The following article contains material that may be triggering for survivors of domestic partner violence and abuse.
The first blackout happened a month after we moved to Texas. It was late September and blindingly hot. Tyler slammed open the door of our apartment screaming, and threw a couple dishes at the floor and a water bottle into the wall, denting the cheap plaster. He was angry because I’d missed his phone call—he’d left his wallet at our apartment and wanted me to bring it to him at the nearby CVS. After he grabbed the wallet and stormed back out of the apartment I sat on our bed and held my face in my hands, staring through the gaps of my fingers at the carpet, a child watching a horror film.
When Tyler came back, he apologized for leaving a harsh voicemail on my phone. I asked, What about the other things? He said he didn’t know what I was talking about. He didn’t even remember coming back to our place. I asked How else could you have your wallet?
We’d just moved to Austin and I was about to start an MFA in poetry with the New Writers Project at the University of Texas. Before Austin, we’d been living in Tyler’s central Indiana hometown in an apartment next to a tomato processing plant and its permeating smell. Over the months we lived together in Indiana, his irritation at me not doing things the right way—not washing dishes or folding laundry quickly enough, not driving the quickest routes at exactly the pace he wanted—seemed to increase day by day, though he denied this any time I said I felt hurt. I pinned my hope that things would get better on Austin.
That September afternoon was far from the first time Tyler Gobble had yelled or thrown things in rage, but he’d never said before that he didn’t remember his actions. A few weeks after we met, I saw the holes he’d punched in the wall of his apartment in our Indiana college town, violence I thought stemmed from frustration around his recent divorce. But writing this, I remember him saying defensively of fights he’d gotten into, of things he had thrown, of cruel things said in anger, that he was always in control. That he knew exactly what he was doing.
The second blackout happened the following March. We were with friends at a bar across the street from our apartment; everyone was a little buzzed, a little loose. Tyler made a joke about sex workers, a dehumanizing one that made me feel gross and uneasy, and I spoke up against it. He left for our apartment and texted saying I’d “torn him to pieces,” that my “irrational bitchyness and lack of sensitivity” had ruined our night. I stayed at the bar a little longer, but before long worry and self-doubt had me hurrying after him: was I being irrational? Should I have not said anything? A word Tyler often used against me, especially when I saw him flirting with other women, banged up against the inside of my skull: uptight.
I found him passed out in his pickup in the parking lot under our complex. I wanted to be a good partner. I wanted to see if he would go upstairs to our futon or bed, where he could sleep off the booze and anger in safety.
I opened the pickup door and put a hand on his shoulder, saying his name. He turned over and kicked at nothing, moaned and settled back into half-sleep. I paced outside the truck until he got out spitting mad, saying I was an abusive partner and fuck everything, he was going back to Indiana right then. I told him he was buzzed and shouldn’t drive. In disbelief, I saw him back his truck out of the parking space, as if he would really drive drunk off into the night. He sat with the engine idling for a few long moments before pulling right back into his parking spot. Then he got out of the truck and walked up our apartment complex’s back stairs to our door.
I ran upstairs to him and broke down crying, asking if I really was an abusive partner—it seemed impossible. I was meticulously careful with what I said and did, always anticipating what might make him angry or upset. Once carefree and confident, I had become a wary, nervous person navigating the minefield of our relationship. I often envied how good Tyler was with people, always exuding charm and an easygoing humor I remembered from when we first met; it seemed everyone took to him at once. But much as I wanted to build genuine friendships with people in Austin, I found myself emotionally drained by the most basic interactions. Tyler made sure to tell me that people thought I treated them coldly. Bit by bit, I resigned myself to the idea that all of our friends, even my professors whom he’d met, liked and valued him more than me. I felt I must be deeply uninteresting in comparison, lucky to be with someone so charismatic and active in our literary community—Tyler was getting his first book published, and he started a reading series shortly after we arrived in Austin.
When I reached him at our apartment door, Tyler said I wasn’t abusive and that he didn’t remember making the accusation or anything else at all, just that he woke up in his truck and went upstairs to wait for me. He was calm and almost pitying, like the cause of my terror was a delusion.
The third blackout happened that spring. We were at a poetry reading at a venue with lawn chairs and string lights, an easy place to feel happy. Even when Tyler confided in one of my professors and mentors—who would also become his since he’d been accepted into the Michener Center for Writers, which shares faculty and classes with the New Writers Project—about experiencing blackouts without mentioning the violent things he’d said and done during them, I still felt better than I had in awhile. Good poems and warm air softened the world’s hard edges.
