We’re making a mistake by focusing on the hands of the abuser. What we need to pay attention to are his eyes.
Many years ago, early in my community college teaching career, I had a fascinating conversation with a returning adult student who was a sheriff’s deputy.
She had noticed my body language in the classroom was unusual—that I didn’t seem intimated when much-taller male students approached me to ask questions, and I approached my students sideways to talk with them individually, so that they wouldn’t back away from me. She wondered if I had martial arts training. She payed attention to how women and men move around each other in a space, she told me, because she worked a lot of domestic violence cases.
I asked her to tell me how she went about this crucial and difficult work. Usually, she told me, her first step in a domestic violence situation was to get everyone talking, and to keep them talking throughout the 20 or more minutes necessary for the abuser’s adrenaline level to subside. This was a way for her to gather information and reduce the risks to both herself and the victim. One principle of hand-to-hand combat she used from her own martial arts training was to watch not the abuser’s hands, but his eyes. That’s where he would telegraph if he was about to get violent again, and she would signal for backup. The most dangerous (though rare) type of abuser, she told me, was one with “dead eyes,” who masks his emotions by making his face blank, preventing others from reading his intentions.
She further told me that for many victims of abuse, their situation is worsened by not being able to look their abusers in the eyes, since to do so would be insubordinate.
The victim tries to avoid getting hit by watching the abuser’s hands, but in doing so, she misses important nonverbal cues about opportunities to defend, challenge, or escape. Essentially, the deputy told me, the victim becomes detached from part of her own power.
It was easy for me to understand what it feels like to be detached from part of my own power. A man who bullied me when I was a child—before I knew it was even possible to resist his authority—conditioned me to believe that because he had more power, my voice was invalid, inconsequential. From that experience I learned not to use my voice, and it has taken me decades to unlearn that training. It has taken me decades of working with horses to learn how to elicit respect and trust with my body language. From working with horses, I understand that when a horse acts violently toward a human, it’s almost always because it’s afraid. That before the human bully became a bully, he himself was likely to be a victim of abuse. That when humans threaten and posture, swagger and punch, it’s because they have become detached from the power of their humanity. They resort to verbal and physical violence to assert power of a more rudimentary sort.
I recall my conversation with the deputy now, America, because I see us paying too much attention to the actions of the hands of our new President. We’re watching closely to see what his next (figurative) clumsy swing, (verbal) downward punch, or (actual) pussy grab will be. During the campaign, the abhorrent things he did and said led us, time after time, to think that, surely, this time he has rendered himself unelectable. After the election, even our most reliable media outlets have continued to focus primarily on his offensive deeds and utterances, because they provide a constant stream of ready-made news stories. And certainly, every action of our President’s hands is consequential: with one campaign slogan and now executive order, he caused members of a major religion to fear for their citizenship and their safety. With one phone conversation, he risked the U.S.’s relationship with China. With one tweet threatening to cancel a contract, he tanked an American company’s stock.
Like instances of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse, these actions are highly destabilizing. However, they are akin to actions of the abuser’s hands. We must not be so distracted by them that we miss opportunities to search his figurative face for cues as to his intentions. Admittedly, the President gives us few opportunities to discern his intentions, given that he communicates primarily by tweet instead of press conference. (In this respect, he resembles a calculating “dead-eyes” abuser even more than he resembles a temper-driven bully.) However, his cabinet selections are vivid clues, indicating an intention to dismantle democratic institutions rather than use them for the country’s good. These are the types of signals to which we must be alert, and to which we should respond. We must not be so focused on the actions of his hands that we saturate our awareness with his incompetence and ill will, thus depriving ourselves of hope.
Most important, we must not be so exhausted by the actions of his hands that we lose the energy to fight him. To fight, we need all the combat techniques we know: sliding in sideways in order to gain his ear and looking him straight in the eye, defiantly, when he threatens to attack. We must continue to deploy the body language of insubordination by confronting him in the streets, the courts, and the legislative chambers. Likewise, we must resist him with our verbal language. Since fewer than 27 percent of Americans voted for him, the voices of those of us who didn’t—either by ballot or by abstention—are valid and consequential. We must use our voices, individually and collectively, to announce that we will not give up any part of our power, not the power of our constitutional rights and never the power of our humanity, in our efforts to protect the environment and each other.
Header image by MIH83, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Jennifer Bullis courtesy Jennifer Bullis.