I have passed a strange anniversary, and I don’t know quite what to do with it. On August 2nd, 2002 I entered a shelter for abused women. I was 20 years old. I did not know how to balance a checkbook, how to file income taxes or how to purchase car insurance. My formal education had ended at the age of eleven, and ever since my studies have been the product of my own devices.
I’m a big fan of old black and white movies. A couple of weeks ago I got Gaslight starring the lovely Ingrid Bergman and sexy Charles Boyer because one of my roommates had never seen it. It’s a classic film with a slow but riveting story, and marvelous performances by some of the finest actors of the time. I had seen it several times before. But I had a hard time watching it with this anniversary looming over me. This movie is where we get the term gaslighting from, and it is about the loss and recovery of agency.
Agency is an interesting concept, and one that I only became consciously aware of after T. Thorn Coyle linked a review of The Hunger Games which explained that Katniss lacked agency, and was therefore not a feminist character. Agency is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.” Katniss does not make her own plans or provide her own means, but follows the course of action as laid out by her male mentors. She is following the path laid out for her, not creating her own path. Upon learning that I no longer had any desire to see the film. By contrast, at least in the first book of the series, Phillip Pullman’s Lyra Silvertongue is practically brimming over with agency.
In Gaslight, Bergman’s character loses her agency, her capacity to act independently and exert power not merely in the world, but in her own home. I used to find the movie fascinatingly therapeutic because it is about the revenge of a woman whose agency has been cruelly taken from her by someone she loves. But now I see it differently. I see the story of a woman who was willing to abdicate her self-sovereignty for love and the anger over this turns her as cruel as her torturer in the end.
That’s a hard thing for me to watch. When I entered the women’s shelter I did not see myself as a victim. My mind was too full of desperation and fear for that, and so I also feared I was a “phony” who would be found out and rejected. Then I gained some perspective and education, came to accept that I was a victim and I reveled in my agency. I learned a lot of basic, basic things in those days. But now, ten years later, when I should be healed, there is a part of my soul that is still as angry and ferocious as a cornered rat. It’s an open wound, an ugliness, and it’s only purpose is to protect my agency.
I was raised to believe I had no power to act in the world. And to survive, I once believed it too. Where my nature bucked against my raising, there was conflict, and I, on several occasions, consciously gave up my agency. I became so small that I was an object of disgust and disappointment to those around me, and especially myself. I was a hopeless creature, completely at the mercy of others. I believed that the best I could hope for was to somehow marry and serve someone kinder. But that was a dim hope, and very unlikely.
Despite being told repeatedly that I didn’t have an original thought in my head, and that all my opinions and ideas were the result of evil, Machiavellian outside influences, I still believed in the power of my own mind. I knew I could somehow reason out solutions for my misery. Most of those solutions consisted of making myself smaller and more obedient. Of having less agency.
I wish I could say that after entering the shelter I never abandoned my agency again. But I did, and that is a shameful thing for me to realize. Not only did I abandon my agency because I had trained myself to believe that is how you survive, but I also became subtly angry and cruel. Survival is a good thing, and if lack of agency is how you survive then it’s obviously the path to happiness. Until you realize you have once more relinquished your self-sovereignty and you vent your anger in frustration on those who don’t deserve it.
The strange thing about being human is how long it takes to understand yourself. I never imagined that 10 years later I would still have an angry, cornered rat in my soul. And now I am faced with the knowledge that 10 years from now, in 2022, I will still be a person who is very conscious of her agency. Hopefully I will have healed a bit more, but I am not foolish enough to believe that part of my psyche will ever be completely hale and whole.
I am quick to notice when someone refuses to grant me agency. I may be completely oblivious to a handsome man flirting with me, but the moment it is suggested that I’m not smart enough or old enough or educated enough to grasp something, the hackles rise. When it is suggested that my ideas are not my own, that I am unduly influenced, brainwashed or demonically possessed, the claws come out. I am hyper-vigilant against patronization or being put in my place. The moment someone expresses that they know better than I the correct course for my own life, I turn into a cornered rat. While I recognize that is a problem, I still have a hard time faulting myself for that reaction.
I once believed that my only problem was that I wasn’t small enough. Then I saw myself as a victim, and I reveled in that victimhood, sometimes using it as an excuse for bad behavior. Now I just see myself as wounded and damaged. I recognize now that having agency, having the ability to exert power in the world and forge my own destiny, means I also have the agency to heal my wounds. Not overnight, but in due time.
I guess I’ve been ok, all things considered. Close to homeless a few times, but I have supported myself for better or worse for a decade now. I’ve made good choices and bad choices, like everyone else. Blogging is likely a bad choice as sharp-tongued as I can be, but it has become a habit that I strangely enjoy.
This isn’t the sort of anniversary that involves presents, but if I could have one, it would be that people grant me my agency rather than making me fight for it. That I know my mind, my faith and I have an ability to make a difference. Corporate culture is bad to rob us of our agency. It would be nice to have my mother recognize that I have agency, just once.
If you are in a situation where you are being abused physically, sexually, emotionally, financially, or mentally, please seek help. Don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t think you aren’t being abused enough to seek help. Take all the help you can get. Your life can be better and you can reclaim your agency. It will take time, but it will get so much better. And please support your local abuse shelters in any way you can. They do good work.