Gaslighting: the magic violence box

Isabel Abbott
Sep 24, 2018 · 12 min read

If you put a woman in a box, and cut the box into pieces, is the woman whole or broken or both? If I tell you this a is a magic trick, does that change the answer? If I tell you the magic is also violent, does that answer matter?

I once was married for thirteen years, and my husband had an affair and lied to me about it. After some time of being lied to, I learned details of his relationship with this woman, asked him to move out, and just sixteen months later was divorced.

This was all many years ago.

This is not a story of betrayal.

For months something was so terribly bent and distorted. We had lived together in our own familiar and familial patterns for years now, and you know things about one another after that kind of time. His behavior changed. He was distracted and gone at strange times and money kept disappearing and we could not buy groceries. He no longer kept his commitments to our child. He lost weight and our arguments turned corners into burrowed directions that left my brain cobwebbed in confusion. Why were we locked in conflict over his rage at my frustration he would not do what he would say would do and then his insistence I not do things myself, so much seeming to be at stake if he let my hands touch the dry cleaning pick up slip? His constant checking of his phone. His mood swings and loss of appetite. My brain would scan through possible options and my therapy sessions were filled with going through the Rolodex of them: he has started using drugs, he has an undiagnosed illness and needs treatment, he has a gambling addiction, he is in some kind of legal trouble and is not telling me, he is having an affair. I desperately hoped he was having an affair.

I was worried and vigilant in the wondering what was wrong, walking around with a baseline unease, going to get coffee in the morning and dropping my son off at preschool and sitting in the car while windows fogged over thinking something in my life is about to shatter and I want to be able to locate the pieces later. So I would stay there suspended, as if I could memorize the shape of the the glass of my life before the shattering, know my reflection before shards. As if the shattering was an event, a force. As if it wasn’t him.

I knew. That is the thing. I did know. Every part of me knew. And I did try to talk to him. In so many ways. I asked. Sometimes angry and combative, sometimes desperate and sometimes kind. I had conversations. I wrote letters. I came out in the most direct questions. Are you sick? Are you afraid? Are you hiding something? Are you in trouble? And the words: are you having an affair? Because that was the least catastrophic possibility, given what roamed through my mind. I mean, we are human. We fall in love with people. We had done it before. Just talk to me. Have you met someone? Are you seeing someone? If so, will you please tell me? And this was followed by his lies in return. The no. The of course not. And more than this, the mock outrage and forced hurt as if he was the one betrayed by accusations, as if he could not believe I would think such a thing of him and now he would need time to go lick his wounds at having not been trusted.

Betrayal implies disloyalty and the breaking of some kind of bond that is also thick with love or something once known as fidelity, and when I remember all these slits of delicate lines of those days the word betrayal itself is laden with all the stories told of affairs as somehow being the worst thing a person can do. That is not true for me now anymore than it was then, and it was not even the lying that made me ask him to leave that night I learned I had been right in what I knew without having known her name. It was the violence.

When you are in the box being cut into different sections, even though your head remains outside of the box, it is still so very hard to breathe.

When I would tell my then husband that I was worried and concerned and ask him what was wrong, ask him why I could not reach him and why he was home hours late, ask him if he was having an affair, and he would directly lie to me and tell me no he was not, and then sometimes respond with hurt feelings that I did not trust him, he would also respond with great violence. The word for it is gaslighting. “You don’t know what you are talking about,” he said. “You aren’t seeing things accurately,” he said. And this would be directly related to my questioning of what was going on with him, and then turned toward every area of my own life: my own health, my parenting, my work, my relationships, my “unwillingness to open myself toward him” which was according to him the true cause for my distress. And then it turned more sinister and sick. “I’m concerned for your distress,” he said. “You are making things up about me when I have given you no reason not to trust me,” he said. “You are freaking out over nothing and I think you need to call your therapist,” he said. “Do you think you should go back on Paxil,” he said. “You’re imagining things,” he said, “and I’m concerned for how this affecting our son,” he wrote me in an email.

