Shutting Off the Gaslight

[CN: Intimate Partner Abuse: emotional, physical, sexual, psychological.]

Here is a thing about recovering from intimate partner abuse: it is not as simple as mere physical removal from the abuser.

Abusers are some of the most persuasive people in the world. Over time, they can build an impressive edifice explaining their own behavior as perfectly normal, your relationship with them as really quite good (or at least as good as you deserve), your friends as inferior, and your own behavior the real problem. Etc.

It might seem obvious to outsiders that your intimate partner is pulling the wool over your eyes, but that’s not what it feels like. In my own experience, it actually feels like a light going on. Ohhhh, so that’s why he* likes to brag about how intimidating he is—it’s not to scare you! It’s only to scare the “bad people.” Of course. Ahhh, now it makes sense why he gets angry when people don’t obey his orders. It’s not that he’s controlling; he just emotionally needs certain things to be certain exact ways. And as long as he has clearly explained his demands, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that other people will immediately accede to his wishes without negotiation or discussion. Now it all makes sense!

Room by room, my intimate partner built a prison of these explanations—but in the flickering gaslight that illuminated them, I believed him when he explained that it was really a palace.

Because here’s the other thing: abusers aren’t just persuasive, they’re master propagandists. (Sometimes they know they’re lying and manipulating, but frequently, they believe their own propaganda, which makes it even more convincing.) Good propaganda, whether it’s selling fast food, a nation’s wars, or an intimate partner’s bullshit, always begins with something you, the recipient, already believe or value. For example, most people would like to be more attractive to their preferred sex(es)—so advertising shows how Brand X cigarettes (or beer, or cars, or face cream) will make you hawt and sexxay. Most people think children should be kept safe, so advertising shows how Brand Zed tires keep babies safe when riding in cars, or that Brand Y sunscreen is so effective it can protect even delicate kid skin from burnng. And so forth. Take something good, and tie it to what you're selling.

And most abusers genuinely have good qualities, things we value. Abusers start with that to sell themselves. I had genuinely good times with my former partner—giddyingly high “ups,” in fact. I fell in love with those good aspects, so it wasn’t much of a step to convince me of the most basic propaganda: the Good Guy was the Real Guy.

It helped that so many people enjoyed being around the Good Guy. One of the worst disservices that pop culture does when portraying abuse is making abusers so fucking obvious. In films and tv they’re brooding angerballs with all the charisma of a fire ant. But my abuser, when in a good mood, was charming, enthusiastic, expansive. The life of the party! The center of attention! His sense of humor matched mine; we delighted in wordplay and repartee. Other liked to match wits and conversation with him too (mostly). He was overpowering—but when he was in a good mood, it was overpoweringly fun and exciting.

The Bad Guy? Well, there were a million ways to explain him away. He was a fluke, an aberration. Indeed, I was meant to be impressed that the Bad Guy wasn’t Even Worse Guy. He would detail the terrible physical things he felt like doing to the people who angered him—but he didn’t actually do those things. He just liked to describe them, explaining in great specificity how he could exact violent revenge. But since he didn’t actually carry out those plans, well! There was certainly nothing scary or abnormal about his frequent angry fantasies!

And this was a confidence, of course, shared only with me. So it seemed perfectly reasonable when he asked me not to talk about his anger with others. His explanations were obscuring the truth, were keeping me from getting outsider perspectives that might have revealed it. But it always seemed like he was just flipping on another lightswitch, giving me insight, making me his confidante. Building intimacy. I was drawn deeper into his world, his logic, and more and more lights went on. I could truly understand him, like others couldn’t—or so I thought.

Abusive intimate partners are so very good at this that, even if the relationship breaks up, their lights remain on in the survivor’s mental prison. I knew, for example, that abusers often make their partners feel worthless, as if no one else will ever love them. But because everything was filtered through his gaslight, I kept making excuses. My feelings of worthlessness weren’t his fault. They were simply my own thoughts, reflecting how very right he’d been about all my faults! He’d never explicitly said the words “You are worthless and no one else will ever love you,” after all. I was just looking in the mirror! That it was illuminated mostly by gaslight slipped right by me.

I can remember exactly when the first gaslight went out. I was confronted with things he’d said about me to others, in writing. Needless to say, they didn’t reflect the way he spoke to me directly. I was hurt. I was confused.

A light went out—and paradoxically, I could see clearly.

It kept happening. A friend told me she’d always been impressed with how I could “take it” from him—the “jokes” he made that actually were insults. Lights off! Suddenly I saw that shabby little room for what it was—a chamber of constant belittling.

I assured a new mutual acquaintance that he’d love the Good Guy, the Fun Guy. (The Bad Guy, I still thought, wasn’t real.) But when the Bad Guy emerged, the new acquaintance seemed to think that this one was in fact, very real. So real as to be repellent. Another light went off, and another truth revealed itself.

But this process takes time—months, years, maybe decades. And here’s the thing: in my experience, it’s really hard to know how far along you are in seeing that truth. Every now and then, you just mentally stumble—and when you stand up, the gaslight is gone and another wall of the prison reveals itself. You can name the abuse: it was bullying, it was coercion, it was rape. And now that the light is finally off, you can actually see your own wounds, and start extracting the poison that’s still affecting your life, your work, your relationships.

(And maybe you can see why survivors need patience from those who care about us. Until we can recognize something like sexual abuse, it’s hard for us to even begin to approach, say, a sexual dysfunction. Multiply that by so many aspects of life, and you see why recovery is often slow, and goes in fits and starts.)

I can say this, though: there is nothing like the feeling when you finally can look around and see how damn much of the gas has been switched off. Maybe not all of the prison is gone, but you know you’re no longer living in its hulking ruins. I know I don’t have to agree with my former partner’s framing of me, our relationship. I can call his justifications what they are: guilt trips, intimidation, bullying, manipulation, and deception.

It’s like that [CN: video autoplays at link] moment from Labyrinth when Sarah finally remembers the line that she can never quite recall, and repeats it wonderingly to the Goblin King: “You have no power over me.”

I’ve shut off the gaslight. I can see clearly.

And you… you have no power over me.

*[Because I am speaking of my own experiences, I am using male pronouns for my abusers, who are portrayed in composite in this piece. This in no way is intended to imply that only male-identified intimate partner abusers behave in these ways.]

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