I’d reluctantly told Tyler that I would be the designated driver to a bar in a popular neighborhood where people were meeting after the reading, and our friend Mia caught a ride with us. It was a Saturday night, and Tyler got increasingly critical and irritated as I struggled to find a parking spot; I rarely agreed to drive in busy parts of town because I knew he would relentlessly criticize my driving. After I parked and the three of us were walking to the bar, Tyler stopped midway saying he wanted to park my car in a closer spot, and that Mia and I should go ahead. I heard in his tone an expectation that I apologize for not doing a thing exactly how he expected. I refused. I said Okay and looked him in the eyes. I knew I would pay for my pushback later, but with Mia there Tyler had to stay calm. I savored the small victory.
Just feet from the bar, I saw two missed calls from Tyler and a third buzzing my phone at that moment. Mia went ahead into the bar at my urging and I answered the call, meeting his rage—fuck it all, he was going back to Indiana, why did I ruin his night like I ruined everything, and he was driving my car 90 miles an hour down the highway. I sobbed into the phone, begging for him to pull off at an exit. Drunk people flowed around me on the sidewalk toward places where they’d continue to be happy. He hung up and wouldn’t answer my calls.
I called Mia, and she drove me back to Tyler and I’s apartment in a short-term rental car as I told her what happened. I was extremely disoriented, displaced from my own body like it was a jacket taken off and forgotten. Mia pointed out my left leg was bleeding from a sharp fence I’d stumbled into earlier in my panic. When we reached the apartment, my undamaged car was parked in the lot; upstairs, Tyler had passed out on our futon. The next morning, he said he remembered none of it.
The fourth blackout happened the early morning of Saturday, June 14, 2014. Sometimes I misremember it as June 13—a Friday the 13th. The proximity of bad luck feels apropos.
I had agreed again to be our designated driver, this time from a friend’s place with an easy route back to our apartment. We left late at night and Tyler was extremely drunk. Someone had parked tightly behind us on the street, and backing up to leave I tapped their front bumper. I’d been inching the car slowly and there was no damage, but Tyler wouldn’t let it go—how can I ever trust you to drive again? How could someone sober make that mistake? Are you going to get us killed? Usually I endured his criticism without response—the verbal cruelty that came if I stood up for myself was much worse than when I said nothing—but this time I couldn’t stay quiet. I said he wasn’t being helpful and that I wanted him to stop.
Right after I pulled into the lot under our apartment I saw that Tyler was in his blackout state. I’d come to recognize a strange disconnectedness in his eyes and speech, the look of someone on the brink of rage. I hoped to get us upstairs and asleep without incident but Tyler insisted on talking in the parking lot, repeating the same mangled phrases about how hurtful and mean I’d been while holding aggressive, relentless eye contact. I kept shooting quick glances away from his stare to see if anyone was around. We were alone.
Tyler got angrier every time I looked away—he said I was making him nervous and demanded I quit with a whine, like a child losing a game. I was scared, and tired, and when my eyes couldn’t meet his one too many times he said, If you do that again I’m gonna punch you in the fucking face. I said, I’m going upstairs to sleep. You should do the same and not say another word to me until morning. I started to turn away but he cupped my chin with his hand and forced it upward, growled You look at me when I talk to you. I tried again to go, but he grabbed my throat and squeezed.
Driving home one night as a teenager, I saw a possum that’d been ran over at the neck. Its head and throat were pinned flat but the bloated body flopped all over, slapping the asphalt–stupidly, maddeningly, uselessly. When I got home I dry heaved in the hallway bathroom. That’s how I remember him choking me felt, my body’s little throes: stupid, maddening, useless.
He let go after seven or eight seconds, and realizing what he’d done corralled me with his arms, pulling me upstairs toward our apartment while I gasped over and over: You choked me. You choked me.
Later I found out the proper term is strangled, but choked feels like how it happened–one heartless syllable.
I thought about trying to slip his grasp, but what if I couldn’t? What if he hurt me in return for trying? He seemed less aggressive as we lurched upstairs, apologizing and making excuses, and I did not want to risk angering him again.
I walked into our apartment first and toward a light switch on the far wall. Before I could flip it on, I heard him lock all four locks on the door. He said You don’t know who the fuck you’re messing with before stomping, raging toward me in the dark, then crumpling to the floor before he could get to me.
I checked his heartbeat and breath before looking in the bathroom mirror. There were no marks on my neck, and I knew by now his post-blackout demeanor upon waking: sweet, gentle, apologetic. Calling the police was useless. Up until this point, I had believed I needed to protect him, that we were best friends who should face whatever horrible blot on his mind caused these blackouts together. But everything I’d just experienced cast light on the verbal, emotional, and pre-battering physical intimidation and violence that marked our relationship for the abuse it was. A week later, when I knew Tyler would be away at work, I called the National Domestic Violence hotline and told a kind, quiet woman a new version of the same story she must have heard countless times.
