trigger warning: discussion of abuse though it is oblique and in the context of writing a fictional character.
I’m going to talk a little about the ways that DV can be invisible. That woman (or man) you think is very private about their partner, doesn’t talk about their life outside of work, has unusual absences, but doesn’t want anyone to make a fuss: “it was just a…I felt under the weather. I’m fine now.”? Says things like “oh, I’d love to (go out, do that, etc) but I have to get home. My SO doesn’t like it when I’m late.” Or they make seemingly benign excuses ALL the time: “Can’t miss walking the dog” or “It’s my night to make dinner.” They could be suffering at the hands (or words – emotional and psychological manipulation are abuse too) of an abusive partner.
They won’t like to be touched, often because of bruises they’ve managed to hide. But this isn’t typical introversion or touch-aversion. They’ll be — or look to want to be — tactile in other ways, but the moment you try to return the touch…nope.
I bring this up because one of my characters, Cassidy Hyland, from the Turning Point series, had just such a hidden history.
In the beginning, when I was drafting the story, the fact that Cassidy had escaped an abuser was hidden EVEN FROM ME.
Yes, she was private. I could tell she was embarrassed about her ex-husband. I also got the idea that she was grateful to Cameron more than in love with him, so…what was really going on? She wasn’t crazy about touch, but did desire it. I’d done character sheets on both my main characters; I thought I understood how events had shaped them. I thought I understood who they were.
Turns out, I didn’t fully comprehend Cassidy. When I innocently went to insert a scene where her ex visits with their son, Cassidy practically cowered in a corner of my mind. She didn’t want to do the outing. She kept finding things she needed to go back into the house for: her keys, a toy for Ryan, to touch up her makeup, to brush her hand. I could not get her in the car and out the door. It blew my mind. So I tabled it and went to write another scene.
After giving her a great moment with Brenna, one of their very first connective though not intimate, I thought that she was just already choosing Brenna. When that still didn’t move the previous scene forward, I sat down with blank paper and asked Cassidy to talk to me. Story aside. So, I just wrote down what came out (remember my mantra? write don’t edit the first draft?) She did.
Let me tell you: I was unprepared. I had missed the signs, but suddenly every hesitation made absolutely sense. I also wondered if I should abandon the story entirely. But now that it was in the open, I wanted to see it through, wanted Cassidy to heal, wanted to have her find a genuine love.
This was 2001. I worked on properly developing the subplot and the emotional arcs in several rewrites and drafts to follow, to do the situation justice on the page. To get justice for Cassidy and help her heal. That subplot is one reason that I didn’t start submitting Turning Point to publishers until 2004. I wasn’t sure anyone wanted to read such a heavy subplot in a “simple romance.” So Turning Point and Turn for Home (where the storyline really comes to a head) didn’t see print until 2007.
I know my story is fiction. But if you sense a colleague, or a friend, is a victim of DV, give them a smile, and then give them the space to tell you, if they can. Then reach out to them. Slip them the hotline number or website, or take them someplace quiet and safe to make the call.
Most ordinary folks are not equipped to directly help a victim escape their abuser, so don’t try to. The victim will often fight your attempts to help anyway. They’re absolutely positive it will only make things worse – they’ve been threatened, or their child has been threatened (or their pet, anything). The abuser demands control and will manipulate to get it and keep it. Be non-judgemental and listen.