Empathy, gaslighting and coercive control

Charlie’s sulking again. His sulks are deep, brooding silences, heavy with threat. I believe they’re intended to convey that something I’ve said or done hasn’t met with his approval, but often there’s no discernible trigger. Today’s one of those days. He’s at the desk in the corner. I’m on the edge of the bed, waiting for the storm to break. I can’t help thinking he’s revelling in the control, although in truth I have no idea what’s going on in his head. I feel as if I’m in a courtroom where Charlie’s prosecutor, judge and jury, and I haven’t so much as the smallest inkling of the crime I’m supposed to have committed. I told him that once. He smirked into the middle distance and said nothing.

Mercifully, the tsunami blows through quickly this time. I dry my eyes on the hem of my T-shirt. Charlie’s still rumbling, deep in his chest, but the worst is over.

You know your trouble? You think you’re a victim.

If I did, I might have a point, but it’s more than my life’s worth to say so. He warms to his subject.

That’s the difference between you and me. You see, I really am a victim. You just think you are.

He doesn’t go so far as to say so there. Instead, he hauls himself out of the chair and lumbers off to the kitchen in search of tobacco.

I’ve no intention of analysing Charlie’s control issues here. All that’s long gone, and anyway no-one could expect sweet reason from a man who’d happily jump in front of an oncoming vehicle, rather than step on three consecutive drain covers. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a lot to trigger the memories. A newspaper article. A scene on the telly. A chance conversation. On a bad day, any one of them can reduce me to tears. Now, at long last, the kind of coercive control at which both Charlie and his predecessor excelled is to become a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years imprisonment. You could be forgiven for thinking I’m dancing in the street. If only life were so simple.

It’s possible I’m the only person ever to have broken an arm ten-pin bowling. I’m told my fall was spectacular, although I was too busy howling with pain to notice at the time. The paramedics were just as sceptical as you are. They thought I was making a fuss over nothing. They hauled me up unceremoniously, bundled me into a car and dumped me in the waiting room at A and E. It wasn’t till some four hours later that the doctor looked at me over the top of his spectacles.

It’s not good news, I’m afraid.

I could have told him that.

Luton and Dunstable Hospital’s A and E department is not a place you’d want to spend four hours of a Friday night, especially when no-one’s thought to offer you any painkillers. Through a haze of agony I became aware that the girl across the aisle had broken her ankle on a skiing holiday and come straight to hospital from the airport. Then the police arrived. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the woman they brought with them, except that she was covered in bruises and had probably never been on a skiing holiday in her life. I’d not long left Charlie for the umpteenth time. I could hear the officers pleading with her to press charges. I knew she wouldn’t. After a while they got an urgent call. When I next came to, she was gone. There but for the grace of God … I couldn’t get the words out of my head.

Yesterday, an article about the new domestic violence law passed down my Facebook feed. While I freely admit to being a social media addict, I rarely comment directly on news articles. It’s a murky world, inhabited by trolls, bigots and misogynists who do nothing for my blood pressure or my sanity. I do my best never to venture into it. This time I succumbed to temptation. The very first comment on the article had been removed by the moderator. A number of others conveyed, with less abuse but no less assurance, the ‘Charlie perspective’ on domestic violence. We men really are victims. You women only think you are. Empathy for the writer, who’d found herself homeless with a young child just before Christmas, was in very short supply.

As I’ve said, I’m not even going to start on the reasons why a perpetrator of abuse might want to believe himself to be a victim. Nor am I going to suggest that domestic abuse is an issue that affects only women. Far from it. Instead, as I read and re-read the article, I was forced to revisit the sheer helplessness of being neither heard by my abusers nor believed by those who had the power to help me.