Tyler’s apologetic gentleness lasted a couple weeks. After that, if I brought up how his violence was affecting me he seemed annoyed and inconvenienced, like a long-suffering parent dealing with a needy child. Less than a month after he’d choked me, when I brought up that I was having recurring dreams of him throttling me, he said with a sigh, So when is this gonna be okay?
Soon after starting my second fall semester, I felt myself collapsing. Although I had asked Tyler to get psychological help the day after he choked me, it was apparent that he was unbothered by what he had done. The only thing he did was get a blood test, as though the root of his violence would reveal itself in a test tube. I entered counseling and the therapist, noting my extreme anxiety and depressiveness, urged me to take the first safe way out I saw. And though I recognized he was abusive, how much people seemed to love him and the fact of his acceptance to the Michener Center felt like confirmation of my deepest fear: that a man who exploited my love and endangered my life without repentance or regret was still worth more to the world than I would ever be.
By midterms, I would come back from campus and want only to lie in bed, which was often exactly what I did. Though exhausted, my heart would beat painfully fast from anxiety; sometimes I thought I was having a heart attack and considered if letting myself die was an act of mercy. Tyler and I shared a class, and maintaining composure often meant sitting in a way that felt like holding my insides together—hunched, head down, crossing my arms tight across my waist. A poetry workshop I had without him, led by a generous, kind visiting professor and populated mostly by classmates whom I knew well, was the only consistent space of relief and safety. Friends now say I looked sick, and they were right; it felt like my body wanted to die and I was forcing it to stay alive.
Tyler noticed my decline, but as long as I supplied what he wanted to hear—specifically, that he wasn’t the cause of my pain—his concern was minimal. He mostly seemed to not want to be inconvenienced or embarrassed by my visible wilting. I usually managed to lie, but the few times I broke down about how what he’d put me through was affecting me, he tried to feed me guilt: Have you considered you might be a little too sensitive? Have you ever thought about how bad I feel that I did that to you? Have you ever thought about me?
One night, when he said, You haven’t been beaten half to death, I ripped the shirt I was wearing in half and roared, DOES IT HAVE TO BE THAT BAD TO MATTER
Soon after, I told Mia everything. Then I told another friend, and another. Then one night close to the end of the semester, I came to a breaking point: I either had to leave or have my spirit snuffed out. I stayed with Mia that night and never went back.
In the almost two years since I got away from Tyler, I have told many more people what has happened, and the empathy and solidarity I’ve received from friends, family, and people in the larger writing community in response has been incredible—as my counselor has said, to receive the support I have is, sadly, quite rare. I know that as a middle class cisgender heterosexual white woman in an MFA program, I experienced enormous privilege throughout the process of escaping from abuse. I have been believed without question by almost every person I’ve told, and I will not take how I have been treated for granted.
But I also continue to be affected by Tyler’s abuse. Trauma presents itself in my personal and professional lives in ways that have real cost, both emotional and material. Once-invisible wounds have shown themselves now that I’m in a (safe, loving) relationship. And the counseling I need is not free, nor is it being paid for by Tyler’s Michener Center stipend, which he was awarded after a year of getting to network with my professors and classmates from the Michener Center. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remember with deep anger how Tyler, like so many violent men, continues to be rewarded for his manipulative charm while facing light (if any) consequences for his violence.
Tyler has been dismissive of my story, gaslighting those who have confronted him hoping he would see the need to change. Once it was evident many of our friends were cutting ties with him, he texted me to say he’d started counseling, a message worded in a way that seemed to expect gratefulness or validation—or, that I would recant to people we knew as a result. Tyler dabbles in the language of progressivism and inclusivity, but refuses to examine his own problems with entitlement and violence when it comes to his treatment of women. I know now that I am not the only woman (or person, for that matter) he has made unsafe with his words and actions.
Many people know Tyler for being welcoming and sweet, for being a champion of indie lit and small presses, for his energy and enthusiasm. I used to hope that these qualities were sincere parts of his person, not only a façade–but honestly, whether or not they are doesn’t matter to me at all. What does matter is that I still have my life and voice, and I will be heartbroken if what has happened to me happens to someone else because I have not spoken. I should not have had to write this, but it is far preferable to saying nothing and acting like all of this didn’t happen and doesn’t matter—because it did happen, and does continue to matter.
Layne Ransom is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas.