Saturday, 1 December 2012

Emotional violence and social power

This piece was edited in July 2014 with identifying details altered following a terrifying legal threat, easily the most nasty and frightening document I've ever received. The threat is marked 'not for publication' but any known contact who wants to see it can email me.

In 2009 I was attacked.

No, that’s not quite right.

I survived an abusive relationship.

No. That's still not it.

I was set up, groomed, emotionally manipulated, sexually exploited and intricately played by an industry peer.

“It’s so horrible what happened to you,” said a friend to me at lunch.
“Why, what happened?” asked a new acquaintance.
         Ten second pause.
“I was tricked.”
         The most humiliating sentence I've ever spoken in my life. I had found out, by that point, that the perpetrator did to me, he did to many other women, some of them in parallel with me.

A very close friend of mine was played for over a year, her body used, her emotions exploited, her face lied to by her partner. She described it later as “emotional violence.” I watched, over the following six years, as her trust, strength and happiness were replaced with something wired and watchful. It’s called cheating not because specific restrictions have been broken but because the lover has been cheated out of their faith in the world, their trust, their sense of good judgement and their peace of mind. In time, she rebuilt herself. But she lost the career that she loved: she had been a gifted film-maker working in equal partnership with her ex, in the company they created. When the revelation came it was too humiliating to go to meetings, knowing that everyone knew. There was a particular look people had - of revolting open-eyed pity for her, but no censure for him. Seeing that 'liberal' industry for the protection racket that it really was poisoned her career. She was punished for being a victim and he was rewarded for being a perpetrator. The perks and job offers went to him and she was frozen out. Her ex’s career flourished. He is now rich, famous, thriving, happy and busy. She left the country and lost everything.

The phrase “emotional violence” stayed with me. At the time I thought she was talking out of her immediate devastation, but I now understand. The pain is physical. For a year after my discovery of the perpetrator's real character my skin crawled night and day, I felt nauseous, food tasted like ashes, my muscles were tense and, if I heard the perpetrator being praised as an unbelievably lovely, decent and gentle guy (as I do often), my heart pounded and felt as though a metal vice was squeezing it, I went hot and cold, then started sweating, shuddering and retching. I realise now that these are trauma responses. I didn’t know there would be a feverish restlessness and that my skin would feel as if it was being cut across the surface. I remember standing in the shower, feeling my back burning, certain that it was running with blood, slashed in a diamond pattern. I accepted every invitation, every work offer no matter how pointless and exhausting, because whenever I was alone, my skin crawled in one piece.

After that I felt numb and heavy for a year, as if my limbs were made of lead. I only wanted to be alone. My skin crawled when I was with people. And then it was all just cold, and grave, and realistic, and even. There were long term physical effects: my hair thinned and my immune system suffered. I see clearly now. I see him thrive. I see that I have fallen. The fear has calcified, the horror deepened, the wariness soured into cynicism.

“I’d say it took ten years to get over.” “After six weeks, when I phoned to check she wasn’t dead, she said, ‘I’ll live. Just.’” “I’d say it took…five years?... to feel like myself again. It’s just the thought that I didn’t even figure in his thoughts. What it would do to me…” “Even now, five years on, I wonder if it’s something I did.” “Don’t be embarrassed. I still talk and think about what happened to me, five years later.” These are all quotes from women I know, all strong, all successful, all different, with different lives and personalities, none of them stupid or na├»ve.

My own quote was, “It’s like taking a life.”

A colleague of mine cheated on his pregnant wife but was described as “a dear” by a female colleague when I, instinctively rattled by his vibe, privately asked her if he was “a good guy” or not. Later he helped his own image by talking about how much he loves his baby; if a woman did that in the workplace she’d be dismissed as a lightweight who couldn’t keep her mind on her job. Indeed, at a NUJ conference last year one woman recounted how a female colleague had been slandered when she answered a family emergency call: “They said, ‘That’s a woman who should be producing a programme, not dealing with her kid.’’” Yet a male colleague in the same situation was cooed over: “They kept saying, ‘He’s such a great dad.’”