‘Ten years on, and just reading this took me back to a place I never wanted to go again. It’s so hard for anyone who’s never experienced coercive control to understand how the perpetrator can get inside not only the victim’s head, but also those of the professionals involved. I applaud the government’s initiative in making this kind of abuse a criminal offence, but I suspect that even in the criminal courts it will be hard to produce enough evidence to get convictions. I’m sometimes asked why I remained in a coercive relationship for so long. The answer is complex, but in many ways quite simple. I had no bruises. My ex was manipulative. Even the professionals involved accused me of ‘catastrophising’ the situation. Put simply, no-one believed me and I had nowhere to go. It’s a level of helplessness that’s hard to understand if you’ve never been there.’

Needless to say, the first reply to my comment had to be removed by the moderator.

Much like a comments’ thread, the floor of a bowling alley’s an unforgiving place. I remember trying to make myself pass out. Anything to get away from the pain. Of course, the paramedics weren’t to know my left arm was broken clean through, just below the shoulder. After all, who does that to themselves ten-pin bowling? The thing that hurt most was the judgement they made. In their view, I couldn’t possibly have done that much damage, so I must be overreacting. They grabbed the belt loops of my trousers and dragged me to my feet, kicking and screaming. Quite literally.

Maybe you’re just going to have to forgive me if I’m not quite ready to party on the strength of the latest initiative on domestic abuse. It’s one thing to outlaw coercive control. It’s quite another to persuade people to listen to its victims without judging, and to empathise with their pain. The victims of most crimes can offer incontrovertible physical evidence that a crime has been committed, yet even in the face of this convictions for crimes such as rape remain at a depressingly low level. Instead the waters are muddied by judgement, excuses, or spurious justifications. She was drunk. What did she expect if she was dressed like that? She was gagging for it. Incredibly, in the twenty-first century it still remains possible for a prominent female barrister to hold women responsible for sexual assaults on themselves. What hope is there for the victims of emotional abuse, where the physical evidence is more or less non-existent?

There were a number of professionals involved in my life when my marriage ended. Three experienced paramedics came to my rescue at the bowling alley. Not one of these people was able to empathise with my situation, or to accept the evidence of my distress at face value. The paramedics took one look at me and made up their minds I couldn’t possibly be be seriously injured. They made a judgement about my character instead. Hysterical woman. She can’t be in that much pain. Making a mountain out of a molehill. I imagine the people who told me I was catastrophising back in the day went through a similar decision-making process. Only I wasn’t lying on the floor at their feet while they talked about me that time.

The process of bringing abusers to book is fraught with far more hazard than this government’s new legislation admits. I can envisage victims of coercive abuse having their sanity questioned and their reputations dragged through the mud in court by the very abusers they seek to escape, and with even less hope of a conviction than there is in a rape trial. After all, given a choice between the evidence of a pre-judged ‘hysterical woman’ and that of a plausible control freak, which way is a judge’s decision likely to go? I wouldn’t want to call it in the victim’s favour.

In the end, more legislation isn’t going to stop domestic abuse. At best, it might put one or two a**holes behind bars for a while, but it won’t change anything fundamental. Instead, why not try listening to victims and survivors? Not judging us, but believing what we say. To anyone who’s lived with coercive control that’s going to come as rain in a desert, take it from me. We’re accustomed to being ignored. To having our integrity and our veracity called into question. We’re used to being told that our reason and perception are inadequate. That our abusers are really our victims. Gaslighting‘s a standard weapon in the abuser’s armoury. We don’t need other people to use it too. What we do need is safe places to go. The most dangerous time for any victim of abuse is after s/he leaves. We also need basic support to rebuild our lives. An adequate income and a roof over our heads and those of our children would do for starters. So many of us are trapped in abusive relationships by sheer practicalities. Our abusers make sure we’re short of money, and we have nowhere else to go. When we’re safe, we’ll probably need counselling to help us shake the shame. That constant, nagging belief that we brought all this on ourselves. We’re strong women, every one of us, but our self belief has taken hammerings beyond anything most people can begin to imagine. It’s empathy we need, not condemnation. And when all that’s in place, someone might like to start asking the Charlies of this world why on earth they think they have the smallest right to control our lives in the first place.

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