Telling Myself Stories of Gentle Men

After fleeing an abusive marriage, I seek touchstones of kindness

Photo: Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Men will hurt you.

The warning whispers at the fringes of my consciousness; I can’t shut it up. In my defense, it’s not untrue. Watch the news, look at the statistics. Our president is an actual rapist. A rapist. The president.

The degree to which women are endangered by men has never been clearer to me than when I fled my own abusive marriage. My first stop was a home for battered women and children. Naively, I was shocked by the sheer number who’d beaten me out to claim one of the insufficient number of rooms the house had available. And it was a big house. All over it, there were children crying, women with bruised faces. A beautiful teenage girl sat curled into a ball with her back against the wall. To her chest, she clutched a teddy bear that she was way too old for, and she rocked back and forth, back and forth, ceaselessly.

And, as my fear was temporarily displaced by fury, I thought, Men did this. They did all of this. And then the fury slipped over a cliff into a pit of hopelessness from which I’ve not yet extracted myself.

When I was running this morning, I watched a male sparrow mate with a female sparrow. I know better than to anthropomorphize and call it “rape,” but it didn’t look consensual. She tried her best to escape him three times before he got her. It killed me to watch. I thought, Maybe this is just how things are. Maybe it’s inescapable.

Maybe we’re all just destined to be prey.

Men are evolving and will continue to evolve because that’s what humans do.

But humanity has transcended nature in myriad ways. We don’t live like animals anymore. And if men want to retain the right to take women against their will, then they’re going to have to relinquish their rights to own laptops, to drive cars, to watch porn on the web.

They’re not going to do that. Men are evolving and will continue to evolve because that’s what humans do. Granted, some specific manifestations of that evolution are taking way too long, but evolution, by definition, does continue. And, lest it appear I’m seeing the future through rose-colored glasses, let me assure you that the shade of my glasses runs from a cool gray to black right now.

But, because I don’t want to keep living in such darkness, I’ve started to tell myself other stories, to replace the “men will hurt you” refrain with words and images that have the power to eclipse it, or at least to challenge it.

I now carry with me a photograph of my father that was taken when I was a little girl. In it, he is holding a ragged-looking cat that I clearly remember as feral. I’m not even sure where he found the cat (or where she found him), but he tended to her around the clock, fed her tuna and cream until she grew fat and shiny. She remained skeptical of the rest of us, but from the day he brought her home, she spent the whole of her life within the borders of his shadow.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed a disabled teenager struggling to navigate between tables while using the walker that she needed to support herself. As I began to stand to help her, two young men about her age from a table across the room moved toward her, quietly and efficiently moving tables and chairs out of her way to clear a path. They didn’t make a big deal out of it.

These are small things, but they are real things. They are snapshots of men who are gentle, and honest, and kind. There are lots of such men.

The new story I tell myself is about seeking and finding the good, about not giving into fear and anger and hopelessness. In this story I am the heroine: I am the one who, when everyone else is screaming and ranting and tossing their hands in despair, whispers, This isn’t over yet. There are places you haven’t looked; there are things you haven’t seen. I remind myself that defaulting to stock characters is cheap, and that not all stories become German fairy tales.

And then I keep going. I’m not reckless. I have flashlights and water bottles, blankets and signal flares. I pick my way carefully over rocks, through thickets, over rivers, into caves. All the while I am looking, noticing details, finding gratitude, and grace, and redemption.

This story was published in response to Human Parts’ Weekend Writing Prompt, “Pick a story you’ve told yourself a billion times, and unspool it. Challenge it. Ask yourself if this story encourages you to play it safe. If the answer is yes, let it go. Take one step closer to freedom.” To receive prompts like this one every weekend, subscribe to our newsletter by following Human Parts.

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