There are three poets: one is O, an erudite, high culture young Turk type, a kind of young fogey, short, wordy, with pretensions to greatness. The second is L, a wily Londoner, loose and warm and friendly, a little buzzed, streety and voluble. The third is S, a salt of the earth type, accessible and germane, frank in manner (though not actually honest, obviously), who, like all philanderers, writes marvellous odes to his wife. There was the colleague whose mistreatment of women was so well-known that once, when reception called and said there was a courier downstairs with a package, a couple of my male colleagues laughed and said, "It's a lawyer with a briefcase full of paternity suits." Not knowing this, I complained to this same guy during a friendly conversation about one of the poets, who had repeatedly betrayed and used a friend of mine (and all the women he betrayed and used alongside her) for years. The guy laughed immediately in easy dismissal. "O? O's a fuckin' lovely guy."

From the other side of the glass ceiling I watch them collect all the perks the world has to give. I watch them act craftily to gain the assistance of women and also help and excuse and cover for other men. I see women grovel and defer. There is the writer and film-maker who, again (spotting a theme?) has helped his own career through writing about his family life, as though he’s some hapless dad just bumbling along delightedly in the realm of the women and the babies. He has been cheating on his wife since their son was little. There is the publishing guy who went straight up to a beautiful friend of mine at a reading and said the following: “Hello! I’m Jonty Grope, my wife lives in the country, my mistress lives in London. Do you want to be mistress number two?” Ten years later he contacted me for a work project and I sat through the meeting, the bile rising in my throat, as he sat with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and a load of hairy uncooked-pastry skin oozing out and talked about his ‘fantastic’ wife, who always looks as miserable as shit whenever I see her. Oh, and his ‘great’ daughter too, of course. Sometime between those two days he sacked an incredibly competent friend, who had been rising steadily in his company, when she was on maternity leave.

Everyone knows about this guy; nobody does anything. If we all withdrew, he would have no career and he would rightly be reduced to nothing – since he has treated his wife, daughter and countless other women as nothing. But he flourishes. He called a meeting at which were present two close personal friends of his: one of the cheating poets I mentioned above, and a broadcaster who has had a sexual harassment case proven against him and whose wife left him after he betrayed her – although, thinking back, I realise that when he was actively betraying her I met him and he made the entire room look at him lovingly, as if he was a good man, as he described the birth of his daughter: “I didn’t even care what happened to the baby, I just couldn’t stand to see my wife in that much pain.” Well – you’d know about inflicting pain, right? Being formally reprimanded for sexual harassment and being divorced for betraying a woman has not taught this man any respect for women. I was speaking on a panel with him at a major cultural venue. I walked in and he said, "Love the gloves! Can I - ooh - can I just smell one?" We were being briefed by the chair of the panel, an extremely eminent woman, and halfway through he interrupted, "Now, Jill, don't pretend you don't want us to notice you've had a haircut. Very sexy." She took a deep unsmiling breath, paused for a few seconds looking flatly, then continued with what she'd been saying. He didn't notice or care. When I complained about the man to a colleague later they said, "Believe me, that's the very least of what Jill's had to put up with." This sexual harassment, belittlement, patronage, objectification and derailing of women, often by so-called 'liberal' men is completely endemic.

Now that the scales have dropped from my eyes I’ve been horrified by the hypocrisy and protectionism which surrounds these people. They are abusive men, nothing more, acting with forethought, secrecy, control, coldness and multiple simultaneous victims. Their victims are women, not men. The fact that the perpetrators pretend, at the same time, to be feminists, in order to get close to and then harm the women whose destruction will give them the greatest kick, compounds the unspeakable nastiness of their misogyny. Meanwhile, the misogyny of the beholders runs so deep that they just don’t care how much these men abuse, because their women victims are not human, it seems. Women are not even animals, for if any of these men had been witnessed mistreating a dog or a cat, people would be appalled. I have sat back in astonishment as ‘nice guys’ easily, happily praise and defend abusive men, in comically identical language. In fact I have never heard any man describe another man as 'wonderful' except when the second man was abusive towards women.

