On gaslighting.

Trigger Warning: Verbal Abuse, Gaslighting

He called me a slut.

I remember it so clearly because it was so shocking. I was sixteen, and almost pathetically naive about sex, yet he called me a slut.

My own father.

I held onto that word, let it shape what I thought of myself. Let it fertilize my anger and bitterness toward my dad. I never talked to him about it, because he never admitted to doing anything wrong. He’d tell me I was crazy. But one day it just came out, years later, when Rush Limbaugh used the same word to describe Sandra Fluke, and my dad laughed and laughed.

“What if he’d said that about me?” was what I’d wanted to say.

“YOU said that to me!” was what came out. “You called me a slut, and you asked how many boys in the youth group I was having sex with. You thought the acne on my neck was a hickey and you called me a slut.”

I was right about how I thought he’d react. It started with “You’re crazy,” and I wanted to take those words back because I already felt like he was right.

“You’re crazy, and you’re exaggerating. You’re ungrateful and you hate your parents so you’re lying about me. You’re misunderstanding what I said. I was probably joking, but you can’t take a joke.”

I didn’t even know which accusation to take to heart. I began to believe all of these things about myself. That I was too crazy to know reality from fiction. That I was an ungrateful liar who hated my parents. That I was too stupid to understand the nuances behind my father’s use of the word “slut.” That I wasn’t even smart enough to take a joke.

At the end of this conversation it was me who felt like I’d done something wrong. It was me feeling guilty.

It shouldn’t have been me.

I know that now. It shouldn’t have been me.

A few months ago, I criticized a popular Christian leader on the internet. They said something that hurt me, and after a few months of working up courage, I responded.

He accused me of twisting his words, of not understanding the nuances of the conversation. He made me feel like I must be crazy for even thinking he’d say such a thing. Others accused me of not being able to take a joke.

At first I felt the same way I had after the conversation with my father. But I’ve been learning since that day that manipulative people want you to feel guilt for daring to speak your mind. They want to control your reactions to what they say, at least outwardly. They are good at forcing you into corners where you must fight to defend yourself. They deny and deny, and when they cannot deny any longer, they tell you that you just didn’t “get it.”

They are good at stepping on your feet and then making you apologize for asking them to move. 

I’m learning to trust myself, though. I’m learning.

 

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  • Marie

    Thank-you for your courage.

  • Shadow Spring

    Yay for learning to trust yourself!

    My mom called me a French whore for the first time when I played with eye shadow in fifth grade. Not sure why French whore over just a regular whore. Crazy.

    • Abby Normal

      Ooooooh, that one’s as old as the hills. Syphilis used to be called “the French pox” back in the day.

  • forgedimagination

    Right now, I just have to completely cut off anyone who does this to me, it makes me feel so incredibly unsafe and vulnerable. When I called out a Calvary Chapel pastor for victim-blaming, and he responded with the typical “you just misunderstood me” nonsense, I spent the entire night curled up on my bathroom floor shaking and trying not the throw up. I spent the next week wondering if I actually was stupid and crazy like he’d said.

    People who do this have no concept of the kind of damage this inflicts.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Yuck. I have panicky reactions like that sometimes, too. Less now than a year or two ago, but I definitely still get shaky.

    • fancystephanie

      Imagine being married to that pastor’s son. :( Early on in our relationship, whenever he would do/say things that hurt my feelings or offended me, I actually had to use logical reasoning to defend my hurt feelings. Because I had a different opinion, I was automatically wrong, and I had to jump through hoops to defend my feelings. I told him over and over that my feelings weren’t crazy and that my feelings were valid, but he did not start to listen to me or change until we almost got divorced over this a year ago. I probably would have left him before we got married if I hadn’t been gaslighted by my dad and other authority figures growing up.

      Even thinking about this makes me shaky and nauseous. I really hate it. :(
      Sorry if this posts twice – Disqus is eating my comments.

      • forgedimagination

        I really hope my interaction with your father-in-law didn’t stir up anything in your relationship with him or your husband. That would be the last thing I’d want.

        • fancystephanie

          Everything is fine. Don’t even worry about that – nothing was your fault. I just hope you are okay!! I still feel terrible about what happened.

  • Boze Herrington

    Beautiful

  • http://lanahobbs.wordpress.com/ lana hobbs

    Shaking right now. Having really angry memories. I’m sure you’re not crazy or making things up, and why should the pressure of understanding be on the child anyways? It should be the parents who are careful to love and not hurt the kids, instead of saying whatever they want and then later putting all the pressure of ‘understanding it properly’ and ‘forgiving if we did anything that might have hurt you’ on the children. Whole body shaking and feeling scared…

  • http://apolarity.com/ Adrenalin Tim

    I believe you, Sarah. And I’m glad you’re learning to trust yourself. You have important things to say.

  • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

    This post really struck a chord with me, even though my own experience was on nowhere near that scale. (Yuck. I am so sorry.)

    Slowly but surely, I’m learning to trust myself, to own my perspective. It makes things so much simpler, just to plain old hurt, instead of having to question my sanity for hurting.

  • Levedi

    I don’t know if you’ll see this reply since the post is a bit old, but YES! I spent the first 25+ years of my life feeling crazy, disconnected from reality, constantly questioning my own ability to perceive basic reality because my Dad, mom, and one brother all did this to me. You’re crazy. You’re twisting my words. I didn’t say that. That never happened. I love you. Everything I do to hurt you is because I love you. I never hurt you. You’re ungrateful.

    I know that cycle far too well. I’m sorry you lived it too. Stay strong and trust your own sanity.

  • Annika Halvari

    gas-lighting, for me, was almost worse than the abuse; I almost lost my mind. I quit talking, writing (I had a blog that I wrote daily posts for almost 5 years) for almost three years. I had internalized that ‘gaslight’ mentality and would question everything I thought and it became easier to just say and write nothing. Even now it’s difficult and feel like I am just getting my voice back. I think what made it so difficult was the people who were gas-lighting me I didn’t think of as abusers…they were family, friends, fellow christians who ‘loved’ me and ‘cared’ about me; and , who as they liked to point out, never laid a hand on me and would never hurt me. It was sorting out these HALF-TRUTHS of these gas lighters that almost drove me insane.


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