arizona highway

We Are The Ones Who Got Away

by | September 21, 2021

There is no such thing as a vacation from “domestic violence.”

TW: SA/DV Unless you actively and assiduously avoid US news, then you’re aware of a story that continues to generate a phenomenal amount of attention: the disappearance and recovery of Gabrielle Petito. This summer, Petito, a 22-year-old white woman, and Brian Laundrie, her 23-year-old white boyfriend, embarked on a cross-country trip in a converted transit van. On September 11, Petito’s family reported her missing. Eight days later, authorities recovered human remains believed to be hers from a Wyoming campground.

Because men in the United States of America execute approximately three female romantic partners a day, it is widely and reasonably suspected that Laundrie is responsible for Petito’s disappearance and death. Put more bluntly, I believe Laundrie committed femicide and, in an act of macabre control, hid what remained of “his” girlfriend. While it’s logical to assume that he hid her remains to avoid charges of homicide, it’s just as logical to assume that he hid them for the same reason many patriarchs isolate and sequester the women they abuse — possession.

Many women have survived a man (if not several) who has threatened to kill and disappear them.

Many of us consider ourselves fortunate to have survived a patriarch like Laundrie.

We are the ones who got away.

There are millions of us.

Most of our stories are unknown and those of us who muster the courage to report femicidal threats are often met with disdain, condescension, and minimization. Such responses are par for the course when it comes to reporting to law enforcement. I learned this in 2018, when I made the mistake of telling a policeman, a domestic violence detective, about domestic violence. An ex-boyfriend I’d escaped from had told me in detail how he might kill and disappear me and after I shared this information with the detective, I received a lecture. Instead of concern for my safety, and the safety of others, the policeman urged me to have compassion for masculine sexual fantasies. He assured me that my ex-boyfriend’s imagination was nothing to fear. When I proceeded to tell the detective that my ex-boyfriend often enacted his violent imaginings on me, the policeman grew curious. He wanted to know what I was wearing when I had last been assaulted. He wanted to know if I’d been nude.

The policeman’s line of questioning had nothing to do with “law enforcement.”

It was rooted in prurience.

I had a prior experience against which to contrast my conversation with the domestic violence detective. At 19, a stranger sexually assaulted me. The detective and attorneys who questioned me about the stranger assault expressed horror when I narrated my experience. They asked nothing about my clothing. They asked nothing about my “panties.” They winced when I told them what the stranger had done to me. Now, that I was narrating the violence enacted by a boyfriend, I was being shamed. Perhaps that happened because the policeman believed that choosing a romantic partner is synonymous with choosing a rapist. Perhaps he thinks rapist and boyfriend have the same definition.

The domestic violence detective shamed me for having entered a bedroom with my ex-boyfriend, the place where a very violent assault took place. The policeman implied that I’d consented to sex by existing near both a bed and a man. I recall thinking something along the lines of, This man is paid to investigate domestic violence, violence associated with domestic settings, and yet, he took the domestic location of my assault, as evidence that I had consented to…rape? What is more domestic than a bedroom? How many women have told this detective about being raped in their own home and then had it implied that they’d ‘asked for it’ by daring to be…at home?

The Petito case invites us to rethink the way we language romantic harm. The term “domestic violence” is, in many ways, a misnomer. Many patriarchs disbelieve that unwarranted violence happens to women and girls in domestic spaces. Many of them believe that the girls and women with whom they share homes are more akin to furniture and appliances than human beings. The domestic violence detective communicated that that was how he regarded me. Upon crossing a bedroom’s threshold, I was, at best, a human being of inferior status, one meant to provide sexual services. At worst, I became an object. Domesticity spoke on my behalf, consenting for me.

It’s a mouthful but I prefer stating that what I experienced wasn’t simply domestic violence but violence in service of domestication. This domestication occurs through a system of relations and these systems are practiced expansively. Ways of relating travel anywhere the patriarch goes. Where the patriarch goes, so goes “domestic violence.” The patriarch brings “domestic violence” to work. The patriarch brings “domestic violence” to school. The patriarch brings “domestic violence” to the hospital, grocery store, post office, and the road.

The patriarch brings “domestic violence” on vacation.

I thought about “domestic violence” going “on vacation” as I learned about the Petito case. I remembered trips I took with a patriarch whom I’ll refer to as F. The month before I escaped from F, we went on a road trip. F prohibited me from driving and so I rode alongside him from California to Arizona. Upon arriving at our destination, I helped F carry our belongings to a guest suite. F seemed distracted, engrossed by an idea he didn’t want to share with me.

I fretted about what that idea might be.

When I asked F what was on his mind, he smiled nervously.

He answered, “Nothing, babe.”

In the kitchen, fear seized me as I watched F unpack. A brown paper bag held groceries and a knife. The suite came equipped with everything F needed to cook a meal and I wondered if F had brought the knife to terrorize me. Weeks before our road trip, he’d slapped me across the face after I declined to dance with him one evening. After slapping me, he followed me to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and brandished it, aiming at my neck and chest.

Now the red handled weapon was on vacation with us.

Now, the red-handled weapon was on vacation with us. I began to think about the hikes F wanted to take me on. I considered the cliffs we’d be walking along. I didn’t want to seem too distracted by my quiet safety-planning. F might think I was trying to escape and the last time that I’d tried, I’d been met with sublethal violence.

That first night in Arizona, F cooked dinner. I thanked him profusely for it.

I washed the dishes, his red-handled knife included.

The knife rested in the drying rack. I tried not to think about. I also had to think about it. I had to monitor its whereabouts.

F loved surprises.

Tree outside Flagstaff Arizona.
Tree outside Flagstaff Arizona. photo by Geoff Cordner.

When we went hiking the next day, I texted my parents over and over. I sent them images of the landscape. The photographs were intentional. If I went missing, I wanted my family to have a sense of where to look for me.

My texting annoyed F. He bitched about it. “Put your phone away. Turn it off,” he ordered.

We hiked through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. I wondered if this land was to become my grave.

That night, F and I dined out. When we returned to the suite, I changed into my pajamas. I went to the kitchen for a snack and as I crossed the living room, I felt F’s shoe in my lower back. A powerful kick caused me to fly stomach-first. My head whipped back. F continued to kick me into the bedroom. He shoved me onto a bed and pulled down his pants. Uncomplicated rage contorted his face.

He smacked me across the face and hit me in the head.

He smacked me across the face and hit me in the head.

He smacked me across the face and hit me in the head again.

(Dizzying, isn’t it?)

Wanting to know what F was going to rape me with, I looked down.

I stole a glance of his limp dick. F’s face turned murderous. He made a fist and punched me with it. Punching me in the face repeatedly gave him an erection.

He finished raping me.

I visited emergency rooms many times when I was F’s girlfriend. I didn’t go after this assault. Instead, as per F’s order, I watched TV with him. That was his pattern. Violent assault followed by TV.

There is no such thing as a vacation from “domestic violence.”

The violence goes on vacation with you.

And there are some vacations I wish I couldn’t remember so clearly.

Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review,, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.