When I was in college, in a small writing program at a an art school in New York, it was around sophomore year that we were sitting in studio and one of my professors said something that would stick with me through the rest of my time there, when thinking about my purpose when it comes to writing, and which continues to resonate with me now. My memory of the actual conversation — including which professor said it — is hazy now, but I believe it was something that a mentor of the professor’s had passed down to them, which had stuck with them as well. The professor said that instead of trying to find your voice as a writer, you should try instead to find your question. That most good writers spent the majority of their writing lives trying to answer a singular question, and that once you found your question, your writing would have new direction.
My question has never been entirely clear to me, which I think has to do with the nature of the question itself. To be most honest, my question can’t be absolutely precise. It has something to do with what we can’t articulate fully — the spaces between people, between language and meaning, the gaps we can never quite close and what falls into them. To state my question with absolute clarity would be to lie about what the question is. But for me, that’s enough of an answer. It’s not a full, clear answer, but it’s the most honest one.
Two years later, while sitting in a one-on-one meeting with another professor, going over my thesis, he looked up from the work we were going over that day after a long pause and said, “You don’t trust absolutes. You don’t like them.” I didn’t respond right away. That exact thought had never occurred to me before, so I took a moment to think it over. No, I said, I guess I don’t. They’re not honest.
When writing poetry, you can get away with not confronting absolutes. You’re not bound by the same rules of other kinds of writing, and that allows you to wedge yourself into the gaps between things, to break language so that you can play in the grey areas. That’s why I like it so much. Poetry is the language behind the language we speak in everyday life, when clarity and efficiency are the priorities. Poetry is speaking in tongues. It’s open for interpretation. It leaves room for gut feelings and hunches, which we all apply to communication all of the time anyway, but often don’t want to admit to, and that, to me, makes it more honest.
That makes the things I want — that I need — to write about now hard for me. I want to tell the truth, always, but the first thing I know about the truth is that it is never absolute. Objectivity is a lie, and the biggest liars you will ever meet are the ones who insist they are being objective, because they are lying even to themselves.
Even facts are subjective, and believing they are not is the easiest way to be manipulated by them. If I tell you, for example, that you are 90 times more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash, that looks pretty bad for cars. You would be pretty sure that planes are safer than cars, based on that indisputable fact. Unless I follow it up by saying that you have a less than 1 percent chance of dying in a car accident. Unless I clarify that you probably spend far more of your time in a car than in a plane, so of course it’s more likely that you would die in one. It’s still a fact, but how it is presented matters. How it is interpreted can vary. Are planes really safer than cars? Or are cars only more likely to kill us because of circumstances that have nothing to do with their safety, like frequency of use?
Parsing through issues like how to present information is one of the biggest jobs a writer has, and one of the biggest responsibilities, especially in the world we find ourselves in today. But what I have to talk about now, going forward, can’t be objective, even slightly. To try to claim that it is — any of it — would be the biggest lie I could tell you. I can’t give you the absolute truth. I don’t have it to give. I can only offer you my truth, and the respect that comes with this lengthy and possibly overly philosophical disclaimer.
I’ve reached a point where I feel like I can no longer discuss my present without explaining my recent past. I am tired of feeling stuck, unable to speak, because I want to protect others, even when they have shown no such instinct toward me. Of feeling bound up by ultimately pointless ethics related to trying to be objective, to include everyone’s perspective. I don’t want to expose anyone. I don’t want to insist that my side of the story is the true one. But I want to tell the truth about what has happened to me, from my point of view.
So keeping in mind what I’ve already said about facts in the previous paragraphs, here are some facts:
Fact: I won’t be returning to the US with my husband. He will be staying in Korea, and we will be divorcing.
Fact: We have been functionally separated since the beginning of 2017. He moved out for about two years, but circumstances that I will explain in detail at some point resulted in us moving back in together near the end of 2018. We still live together today, but we are not together and have not been since 2017.
His perspective about that is different, and varies from day to day. Some days, we are still together and never stopped being together. Other days, we got back together at the end of 2018, but he understands we are not together now. It basically depends on what point he is trying to make at any given time. Regardless, since you need two people to consent to be in a relationship, and I have not consented to being in a relationship with him since early 2017, I can still state it as a fact that we have not been together since then. Since we have continued to live together, however, and communicate, some of the events I am about to discuss happened post 2017, in the period when we were no longer officially together.
