“It’s Not Me, It’s You”: How to Identify Gaslighters and Fight the Manipulation

Gender

“It’s Not Me, It’s You”: How to Identify Gaslighters and Fight the Manipulation

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

When I think about it now, almost five years later, it still makes me incredulous: I stayed with the ex who rammed my head against the wall and held a knife to my throat for over a 100 days after that violent night. Each day, my grasp on reality became a little more tenuous, my sense of truth became a little more brittle. 

First, he changed my perception of why it happened. As if the why was even important. As if there existed some mysterious set of circumstances under which having your partner push you into a wall, head first, with such violent anger, causing such searing pain that you wonder if your skull has been cracked open by the blunt force, is not exactly as horrific as it sounds. Like there was some complicated relationship math that let him off the hook for the appalling choices he made that night. But he managed to convince me that it mattered. You can’t pronounce someone guilty without background, he whined. Without context, there can be no conclusion.

Sounds fair, I remember thinking. Fair. We were striving for fairness while I convulsed uncontrollably in shock and fear? I guess we were.   

His “friend” sent him photos in a bikini; we got into an argument, I threw a hairbrush on the bed in anger, it bounced off the mattress and hit him. No, he insisted stoutly. I threw it at him. Threw. It. At. Him. It hurt his eye. His. Eye. He had this way of talking when he was angry. Grinding out each word like they’re being wrenched out of his mouth with brute force. It was sometimes comical but mostly terrifying. The hairbrush had bounced off the mattress and travelled several feet against gravity and hit his eye. I really ought to have been training for the Olympics, with such impressive upper body strength. He was scared I’d do more. He was only restraining me. To protect himself, you see. Naturally, the only reasonable course of action available to him was to run into the kitchen, grab a carving knife, and press it against my jugular. By the end of month one, I was weeping and apologising, promising him it would never happen again. That I’d never again get aggressive. Begging him to give us another shot. 

What made me leave? The absolute, unmistakable, and insurmountable terror that ripped through my insides when he proposed. Run, my subconscious told me. And so I ran, and didn’t stop until I had put 1,300 kilometres between us. Ok, fine, I took a plane, but running is more poetic. 

Half a decade later, the bleakest part of the memory is not the actual abuse itself, but his very deliberate attempts to erase my reality and overwrite it with his own bleached, self-serving one. And how scarily close he came to obliterating the memory of my experience. Physical aches eventually recede, but there’s no way to completely shake off the bewilderment of denial

The bleakest part of the memory is not the actual abuse itself, but his very deliberate attempts to erase my reality and overwrite it with his own bleached, self-serving one.

It would take a couple of years before I’d learn the word for the miasma of confusion and self-doubt that clouded my brain for so long after the incident. Gaslighting – a form of psychological torture, where you are manipulated to doubt yourself and your sanity. And several more before it would become part of our collective vocabulary to understand and explain the very particular type of psychological abuse that so many women — but not only women — undergo in their interactions with men — but not only men. Much of the credit goes to the #MeToo movement. Two years on, an appalling number of the accused seem to be in different stages of carefully orchestrated comebacks; but if nothing else, the movement has made women acutely aware of just how many of us were engaged in the exact same kind of silent emotional warfare, methodically being manipulated out of our truths. 

Personally, #MeToo made me revisit, re-examine and re-engage with many ghosts from my past. The countless dates who had cajolingly tried to renegotiate a no. The boyfriend who acted first, asked later, and apologised only grudgingly for treating my body like his personal plaything. The friend who was forever misreading signs and feeling sincerely remorseful after. The avuncular “mentor” whose hand often wandered south while dancing at office parties. 

There’s one thing that all these prized specimens of the human adult male have in common — the tidal wave of shocked disbelief that swells in their chests on being confronted. And the chorus they all seem to have learned at some secret predator school. “You’re being too sensitive”; or, better still: “You’re reading too much into it”; or, the most oily in this particular line of bullshit: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Not to be confused with “I’m sorry I made you feel this way”. It’s funny how tacking on a few extra words to a sentence can make a world of difference to the listener, perhaps even set them free. 

It took me three decades to truly absorb and put into practise this lesson: I’m no longer available for discussions with perpetually misunderstood men who are more concerned with challenging the basic premise of what transpired, than listening — truly listening, not the pretend kind where you’re actually only waiting impatiently for the other person’s mouth to stop moving so yours can start — to how it made me feel. There was a time I’d walk away feeling confused, foolish, and chastised. On occasion, I’ve even been grateful that the man in question was being such a good sport about the embarrassing “misunderstanding”. Not anymore. I’m not too sensitive, or reading too much into harmless banter. No, I’m not too uptight, or too anything, for that matter. And I’d love to see you try me convincing otherwise. 

I’ve had perplexed (mostly male) friends criticise this refusal to engage with varying degrees of tartness, annoyed by the thought of a woman who won’t allow for the possibility of ever being mistaken. You have to marvel at their obtuseness. Have these people not been listening at all? Do they really think the average woman hasn’t already twirled and teased her memory within an inch of its life to give the men around her every benefit of doubt she can rustle up? Not all of us can master the winged eyeliner in our lifetimes, but we’re all champions at the art of creating a wiggle room where there is none. 

MeToo India turned one this month. So many of us turned one with it. The first year we allowed our narratives to trump those of the men around us. The first year we weren’t available to professional gaslighters. It’s a birthday worth celebrating. Happy birthday, ladies.

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