The presidential debates, horrific as their results were, provided survivors everywhere with a strange, backwards gift.
A recent piece notes: “It’s remarkable how many female viewers report feeling physically ill.” Trout has not touched any of them, not directly. Yet what survivors are reporting, watching him enter their living rooms via their TV screens, is that this kind of psychological violence is, in fact, physical violence.
We have been speaking and speaking and speaking about the harm caused by narcissistic gaslighting behaviour for years. Yet unless you have witnessed this yourself, it can be almost impossible to believe that it exists.
The logical switchbacks, emotional manipulation, moves to control the terms of discussion, utter lack of consistency or emotional accountability, and multiple competing realities that we are witnessing: these behaviors create trauma and dissociation in vulnerable people who are subject to them, especially when in the context of a gendered or other significant power imbalance. These behaviours, when they occur under circumstances of structural power imbalance and its attendant physiological vulnerability, can cause physical harm in the brains of survivors. One needs multiple minds to hold the multiple realities that emerge from this gaslighting behaviour in a near-continual stream.
Deflection, minimization, bait and switch, accusing others of things he has done, these emanate from Trout in a nearly-continous flow, as Liz Plank explains in a recent video when she notes: “If you feel crazy during this election, that’s Trout gaslighting you again, and again, and again, and again.”
(Note for the curious: if you’re wondering “Why ‘Trout’?”: like many, I choose to starve the name. It is much easier for me to read a beautiful word like ‘Trout’ when my body is reacting in this way.)
Even as you watch him speak – even as I watch him speak and relive being gaslighted by the last two men who dated me and the man who raised me – it is almost impossible to imagine how he could say the things he says with a straight face. And yet he does, over and over, on and on and on.
Observers note that he really, genuinely, appears to believe each disjointed, incoherent thing he says, in the moment he says it, regardless of how completely disconnected it is from his statement just a second before.
This is the reason he causes such harm. Whether because of mirror neurons or just limbic connectivity, the bizarre incoherent things he believes, it is very difficult for observers who are watching and listening to him not to believe. There is a powerful limbic connectivity that these kinds of abusers generate that pulls certain vulnerable listeners into their distorted reality.
I had to get rid of the eyes; the danger in limbic connectivity
The thing is, typically this kind of behavior is reserved for the private context of intimacy. These kinds of abusers, especially the low-grade ones, can hold quite successful positions and are drawn to positions of power and prestige, becoming big fish in small ponds and crafting a well-liked and even ‘humble’ persona. Only in the crucible of intimacy do the forgetting and emptiness, the bizarre dishonesties, the switchbacks and emotional incoherence become apparent, because they are attempting an intimacy that is impossible when you do not know the true self at all. In other words, someone who gaslights lovers and partners may not behave this way with other friends or family.
Typically this behavior happens under the radar of bystanders, on a narrow-band channel that only the survivor receives. Yes, your perfectly nice friend who has never done this to you, even your son or your brother, yes they can do this to their partner, ex, or lover, in a narrowband channel that you will have to work to see, because an intimate is interacting with their deeper true self, not the persona that they have subconsciously crafted that stands in for a genuine relationship to the self. Most others will interact with the surface, crafted self. Not the emotional depths, which are absent of connection to the true self, and thus are emotionally incoherent. The abuse is a kind of hypercolour dog whistle that communicates with the survivor directly, right in front of other people. It can take observers exceptionally keen powers of insight and empathy to catch this going on. Not many have that keen awareness: to catch a dog whistle not directed at you.
Until you choose to listen very very deeply to what the survivor is experiencing, you may only perceive the surface persona, and not see the gaslighting, while only the partner or lover is subject to it in ways that are hidden from bystanders. So when the survivor finally struggles through the physiological silencing of trauma and manages to speak, bystanders may not empathize or even understand what the one who was harmed is living through.
Watching Trout speak can help those who have never experienced gaslighting empathize with those who have. What is normally hidden, reserved for the private communication channels of intimacy, is now beamed over millions of screens for all to see.
The inability to name the harm is physiological and involves multiple neurobiological systems.* If a normally kind and compassionate person seems now to have only two settings, silence or screaming, or a normally good writer begins to produce choppy broken phrasing, or becomes unable to speak coherently when they try to name the harm, this is caused by the abuse they need support, understanding, and protection from.
Now, I’m not American, so I watch from the sidelines, with the ever-so-slight protection of living in a different country. I need that protection when I watch Trout speak. I want to hold the border, the very 49th parallel, up as a barrier, as I watch Trout lie, minimize, evade, distort reality, create multiple competing realities, and deny that any of this is happening. This is particularly striking because my usual understanding of borders is as sources of violence and harm. Yet watching him speak I find myself wishing for any barrier to the destruction this man can wreak inside my head.
I need all the protection I can get, because my brain – my literal neurons and physical brain structures – have been structured by a man who behaves in this same way. Narcissistic abuse does not need to use fists to wreak physical havoc on the neurology of those targeted by it. Deception, manipulation, ethical and logical incoherency that disorients and weakens the target, triangulation, and all of the other behaviours of brainwashing that malignant narcissistic abusers deploy to gain control over others, have physical, tangible, measurable effects of the brains and nervous systems of those targeted by this form of abuse.
Just as a survivor of sexual assault struggles afterwards to regain knowledge that they are allowed to determine who touches their own body, a survivor of serious, chronic gaslighting, who faces this abuse again in a new situation, has to work hard to know their own thoughts. Because the harm happens within the power dynamic of a trauma bond, and especially when it takes place within enforced intimacy from which there is no escape, brain development follows a path that matches the incoherent multiple incoherent competing realities continually spewed out by the abuser. Our brains are primed to be vulnerable to this harm, to split into multiple fragments in order to keep pace with the multiple incoherent threads of reality of the narcissist abuser. The effect is physical, even when the tool of violence is primary words enforced by social power.
