“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.”
Anais Nin (attributed)
I’d like to talk about gas lighting and shaming, in particular about victim shaming. Gas lighting is defined as rewriting someone else’s reality. The phrase is from a movie about a man who plays tricks with the lighting to make his wife think she’s going crazy so that he can take her money from her (my rough understanding, I’ve never seen the movie but I probably should). The lights in the movie are gas lights and so the phrase, ‘gas lighting’ was born.
Gas lighting is a technique usually used by abusers to keep their victims on the defensive, to keep them worried and off their footing so that the victim can’t regroup and come up with an escape plan. It makes the victim question every last thing in their reality right down to the tiniest of things like: did I leave the door unlocked? Did I leave the window closed? Did I put the cap on the juice?
It’s enough to drive you mad, and that’s the point of it. The abuser wants to drive you mad. They want to have complete power over you. It’s the true mark of a sociopath to take this route with a victim. If you suspect you’re a victim of gas lighting you need to seek help immediately. You need to call a helpline if you don’t have friends or family that will support you because along with gas lighting comes isolating you from everyone else.
This isolation can be done in such an insidious manner that it seems impossible, paranoid even to trace it back to your abuser. And yet, when you look at where all the roads lead: they all lead right back to the person who has you in their sights.
Usually this sort of thing occurs in an intimate and usually sexual relationship. Usually one party has considerable power over the other either financially or physically etc. These sorts of tells make victims of gas lighting hyper aware of new gas lighting efforts and most victims will run away when they see the first signs of the same cycle repeating once more.
I’m someone who was raised by a violent sociopath. He was intelligent and calculating and not the sort of man who threw me into a wall and punched me, he was manipulative. He was scheming. He made me feel like everything I did was of my own volition and not doing it was weak. He made me want to protect him and to feel like I was doing a good thing to protect his secrets.
It took a massive amount of will to come forward about the sexual aspects of abuse and how deeply I’d been manipulated. It was deeply shameful to admit how badly I had been taken in. But it was okay because I had a good support network.
I had my husband, I had my friends online, I had my online friends, I had my local community, I had my therapist and perhaps one of the most valued anchor points of all was my childhood best friend who was one of the very few who I told the most intimate of my details to.
But it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay because someone in my system was gas lighting me. Normally it would be most likely to have been one of my therapists or my husband since authority and/or sexual behavior are the two big things that allow someone to be in the position to gas light another person. It wasn’t them. My husband has never kept me in a position of subservience in any way and my therapists have been carefully weeded through to find ones who listen to me and who don’t ever push me outside of my comfort zone.
There was something wrong with someone who I least suspected: my best friend.
They say that you should always trust your dog. Well, my dogs hated her. The longer they knew her the more they hated her. They started acting out around her in ways that I had only seen them act around people who had admitted to having violent thoughts towards me or who had acted aggressively. That’s weird.
Then one day around Christmas, out of nowhere, she just called me and my husband stupid. She just said, ‘I was looking at getting a new game but I didn’t think you guys were smart enough to get them so I have to look for games for stupid people.’ Then she laughed. Hahahahah. That’s funny?
It’s not the way I talk to my friends and I’m not used to my friends talking to me that way. In fact, the only ones that have ever really talked to me like that are my abusive family. I started to have success in the local community and my friend C got mad. I could see it made her mad. I didn’t let it bother me because I could see that it was the sort of anger that comes with jealousy. I understand jealousy and I started the typical victim cycle of making excuses for an abuser.
But I had no idea that my friend would do this to me! Why would she? Was it all jealousy all along?
Then it got worse. Little bits of private information started to surface around town. At first it was little things that I keep to myself because I had to change so much to get away from my abusive family. They aren’t exactly secrets; but they aren’t things that I want told far and wide either.
The details that were getting out got more and more detailed and personal. People started to turn on me and my husband. And then, people started to let me know where the source of the rumors was: C.
I couldn’t believe it! With my typical loyalty I stood up for C while she smugly dispersed vivid images of my dad raping me around the small community where I live. All the while, not saying a word to me about it.
She would come by almost every weekend and sometimes she seemed exceedingly eager to hear about any misfortunes that my husband or I had had that week and seemed disappointed when I was happy and upbeat. My suspicions grew. My dogs continued to growl at her.
Every Sunday we’d play games with her and my husband and we’d either make dinner or order pizza, most often our treat. There was something else that was weird too. While to my face she would say that she liked my husband, as soon as I left the room she would treat him like he didn’t even exist. As soon as I walked back in she turned back on like a light switch. She was gas lighting us. She wanted me to think Tony was crazy or for me to say something to her and then to accuse us both of being oversensitive and crazy. It became rude to the point of insanity. How could I have her in my home if she was going to treat my husband this way? And what was she playing at by acting this way anyhow?
I wondered for awhile if she knew what she was doing. I wondered if it was just because she was awkward. Maybe she didn’t know what to say? But no, it was too extreme for that! And the escalation convinced me that she knew damn well what she was doing.
Meanwhile she was pumping us for information. One week she was elated. She told me that her mother had spent an hour and a half talking to her on the phone and was so happy for her mother’s attention. But she had been talking all about me and the pottery guild and how they had treated me. I felt sick to my stomach. Why was she talking to her mom for so long on the phone about me? Why did it make her so happy?
I realized with growing sorrow that she was trading in my struggles and tragedies as little gossip tokens to make herself the center of attention at her coffee shop. I realized that she was not my friend at all. This was affirmed when she told me that she wouldn’t stand up for me because she wouldn’t put her business at risk for me. She would, however, be more than happy to tell people about my childhood rapes it turned out!
