PostSecret is a website many people enjoy visiting. It began as a blog that published anonymous secrets and has evolved into an internationally popular destination website with approximately 5 million viewers, a number of books, and a mobile app. While the concept has adapted to new technology, the premise is this: people send unsigned postcards to Germantown, Maryland where creator Frank Warren, then publishes the postcards on the PostSecret blog. Warren describe the blog as “an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.” It is a space to reveal the things you think about, or recognize, or are ashamed of. Things that you need to say out loud and have other people hear, but that you don’t feel you can or don’t choose to say to those around you. Each secret is accompanied by a picture to illustrate the secret. From flippant comments about facial hair, to more serious secrets about suicide, PostSecret has them all.
On Sunday, November 27’s blog post, 17 new postcards were posted. Among them were two postcards bearing the picture of a black eye. One, a postcard of a girl doll with a colored in green and yellow circle around her eye reads: “I would rather be hit than ignored. I know how bad that sounds. I needed to tell you.” The other, is a black and white image of the upper quarter of a face. A blue, green, and black mark is colored in under the eye. A voice bubble over the eyebrow reads: “I don’t know how to leave him.”
There are a number of disturbing factors to these postcards. An obvious one is that two more people are being abused. Two more people feel trapped in their situation. But what I would like to focus on is where these postcards ended up. On an anonymous secrets blog. The only action these two survivors felt comfortable with, was to acknowledge their abuse to an unknown mass in complete anonymity. Their abuse is the big secret they cannot reveal, yet must speak.
Why abused people stay in a harmful relationship is one of the most common questions related to intimate partner violence. Many people might insist that they would never stand for abuse in a relationship. Unfortunately in that statement is an inherent disconnection from potential sympathy for someone who is in a bad place and needs help. Abusive relationships come in every shape and size and effect every type of person. They can affect anyone at any time. No one wants to see themselves as a victim of abuse. No one pictures themselves becoming an abuse victim.
There are many practical reasons a person might stay in an abusive relationship: fear, presence of children, economic barriers, religion, etc. but also common are reasons which can stem from internalized beliefs about how men and women exist in society i.e. a feeling that they need a partner to complete them, a belief they did something to deserve the abuse or can do something to change it, shame over their partner’s behavior and their own powerless to stop it.
It is these societally influenced reasons that, I believe, led to the two above mentioned postcards. The postcard that read “I would rather be hit than ignored,” could point to a belief that we sometimes hear from female clients that they feel incomplete without a partner. This message is reinforced to women all the time through media, even friends and family. Such as when the first question a relative asks upon seeing you is if you have a partner, the barrage of romantic movies, or the overwhelming amount of beauty/fashion/sex tips geared towards women so they can “find a man”. These messages inundate the subconscious with the belief that women need men to be complete. Add to this toxic mix a partner who reinforces this idea (“who else would be with you?” or “who else would love you/take care of your kids?” ) and/or subscribes to very firm ideas of male/female roles in relationships and it can be easy to see how victims can feel trapped.
The second sentence of that same postcard, “I know how bad that sounds,” is a recognition of the judgment that exists in the question “why do they stay?“. Abused individuals might have even previously said those things. By acknowledging that it “sounds bad” to stay with an abusive partner, the individual illustrates how she is torn between having a partner and being abused. Conversely, while intimate partner violence (IPV) myths (“not to people like me”) abound and an “us/them” divide exists, society simultaneously shames these women for being in the position which they were socialized into. Social psychology explains that by marking someone as a “they,” people create a divide which is hard to cross. When we create division over one aspect, such as whether a person has been abused or not, we prevent unity on a range of other traits. This means we prevent change from happening, from help being extended.
The other postcard reads: “I don’t know how to leave him.” The fact that this individual doesn’t know how to leave her abuser strikes me as emblematic of another social problem: a lack of education about community resources and IPV. As noted by this blog’s title, one in four women will experience domestic violence be abused in her lifetime. When you consider the people effected by abuse besides the victim/survivor. IPV is likely to affect everyone in some way in their his/her lifetime. The work done by organizations such as ours and partners like law enforcement and the judicial system is just not enough to increase public awareness of interpersonal violence. We believe that IPV is a community issue and requires a community response. That means churches, schools, universities and places of business all need to get on board with helping build greater awareness about the prevalence of this issue and what can be done to help those in need.
Start with you! Here are a few things that you can do right now. Learn some tips to be an effective ally, have your work or church host a cell phone drive, or volunteer at FVPC. These postcards exist because of all of us. We live in a world that labels abuse as something we cannot speak about. As long as an abuse victim feels this, they will be silent. Their silence and pain is all of ours. We all have work to do.