Recently I asked a young woman I knew professionally how she had learned to be so organized, so self sufficient, so independent. She thought for a while and then to my surprise said she had read “Jane Eyre” when she was quite young and had been impressed with the heroine’s courage and determination, and, above all, at an epoch when women were taught to be submissive, at her ability to think for herself. When Jane discovers that Mr. Rochester, whom she loves, is a married man, that he has lied to her, keeping his wife hidden in the attics of Thornfield, he asks young Jane, who is poor and without relations, who would care if she lived with him without marrying him, and who would be injured by what she did. She answers, “I care for myself.” Her own opinion of herself is what is important to her, not that of the world’s or even that of the man she loves deeply. She is able to think for herself and to use her own judgement to decide what she must do. She faces a life alone, friendless, and without money rather than doing something she finds dishonorable and harmful. She takes the moral high road and in so doing ultimately triumphs.
Of course in reality the moral highroad does not always lead to triumph or even to success, but it does lead to independence, the satisfaction of doing what one believes to be right, and ultimately to what is surely better for everyone involved. When faced by someone who attempts to manipulate or frighten one into submission it is essential to preserve a free mind, an ability to see what is right for oneself to refuse to succumb, to have enough confidence in one’s own judgement to see clearly what is best for oneself which is so often what is best for all in the end.
It is tempting at times to believe that to maintain the peace or at least one’s peace of mind, it is better to meet aggression with docility or even to succumb to the demands made upon one, to give in, but the bully will never learn by this method, and will only increase the aggression and demands, always upping the anti, until one finally asserts oneself and refuses to accept what is demanded.
I speak from experience of my own and of my sister’s who was ultimately killed by a battering husband. Rare is the man or woman who once they have begun, desists if he/she is not opposed. It is necessary to find distance from someone of this kind and to make sure one is not endangered in any way.
Sheila Kohler is the author most recently of a memoir: “Once we were sisters” published by Penguin