And I want to say that I stood steadfast and never believed him. But it was so confusing. I wondered all the time if I was unwell. Maybe that really was why I felt the way I did, why nothing added up. That’s not true, I would hear in my own head in response. But then where was the evidence? The claims for evidence as king are always apart of it, even as it’s always about illusions. The box, when it’s your body inside, is still cut into pieces. And even if you know your body is intact, you can still see that box is broken, and the one doing the slicing is telling you it’s all in your head and everyone is clapping. But you still what know what you know. And it’s not possible to reconcile the wreckage.

I saved the emails with all his own accusations against me. They let me stitch things back together later, after I had found his emails to the woman he was indeed having an affair with for many, many months, all the months I had been asking. I asked him to leave our apartment the very night I happened to come across their correspondence without even intending to, a laptop left open and a search for something unglamorous and domestic: a recipe maybe, or a credit card statement. I do not remember this detail. “You are being hysterical over nothing and it’s really starting to worry me,” he had said only weeks earlier. I was not making it up. I was not unwell. I was not hysterical. The shattering happened, and it also gave me my reality as sturdy and strong, revealing his violence for what it was and had always been.

Two years before he told me I was hysterical for knowing what I knew, I had lain on an operating table while unbeknownst to me, surgeons removed my uterus in order to save my life. During a “routine” surgery to remove an ovarian cyst a tumor was found which was cancerous and given that ovarian cancer kills, my then husband gave the oncologist and surgeons permission to perform a radical hysterectomy. I woke up hours later to learn I had ovarian cancer and that my uterus had been removed and I would enter into immediate surgical menopause.

Hysteria, that nasty condition it seems only women were ever diagnosed with, can be dated to late 4th and early 5th centuries BC, and hysteria the word is also the word for uterus, chain links on a fence reminding us what one is good for. The term and subsequent legacy of the “wandering womb” comes from classical Hippocratic gynecology. In ancient Greece the uterus was believed to be a living thing, confined within the flesh of woman but quick to leave its pelvic basin and go wandering through the body in search of satiating its unmet needs. This “dangerous animal within an animal” as Plato described it had a ferocious appetite, seeking to be filled. If left dissatisfied, empty for too long, it was prone to begin its wandering, causing disease in women, including hysteria, which has its own layered legacy, tangled and untangled in me.

So what happens then if the uterus is removed? Does the living mythology of hysteria go away or do you give over to it all together? And what does it mean that it is not me that was even offered the chance to make such a decision on my own behalf but this other person who then later told me I was sick and could not be trusted when I would not believe his lies, causing me to question my own reality even as I also knew what I knew and can both of these can be true at the same time?

I don’t in any way believe my then husband wanted to harm me when he told the surgeons yes to a life saving hysterectomy. I believe he was terrified and wanted me to live. That in his own way he very much loved me, and was a person faced with a terrible decision and had a two year old child and didn’t know what to do and it is the exact decision I myself would have made were I given the chance to have made it. I do not blame him for my body having cancer or my body no longer having a uterus or ovaries or hormones. And, I also believe that he very much required I be unwell. And would go to great lengths to prove I was. Both of these can be true at the same time.

Three months after I learned he was having an affair and we had separated, we are having sex. We never got back together again. We never tried to really “make it work” or went to therapy. We separated and got a divorce. I was done and would never believe or trust him again after the violence he did. And, as is often true in relationships of many years, saying goodbye happens in pieces and it was I think the last time we had sex, and afterwards we are in bed and it is before I have asked him to leave again and he turns to me and says, “I know we probably won’t be together in the future but I do need you to know that I love you and if you were to ever get sick again I would come take care of you.” And I remember looking at him and something in me becoming so clear and saying, “I know. I believe you. And that is the thing. I don’t want to be with someone who only needs me to be sick.”

We were divorced. We are divorced.

The box was cut up and had my body inside.

