Domestic Violence Awareness Month: “Tamar’s Tears”

In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness month, we offer the following contribution by CM. The author—a male prisoner incarcerated in a maximum-security prison—reflects on the theme of violence against women by engaging in a close reading of 2 Samuel 13, the horrific story of Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar.

“Tamar’s Tears” by CM

I am a 40 year old man who has been in prison for 22 years.  I have met men who have committed some of the most horrific acts one could possibly imagine, and many others who were indeed falsely accused.  Yet, one thing that is true for everyone in a maximum security prison is the fact that our presence on this side of the wall represents a victim on the other side of the wall; another human being, victimized by his or her fellow man, even if not the man charged.

As one who finds solace in the words written in the Bible, I turn to the text of scripture to discover a way to make sense of this experience and grasp this dynamic relationship.  This interplay between perpetrator and victim.  The workings of the mind that grants one the proverbial green light to move forward and alter another’s peace.

I turned to the text of the Bible because I discovered a roadblock to my progress when seeking the same in plain old confrontation among my fellow prisoners.  That roadblock was the notion of circumstantial justification.  Things like tribal vengeance, self-defense, mutual combat, peer pressure, group think, and just plain old following orders when it comes to gang structure.  It almost never came down to a plain old – “I was wrong, I’m sorry”- type owning of full responsibility, even if it came down to blaming drugs or society.

All of that was so – UNTIL – the subject of violence against women came up.  Surprisingly, no one had a problem fully owning the fact that they had at some point been violent towards a woman.  So much so, that for many, the notion of an external contributing factor that mitigated their responsibility was an insult to their manhood.

For some, it actually provided an opportunity for them to examine their past violent behavior and recognize it as simple cruelty mixed with a lot of ego.  Some spoke of it as normal, that smacking around women was simply part of the natural order of things.  One inmate, “Big S.”, said that, “the only reason why it’s a problem now in the Black community when a man goes upside his woman’s head, is because some white woman said it’s wrong to do so.  The Black woman bought in, and the Black man hasn’t had a happy home since.”

Now, granted, this is a PRISON population from which these statements are coming, so one is bound to hear some outlandish things, just trust me when I tell you that such truly represents the minority.  However, from the outlandish, to the more sensible there was still a missing element.  Even where one could find contrition, there was  lack of acknowledgment of the fact that the way the woman against whom the violence or mistreatment was perpetrated – actually mattered – the woman didn’t matter.

They were sorry, but sorry in the way one would be sorry upon realizing they’d been cruel to an animal.  The cruelty made them [the perpetrator] look bad or degraded.  “I’m better than that,” says the man who kicks the dog; damn the fact that the dog was in pain.  So, I found myself back at square one in regards to this dynamic, but with more mental material to work with.

Something “Big S” said stood out to me regarding the different ways Black women and White women respond to violence.  I recognize the impact of media images and the way they shape our thinking, but I started thinking about what I saw with my own eyes growing up on the south side of Chicago when it came to domestic violence.  Black women with black eyes and busted lips coming from the hands of men who were supposed to love the, and those same women staying with those men more often than not, and then when you pass the battered women’s shelters you see white women who simply wouldn’t take it anymore in droves, having found a way to get out of that bad situation, more often than not.

One can say that city and social resources were made available pursuant to institutionally racist motives, but there’s something else at play that I believe is behind this.  An imbalance in the perception of personal power.  Where poor black women weren’t brought up to perceive their own power in terms of Gender, the type of power they did embrace was based on factors in which the reigns were more often than not, held by men.

The Feminist/Women’s Liberation movements came to the forefront in the 60’s and 70’s as a fight for equality based on gender.  Simultaneously, there was the civil rights movement based on racial equality.  Both movements challenged the balance of power, female voices became prominent.  However, white women, with voices like Gloria Steinem’s, spoke loud and clear to gender specific issues demanding a change to the status quo when it came to their American experience.

Angela Davis spoke with equal clarity, as a Black woman, but did she speak specifically to gender issues, or to Black American issues.  Or did she convince herself that the issues were the same?  If so, then I believe we’re getting close to revealing why such a statement as that made by Big S could have ever been made.

Let me take a moment to say I use Angela Davis’s name generically here, I love Angela Davis.  I don’t claim to have an in-depth knowledge of everything she has ever said on racial issues or gender issues.  But I will say that when I think of her the old anthem, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!” comes to mind more so than, “I am Woman, hear me roar!” When it comes to a voice that spoke specifically to Black women’s issues, gender specific, the first name that pops in my mind is Alice Walker; particularly, “The Color Purple.”  Even that is a voice of a more scholarly nature than what one would typically find upon just bringing up the topic during a casual conversation.