We need names for these experiences, because we live in a culture that automatically protects men who abuse, and allows abuse to continue just because it is so much easier to swim with than against the tide. Because we live in a culture that masks and normalizes hierarchies of power, abuse can be hidden as ‘polite’ because it preserves the normal flow of power, while even gently interrupting abuse disrupts the normal flow of power, so appears ‘rude.’ Cultures of dominance are, after all, woven through us all, not ‘out there’ but inside us.
And that means we live in a world where empathy for survivors needs to be consciously cultivated. We need ‘best practices’ so that survivors are not left holding the responsibility to educate everyone around them at the time when they have lost the ability to eat, sleep, move, or speak, and most need others to know what to do.
When friends and those who are supporting me first asked how it had happened, some wanted me to show them a metaphorical cup of abuse on the kitchen table, when the trouble was that the abuse and the bystander dynamics are the whole house. It took time, doing their own research, and a lot of deep listening by those who know me well, to understand what I was living through, especially in the long stretch of time when I had physiologically lost the capacity to speak at all. How can I explain that the harm is so large we are inside it, that – like the holodeck walls on Star Trek Next Gen – only once you bump up against it do you see how it was around us all along?
The structural conditioning to disbelieve and not-hear survivors is massive and unseen until you ask for violence against you to stop, and for those around you to protect you and name the violence, and bump up against the walls of conditioning to disbelieve survivors in this culture
The unfortunate reality TV show that is this man’s face has a strange positive side effect: despite the horrors of this administration, when used the right way this experience can offer a way out of the double bind that survivors find ourselves in, where if we are kind and quiet and succumb we sacrifice our bodies and minds (that’s not a metaphor: the cost to survivors of this kind of abuse is loss of capacity to think, move, eat, sleep, speak). But if we speak up, those who care have to work very hard to understand us, because who could imagine a moral world created by a man like Trout?
For those who did not grow up inside a reality controlled by a gaslighting man, spotting this kind of abuse may be ‘easy‘ as these authors write: “We watch you say one thing, then say the opposite. Then refuse to admit any of it happened. […] We can spot gaslighting from a mile away.” Sure. If you are not yourself a survivor of this abuse during developmental years, you can spot it and protect yourself. Hence half his audience saying he reads as ‘a buffoon,’ absurd, nonsensical, as the other half experiences him as emanating terrifying distortion that they have no protection from.
For survivors raised inside this form of abuse, “spotting” gaslighting, let alone getting your own thoughts and memories back, is extremely difficult, because gaslighting during developmental years can literally shape the developing brain.
Just as women raised in families where they were never encouraged to say ‘no’ find that, as adults, they have a very hard time doing so, those raised with a gaslighting man find it very, very difficult to hang on to their beliefs, memories, and knowledge when someone like Trout gets inside their head and attempts to put multiple competing realities there.
I’ve been learning more than I wish to about this, because I asked for accountability with a former partner earlier this year, and encountered the hard wall of just how evasive and slippery this kind of harm can be. I have a support pod, and we asked him to create his own, but he just did weird slippery evasive maneuvers instead of taking any responsibility for a year of gaslighting and messing with my head.
Watching Trout talk is like a big, loud, public version of the bizarre emptiness, switchbacks, multiple competing realities, bait and switch, and manipulation that I experienced with this well-intended ‘feminist’ guy for a year. It’s a relief to have something I can point to, to say: “There. That guy on the TV who is making survivors’ nervous systems everywhere go haywire. There is what happened to me. Except he did it in a way that was hidden to others and that largely only I could see.”
It is vital to centre the emotions of the survivor. Notice this. Notice the tendency to instantly and continuously centre the feelings of the one who harmed, and fight it. Centre the survivor, direct and keep your empathy with them, even as we become curious about what causes this galislighting behaviour.
The continual, dizzying flipping back and forth we see in Trumps’s speech is part of a familiar pattern. It is real. When a survivor tells you they have lived through this, understand it is real and it is almost impossible to describe.
One developmental theory that might help explain what causes men like trump to gaslight in this way – viewed through an attachment lens – is that infants come to know themselves through experiencing mirroring and acceptance of their true self by caregivers. In this theory, those who are inadequately mirrored in infancy experience deep structural shame, and disconnect totally from their genuine selves. The pain of this disconnection is so great that they become a vast emptiness inside. Instead of experiencing genuine connection to self – or to others – they construct a surface self that can gain the approval and proximity of caregivers. This core loss of the connection to their inherent spontaneous genuine self can occur so early that they do not even remember the loss. They only know their ‘self’ to be the constructed ego, the seemingly very-confident shell that they present to the world, that appears to have very little or no shame whatsoever.
Where there is no coherent emotional relationship to the true self, what is actually under that overly-confident, emotionally disconnected persona is in truth a tremendous deep well of unbearable shame, a self-loathing that is not within the daily awareness, but which causes results in emotional, and hence moral and empathic, incoherence. The self, that governs empathy and connection, is not known, and is (falsely) presumed to be unworthy of being known. Anyone who comes too close to seeing this true self gets harmed. Deflection, prevarication, dissembling, and yes, deep continual gaslighting is the cost of anyone attempting intimacy with these folks.
Those with this inner disconnection cannot handle the slightest criticism of their constructed, highly-inflated persona. It is a false self covering a fragile, disconnected inner emptiness and emotional incoherence that is continually denied.
