At Least Grant Me My Agency

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.

Bergman’s character gives up enough of herself to her love that he able to take all of her agency from her, until she trusts him more than her own mind and soul.

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.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • T Thorn Coyle

    Congratulations. An anniversary where you removed yourself from a state of oppression? Pretty powerful.

    (and I love the Hunger Games books – Katniss isn’t a hero, she’s just a person trying to make it through life)

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Which is the basis of all heroism, ultimately, isn’t it?  ;)

      (Though, in the ancient Greek model, it’s often quite the reverse–if in trying to make it through life one ended up not making it at all, i.e. dying, then one was recognized as a hero.)

    • Éireann Lund Johnson

       Yes, congratulations on such a powerful anniversary and what it did for you. 

      I recently watched Gaslight for the first time, so it was nice to understand your reference here.  Ingrid Bergman’s performance was amazing.

  • Darcie Callahan

    Excellent article with lots of truth. 

  • Lori Davies

    What a powerful story. Thank you for sharing this piece of yourself with us.

  • Phoebe

    I spend one or two nights a week volunteering at the local women’s shelter.  I often think  of how guilty I felt at once utilizing their services myself, as if I wasn’t “abused” enough to seek help in getting an order for protection against my ex husband.  
    To anyone out there who is needing help in any way, please don’t think you are less deserving because you are going through emotional abuse instead of physical.  The staff and volunteers who help provide these services to people needing them – men and women- are very aware of the damage from many kinds of abuse, and are not there to judge the degree or type of abuse you suffered.  Even if you just need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to call a hotline.  Do I, or any of the other staff judge you because you’re not planning on leaving? No.  I completely understand, because I was once in a similar situation.  
    Thanks for another great post, Star.  

  • Amanda Cook

    A truly moving article with an excellent message. Your experience reminds me a of a dear friend of mine who escaped an abusive marriage from a man who was thoroughly ‘gaslighting’ her family. Enough so, that they actually took his side in the divorce.  It has taken her years to get to a place where she feels somewhat confident in her decisions, and I still see her struggle with it at times. 

    At any rate, I commend your willingness to share your experience with the blogsphere, and I thank you. ^_^
    On a sidenote: Katniss volunteering to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games at all is a supreme act of choice. The film is full of scenarios in which a character makes her own decisions, despite being trapped in a system that would force her to do otherwise, and being surrounded by others who relish that system for their own ends. Choice in the face of brutal conformity is the whole point of that film, and I would urge you to reconsider when it hits Netflix.

  • Eridanus Darryl Kummerow

    Thank you! I hope that these words reach those who need to hear them. So what has been built is not torn down.

    -Eridanus in DC

  • PhaedraHPS

    Another brave and eloquent post, my dear.

    I question you (or perhaps challenge you to question) one line: “…it would be that people grant me my agency rather than making me fight for it.”

    I question it because if I understand agency as you describe it, it cannot come from without, only from within. No one can grant or take away your agency. They might try to convince you otherwise, but they can only do so to the extent that you buy into their worldview.

    I say this with total compassion, because I have seen gaslighting in action and have dear friends in my life that survived it. (As a matter of fact, I just had a big “ah hah!” remembering a situation I long observed that I didn’t understand. Now I see that person A had been gaslighting person B. I came on the scene long after it had begun, and saw it, and supported person A, but didn’t really grasp exactly what it was until now. Wow.)

    I hear you saying that you believe that you have to fight for it. I will offer a reframe. You don’t have to fight for it, you just have to live it.

    You are a powerful woman. You found your power and live your power despite tremendous pressures to do otherwise. You deserve to celebrate yourself! And I honor and congratulate you.

    • Star Foster

       Recognition. You have to fight for recognition. It is wearing to have to constantly encounter people who refuse to recognize that you have agency.

      And thanks. You’re pretty awesome yourself!

      • PhaedraHPS

         You are too kind.

    • Vision_From_Afar

      I question you (or perhaps challenge you to question) one line: “…it would be that people grant me my agency rather than making me fight for it.”
      I question it because if I understand agency as you describe it, it cannot come from without, only from within. No one can grant or take away your agency. 

