Content Warning: Domestic Abuse, Gaslighting
This is familiar.
It’s day three of waking up and, in spite of getting many more hours of sleep than I had planned, I am physically exhausted. All of my limbs are heavy and it takes all of my strength to curl up and pull my comforter over my head. I need to get up and get moving and get work done but I can’t. I just…can’t. And I don’t understand why.
Except I do. I just don’t like what I’m realizing that I know: that my body is remembering, even if I do my best to make my brain forget.
It’s 2011. I’m standing in the hallway and my husband is screaming at me, red-faced, neck veins bulging, “If you ever hold anything against me ever again I won’t stop at hitting the wall!”
I’m trying not to cry because crying is “manipulative” and will only make things worse.
“I don’t know what that means,” I say as calmly as I am able.
“You always do this!” He yells. “I do something and you say it hurts you and I’m sick of it! You’re just trying to make me feel bad! I’m not hurting you at all! You just want to hurt me!”
“I don’t want to hurt you.” I whisper, looking down at the floor, making myself seem as submissive as possible and hating myself for it.
“Yes you do! Are you calling me a liar? Who do you think you are to call me a liar. You lie all the time!”
“I’m not…I don’t…I don’t understand what’s happening.” I say in the smallest voice I can manage.
“Yes you do! You did this on purpose! You always start fights for no reason because you hate me! I know you do! You wish I was dead!”
“There you go, accusing me of lying again! I hate this! You’re such a fucking bitch! I wish I could beat the shit out of you but you’d probably just turn me in even though you deserve it!”
He starts pounding his fist against the wall, leaving little smudges on the paint. He stomps away, continuing pound the wall with his fist as he goes, screaming “I wish this was you!”
It’s only after he slams the door behind him and I hear the tires of his car squeal as he speeds out of the parking lot that I let myself start to cry.
This “fight” had started because I’d asked him if I could take his cereal bowl into the kitchen. The last time it had been mostly empty when I grabbed it and he had yelled at me for being inconsiderate. This time I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t start a fight.
Later he’ll tell me that everything was my fault, that he had just been sitting there, happily fishing away the afternoon on World of Warcraft, and that I had barged in and attacked him. That I had accused him of never taking care of himself and that I started drama for no reason.
“You have to stop doing that,” he’ll say perfectly calmly. “You’re really ruining our marriage.”
My head hangs even though I’m pretty sure that I hadn’t done any of the things he said I did or used the tones he said I used. I’d even practiced asking for the cereal bowl a few times to myself in the kitchen to make sure I got the tone exactly right: meek but still happy to serve.
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll be better.” I say, hating myself but not being able to stop myself.
This is gaslighting.
It wasn’t until after we’d split (a few months after this incident) that I first heard of gaslighting and looked it up. When I finished reading about it, I burst into maybe the ugliest cry I’ve ever cried because finally finally there was a word for what had happened to me. It was a real thing. It was abusive. I wasn’t crazy. I was right.
Every day someone somewhere jokes about Donald Trump gaslighting the country. They point to his insistence that he hasn’t said things he has absolutely said. They talk about his rewriting of history, of accusing Hillary Clinton, the press, every person who doesn’t display the proper level of adulation, of things that are demonstrably false.
In a way they’re right. In a way, the entire spectre of politics is a bit gaslight-y. Politicians try to convince us they’re better than their opponents. They spin and exaggerate claims of their own greatness and their opponents’ weaknesses. This is the way of campaigns. As much as I love her, and as hard as she tries, even Secretary Clinton is not immune to the use of hyperbole.
But I worry that our willingness to toss around words like “gaslighting” will trivialize what is a very real and very traumatic form of abuse. And what people are calling “gaslighting” isn’t quite the same thing. There is a fine line between just straight up lying and what someone does when they gaslight someone else. When someone is gaslighting someone else, they are actively trying to make their victim question their own reality, their own emotions, their memories. Lying on the other hand…well, um…Trump. This is one of the reasons I get so mad at current coverage. People are so quick to call what Trump is doing “gaslighting” and so hesitant to call it “lying.” Why? Because “gaslighting” is cool and trendy? Because trust me. It really isn’t.
And, if we’re being totally honest (and why not), I worry that everyone is right, that the Trump campaign really is trying to gaslight the entire country–and it’s working. Have you heard some of his supporters? Do you know how their brains work? Because I do.
One of the reasons that I am so completely opposed to and horrified by Donald Trump is that he reminds me of my ex-husband and the family I used to be married into, particularly my ex-father-in-law. I have zero doubts that all of them are ardent Trump supporters now. Trust me when I tell you, people like that should not be in charge.
When Trump really starts ranting and railing, when he’s yelling slurs more than he is trying to speak, when he’s ratcheting up the hatred and vitriol of the crowd, I have to actively remind myself that I am not back there. I am not having to force myself to smile politely while my father in law yells and pounds his fists and drops n-bombs like they’re cheap confetti. In the beginning I would try to argue back, but…well, you saw Trump’s performance in the debate: proven wrong, yell about a totally different subject and insist that’s what you had been talking about the whole time.
I know that I should be talking about the debate today, but this has been on my mind for a while. I’ll try to write about the debate tomorrow after, God help me, I watch it again from an analysis place instead of a reactionary place.