When I was just seven years old, my mother was killed as a result of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is an issue I care about deeply. But while caring about it is important, doing something about it is an obligation. With the platform my profession affords me, I know I am in a position to speak out — and be heard. And I want to make the most of it.
Part of “making the most of it” for me is speaking out against domestic violence in a way that gets through to people. There is being heard, and then there is being heard.
When I hear the dialogue that goes on around the issue of domestic violence, one of the running themes that comes up is the idea that it is situational. That scenarios dictate domestic violence. That if you want to avoid domestic violence, you simply have to avoid those situations. This thinking bothers me.
What bothers me about it is that it shifts blame away from the abuser. And that is wrong. Because ultimately, domestic violence comes down to one thing: a choice. And that choice belongs to the potential abuser: to be violent, or to not be. There is always a choice.
When I say this to people, they nod and agree. But I can always tell that, deep down, some of them don’t quite believe me. I can tell they’re thinking, Easier said than done. They’re thinking, That’s nice to say now, but in the heat of the moment, you just never know. And I tell them, Actually, no — I do know.
Let me tell you about “the heat of the moment.”
I was a sophomore at Louisville, and my girlfriend at the time had come up to visit. It was the preseason and I had morning drills at 5 a.m. This meant going to bed early.
One night, after I had gone to bed, my girlfriend decided to go through my cell phone. She checked my text messages. One incoming text was from a girl from school asking me if she could use my computer. My girlfriend found it suspicious, so she decided to call this girl who texted me to see if there was anything going on between us.
Flash forward a few hours. I woke up in the middle of the night to commotion. I had a dog at the time, and so I figured that’s what it was. I thought, you know, maybe the dog had done something. So I went to see where my dog was, just to make sure. And as I walked past the living room, a smell washed over me from the dog’s cage — you know the smell. Knowing my girlfriend didn’t even like dogs, I thought to myself, Okay, well, I better just clean this up.
Domestic violence comes down to one thing: a choice. And that choice belongs to the potential abuser: to be violent, or to not be.
And it was only then, on my way to get cleaning supplies, that I realized there was someone else in the house: There was my girlfriend, and there was the girl from school who had texted me. I asked what was going on.
The girl from school was like, “No, don’t get it messed up. I told your girlfriend everything.” I immediately asked her to leave, and then I looked at my girlfriend, and I was just like, “Look. I have to go to practice soon. I can’t deal with this right now. We’ll talk in the morning.”
I went to my 5 a.m. practice and I came back around 8 a.m and told my girlfriend, simply, that she had to go.
She insisted that she wasn’t leaving. She started crying. Pushing on me. Saying, “What you gonna do?” while starting to hit me.
And so I screamed for my roommate. I said, “Coby, come help me.” And the first thing he said was, “William, don’t hit her.” And I told him, “No, I’m not trying to touch her. I don’t want to touch her. I just need help getting out of here.”
We ended up calling the police, and I went outside, as far away from the situation as possible, to wait. When the police arrived, I told the officer the truth: that there was a person in my house whom I wanted out of there, and that I wanted that to happen without a physical altercation.
The officer gave me one look, and shot back, “Where’s the young lady?” He was thinking that she was the one who needed help. I explained that I was the one who called for the police, and the officer responded, “Well, I’ll let her tell me. I want to hear the other side of the story before I believe that.”
When I tell you to walk away — when I tell you that you have a choice — you know I’m not just saying it. I’ve lived it.
On one level, it was frustrating for me that the officer didn’t believe me. But on another level, I thought about it, and I was like, “You know what, do your job. I know it doesn’t look typical. And I know that usually a call like this is the other way around. But I’ll let you do your job.” And then the officer went inside, my girlfriend admitted what had happened and they realized and understood that I hadn’t done anything, and that — like I was saying — this was a situation where I was trying to avoid an altercation, not initiate one.
The police told my girlfriend that she had to leave. She left, and that was that.
When I finish telling that story, I can always tell it has made an impact on those who hear it. I use it as a reminder to let the people I’m trying to educate about domestic violence know that when I speak on these issues, I’m not just speaking because of my mother’s story. I’m speaking because I was faced with a situation myself, and I was able to walk away from it. So when I tell you to walk away — when I tell you that you have a choice — you know I’m not just saying it. I’ve lived it.
But here’s the thing about choices, and the thing I like to emphasize: It could have gone the other way. A lot of times, situations exactly like the one I was in do go the other way, which is why it’s so important to hear from someone with firsthand experience that it’s easier to walk away. It’s easier and it’s less painful. And while that message may be difficult to understand in the abstract, I think it’s much more relatable when I am able to convey it with an example. And not just any example. My own. Like I said, I’ve lived it.
Once you establish to these guys that there’s a way out — that there’s a concrete alternative — there can be no more excuses. Not that there are ever excuses, but when you make it that explicit, it just becomes easier to conceptualize. I can say, “I can prove it.”
Anything I can do to help, I want to do. I hope that my story can open a lot of eyes. I hope that someone out there will read this story and that my message will register with them. And I hope that if they ever find themselves in a bad situation, they will think back to my situation and respond in the right way.
Above all else, I hope they will remember that “the right way” comes down to one thing: a choice.
William Gay has teamed up with HopeLine® from Verizon to motivate people across the nation to take action against domestic violence. Together, Verizon and William are working toward a goal of one million phone donations by the end of 2015.