The often subtle nature of abuse

If you get punched in the face, although the puncher can claim it was an accident, you know without a doubt that you’ve been punched in the face. The same goes for a beating with a belt, or a stick. The damage done by physical beatings is something I can only imagine, not having experienced them more than a couple of times over my long life. The abuse I’m more familiar with is the emotional variety. This kind of expression of rage can be very subtle, and practitioners of this form of abuse are often very good at justifying themselves, making their mercilessness appear to be entirely your fault.

In recent years we have learned the word “gaslighting” — from a 1939 film in which a husband convinces his wife she’s going crazy by, among other things, turning down the gas light in their home over the course of time and pretending the light is the same as it ever was. It is a smooth variation on reframing, a technique by which whatever you’re upset about is recast from another perspective that makes you unreasonable. You say you’re upset about this, well, actually, THIS is why you’re really upset and that makes you a dishonest, confused idiot simply lashing out irrationally because you’re a jerk.

The damage done is the nagging feeling of self-doubt it creates about your right to your feelings, which can be crippling. You honestly don’t even see you are being abused until very far into the game, if ever. It is easy, many times, to doubt your own lying eyes and ears, when the pressure is kept constant by someone intent on keeping you off balance at any cost.

Many people don’t ever fully recover from this kind of abuse, tending to blame themselves throughout their lives for pain they didn’t cause and mistreatment they did little or nothing to deserve. Lately, during this lockdown I’ve had too much time to brood as I work through an interesting book about evil, which concludes that evil consists, in its essence, of a damaging lie told without contrition. Being less and less able to go for my customary long walks due to the arthritis in my left knee, I keep coming back to my own inability to see bad things for what they are sometimes. Sekhnet tried to reassure me by chalking it up to my good character, my desire to see the best in people, to extend the benefit of the doubt, my attempt to first cause no harm, but it doesn’t feel like a satisfying explanation to me.

There is a masochistic aspect to my unwillingness to let go of people who have shown themselves to be, at best, callous about other people’s feelings and determined to be right at all costs. I keep coming up short when I consider why I didn’t finally cut a very neurotic old friend loose once he, face fully a’twitch, blamed me for deliberately trying to destroy his hellish marriage. Or why I kept trying to explain myself to a very smart old friend who continued to plead ignorance to what exactly he’d done by expressing rage at my anger, precisely how this had hurt me so much, no matter how clearly I explained it to him. It’s this second guy I feel like throwing against the wall a bit now, though our long friendship was shit-canned months back. Though both were adamant in their denial of my right to feel the way I did, or their role in the escalating tension between us, the first guy is already in hell, to a more obvious extent than the second, who remained smugly superior throughout.

I saw a concise little presentation on gaslighting the other day (see below) and as I watched I saw each of this very smart old friend’s responses, set out one after the other. A textbook case of bullying by trying to make me doubt even my own ability to express myself clearly. The point was not whether or not I’d made myself clear (I had) the point was, no matter what I said or wrote, he had a ready reply that dismissed or ignored it outright and he kept falling back on his inability to understand, asking me to please, if I’d be willing, explain it to him again, a little clearer this time. In the end, in telling me how cruelly I’d hurt him (by eventually making clear what a desperate, irredeemable asshole he was?), he insisted none of the thousands of words I’d written him gave him any “clue” why I had felt it necessary, in the end, to be so hurtful to him. Now, because I had been so patient with this guy, acting in good faith with someone who was hellbent on being right, no matter what the facts, I am left with a desire to simply hurt the perennial bully.

The ten examples of gaslighting from the video below are a good starting point, I suppose, for a tart little final fuck you, since he employed every one of these lines over the months I took him at his word that he honestly wanted to repair our friendship. I should be able to get over this anger I am still feeling, but since I am not able to, inflicting a little last bit of hurt may be the best I can do to finish processing it. Let’s run through the list as I mentally prepare my fuck you to this unfunny clown:

“What did I do to you?” This is a good one, my mother used to use this one all the time. I have an image of her, sitting next to me at the kitchen table when I was a kid, screaming in a weird cadence (which makes me think she may have been shaking me to this rhythm) “what… did… anyone… ever… do… to …. you… to make you… so… fucking angry?!”

“Everyone around you isn’t the problem, the problem is you.” In the case of someone who lies at your expense, the problem isn’t that they lied, the problem is that you are such a self-righteous and judgmental prick. This is a newly familiar one to me, and a very hard one to swallow.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is a great one, sometimes expressed in the conditional “if-pology” form “if you felt bad, if I hurt you, I’m sorry.” Neatly dismissive of your right to feel the way you do, leaving open the possibility that nothing bad happened, and beautifully evasive of any role in causing the feelings you are conditionally apologizing for the other person having, if they actually even had such feelings. A classic.

“I don’t remember saying that, I think you made that up.”

“It’s your anxiety that made me do it.” A variation on the theme that you deserve what you get, because it’s all you’re fault, none of it mine, and if you have a problem, you caused it, because you are the asshole, not me!

“You need help.”

“It’s your fault.”

“You’re too emotional” (sorry if you feel that way, asshole)

“It’s not a big deal.”

“Why are you so defensive all the time? You keep attacking me.” This is the last refuge of a gaslighting bully, to make themselves the victim of you. It is this last one, more than another other single reason, that makes me feel like delivering one hard, unequivocal punch to this smart, eternally argumentative fellow’s smug, combative face. I’m not proud of this feeling, but I understand it. There is a certain value, I have to think, to providing this motherfucker with the unambiguous clue he pretended not to have.

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