There are many ways to say “I am sorry”: mea culpa, forgive me, I apologise. In some cases even “my bad” can get the job done. Then why is it so difficult for some people to offer an apology and actually mean it? 2020 has been a year for much reflection. COVID-19 has kept people inside more than usual, and while some of us have managed to roll through it fairly unscathed, many suffer daily at the hands of abusive partners. Domestic violence calls have increased during the pandemic, and my own experience tells me there is more blame than regret taking place in those households.
For several years after I left my abuser, I continued to long for his heartfelt apology. I was convinced he would wake up one day and realise the negative effect his violent behaviour had on me. I was sure the day would come when he would locate me and beg me to forgive him for the fear, the bruises and the future struggle with trust I would have as a result of his actions. I cannot help but wonder how many false apologies echo through victims’ homes this year, statements that accuse rather than appease. I never received the true apology I had hoped for because my abuser died without acknowledging any wrongdoing.
The first couple of times Scott* hit me, he never attempted an apology. After that, he would occasionally begin an apologetic statement, but it quickly turned into an accusation of blame or shame. Once, he was yelling and swearing and picked up an empty wine bottle. I rushed to the end of the room to shelter behind a chair. The bottle whizzed by my head just as I ducked. While I picked up the broken pieces, Scott said: “Sorry, but you made me throw that at you.” He went on to justify all the reasons he had to act aggressively towards me, using phrases like “If only you did not provoke me”, or “how else do you expect me to respond?” I knew better than to speak up in the moment, but I was thinking to myself: “Stop right there. When you say ‘I’m sorry, but … ’ that is never an apology.” Instead of asking for pardon or forgiveness, “I’m sorry, but … ” means this is your fault, you could have prevented this, you brought this on yourself.
Several years into our relationship, I waitressed to make money and Scott participated in occasional arts and crafts fairs with his homemade wooden boxes. Each August, he committed to a very busy two-week art fair at a state park near our home. Although Scott had an entire year to prepare, he did not begin his box-making process until two days before the show opened. And even though I was waitressing six to seven days a week, Scott insisted I help him make boxes and run his craft booth when I was not waitressing. This meant I had about three hours of sleep a night during his two-week craft show.
I was so exhausted and overworked from both jobs that one evening towards the end of my waitressing shift, I slipped in a puddle of water while carrying a six-pack of beer bottles to restock the bar. When I fell, my hand slammed into the broken bottles and blood gushed everywhere. Scott arrived as the EMT worker was preparing the ambulance before lifting me inside. With the worker’s back to him, Scott leaned down, grabbed my biceps and began to shake me. “You did this on purpose, didn’t you?” he yelled. I saw the looks on the faces of my co-workers who were observing nearby and humiliation filled me. “It’s your fault if I don’t make any money at this craft fair,” he screamed. I began to cry and stutter “I’m sorry”. In return, Scott yelled that there was too much work for me to do at home to be traipsing off to the hospital. “I can always count on you to screw up when I really need you,” he said.
My co-worker Karen stepped forward to intervene, but before she could, the EMT worker jumped out of the ambulance. He put his body between me on the stretcher and Scott. “So, you’re the boyfriend?” he asked. Scott nodded. “This woman’s been through enough tonight, sir,” he said. “She slipped and cut herself badly. She is in shock.” Scott tried to follow us into the ambulance, but the EMT worker said: “No. You are not coming with us. You need to calm down. If you cannot, then send a friend to pick her up at the hospital.” Scott shouted: “Listen, this is the busiest week of my summer. If she had just come home, I would not have to be here yelling at her. It is not my fault she is clumsy.” The worker shut the door in Scott’s face, then turned to me to apologise for having allowed Scott to speak to me like that.
I was not released from the hospital until the next morning due to emergency surgery to repair two severed arteries in my hand. When I was back home, after the painkillers wore off, after the shock left my body, I cringed in horror and shame at Scott’s behaviour. He continued to berate me during my recovery to the point where I asked a family member three hours away to pick me up and keep me at their house for a week. Scott refused to acknowledge any responsibility for forcing me to work unreasonable hours or for degrading me in front of my co-workers. However, the shame flamed inside me for a long time. If my co-workers asked about Scott, I made excuses for him, reminded them how talented he was, and minimised any effect his actions and words had on me. I made myself small so as not to attract attention. I did not want to have to explain why I continued to live with a man who blamed me for his poor behaviour. Humiliation kept me quiet, kept me focused on my work, and kept me physically and emotionally isolated from co-workers and friends.
