Processing emotional abuse: Tori Amos helped me heal
By: Michael Earp
Content warning: This piece discusses emotional abuse and intimate partner violence.
I should have listened to Tori Amos.
I mean, I did. I listened a lot. According to my Last.fm profile, Tori has three times as many plays than the next artist. Kate Bush, if you’re wondering. And those stats only started in 2007!
I’ve always clung to Tori in a way I have with no other artist.
Image by: Christian Bertrand
My connection with Tori Amos has been strong since I was a teen. I was introduced to her at age 16, by a friend who had grown up with Little Earthquakes in her mother’s collection since its release in 1992.
When the album Scarlet’s Walk came out in 2002, I was 18 and had just moved out of home.
Not only was I moving away from the insular world of NSW’s Central Coast to bustling Sydney, I was moving directly into a live-in partnership with an older man.
My connection with Scarlet’s Walk was immediate and deep. It’s a concept album about journeying around America in search of self: to commune cross-country and to reflect on history.
For me, it was the kind of album that could meet me where I was on any occasion. If I was feeling good, the tempos and bops buoyed me along. At other times, I’d weep, not understanding the overwhelming futility I felt, but feeling seen nonetheless.
The tragic irony is that, apparently, I wasn’t paying attention.
You see, my relationship wasn’t a happy one. Oh sure, we told ourselves it was. There were plenty of moments of joy. Our friends often described us as the poster couple of ‘making it work’, and of domestic bliss.
But there were so many unhealthy practices lying beneath the surface that, looking back, I’m amazed more ripples didn’t show.
When Tori Amos sang the lyrics, What do you plan to do with all your stories?, it sounded to me like, Who will you tell your stories to if you don’t have a partner?
In other words: without a partner to share them with, adventures are meaningless.
I was so entrenched in a heteronormative, monogamous, divorce-is-wrong mindset – mixed together with a fervent determination to prove that a queer relationship was just as valid as any other – that it’s no wonder I stayed so much longer than I should have.
What I didn’t realise at the time is that the question in those lyrics is asked by the new sheriff… quite proud of his badge. Read: the self-appointed authority figure perpetuating the patriarchy.
That relationship lasted 15 years, and was filled with all manner of abuses, coercive control, manipulation and financial abuse – just to name a few.
Five years in, I discovered he was actually three years older than he’d been telling me. This only came to light because he was arrested for something gut-wrenchingly immoral. The newspaper printed his age alongside his charge.
What was I to do with all my ideas surrounding being a steadfast and supportive partner? I refused to be just a fair-weather pal.
As there was never any physical or sexual violence between us, I didn’t see it as an abusive relationship, or recognise that his behaviours toward me were fundamentally flawed.
We loved each other, right? Surely that counted for something. I’d be damned if our poster-couple relationship ended because of my lack of commitment. I couldn’t be accused of an inability to see the best in people.
My hope for redemption was steadfast and fervent. Things will get better, was what I kept telling myself. The fact that I called him six or eight times a day to update him on where I was and how my day was going was just a sign of how much we loved each other, right?
In 2015, I started counselling at the suggestion of his doctor. He’d always discouraged me from talking to anyone about what went on between us.
“It’s our business – no one else’s,” he would say.
I finally started to believe that things were genuinely off after three separate counsellors told me the same thing. I somehow didn’t believe the first two, despite more often than not being met with an accusatory, “What did you say about me?” whenever I got home from a session.
Then in 2017, he was arrested again. The empty shell of me crumpled into a heap that had nothing left to give. I used the shattered pieces of myself to finally sever his power over me.
Now, in the 20th anniversary year of Scarlet’s Walk – five years on from ending that relationship – I’m ready to process my trauma.
I want to ask: how do we recognise interpersonal abuse in the absence of physical or sexual violence? How do we recognise it when the public discourse surrounding domestic abuse is so overwhelmingly heteronormative and focused on physical forms of violence?
When a heterosexual cisgender dynamic was not present in my coupling, how was I supposed to recognise what was happening?
I was leaning so heavily on Tori Amos, yet somehow I was misinterpreting the lyrics to affirm the poisonous narratives this man was whispering in my ear.
Now I recognise that the major themes which run throughout all of Scarlet’s Walk are abuse of power, controlling patriarchal figures and recognising when something isn’t right in a relationship.
The lead single ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ was his ringtone. I thought it was so romantic! Now I hear the lyrics so clearly. The chorus even starts with: And I’m so sad!
But the kicker is when she sings: And I rode alongside till the honey spread itself so thin/For me to break your bread/For me to take your word/I had to steal it.
So many lies and half-truths had surfaced by the end.
This year, I’m heading to America for two months to follow ‘Scarlet’, and to write a memoir. #MichaelsWalk, of sorts, alongside the two people closest to me, Teague Leigh and Bayley Turner. Our trio of friends are setting off to discover what the open road has to offer.
I’m using the trip to step out of everyday life and reflect on my experiences, while listening to what the universe and those I meet have to say. Plus, I’ll be finally listening to Tori Amos.
I’ve always wanted to drive Scarlet’s map: a map that plots Tori’s journey while she was writing each track on the album Scarlet’s Walk.
However, it wasn’t until everything in my relationship fell apart, and I heard the truth through the silence, that I realised what the purpose of the trip would be.
I’ll be asking myself, and those I meet, to consider how the queer community needs to recognise the many ways that interpersonal violence affects us. Many of these violences don’t require a trip to the ER, so are much harder to recognise.
My trip will entail three trans queers, 33 states in 55 days: limitless possibilities for healing.
Tori Amos had been there, right from the beginning. I needed to listen.
Michael Earp is the editor of Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories and contributor to Underdog: #LoveOzYA Short Stories. They have a teaching degree and a Masters in children’s literature. They have worked between bookselling and publishing for twenty years as a children’s literature specialist. Their role managing The Little Bookroom saw them named ABA Bookseller of the year in 2021. Their writing has also appeared in The Victorian Writer and Aurealis.
If this story has brought up any issues that you want to talk about, please reach out for support:
- Say It Out Loud has a list of the LGBTIQ community-controlled services for each Australian state/territory. The organisation encourages LGBTQ+ communities to have healthy relationships, get help for unhealthy relationships, and support their friends.
- QLife is the national LGBTIQ peer-support telephone service for people wanting to talk about issues including sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships.
- For Victorian residents, Rainbow Door is a specialist LGBTIQA+ helpline providing information, support and referral to those experiencing a range of issues including family and intimate partner violence, relationship issues and sexual assault.
- There is also a growing list of mainstream domestic and family violence services like 1800 Respect that are committed to LGBTIQ inclusion.
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