This traditional song was recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. My first encounter with it was back in 1967, sung by John Renbourne, but in 1969 it was recorded by Nina Simone and her version became the definitive one for me. The song tells of a spiritual struggle, with reading the Bible as the path to salvation, or, rather, the failure to read it leading to damnation.
“Blind Willie Johnson recorded the song in a time when illiteracy was common in the rural South. Blinded as a young child, Johnson was singing this song as a warning to those who had learned to read, but concerned themselves too much with earthly matters, but Johnson tries to point the way to salvation. He admits to having fault, and he blames himself for not taking advantage of the skill he has, reading, and saving himself. The context of this song is strictly religious. It is a melancholy expression of his spirit, as the blues style echoes the depths of his guilt and his struggle.” Wikipedia
The context of this song may be strictly religious, but my interpretation is: ‘Appreciate your gifts and take responsibility for your actions’. Something that seems to get blurred in today’s blame culture. Being a lover of words I know the difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ but recently had to examine those differences in the context of domestic abuse when reading ‘A Suitable Lie’ by Michael Malone.
This novel reverses the traditional view and places the man on the receiving end of an abusive relationship. It charts the escalation of abuse and explores the emotions involved, the attitudes of the victim, police, family and friends of the victim, questioning what it is to be a man and what it means to stay.
Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. It leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week and 30 men per year. It accounts for 16% of all violent crime, but it is still the violent crime least likely to be reported to the police, has more repeat victims than any other and leaving the relationship does not automatically mean that the abuse will stop and the victims will then be safe. People experiencing abuse don’t accept what is happening to them but they may try to cope with it, avoid it, understand it or try to fix it. They may minimise what is happening, blame themselves, feeling ashamed, embarrassed and alone. (Source: http://www.lwa.org)
I found reading the novel very disturbing. I have stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy and whilst I’ve never experienced the level of violence portrayed in the novel, I’ve experienced the same gamut of feelings the victim does. In no way did I ‘blame’ the victim, thinking he brought it on himself, but like an ex-smoker who has an evangelical purge on smokers, I wanted to shout at him.
Emotional entanglements are difficult to cope with, especially if we use love as an excuse for fear. Fear of retaliations, of being alone, seeming a failure, letting people down, abandoning someone with mental health problems etc. We are not to blame for the first act of violence perpetrated upon us but we do have to take some responsibility for staying, for our fears, for seeking help.
Staying is a choice, just as leaving is. What informs those choices has so much to do with life experience, levels of self-worth, support available and awareness. There is much needed to be done with societal attitudes, law enforcement, funding for refuges (the novel raises the issue – where do male victims go?), availability of counselling etc. But if the purpose of art is to reflect Truth, then this novel goes a long way to raise questions about the truth of domestic violence in today’s society.