I started to write about the events of my fourth day on the road, but I couldn’t will myself to continue when every paragraph felt more laboured and mundane than the last. As a result of shit-luck and the trap to hitchhikers that is Paris, I barely escaped the city over the course of several hours, during which time nothing happened that wouldn’t sound alarm bells of repetition to readers familiar with my previous articles (every one of you, I hope). It would be disingenuous and against my ethics as a writer to manufacture a more captivating story, yet it would be painfully dull to document it plainly.
I didn’t want my readers to fall into the same trap as Hamlet and “eat the air, promise-crammed”: I want all of you to sink your teeth into something a little more fulfilling than air. Although it’s a difficult and emotionally taxing subject to confront, I feel compelled to share my encounter with a female hitchhiker who strongly seemed to be under the spell of domestic abuse.
Seeing her from afar, I was struck with resentment. I practically crawled to this spot, and now I had to share it with another hitchhiker. It was an entirely selfish thought, but don’t try and tell me you wouldn’t react the same way, especially if you were grappling with a tight deadline (I had to be in Lyon in less than two days to begin my employment as a ‘grape picker’).
As I edged closer to her and she changed into more than a generic outline, my frustrations were displaced by a sharp current of concern. Immediately I noticed her frail, starved body, partially concealed behind the large cardboard sign she displayed to the stream of passing traffic. The immense effort that it evidently took her to hold up the sign convinced me of her physical weakness: I felt like I was staring at a child forced to carry the burdens of a very troubled adult.
Considering that it’s basic courtesy to speak to fellow hitchhikers, I prepared to introduce myself. Before I could say a word, however, a man sitting on a bench nearby announced my arrival to her in a loud, aggressive register. On instruction, she turned around to greet me, and we shook hands. She had a black eye. I’m not referring to a small, faint bruise; it was a thick black-purple battle wound that would take serious time to heal and threatened to leave a scar. It was clearly an upsetting vision, yet it paled in comparison to the vulnerability and pain darting across her eyes.
When I returned to the same place hours later (trust me, you don’t need to know what happened in the meantime), the man who watched over her left his post and strolled towards me. He wanted to know where I was going, so I told him my destination was Lyon. Then he claimed I would have a better chance of getting a lift if I moved further up the road. It was fine advice, yet his sharp delivery only thickened my suspicions. In fact, it wasn’t advice at all, it was an order. A significant distinction.
If a man can approach a stranger and comfortably make demands of them, imagine what they are capable of with their own partner. I’m not suggesting there is a direct correlation between acts of power and violence, but when power is underscored by a quiet rage and threat its usually a precursor to violent behaviour. The very reason I so readily obeyed him was that, subconsciously, I didn’t feel safe enough to say ‘No’. And that’s me: a broad-shouldered six-foot one man who rarely feels intimidated by lone individuals. Not to mention, we were in a public space.
Where there is a victim of abuse, there is an abuser. The pieces came together in my mind to form a very ugly portrait. His actions dwarfed her in every sense; even in the public eye he found ways to restrict and demean her, such as the insidious act of giving her permission to engage with me. Such as the fact he sat on the same bench for hours, imposing the threat of his disapproval on her; implicitly claiming ownership over her.
The part that hurt me the most was recognizing that I had no way of proving any of it. Gut instinct and a few warning signs would mean nothing to the authorities, especially coming from a complete stranger in a foreign environment. It would be looked at as pure conjecture, and it would end there. Clearly it was going to take more than a stranger for her to voice the truth even if she was given a platform to stand on and be heard. It would take someone she knew well to break down her partner’s psychological enslavement, prominent from the moment that we met.
All that remained was the choice of whether to honestly report the experience or not. I choose to report it, hoping that my experience demonstrates that domestic abuse is so pernicious because it can take over the mind as well as the body – the very spirit of a person in the worst cases.
I’d also like to extend this message to anyone who has suffered from such acts of brutality, senses that their partner could be aggressive further into their relationship, or simply carries around the belief that they are ‘not good enough’ – inherently ‘bad’ – in their daily lives as a result of a difficult past: nothing you ever do deserves to be met with verbal or physical harm. There is no such thing as being correctly ‘disciplined’ for your wrongdoings, it is the fallacy of abusers. It doesn’t matter how much your partner claims to love you, you are not their human punch bag; you are not their source of therapy after a hard day at work. You might be terrified to speak out, perhaps even scared for your life, but there is no other solution in the unfortunate absence of proof.
And to everyone who has a friend or relative they even vaguely suspect may be in danger: don’t hesitate to use your position of intimacy to find out more. Don’t hesitate to act on your instincts. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is far worse to do nothing.