In early 2020 the trial of Harvey Weinstein was well under way, and the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement was still a major factor in the larger cultural discourse. Then of course, Covid hit and all previous conversations were abruptly back-burnered. Then came George Floyd’s murder and civil unrest, and our focus shifted to the continued racial inequity and injustice that have plagued this country since its inception. And while this issue is rightfully at the forefront of our current cultural conversations, I’m a bit sad that those movements centered around women have been pushed to the sidelines. After all, half of all the citizens of Earth still live with the inequity, misogyny and gender-based violence that we’ve dealt with since time immemorial.
To be clear, I’m not in any way making comparisons, merely mourning the fact that the gender conversation felt cut short, and that there is still so much work to do.
The pre-Covid movement hit a nerve for me. Fortunately, unlike Weinstein’s victims, neither harassment nor abuse have been a part of my professional life; as a conductor, I’m the general marshaling the forces – the buck stops with me when I’m on the podium. So ostensibly, it is me who has the power to abuse, rather than the other way around. As a female conductor the worst I’ve survived are the occasional condescensions, some snide remarks about my appearance, a subtle resistance in accepting my authority, and the microagressions that any woman has experienced. My colleagues have mostly been civil, and I’ve certainly never felt unsafe around the men with whom I worked.
But I’ve known fear – and I’ve felt unsafe, in an intimate relationship that should have been a haven for security and safety. And it’s an all-too common scenario; in fact, current statistics show that 1 in 3 women have experienced some from of physical violence within a romantic relationship. I am part of that 33%.
My college years were spent at Harvard, where there were opportunities abound for the study and performance of music. In my junior and senior years I was dating a fellow musician, a fellow conductor, in fact (mistake #1; never date a fellow conductor. Too much type A energy in a relationship). He had a big personality that could sometimes tip into overbearing control, often over utterly innocuous and inconsequential things. An example; he didn’t like that I wiped my mouth after rinsing the toothpaste out of it, and would berate me constantly for doing so. He would become frustrated that I continued with this “unacceptable behavior” and his anger was obvious. (Mistake #2; don’t ignore a mild god complex.) He was angry because I was doing it wrong, I wasn’t doing it his way. There were subtle warning signs, to be sure.
Towards the end of our junior year, the unthinkable happened; his stepfather shot and killed his mother, then turned the gun on himself. The resident tutor in my boyfriend’s dorm encouraged me to accompany him back to his hometown to help him deal with the aftermath, which in retrospect doesn’t seem appropriate at all, but this was the 90s, a different time. I wanted to be the good, supportive girlfriend. So I went.
We flew to his hometown and were immediately faced with the shock and the morgue and the house and the funeral arrangements. His high school girlfriend was still there, and he went off with her one night, leaving me at the friend’s house in which we were staying, not returning until the next morning (mistake #3; never ignore callous disregard for your feelings.) As I said, there were warning signs.
Back at school 10 days later, his behavior became more erratic, and his grief, transformed to anger, was directed towards me. His putdowns were frequent, and mean, and they imperceptibly began unraveling my confidence. But his aggression was covert and verbal, hissed at me behind closing doors, so few people saw the potential for disaster.
Summer break gave me time apart and some respite, but when we returned to campus the next fall, we continued our relationship, and the aggression and tendency towards abusive behavior became more apparent. He would snap at me out of the blue. He would belittle my work. He would say that he needed a break from me, and hours later be publicly making out with another girl – letting me to know that I was expendable, that he held the power. He became demanding and dominating during sex, often ignoring my discomfort.
And then one night we were in his room studying when he picked up his reed knife (he was also an oboe player). He gazed at it for a moment and then turned his eyes to me. “I could probably kill you with this, couldn’t I?”
I left the room. He promised to see a therapist, although I wasn’t sure that ever happened. And yet I stayed, because I wanted to help, I wanted to change him, because our social lives were entwined and I was afraid of his fury.
The proverbial back-breaking straw would come months later, as I coped with his volatility in private, in fear. But it finally spilled over into our public lives. His late mother, who had also been a musician, owned a harpsichord, and in the spring of our senior year he had it sent to him. I’m trained on the instrument, and as a harpsichordist one needs not only to know how to play it, but also how to tune it and how to perform basic maintenance on this unpredictable instrument. I was tuning the instrument and making an adjustment to a plectrum.
We were with a mutual friend, a violinist who is, surprisingly enough, also a conductor (side note: my class at Harvard produced 4 professional conductors, which is highly unusual). My boyfriend didn’t like the way I was tuning his mother’s harpsichord, didn’t like that I was shaving the plectrum to make the action lighter, didn’t like anything I was doing. Sighing and rising from the bench, I told him that I knew what I was doing, and that he didn’t. Please leave me alone.
In one movement he grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against the wall behind me. And then he pushed up, his other arm crushing my chest, his face against mind, contorted in rage. My feet were not entirely on the ground.
Our friend, whether out of nervousness or because he thought it was a joke, laughed. I’m still haunted by this, and by the fact that when I was released and my boyfriend stormed away, the friend didn’t ask if I was OK. He simply left the room as well. We still cross paths professionally every now and then, that friend and I. I don’t think he remembers that night, a night seared into my memory, and seeing him brings back that moment of terror.
My boyfriend was eventually contrite, but wrote it off as just an argument that got a little heated. I knew better, and I finally had enough. A few days later, I worked up the courage to tell him that I was done. That night he spent nearly an hour banging on the door of the suite in which I and my 6 roommates lived, demanding to see me; he left only when we threatened to call security. The saga of the aftermath deserves a blog post of its own.
On one hand I tell this story because I feel that too many people have mistaken assumptions about abusive relationships, and are too often unaware that even if everything looks fine on the surface, intense distress can be quietly concealed on the other side of the door.
But in all honesty, I tell it mostly for myself. Because for years I looked that time with regret – months of constantly being on edge, the unremitting undertone of fear, the simmering potential for violence – and with shame for not having the wherewithal to extricate myself from an abusive relationship. It had to reach some sort of crisis point for me to turn away. And, typical in abusive relationships, I blamed myself – I must have been doing something wrong, it must be my fault, I just wasn’t enough.
Over the years I’ve come to terms with the reality of the situation, and that my helplessness was a heartbreaking but all too common response. Many have been in my situation, and worse. We don’t stay because we’re inherently weak. It’s just that when you’re told that you’re lacking, when you’re treated as if you’re lacking, you doubt yourself. And when you doubt yourself, your power and your agency are slowly drained away. And and when those things are drained away, treading water and hoping that things don’t get worse is the best you can do. There is no shame there, just sadness.
And it’s only recently that I’ve been able to look at that Sarah from decades ago – locked in an untenable situation – and respond not just with cool sympathy, but with tenderness, with compassion. I feel sad for her, of course, but I understand more deeply, more profoundly, that she was trying to use all the tools she had gathered in 20 years of life, that she was trying to figure it out, that she was doing the best that she could. You did OK, I tell myself. You are OK.