gaslighting

The Conflation of Virtue and Weakness

Weakness-Strength1I had a realization about gaslighting recently. You see, gaslighting only works if it’s victim is willing to consider the possibility that their perspective is wrong, if they are willing to consider other people’s perspectives and incorporate new information into their world-view. It works even better when the victim trusts the perpetrator, believes them to be acting in the victim’s best interest.

This is the thing that makes so much abuse so insidious (and also just plain maddening). Predators and abusers literally take advantage of positive character traits and virtues in their victims.

Because being willing to consider other people’s perspectives? This is an absolutely necessary part of making your social justice work intersectional. It is necessary to recognize oppressions that you don’t personally experience. It is vital, in other words, to being able to fight the good fight.

And trusting our loved ones to act in our best interest? Well, this might not be a virtue in and of itself, but being able to do so is a pretty important part of being a healthy human. No one can survive as an island, and sometimes we have to put our well-being in the hands of others.

Abusers take advantage of other positive traits as well. In any romantic context, you’ll get the abusive tropes of “If you really loved me, you’d…” or analogous sentiments, which play on the victim’s desire to be a good partner, and their desire to make the person they care about happy. It takes advantage of the selfless aspects of love, without any reciprocation (Because if you really love them, you won’t ask for anything in return, amiright?)

And then there’s this other thing that happens. Abuse survivors are often framed as having made mistakes, and having allowed themselves to be taken advantage of. You were naive. You were stupid. You were, ultimately, weak.

Trusting people? That makes you weak. Loving someone and being willing to sacrifice yourself for their happiness? Weak. Being willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong about anything ever? Sooo weak.

Even if you don’t have anyone telling you the abuse was your fault, I think it’s very common for survivors to feel like they have to change the things about themselves that made them vulnerable in the first place.

This makes me really sad, because so often this is the way the narrative goes, and we get derailed into trying to figure out how to cure these weaknesses that are really virtues, and harden good people into assholes, instead of actually figuring ways of discouraging/preventing abusive behaviours in the first place. We want to turn the predators into virtuous people, not strip the virtues from victims in order to prevent their future victimhood.

I just wish I knew how to do that. All I know right now is that we need to stop repeating the damaging derailing tactic of examining all the weaknesses and mistakes of the victim. Because I don’t want to live in the world where no one has the loving, caring, open qualities that can make a person vulnerable to abuse. That’s not a solution I can accept.

Yes to all of this

Excuse me while I spend the next week rereading and fully processing the amazingness dropped here (CW: rape)

“So if you want to be helpful, stop it. Stop it right now. Stop telling us we need to be less sensitive, or need to learn to take a joke. Stop explaining abusive behaviour to us. Stop implying feminists like being offended. Stop telling me you’d listen to women if we weren’t so angry.

Because I am angry and I’m sorry if anger makes you uncomfortable but for me, it’s a relief to realise after years and years of being quietly defeated, just how angry I now find I am. The anger reminds me that buried beneath the worthless, self-loathing teenager who whispers “it wasn’t rape,” whispers that I misunderstood, and that she will protect me by staying invisible, there’s another voice. That voice is tired of being told to shh. She knows it was rape. She always knew it.

Your gaslighting may be to ‘calm me down’; to defeat the anger, because, to you, that’s helpful. I get that. But my anger is not what needs defeating. My resigned, depressed apathy does. The anger is valid. The anger is me knowing I did not and do not deserve it. Don’t you want to help me be that person? It might be disquieting for you as I grow into it, but the alternative is that I stay as the person who believes it was not rape. That is the person who tells herself, every day, when she feels like fighting back to anyone or anything at all: shh. Be quiet. Don’t make any noise. Don’t make any fuss. People might think you are not okay with being raped.”

You should definitely read the whole thing. At least once.

Abuse-logic and Memory

I find it extremely difficult to talk, or write, or think clearly about the fact that I spent some years in an abusive relationship (which I’ve written about before, here and here. And it’s not that the thoughts are clouded by emotion – I can be dispassionate about most of my memories from that time. It’s something else entirely that’s going on.

