Wednesday, November 07, 2007

When to hold and when to cut and run

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, relationships, emotional abuse

In the classic film "Gaslight", a predatory husband tries to make his wife believe she's insane, so he can get control of her inheritance. Part of his scheme is a secret valve that he uses to dim or brighten the gaslights in the house. When she remarks upon it, he claims the lighting hasn't changed. She spirals toward a breakdown until a visitor tells her he also sees the changing light.

Dr. Naomi Wolf has seized upon the term "Gaslighting" to describe a type of emotional abuse in which a person with a powerful need to be right tries to convince a victim who initially disagrees. Her book The Gaslight Effect: how to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life, written primarily for women, describes the process and effects, and techniques and attitudes needed to overcome this kind of abuse.

I was in my forties before I realized that some people can only "succeed" in their world-view if they can get you to feel guilty for your virtues. This is their hold by which they can control others. I developed two aphorisms for those whom I counseled: "Never apologize for being good" and "Those who live by their conscience are preyed upon by those who do not." I also pointed out that Jesus said, "Be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves." You gotta think like a snake, even if you prefer not to act like one.

I realized near the end of the book that those who become victims of Gaslighting also have a powerful need to be right, but fall prey to abuse because they also feel the need for their abuser to praise them. In other words, both predator and victim are of the same species; one simply has more power than the other, and thus can gradualy force the other to bend to his (less frequently, to her) version of reality. Ironically, the influence of "women's liberation" has led many women to fall victim, precisely because of their new self-image as good and capable adults, a view denied by the abuser.

At least one of the pair must make significant changes to break the cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, there is no incentive for the more powerful member to do so, so it is up to the victim.

Why does this happen so much? I've been victimized myself, and speaking for myself, there are two answers: the victim either loves or needs the abuser. Victimized children grow to be victimized adults with a built-in love of an emotionally controlling parent; a victimized wife (sometimes husband) is in love with the spouse—or remembers being in love, fondly; a victimized employee needs the abusing boss's approval to retain a job.

Strangely, while the greatest arena for this kind of abuse is schools, this is nowhere mentioned in the book. My wife and I feel fortunate that we had the wisdom and the power to remove our son from a couple of toxic classroom situations in which a teacher's main "technique" to "manage" (i.e. control) students was subtle belittling and discouragement of their spontaneity. We feel very chagrined that we were unable to deal with one of these situations, which led to our son's math abilities being stunted.

Dr. Wolf's book is not simply a descriptive text. It contains plenty of self-help information, quizzes, tips and resources. It is a call to action. She shows how, in four cases (probably composites, but based on her clients), some victims must terminate the relationship, some can limit contact (like seeing your mother less frequently, or only with friends present), and some victims are able to help both themselves and their abuser change in healthy ways. My mother once told me, in a rare moment of candor, that my marriage would be stablest if I moved a couple thousand miles away. She never forgave me for doing so, yet our relationship (mine with her) became much healthier as a result.

For me, I'd worked out the dynamics in the past, using the two aphorisms above. In addition to putting a continent between self and Mom, I've been able to completely cut the cord in one case, and in another, I changed from victim to abuser: I decided to stop walking on eggshells, and to make the other the eggshell-walker, just enough to keep him at arms' length. It is possible to convince a boss that he is in more jeopardy than you are. Turning into an old curmudgeon has its benefits!

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