Minimising violence is a tactic used by many abusers to deflect any wrongdoing, thus any need for an apology. I would often awake in the mornings with bruises on my biceps and upper arms from fights the night before. Scott’s first line of attack was usually to grab and shake me. If I was unable to diffuse the situation at that point, then the violence would escalate. Even on a day where the temperature would reach 85 degrees Fahrenheit (about 30 degrees Celsius), I had to stay away from short-sleeved shirts that would expose my bruises. Scott’s response when I told him this was: “They’re bruises; be glad I didn’t break your arm. You’ll survive in long sleeves.” At work, I would mask my shame and bruises by pretending the air conditioning made me cold, though I was clearly sweating from running around the restaurant. I constantly created a false front as a result of a life of false apologies.
Years after I had stopped needing a true apology from Scott, I went to see two Tarot card readers on separate days in Wilmington, North Carolina. As she gestured for me to sit, the first reader said: “There’s somebody here with you. He wants you to know he sees what he did to you.” She looked at me and explained: “He’s not saying he’s sorry, but he’s working on it.” The next day I saw a second card reader. She lowered the lights and began shuffling her cards. Then she raised her eyes to mine and said: “There’s a guy here from the other side. He was your lover or husband. He says to tell you he’s working on his issues and he understands your anger.” “Is he apologising?” I asked. After a minute she shook her head. “No. But he wants you to know he sees what he did to you.” Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of a dead boyfriend who was still too stubborn to apologise for his abusive behaviour. Mostly I was stunned at the arrogance it takes to refuse any acceptance of personal responsibility. Scott and I had last seen each other in 1993. He had been dead since 2009. Still, after all that time, he was unable to offer a sincere “I am sorry”.
False and non-apologies occur in many relationships and sometimes we witness them on a public scale. This past July, an exchange occurred between Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Ted Yoho on the US Capitol steps in Washington, DC. The two shared different opinions regarding recent statements on crime and policing. As the two representatives passed each other on the steps, Yoho said: “You are out of your freaking mind.” As he turned away, he muttered “f****** b****”. A few days later, CNN published a story with the headline: “This Florida Republican Just Delivered a Master Class in How *Not* to Apologize.” On the floor of the House of Representatives, Yoho had attempted an apology by denying he had called Ocasio-Cortez such a name, followed by an explanation of his patriotism and familial beliefs, two ideas that are in no way connected to his treatment of Ocasio-Cortez. Yoho stated: “I cannot apologise for my passion, or for loving my God, my family, and my country!” This was another example of a false apology which deflects responsibility by instead attempting to show Yoho’s favourable characteristics. In her response, Ocasio-Cortez stated she was thankful her father was no longer alive to see how she had been disrespected by a public official. She went on to say she was speaking out to make clear the unacceptable nature of such vicious language and to show her parents they had not “raised [her] to accept abuse from men”. I did not possess that kind of outspoken bravery when I was living in an abusive situation. I held my humiliation inside because I was ashamed for my parents to see how Scott treated me. Instead, I continually apologised for myself, accepting fault for whatever the current circumstances required.
As soon as the abuse began in my relationship with Scott, “I’m sorry” became my go-to phrase. I apologised for everything and anything if it could prevent him from becoming angry and violent. I have been told by those who know me well that when I was in my teens, I never apologised, even if an apology was in order. However, during and following my relationship with Scott, I apologise to everyone: To friends, family, strangers. I apologise if my tone seems a bit too strong; if I bump into someone by mistake; if I eat the last piece of bread. I apologise for simply existing, for believing I am in the way. As a result, my apologies have lost all true meaning. With Scott, when I said I was sorry, what I meant was: I am scared. Please do not hit me. I will do anything you ask. For me, “I’m sorry” meant I wish I were invisible; I did not mean to instigate your anger; I did not mean to take up space; I did not mean to exist. With my over-apologising to friends and strangers, I mimicked the behaviour that had become so ingrained in my eight years with Scott. I was guilty of offering false apologies, still living under the belief that saying those words would spare me from pain or judgement. It is a phrase I have come to use when I am uncomfortable. It is a taking on of responsibility for actions that often have nothing to do with me. It is a learned survival technique that I am still trying to curb.
