This one’s long. I don’t expect all of you to read it, but thank those who do.
Tonight I saw a very moving play, Johanna: Facing Forward at Cleveland Public Theatre. This is a world premiere based on the true, local (Cleveland) story of a teenager who was in an abusive relationship which culminated with her boyfriend shooting her in the face back in 2007. Local Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell did a series on the story which helped bring the issue to light from a number of angles, including teen domestic violence and the gaps that existed in the ability to protect youths in these situations prior to legislation enacted in the wake of Johanna’s case (and others’ cases). You can read the entire series here.
I don’t get to see enough theater. My schedule being what it is, and the finances involved with paying for a ticket AND booking a sitter if a show is going on when I have my kid, it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. So when I get to go, it’s always enjoyable for me to sit in the audience and be a supporter, even more so when I know someone in the cast, and I knew two people on stage tonight. I knew vaguely what the show was about but purposefully have not read a lot about it, as I preferred to be surprised.
The show hit so close to home. I was ill prepared.
One of my first boyfriends, a boy with whom I had a sexual relationship was when I was about the age this girl is in the play, was abusive. It is, as they touch on, a formative time, and a time at which you have little comparative experience or knowledge of what’s right and what’s not.
Strong women with a loud voice and big life presence like me face a particularly difficult challenge with regard to abuse. You think nobody will believe you. So you don’t tell anyone what’s going on.
When I was a teenager, I was larger than life. I felt invincible, as many kids do, and was generally perceived as a strong woman who wouldn’t put up with anyone’s shit. But abused girls include people like me. Know that.
He went to a rival school. He worked at the same fast food place I did. The speed at which our relationship progressed was like lightening. We made plans. I got on the pill. I bought my first piece of lingerie, my sister helping me to find something that was pretty and not super slutty. I was in love, or so I thought.
He quickly progressed to forcing me into sex in places I wasn’t comfortable. In a public park, in his car in a parking lot. And in ways I wasn’t comfortable. But I was young and eager to please, and did what he wanted.
We argued, and he smacked me. I was shocked. SHOCKED. The second time it happened, I punched him. I don’t take anyone’s shit, right? He quickly knocked me down to the ground, knocking the wind out of me. I was shocked again, and cried. He bought me flowers and was extremely penitent, and called and called. I avoided him but then saw him at work, and he convinced me he was sorry, that couples argue, that we were both volatile people, it was normal, it wouldn’t happen again.
Things progressed, as they do. I was watching TV at his apartment and he came in and flipped on the football game without a word. I was pissed, and got up and changed the channel back to the show I was watching. He got up and changed it back, warning me not to touch the TV again. Nothing made me more pissed when I was a teenager than being told not to do something, so I got up and changed it back. He pushed me into the TV, which knocked off it’s stand, and it was on. We had an insane scrap throughout the apartment, me fighting him back with everything I had. It was bad. It was in multiple rooms and went on for what seemed an eternity. He dragged me by my hair, he punched me in the ribs. He was a lot stronger than me. I faked that he had really hurt me with one blow, got the drop on him and kicked him, hard, in the nuts, and he went down. I bolted out of the apartment and down the stairs, and saw him at the top of the stairs with a knife just as I got to the apartment building door. I ran out into the snow, slogging through knee high drifts, going who knows where, as I was 40 minutes from home and no way to get anywhere. He quickly reached me and I was hysterical. He laid on me in the snow, refusing to get up until I agreed to be calm and not make a scene. He agreed to take me home, but not before stopping on the way to apologize. He broke down crying. He felt terrible. He would never touch me again. I wore sunglasses to school to hide the shoddy makeup job over my black eye.
I told someone at work, confided in her about what had been happening, and she said something to him when he showed up. He came out to the dining room where I was methodically icing the salad bar and hissed at me that I was never to discuss our relationship with anyone, and pinched the skin on my arm between his fingernails. He said he wanted to talk to me more about this after I got off work in an hour. He and his friend were waiting for me when I got off work, in the parking lot. He beat me all around the lot, dragging me over to a telephone pole and slamming my head into it. He left me on the ground and drove off with his friend.
I got written up. Because I was in uniform, and it made “the company look bad,” my manager told me. My manager, who was a man, and who was friends with my boyfriend. Small town life.
There are other details, but they are not to my point. Let’s just say the eventual end involved street justice, and that he moved out of state and I never saw him again.
The play tonight brought all this roaring back to me. It’s amazing that it can still haunt me to this day. I came to the stark realization that my relationship, 20 years before Johanna’s, was a different time. 20 years later, if I had been a teen in her time, he might have also had a gun, as there are so many fucking guns everywhere now, and I might be dead instead of just bearing the internal scars of that relationship. I was so proud of the steps she took to repair herself, physically and emotionally, including legislation being introduced so that you can now get a restraining order against a minor, among other things.
I left the show at the end of the night in tears. So yeah, I was surprised.
If you have a child who is or will some day be a teenager, you should see this. If you support local theater, you should see this. If you have ever been in or have known someone in a relationship with violence, you should see this show. Hell, you should see it even if none of those things apply, just because it’s damned good theater and a story that deserves the stage.