by Natasha Vargas-Cooper
The first time “Misty” broke into the backyard to pound and scream at the bedroom window, the police handcuffed her and said — her face pressed to the hood of the idling black and white — that she was not to return. I figured we would never see her again after that early morning in 2012. But the next night, around 1 a.m., I was in bed with my new boyfriend, “Scott,” and we heard the bedroom door slowly crack open. Scott jumped up. “No! You can’t be here!” he shouted, all high-pitched.
At the end of this calendar year, our second restraining order against Misty expires. The Misty saga (this is the truncated version) has pushed me to the limits of empathy. It has been an education, of course, but one streaked by repulsion, rage, and pity. It has been my first true introduction to madness, the sort there is no reasoning with, that is beyond mood or medication. It is pre-social and it is dangerous.
Misty would eventually bring violence into my bedroom, and violence is ugly, and it brought out something terribly ugly and deformed in me.
Over the past year I’ve clandestinely kept tabs on Misty through Facebook. I’ve learned about the suicides in her family, about the casual violence she grew up around, the deeply tumultuous relationship she has with her parents. Depending on her mood, she will sometimes refer to things irreverently, other times with a palpable sadness. Sometimes I want to reach out and offer a friendly ear, since we share some sort of perverse history. Before Scott and I moved out of his house, I slept on the same mattress she once did. But then there are other times, when I think about her and I want to hit her very hard, harder than she hit me.
Scott and I have known each other for 15 years and I have always harbored a crush. I saw him in his high school’s production of Les Misérables where he played the convict-turned-factory owner Jean Valjean, wearing a midnight blue army surplus jacket meant to evoke the fashion of revolutionary France. Scott’s voice cracked on a high note during his first solo and I swooned. This boy — who looked like a football player and sang bravely in front of his indifferent classmates — seemed to have the perfect combination of sap and mettle.
Last year I heard that Scott had just emerged from a snake-pit relationship. When I asked around about Misty, our friends said she was crazy. But I know the value “crazy” has in the currency of gossip. I know it’s a term most often applied to a female partner when she falls below the expectations of a group. Before my first date with Scott, I heard that he and Misty had formed a kind of cocoon of melodrama and sadness that kept the rest of the world out. She had ruined dinners and birthday parties through slow boiling tension that would explode behind closed doors into hysterics.
I text-messaged Scott for the first time in years, we grabbed dinner, I asked about Misty, he said that even though they had split four months earlier, every few weeks she would have some episode in the middle of the night, and call him 30 times in a row, then show up at his house if he did not answer. None of this bothered me, because Scott made me feel so full of life during our first night together, I felt like I had captured some glorious hybrid of Midwestern manners, extroverted modernism, with huge charisma and no active Twitter account. Scott, to borrow a phrase from e e cummings, unclosed me.
That first night, we stayed at my house, and after having an intimate conversation in bed, we noticed his phone had 41 missed calls from Misty.
Then came the texts. She was at his house.
12:03 AM: Where are you? I’m staying here
12:05 AM: Please come back. I’m not going to lose you. I’m not going to give up. Please come back I want to see you. I love you
12:06 AM: I’m too drunk to drive home, can I please stay?
12:10 AM: Ok I’m staying.
Scott turned off the phone. The next morning when we checked again there were 16 more:
6:41 AM: By the way the pup tore the shit out of the house, but don’t worry I cleaned it up. If you can’t take care of him then you need to put him up for adoption.
The “pup,” Levi, is a half-beagle, half-Boston Terrier Misty bought for $700 from a breeder during the nadir of their relationship. Misty and Scott agreed to some sort of joint custody since he had a backyard. This, of course, is a stupid plan for any couple looking to actually sever ties; not only involving a dependent living creature but also a joint set of house keys.
When Scott and I went to his house that morning to feed and walk Levi, we discovered Misty had washed all the dishes in the house and changed the bed sheets too.
My initial reaction to all of this was shock, but with a slight shimmer of recognition. I’ve also embarrassed myself for men. I’ve never slept in a guy’s bed without being asked to, but I have sent regrettably maudlin text messages to ex-boyfriends. I’ve shamelessly pleaded for a man to come back to me. And once, during a particularly devastating argument with a boyfriend who lived a few hours away, I called him for 20 minutes straight until he answered the phone. These were acts that I found incredibly shameful during the mandatory emotional inventory that occurred the next day. They were radical maneuvers from the emotional high-wire act of my early 20s where every relationship seemed like my last chance at love.
