Telling Your Story: Gaslighting and Mystified Oppression

girl-brave-bravery-independence-843076As usual, I listened to the news this morning. I am delighted at the outpouring of people finally feeling free enough to tell their stories. Stories of violation by powerful men.

Talking heads are considering this upside-down and inside-out. Taking as many and varied points of view as it seems they need to to keep the story interesting.

One idea that is absolutely not true is that our world is different now. That any disgusting backlash is new behavior. It’s not.

What is new behavior is the courage of women and men standing tall and speaking out. Denial and blaming the victim are not new at all.

I first encountered the treatment of sexual violation and abuse in 1968. I worked in the Neglect and Abuse Unit of a local juvenile court. I had a five file drawer cabinet full of cases of neglect and abuse. That was one city. Naturally, those files included no new cases. Five drawers. I think all the file cabinets of sexual predation everywhere could fill the Grand Canyon.

Over my time at that job I read every single file. Sexual violation is NOT new.

I began my psychology graduate training in 1977 with a fascinating woman’s study class named “Women and Mental Illness.” There I learned concepts such as gaslighting and mystified oppression. Gaslighting as a concept is now a broadly used idea, but I hear little about mystified oppression.

Gaslighting is a way of convincing people they are crazy by distorting their reality. The idea originally comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer film, Gaslight. In it, a man marries a wealthy woman and slowly attempts to drive her crazy by changing the realities of the gaslights in her home along with other diabolical techniques. The driving force is his greed. A desire to possess something that does not belong to him. He is attempting to incapacitate her to meet his own needs. Sound familiar?

Mystified oppression is when the person being harmed inadvertently cooperates with their victimization. People believe the lies they are told. Perpetrators deceive their victims about the harm that will come to them if they resist. They are mystified and confused by the ‘gaslighting’ that tells them who they are and how the world works. One such egregious belief is that no one will believe them.

Unfortunately, in powerful places or positions, sometimes it’s not gaslighting. It’s also real oppression. Society, as we see in the news today, can and often will attack the truth teller. Loss of life lost of position, loss of job and many other punitive actions await people who speak out. Public humiliation. Rejection. And on and on.

This morning’s talking head was bemoaning the state of our culture. That some public officials are saying, “Innocent until proven guilty.” And others are responding with defiance, “We don’t care. We will support/encourage/watch your media/vote for him, anyway.”

The television personality seemed to think supporting the perpetrator was new social behavior. It’s not. Sexual violation is as old as time itself. And protecting the perpetrator is just as old.

What’s new is the way we are thinking about it now.

When I worked on my graduate thesis, I chose to study Adults Abused as Children. I went into the academic research literature and grabbed any article I could find. I wanted a historical view and ideas for therapeutic treatment.

I read journal articles as far back as the 1930’s.

I found much of what I read disgusting. Like creepy disgusting.

Male psychiatrists and psychologists saying things like the little 3-year-old girl was provocative and seduced her perpetrator. Other professionals saying, “Well, it happened, but it’s not so bad.”

Children victimized have troubles concentrating, sleeping, thinking, and functioning. Today we know the extent of the damage. The ACES study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser-Permanente has proven that.

Adults victimized in their adult lives have many of the same struggles.

I read too many academic journal articles describing the results of such victimization as if these results made the victim someone a person to ignore and disregard. Discard. Throwaway children, first victims of abuse. Then victims of the aftermath and the people who were supposed to help them.

There is some great professional work, like the study above by CDC and Kaiser, in the public eye these days. It’s a dramatic change.

Later, in my work as a therapist, I learned from clients that the key to the extent of damage to a child was emotional support and resilience in the family. If a parent believed them, they had fewer problems. If an adult had a terrific set of loving and giving friends following a trauma, they had fewer PTSD symptoms. If they had the support around them to walk through their natural process, their damage was less.

My point is this. Denial of sexual violation is not new. Coming out and openly telling your story is. It’s brave and admirable. Sexual predators facing consequences. That’s new.

More recently, I’ve learned that if a physician asked their patients about their childhoods, their physical health improved as much as 35%.

I hope this current speak-out is part of a cultural change that will free women and young men from victimization. If more powerful people publicly pay consequences for their actions, more potential victims could be safer.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for predators to be punished and victims listened to. They might just heal. Our society might just heal. It’s my fantasy that we could live in a world where there is absolutely no room for sexual predators.

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