The Funny Thing About Abusive Relationships

Christian Slater and Winona Ryder from the movie <i>Heathers</i>.
Christian Slater and Winona Ryder from the movie Heathers. Photo: New World Pictures

Offhand, there are maybe three times in my life I can clearly recall laughing at something really terrible. One: when my mother told me my grandfather had a heart attack. Two: when a friend and I were driving to Cape Cod and a huge bird careened into the windshield, instantly bonking itself dead. Three: when my friends tried to keep me from going home from a party because they thought my boyfriend might kill me.

The first two occasions are easily explained by the fickle, wacky human limbic system: In the presence of a big enough charge, the brain shorts out like the wiring in an old house. The physical reactions to “hey, funny ‘Marmaduke’ today” and “potentially dead relative” get crisscrossed. But the third thing, the morbid, in-on-the-joke, for-the-benefit-of-other-people laugh, I’d figured out how to do over time: I’ve been a comedy writer in some capacity for most of my adult life. When anything happens to me, I tend to be a little silly about it, because it’s both my default operating mode, and my DEFCON.

Following Beth Stelling’s posts about rape and abuse in a past relationship, many women in comedy have responded by sharing their own similar experiences. Every time I’ve heard someone at a party or in a Facebook comment ask, “How could this happen to her?” I want to do jazz hands and armpit-fart and go, “Like this!”

Anybody can go through what Beth did. Your wisest, strongest, cleverest, sharpest friend. Your funniest. If anything, your funniest friend is probably more likely to have one of these stories than not.

Shortly after this made national news, a comic named Courtney Pauroso released a podcast in support of Beth’s claims and discussed her own experiences with the same man. Pauroso talked at length about struggling to tell her family about her abuse without joking about it. Hearing her say that felt like drinking cold paint. I’ve only barely told my family or friends about my own experience, because it’s humiliating and scary and frankly, I don’t like thinking about it. But if I do, I will almost certainly make a stupid crack about it.

The number of women in comedy stepping forward with their stories has been equal parts heartening and horrifying. And it seems like the shock factor here — that brave, creative women of some means experience assault and often don’t talk about it — is part of what keeps them silent. I don’t think I ended up in that relationship because humor was part of my job, but I certainly think that’s a part of what kept me from telling anybody about it.

To be successful in comedy, a woman can’t just be funny — she also has to address the glaring matter of her sexuality in some way. She can do this by being hypersexual, asexual, the hot-girl-who-can’t-get-laid … She can take her pick but the important thing is that she does pick. She can’t be squeamish or private about her body or what she does with it. Part of being able to enjoy watching a woman making sex jokes or get sawed in half for entertainment is feeling that, in the end, someone is in control here.

The experience is certainly not monolithic, but for many women who write and perform comedy, choosing this career path involves the cultivation of a chitinous exoskeleton, involuntary or not. It’s hard not to let it extend to your personal life. At work or onstage, you respond to trauma with a stupid joke. When my boyfriend texted that he was going to set my apartment on fire, I turned and asked my friend at the party, “What am I going to do? I’ll never find another place that close to the park.” And yes, I realize now in retrospect that, in addition to being wildly unhealthy, this wasn’t my best material.

When you’re in this kind of relationship, you’re as surprised as your best friend would be. You try to make something that doesn’t make sense for your personality make sense with your personality. I tried to spin it into another hilarious caper in the saga of My Terrible Taste in Men. I didn’t really let my friends have a chance to worry because I would just kind of do this show as a distraction: Hey, it’s another unhinged guy I’m trading mutual pity-oral with. Hand me my handbag, I’m going to walk down the street, swinging it to plucky music.

Hadn’t I had plenty of clues that this latest guy was “bad news”? Of course I had. But any inkling I had that this was a very, very bad, unhealthy thing was eclipsed by my own disgust with myself, with the notion that I was secretly just glad to be with someone and getting laid. I figured other people would probably feel that disgust for me, too.

The intense attention and affection that sometimes translated into never seeing my friends — well, it was attention and affection. Before being aggressively ignored in sticky pitcher-beer bars, house parties, and bookstores all over New York City, I was (grab your hankies, everybody) an unattractive teen. I spent years forcibly separating my eyebrows like children fighting in the backseat of a car and trying to starve my enormous breasts into then-fashionable tiny-T-shirt size. After my prom (attended stag, natch), I ate cottage fries with my friend’s mom while the rest of the group I’d gone with groped each other in the finished basement. This, of course, made for a very funny story.