Chap: “George Best, what a wonderful, wonderful footballer. My father [who was a doctor] treated him, you know.”
Me: “For alcoholism, or for wifebeating?”
Chap (reddening): “Oh – for alcoholism.”

About V S Naipaul, who I witnessed at a book reading openly jeering at any woman who asked a question about his work, a male colleague said, “Yes, he was a rotter to women wasn’t he but my God, what wonderful, wonderful books.”

Even when I have outed abusers to colleagues, the colleagues do not then refuse to work with the abusers. Yet these men and women would, I am sure, would hate to be treated in the way I have described. Meanwhile, the gratuitous slandering of innocent women is endemic in public life and general conversation, as is the silencing, punishing, trashing, disbelieving and blaming of women victims who dare to speak out about what we have survived.

The effects go far beyond the incident and are enmeshed in a wider culture which does not punish this mistreatment but excuses and even rewards it, while attacking victims. When I have confronted abusers myself they have laughed in my face because they know that their abuse is not only protected but rewarded. It was devastating to learn, through experience, the ubiquity and connectedness of professional discrimination, personal abuse and cultural excusal, of perpetrators covering for each other and assisting each other’s careers. These men don't "love" women, as abusers forgivingly say of themselves. They hate us. If you spend years playing women, coercing women, tricking women, setting women up, using women's bodies, tricking women, duping women, lying to women, exulting in women's obliviousness, you are an abusive man.

There is the individual who perpetrated against me - let's call him Jekyll - whose entire public persona is built on his decency, his fairness, his niceness, his strength, his beauty, his activism, his progressive politics and his integrity. Because of you, Jekyll, I can no longer say I have never been in an abusive relationship, although the word 'relationship' makes my stomach turn as it hints at some kind of dynamic or mutuality instead of a man targeting and victimising a stranger. I have been happily and naturally celibate nearly all my life, for 10 years before 2009 and ever since. I do not flirt, date, tease, pass messages, go back and forth or play sexual games with anyone, ever. This was not some romance but a drive-by shooting, a hit and run, a hard lesson taught to a stranger, a knifing by a passer-by. I told my mother about you and showed her the thousands of words of sly texts, endless emails and carefully crafted handwritten letters, including the classic line, "You ask if I am playing you. No defensiveness intended, but how would that work exactly?" Jekyll, it would work by teasing, coercion, compulsive and pathological lying, mercenary professional exploitation, manipulative mental games, sexual exploitation, emotional exploitation, hypocrisy, control, sadism, repeated and sustained deception. My mother, a writer and academic, said, "He created a fantasy persona for himself: the little boy lost. He uses it to trick women. And he targets the clever ones. He uses his looks to deceive women - not a good look but a hurt, vulnerable look. I used to think there was something more to it with him but now I think he's just a piece of rubbish."

I could never look him in the eye again. That was the most painful thing – the speed with which the person I most wanted to see became the person I least wanted to see, the one I dreaded seeing, the one whose name made me feel physically sick. I am braced in fear at all times. When I walk down a street or enter a party I scan it to check he's not there. Once I worked my way down through all the various layers of deceit - the shifting storylines, fudges, feints, conditions and tales a liar has to tell to keep themselves steady on wobbly ground - there was nothing left. Everything he did was part of the game, step by careful step, move by move: the first email, the first letter, the first gift, all came from him. Done with expert ease. It is dizzying to contemplate the massive distance between that beautiful and intelligent face and the incredible sadism behind it. How could anyone do that - be so abusive yet so careful, so nasty yet so systematic? And how is it that apart from some surface static electricity, there was no consequence in the outer world? He flourished. Women and men flocked to serve and enable him. Everything was given to him and, typically, he took everything he could use.

There is the appalling knowledge that he is doing it to many other women simultaneously and I cannot warn them because no-one believes me. There is the horror of knowing that, across months and years, a person can create and then enjoy pain in other human beings, for fun. There is the steepness of his hypocrisy and the psychosis of his pretence, in which the mask doesn't slip for one moment. Serial killer by night, pillar of the community by day.