I told her I didn’t want to have our Sundays anymore. Having her leak everything we said to her friends who hate me wasn’t cool. Having her be friends with people against whom I have a Human Rights Tribunal case made it too conflicted to have her over any more. Her response was to inform me that I was unappreciative of her efforts to ‘stand up’ for me by telling people about my abuse.
So, C, now you’re going to write my story for me? You who barely noticed my broken arms throughout childhood? You, who said you didn’t remember the times I broke down and said I had to do better, lose more weight (at 90 lb) so daddy would be happy with me? You who turned your back on me? You and your mother both. Your mother who was a goddamn school teacher and should have been on the phone with social services when this emaciated kid with broken bones was at her house… but was happy to let me come and stay for a few days but never to really help?
I would have been happy to let the betrayal go. To let it go that when people who know my name look at me and imagine my dad raping me when they see me. I was okay with you getting the facts wrong, C. I could have walked away without setting the record straight. But I’m not okay with you telling me that I should be grateful to you for gossiping about my life and my pain. For making it impossible to know if the person next to me in public will say something about your version of the abuse I’ve suffered. I’m not okay with you using my story as your currency. I’m not okay at all.
A lot of the comments you made and the friends of yours and your mother’s made make a lot more sense now. I wondered about them, like how I wondered about the things my family said before I found out my dad had told them all that I was crazy and that’s why I ran away from home. The two groups’ reactions were SO similar.
Congratulations. You’re almost as good as Leonard and Frank. One day maybe you’ll get smug enough and deluded enough and evil enough to rank right up there with them. But for now you can pat yourself on your back and tell yourself how much better you are than me because you have such a normal family, and how you ‘helped’ support me by taking my voice and telling your version of my stories to the world. Behind my back.
And maybe, just maybe, I won’t tell everyone all the horrible things you had to say about them. I can’t think of very many people that you had anything nice to say about. You listen in on your customers and judge them for what they read, what they eat, how they raise their children. You spill their private lives, rebirths and changes of name. You gossip about it to everyone else. You are a big pitcher with very big ears and a mouth meaner than nearly anyone I know.
You’re quick to talk about how important it is to be liberal but you won’t even admit openly that you’re bisexual. You’ll brag about it and talk about how proud you are of it, but only in front of the ‘right’ people. When it comes to time to put up or shut up, you shut up. You’d rather delete your FB page than put that up (and no one but you prompted you to insist on doing that, I wouldn’t mention it but you’ve assured me many times that you’re incredibly open about how liberal and bisexual you are that I don’t see why you’d mind me talking about it)… and deal with having to be connected to the real me. Not the little structure of me that you made up to use to put yourself in the spotlight, but the bag of pus you extracted to spread like poison over the city of Dawson Creek.
You aren’t just Faking Sanity. You’re faking everything. You’re lying. I know how you REALLY feel about a lot of people, maybe you’d like me to repay the favor you’ve done for me? ‘Warn’ people about what you’ve been through having to work serving them while hating them so very much? Despising them and their beliefs, their children, their ‘fruity’ or ‘nutty’ ways? Or maybe it wasn’t a favor at all and some things aren’t meant to leave a room. Maybe you wouldn’t want those people to hear the cruel things you had to say about them at all. Just a thought: you might value your privacy a bit higher than you value my privacy or in fact the privacy of anyone else around you including your business partner/roommate and your family… not to mention your much maligned customers.
Tell your own damn story and quit talking about my story. Quit talking about everyone else’s story. You don’t own any of that. You don’t do anything except sit in bed eating dollar store junk food and watching Will Wheaton play role playing games. You haven’t earned any of the stories you smear all over yourself and you don’t have a right to steal them. You’re worse than Gollum- at least he only wanted one ‘Precious’, you want anything dramatic, shiny or sordid to claim for your own and you don’t care who you hurt.
Speaking of hurt, I have one final thing to say on the subject. My dad hurt me, a lot. But I never trusted him, and I trusted you. I let my guard down around you and I thought you were safe. You were abusive in a way that stung more than what my dad did to me because there were good times with my dad. They were separate from the bad times but with you… everything I respected and treasured about you turned out to be a vicious and manipulative lie. You hurt me so much and for so little return, just a moment of attention and of being in the spotlight, a moment of putting a bit of tarnish on someone else. I should have known when I saw how cruel you had become to everyone in our past and in your present. The way you talked about your roommate and your family should have told me what to expect from you. The cruel lines around your mouth and the way people remarked that they had never seen you laugh before… the signs were there. I should have seen, but I loved you and so I didn’t let myself see.
I know that I’m not the only one you’ve done this to because I’ve heard the things you’ve said about other people. I’ve seen your cruelty in action. I wondered what they had done to you to make you so bitter and hurtful but now I see that you ARE bitter and hurtful. What people do in your radius is independent of how you treat them.
You need help. You know that. I’ve decided to post my response to you in public because I’ve learned that anything I say to you in private you’ll just twist. At least this way I get to keep my own words. You don’t get to steal those from me anymore. I’m reclaiming them and I hope all the people who listened to you realize that you committed a crime against my person, against my very soul by trying to steal my story for your own petty purposes. Go to the doctor, talk to a therapist, but whatever you decide, for once talk about yourself and not about everyone else. Get yourself sorted out and stop stealing from everyone and cutting everyone down to make yourself feel taller.
I hope that one day I can clear the debris of scum that you’ve covered our entire relationship in. Maybe I can enshrine what I thought of as our relationship in a hallowed place in my heart and mind then. That day is not today.