Way too shy to ask my question. That's how I usually am when I attend a conference. Tonight, I was scared stiff. I've been reading the works of this philosopher for a while now, and yet I was too scared. Too scared to make a fool of myself, to say something stupid, to stutter. So, I kept my mouth shut.
I made up for it the next day, however, on Twitter. She'd surely never answer me, I thought, but oh well. I asked this feminist philosopher, who works on the issue of consent, what she thought about controlling relationships. Can one truly consent to a sexual activity when they are under their partner's thumb? I frequently ask myself this question, and I'm still not too sure that I have the answer.
Contrary to all expectations, the philosopher replied to me the next day with a lot of kindness. She got me to refocus however, inviting me to deconstruct this hackneyed idea of control or influence, and to investigate the lesser-known notion of gaslighting.
In the film Gaslight, the character played by Ingrid Bergman becomes persuaded that her mental health is deteriorating. Every day, her husband denies her perceptions and memories to the point of convincing her that she is crazy. As she gets overwhelmed, she cuts contact with her loved ones, becoming more and more dependent on her husband. Every night, alone in her bedroom, she sees the gaslight peter out. When she opens up about it to her husband, he makes her believe that she's imagining things. And for good reason since the reason why the light in her room starts dimmer is because the manipulator is using the lamp in the room above, busy with his secret scheming. Today, by extension, the term gaslighting is used in psychology in the English-speaking world and is beginning to make itself known in France. The American dictionary Merriam-Webster defines it as "the psychological manipulation of a person over a long period of time, causing him to question the validity of his own thoughts, perception of reality and memories". This manipulation "usually results in the victim's confusion, loss of self-esteem, uncertainty about their emotional and mental stability, and dependence on the manipulative person.
I didn’t expect to end up speaking with this philosopher and to consequently learn about this term. But the former notion of ‘influence’ is more vague and less political. Almost poetic. So, I kept using that word over and over again. However, a few months earlier, two friends had used the word gaslighting in my presence for the first time. They tried, helplessly, to alert me to what I was going through with you, while I gradually forgot about your infidelity, your verbal and physical violence, and my feminist convictions.
You arrived in the fall. I was just learning to live with myself, after a long relationship and countless wobbly, useless, and time-consuming stories. I liked Paris, I liked to drink, I liked to go to the movies. Nothing romantic, but for the first time in a long time, I felt at peace.
We met in this restaurant in the 20th century and I didn't like you right away. You weren't exactly handsome, but you had a certain charisma. And damn, you made me laugh. You were for all social struggles. You were empathetic, you listened. Without much effort, you seduced me. Pleasing was your passion, your fuel, and what fed your huge ego. So when the pretty, slightly middle-class, fiercely feminist girl came up to you, you figured this was the challenge of your 30s. As far as I was concerned, I was more pragmatic: for once, I didn't run into an asshole, a moron, or a violent guy.
We "formalized" this relationship very quickly. I wasn't sure I wanted to, but you were putting pressure on me, and I was feeling guilty. After all, I'd been brooding on my fatigue with unstable men for too long, and you were made lay to rest the stereotype. "If that's what you want, it’s what I want too," I said. You were ecstatic.
On my side, I started to announce to my close friends that apparently, "I was in a relationship". What’s that? Me, the decided, almost militant single woman? I could hardly believe it myself. Then the days passed, and I fell completely, deeply, fiercely, ardently in love with you. It must be said that you were a character, as much on social media as in real life. I was proud to share the daily life of such a unique and appreciated person. A man who had pulled himself out of the gutters, who had lived through hell and misery. I was your cure. Somehow, it gave me a value that I thought I didn't have.
Without realizing it, I was being drawn into a cult of your being. I saw my friends less. Not a minute passed without me thinking of you. Within a few weeks, you had become the pillar of my life and your laugh, your look, your smell, had colonized my brain. I should have seen that it was all going too fast. But nothing could get in the way of our story. Not even the concerns of my friends, who saw this little merry-go-round with circumspection, nor my radical feminism, that usually was quick to condemn the slightest deviation in a cis man.
Then you started throwing tantrums. Massive tantrums. I told you about sexist experiences I had experienced, and you minimized them. I would get annoyed and let you know that your reactions were part of the problem. Then you stood up, you shouted. At me. I would have to go into the kitchen and wait for your rage to pass. You were almost twice my weight; you could have broken me in half. I learned to stay away from any touchy topics so as not to trigger your fury. In an unconscious way of course: I was the one who was crazy and who was “losing the plot". I had to learn to control myself so I wouldn't "drive you crazy". Little by little, I devalued myself and my discernment.
