Gaslighting is a technique used by abusers in which they manipulate their victims’ perceptions of reality in order to instill self-doubt and avoid their recognition of the abuse. It’s a term you may have heard before; I had. But I didn’t truly understand what it might look like. I thought it was inherently overt, that it involves an abuser fabricating a story and insisting it really happened until their victim finally believes it did. Thus, I thought it was something that my abuser didn’t really do, besides that one time he tried to convince me that at lunch I just started screaming for no reason and everyone stared at me until I stopped. It was a tale I had no memory of and was pretty sure never happened, yet I could never completely eliminate the possibility that it had, and in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wonder what other crazy things I do that no one had the respect to enlighten me about. I thought that’s what gaslighting was. But turns out, though abusers are simple in that they use eerily similar techniques, they’re apparently much cleverer and subtler than I gave them credit for.
Gaslighting is commonly used to invalidate one’s feelings. In my experience, that’s what made it so effective: My rapist listened to me. He didn’t simply ignore what I was saying and claim something else. He heard me, understood me, and he used that to become the author of my narrative. Let me elaborate.
It’s completely illogical even for me in hindsight, but despite the fact that as soon as my rapist began raping me my life became absolute hell and I was aware that I was mentally deteriorating, I made absolutely no connection between my suffering and the intercourse. Besides the years of grooming, my rapist made that possible through various other sly manipulation tactics. He banned me from talking to anyone but him about what was happening, and to ensure I wouldn’t, he told me stories about my closest friends that made me trust them less or think less of them so that the desire he very well knew I had to talk to them would subside. By the time he stopped raping me, I had gone from someone who begged him for months to allow me to tell someone else, to someone who believed he was the only one who could understand, because no one else was there.
More effective than the isolation was the fact that, as I mentioned, he listened to me – not just during the abuse, but before and after. Before he decided to rape me, he learned that I often felt emotionally invalidated by my family growing up. From this he learned that in order to earn my affection, he had to acknowledge my feelings. He had learned that to do otherwise would push me away, so he figured out how to validate my feelings in order to invalidate the abuse.
As he began to ease me into a physical relationship, the one undeniable and unwavering fact he could not gaslight away was him being in a relationship, and it was not within my moral compass to be involved with him for, if nothing else, that reason. He owned that. He made it work in his favor. As one might imagine, after you’ve been raped, you feel pretty disgusting and terrible. I was raped, and I felt those things. And I expressed them to the one person I was allowed to talk to – him. And here’s where he heard me and validated me and, even further, understood me.
Of course I felt horrible, he acknowledged. He feels horrible, too! And that’s because, of course, he’s in a relationship! That is why we feel horrible, and it is the only reason why! Effectively, he drew me closer by approving my pain, and he did it in a way that concealed an imperative reason I felt so bad, which was that I wanted no part in this.
I was able to express my lack of desire to be involved with him when he was in such a relationship. Once again, he acknowledged what I was saying, and what do you know?! He felt the same way! But, he said, I was just sooooooo special, and clearly we just couldn’t keep our hands off of each other! It’s a great cliché that’s easy to sell to someone you know is terribly insecure, like he knew I was. It was a smart move on his part. It really worked. How could I possibly have had anger towards someone who adored me when I deserved to be despised and was so attracted to fat, ugly me that he just couldn’t help but put his hands on me? He knew how highly I regarded his girlfriend, and he used that to tell me I was so good that I was worth the risk of losing her. He knew just how high a compliment that would be to me. How could I be anything but honored? It kept me securely in his grasp.
So to recap the story he was spinning for me, he loves his girlfriend so much, but I just mean so much to him that he can’t help but fuck me. Still, he feels great remorse for how this could hurt her. But the two of us are just so special to him. And yet…
now I know he had already cheated on her once, and during the same time period he was actively pursuing a third person. But he was very, very careful to make sure none of us would ever know. (Too bad I didn’t stay crazy like you hoped I would. Guess you didn’t do such a good job after all.)
So yeah, he used what he knew about me to get me to continue to be his tight little vagina that stayed silent otherwise, but he still wished I would fake a moan for him.
Was that too much information? More coming atcha. For months I would go hang out with him despite how often that would lead to me lying there motionless in immense physical pain while he bounced his dick around inside me to his satisfaction. You might wonder how I could not have figured out this was rape. Sure, prior to him I was a virgin, but surely I must have realized that something was not right. Well, I didn’t. Almost everything I knew about sex outside of sex ed in school came from stories he had told me for years. We both knew how experienced he was and how inexperienced I was. So I attributed my lack of doing anything at all to my being nervous. The only and obvious explanation I saw was that I was really bad at sex and the only reason he even enjoyed it was that I was so tight, which he expressed felt really good for him. I told him what he did hurt me, and he told me it was normal because he was stretching me. He acknowledged my silence by instructing me to moan, and I wanted nothing more than to make the shame go away. Believing my shame came from being terrible in bed, I desperately wanted to be better, to be more like what he wanted. I tried to imagine being able to make a fucking sex noise, I tried to will myself to do it, but the level of dissociation that was required not to completely lose my mind in the agonizing mental and physical pain I experienced as he penetrated me made this impossible, and I could only be frustrated at myself for it, for failing him. I wondered what was wrong with me that I never felt the need to make noises during sex like he thought I should.
Everything I articulated had a reasonable explanation. He never appeared disturbed by my feelings nor scared of them. He faced them head-on, and he justified them into submission.
He knew the best way for me to not blame him was if he blamed himself. By doing this, it ignited my sympathy and empathy. He was telling me he felt as badly as I did, and he proved it by showing how he was so ashamed of himself for cheating on his girlfriend that he hated himself. He knew how much I cared about him and how much I believed the things he said. He put me in a position where I was the one comforting him; he put me in a position where he would display the horrible way this is affecting him and I would know that it was my fault for being so alluring to him, despite how undesirable I felt. By praising my irresistibility he simultaneously exploited my deficient self-esteem while shifting the onus to me.
This is only a glimpse into the twisted world he created for me. It’s one he continued to perpetuate for years after the last time he raped me, in order to keep me seeing things his way, in order to protect himself.
This is how he gaslit me. This is how he took the time to carefully understand how I viewed the situation and ever-so-subtly tweaked that perception into something that kept me believing in him even when he was in the mood to do things like taunt me that he was going to fuck my sister and my best friend or punch me in the stomach. This is the sneaky shit he was capable of as a minor, and I am tired of being the only one terrified of what he is capable of now.