I am a bystander who will not stand by

A couple of months ago, something happened that I probably should have written about for the blog. But for whatever reason, I didn’t write about it here. Instead, I posted about it on my personal FB page.  Here’s what I wrote:

I just stopped a guy who had cornered his crying girlfriend outside Target and was screaming in her face. I’m pretty sure he wanted to hit me, but I still think I did the right thing.

All I could think was how many times I’d wished someone had done the same for me. May not have changed the outcome, but at least I wouldn’t have been left with the bewildering feeling of “how can no one else SEE this?”

I was – and still am – about 99.9% sure I witnessing an act of emotional and verbal abuse.  Of course it’s not possible to be certain that’s what was happening, but I had been in that situation enough to know it was very likely.

I also knew enough to know that an abuser isn’t likely to hit their victim in public, so I didn’t make that my standard by which I gauged the situation.  I’d been with my abuser for nearly nine years, and during that time he assaulted me in public exactly two times: once on a plane on our way back from our honeymoon, when we got in an argument and he pushed my face hard against the plane window, and once during a dinner with his family when I said something he didn’t like and he pinched my upper thigh so hard it left behind a massive bruise. In public he’d only yell at me, call me names or glare at me in a way that made me afraid for the first moments we’d be alone together.

My initial instinct was to do what everyone else was doing: pretend like I didn’t see, walk inside, hope it went away.  But as I walked past, into the in doors, I saw her tear-stained face, and I was ashamed of myself. And so I came right back out of the out doors, walked up to the couple and said, “Hey, is everything OK here?” as I looked them both in the eye.  He backed away from her, they both said everything was fine, and then they left.

In the comments of the post, a few people debated whether it was helpful or not, and a couple of women said that if that had been them, their former partners would have beaten them even worse when they were alone. I worried about that too. I still worry, and it’s been three months since it happened.  Who knows what’s happened since then? I hope for the best while also acknowledging it could be very, very bad.

I still don’t know what the exact right answer is, but I do think I know what the less wrong answer is. To me, the less wrong answer is to walk past without looking. To look without seeing. To pretend like ignoring something is the same as making it go away.

I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to consider this a lot in the past week, as my social media feeds have filled up with stories of harassment shared by people of color and LGBT people.  The election has emboldened some of the most disgusting elements of our society – ones I will admit to naively having thought had been shamed into hiding – and now they feel as though having one of them in the White House is all the permission they need to let that nastiness and hate loose on the people around them.

There’s a guide that’s been making the rounds, about what to do if you witness an incident of Islamophobic harassment in public. I like that it emphasizes defusing the situation and rendering the harasser invisible, and that it doesn’t involve anything particularly complicated on the part of the bystander – just a willingness to actually see what’s happening and a desire to help. It’s definitely worth reading, so please take a minute to click on the link and read it and file it away in your brain for future reference.

I also liked the guide because I felt like it validated some of my own instincts, which is that you don’t have to be confrontational to intervene effectively. You just have to be willing to say something. But I’ll tell you, when I walked up to that guy, I was terrified.  There was a tiny part of me that was worried he would take a swing at me.  But I did it anyway. And fortunately he didn’t try to hit me, even though I’m pretty sure he wanted to.

Later though, once the adrenaline rush subsided, I realized a big part of why I felt OK doing what I did is because of how I feel in my body. I don’t mean in the way I look, but in the way I actually feel.  I’m still as tall as I was when I was that younger, battered woman, and I probably weigh about the same, but the difference is something more intangible.

The difference is in my physical presence. I feel strong and confident in a way that wasn’t always part of who I am. That strength and confidence lets me interact with the rest of the world in ways that haven’t always been accessible to me.  I don’t think I would have been able to walk up to a volatile situation in an attempt to defuse it if I didn’t feel like I had a chance at actually being able to handle things. And I don’t know if I’d feel like I’d have a chance at being able to handle things if I hadn’t already proven to myself that I’m strong and tough and capable and courageous.

It reminds me that this is what really matters about fitness and strength and athletics.  It’s not about one-rep maxes and fat loss and PRs, but rather about becoming the strongest, most confident versions of ourselves we can be. But even that is not an end in and of itself.  What good is strength and confidence if we don’t actually do anything with it?  To me, standing up for people who have less power than us and doing what we can to help them seems like a pretty damn good use of that strength and confidence.