So, I started thinking, if it is true that black women let themselves believe that racial discrimination and gender discrimination are he same, it would explain a lot.  But could that actually be so?  The year 2008 popped in my mind, the year Barack Obama became the first Black President of the United States of America.  The Democratic Primary was grueling, Barack Obama -v- Hillary Clinton.  Early on, women were united, the glass ceiling will be broken.  No one really believed Barack Obama could pull it off, and Hillary was waiting for her coronation.  Then, something happened.

Ascension by adoration, Barack Obama’s star rose and one by one, Hillary supporters among Black women changed “their” opinions. Withdrew their support from Hillary and gave it to Barack.  Personally, I’m glad it happened, but, in the uniqueness of the moment in history a curious choice was made.  And on issues of gender, we see today , the notion that a woman’s reproductive privacy rights has somehow become “controversial” in the political speak arena.

I observed a dynamic on two fronts at play.  For men, comfort in the disparity of gender roles in the Black community, and among Black women, a normalization so thoroughly ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist that they don’t even realize that the disparity exists.  A normalization of an arbitrary inequality among a significant portion of the Black populace.

So, I searched for parallels in Scripture.  A social example in which the gender roles were put on clear display and the disparity staring us in the face, pointing the finger of shame, and demonstrating the ingrained power of our own vices on the issue of gender.  And I found a young woman whose story is told in 2nd Samuel, chapter 13.  Her name is Tamar.

1-2 David’s son, Absalom, had a beautiful sister named Tamar. And Amnon, her half brother, fell desperately in love with her. Amnon became so obsessed with Tamar that he became ill.  She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible that he could ever fulfill his love for her.

I just want to point out that we’re dealing with a drama here that is taking place in the Royal Family of Israel.  Tamar is a Princess, in her own kingdom.  These are not an oppressed people, race is of no consequence in this land.  David is the king, Absalom is a prince, Amnon is the Crown Prince at this time, for he is the oldest of David’s sons (2 Samuel 3:2-5).  This is the center of Israeli political life and social order.  And it is within this institutional structure that we see the beginning of inordinate desires unfolding in Amnon’s head, towards his sister.  Let us continue.

3-5 Now, Amnon had a very crafty friend – his cousin Jonadab. He was the son of David’s brother Shimea. One day Jonadab said to Amnon, “What’s the trouble?  Why should the son of a king look so dejected morning after morning?”- So Amnon told him, “I am in love with Tamar, Absalom’s sister.”  “Well,” Jonadab said, “I’ll tell you what to do.  Go back to bed and pretend you are sick.  When your father comes to see you, ask him to let Tamar come and prepare some food for you.  Tell him you’ll feel better if she feeds you.”

And now enters another family member, Jonadab, a cousin, and friend of the Crown Prince.  Notice how, when he confronted Amnon, and he revealed what was on his mind because it was written all over his face; did he read him the riot act?  No, he gave him the diabolical blueprint of deception.

6-7 So Amnon pretended to be sick. And when the king came to see him, Amnon asked him, “Please let Tamar come to take care of me and cook something for me to eat.” So David agreed and sent Tamar to Amnon’s house to prepare some food for him.”

Where the object of one’s desire is considered an “it” rather than a “thou”, lies and deception lose their sting upon the conscious.

8-11 When Tamar arrived at Amnon’s house, she went to the room where he was lying down so he could watch her mix some dough. Then she baked some special bread for him.  But when she set the serving tray before him, he refused to eat.  “Everyone get out of here,” Amnon told his servants.  So they all left.  Then he said to Tamar, “Now bring the food into my bedroom and feed it to me here.”  So Tamar took it to him.  But as she was feeding him, he grabbed her and demanded, “Come to bed with me, my darling sister.”

He said all of this as easily as if he had asked her to pass him the salt.

We don’t hear any words from Tamar herself up to this point.  Yet, she is the object of much discussion by the men in her family.  She was in her own “space” doing her own thing, until she was summoned to a place where she held no power, which was Amnon’s world.  His house, his servants, his bedroom; and yet, why wasn’t she safe here?  Why didn’t she recognize the danger?  Was it because she had been lulled into a kind of mental sleep brought on by cultural normalcy of the situation?

12-13 “No, my brother!”she cried. “Don’t be foolish! Don’t do this to me!  You know what a serious crime it is to do such a thing in Israel.  Where could I go in my shame?  And you would be called one of the greatest fools in Israel.  Please, just speak to the king about it, and he will let you marry me.”

Now we hear Tamar’s voice for the first time.  “No” means “no!” She appeals to him as a member of her family.  “No, my brother!” Shea appealed to him based on his own sense of pride and decency, “Don’t be foolish!” She appealed to him based on the sacredness of her own personhood, “Don’t do this to me!”  She appealed to his sense of national, civil duty as being the Crown Prince of Israel, “You know what a serious crime it is to do such a thing in Israel.”  This is a legal appeal.