Fact: He cheated on multiple occasions with sex workers, threatened to kill me on multiple occasions, going so far as to come at me with a knife on at least three, kicked in a locked door to get to me, has thrown countless objects at me including most devastatingly my laptop, has pulled his fist back to threaten to hit me too many times to count but only actually followed through once.
Fact: I believe the only reason he didn’t hit me more was because I stood my ground. I explained to him in no uncertain terms that it was not going to be a beating, that it was going to be a fight, and I believe that he backed down only because he wasn’t sure he could best me if I fought back.
Fact: He has physically prevented me from leaving the house on multiple occasions, for hours on end, when I attempted to leave to get away from him during or after one of these episodes. Pure exhaustion often won out in the end, and after falling asleep and waking up the next morning, after the adrenaline and fear of the immediate situation had passed, I would lose sight of the urgency I had felt the night before to escape the situation. I would start to worry more about the practicalities — where I would live, what would happen to the animals, what would happen if I lost my visa and my right to live and work in Korea.This became a favored and effective tactic for keeping me in place.
Fact: I have said many, many, many things to him that overall I am not proud of, but am also not entirely sure I regret or didn’t mean. I have knocked things onto the floor, but never thrown them at him. I initiated physical contact once, to grab his shirt collar and pull him close to speak in his face.
Fact: We have reached a kind of amicable stasis at the present, and I do not believe I am in danger. We live under the same roof. We speak to each other on a daily basis. We still often eat dinner together.
While this may be hard to understand, given the common perception about abusers and the recipients of their abuse, that one is all bad and the other is all good, I don’t feel that our specific circumstances can be simplified quite to that degree. I believe, in fact, that the perception that abusers are monsters and not people is one of the most dangerous narratives people can put forward in an abuse situation. It is the humanness of abusers, and the understanding that they are not monsters, that often keeps victims hanging on to hope. Your abuser doesn’t have to be all or even mostly bad for you to be in danger. They can be humans who are fallible, injured, struggling with their own issues and trying to be better, and you can still need to get out of the situation.
Fact: He was wrong. Fact: What he did was bad. I did not deserve any of it. Fact: I will spend years trying to recover from what he put me through. I don’t know if I ever will. Fact: We cannot stay married.
If you were to ask Busan for his truth, I’m not entirely sure what he would say, but in the past, he has claimed many times that the thing that “makes” him behave in these ways is my strength. I’m too strong, too independent, too opinionated, too self-assured. No man, he has told me many times, can live with a tiger in his house.
My truth is different. My version of events is that Busan has always been happiest with me when I am at my strongest. When I am self-assured, on top of my game, confident, independent, and taking no shit, he showers me with adoration. His love for me shines in his eyes.
It’s the weakness in me he seems to have an issue with. When I need him, when I rely on him, when I am exhausted, vulnerable and most in need of love and support from him, that is when the monster inside the man begins to emerge.
I am not that now. I have worked myself nearly to death over the past several years to rebuild myself and get back to a position of strength. I don’t need him now — not for anything, and I can walk out the door and board a flight back to the US at any point and be just fine without him. And he knows it. And so, for now, I am safe.
But I have been here before and been fool enough to think that it was him who changed, and not me. He hasn’t changed, and he won’t. Which is why I have to go. Even though, now, we can sit and have dinner together. Even though we can chat throughout the day like friends. Even though, at this particular moment, I do not believe I am in any danger. The next time I’m weak, the next time life overwhelms me and I need support from the people I love, it will all come roaring back. I know that. And that’s not a way to live.
I think looking all of that over, it will become clear to many of you who have been wondering why I’ve been so quiet, so cagey, so vague, and so distant over the past few years that I had my reasons, one of them being that I didn’t even know where to start. One of the tactics that abusers deploy to great effect to control their targets is chaos and confusion. They create pandemonium, gaslight so effectively and shift skins so quickly that it can take ages to even get your bearings about you to begin to sort out what is what.