They need to do the hard reconnection work to know the spontaneous, genuine self, before they can become emotionally accountable or able to accept or give nurturance or normal responsiveness and connection.
Because there is no inner emotional coherence, they forget. They forget emotions they forget any true feelings of love and vulnerability with others that do occur. Any experience of vulnerability or genuine connection (seeing and being seen unprotected, experiencing unconditional acceptance by another) is so painful that it becomes completely buried very quickly afterwards. They move on from intimacies with shocking speed, and completely forget any tiny amount of vulnerability they experienced, even when it was positive.
This disconnection from the self means they can retroactively wish they had thought a certain way about an event, and then convince themselves that they always felt that way. Lundy Bancroft writes that people with this distortion can pass lie detector tests. They actually forget what they thought, said, and felt before, and believe in each moment whatever they feel is best suited to their false, inflated persona. Emotional consistency slides off them.
Narcissists of this sort are capable of passing lie detector tests because of this disconnectedness to anything resembling a true, genuine essential self who can be vulnerable – be seen as they truly are – with others. They honestly convince themselves that anything they say in the moment is and always has been the truth, even if a second later they are in a completely different reality that does not connect. This is what was done to me every day for a year.
My pod’s been doing a lot of research to try to understand what is happening when we ask for help, because as the very helpful book Why Does He Do That indicates, those who behave in this way have an utter block to taking accountability. They cannot hear information that contradicts their sense of self. They compulsively forget the uncomfortable parts of the story, so they gaslight everyone around them as well as the original one they harmed. They invite those around them into their distorted sense of reality. He wants most of all to prevent those around him from connecting with the one he has harmed, because this would allow them to check his facts.
Why Does He Do That has been super helpful at explaining this behaviour. Lundy Bancroft, who has worked with thousands of abusive men, writes that the only way to get a clear picture of what is happening is to consistently check what they say against information provided by their current and former partners. This is the only way to get a clear picture, he writes, because a consistent pattern in men who harm others is that they are not remotely accurate sources of information, even when they have completely good intent. Just like Trout, they can be extremely convincing because in each moment of speech they genuinely believe what they are saying.
Do you ever feel crazy looking at Trout and seeing that he really seems to believe the incoherencies he keeps spouting? That is how sure and honest-feeling these men can be.
The pundits waste no time in fact-checking Trout’s bizarre dishonesties, his blatant bending of reality. They need to. As Bancroft’s research tells us, the only way to counter gaslighting is to know, with certainty, and together, what is true.
This is why when an abuser gaslights a partner or former partner, he also seeks to talk one-on-one and preemptively to those she might go to for help, to convince them of a narrative that would lead bystanders to refuse to even speak to the survivor, to cut off attempts to check the abuser’s story against any external reality. His desperate attempts to control the narrative include attempting to silence the survivor completely if he finally loses control.
Men who have an emptiness inside them – who do not know the beauty of their own true selves and instead live in a toxic mix of emptiness and entitlement – live their whole lives turned outwards reaching for external accolades, advancement, and praise. These men may never turn inward, to know themselves and cultivate a whole, warm, nurturing heart, because this would entail facing the unbearable emptiness at their core that results from lack of healthy mirroring as an infant. Instead they seek constant external excitement, external markers of success, to distract them from the emptiness at their core. Their public image is their self.
Since this emptiness does not give them the conscious desire for true emotional connection with others, this emptiness manifests in acts of control and neglect towards those they love.
They use people for temporary needs and then discard them like nothing when they’re done with them. They block out and forget any emotional connection they once felt, after they move on.
They use words to try to get others to see them well, as though controlling a self-image is the same as cultivating a self.
Because these men have an emptiness inside them, they have no distinction between a public persona and an inner self. They live a barely-concealed toxic combination of insecurity and entitlement.
Where there is no cultivated loving heart, no connection to self, there is no warm centre that can love and nurture others. Instead they attempt to create a mask of a nurturing self.
These men are completely disconnected from their inner selves, and so they spend their lives seeking out superficial external reward rather than internal emotional maturity. If an act of kindness or nurturance is not publically rewarded – if no one they consider ‘superior’ to them who they want to impress is watching – they have very little inner incentive to offer nurturance or care.
Where there is no connection to the true self, there is no inner desire to create a warm home bond because this does not garner them the public praise that they are entirely oriented to. They can gaslight, manipulate, control or neglect their closest because the needs and feelings of their intimates just aren’t that important to them, as long as their carefully cultivated image does not get affected.
Especially in those crucial moments when normal care and nurturance are needed by their loved ones, as is normal and expected in a healthy relationship, in those moments when they are called upon to have something more than a vacuum at the core, they can grow angry, cruel, and blaming, telling those near and dear to them that the issue lies in them as they grow distant and neglecting. On ordinary days, they engage in a frantic, barely-concealed continual fleeing of their own inner emptiness and of anything resembling actual intimacy with those whose trust they gain – whether as lovers, partners, or intimate friends. They live in a continual, quiet, frantic attempt to conceal their true selves.
Rather than creating healthy emotional connection, as others would, they stew in a hurtful combination of self-loathing and entitlement that leads to them to act in entirely self focussed ways, with very little room for the needs or feelings of anyone else. This combination of inferiority and superiority, the pull between these two poles, leads them to confuse, abuse, and gaslight those they love rather than nurture and support those they care for.
The form the harm takes is this combination of gaslighting, emotional dishonesty (for how can you tell the truth when you have never known your own heart?), and continual quiet manipulation to get what they want, whether that is casual sex, or companionship without committment, or arm candy they can feel proud to ‘own.’ They focus entirely on their own needs while largely acting unconcerned with the needs or feelings of others.
