“The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
Excerpts from Caged Bird by Maya Angelou from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou.
A cage is a cage is a cage.
My particular cage is a lovely historic Pennsylvania farmhouse, with ample food in the kitchen, tulips in the garden, dogs to keep me company…and a safe relationship.
But as the marvelous Maya Angelou poem Caged Bird reminds me, thanks to Covid-19 I’m not free to ‘claim the sky’ as my own, so I’m forced instead to ‘sing of freedom’ (which is admittedly far more eloquent than whining.)
I feel no lack of guilt for this longing.
I am healthy, while others are dying. I’m hungry because I’m tired of cooking, not because I have no food. My business has been impacted, but I’m not in danger of losing my home. I miss my seeing my friends, but we stay connected on our computers and phones. My husband may be getting on my nerves (and I on his), but he’s not abusive.
This cage gets me thinking about the women I know who have been in abusive relationships. Is this how their cage feels? I’m guessing my experience only touches the surface of theirs. While I don’t fear being literally strangled by my partner, I do feel the stranglehold of anxiety and fear that comes from not being able to control my own life.
Intimate partner violence is not well understood by most people who have not experienced it. The threat of black eyes and broken bones under the guise of power and control are just as devastating as the actual black eyes and broken bones. Threats to hurt children and kill pets, withholding financial support, forced pregnancies (and abortions), and social isolation are all ways that victims of domestic violence are controlled by their partners. Up to 35% of women killed by their intimate partners have no history of physical violence, but they all are killed by controlling men.
We hear the question all the time….Why does she stay?
We know that leaving is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. According to Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell, the pre-eminent Johns Hopkins researcher of intimate partner violence and creator of the Danger Assessment, victims of domestic violence are 4 times more likely to be killed if “estranged from” or have left their abusers. Thirty-three percent of the intimate partner homicide victims in her national study were killed somewhere in the process of leaving the relationship. Clearly, exiting an abusive relationship is not as simple as packing your bags
I’m also considering how much energy it takes to accomplish the simple things when you feel a loss of control. As many of us have learned over the past 2 months, powerlessness can lead to anxiety and depression — both of which can make it impossible to do the easy things we’d normally do without effort. If I had to pack up my things and those of my children while hiding from an abusive partner who may have threatened that he would kill me if I left, would I have the energy to do that? Considering that right now I struggle to find the energy to put on pants in the morning, I doubt it.
But they persevere. I’m in awe of what victims of domestic violence endure to keep safe. Everyday. They juggle the demands of their abusers with the needs of their children and the expectations of their jobs. The protective masks they wear everyday shield them from a world that doesn’t understand their experience, from embarrassment and ridicule, but also potential support. The world is unaware of their experience. We can’t comprehend the reality that 27% of U.S. women live in physically abusive relationships, and have their daily movements monitored, limited and controlled. We’d rather ignore it or worse, blame them for being there.
Victims of domestic violence that do get out usually face financial devastation, lost relationships, physical and emotional scars, chronic anxiety, and the knowledge that controlling your own destiny is a gift that can be taken away.
Perhaps at this moment in time, we are in a position to begin to understand their experience.
We need to remember what this feels like and remember to sing for those who are forced to live in cages all the time in hopes that they too will one day “own the sky”.
To read the entire poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou, click here.
Tracy Schott, MSW, MS is the creator of Voices4Change.net, director of the award-winning documentary film FINDING JENN’S VOICE, and owner of Schott Productions. Ms. Schott worked as a child and family therapist, specializing in child abuse cases for 15 years before making the unusual career change to film and video production with a goal of creating social change through media. Schott Productions is based in a farmhouse near Reading, Pennsylvania.