I began this article thinking I’d just write a brief piece about a new public service announcement (PSA) for the National Domestic Violence Abuse Hotline. It happened to feature a one-minute remake of “Mercy Street”, written by my favorite human being, Peter Gabriel. As a survivor of domestic violence and as a Peter Gabriel fan, I thought I was pretty well qualified to judge the effectiveness of the PSA at communicating to battered women.
The PSA video can be seen on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WL3rfk2iFww Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the woman singer. The video contains images that may be highly disturbing for some viewers.
But by the time I’d seen the end of the one-minute PSA, I realized I could not write an objective review. Although I left the continent my abuser lived on in 2005, here it is five years later and I’m popping Xanax like Tic Tacs. I still feel the clenching grip in my stomach wondering if I’m going to hear my abuser’s step coming up behind me.
After five years, it’s obvious that my abuser has no interest in finding me. I thought after five years I’d stop peering out from a crack in the curtains, but I still find myself doing that. In some ways I wish I could write a very comforting, practical article about how to rebuild your life after domestic violence in five years.
I can’t do it.
Unlike the woman in this video, I never had a mirror to look into when I lived with my abuser. It made denial a heck of a lot easier, let me tell you. I could just see my reflection in other people’s eyes when they widened. I hated that. I wasn’t a circus freak. I just was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could happen to anyone.
My abuser was pretty smart. He very rarely hit my face. He mostly went for the ribs, the legs, the arms, the neck – places you can easily cover up or explain away. I still have this huge bruise on my right leg. I can’t remember how many years it’s been there. It doesn’t hurt, though, or I’d go show it to my doctor. I can’t wear a dress or a bathing suit ever again, though.
I can’t drive, either. I have this permanent black spot in my left eye. I did get that checked out. No retinal damage. Every day I see this spot, though. The only time I don’t are in these dreams I have of Peter Gabriel. In the dreams, I don’t have the bruise, either. And sometimes, Peter wears the dresses I can’t and quite frankly they look better on him. I”ll never date anymore, but I can dream.
The song “Mercy Street” is actually about American poet Anne Sexton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She committed suicide in 1974 by sitting a car with the engine on. Her most famous book of poetry is called “The Awful Rowing Towards God” (1975.) Specifically, Gabriel seemed to be influenced by one particular poem called “45 Mercy Street” which contains these lines:
“I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign —
namely MERCY STREET.
The song took years for Gabriel to write. In various interviews, Gabriel said he had the main rhythm and piano piece written out years before finding the right set of lyrics. He went through at least two other song ideas before realizing that writing about Anne Sexton fit the tune best. The song has gone through many variations since its original release on Gabriel’s monster album “So” (1986.)
So have I.
I fell in love with Gabriel when I was 16 after seeing him perform during Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope Tour. I knew I hadn’t a shot with him and so, quite frankly, settled for less. I tried to pick males with some of Peter’s qualities like a sense of humor, stubbornness for things you should be stubborn about and a love of music.
Didn’t work out. The last Peter-substitute was my abuser, who even had blue eyes, was English and was exactly Peter’s height. He loved music, had a wicked sense of humor and could play the recorder by ear. I thought I’d finally found my Peter.
Didn’t work out. He turned out to be extremely jealous. He discovered my fondness for Peter and destroyed all the photos I had of when Peter and I met in 1996. So I lived in the same country as Peter for just over five years and stayed away. I knew what my abuser could do, you see. I couldn’t subject Peter to that.
When I finally got the nerve to leave my abuser, I had this grass green shirt that he hated. I grew to love that shirt just because my abuser hated it. It also was similar to a shirt Peter wore when I met him in 1996. I happened to be wearing the shirt the day I walked my dog and came back to discover my home was on fire.
The fire brigade volunteers pulled me aside and told me it was arson. I left England with my dog and my green shirt and went home to my Mom in America.
In 2006, Gabriel was asked to make a speech at the annual TED conference. There he said that as a child at the prestigious Charterhouse public school for boys, a bunch of his schoolmates dragged him into the bushes. “I was stripped. I was attacked. I was abused and this came out of the blue.” That’s all of the details he gave but that was more than enough. He went on to explain that experience was the reason he worked for human rights, such as that 1986 Amnesty International concert tour.
In 2010, after setting up my own freelance writing business, I blew my savings seeing three Peter Gabriel concerts. In the picture accompanying this article, I’m wearing the same green shirt from England. I told him a few jokes and he laughed and laughed. His laughter is as beautiful as his singing voice.
I’d like to be able to wrap this up by stating that I was able to completely overcome my abusive past and worked to better the world, like Peter. But I can’t honestly state that. There are still days I fly into rages at the world and there are still days I’m too frightened to leave the house and still days I hear one Peter Gabriel song and curl up on the floor like a baby. My dog lays next to me and sometimes licks my face.
Whoever you are reading this, trying to recover, all I can tell you for sure is that you are not alone.