Men who have not awoken to their true inner self will not have the joy in giving and loving just for the beauty of getting to love.
They do not experience the wonderful warm feeling of a deep, trusting family bond. They only know what others can give them, they only know how others can elevate their social status or help them gain admiration and influence. They exist for their reputation rather than heart and home. So they will depict normal expectations that we all have of one another – such as ordinary family responsibilities, or acting with warmth, honesty, and accountability for our loved ones – as distressing encroachments on their inappropriately expanded sense of entitlement, or as an invasive move ‘too close’ to their core of emptiness. If you come close to perceiving their true self they will lash out or flee. They perceive the healthy interdependence and mutuality of intimate relationships, which is for most human beings the place where comfort and wellbeing occurs – as an excessive imposition on their right to center themselves at all times, and simultaneously as a terrifying form of entrapment, an attempt to come ‘too close’ – even during sex, and with those they say they love.
They will story themselves as having ‘given and given and given’ when the things they are ‘giving’ does not rise to even the minimal expectations of interpersonal obligations to those one is intimate with. (Like describing ‘not lying’ as a gift, or ‘hugging my child’ as some extreme imposition, or ‘going to see a psychologist when my partner says I’m abusing her’ as some sort of fantastic act of generosity, when these are just the basic things one does to be a decent human being.) If there is no public praise involved in an act of nurturance, they have very little incentive to do it.
Any attempt to name harm (such as to ask them to stop gaslighting you, or to tell the truth) is received as criticism, and this can only be perceived as a blow to their image because the usual empathic capacities are underdeveloped. Since their image is all they have for a self, they must ignore, tune out, or ultimately destroy the one who asks them to stop harming. This appears to them to be the only available option until they get sufficiently motivated to recover the lost part of themselves that would derive pleasure in emotional connection. Men who abuse in this way do not distinguish between their self-image and their actual self, because their true self is underdeveloped, immature, or offline.
That is why they use words to try to control reality, and attack or isolate anyone who tries to bring a bit of reality back into the equation. (“I have all the best words,” he says, his face beaming into the living rooms of the nation.)
The thing is, they will lie, and lie, and lie about this. And if they lie to a survivor of gaslighting abuse, like me, the harm is immeasurable. And so you, friendly bystander, when a woman or trans person says they are experiencing this – when they say they feel crazy, or when they can barely speak? You believing us, you believing us matters. Our words and our minds and our imaginations are our first line of defense, and so your willingness to take the time to understand what is happening is how you can help.
Deeply listening to survivors, fact checking the partial-ommission stories that those who abuse use to deflect and avoid accountability, takes energy and empathy and time, and may take acting against the current of socially ‘polite’ behaviour.
In a violent culture, it is so much easier to toss up barriers to seeing intimate violence, especially when without cross-checking, the abuser’s narrative feels so truthy, and when even seeing the abuse might mean recognizing that we may have inadvertently become part of it.
A mistake we make as bystanders is to attempt to use our own rolodex of emotional experiences to empathize with the survivor – or to try to figure out the abuser. But empathizing with abuse survivors takes a different set of skills. Empathizing with survivors means stretching out of experiences we have already had, and into deep listening to the experience they have just had, or are still having, which may be completely outside our lived experience. Our own rolodex may just not provide the information we need to comprehend what they are telling us has just happened to them.
I believe completely, passionately, in transformative justice processes rooted in compassion, accountability, and a belief that no one is disposable – and yet this only works when we centre survivors. Empathy for abusers is needed but it is all too frequently used to derail support for survivors, which is exactly what the abuser wants.
It can also lead us to project our own ethical impulses onto the abuser’s actions, which would make sense if this were a reasonable person acting – but the whole point is that no matter how nice he may be to his friends or colleagues – who are interacting with his surface, carefully cultivated self – the abuser’s actions in the context of intimacy, in which our true selves become naked and bare, typically do not make that kind of sense. Imagine trying to imagine why hamster-hair keeps repeating “ICE has endorsed me,” when the plain fact that government agencies do not endorse candidates has been clarified multiple times. He believes if he repeats a thing enough it becomes true, because he is emptiness inside – his surface self is his only self.
You could imagine an empathetic reason for this incoherence that comes out of your own rolodex of experience, and it would just let him evade accountability, because he does not make that kind of sense. These actions make another kind of sense: an abusive, empty, entitled one. But they do not make ordinary empathic sense, so trying to empathize with an abuser who is evading accountability often just means throwing the survivor under the bus.
Bystanders may not comprehend the full depth of the harm, because of a mistaken idea that physical violence is somehow ‘worse’ than psychological violence. Well, if he didn’t hit her, we think, maybe it wasn’t that bad. I mean, we all have bad days, right? We seem to have this mistaken assumption that abuse just means coming home a little grouchy and having a bad day. We think only of our own range of experiences, and may find it hard to really hear what the survivor is telling us.
The core of all the different forms of abuse is typically the inability to take accountability for one’s actions, the inability to hear when we are harming another, the inability to own our mistakes or grow from them in a way that actually does repair. While we do need a culture that can foster accountability without ostracization, we first need a culture that believes and centre survivors of gendered violence (in all its forms: rape, assault, gaslighting, control of family funds, threats to leave if the abuser’s whims are not catered to, etc.).
We need a culture that can support accountability happening at all.