But it’s all illusion, all smoke and mirrors, all distorted reality. Magic.

I am both intact, and dissected.

It is a complex contradiction.

Having an affair and lying about it are just human things that happen because life is messy that way. Systematically causing someone to question their own reality and positioning yourself as the authority on reasonableness and rationality swathed in language of care and concern while the other person is “irrational” “overreacting” and “unstable” is a kind of violence. Most especially when you also hold positions of power relationally and in larger structural systems. He went even further and took aspects of vulnerability and used them against me. And it was entirely unnecessary. You only do that to someone if you want to harm them, abuse them, or if you want power over them in order to live out your own entitlement and continue having whatever you want whenever you want as you are are applauded by an adoring audience while you cut things up and call it wholeness.

He was so very good at gaslighting me, at creating distorted warped conversations where everything gets turned in on itself, it would later alarm me. You don’t suddenly arrive there. You don’t learn how to become a magician overnight.

My marriage was many things, and it has taken me many years to hold the many things, to allow myself the complexity of its lived years, all its nuance and knowing. But this is not a story of all the things, as it is not a story of betrayal. This is a story about the box and dissection and the body inside it which was mine. This is a story about reality and how I want it to be clear and sometimes it is and sometimes I both know and also have to name the truth that my mind is a dangerous playground and I once knew a man who was a magician and the real magic was that I didn’t know he was doing a magic act.

I knew something was wrong. I got that part right. I just didn’t know that when I broke our unspoken agreement, which was that I trust his perception more than my own, he would turn against me with such violence.

Later, years later, after we are divorced and our lives are separate, the cut the woman in the box act will continue on. Later, words like “concern” and “irrational” and “unstable” and “unwell” will be meted out in mediation and accusation and in email and after email meant to derail and claim superiority and take again as though entitled even as it has far reaching impact on many people’s lives. It will be used to harm in the breaking of legal agreements and in court rooms, in distortion of language and in direct lies, in twisting of narratives and in gaslighting. I will be told I should not have access to my own child because I am so unstable and unwell and our child should live only with his father who is an emblem of stability and security and everything good because of all he can offer him that I cannot, with questions of my capacity and morality thrown in for good measure, or so the story being told to me as one saw goes through the box. And then the next moment and story comes where, when asked to pay court mandated child support from original agreements, he suddenly has no stability and security whatsoever and makes no money really according to the self employment tax returns and is drowning in debt and can pay nothing at all which is why he has not paid child support in a year, though this also does not fully measure up with his house paid in full and the gym memberships and expensive respectful confrontation workshops attended. There will be the bended language and the fun house mirrors of reflection and insult and erosion of any assertion of my own reality, assumptions that his perception be the most reliable for no other reason than it comes from him, and mine be questioned and considered suspect for no other reason than it come from me.

And this time I will be both in the box and also outside the box, able to move and see between the two.

Me and my hysteria. Me and my once wandering womb now removed. Me and my daring to doubt him and his good intentions. Me and my accusations which are not accusations at all, simply, as they were then, reciting of the truth of things and naming of my own knowing which sometimes does not have facts and which I will also not defend. I don’t need to. I trust myself now. You can have all the moral outrage or hurt feelings you want that I don’t trust you, which is all just more of the same, and now I see through it.

The gaslighting doesn’t work anymore in the same way. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact me. It has profound longstanding reverberations in my life, to have lived with it and through it, the psychological damage of having my own reality not only denied but so thoroughly and intentionally twisted and turned against me, going so far as to have my own history of abuse and violence later used against me and all under the guise of care and concern. It shakes out in my body, and there is a glitch that happens in the brain where I have to take threads and work things back together.

But I do know now

I trust myself.

So I do the work of mending.

And live forever with the injuries of his violence.

That’s the strangeness of the sawing a woman in half act.

The woman in the box is not ever sliced through. It just looks that way.

So am I broken or whole?

So is it real or not real? Or is it both?


I believe myself.

It is not magic.

It is only violence.

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