The next thing she says is a statement of what she stands to lose in the midst of this mess.  “Where could I go in my shame?”  That’s a very revealing question to ask considering the fact that she’s the victim.  It speaks to her perspective on the situation and the cultural environment in which she lived, the things she accepted as normal.

In this world, Tamar grew up seeing women of Royal Blood often used as a political instrument to broker peace between nations where a princess would be offered to a king or prince of another nation to be his wife, therefore, uniting the two Royal families and guaranteeing the peace between the nations.  However, in order for these political marriages to take place, the Princess had to be a virgin.  Her value was in her virginity, and Tamar, by all accounts, had an expectation that she herself would one day marry her own Prince and be a daughter of high political power and value to her Father, King David.  So her appeal was, in part, a plea for her Brother not to strip her of her very future, her every hope and dream.

But-but-but—wait!  It gets worse!  – Shame – carries with it an overall drop in stature and respect in the eyes of those who you yourself esteem highly.  Yet, Tamar is a princess, how highly is she esteemed before the people if they can lose respect for her for being a victim?  And then there’s the fact that she anticipates it?  Her next appeal is based on the fact that Amnon doesn’t have to go this route to have her.  She calls him a fool once again and then, in a way, becomes a co-conspirator in her own demise by telling him, “Please, just speak to the King about it, and he will let you marry me.” This is a final surrender and acceptance of the fact that she has no self-determination, no power over her own destiny in this culture.  She makes seven appeals to her brother not to rape her, and only one was a statement that was based on the simplicity of her own voice – “Don’t do this to me!” And yet –

14 But Amnon wouldn’t listen to her, and since he was stronger than she was, he raped her.

That’s what it really all came down to, he was stronger than she was.  Physically, its a simple statement of the truth, it was then as it is today, men are typically stronger than women, at least when it comes to upper body strength.  That being said, there has never been a physical deterrent alone that restrained the strong from abusing the weak.  However, abuses can be, and often are, restrained where cultural norms themselves are deterrents.  These norms affect the mind more so than the body.  These norms must be balanced.

15 Then suddenly Amnon’s love turned to hate, and he hated her even more than he had loved her. “Get out of here!” he snarled at her.

Where there are no balanced cultural norms to instill restraint, mental confusion takes root.

16 “No, no!” Tamar cried. “To reject me now is a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”

More confusion. – But Amnon wouldn’t listen to her.

17 He shouted for his servant and demanded, “Throw this woman out, and lock the door behind her!”

Notice how in verse 11 she was, “my darling sister,” and just six verses later in 17 she is “this woman.” Her NAME is TAMAR BAT DAVID! (Tamar, daughter of David!)  And notice how the servant, who surely knew exactly who this young woman was, reacted with no fear of consequences for participating in this cruelty towards the king’s daughter.

18-19 So the servant put her out. She was wearing a long beautiful robe as was the custom in those days for the king’s virgin daughters. But now Tamar tore her robe and put ashes on her head.  And then, with her face in her hands, she went  way crying.”

Pause for a moment, hear her crying, honor her tears as they fall not only from her eyes, but from the eyes of every woman who has ever found herself in a cultural system that, a mindset, that allowed this to happen.  It’s the last we hear of Tamar’s voice.

20-22 Her brother Absalom saw her and asked, “Is it true that Amnon has been with you? Well, don’t be so upset. Since he’s your brother anyway, don’t worry about it.” So Tamar lived as a desolate woman in Absalom’s house.  When King David heard what had happened, he was very angry.  And though Absalom never spoke to Amnon about it, he hated Amnon deeply because of what he had done to his sister.”—

23 Two years later . . .

So, Absalom knew, and David knew, the Government knew, what happened to Tamar, and yet, she’s the one who lived out her days as a desolate woman.  While Amnon gets to go about his life as though nothing has happened, just another normal day, every day for two whole years.  Chris Brown didn’t get that kind of treatment when he had a fight with Rianna!  And while Absalom was plotting revenge, and King David was angry, it was – business as usual – for Amnon.

Skipping forward a bit we see the plot to kill Amnon unfold at Absalom’s house.

28 Absalom told his men, “Wait until Amnon gets drunk; then at my signal, kill him! Don’t be afraid. I’m the one who has given the command.  Take courage and do it!”

Notice the difference between how Amnon’s servant reacted to the violation of the king’s daughter – No fear – and how Absalom’s men react in regards to a violation of the king’s son – fear.

29 So at Absalom’s signal they murdered Amnon. Then the other sons of the king jumped on their mules and fled.

(murdered, not vengeance for Tamar.)

After a bit of mis-information about the incident reached the King, we pick up at v. 32.