This idea that ‘physical’ abuse is somehow distinct from ‘psychological’ abuse is outdated, based in a Manichean divide between mind and body that is itself a deeply messed up Western fantasy that prevents us from knowing our own bodies. Its primary function is to further disbelieve survivors, or tell them they are imagining it.
In the 1800s, before the germ theory of disease, people would have thought it absurd that tiny creatures cover our skin and live in our bodies, keeping us well and making us sick. Absurd that tiny microbes, bacteria, viruses, can transfer invisibly from body to body. How can something invisible make you sick?
In the 60s, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the light from a TV screen isn’t just something you’re ‘watching.’ It physically crosses the room and touches your body, entering your skin and your eyes.
In the 90s, people thought it was ridiculous that anyone could be allergic to perfume, because it’s just a smell. How could you be allergic to a smell?
A gas leak can kill you. Unless an odour is artificially added, it can kill you before you can even detect it. We add the odour for a reason: we must make danger visible, so we can understand how to prevent it.
What happens when this man uses words to get at the millions of triggered women listening to him?
It isn’t only his body language that presupposes threat. As an abuse survivor, what I am susceptible to – I don’t even want to write the word ‘vulnerable,’ because that seems to open up a tunnel by which he can get me – is the multiple competing realities. The bait and switch designed to make you feel crazy. The gaslighting. The getting inside your head and trying to get you to abandon your own reality and adopt his, even and especially when his makes no sense, when his realities are internally incoherent, or when his words bear zero connection to his actions or to reality.
This kind of abuse is one of the most devastating forms of harm that any human being can do to another. Gaslighting shatters people. Physically.
And the worst thing about it is that those who regularly do this to others will then turn it around and say that you are doing it to them, by imposing on what they perceive as their ‘right’ to do this to you. Because what is consensus reality, anyway, right?
Here’s an example.
I say “The sky is blue.”
He says “The sky is green. It has always been green. What are you thinking? ‘The sky is blue.’ It’s never been blue. Look again.”
I look up. And because I have been raised by an abuser, because my brain has developed around precisely this kind of abuse, I see green.
I say, bewildered, but trusting him: “no, no I’m pretty sure it’s usually blue?” as I stare at the green sky.
He replies, getting upset: “You’re trying to control the narrative. I don’t feel safe now. I have to have room to control the narrative.”
And there I am, scared and confused, trying to believe both that the sky is green, and that me confusedly trying to remember reality is me ‘controlling the narrative’ – which of course I would never want to do.
Cue me having overwhelming dissociative symptoms. Cue him saying my dissociative symptoms mean there’s something wrong with me, because he’s acting totally fine.
He spent nearly a year telling me that he was acting completely normal, had no issues at all, and that the only issue was that all the women in his life were ‘crazy’ – And I completely accepted – even encouraged – his world view. Because that’s what you do when you care about someone, you encourage them to trust their worldview. Right?
This is what it’s like being a survivor of gaslighting abuse. This is how at risk I am to further abuse.
Here’s another example.
A guy I like says he’s into me. I say “ok, we gotta talk. I’m a survivor of serious formative abuse, and it kicked me in the ass last year. I’m in the middle of an extremely sensitive healing process, and have taken myself apart in order to carefully put all the pieces back together. I can only get close to guys if they are choosing to be actively part of my healing and are exceptionally careful with me. I get horrible dissociative symptoms if men are not extremely emotionally reliable and nurturing with me. So if we get involved at all, you’re going to have to treat me really, really well, act as solid, present, and good to me as the men who have treated me well.”
He explains what a feminist he is. How self-aware he is. How he does a ton of his own emotional work. He spends a few days explaining all of this to me, how he’s super super good to women and really committed to his feminist practice and totally gets it and is a big nurturer.
I think I’ve won the lottery – a cute guy I’m into who also is into helping women heal! I’ve been treated really, really well by several partners by this point and I know how awesome it is to be in a relationship with a guy who really treats you well. Who listens, who is comforting, who is responsive, who owns his shit, who values you just because you’re you, and because you help him grow. I know this well and between his words and his carefully cultivated feminist reputation I take him at his word that he is another one of these.
Fast forward a few months, and I am losing my mind, and can’t figure out what is happening. He has been destabilizing me all day every day for months.
He has been actively training me not to rely on him, continually tracking me for any indication that I’m beginning to feel secure and actively doing tiny and big things that pull the rug out from under me, while telling me a combination of that it’s not happening, that i’m imagining it, and that if it is happening it’s because it is his right. He acts intentionally destabilizing and unreliable while telling me he is being good to me, inconsistently enough that in between the most blatant episodes I can lull myself into believing his words about how good he’s being to me, but actively pulling the rug out from under me often enough that I can never quite count on him to be connected or emotionally reliable or even to be physically there – he literally physically runs off frequenly when asked for things like a hug or emotional connection and comes back angry and blaming as though I have done something wrong. My friends are extremely alarmed at his strange behaviour they witness towards me, but I only hear his words, and keep telling everyone they “just don’t know him the way I do.” After months of being deliberately trained out of emotional safety in a moment by moment way while being told all of these contradictory things, I am shaken and triggered and having all my old dissociative symptoms, the symptoms I so carefully explained to him before he got involved with me.
When I finally blurt out “but we talked about this before we got involved, this is my worst nightmare, getting involved with a guy who is destabilizing and unreliable,” instead of saying ‘oh, shit, I am acting unreliable, aren’t I, and I committed to act really safe with you, didn’t I, wow thanks for letting me know, how can I do better,’ he does a classic bait and switch, though I only understand it later. Instead of hearing me, and apologizing or recognizing he is treating me badly despite having committed to the responsibility to treat me well, when I blurt out “but this is my worst nightmare,” instead of offering any kind of compassion he shoots back what he seems to think is a perfect parallel. “This is my worst nightmare,” he retorts. “My worst nightmare is anyone relying on me.”