I could see that you regularly exchange with girls on social media. Girls who are a bit ‘known’ and so more interesting than me. It was open flirting, but I was convinced otherwise. One night you went to a party with people from your world and with these girls. People who matter. I had a bad feeling: you who usually told me everything, had never told to me about this. So, I sent you a message. No reply. Then a second one. Still nothing. You were online. You were posting stories. You were having fun. Then the anxiety attack came, and I took a Xanax. You continued to ignore me, and I was getting more and more anxious. Second Xanax. Then, I'm asking you if everything is okay and if you could answer me. Then, I see a short and dry message from you telling me that "you don't have time". I broke into tears. You continued documenting your evening as if nothing happened. As if I didn't count. So, I drank. I became ripped off. Stoned. I couldn’t think of anything but you who were ignoring my cries for help. I ended up breaking down and asked you clearly if there is something going on with another girl. Then you answered me with no hesitation. You called me, but to throw insults. You said that I was crazy. That you wanted to break everything off. That I ruined your evening, and you didn't want to see me anymore. That there was no need to contact you again because I've lost my mind. That I really needed to get help. You convinced me that I was crazy and mean. That I was a bad person. I begged for your forgiveness, but you wouldn’t budge: this time I had gone too far. You left me in tears on the phone, after yelling at me.
The day after the storm, you refused to see me. You swore to me that you had cried all night because of me. You finally agreed to come to my house the day after. In front of you, I burst into tears. Again. I told you I was a paranoid bitch and I asked for your forgiveness. With drawn features and clenched fists, you accepted my apology. That night you told me for the first time that you loved me
Our relationship was back on track, and I was more in love than ever. You wanted to introduce me to everyone and entrust me with important interviews. Very often, you would compare us to Gainsbourg and Birkin. I was your 43-kilo doll, and you were the monster that possessed me. You spoke to me once about your ex, confided in me that she was crazy, and that you didn’t understand why all her friends had blocked you. Of course, I believed you.
On New Year's Eve, you introduced me to your friends. They took turns telling me how happy they were that I was with you, that I was helping you get better. You told them that you wanted to get married. Right after that, you made me do coke for the first time. Several lines that would have kept me going all night, in addition to the ten or so drinks on an almost empty stomach. You watched me anyway: if I talked too much to one of your friends, you’d frown. Then you ended up taking one in the corner to yell at them and tell them to stop "messing with me". I found you chivalrous.
We went back to my place at daybreak. I loved you so much. Our passion was violent, like an episode of Skins with 10 more years on the clock. You were the man of my life; I was convinced of it.
Two days later, a friend of mine told me that you used to keep a blog containing depictions of women a few years ago. One of the texts was about a girl. Romantic, erotic writings, without the consent of the people who inspired them. You had my brain so turned upside down that I was making excuses for you. That it was a long time ago, that it was only literature, and that it wasn’t any of my business... All the bullshit excuses for abusers that would normally piss me off. Then I found out that you'd been stalking one of these women. I didn’t know what or who to believe anymore. A few minutes later, my friend informed me, with proof, that you did cheat on me that famous evening when I was suspicious.
My brain couldn't make sense of it. It's as if I was no longer able to think, to analyze the good and the bad. In an act of desperation, I decided to confront you. I called to tell you that I knew. You denied everything. You told me that I was "doing it again" with my fits of madness. That I really needed to get help. That you wanted to break everything off. That I was ruining your life. The worst part of all of this is that I was actually listening to you, questioning what I just learned. You continued, you physically threatened my friend and then, you physically threaten me. However, only a few minutes later, faced with the evidence that overwhelmingly incriminated you, you ended up confessing. With masterful manipulation: you say you were in denial up until now, but that you just realized what you had done. That you were unhappy, that you understood the significance of your act, but that in the end the victim was you.
The next night, you rang my doorbell. I hadn't eaten or slept in 24 hours. You told me you loved me. You gave me a speech about denial and its mechanisms. You talked about your difficult childhood, your parents, deep poverty. Five minutes later, you had already considered everything forgotten and ordered an UberEats in front of a badfilm on France 3. I was crying again. Then, you got up, screamed, and threatened me: that it was the end of the matter that I was pissing you off. Then you told me you loved me.
The rest is nebulous. You left in the morning telling me that I was nothing without you and that you were nothing without me. I wouldn't sleep the next night, or the one after that. I would remain prostrate, my stomach twisted, the skin on my face raw, my brain in slow motion. I changed my mind literally every 30 seconds: I have to leave. I love you. I am a monster. I have to leave. I love you. I can't live without you. I have to leave. I want to die. One last morning, at 5 am, my decision was made: I had to leave because I didn’t want to wither away, nor take your fist to the face. I sent you a message, a love letter: I would have adored you until the end. I told you that I was afraid of you and that I couldn’t eat anymore. Then I gave my cell phone to my friends. Confiscated. They blocked you from all social media networks and watched over me as I finally fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon.
Almost a year has passed now. I'm back on my feet and in control. Then I spoke with this philosopher about gaslighting: Our story.
Never let them erase your memories.
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Maud Le Rest
Maud Le Rest is an independant journalist and author specialized in gender and feminism. She has worked with Arrêt sur images, Causette, Gaze Magazine and SoFilm.