The cost of being sorry in situations that do not call for apologies is similar to that of receiving a false apology: as a result, I belittle myself. I do not stand up for myself. I do not acknowledge my right to simply “be”. When Scott blamed me for making him angry enough to hit me, I began questioning my own motives and sanity. I made myself small; I stayed quiet. I stopped believing in my talents and abilities. In fact, during the process of writing this essay, I dreamed one night that Scott appeared and admitted to me that he may have verbally abused me but he never hit me. When I first woke up from the dream, I asked myself if he was right? Did he ever hit me? Maybe I remembered wrong? Had I imagined it? Had I exaggerated the violence? The dream briefly made me doubt my experiences even all these years later. Then I called to mind the many mornings I woke up and did not notice the purple bruises on my chest until I stood naked in the shower. The vivid colours on my chest, the recollection of pain and shame running through my body brought my experiences back to life immediately. The abuse was real. The abuse had occurred. This body had suffered. A true apology makes an experience concrete; it becomes an act of validation for the victim. I learned that it is not possible to live a full life when you doubt yourself.
A particularly violent incident occurred late in our relationship when I argued with Scott upon learning he had lied to me about discontinuing his gambling activities. The next morning he said: “You know I hit you because you didn’t respect me, right? You questioned my authority.” My body still ached from the previous night’s punches and I felt disconnected and woozy. I had no strength or desire to battle with Scott’s skewed attitude. He hugged me and kissed me and took me back to bed. After the “make-up” sex, he was always happy and back to his “normal” self. I, however, felt used, disoriented, and confused about what I had done wrong, why it was my fault, and why I had allowed him to be intimate with me. In order to move on from the violence, I stopped questioning myself. I told myself to stay quiet and to not irritate him in the future. I tried to swallow any conflict I felt in order to smooth things over. The physical and emotional pain was not worth the fight of standing up for myself. But explanations, hugs and sex are not apologies. They are diversions; they are tactics used to deflect an abuser’s responsibility. And the effect on me was again to minimise my needs and become complacent, become someone who had the power to keep the peace.
I had dreams of becoming a published writer and teacher when I lived with Scott. Someone who had the confidence to stand in front of others and share knowledge. It took me years to hold any other kind of job besides waitressing. I was good at taking people’s orders, giving them what they want, assuming the customer is always right and being a people pleaser. I never thought I had anything else to offer. When I accepted my first teaching job at a community college, even though I had earned my master’s degree, I saw myself as a fraud, someone who was pretending to have knowledge about writing essays and understanding literature. I had no belief in my abilities. I felt worthless after so many years of having been directly and indirectly blamed for how Scott had mistreated me. Playing small, turning your back on your aspirations, believing you have nothing to offer is a large price for living with the consequences of false apologies.
No one knows the high price of false or non-apologies more than Monica Lewinsky. In Hillary, a Hulu Original Documentary which aired in March of this year, former President Bill Clinton discusses his 1998 scandal. When the initial story was about to break, he told Hillary she was going to hear some accusations against him that were not true. He said he might have been “too nice” to Monica Lewinsky, but “there’s nothing to it”. In fact, in true abuser form, he denied what had taken place when he stated on air he never had an affair with “that woman”, a derogatory phrase similar to the one Trump recently applied to the Governor of Michigan, a phrase that in and of itself places blame. Philosophy professor Michelle Maiese believes that dehumanisation occurs when we “demonise an enemy, making them seem less human and hence not worthy of humane treatment”. This is precisely what happened to Lewinsky. In addition to being called “that woman”, she was referred to in the press as: tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, floozy, vixen, temptress, ditz, harlot and ho. For nearly seven months Clinton denied the relationship, creating the illusion that Lewinsky was a liar. Once he was forced to admit the affair had in fact occurred, he offered no direct apology to Lewinsky for taking advantage of a 22-year-old intern or for lying publicly about the affair. A New York Times article quotes Clinton as saying he never privately apologised to Lewinsky and that he did not feel he needed to.
Even now, 20 years later, Clinton is not capable of expressing a genuine apology. In the documentary, when considering Lewinsky, he says he feels “terrible that her life has been defined by it”. He goes on to say he has watched her career, hoping it could return to normal. He ends his quote by saying, “but you gotta decide how to define normal”. Two decades later, Clinton continues to deflect responsibility and minimise his behaviour and its effect on Lewinsky. His final statement here has no more connection to the incidents that occurred than does Ted Yoho’s non-apology to Ocasio-Cortez regarding his patriotism and love of God and family.