When I am triggered by the mention or image of the man, which is frequent as he is an industry peer, the physical reaction is immediate. To describe it literally and in order: I feel I have been stabbed in the heart with something thin like a knitting needle; a sour poisons slip down my throat into my stomach and curdles there; a sizzling shock spreads from my heart through my veins, running out in thin lines until it reaches the surface of my skin and burns; the blood drains from my face and my lips go numb; I begin to pant and feel light-headed; my stomach turns over and I retch; finally, heat and adrenalin rush to my face and I cry thick tears, shaking with horror.

The obscenity resides here: how can he laugh, talk, joke and socialise with such clear-eyed cheerfulness? How can he deceive, plan, use, enjoy? How can he pretend to be a good person? How could he set up, mentally eviscerate, sexually exploit and deceive so many victims and make it look like they were mad when they sensed something was wrong? How could he groom and use women, pretend to cherish us, pretend to feel it mutually, use it as a smokescreen as he mistreated us, then throw it back in our face?

Jekyll, you ....I can barely write this... you pretended to be shy, unworldly, innocent, hesitant, awed and delighted. And while you did that to me, you did it to many other women simultaneously. You wrote that when I gave you compliments, you read them "with a kind of stuttering shy delight." You wrote that it was "life-changing, when that door opened." "Your worst fears about me are not true." You said, "I have never, in my life, so enjoyed waking up with someone." "I like how I am with you. I play when I'm with you. I never usually play." "I love that you notice me - I love that you notice things about me." "The way you kiss me..." "I'm not a sadist, I'm not a sociopath. I'm not a sadist, I'm not a sociopath." You texted, "Just got your letter [in reply to mine]. I cannot even believe what you are. Brace for comeback." "Oh my sweet thing, oh my gorgeous girl." "Well for a start you're heart-freezingly, heart-killingly beautiful." "The taste of you...." "I crackle in your company." "I love your crackling energy. And I love that you've read books and have opinions on things." "I'm trying not to get obsessed with you." "I can't believe you asked me what colour your eyes are! Tch. I see your eyes everywhere." "I know I have been charged with finding you a nickname but I just keep repeating your real name to myself, over and over." "I feel filled up with you. You fill me up, Bidisha." "Have a good day, my taut-skinned doe." "I have been going around my room smelling all the places you've been. I caught myself breathing through the T-shirt you wore like a diver breathing through a regulator. I even considered tying it up in a plastic bag to preserve the smell." "I'm sorry, I'm smitten. I'm gone on you."

I participated, responded, initiated, invited, answered, with absolutely equal ardour, but for one thing: I meant what I said, and you did not. You were lying, but I was not. You were using me, but I was not using you. You played a game, but I did not. You know me, but I do not know you. You are a stranger. When I think about how I behaved with you, with such open-eyed delight and interest, when I think about what I wrote to you - "It's as though Rodin and Michelangelo fought to make you" - the things I said, the pet names, the gifts, the endearments which were wholly meant, and how you acted, as if with with absolute reciprocity, I am corroded by coarse inner humiliation and regret.

When I finally confessed to a colleague and close friend about what you did she blanched, her eyes rolled and she revealed that this was your method with all the women you trick and use simultaneously, and has been forever, including to a close friend of hers who had been "distraught" and whom she had supported through the "fallout". How crushing to know that your satisfaction came from setting up the trick, using my body, playing with my feelings and then seeing how tormented I was, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, while you gazed at me in gentle puzzlement, blinking. How crushing to learn years later that this is what you were doing and are still doing, not just with me but with countless other women. Because of your sadism, Jekyll, I fear you. Because of your hypocrisy and impunity, I fear you. Because of your strength, I fear you. Because you target, use and harm women, I fear you. Because you are such a good actor, I fear you. Because you pretend to be a feminist when you are a man who hurts women, I fear you. How easily you abuse. How assiduously you take. How smoothly you lie. You wanted to deceive, sexually exploit, professionally use, emotionally eviscerate, mislead, sabotage and betray women, and you did. You thought you would be assisted and protected by countless other men and your own self-hating groupies, and you are.

