Gaslighting occurs when someone works to undermine someone else’s reality. We can see it happening on a systematic level or on an interpersonal level; we can see it happening unintentionally and unintentionally.
But, here’s the thing about gaslighting: it lasts long after you’ve gotten out of the situation.
Three years ago, I lived in a house that was intending to be a collective house. We worked out a financial system that worked well enough for us. We split most of our groceries and chores and I offered up my car as a communal car, since I had the privilege of having a car and not everyone in my community did. There were a lot of boring-to-outsiders details that went into establishing our community, and for a bit, I felt optimistic about that.
Of course, I’ve opened this post with writing about gaslighting, so you already know that optimism faded.
The particulars don’t especially matter, and I can’t write them without being biased. But the condensed version goes something like this:
I fucked up; everyone in the house was fucking up. We were all trying to grow together, and also to grow in our own ways. I definitely fucked up in some pretty major ways and when these were brought to my attention I tried to be accountable.
I probably also failed at accountability in some ways.
I was certainly not alone in fucking up.
I was, however, the only person targeted for a character assassination. In my version of the narrative, this is because I called one person out for repeated misogynistic behavior (ignoring the things those of us who present as more femme said, or talking over us; acting as a rape apologist; seemingly endless monologues about their own greatness).
Within three months of that person moving into the house, my version of reality was repeatedly being denied. My voice was being ignored in a way that was so obvious that an ally in the house started to make a point of saying, “As Liz just said…” and then repeating what I’d said or restating it and then after other people in the house agreed, passing along credit to me. It could be heard coming out of his mouth.
Shortly after that, the secret meeting started. According to Come Hell or High Water: A handbook to the collective process gone awry, this experience is typical. “[Someone] who wouldn’t thinking of devising strategies or masterminding plots may suddenly find that she is universally hated, perhaps without even knowing why. Sometimes secret meeting are held, without the knowledge of the accused, at which the attendees will hatch a plan to ostracize her.”
By the time it came to a head, I’d been accused about lying about an experience I was very much still healing from (to manipulate my best friend, to gain sympathy, perhaps, I was never entirely clear about why I’d lie about this), gone through a three hour long accountability-process meeting in which the person who demanded the meeting concluded by saying that there was, in fact, no way for me to be accountable, and then, finally being asked to leave my home.
They made a list of my failings. I don’t remember any of the list, only that the conclusion was that I was horribly broken.My ally in the house advocated for me to have time to search for housing, which was agreed upon. I was also commanded not to communicate with one member of the house at all, and preferably only to communicate with another only in writing.
I started to believe the things that were being said about me. Namely that I was too broken, too fucked up, for anyone to care about.
I was a wreck. My coworkers covered for me when I needed to walk away to sob and I fell a bit in love with one of them, for his ability to recognize my pain and not name it, but simply be beside me while I went through it. They held me and lifted me up in the ways that they could, but I was slipping fast and hard. I turned to running to try and endorphin myself better. I turned to self-harm to try and make sense of the pain. I turned to boxing.I turned to my therapist, whose office I spent hours crying in and talking through what had happened again and again.
I lost a lot of friends in that time, who didn’t know how to deal with the depth of my sadness and self-doubt. And yet, because I had to find housing, and could only afford to live with roommates, I had to present a self that wasn’t clinically depressed and still slipping. I had to figure out how to tell my story in way that wouldn’t cause people to turn away from me.
This was so. Incredibly. Hard.
Because, and I can’t say this enough, I believed the things that were being said about me. That I was a monster.
In the final week of my housing allowance, a man I knew from volunteering asked something along the lines of “Are you okay?”
The result was more tears (there were always tears then), and explaining my situation: I had less than a week to find housing or make an appeal. I couldn’t afford more than X which was an almost impossibly low sum in our rapidly gentrifying city, and I didn’t know what I was going to do*.
The man listened and assured me that I was not a terrible person (not that I could hear it; he had said it before) and said that if I could find a place for my dog, he was sure I could stay at his place (also a collective, and a place I’d interviewed at a couple of weeks earlier) for a while.
All I felt was relief.
The chapter of my life that was that house ended after several more twists to the plot, but the result was a fractured community (of people I still loved) and me being remaining convinced that I was a horrible person.
Even now, when I talk to someone about my experience with that house, I worry that they will know the people who led the assassination of my character, in no small part because those folks still live in the same city I do and because some of their friends are friends with some of my friends. I worry that the people I disclose to will also decide that I’m manipulative and abusive (the only two things I actually remember being leveled at me, simply because these things were thrown my way so often), because when I’m telling this story to someone for the first time, I feel terribly vulnerable–and it’s the type of vulnerable that feels incredibly similar to being fucked up and broken.
I am cautious in the words I choose so that I’m not just showing my side of the story.
But the thing is, there were a lot of what happened that I still don’t understand, in no small part because there is a lot of it I just don’t remember (which is a totally normal reaction as it turns out). I spent time reading Come Hell or High Water trying to understand how our collective process fell apart. I read about narcissists at the suggestion of my therapist, and then about sociopaths, and then about narcissists again, and about gas-lighting and about emotional and psychological abuse. I read about, again and again, the tendency of gas-lighters and abusers to convince their targets that their targets are the problem (and then projecting traits, such as abusive behaviors and manipulation) on them.
I know this is what happened. The part of me that has always understood things best by creating distance, by being academic about it, wants to just have a map drawn of what happened and how and why. It would be cleaner that way.Maybe then, instead of just knowing it, I could believe it.
This weekend, I told two people a vague version of what happened in that house, and then I stopped because although I think highly of those folks and their ability to see through bullshit and also trust them to act with compassion even when I fuck up, I was still afraid that they would decide that I was irreparably broken (which is, by the way 100% my shit, and not theirs).
I’m still holding a lot of fear and hurt and confusion.
It’s hard to admit that is still the case.
And yet, that experience also drove me further to the side of acting with compassion and kindness, because I learned through that experience that it kills my soul to respond with vitriol.
My best friend will tease me for that last sentence, because I can be annoyingly (and unintentionally) persistent at finding the good in the world, and in a situation.
But the truth is, there is already so much hate and difficulty and devastation in the world. And, even amidst all of that, there are also so many delicate, beautiful things. The people I was with this weekend, who I told the vaguest version of this story to, found sprouts on the edge of a mountain lake so close to the water that those sprouts are surely inundated whenever there’s a good rain.
This, to me, is one example of what it means to be open to the beauty, and persistence, of the world. This, to me, is why it’s worth continuing to try and open up to people, and to build community. Because with that–with everything that comes from being a person in the world forming genuine connections with other people in the world–comes hope.
*My options seemed to be figuring out how to move across the country, to a friend who had offered me me a place with them, if I needed it.