In her 2015 TED Talk video, Lewinsky says: “In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything. And I almost lost my life.” She describes how she went into hiding for more than 10 years. She talks of the humiliation she felt due to the daily online reminders of the incident and the fact that no company would hire her. When she finally did pursue a higher degree, Lewinsky studied in England in an attempt to gain anonymity. For years, the press and social media wrote the story of who and what Monica Lewinsky embodied. Now, Lewinsky no longer feels defined by public opinion. In a recent interview, she stated: “Part of what has allowed me to shift is knowing I’m not alone any more.” Although it took her 20 years, Lewinsky is an outspoken proponent of anti-bullying with particular emphasis on cyberbullying. She describes her recovery as a process of being “able to fully reclaim my narrative”. No longer does she allow others to define her past. She has found a new purpose and strength on her own.
Before I could take control of my story, I floated through my days with a litany of fantasy apologies. I imagined Scott on his knees in tears, having finally felt the effect himself of being wronged and invalidated. In these fantasies, he never said: “I’m sorry but.” He never said: “If only you hadn’t done X, I wouldn’t have hit you.” He does not say: “You brought this on yourself.” Instead, he simply says, without fanfare: “I am sincerely sorry. I hope you can forgive me.” In my fantasy apologies, my abusive uncle genuinely apologises for molesting me when I was a child, instead of threatening me with: “If you tell, no one will ever believe you.” In my fantasy apologies, the man who raped me in Los Angeles does not laugh as he zips up his pants. He hangs his head in humiliation and shame, finally feeling what I felt: The sense of overwhelming helplessness in the face of violence.
A couple of years after I left Scott, I experienced the most sincere apology of my life from my oldest brother. I had left New Mexico and moved into my youngest brother’s house in western Massachusetts. One weekend my older brother was visiting. We were discussing Lorena Bobbitt, an abused woman who, in an act of desperation, had recently cut off her violent husband’s penis. She was my hero. I loved her. She took the action I had fantasised about doing to all my abusers. My older brother said if her husband was that bad, she would have left him a lot earlier; it is her own fault for staying. That made my blood boil. I stood up, raised my voice, and proceeded to lecture him on why women do not leave abusive situations. When he visited again a couple of weeks later, he apologised for not understanding the point I was making. Right on cue, I said: “Well, I’m sorry I overreacted.” He told me I had not overreacted. “You just reacted,” he explained. “I talked to my friends in New York and you’re right. They explained further what you were saying, and now I understand the fear that keeps women trapped.”
Receiving a clear and heartfelt apology about domestic violence showed me I was not crazy or exaggerating the situation. This was a huge beginning to my self-healing. I felt seen. I felt heard. From there, I was able to literally change my narrative by joining a local writing group and telling my story every Thursday on the page. I told the truth of my abuse; I shared the details. My writing teacher, Genie Zeiger, taught me that no story was too ugly. That details and the truth could make any story an act of beauty and courage. Acknowledging I was not at fault, that I had not caused Scott to mistreat me, led to my releasing any desire for an apology. I did not need to hear his “I am sorry” any more. I knew in my bones that I was who and what I believed I was. Writing my story, having it heard and validated every Thursday at writing class brought me back my sense of self, my true identity. Genie once described to me what she saw as my transformation over the months of writing my story. She commented that when I first joined her class, I sat curled in a corner of her couch, hiding behind my “yellow hair”. Later she said my back straightened and grew strong and she watched as I “settled back into my body”. That kind of growth is the effect of validation. As a result, over the years of reclaiming my story, my need for Scott’s apology faded until it became something I did not think about any longer. It was something I no longer craved or needed in order to move forward towards my goals.
Like me, like Lewinsky, many people may never receive the apology they deserve. But each of us can narrate our own story. I am not the names Scott called me. I am not his version of a woman. Nothing about me “made him” hit me. The #MeToo movement of 2018 was a powerful step forward for women. Once I felt seen in the world, I was able to move forward by releasing my self-doubts, believing in my talents and abilities, and by reclaiming and writing my own future. Now writers turn to me to help them discover the heart and truth of their own stories. I think it might be time for a new hashtag. Maybe #nomorenonapology? Or #narrativereclaimed? What hashtag denotes your new start? Begin by recognising you are not alone. Remember, you, not your abuser, not your critics, not social media commenters, but you own your personal story. When we reclaim our narratives, we let go of the weight of accusations, we let go of self-hatred and we let go of living diminished lives.
*Name was changed to protect the privacy of the abuser’s family.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.