I hope I never have to be in that kind of a situation again – not only for my own selfish reasons but also because I never want anyone to feel unsafe like that –  but at the very least I know I have it in me to at least try to help. Sadly I suspect the world is going to need more people who have it in them to try to help in the coming years.  I just hope more of us – myself included – will actually do it when the need arises.

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16 responses to “I am a bystander who will not stand by

  1. Fantastic post F&F. I totally agree with you that now more than ever we need to stand with victims if we encounter harassment or abuse in public. Also, you’re so right about the way that fitness gives us the inner strength to be our best selves in such situations.

  2. Thank you for writing. Thank you for being you. I admire you so much for taking the time to share your training, your past, and your convictions. I read every post, and I just wanted to take a minute to express how much I appreciate your work, your voice.

  3. I am a social worker and I work with families who are in a variety of difficult situations. I read your post and it made me think of a woman I worked with who finally got away from an abusive spouse after many years in the relationship. The turning point for her (and her kids) was when they were out in public and having a problem and someone asked if everything was okay. Domestic violence can be such a secretive experience that I think it can be hard to lose perspective, and it takes someone else’s mirror to perhaps give you the courage to step away. So you don’t know and can’t control what happened after you said something – but it could have effects that are far-reaching and positive, which is all you can hope for, as you said. Great post – thank you for sharing.

  4. It makes me sad that people feel they have to mistreat and abuse others to make themselves feel better (powerful). I’m glad you stepped in! Agreed…self-respect is the end goal! *hugs*

  5. I’ve read your blog for years. I’ve learned with you and quietly celebrated with you as you’ve grown into the athlete and self-confident woman that you are today. And I have admired how you have gracefully woven social commentary into your posts.
    What you have written here is important and urgent. When I have seen things and kept going, it was because I feared for my own safety, but now you’ve given me ideas for how I might help without unduly putting myself at risk. It would be difficult for me to do… but I might try. Thank you.

  6. Yes to this. I’ve also wondered about the abuser being even angrier in public, but I also wonder if more people did what you did (socially sanction that behavior), if it would be so common in the first place.

  7. FWIW I think you did the right thing. A few months ago we were at a stop light on our way to a party when we saw the jeep in front of us was rocking. The driver (guy) was beating and shaking the passenger (woman) so hard the entire vehicle was rocking. My husband started to get out but there was traffic flying by in the other direction and then the light turned green so we followed them and called the police, gave the license plate, description, location, etc. He seemed to realize we were following and sped up. We got up to a pretty reckless speed and finally had to stop chasing them (our kids were in the car). I never heard from the police or learned what happened and I still think about it all the time and hope we did the right thing and that maybe she found a way out.

  8. There is a TV show/documentary that started here in Australia last week called Big Bad Love, which has been done by a comedian who had a friend in an abusive relationship and she didn’t know how to help her, so she has done this show to find out how you can help other people in those situations. I haven’t watched it yet, but here it is if you’re interested http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/big-bad-love/DO1510H001S00.

    Anyway, one suggestion she had for a situation like the one you encountered was to interrupt to ask a simple question like what is the time, or for directions. That may be enough to diffuse the situation for a little bit without (hopefully) increasing the retaliation later in private.

  9. This happened to me. My boyfriend at the time was being aggressive and pulling me by my “backpack”. A woman crossed the road and said to me “Are you ok?”. It took me off guard at first because I hadn’t really thought about my ex’s behavior at the time as being anything but normal in a relationship (I know, I know) – but because she had said something to me, it got me thinking about a lot of things.

    Of course in the moment it made my ex walk off in a huge huff…like it was MY fault this woman had decided to ask me if I was ok and not his for acting like a moron. But it set things in motion in my head.

    Unfortunately I got stuck with that guy for a long time..some of the stuff was so emotionally manipulative and awful…but that woman saying something really stood out to me – I had always had an inkling its not normal to be treated this way but she made it clear to me with her actions. I mean before she did that I didn’t even think people could see what was going on from the outside (I guess I thought I was living in a bubble)…so I am sure that lots of people saw it but just hadn’t said anything.

    So in conclusion..I wish more people would say/do something.

    • I really appreciate you sharing this with me. (And also I’m so glad you left, seriously that takes such courage.) I’d *hoped* something like this would happen, that maybe it would just give her an idea that what was happening wasn’t normal, and so hearing that was exactly your experience helps me feel like it wasn’t a misstep on my part. It’s hard to know what to do, you know?

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