I dated my first boyfriend—let’s call him Sam—when I was 13. Next came Mark, from age 15 to 17. They taught me opposing lessons about men, life and myself.
Sam was incandescent: mop haired, with twinkling brown eyes and a lopsided smile. I was surprised that this solidly built 15-year-old saw me as mature enough to be of interest. We took walks in North Beach and listened to poetry performances in cafés, his skateboard always the third entity, with its own chair. As cuddly and merry as he was, he was also exciting; he loved danger and would pitch himself almost vertically on his skateboard down the steep streets of San Francisco.
I really liked him. So I was more than startled the first time he showed a violent side. We were all hanging out in a friend’s divorced father’s empty apartment (it was the ’70s). Someone made a comment—something trivial, forgettable—and all at once we were staring, agog, at Sam, standing near a hole in the wall, plaster and blood on his still-clenched fist.
I am not sure what I did with that incomprehensible scene. There had never been any violence in my home. I bracketed Sam’s action, thought it would never happen again. But it did. The two of us would be hanging out, not quite arguing but maybe disagreeing, as couples do. The next thing I knew I was flung backward across the room. Or there would be a push, and I would lose my balance and fall to the floor, always startled, as if it were the first time.
And then there began to be another pattern, equally mysterious to me. After the push or, as time went on, the slap, or the one time I found his strong hands pressing at my neck, Sam would somehow collapse. A palpable tension would subside—broken, it seemed, by this act of violence. Then Sam would be on the floor with me, cradling me, stroking my hair, begging my forgiveness. Telling me how sorry he was and that it would never happen again.
Now I know how clichéd all these events were, established steps in the dance of escalating abuse. But at the time I kept thinking, What is this? Is this how men and women behave? I knew the violence was wrong, but it felt . . . compelling, dramatic somehow. It seemed to demand my forgiveness almost as it unfolded—an expectation that I know now was influenced by the times, before domestic violence became a catchphrase. His outbursts seemed like something that happened not just to me but to Sam, in spite of himself.
I am not exonerating him. I am saying it felt complicated.
And his grief-stricken apologies, the tender affection afterward as he sought my forgiveness—I liked that. It made me feel powerful.
The thing about violent boys and men is that when they’re not actually hitting you, they can be that great guy you were drawn to in the first place. Yet because of these explosions, my relationship with Sam had a charge, an undercurrent. A trip wire.
Later, when I was 15 and Sam was a memory, I volunteered in a shelter for battered women. I didn’t realize at the time quite how much this interest, now lifelong, in working with women caught in physical or sexual trauma was affected by my own experiences. But I understood that I wanted to work at the shelter because I too had had a taste of this particular dance, this damnation.
Sam never hurt me very badly, until the last time I saw him alone. We were talking—fighting? Though never very seriously—outside a recreation center. Suddenly I was on my back on the sidewalk, and he was on top of me, pressing my shoulders down with his knees. I was ashamed of myself and of him, because of the people passing who stared. (No one intervened. Again, this was the 1970s.)
I knew I had to tell my parents. And this bohemian couple, who never forbade me anything, categorically forbade me to see Sam again. If they hadn’t, I don’t know that I could have stayed away. Their reaction sent me the message that this is the red line you never cross.
Mark—whom I began to see some months later, as the fog of willed forgetting set in—was a healing experience. Raised by a single mother and his grandparents, he had profound respect for women but was still enchantingly masculine. He was gentle with me. Our friendship was real. I felt completely safe with him.
In my work today, I find I keep circling back to female adolescence. Are we imprinted for life by what we learn about gender in those years? Mark showed me that between men and women there can be hope and kindness and grace. From Sam I drew a lifelong interest in fighting female trauma and victimization. But I also took from him my refusal to see gender relations, even the worst examples of what men do to women, in “feminist” black and white. Sam was a good guy with his own pain and struggles who, for complicated reasons, did some very bad, very unacceptable things.
It is good that we have learned how to empathize with women of any age who are on the receiving end of blows.
But the world will never grapple fully with the roots of male violence against women until we also seek to understand what happened to Sam that led him to that terrible place of his own.
NAOMI WOLF’s latest book, Vagina, is now available in a revised and updated paperback edition.
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