It’s confusing for people on the outside, to whom everything seems so clear cut and simple, how the target can be so confused and conflicted. I knew that simply saying publicly in real time, “Busan hit me,” or “Busan cheated on me,” or “Busan threatened to kill me and came at me with a knife” would only lead to a cacophony of outside voices that would add even more to the chaos.
One of the biggest things that is taken away from you in an abusive, manipulative situation is your ability to trust yourself. I have clung to that ability my entire life. I was born into a gaslighting culture, with a gaslighting religion and the king of all gaslighters as a father. I had to learn how to trust myself to survive. I’ve had to learn, also, to moderate that part of my personality — needing to be full sure that I’m right about things, and being hypersensitive to the possibility that other parties aren’t having an honest discussion, but instead trying to manipulate the facts.
But part of trusting yourself is knowing your limits, and knowing that, in particular, your perspective is limited. Knowing that other people can tell the truth with their whole chest, and it can be completely different from your truth, but still a version of the truth. If you want to have healthy relationships with other people, you have to learn how to balance your truth with theirs, and also spot when the two are just never going to overlap enough to make things work.
In a good faith situation, you have to be able to hear and consider both truths, and admit to yourself that both are probably a little right and a little wrong. You have to learn how to admit that you can’t possibly be right about everything, and sometimes you have to compromise. But when you’re in an abusive situation, that ability can very easily be used against you.You can’t give someone the benefit of the doubt when all they are looking for is a chink in the armor. And when someone learns that being too stubborn or too insistent on your own truth is something about yourself that you worry about, that it’s something you carefully monitor with yourself and know to be a weakness, it can become their greatest weapon. It can become your achilles heel.
My version of the truth is that he yelled at me for no reason. His version of the truth is that I did something frustrating that caused him to yell. I can take that on board. Sometimes people do things that contribute to other people losing their cool. People get frustrated. People yell. I can try not to do the frustrating thing anymore, if he can try not to yell. After all, a healthy relationship is about compromise, right? It’s about learning not to always insist that you are right and the other person is wrong, but trying to see your own fault in the situation and take responsibility for it. Right?
And then, some months down the line, I’ve become so frustrating that I’m causing plates of food to be thrown. And then eventually I’m causing doors to be kicked in. I’m causing my husband to cheat. I’m causing him to pull out a knife and threaten to kill me or harm himself. I’m causing all kinds of things. Some of the frustrating things I do to cause these things include expecting him to wash the dishes after I cooked dinner, not scrubbing the floor the way his mother does, being hurt when he doesn’t do anything for my birthday, getting up to leave the table during a meal when he is berating me, and “bringing down the mood” by being sad while my mother was dying.
But my truth isn’t the only one, right? And when I do take a stand and say, no, sometimes things are just 100% wrong? Well, that’s just me and how I always need to be right about everything, don’t I? I can never accept any of my own responsibility in the situation, can I? I’m little miss perfect, little miss never wrong.
It doesn’t take these kinds of people long to figure out where your buttons are. Your sore spots. It didn’t take him long to realize that when he said, “You know, you’re not always right about everything,” I would automatically take a step back. That if he applied a little pressure in just that place, I would stop and question myself.
How do you assert your truth after that? How do you even know what it is anymore?
Looking at all of that written out there at once, it looks stupid. I feel stupid. But that’s the thing about the truth. If you show this to enough people — and it won’t even have to be very many — eventually one of them will say something about how I probably caused some, if not all, of this. If not by pushing him to it, then at least by staying. You may have even had some thoughts about that yourself while reading. I live in this society, too. I’m not immune from those thoughts or messages.
But acknowledging that the truth is subjective is not the same as saying that there is no such thing as truth. And sometimes the best you can do is shut out all of the noise and figure out, at the very least, what your truth is. I needed to sort things out for myself, with the help of a handful of very trusted loved ones. I needed to block everything out and go deep inside to the stillest part of myself, cup my hand to my ear and listen for the whisper of inner truth. I found her. I stayed down there with her for a long time, resting and listening. She told me many things. And I’m back now, with all of the things that she taught me. I may not know what the absolute truth is, but I know what my truth is, and I’m learning more about it every day. And I’m ready to start talking about it.