I do not understand. Surely it takes more effort to mistreat women than to be a decent human being? Surely it does not feel good to behave this way? How can it be that everything you have claimed about yourself is a lie, everything you do is part of a gigantic game and every way you present yourself is a front to facilitate your mistreatment of women? You know how to give feminist quotes and say all the right things about women's rights. You know exactly what to do to advance yourself publicly, how to hurt women privately and make sure nobody finds out and that victims are silenced through legal threat. For a devastating article on this issue, by Meghan Murphy - so close to my own experience that I was chilled to read it - please look here.

It's funny. I used to pride myself on my shrewdness but now I realise how naive I am, how stupidly trusting, how innocently attackable - how easy to knock down and infect with fear. I have written about these issues throughout my career yet when it happens inside the circle of my own life, I am devastated. Jekyll, I think that you yourself would not like to be harmed, then threatened years later when you speak out. Why do that to women, while talking softly, blinking gently, standing diffidently and pretending that you are a principled and progressive thinker, a supportive family member, a role model of integrity, a stalwart friend, a doting partner? [There is an amazing, disturbing article about 'feminist' and 'progressive' men who abuse women here.]

"How did he get away with it?" I asked my mother. "He's cleverer than you, in that regard," she said sadly, "there is such a thing as the perfect murder." And I recall, when I found out what you were, you jeered at me and snarled, "You know nothing about me, my sex life, what I do." Yes, I realise that now. And I realised, when you said, "I never told you I loved you. I was very careful about that. I said I adored you - but that's not love," that I had been set up. And I realised it too when you said, "It's none of your business what I do with my dick."

Jekyll, I am tormented by the horror of what you did to me - its specificity and its malice - and to the others, and what you continue to do. In the years of the aftermath I have confided in too many women who then paled and told me that you had done the same to them, or to a close friend, or colleague. I have learned, with a sickness I cannot put into words, that your mistreatment is not just serial but simultaneous: there is a mass, a morass, a mess of emotional abuse.

I feel humiliated, yet I have done nothing wrong. I believe that I deserve to be treated well, as I treat others and indeed as I treated you. I do not co-betray other women or stand by while other women are mistreated. I have never been abusive to anyone in any way for any reason. And I don't cover for perpetrators, or practice diplomacy with them, or speak well of them as though their mistreatment of women is somehow separate from the rest of their activities, nor do I help their careers - although I helped yours, Jekyll, and you took this help and used it for yourself.

Jekyll, do you realise that where sexual attention is procured under false pretences, consent cannot be freely given? I would never choose to touch the person you really are. Know that I would rather be punched in the face once than chosen out of a crowd then used and destroyed from the inside out with that unspeakably evil combination of alternating kindness and cruelty, teasing come-on and marginalisation, only to discover years later that this is your strategy with all your targets except those grovellers you use once like wank tissues and the colleagues you court to utilise.

I know, Jekyll, that I was nothing to you, just another victim to be killed alongside the others. And there is some humour in realising that I am not the star of a story but another faceless dupe, set up and used by a con artist. But I am something to myself: a kind, strong, clever and decent person who was light on her feet, strong, open and affectionate. That person is dead. You offered many gifts, which I see now were carefully selected props and that I was one recipient among many. I have returned these of course. But the two greatest presents are ones I cannot return and do not want: they are sadness and fear, extreme fear of you and of a world in which perpetrators are helped and victims are punished. Now when I see your face I do not see beauty there, but the silent gloating of a corrupt exploiter. This used to be my world too, Jekyll, but I can no longer survive in it. I have been defiled by you.

Jekyll, you do not live in Purgatory, but I do. I am caught between the memory of a sweet and happy past, which turned out to be a trick, and a disillusioned future in which anything anyone says to me is met with suspicion and uncharacteristic mistrust. It is a warped reality in which exactly those 'nice guys' who go on about being male feminists are the biggest abusers. And they can be assured that their actions will be condoned by apologists and that women who speak out will be attacked and punished. As if any woman, in a million years, would drag her own name through the muck to make up a lie as humiliating as this.

Further reading: