We all know the common response from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances when a man is alleged to have committed intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence: That’s not the man that I know.
It’s a curious statement, and one that I’ve personally run into some variation of in a very specific context twice in the past week, though it’s so common that the specifics hardly even matter. It’s rarely an expression of shock and horror, as we see when a neighbor or acquaintance is revealed to be a serial killer. Then we see men and women standing out on their lawns, stunned but rarely disbelieving, saying, “he always seemed very nice; I never would have guessed that he is capable of such things. It’s so scary.”
When it comes to intimate partner violence of sexual assault, the “I never would have guessed” part of the statement rarely comes. That’s because the beginning of both proclamations are also rather different. “He always seemed very nice” is an observation, conditional and past tense, with a distance to it. “That’s not the man that I know” is not only present tense, but definitively stated with personal yet unrelated experience centered as absolute gospel.
It’s not a musing about how violent people are generally capable of hiding their violence in certain contexts. Nor is it even usually an attempt to justify one’s relationship with a violent person. It’s just a flat-out denial. Perhaps even worse, it’s a dismissal.
He’s not aggressive. He respects women. He’s very sensitive. He loves children. He gives back to the community. Once, I saw him do this thing that I consider to be the opposite of the accusation.
Never does the statement leave room for, “How could I have been so unaware of his violent nature?” Or, “It must have been so difficult for his victim(s) to shoulder the burden of that violence alone, when we all thought so highly of him.” Because while not all of the above statements are mutually exclusive with violence against women, and the perception of any of them certainly is not, the “not the man that I know” declaration never leaves room for belief that the accuser is telling an objective truth. The statement is rather always followed with the words, or at least the implication: “He would never do that.”
Taking the side of men accused of violence over the women who allege it is a notable part of our patriarchal culture, of rape culture, of the culture of denial. This much is obvious. But it’s also a part of the culture of victim-blaming.
On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that we want to believe that the people we know, who we love, trust, and/or spend time with, are incapable of violence against women. Not only because it’s our nature to not want to believe that we were wrong about a person, but also, for women, because if they are incapable of violence against women in general, they are incapable of violence against us. Believing that the men we know, no matter how closely or distantly, are not those kinds of men makes us feel safe.
But the statement also purports to know a man better than his victim does — often, his wife or girlfriend. It purports to know the real him, and claims that the man who committed abuse either does not exist (because it didn’t really happen), or was someone else taking possession of his mind and body. And it also reinforces the idea that abusers can be easily spotted. That, if this man you know through work, or social functions, or friendship was capable of hitting his wife, of raping his date, you would know. You could tell, easily and without hesitation.
And if you can tell, if knowing is so easy, so obvious, then any woman who gets tangled up with an abuser, or a rapist, really only has herself to blame, now doesn’t she? Or maybe, you’re just a whole lot smarter than her. That’s why we see the statement so often with abusers and rapists, and not with serial killers; few people believe that serial killers’ victims deserve it, or could have done much to prevent their deaths. We think of these acts as random, as something rare, but which we could all be subjected to. But our society still does believe that victims of intimate partner violence and rape are to blame, and that such things could only happen to those who don’t know any better.
And if so few people are then really willing to admit that they knew a man was an abuser or a rapist, well this whole domestic violence and rape thing must have really been blown out of proportion, now mustn’t it? If no one knows a man who beats his partner, if no one knows a man who rapes his friend, then they mustn’t really exist. At least, not in my family/neighborhood/world.
This is the danger of making statements about what “the man I know” would and wouldn’t do. It places our own experiences with a person above those of a person with whom they have been violent. And it erases the fact that violence against women exists, that it is being committed right now as I write this, and that it’s being committed by men who we’ve gone to school with, been to dinner parties with, played on the playground with, by men who have been non-violent towards us, who have helped us, who have been nice to us.
It puts the men that do such things in the realm of mythical creatures rather than living, breathing, and yes, complicated, human beings. If we do not know them, it is not our concern. If we do not know them, they don’t really exist. If we do not know them, we do not have to be afraid. If we do not know them, we do not have to feel responsible for the difficult work of changing our culture.
It is extremely tough, and very frightening, to admit to ourselves how difficult it is to truly know anybody. And it can be extremely tempting to tell yourself that even if he did do it, it wasn’t really him, the one that you know through your own experience, and therefore, you still do not know that man who is violent.
But it was him. The fact that you “know” somebody doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t know them very, very differently when you aren’t there. And the fact that they behave differently when you know them doesn’t mean that the person who committed violence isn’t the same person you know. It is the person you know. It is still him. You just know him differently. And you have to learn to reconcile what you know with his violence.
The sooner we can admit that violent men are real men rather than caricatured monsters, that they are human beings and not write ups in the papers or depictions on TV, and that we know them, the sooner we can get to the difficult work of creating a society that produces men who behave differently. But right now, we are sadly and frustratingly stuck, in fear, in a sense of helplessness, and in denial. Saying and accepting that’s not the man I know is helping to keep us there.