On Harm and Abuse: A Reflection on My Past

This post is meant to serve as a personal reflection and a relatively-public expression/acknowledgment of my violence, harm, and the abuse I committed between 2014 and 2016. It is only a partial exploration, one that has had precursors and will continue indefinitely as long as I am still alive and thinking. Please email gregbem @ gmail.com if you are inclined to communicate about this.

That period was built upon many complex things I’ve been trying to think about, accept, reconcile, and forgive about my earliest, adolescent, and post-adolescent years, especially as they deal with issues of misogyny and racism. Two women, both women of color, who I dated between 2014 and 2016, profoundly influenced how I learned about my underlying self and relatively terrifying qualities, as well as other significant areas concerning my addictions, my own desensitization toward violence, my lack of empathy and humility, and my ability to communicate both basically and complexly in a time of conflict or crisis. The women who I owe thanks for self-recognition are also those who I owe additional apologies to, who I have apologized for but continue to think through an apologetic lens about. They were harmed, they were hurt, they were brutally engaged beyond anything I knew was possible, and it was in course due to me and my own, cruel actions.

It is my hope that the writing here at least partially describes some of the past experiences in a narrative form, briefly, to expose some of my underlying qualities. I want to do this because I have been doing work since those experiences to change myself and better the communities and connections I’m in, but also because I think it is important for the narratives of men who have caused harm and been abusive to take ownership of their actions and behaviors with initiative to show that there is hope for what is and has been a widespread gender-based problem.

As an educator, I also believe that sharing the information, with personal bias acknowledged, can at least lead to more information being available. It is not my goal in this post to convince anyone of anything except my own perspective, and I welcome responses to it. I imagine I will leave out things, misspeak in some ways, and otherwise underrepresent what are serious and incredibly complex things involving incredibly complex circumstances and people. It’s not my intention to leave anything crucial out and I believe in the imperfection/incompletion of this post in general.

I have chosen to anonymously represent the women who I was with. This is for their privacy. I respect their privacy, anonymity, and authority when it comes to their own identities and their own voices and their own perspectives on the experiences that occurred. Still, with that anonymity included, I think it’s important to have their unique selves in this post represented as unique selves because they are very different people and there were very specific qualities to each of them (and my relationship with each of them) that I responded to with my actions and behaviors. As such, I will use “M” and “S” as names for them.

Now, here is, briefly, the core of it.

In 2014 and 2015 I was with M. She and I met through poetry readings in Seattle and instantly became attracted to one another as literary figures and more. Throughout my growing relationship with M, we had to navigate a lot of serious and heavy contexts (at least, they were heavy for me), including: what is it like to have a relationship (in general), what is like to have a relationship that is multiracial, and what is it like to have a relationship between two artists who are actively involved in furthering their own art and ideas? These were initial questions that I was fully unaware of at the beginning of the relationship, but became aware of the more I was with M. Looking back on it, my own white privilege and emotional shell served as barriers in numerous ways, and those barriers served as crutches that allowed me to directly harm M. On one hand, I was unable to truly understand (with any degree of empathy, to any degree of detail) her daily life and lived experience. As a black woman in Seattle, her daily struggle was significantly her own and one that I had no experience with and no experience trying to learn. As such, I didn’t even have the tools to try to learn her experience and be there to support her. I think, with much sadness, that so much of my own sheltering, whether rooted familialy, geo-culturally, or more systemically based on my skin and the privileges there, kept me from thinking about reaching out, kept me from exerting any effort whatsoever to understanding her and trying to collaborate and share.

If only it were just the weight of white privilege. The truth of the matter is, all of the whiteness that bubbled up within me and resulted in racist and prejudice behaviors, including in the moments of our conflicts more directly, bigoted micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions, was fully exacerbated by a degree of misogyny and sexism I undoubtedly learned from my biological father and the many (endless, really) male figures in the Western culture who objectify and abuse women. My lack of confidence and worth during the entire relationship with M was hideous, even in our most awe-inspiring moments when empathy could have been established but was not. I have thought a lot about the blanket of ignorance and harmful lashing-out that occurred during my time with M and it’s really disgusting to me. As arguably the most significant relationship of my life, this experience was also one of the most traumatic (in regard to both of us) and resulted in much self-harm as well.

