Who Did This To My Son

My son watched "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and said, "It's amazing how they got you to like the main character by the end."

Mildred's daughter has been killed, and she rents three billboards to challenge the chief of police to seek justice, as the case has stalled. The billboards are seen as insensitive--the chief has cancer--and the town rebels in ways that are aggressive (Mildred is confronted in the gift shop where she works), passive aggressive (the chief suggests he'll keep her too busy to work and therefore be unable to pay future rent on the signs) and stupid (high school kids throw cans at her car).

Mildred, in turn, is also stupid (she kicks the high school students in their groins, even the girl). The billboards themselves, in their stark black lettering against a red background, are a passive aggressive act (RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS? / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?). And she is aggressive in the face of danger; when the dentist mentions the signs and lunges with his drill to remove a tooth he's barely examined, Mildred closes her mouth and uses his force and momentum to drill something other than her tooth.

Throughout the film you are held in the tension between empathy for a mother who lost her daughter, and thinking, "Couldn't she have drilled through only part of his thumbnail?" Mostly, there's empathy and respect. She's fierce and she seeks revenge because she's been hurt. Mildred is not without heart; she turns on a dime when the chief, in the middle of taunting her, coughs up blood; she calls him "baby."

But she wants to know who did this to her daughter, and no man will stop her.

My son saw only a vengeful woman. "I mean, she didn't need to hurt the dentist like that."

Who did this to my son?

Why would my my son sympathize first with aggressive and passive aggressive men over a fierce, wounded woman? This is a smart, sensitive kid. This is a kid I ask to proof my professional writing because he sees deeper layers. He's in touch with his emotions, though he's young.

Who did this?

We have many talks. We clearly needed another one.

I talked him through the dentist scene.

"You saw that he didn't really look at her tooth, right? You heard him mention the billboards? We got the sense that he was angry and also irresponsible. She was in danger, though he hadn't made a move yet. She had to act or she'd be hurt."

"You need to understand that men have power over women--even small men, and even strong women."

The other day I was taking off a jacket, and he had said, "Man, Mom, look at your arms. You could totally mess someone up." I told him that I probably couldn't, for all my muscle, nor would I want to. He's got this idea that I'm strong and tough, and I'm good with that. But he needed to know that most men are stronger.

I told him that I've been in situations where I knew I was in danger because a man was angry. I told him about the chiropractor who raged at me before taking my neck in his hands for treatment, and how I knew to wait it out rather than run. And then there was the much bigger x-ray technician who told me to take off my pants in front of him, and how I demanded a woman be brought into the room while I looked around for something to swing.

I told my son that I've been in a variety of situations and have had to act differently each time, as Mildred did. I told him that I've had a knife to my face but I knew the young kid had no intention to use it, so I played dumb and was let go.

And I told him that one of the toughest female boxers of all time, Christy Martin, who hit like a man, was beaten and shot by her then husband, and left to die. She didn't have a fighting chance.

Strong is good in a woman, my son, but it won't get you very far. He would have hurt her. And did you notice how the men used different ways to verbally abuse her? She handled each man differently. Her ex-husband choked her and she had to let that go. Did she think she deserved to be choked because she had just made a snarky comment about his teenage girlfriend?

Do you think she deserved to be choked because she made a snarky comment?

I didn't tell my son that I spent ten years thinking I deserved to be hit.

His father and I had been arguing; he was walking around the bedroom while I reclined in bed. I don't remember what was said, only that he raised his hand as if to hit me and then slammed the headboard next to my face instead. Later, he would apologize, saying that he regretted the moment, and adding, "but the way you rolled your eyes."

The incident never bothered me. He'd apologize every few months in the same manner, and I'd think, Hey, it's over. Nothing happened. I forgot about it, eventually.

And then I got together with my current husband, and I remembered. Being with Joe makes me feels safe, which in turn has made me more afraid. Or, rather, more aware: it's as if I can finally see the danger around me now that I've relaxed into safe arms.

And when I relaxed, it hit me: for ten years I believed that because I rolled my eyes, I deserved a hand to my face. I was spared what I deserved. I didn't require an apology.

I didn't tell my son, but he knew. In the worst way, he knew.

Recently, I told his father that I'd write about this event someday as a way to heal and understand. When I brought it up, he didn't protest or look surprised; instead, he said, "I don't remember that." And then he added, "What do you mean I tried to hit you. I missed?"

My son, I will find a way to tell you that this is not how real men act. This is not how to treat a woman--even strong women. Even women who drill through fingernails. No woman deserves to have power lorded over them in actions or words. I will tell you it's not your fault that you saw only what you knew. That I'm sorry you weren't raised in a way that would have helped you see this more clearly. It's taken me years, too, to see the tall black lettering calling out for justice.


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