      I think you’ve got agency down pretty well, but I (humbly) suggest you might have missed a critical point. The ability to recognize agency within one’s self and one’s actions is what is modified, changed, destroyed, created, etc.  
      Like any other skill, the ability to recognize one’s own agency must be exercised, used, and practiced. I would posit (if Star would forgive me my insolence in inference :) ) that the faint hope she mentioned of finding someone kinder was the barest and smallest form of exercising agency. She wanted something that she would not necessarily be guaranteed by others. Someone who was born into slavery where their every action is dictated (repression of the skill and ability to exercise their own agency) can still wish to be free (have the ability to exercise their own agency).

      • PhaedraHPS

        Thanks, you make a valid point, and I certainly do not want to in any way sound like I’m playing “blame the victim.” I hate that.

        I was speaking today to someone who had experiences somewhat similar to Star’s. She said that any time she feels the least bit like someone is trying to mess with her, she prickles up like a porcupine. It’s a kind of PTSD, making one hyper-vigilant. It brings up the fight reflex. The challenge is to separate out the current situation from the past situation. The person you’re dealing with now may do something that reminds you powerfully of the actions of a person in the past, but they may have a totally different agenda. PTSD robs us of the ability to assess situations for what they are, and instead pushes us to relive the old situation over and over.

        So maybe what I’m saying is that the world is full of people oblivious to what they are doing to us. It may not be personal. They may not have a particular agenda against us. As we become more and more at home in our own power, we can live it, not worry about who is or isn’t granting it.

        Gosh, I hope that doesn’t sound like a bunch of new-age platitudes. It’s work, and the process of a lifetime.

        • Vision_From_Afar

           Lol, I never meant to suggest a “blame the victim” tone, sorry if you took it that way. It’s not a bunch of platitutes, I’ve had indirect experiences (helping others who’ve been through similar, but avoiding it myself), so I can understand the point you’re trying to make.
          Dancing Kirby approves.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Having personal agency isn’t always that important, is it?

    I have willingly given up much of mine. I have donated to ‘we’. I have done this several times, most notably to the most important ‘we’ I know of – the ‘we’ of personal partnership – but also the ‘we’ of any group I care to be part of, be it the Pagan community or a struggling political party.

    The most important ‘agency’ power I have retained is the power to leave any and all of these ‘we’s, should I want to.

    As for your situation. Consider, for a moment, that you may have a whole raft of people telling you how much you suck, but you also have a strong following here (and no doubt in other places) who do not only respect your agency, but are inspired and applaud it.

    How can you believe in anything until you believe in yourself?

  • Raksha

    So much of the situation you escaped from sounds so much like how two cousins of mine are living right now.  It’s infuriating to think how many women have been raised to believe that is good or correct or the best they can hope for, but it’s also heartening to see that escape is possible even for people who’ve bought into it so completely at one point or another.  Thank you for writing this!

    I have to say, though, that I wholeheartedly disagree with the description of Katniss as lacking agency.  The whole point of those books is that this girl exercising her agency in the most dire circumstances possible inspires everyone who sees it to finally start exercising their own.  Sure, she takes advice from her mentors, but she’d be stupid not to.  She has no experience with the Games herself, but they’ve been involved professionally for years.  And in the end, it’s not anything anyone else said or did that leads Katniss to think up the plan that ends up saving not only herself and her friend, but ignites a revolution that turns the whole country on its head.  Also, this trilogy isn’t three stories set in the same ‘verse, it’s one story broken up into three parts, so this first movie/book is just the beginning of the story; she’s only just starting to claim her own agency and learn how to make a stand!

  • Aidan Kelly

    Yes, at 14 I was almost suicidally depressed and oppressed by the Catholic Church and by my parents (not near as badly as others)and after my “enlightenment” experience, which I considered too precious to discuss except with a very few people, I knew I had to use my intellect to defend myself. Many of the strategies for defending oneself against the insanity of orthodoxies, and especially aganst “Who do you think you are?” that I discuss in writing about the Sixth Witch derive from hat period.

    BTW, one of the best discussions of this issue is in (I know this may seem strange) Andrew Greeley’s auto biography, Confessions of a Parish Priest. Greeley is totally not a typical Catholic. My former wife and Priestess Lady Epona once said, “If the Catholic CHurch were really lik what Greley describes, there’d be no need for the Craft.” So give him a read.

  • Crystal Hope Kendrick

    So much of what you said resonated with me.  I had a couple of ‘Ah-Ha’ moments myself.  Thanks for choosing to share this part of you with us.