When we think of Bill Clinton’s presidency, passage of the Violence Against Women Act isn’t typically the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, he is a tremendous champion for family violence prevention and for people who have experienced abuse. He’s walked in our shoes.
I’ve been blessed to meet former President Bill Clinton three times. When this photo was taken, we were talking about his role in Hillary’s presidential campaign. I remain impressed that he believed he needed to campaign hard for her as part of his open penance for humiliating her with his infidelity. Although I came of age during the 1960s, I never protested until I joined the Rainbow Coalition’s trip to Washington, D.C. to protest Clinton’s impeachment. I still believe the only person who had the right to toss him out of the White House was Hillary. And, I would have helped her pack up his bags.
Why am I starting out this post with such a negative incident in the life of one of my greatest heroes?
I think it is important to remind ourselves that child abuse damages us. Yes, we can recover, but a part of that wounded child remains. If we’d had one of those rare idyllic childhoods free from the experience of abuse or incest, we wouldn’t have hurdles to surmount. But, we do have those hurdles. Life’s not always fair.
Our most important challenge is to embrace ourselves and all our life’s experiences ~ the bitter as well as the sweet. We must learn from them and move on. This is how we develop strength of character and empathy. This is how we become resilient.
This is exactly what Bill Clinton did. He’s not perfect. None of us are. Yet, he became a very charismatic and popular president. Why? He has remarkable empathy. He makes every person he meets feel like they are the most important person in the room. He sees us. He connects. He hears us and sets out to right injustices.
Most folks don’t know that Bill Clinton confronted his stepfather’s abuse with a golf club. I cried when I read the story in his autobiography My Life:
I didn’t need to be in a secret fraternity to have secrets. I had real secrets of my own, rooted in Daddy’s alcoholism and abuse. They got worse when I was fourteen and in the ninth grade and my brother [Roger] was only four. One night Daddy closed the door to his bedroom, started screaming at Mother, then began to hit her. Little Roger was scared, just as I had been nine years earlier on the night of the gunshot. Finally, I couldn’t bear the thought of Mother being hurt and Roger being frightened anymore. I grabbed a golf club out of my bag and threw open their door. Mother was on the floor and Daddy was standing over her, beating on her. I told him to stop and said that if he didn’t I was going to beat the hell out of him with the golf club. He just caved, sitting down in a chair next to the bed and hanging his head. It made me sick. In her book, Mother says [see below] she called the police and had Daddy taken to jail for the night. I don’t remember that, but I do know we didn’t have any more trouble for a good while. I suppose I was proud of myself for standing up for Mother. . .I was sad about it, too. I just couldn’t accept the fact that a basically good person would try to make his own pain go away by hurting someone else. . .
I came to accept the secrets of our house as normal. . .I never talked to anyone about them. . .Our family policy was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the rule in many households. Silence protects the abuser and holds their victims prisoner.
Bill Clinton’s mother Virginia Kelley broke down her own wall of silence in her autobiography, Leading with My Heart, My Life. In the book, she courageously recounts her arduous path to freedom from Roger Clinton’s abuse. I will be writing about her story later, but I think her perspective about this fateful night is informative:
. . .two events in 1960 that were really pivotal. . .Roger had arrived home after work. . .spitting fire. . .I had gotten so I could just tune him out most of the time ~ as long as he didn’t touch me, I could ignore him. But this time was different. . .the boys. . .were horrified. . .I kept moving, kept dodging. . .poor Bill. . .couldn’t stand it any longer. . .door burst open. . .
Bill said, “Daddy, stand up.”
. . .Roger couldn’t. . .
“You must stand up. . .I want you on your feet.”
. . .Bill lifted Roger. . .I’ll never forget how straight Bill looked him in the eye. “Hear me. . .Never. . .ever. . .touch my mother again.”
Bill Clinton’s presidency was filled with steely determination to do everything he possibly could to protect women and children. About the time of his re-election in 1996, he signed legislation prohibiting people who had been convicted of domestic violence from owning fire arms. I was impressed, but I also knew that some folks would never be convicted because they were above the law. I knew one of these people owned an arsenal of guns. He was on the short list to become a federal judge. The Senate Judiciary Committee had contacted me.
Bill Clinton kept the judge off the federal bench and issued a ruling: no one with a whisper of an allegation of domestic violence would be part of his administration. I had scoured the country looking for a domestic violence advocate and come up empty. Yet, here was the President of the United States stepping up to the plate to protect me. Wow!
This is why I am persistent in my determination to break down the wall of silence surrounding the experinece of domestic violence. Change happens ~ we can each make a difference in our own way ~ if and when we find the courage to speak out.
President Bill Clinton was the first member of my “Protection Circle.” I should have probably included him in my June 13, 2009 post, but it seemed arrogant and pretentious.
My haircut in this photo was so horrid that Ricci and Kiwi Mary both demanded I get a new hairdresser. Raquel has been my hairdresser ever since, and I think she makes this old girl look pretty good!