Nothing even remotely resembling hearing me, or connecting back to his safety commitment to me, nothing remotely resembling an apology for gaining and breaking a survivor’s trust, no recognition of what a strange ‘right’ this is for him to claim. He says it as though training others not to rely on him is something he ‘deserves’ – relationship without reliability, sex without accountability.
Even as he says this, he switchbacks on me moments later to say, somehow, angrily “I am being so reliable, I’m being so good to you, what is wrong with you that you don’t feel safe yet!” I have heard him tell me how good he is being to me over and over by now. And I have such a hard time comprehending reality when his words contradict it. He somehow manages to tell me this is real, that he’s ‘being so reliable,’ even as he also tells me it is perfectly normal that he is being unreliable, because he is entitled to act unreliable because his worst fear is anyone relying on him.
I manage to live inside both of these realities simultaneously, because I care about him, and my brain is built this way, and he wants me to. How can anyone live inside directly competing realities? And yet I trust him, completely, so somehow I do. Meanwhile he continues this constant, extremely alarming destabilization in his moment-by-moment actions, actively policing me for any sign of reassuring comfort or emotional intimacy, actively policing our interactions to make sure I never get to a feeling of safety, while lying in dozens of different ways about why he is doing this and about whether it is even happening.
That’s layer one. Hold that in mind, because here comes layer two.
As this is all going on, I also slowly discover that he has created two other alternate realities and seems to be attempting to live inside both of those at once too.
In one, he is – in his oft-repeated words – “deeply in love with me” and is my partner. This is the reality I take to be our consensual reality, the one we discussed for days and weeks and what I understood we were doing together. I had been amply, amply clear that given what I was healing from, I was only in a position to be with him if he was ready to be exceptionally emotionally consistent, present, and solid with me, our relationship out in the open, official, and real. I have had my trust shattered by a primary attachment bond, and I deserve to be treated with dignity and to have partners act in a very, very trustworthy way to help me heal, and I had made all of this extremely clear to him at the start. He had said all the things he wanted me to believe.
He is simultaneously creating another entire reality, one I slowly come to understand he is building around us unbeknownst to me. In this alternate reality, he “has no romantic feelings for me” (also his words!), and he is apparently just “hanging out” with me having casual sex.
He switches back and forth subtly between these realities depending on his mood, who we are around, and which story he has led them to believe. As the months go on he becomes more blatant about this, until he finally one day switches back and forth openly to my face, as though I somehow also live in both of these realities. He says this to me as though we have agreed, as though I already know this.
He seems to have no awareness, from moment to moment, that the thing he is saying completely contradicts everything else he has said. In each moment he appears utterly certain of himself, switching back and forth between these realities, acting as though it is me who is crazy. And when I am utterly, utterly bewildered and extremely confused and scared, and say ‘what are you talking about?’ he… slips… off the question, as though it hasn’t been asked.
Imagine trying to believe both of these things, as you are getting constantly, constantly destabilized by the person’s moment-by-moment undermining behavior.
That’s not even the whole of it.
Even as this is happening – and I find myself losing the capacity to speak and getting more and more destabilized by all of this – he also tells me for almost a year that no man has ever treated me better than he is treating me, that my own memories of being treated well do not exist.
As he tells me this I find my memories slipping away. Memories of one of the first men I had sex with, at age 19, who has remained a friend to this day 20 years later, who stayed up all night at the Dead Sea in the brisk desert wind, rubbing my body to keep me warm when we missed the last bus home from the sea and spent the night out on the beach. Who responded to me: when I turned to him, he turned to me. Simple things, and yet these were my first experiences of safety. I now feel these memories slipping away.
Memories of my longest partner, who in our first year of friendship unselfishly nursed me back to health when I had pneumonia and hadn’t slept in months because of PTSD.
Memories of my partner for three years during my undergrad, who fed me, rocked me to sleep, tucked my winter scarf snugly into my jacket collar to keep me warm when I left the house, cuddled me when I was sad or scared, and would quietly come up and put a big fat multivitamin on my tray in the school cafeteria as his way of telling me he loved me.
I think I can remember these things, years of my life, years of being treated well by nurturing men. But it’s all slipping away, like an eraser scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
I remember being treated well again now – mostly. My friends – and those same supportive, loving exes, who are still in my life and still act emotionally responsive – have all helped me rebuild reality after he tried to erase it.
But this ‘feminist man’ told me for nearly a year as he was actively destabilizing me that my memories of being treated well by other men didn’t exist, and I felt them breaking up and sliding away.
As I struggled to keep my own memories, struggled to speak and to hang on to reality, I tried to say “NO. Men have treated me well. Men have treated me well. I know being treated well exists because I have experienced it.” But even as I said it, I could not be sure. Can I really remember Merlin’s arms around me in the desert at age 19? Can I really remember Jordan propping up pillows and rubbing my back for hours when I couldn’t breathe, so that I could get a few minutes of sleep at a time, until bit by bit I began to sleep again, and then began to get well? Can I really remember Kevin rocking me to sleep when I cried because my father had written me another manipulative email? It is all slipping away, fragmentary, in the face of his utter certainty that emotional intimacy, responsiveness, and relational reliability do not exist. “All couples are like this inside,” he says. “They look ok on the outside, but nothing else exists.”
