“Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.” – Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah’s vulnerability in sharing his family’s story is an invaluable gift to the world. If I could give everyone the chance to read just one account that would teach them how to recognize warning signs of violent men, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime, might be it. That’s because he takes the time to walk the reader through the collection of red flags and explicitly point out general issues and patterns to beware of. Tucked amidst stories of apartheid, coming-of-age hijinks, sociological commentary, South African culture, and laugh-out-loud humor is a pulled-back curtain on life with a violent stepfather.
It’s striking, compelling reading – or in my case, listening. (The Audible version read by him is fantastic.) Trevor’s insightful take on the situation allows him to put his finger on what makes Abel tick, creating an effective portrait of one man’s escalating threat level. The ensuing – and ultimately life-threatening – events which unfolded for Trevor’s family are a classic case study in the course of an abusive relationship.
Below is a list of the specific concerning traits that we see in Abel. These puzzle pieces form a glaring, unmistakable portrait of danger personified. And here’s the thing – none of these warning signs are unique to Abel or anyone else that you know or may meet one day. This is a type, and it’s the type to run from.
6. Traditional patriarchal ideas
Abel was raised in a tribe where women were excessively, obsequiously deferent to all men at all times and boys were not allowed to do any housework. (It was wack.) No wonder Abel was always complaining that Trevor’s mom didn’t respect him as a man – she was a badass, financially independent single mom in the city with no time or patience for such obvious nonsense.
Have you ever known a man who was really taken with the idea that the man is a larger-than-life spiritual head of household and would pull that card in decision-making? Let me guess – and don’t lie – he was super touchy on the issue of respect/disrespect towards himself, wasn’t he? A man who says “respect” and really means “deference toward me and my higher position over you” instead of “basic human consideration and kindness” has serious issues, and yes, that absolutely includes those who justify it on faith-based grounds. Well-adjusted, well-intentioned people do not feel a need to pull some kind of rank on their loved ones – that’s the exact opposite of love.
5. Substance Issues
This one is particularly interesting in Abel’s case, because there are two different substances at play. Drink turns him into a mean, nasty devil of a drunk, and I beg anyone who knows someone like this to stay away. It’s not “the alcohol talking” – lots of people are happy drunks or sad drunks instead. The alcohol is revealing a side of them they keep under wraps the rest of the time. If you’re safe around them when they’re sober but not when they’re drunk, you’re not safe around them.
Now, the weed habit is another tale entirely. Abel was a pothead before he got into a serious relationship with Trevor’s religious mom, who eventually insisted he stop. Trevor speculates that Abel probably knew he needed weed to take the edge off of himself, and once that self-medication was gone, there was nothing calming him down anymore.
My personal hypothesis is that this pattern can apply to any substance and other “vices” in general, like gambling, obsession with sex or porn, or risky/danger-seeking lifestyles. If people don’t want to change, little good will come of any effort to force them to. The real, underneath-the-surface selves of unsafe people are almost best left covered over, if they don’t have both the tools and motivation to turn and fight the underlying personal demons that will overtake them once they stop running.
Trevor says “The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.””
Trying to exercise control over what the other person does, wears, who they see and have relationships with, where they go, etc, is one of the first and biggest initial warning signs of abusive partners. We cannot afford to ignore any sign of attempts to outright control, since other, much worse red flags may not appear until later down the road. I repeat, this is likely to show up before anything else. Try the “smiling no” test and pay close attention to how that goes. If he hits the ceiling when you exercise basic autonomy and independence, run for the hills, sis!
When Trevor got bullied by some neighborhood kids and went to Abel to get revenge, Abel went way overboard. Trevor remembers the point midway through the thrashing where he stopped being happy for revenge and started being horrified at what was happening, and sorry for the other kid.
Abel had always had a temper, he just didn’t take it out on Trevor’s family. Not until well after the marriage. His mom was always arguing with Abel about his temper and telling him he had to get it under control. Surely she never expected he would turn that temper on them? After all, he had never done it before, so that meant he would never do it in the future – right?
When dealing with a person with a particularly bad temper, it doesn’t matter whether or not it is currently directed at you, because there is no such thing as an acceptable or expendable person for him to direct his temper at. Out of control is out of control, period. Lectures are not effective and promises and intentions are not the same thing as measurable change.
Even one time is too often. No matter how much time passes, it could still happen again, because now it’s possible. (That applies even if the incident didn’t happen to you, or if it was something else like property destruction, throwing things, etc.)
I’m reminded of a dog that once crosses an invisible fence – now that they know it’s possible (and temporary discomfort is the only consequence) they will do it more easily in the future, again and again. That dog makes eye contact with you over the edge of the property, and you both know the barrier is imaginary now.
When Abel finally hit Trevor’s mom (she was telling him off royally after he had been drinking), she was shocked. She said something along the lines of “No man in my life has ever dared to hit me!” and then handled the incident as promptly and seriously as could be expected of anyone. She took her boys with her, right then, in the middle of the night, to the police station. (The men on duty refused to press charges on a “family matter.”) So she went to live with her mother for months. When she finally agreed to come back and see how things went, Abel went a whole YEAR without a repeat incident. And then six months. And so on.
Trevor says, “There was an undercurrent of terror that ran through the house, but the actual beatings themselves were not that frequent. I think if they had been, the situation would have ended sooner. Ironically, the good times in between were what allowed it to drag out and escalate as far as it did.”
All those months without violence didn’t change the fact that the dynamic was now abusive. Trevor said (after Abel ambushed him in the closet one day) that he never let Abel get between him and an exit again, ever.
- Your discomfort aka gut
As a boy, Trevor was dismayed when his mom brought up the topic of marrying Abel. He was okay with Abel being in their life as a friend, he just didn’t think it was a good idea to get married. He couldn’t explain further to his mom, but there it was – a bad feeling.
They say to trust your gut, that it’s never wrong – so how many times are you going to argue with yours? It’s a built-in alarm that you can’t turn off, and you don’t want to be able to do that. Suppress it at your peril and probably the peril of others. You are never required to put yourself around anyone, or in any situation, against your better judgment.
But you say you don’t have evidence? Your gut is the strongest evidence you have, and that’s science. We’re talking about biological survival instincts. Deep down, in the subconscious part of your brain that you can’t control or turn off, there is the capacity for prey-like senses and awareness. It can and does kick in when necessary. We all have intuition, and if yours tends to stay pretty quiet or you’re just not used to listening to it before, do NOT write it off as anxiety when it finally goes off. Every time you listen to it, its voice gets louder. It is safe and good for you to trust yourself and your own judgment instead of talking yourself out of it like others may have done to you in the past.
“If you think someone is a monster and the whole world says he’s a saint, you begin to think that you’re the bad person.” – Trevor Noah