Addiction runs in my genes and it had been a slow build in Seattle between 2010 when I first arrived and 2014 when M and I were sharing intimate experiences together. The alcohol, pills, and other substances I indulged in regularly created more shell, more “armor,” that kept me from feeling full emotions, having to be held accountable, having to feel anything to act, do the work, and learn to be better. My naivety was a joke, a façade, a simplistic excuse that I could be a “nice person” at times but never have acknowledge the shadowy cruelty that would come out in the case of any conflict, any judgment, any moment of weakness. I should also acknowledge that the addictions did cause other harm to other women before M; however, it wasn’t until M and the compounding of racism, sexism, and complete decay of a stable ego that I was fully dominated by the crutch of substance abuse.

With no ability to healthily communicate except through extremely abusive behaviors (moving between elements of “love” to elements of vitriol within moments, paranoia, panic and pronounced anger and aggression), the relationship decayed incredibly fast. The penultimate moment was during a relatively-spontaneous visit from M to Cambodia when I was living there in the summer of 2015, working on a library project for an NGO. The visit was perhaps one of the most disturbing experiences in my entire life, where I treated M terribly and had to deal with accountability for my actions without having any of the tools or mental stability to do so. Those moments, of which I’ll keep the details private, remain both horrifying and intensely sad to me, and they are images that will never be erased. Though I have attempted to express apology and understand the moments and the harm committed to M during her trip across the ocean to visit me, reconciliation, forgiveness, and compassion are all concepts that seem to fail. It is work that I will continue to do for a long time before I find resolution. I imagine the same will be the case for M.

After returning to Seattle in late September/early October of 2015, projected energies on S (who I met via Twitter) allowed me to vanish/abandon/cut out M from my life completely, as an unresolved object in my life. This type of behavior was new to me, but I imagine is something that serial monogamous individuals do, and abusive men are likely to do as well (I am assuming here). My moments with M ended during a final night, though I was so far gone into an oblivion of unaware, of a significant lack of control, that only I knew it was the final night. The transition to S, via digital protection (S living in India), resulted in the “safety” that kept me moving forward. It was faux happiness. It was faux connection. It was superficial and “poetic” with flourishes and language, flirtations and a revisiting to an innocence that was not there, was all completely and bafflingly performed.

I wish I could say that things became fine and resolved with M and at that point, but they did not. It was only this year (2018) that I was able to even feel any sense of urgency to reach out to M and offer an apology and a more intensely intentional (or, rather, the first moment of intentionality) communication since an initial apology written years ago. I highlight this because I think that there is something about the abusive male history that includes a distancing from the events until that level of “safety” is achieved. But by now, by this point, time has “healed” the wounds, which I think means: repression has occurred to soften any of the blows and reduce fear and moments of trauma. Which is sad for a whole different reason: I believe fully in being held accountable now and I wish that much of the history that is now faded was as fresh in my mind as the abuser, as fresh to this day, so that I may go even further than I can ever hope to go now. I don’t know how I would have asked the world to change things otherwise. Perhaps if my privilege and the context of the relationship being that of a city (where one can disappear) had been replaced with a lack of privilege and a small town? I don’t know. The reality is that it occurred the way it did, and I imagine it occurs to many relationships that follow a similar set of circumstances.

As I pushed M away into a recessive corner of my mind and my life, and tried with all intents to be “done” with her, my attention, as I mentioned, shifted to S. Trained as a psychologist, and legitimately connected to me with degrees of passion and warmth, S tried her best to comfort me and organize the situation as best she could. Of course, she had no idea as to the degree the conflict between M and I had stemmed over its breaking-down, and had no idea that a lot of the energy was charged by racism and misogynistic roots. If she did, then she hid it well and had sympathy and patience for me. I of course was able to pretend to be the “good guy” and maintain control over S’s heart, or at least that’s what my goal was. I wanted a refresh, a reset button hit, and I wanted to started over. There was an escapist quality to it. An a colonialist quality too: the “exotic” of the Indian woman was heightened by the idea of her intelligence and her ability to connect with me over Twitter, a narrative that I convinced myself was charming. In October 2015, a digital romance seemed appropriate, sweet, and what I now see as a bullshit hypnosis self-induced to “fall in love” with S was, at first, just an extension of defense mechanisms and a way to slide into another world that allowed me to avoid the mess and destruction of the path nearest me. Meanwhile, I was convincing myself that due to all my behavior with M, Seattle’s literary communities would find out what I did and hate me, and there’d be no pity, and I had to find some warmth out there, somewhere, anywhere. And so, at least for the beginning: S was that fixation.