Like many an unsexy child, I discovered that I could make people laugh by making fun of myself first, a shocking and revolutionary tactic that I invented. When a male buddy of mine referred to a female classmate as a “paper-bagger” (good body, bad face), I responded that by that rubric, I was a “body-bagger,” noting, “I’ll probably lose my virginity through a hole in a sleeping bag.” He laughed, and it was like the sun coming out on a planet where it has rained for decades.

By college I had settled into my role as a funny-uggo like an inviting, screwy Jacuzzi. I had boyfriends who frequently told me about how pretty their last girlfriends had been. I made one of them a children’s book called My Pretty Ex-Girlfriend. He laughed. I had an arsenal of oh-no-she-don’t dirty jokes and got into the habit of taking my shirt off at parties, like a Chris Farley sketch where the joke is just the fact of his body. I got a waitressing job where my manager was endlessly entertained by my foul mouth and wild self-deprecation. He once remarked that I might get better tips if I wore makeup, and I told him, “Or maybe just turn off all of the lights in the restaurant.” He laughed.

Some of the men I met after I moved to New York liked my sense of humor, or the writing I did for an extremely silly and now-defunct women’s website. But for the most part they didn’t want to go out with me or sleep with me. They wanted to go out with the emotionally-level-looking sylph they saw folding sweaters in a boutique on Fourth Avenue, not the glowering, swarthy website editor who wore her pants three sizes too big and made jokes about having back hair.

I didn’t try to date anybody seriously — I had flings with deeply unavailable people, sexted a lot, and traded naked photos with straight women who flirted with me on Twitter, where I could make jokes about how repulsive and insane I was for thousands of appreciative and not-as-appreciative strangers. If people asked about my love life, I joked about my fail-safe pickup strategy, “being the last girl in the bar.”

By the time I made the choice to be with someone I was frightened of, I was fully convinced that there was nothing at all physically desirable about me, and that I was a funny girl you had sex with when you were very, very drunk, like the short-haired chick who was always trying to hang out with the Jets even though they definitely didn’t want to do her.

I believed that’s why I had “selected” this boyfriend: because he was also messed up and needy. And it turned out, he was also drunk a lot. It was great! This way I would never have to worry about him being repulsed by my face and body because he wouldn’t ever remember seeing them. Better than that, I had somebody who told me he loved me and wanted to be told, constantly, that I loved him. I believed that I was responsible for whatever happened to me, because I was staying with him, because I was needed and wanted and I wanted that and I was smart enough to know exactly what I was doing. I believed that this was the only kind of person who would want to date me: someone who was fucked up in every conceivable sense of the words.

This is certainly not the experience of every woman who ends up being “funny,” and part of the reason I think a lot of us hesitate to say so is because we don’t want to contribute to the narrative that we’re all needy or oversexed or undersexed or crazy. We are afraid you will say that about us if we don’t say it first.

In my twisted logic at the time, if I was laughing then clearly, CLEARLY, I was in control of the situation. So if he sometimes threatened to kill me or himself, I convinced myself it was my fault, because I was also drunk, because I had liked having sex with him, because I showed up at his place or texted him.

I’d absorbed the message that a “bad person” cannot be a victim and I felt I was a bad person. Even laughing at my own circumstances as a defense mechanism was proof of that. I’d internalized the made-for-TV message that people are only abused because they have no place else to go, because they lack resources, because they’re poor or small or physically overpowered. Not when they have enjoyed rough sex. Not because they’re in it because they think they’re in love or just like feeling needed. A sad upper-middle-class white girl is dating a jerk? Drought over, here are all of America’s tears.

That night that my friends were so worried for me, I was sitting on the subway heading home when I thought, Hm. Yep. This may end with him killing me. It is inexplicable how calmly I had this thought, and how I accepted it as a possible iteration of my chosen adventure. You have fallen into a cave and died. Your boyfriend got really drunk and you went home to him and he choked you to death. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t treat every day of your life like an episode of Raymond.

I don’t think anybody in my life knew the extent of it, and anyway, it would have been hard for them to do anything because I was so convinced that it was just a terrible choice I was choosing to make every day. I was just smart enough to stay where I was and keep anybody from intervening. I became adroit at writing expertly cavalier, hilarious apology emails that a jury would probably look at and think, Well, she certainly seemed fine.

I’m sure that my family and friends and co-workers all thought the same thing I did then: that I was going to do what I wanted to do. That I was smart and tough and knew better, and that whatever was happening was because I was also goofy and a little nuts and liked to drink too much sometimes, too, and routinely did things just for the story. That I would get out of there if I was really afraid. That this was a nutty thing I was choosing to do, like, say, going hang-gliding on cocaine.

Later, when I got home from the party, I told my boyfriend that I’d been late because my friends were afraid he was going to murder me. We laughed.