“Being treated well exists” I say, and I name these men like a litany, hanging on to reality, facing down both my abuser and this terrifying bewilderment inside me. Bewildered because I don’t trust myself: this quiet, self-aware, nurturing, feminist guy couldn’t possibly be doing this to me, he keeps telling me he is treating me well, I must be imagining it, he is so good to women, he told me so himself. As my memories flit in and out, threaten to break up and flutter away like so many bits of tattered cloth, moth wings over my eyes and mouth. Even now I have not gotten them all back, those visceral memories. Even now after more than a year of being told this every day, if I even think back and recall those conversations, my own memories threaten to slip away. This is how abuse creates dissociation.
By this point, when I have begun to come up into speech about how badly he has treated me, he decides he is entitled to control every aspect of our communication down to when it begins and ends and what topics he will permit. He ‘reserves the right to end the conversation for good’ if I or any of my support people tell him anything that makes him ‘feel bad.’
When a friend intervenes to help, bystander dynamics come into play. Centring survivors is shockingly hard. Men who have this vacuum inside centre themselves, and get everyone around them to centre them as well, by making centring them appear natural. The space they leave available for anyone other than themselves to be centred is a nearly nonexistent breathing room around the edges.
Relieved at the protection by another male ally, I ask my friend to explain and speak for me, because by this point months and months in I have all but lost the capacity to think or speak. Physiological effects come into play and break up my typical ease with language so anything I try to say comes out fragmented and incoherent. So I ask my friend to speak for me, and I try, I try to say “There Are Four Lights” – ie men have been good to me, men being good to me exists.
And instead of “oh, I see he is gaslighting you, hey buddy stop gaslighting her,” what I hear from our mutual friend is that I better stop right there, and take that back, because my ex “feels bad when you say that.”
Instead of hearing me, or taking the time to see what is happening, or naming the abuse, instead of helping me set a boundary – “thou shalt not erase people’s memories” the mutual friend who has offered to help turns to me forcefully and says “ok, now, well, stop that, because I think he feels bad when you say that other men were better to you than he was.”
Boom. Bait and switch. He is allowed to erase my memories, but I am not allowed to say “stop erasing my memories?” Because that makes him feel bad.
Apparently I’m never, ever allowed to be centred. It always, always has to be about the man’s feelings. Me losing my mind as a result of a year of active gaslighting couldn’t possibly be the least bit important in light of a man’s feelings. Me saying there are four lights is, it seems, a ‘mean’ thing to say to the person who is gaslighting me. Apparently him controlling reality is just normal, and me hanging on to my own memories or ever, ever centring my own experience is somehow not ok.
This expanded sense of entitlement, the baseline setting of interpersonal responsibility set in a distorted place, is what Why Does He Do That describes as a key behavior that abusers have in common. They believe they are entitled to a distorted set of rights-without-responsibilities and that anyone attempting to expect emotional reliability from them is imposing on their inherent right to centre themselves. This very baseline of their belief system causes them to gaslight people, because their perception of emotional reality is deeply distorted.
“There are four lights” hurts his feelings? How exactly does it hurt his feelings? It impinges on his natural entitlement to tell me that my own memories do not exist, that no one has ever treated me better than he is treating me. Notice even as you read, the cultural tendency to centre men, to empathize with abusers. Even I feel it as I write this. Of course he felt bad, you think. You’re saying another man was ‘better’ than him. Maybe this brings up bad feelings about his manhood. Him him him. But at some point, we have to centre survivors. I gave him my support, love, and empathy for eight months. So. Much. Empathy. And it just got absorbed in the black hole of his entitlement, and turned around as harm.
He told me all of these realities simultaneously, and yet also told me for a year that I was the one who had something wrong with me.
In some ways focussing on rehabilitation and empathy for abusers can add to the existing tendency of abusers to continually centre themselves. It’s tricky. We have to centre survivors and simultaneously hold abusers accountable in ways that neither encourage their massive distortions of their entitlements, nor throw them away. This is the centre of a Nurturance Culture that does not condone violence, nor condone disposability.
Because make no mistake: gaslighting is not ‘psychological’ harm. When he did these things to me, the harm sent hormone cascades throughout my body. When he creates multiple competing realities and insists that I believe both simultaneously, my entire nervous system goes into a state of alarm. When he hangs up the phone after lying to me, this action sends every system in my body out of whack. Emotions are physiological. Words cause physical harm. Why Does He Do That reports that where there is both physical and psychological violence occurring, survivors report that it is the psychological violence that causes the worse harm.
We must do away once and for all with this imaginary ‘scale’ with ‘physical harm’ at one end and ‘psychological harm’ at the other. All gendered violence is physical harm. The harm that is caused by words and gaslighting, creating multiple realities, replacing people’s memories – using brainwashing strategies to destabilize survivors- this is every inch as ‘serious’ as what we used to understand as ‘physical’ harm.
When we hear a ‘nonpology’ – as Trout beautifully demonstrated earlier this week, simultaneously saying ‘I apologize,” and saying “that was locker room talk” so clearly not sorry at all – when we are forced to realize that this slipperiness and deflection is precisely how abusers operate, when we are forced to realize we actually believed, for a second, because we applied our own ethical system to this person who lacks one – we are again harmed physically. Viewers report feeling sick to their stomach. Feeling hit in the solar plexus. Losing sleep. Everything from the pituitary to the amygdala to the function of our kidneys to our muscle tone to the communication between our organs is altered by exposure to this abuser’s words.
If my adrenals go into overdrive cortisol production and that creates a whole host of health problems, from accelerated aging to hair falling out to lung infections to cancer, isn’t that physical abuse?