It terrifies me that my abusive behavior could cause two strangers to commit conflict against one another, but this happened as well. Abuse is not only iterative unto itself, but extends into iterations of additional degrees of influence, and that is truly horrifying. In yet another sequence of traumatic moments, M and S engaged in conflicts with one another, for their own reasons, but directly caused by my own awful spirals. To this day I do not know, nor ever think I will know, if those conflicts and their own traumatic details will ever be resolved, and I feel entirely responsible for them. With them, I (then) felt very confused but also very protected. Not only did I feel protected by M and S directing energies toward one another, but I felt protected by someone sticking up for me (S) and, in some ways M maintaining a presence for me. I do not know if that is the case in reality, but that’s how I remember feeling in the moment. Of course, these were always vague senses of feeling; my mind was significantly warped beyond conscious and direct understanding or critical analysis. I was, and I think I will always slightly be, partially oblivious of the truth. I think that is a quality of the abuser.

While S and I did not ever feel “comfortable” following the transition from the former relationship to our relationship, the faux feelings that caused the relationship to begin did convert into real feelings, I think, that reached their pinnacle in December, 2015, when S convinced me to stop taking painkillers. I had been taking painkillers to supplement drinking and it was giving me a complete barrier from all feelings. It was allowing me to create a fictional world where the only thing that mattered was the thing I believed in, which was essentially not having to address any of my negative qualities. That December I stopped taking those and, like the stereotypical scenes from books and movies where addicts become exposed to their core, my moments of clarity only partially helped. It’s odd that I write this now, on 10/7/18, having just seen the new adaptation of A Star is Born. Many of the most insulting moments in that film are on par with my moments of absolute horrendous drunkenness I experienced while with S, including my 30th birthday party, which she was the lead organizer of. During that party, I once again became too drunk and ended up committing self-harm to myself once back in the hotel room late in the night. My lack of thanks and praise for the work that S had done to support me then, like all of the other moments, was drowned out by a derailed hubris that was bent on self-destruction and the misery of others, most of all (at that point), S.

I can’t leave out how by the end of my relationship with S, which occurred around 1 year after it started, near September of 2016, much of what I thought about was how to end the relationship. While I was not taking painkillers, I was continuing to drink a lot, and was continuing to find ways to invoke hatred onto S. The racism and misogyny that erupted against M erupted time and time against S. A fueled antagonism toward another women of color included roping in all of the past, unresolved problems I put onto my relationship with M. In my head, I united M and S into a single person, a single woman of color, a single female artist of color, who I needed to be better than, superior to, dominant of, and so on. This objectification is something that might not seem possible (I type the words remembering full well how I felt in those moments, and yet feeling like it is truly uncanny, truly unbelievable), but it happened, and for a time, S attempted to confront it. There was some degree of optimism expressed in those brief, sober moments of warmth, but the slow build of racism, colonialism, and misogyny was extracted with my anger, my own lashing-out (which returned against S as if it had never gone away), the harm that would not stop. Of course the relationship ended eventually and S, who had early on in our connection expressed an interest in moving out to me, committing herself to being with me, moved elsewhere. And I, as you might expect, dove into my own deep pools and drowned with my own sickening sense of self.

This message is not about me “getting better” and thus I am not going to dwell on the chapters that occurred following all of these stories. I will merely say I have been and continue to do the work to know myself more and attempt to be better than then.

This letter is to express that there is truth in the stories you hear from women in your life about men who have abused them. This letter is a support for that perspective. In sharing my own perspective, where I can openly admit to verbally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially harming these two women in a significant way that has most likely gone on to negatively impact their selves, their minds, their lives, I hope it will provide some degree of evidence and support for the every-woman who has been in or is in positions like those they were in. Every-woman and every-person who finds themselves as a victim, as a target, of immense degrees of violence being channeled by very cowardly, very awful individuals. In their case, it was a manipulative web of race, gender, and status-based attacks that was propelled by substance abuse and psychological chaos. I only wish it had a better ending.

As I said at the beginning of this writing, M and S are both significantly brilliant and creative individuals who are successful and influential in their own right, their own spheres, their own unique lives. Since the stories I have explored here, I have made a commitment to unleashing my own perspective for the reasons I mentioned above—to better inform and allow folks who read it to do and interpret as they want. The work that I have to do is ongoing, and is forever, and it has taken me many months leading out of those relationships through (and I know, beyond) this moment right now to find any sense of resolution.

But I am committed to doing that work, and I am committed to ensuring it doesn’t happen again—doesn’t happen by me, and also by those I encounter in my life, those who are men and those who are white, who have the privilege and unconscious/conscious ability to do just as I did, and “get away with it” just as I feel like I did.

Thank you for reading.