Had I not known Scott since we were teenagers, I don’t know if I would have stuck around — ok, that’s an absolute lie. I was totally intoxicated with Scott and voyeuristically intrigued by this trashy gothic horror show. I also believe that you can make someone’s life a little more tolerable if you help them say no to things that are bad for them (I learned this in a Twelve Step program!). Scott changed the locks and his cell phone number, and we made plans for dinner the next evening.
At 1 a.m. the next night, I came face to face with Misty. She was on the front porch, knocking gently on the door, politely, as if this were like any other visit. Misty explained calmly through the screen door that she was just there to see Levi and take him to “the beach for the weekend.”
I figured some huge wave of despair had brought her crashing onto his doorstep but she was poised and cool. No trembling, wild gestures, or mascara-made trenches on her cheeks. Scott called the police and asked her to leave. She didn’t move, except that she kept clicking her useless key back and forth on the lock, over and over. It was “no big deal,” she repeated flatly, her eyes glassy and expressionless. It was like witnessing what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion called “a thought without a thinker.”
Levi heard Misty’s voice and began to whine, yelp, and scratch at the door.
“Leviiiiii,” Misty called out. “Levi, come here, baby.”
Scott and I rushed the dog into the bedroom and waited for the police. Misty scaled the fence, ran to the backyard window, and started thumping the glass. She then lit a cigarette and began to make her case.
“Look, Scott,” Misty said in a conciliatory tone, as if sheer politeness would defuse situation. “I don’t know who this new girl is, and I don’t care, I don’t want you back, I have a new boyfriend now. I just want the dog, I don’t know why you’re acting this way.”
Up until this point I had been silent, letting Scott enforce the boundaries, allowing him to set up the new order of things. I don’t really do fights. I grew up an only child in a warm household with two communicative parents. I never got rough and tumble with a sibling and I never got a spanking. I can get mouthy and a little loud when in the throes of some domestic squabble, but nothing out of the ordinary.
And then something ruptured in me and I started screaming at the window. “Bitch, I’m the bitch who’s in this house! You’re the bitch outside of this house! You need to fucking leave! Get the fuck away!”
My plan, concocted in a nanosecond, was this: I would just shame her into leaving. She wanted a fight with Scott, but I wouldn’t let her have it, and I could think of no greater shame than getting yelled at by an ex-lover’s new girlfriend. Shame is probably the greatest regulating force of my 20s — the dark magic that compelled me not to do stupid things over and over again.
“Fucking leave! You need to fucking go!” I screeched.
She waited until I was done, and lit up another cigarette. “Are you really cursing at me? Really classy.”
I started to shake. What the fuck were we even dealing with?
Two LAPD cops put her in cuffs. Misty told them that Scott had kidnapped her dog. This created more confusion and yelling. The police said that without a restraining order and without Misty committing any acts of vandalism, they would have to let her go. This made us feel powerless. I had the suspicion that, if Misty had been a six-foot man the police would have taken the threat more seriously.
The handcuffs came off and Misty drove away.
We filed the emergency restraining order against Misty the next morning. I read Scott’s affidavit. In their 16-month relationship, she’d hit him, bitten him, slapped him, smashed his computer, swung a knife at him, then put it to her own chest and threatened self-slaughter. Surely, he too must have the seeds of drama and madness buried in his body, I thought. What would I do if the victim became the victimizer? I would silently wonder, with rankling dread: What red flags am I missing? How could he date someone as damaged and abusive as Misty?
That evening we tried to relax and rehash the prior events, thinking that we’d taken the final and necessary step. But something was stuck. I knew from my conversations with Scott that Misty didn’t just turn into a ghoul one day. Her sort of victimization is systematic and had to be, at some level, enabled by Scott. There were no children, no mortgages, no external pressures keeping Scott and Misty together, so, I reasoned, there must be some collusion, some trauma they were both living out (I also learned this in a Twelve Step program!). They were shadowboxers but Misty’s blows eventually became real and Scott lacked the foresight, self-regard, or courage to leave her. I tried to relax in Scott’s bed and just as I did, Misty appeared in the doorway.
“No! You can’t be here!” Scott cried, as he scrambled out of the sheets.
“I just came to see about the dog!” Misty shouted, rushing towards Scott.
Scott managed to wrangle Misty backwards away from the bed but she broke through and, before I could get fully to my feet, her arm swung back and I felt a fleshy thud against the side of my head.
She looked me in the eye, her nose ring glinting in the lamplight. “That’s what you get, you fat cunt,” she said.