The age of ranking abuse on a scale of severity from ’emotional’ to ‘physical’ is over. All that outdated idea serves to do is to make the abuse seem ‘invisible’ or to disbelieve survivors, make them have to ‘prove’ that things are happening inside our bodies when we get psychologically abused, and that these things are neither ambiguous nor our imagination nor our fault. Trout doesn’t have to touch anyone to cause massive disruption to our physical bodies. Survivors of psychological abuse all over the world are getting physically harmed watching this man speak.
All abuse is physical abuse. And all deserves to be taken seriously.
It is time to mark the harm, to give it the cultural equivalent of a blue stain or an odour of eggs, so we can see it as it as it enters the body, see it as it travels.
Check the facts against an abuser’s words.
And ask the survivors in your life how they are doing. Nothing beats a phone call, or an email, or an extended hand, to counter the inner and outer silencing of this kind of abuse, the helplessness, the fear of speaking up.
If you are in an accountability pod for an abuser, notice just how hard they find it to Own, Apologize, and Repair. Your role in the accountability pod is to hold them to it.
PLEASE SHARE THIS POST If this post speaks to you or makes you think or reflect, please help out: share as widely as possible.
*The British Journal of Psychiatry notes: “A replicated finding has been the deactivation of Broca’s area, the area of the brain thought to be responsible for applying semantic representations to personal experience to allow its communication or description (Rauch et al, 1996; Shin et al, 1997b). This would appear to be consistent with subjects with PTSD having difficulty in cognitively restructuring their traumatic experience.”
I love this Bay Area Transformative Justice pod mapping worksheet so much that big, dramatic, hyperbole feels called for. ie I wanna shout it from the rooftops and say it again and again: if you consider yourself a feminist man, or you allow others around you to let you walk around with this identity and you enjoy having that reputation, or if you find you get laid or get dates or partners because of this reputation, and if you have not yet mapped out your pod of people who you would want to call you on it when you act in abusive ways, then do this right now. like today. like right away. Because it is everything, it is wonderful: https://batjc.wordpress.com/pods-and-pod-mapping-worksheet/
For a world in which everyone can feel safer, including those who harm and those who cause harm. Thank you.
If you have been told that you abuse: this video from Everyday Feminism is also great, and I highly recommend you watch it and take in carefully what she is saying about her own experience of fucking up and then being fully accountable. Owning doesn’t centre you. It is not about your intentions or your emotions or your reasons for the fuckup. It centres the other person, the one you have harmed. Name fully your acts, take the time to fully get and own how they caused harm, and express in a responsive way how you intend to address them, and check if what you offer actually is effective for repair of the harm you caused. You can also have compassion for yourself of course but that’s not the owning part. That’s it. Nobody has to be perfect but you have to know how to do repair if you want to be part of social justice movements, because you’re going to fuck up and you have to know how to hear it and fix it without flipping out. http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/11/how-to-apologize/
This is an incredibly on point and insightful piece from Everyday Feminism I highly recommend you read and act on right away: Abusive ‘Feminist’ Men Exist — Here Are 6 Things Men Can Do to Stop Them
For more on working with shame and hope, here is a piece that looks at how the fear of being ‘not good enough‘ can be self-fulfilling
Minimizing, deflecting, bait and switch are core features of abuse. Here’s a resource that emphasizes the importance of expressing empathy when you apologize for harming someone. Without empathy your apology – like Trump’s “I did it, I’m not proud, I apologize,” will feel meaningless: Mindful Tools: How To Apologize
A note on gender binaries and cishetprivilege: I want in this post to talk about masculinity, and about power, and that is gendered. I want to do it in a way that doesn’t reinscribe violent gender binaries that cause erasure (and clearly I haven’t managed to do that here). This feels tricky to me, how to talk about power and masculinity – which we need to talk about – without erasing or reinscribing either cishetnormativity, or the ways intimate partner violence – which can happen to people of all bodies in all kinds of relationships – plays out in specific ways when it maps along gendered lines.
I want to talk about masculinity and power dynamics in the kinds of relationships that I know intimately, yet i want to be clear that these are not the only relationships and that these are not the only bodies. I don’t feel really well placed to write about how these power dynamics play out in queer and genderqueer relationships. I have been learning about it from people who understand how that works, but I can’t write about something I don’t know from the inside. I want a way to not erase my own experience of the ways all the emotional labour I tried to do to stop him from abusing me gets completely erased, while not erasing the ways trans and queer folks and QTPOC get even more erased than me. I haven’t figured out how to do this yet.
Language like ‘female of centre’ and ‘male of centre’ can be helpful. It can also erase that what I’m facing in my own life has been abuse by cishetmen and bystander dynamics created by the normalization of centring masculinity. I am in the middle of multiple conversations about this, finding the path through the cliffs so that survivors can support each other and not erase each other. I welcome more.
Do you love speculative fiction and social justice? I am working on a speculative fiction project that deals with the transformations our planet is undergoing, and the undoing of cultures of domination. Cipher is currently seeking collaborators, advisors, an agent, and a publisher. Learn more about Cipher here.
Acknowledgement: This piece and all of the knowledge that is growing around gaslighting and all forms of intimate partner violence has been generated together with the wonderful folks in my pod (thnx pod! you’ve saved my life), and the growing crew of people who have gotten in touch to talk about their own experiences, share resources, share insights, and generally think together. People of the internets who have been teaching me things include Eve Rickert of https://www.morethantwo.com/, Chach M. Heart of www.fiercewitches.com, Eva Blake of LiberatingDesire.com, as well as the many others who are building this knowledge together, challenging each other, and working together to think through and name experiences that our culture systematically refuses to name.