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Weingarten is also the author of "The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death," co-author of "I'm with Stupid," with feminist scholar Gina Barreca and "Old Dogs: Are the Best Dogs," with photographer Michael S. Williamson.
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Today, a treatise on Doubt.
Married men fall into three categories: 1) good husbands and fathers; 2) lousy bastards who beat their wives; and, 3) men whose wives have black eyes.
That third group is an uncomfortable place to be. I know. I’m there.
As with virtually all things in life, the situation can be approximated by a Venn Diagram. The large, rectangular field is all men on Earth. The three groups within it are married men. The larger circle represents married men of the first type. The smaller circle, married men of the second type. The frankfurter-shaped area is the third group. I’m in that field, somewhere. You see the problem.
A few nights ago, while walking our dog, Murphy, my wife tripped and fell in the street; clinging resolutely to the leash to avoid losing control of the dog in traffic, my wife had no hand available to break her fall. Face met pavement, hard. She’ll be fine in a week or so, but at the moment she looks like she’s been mauled by a bear. Or something.
Have you ever Googled “wife with a black eye”? Neither had I, until yesterday, when I was searching for essays by men in my circumstance. I couldn’t find any. The very first Google hit, the most popular cultural reference on the subject, was what is supposed to be a joke:
“Q: What do you tell a wife with a black eye? A: Nothing. You’ve already told her.”
What followed was not at all surprising, but still disturbing: Page after page chronicling the pervasiveness of domestic violence – news accounts and police reports originating from trailer parks, middle-class neighborhoods and gated communities. The unemployed hit their wives. So do captains of industry. So do pillars of the community. Sunday school teachers do, as well as doctors, engineers, judges, and journalists.
Domestic abuse is often an occult crime, vastly underreported for all the obvious reasons. When it surfaces, it tends to be because there is a physical injury that can’t be easily covered with clothing or makeup. Most often, it's a black eye. The victim – out of shame, or misplaced guilt, or a desire to keep the family together -- often initially denies it. The most common alternative explanation is a fall.
The day after her accident, my wife was supposed to attend a potluck lunch with coworkers. She was too bruised to feel comfortable going, but she’d made a fruit cobbler, so her boss drove by to pick it up. Her boss is a neighbor and a friend of both of ours; her ten-year-old pit bull was the first profile in a book I wrote about old dogs. She runs a nonprofit organization that aggressively goes after discrimination in housing. It’s staffed almost entirely by women, and they are all tough cookies, including my wife.
When we came out of the house-- with the cobbler-- the boss lady surveyed my wife’s face, winced, turned to me, smiled, and said “If you had done this, we’d get you in a back alley.” I was grateful for her use of the past pluperfect conditional. I also did not doubt her sincerity. We stood there awkwardly for a second, and suddenly, uneasily, I knew what I had to do. I excused myself and went back into the house.
I’d realized that I needed to create a moment where my wife could have spoken in private, had she wanted to. I needed to show that I wasn’t concerned.
I was concerned.
In the last few days, when I have been out with my wife I have felt people silently making judgments; I notice a half-glance or an averted eye. I have a thick skin; as a columnist, I have come to accept that people I do not know well, or people I do not know at all, have strong opinions about me, and that some of these opinions are unfavorable. That sort of thing comes with the job. It’s no biggie.
This is different, though, both because of its gravity and because of the insidiousness of silence.
However, the more I think about it, the more I am okay with it. I’m not HAPPY about it, but I am okay with it, because the alternative situation is worse. Before the public was quite so aware of the extent and degree of domestic abuse -- before victims were encouraged to come forward – there must have been a time when the default position was denial. There must have been a time where a man’s prosperousness or prominence would have conferred benefit of the doubt. We’re in a better place now, if a more uncomfortable one.
When my wife went to see her doctor about the bruise, the first question the doctor asked was “Did Gene do this to you?” It startled her. And when she said no, the doctor – a woman -- asked again. Just to be sure. That was the right thing to do.
So, basically, to men who find themselves in my position: Tough.
It did occur to me that much of this might be in my head. On Sunday, a contractor came over to our house because we’re about to have some painting done; he’d been there before – we were making some final arrangements. He saw my wife's face, heard her explanation, and was appropriately solicitous. I detected nothing more complex.
I just now telephoned him. I explained that I was writing this essay and asked him if he’d had any unvoiced suspicions on Sunday. I expected him to say no, or to graciously equivocate: I am about to pay this man a significant amount of money.
“Yes,” he said, “absolutely. I was worried.”
“I’m sorry, but yes. The first thing that came into my mind was, I hope everything’s okay in this family.”
I’m not sure if my phone call eased his mind. I didn’t ask. I'm not sure I want to know.
What do you think: Is the suspicion understandable and even positive? Have you ever been in a similar situation? You can discuss it now on the comments thread of this blog post, or post something for next week's update by following this link -- Gene will address your posts in this next Tuesday.