32 But just then Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimea, arrived and said, “No, not all your sons have been killed! It was only Amnon! Absalom has been plotting this ever since Amnon raped his sister Tamar.  No, your sons aren’t all dead!  It was only Amnon.”  Meanwhile Absalom escaped.

Wait a minute, wait a minute!  Remember this guy, Jonadab?  He’s Amnon’s buddy from the beginning of the story, the guy who came up with the plan to pull of the crime against Tamar in the first place.  The guy who, had it not been for his “advice” none of this would have happened, Tamar wouldn’t have been raped, and Amnon wouldn’t have been killed.  Yet, this is a society in which he felt comfortable enough to come before the King, the father of the woman who he laid out the plot details against.  Knowing David knew about the rape.  This reveals some things.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that when this all first happened, two years prior, that David at the very least, questioned Amnon about the incident.  With that in mind, I find it hard to conceive that Amnon wouldn’t have, at some point, mentioned the fact that it was Jonadab who gave him the diabolical advice on how to carry out the rape.

So, fast forward two years, Jonadab being the one who is bringing this news reveals just how light the matter must have been in the eyes of the men, and society so concerned.  In verse 35 – 39 we see,

35-39 “Look!” Jonadab told the king. “There they are now! Your sons are coming, just as I said.”  They soon arrived, weeping and sobbing, and the king and his officials wept bitterly with them.  And David mourned many days for his son Amnon. Absalom fled to his grandfather, Tamal son of Ammihud, the king of Geshur.  He stayed there in Geshur for three years.  And David, now reconciled to Amnon’s death, longed to be reunited with his son Absalom.

This little fact at the end struck me, Absalom fled to the palace of his Grandfather on his Mother’s side.  Jonadab said Amnon’s death was vengeance for Tamar’s rape, yet Absalom ordered a murder.  If his motivation was vengeance, his behavior was quite odd.

Going back to verse 19, Tamar left in the aftermath of her rape, crying.  According to the Hebrew law, a woman who cries out upon being raped has a means to receive justice, otherwise it is assumed that she consented to the act.  Where Tamar wasn’t an engaged woman, things could have gone one of two ways. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)  “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father.  Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her and he will never be allowed to divorce her.”  However, v 24 establishes the woman’s innocence by her act of crying out.

So, why did Absalom tell Tamar to stop crying?  He told her not to make a big deal about it.  I find it reveals that Absalom’s motives for killing the Crown Prince of Israel had its source in more sinister origins.  I think this was a political assassination.  Absalom was of true Royal blood, both on his Father’s and Mother’s side, where Amnon’s mother, Ahinoam, was a woman David married while he was on the run from Saul, a woman of no particular noble blood.  And if we follow this story over the subsequent chapters, Absalom felt it was his right to rule because of his lineage, and his brother was standing in his way.  Had Tamar cried out and been heard, an argument could be made that she’d have had a structure to stand on for justice.  As it turned out, all we have is a scandal.  A scandal which provided social circumstances that created sympathy for Absalom when he murdered Amnon.  This in truth, reveals probably the worst victimization that Tamar suffered, to be used as a political pawn, by her brother Absalom in the furtherance of his power hungry ambitions.

In every aspect of this story, there was a physical violation suffered by Tamar which could only take place because there were social/psychological structures in place which placed women, an entire sector of society, in a weakened, diminished, second class status, unprotected, and devalued.  Ultimately, that whole society ignored Tamar’s tears, and it was such a natural occurrence that she, in the midst of her own pleas, spoke in terms of her relative value rather than her inherent value.

So I ask the question, in what ways do Black women sacrifice their inherent value, in their gender, and substitute it with the value of race, or the relative value of functions in the lives of others; and how comfortable have Black men become with accepting that sacrifice as a social norm?  It is a stifling of the human spirit and devaluing of the feminine.

Of course there are voices addressing this issue, but it is the idea, if held by any, that my words are controversial, that compels me to speak them.

We hear political schtick concerning the social position of women during every election cycle.  We hear terms like “legitimate rape” and “binders full of women” spoke by men who feel they have, or should have, the authority to determine the direction of our lives.  We see rulings coming down from our highest courts chipping away at the exclusivity of a woman to exercise power and authority over her own body.  Rooms full of men are holding conference somewhere right now in stratagem about issues that concern women.  And therein lies the problem.

To bring this back to my initial premise for a moment, that which pricked a nerve with me regarding that internal green light for one to move against another, to alter one’s peaceful condition; I see this warped view that difference equates to the inherent right to dominate as the root of this problem.  On one level, this drive is played out forcefully via decisions made by men with authority – “You can”, “You can’t”, “You must!” An authority which is one directional and imbalanced; once the decision is made or the decree sent, that’s that.  Under the color of legality, moves are being made in an effort to do with the pen, what the criminal does with a gun.  Exercise power over another.  In reverse, the criminal imitates the politician, doing with the gun what the politician does with the pen.

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