on my knees and asked God’s forgiveness. But then, I reached puberty and men began to look at me in a sexual way and I began to feel like a sexual being. Nothing about my budding sexuality was explained to me, except that it was dirty and vile.
I was naïve and innocent.
Yet I was told I was a temptress, leading men into sin. Men had to beware of me, not the other way around.
Most people don’t know that I’m terrified to speak on the phone. I have never gotten over this fear. My husband used to monitor when I talked on the phone. I wasn’t allowed to pick up phone calls. When I started to approach publishers about my children’s books, I needed to call them on the phone. I would stare at the receiver in a sweat. I would try and try to make the call and become immobilized be terror. Just as I tried and tried to knock on my mom’s door and I couldn’t. I’ve never talked about this debilitating condition. To this day, I will make just about any excuse not to talk on the phone.
So, I salute these brave young Nigerian women who are not afraid to pour out their hearts on paper. I have a feeling they aren’t afraid of telephones. And I salute the young Nigerian men who stand with them and echo their voices. It is something I never experienced. It gives me hope and happiness to read the stories of those who are doing it now.
Inspired by Chimdinma Onwukwe’s story ”Women Like Me Do Not Die”. Read story here http://wp.me/p7ffs9-cS
Karen Hunt aka KH Mezek is the author and/or illustrator of nineteen children’s books. She is the co-founder of InsideOUT Writers, a creative writing program for incarcerated youth, and the founder of the MY WORLD PROJECT, connecting youth in remote areas through art and writing. She is a 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a first degree brown belt in Eskrima, and a boxing and kick-boxing trainer. As a child, her family escaped out of Egypt right before the 6 Day War, lived in a 17th century castle in Switzerland and smuggled Bibles into communist countries, to name a few of her adventures. As an adult, she continued her adventures, living between London and a village in Yugoslavia. She is the author of Key of Mystery and Book of Angels, volumes one and two in the NIGHT ANGELS CHRONICLES, are published with Evernight Teen.