Not The Man I Know

by Cara on November 9, 2009

in misogyny, patriarchy, rape and sexual assault, violence against women and girls

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.

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{ 14 comments }

1 beccabei November 9, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Absolutely!

I can’t agree with this more.

Thank you for such a clear post that I can point people towards when they might be in need of a coherent explanation (as opposed to spluttering rage).

2 SunlessNick November 9, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Is this post worth taking to the 101?

3 abyss2hope November 9, 2009 at 8:33 pm

This is so true and this reaction is why many survivors feel locked into silence. If they disclose then the violence won’t be dealt with and they will be viewed as a liar or delusional.

Too many who have this response will go from denial to anger at the victim. This is one of the reason victims can be subjected to harassment or even violence.

4 Chally November 9, 2009 at 9:03 pm

This, oh, this. Very well done, Cara, very well done indeed.

5 OuyangDan November 9, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Sometimes, Cara, you blow me away and leave me in awe of your awesomeness. Very well done.

6 niemaodpowiedzi November 10, 2009 at 2:03 am

I wrote a really long, tangential comment which amounted to “Cara, this post is excellent and has very well thought-out points. I reacted fairly personally to a lot of it, and it was philosophically and sociologically intriguing and something I’ll be linking to in the future.”

When I realized I had three footnotes and five paragraphs, I decided to post it instead at my Tumblr and link to it: In Response to “Not The Man I Know”

7 Emily November 10, 2009 at 7:37 am

Yes, this was spot on. I truly hate how our lovely society steps up to apologise for violent men when in a healthy society one would turn ones back on them without question.

8 moodybpgirl November 10, 2009 at 11:50 am

Thanks for posting this. This was always one of the most difficult things to take, when family friends would tell my mother: “Oh, it can’t really be *that* bad,” based on the binary image of my father they had witnessed in public.

9 The Nerd November 10, 2009 at 2:02 pm

This exact situation happened to my mother. When I was young, my father had a temper. He never had it at church or at work, but some of my earliest memories are of my parents yelling at each other in the kitchen while I hid around a corner and listened. One day she came up to me and told me that he had hit her, and that she had called his partners at the Sheriff Dept to let them know, but she wasn’t pressing charges. That seemed to be the end of it, as he has since learned to control his anger.

Fast forward years later, and my mother tells me a bit more about that time in her life. It turns out that when his family heard about the abuse, they didn’t think it was possible. His mother actually went up to my mom and said “This is not how I raised my son to be. What did YOU do to him?” In this case, it was far easier for her to blame the victim then to accept that perhaps the way she raised her son had nothing to do with his behavior (or worse, contributed to the abuse). She has since apologized for her reaction, but my mother still has to live with that painful memory.

10 Carol November 12, 2009 at 3:32 am

The denial leaves the person doing the denying a sense of power, though – like they DO know, and that this can protect them and the people they love from abuse.

It is terrifying to acknowledge that you can completely misjudge a person – that there really is no protection for you from violent people – esp’ly ones you might feel you know well.

11 Julie November 12, 2009 at 12:10 pm

I have always wondered about this & also the typical statement we hear after someone’s heinous act is revealed:

“He was a nice guy – he was quiet and kept to himself.”

What a load of bull.

This was an excellent way of putting this into perspective…

12 wiggles November 19, 2009 at 4:27 pm

I got this with my mom when I was a kid, and to some extent I’ve gotten it as an adult. She was (still is, but now I can avoid her for the most part) emotionally abusive. I’d try to commisserate with friends who would have brilliant things to say like “you only get one mother” and “she seemed nice when you introduced me to her that one time.” Like all *bad* people have horns on their heads and warts on their noses and spend all their time twirling their moustaches and cackling madly.

13 cleaner light December 3, 2009 at 7:37 am

hi cara, i’ve been reading your blog for a while. thanks so much for this post, it’s so clear! i always struggle to explain to people why this attitude is SO wrong, and SO destructive. in writing this stuff you are potentially giving us all the verbal tools to confront these attitudes. i wrote something in my blog, inspired by this piece: http://cleanerlight.blogspot.com

14 Acey February 1, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Thank you for this post. It makes it a lot easier to hold the two truths about my husband. That he seemed like a nice guy. And that he raped me.

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