Here’s the thing – the ways in which that relationship was abusive were definitely kind of nebulous, and not clear-cut examples of your standard after school special an abuse. And even now I’m often like “well, you know, it was kind of abusive, but not like super abusive” with whatever caveat I might have about it. One of those caveats is “I mean, it’s not like he raped me or anything.”

Except that, you know, I can actually point to a whole litany of occasions when he did sexual things to my body without my consent (up to and including penetrative acts, in case you’re a purist about these kinds of things).

So, honestly, I have no idea why I kind of just (conveniently?) forget about these things all the time.

I know it took me years (literally, *years*) after the fact to actually link any of these incidents with the way I felt about him and about our relationship. But it’s still hard for me to actually integrate them into any narrative of things – it’s like the way they’re stored in my memory is incompatible with the way other memories are stored, and they just don’t fit together. They’re random isolated islands of memory, oddly context-less, and my brain resists attributing any sort of causal relationship to them and anything that happened to me since, or any feelings that I have.

Even at moments like this, where I explicitly remind myself that actually, you know, he did rape you, I mostly don’t feel the truth of that statement. It’s not internalized in any way. Or rather, I suspect it’s already really deeply internalized, but that it’s somewhere that I can’t actually access consciously. Part of me resists it very strongly, to the point that I am entirely uncomfortable providing any kind of details about the incidents I’m referring to above.

I mean, I guess it shouldn’t matter what the details are, and it’s not like I feel like I have something to prove*, or that somehow sharing the actual story would allow me to get external validation on the fact that what happened was fucked up**.

I really think a lot of this links back to the kind of thing I was talking about in my post on “abuse-logic”. Being gaslit has a distinct effect on the ways that you understand the things that are happening to you in an abusive relationship. If, every time you have a moment of clarity, every time your brain wakes up enough to tell you that this maybe isn’t ok, your experiences are denied, ignored, and minimized, you’re told that your memory is incorrect, or that you’ve misinterpreted things, over time you develop an inherent distrust for your memories of the events in question. I don’t know why so many of us fall for it, either. But we do.

And unfortunately, the effects last well beyond when we manage to escape the cycle. Even though I know, intellectually, that my memories are accurate, and that my refusal to interpret them in the ways he insisted I should is valid, still I can’t interpolate these things into my existing narrative in any real way. Still, I can’t stop instinctively second-guessing myself, and doing the kind of generous rewriting that I had started doing as a matter of course when I was in the relationship. Because that’s the other thing. I was gaslit so much in that relationship that by the end, I never even confronted him with things, because I could have his side of the conversation with myself. I could tell myself exactly what was wrong, and exactly why I was being unreasonable, and I would do so because it was less emotionally draining than talking to him about it. And, by the time the relationship had developed to that point, the largeness of the pile of things that had been shoved under the rug to keep me in the relationship made me more and more reluctant to even look directly at each new piece of the puzzle.

The narrative is clear when you actually look straight at all of the facts pieced together, but the full picture is also just too scary to contemplate, and so I usually don’t put the pieces together, and certainly never more than one or two at a time.

And so it’s hard, but I’m getting better at reminding myself that it actually was that bad. It’s far enough away from my day-to-day life now that it looks smaller in the distance, and I’m processing it and putting the pieces together. And maybe one day I’ll stop minimizing my own experiences of it, I’ll stop second-guessing, and I’ll trust my interpretations. But I don’t think that day is quite today.

*Of course, I very often do feel like I have something to prove. This is exactly why I’m so often internally dissembling about whether it was “real” abuse.

**I’m actually perfectly comfortable framing the whole thing as fucked up, and that’s a depiction I can feel the truth of. It’s just the words abuse and rape that I can’t get to really stick in a way that’s convincing to myself, even though I would have no trouble if the same story was told by someone who wasn’t me.