She swooshed around, threw open the door (she had broken in through the window), and ran away into the night.
There was another series of confrontations with Misty but most of them took place in a courtroom, or through the unregulated space of fake Facebook profiles and anonymous emails. In the days after our first six-month order expired in 2013, Scott’s phone buzzed at 1 a.m.
It was text message from Misty that just read: ‘Hi.’
Have you ever watched two girls in a street fight? It’s very awkward and usually there’s more hair-pulling and grappling than blows because most girls don’t have practice in throwing a closed-fisted jab. But Misty’s punch was a precise, practiced blow, the sort I have never once received or delivered, but have certainly witnessed parents issue to a wailing child in a supermarket or to a disobedient teen. I think Misty has been on the end of that punch before.
I’ve spent a lot of time around foster teens and delinquent juveniles. I know that, usually, any maladapted behavior they show — violence, shoplifting, habitual lying — goes back to their parents. When you meet a kid in lock-up, you’re meeting someone whose family system has failed or was never there at all. Talking to them makes you ache for, and resent, the parents of these wayward kids.
Over the past year, I’ve tried to diagnose Misty. The best I can do is borderline personality disorder. When Misty’s fist plowed into the side of my head, I was thrust into “Borderland.” Psychologists use this term to describe the emotional universe that those who suffer from borderline personality disorder create for themselves and those around them. In her book for clinicians, How to Talk to a Borderline, the psychologist Joan Lachkar writes: “People who live in Borderland … make up their own rules, have a weak hold on reality, are unpredictable, impulsive and volatile; and hear what they want to hear.”
The people of Borderland are the psychological equivalent of third-degree-burn victims. They have no psychological skin to protect them from the push and pull of the outside world, so every movement causes pain and agony. All emotional movement in Borderland is high-stakes, and the population reacts swiftly, and severely, sometimes violently to anything they perceive as a challenge or a threat. Borderland, ironically, has no borders. It moves with its population.
Lachkar describes the characteristics of the disorder: low self-esteem, loss of ego identity, suicidal ideation, impulsivity, acting out, inflicting harm on self or others, persecutory anxieties, abandonment and betrayal fears, distorted sense of dependency. Victimization. Intense rage.
There is no gene, that we know of, for borderline personality disorder. Borderlines are most often made. Unlike bipolar depression, psychosis or schizophrenia, being borderline is not an issue of low serotonin or misfiring synapses. Misty does not have an organic brain disease that causes her impulsive and volatile behavior. There are countless transgressions that needed to occur in Misty’s life for her to be this way. That’s what makes this whole affair so grim. If the dark force that drives Misty to hit, manipulate, and victimize could be counterbalanced properly through a pharmaceutical regime, then the problem would have a narrow scope. Borderline personality disorder often has its roots in systematic childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment. “In the most subtle and insidious manner,” Lachkar writes, “borderlines have a way of making others feel and suffer the pain and devastation they experience and cannot contain or tolerate.” Misty’s violence is not necessarily a failure of biology but of human care.
Scott told me that Misty grew up with neglectful parents, that her father beat her and that her mother was too dependent to leave him. I felt nothing but callousness towards her. I fantasized about another confrontation. My psychologist friend Liz pointed out that hardness of heart is also part of the cyclical nature of this violence. I can immerse myself in Jungian theories about object relations and read books about dynamics in families to better psychoanalyze Misty, but all she does is bring out the primitive impulses of revenge in me.
I continued to lurk around her Facebook page long after Scott and I stopped talking about her, excusing myself as if I were scanning her page for evidence of threats against us. Her outbursts about Scott and me eventually grew more sporadic by this summer, a full year since the break-in. There were a few explosive fights between Misty and her family that genuinely shocked me for their aggression and name-calling. She would complain about being lonely, then openly lash out at the few people who tried to console her. She’d rant about the way strangers looked at her, the disrespect her boss always showed her. She bragged that “daddy raised me right’ even though he “kicked my ass from time to time.”
I stopped checking in on Misty altogether on the day she posted her first sonogram and announced her pregnancy.
Sometimes I think about Misty as a little girl. I see her spending slow afternoons in the backyard of a small subdivision in southern Georgia. I picture the smallness of her white socks and the weed thistles she plucks out from their bottoms. I trace the awkward angle at which she holds her cereal spoon. I think of her arranging plastic hair barrettes by the colors of the rainbow. I see the half-moon whites of her tiny fingernails. She has the same eyes that all little kids have: enormous and searching. I see her there — tiny and ready like a teacup — waiting for someone who never comes.