Gaslighting, Therapy, and Fanfic

Gaslighting is the process of attempting to convince someone that their accurate perception of a situation is incorrect; and, moreover, that there is something wrong with them personally for having perceived the situation in this way.

Based on what I’ve seen, a lot of the disagreement over this definition has to do with how many people need to be involved in order to a situation to be “gaslighting” and not “abusive behavior” or simply “being an asshole.” For example, if Person A says “There’s a strange smell coming from the kitchen” and Person B says “No there’s not, you’re just crazy,” then that’s probably not gaslighting. I would contend, however, that there is so much atmospheric discrimination against certain groups of people that even an isolated “you’re just overreacting” contributes to a broader system of systematic gaslighting. As a result of this atmospheric gaslighting, some people from marginalized positions can feel that there’s something inherently wrong with their point of view, especially during times of stress and vulnerability.

So there’s this thing that many American therapists do, which is to try to gently lead a patient to arriving at a revelation on their own, generally over the course of several sessions. I understand the theory behind this, but I still hate it.

I’m going to give a personal example. I was in a toxic relationship for more than a year when I was in college. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to claim partial responsibility and say something like “the abuse went both ways,” but that wasn’t really what was going on. Essentially, the boy I was dating would be a disgusting assclown until I snapped and reacted, at which everything that was wrong with the relationship would be my fault because I got upset. I had never been in that sort of unhealthy relationship with anyone before, and I otherwise got along with most people really well, so I had no idea what was going on. I therefore went to a therapist and told her, in so many words, that I was “forcing” my boyfriend to abuse me verbally and physically, and that I needed her to help me figure out what it was about me that compelled him to hurt me.

If a scared teenager came to me and said this, my first response would be, in no uncertain terms, “Honey, you need to get out of there, because no one should be assaulting you for any reason. We can talk about this for as long as you want later, but you are in real danger and right now you need to get out.” What my therapist – and then another therapist – and then another therapist – said to me, however, was “Well, what do you think is wrong with you? Why do you think he hits you and calls you a dumb cunt?”

Even if this sort of thing isn’t technically gaslighting, it still feeds into the pervasive social narrative that teenage girls are crazy and irrational and deserve whatever happens to them if they don’t follow all of the contradictory “rules” about dating and relationships. Between one thing and another, I had never found a safe space where I could talk to other people my age about real relationships without being judged or losing face, which is why I didn’t immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the reason why a boy would want to physically strike anyone is a conversation that needs to happen between him and his therapist.

Around this time I got on LiveJournal and discovered fic. What this meant is that suddenly I was exposed to all sorts of models of romantic and sexual relationships, and this was when I started to understand what was going on in my life. It’s not so much that the fic I was reading was explicitly like “this is what a healthy relationship looks like” or “this is what abuse looks like,” because Lord knows the BDSM Sailor Moon and Trigun femslash I was reading did not get even remotely close to that sort of thing. Rather, what I got from reading and discussing and eventually writing fic was that women’s stories are valid, and young women’s stories are valid, and queer women’s stories are valid, and nonbinary female-presenting people’s stories are valid. No matter how transgressive the fic or meta you wrote may have been, it was no less worthy of being taken seriously because you specifically wrote it.

That sense of “being valid” and “being taken seriously” is, in my opinion, an effective antidote to gaslighting. I don’t think fandom is or ever was inherently an activist space or even a safe space, but I do think it’s a place where a lot of female and transgender and nonbinary people first get the sense that it’s okay for them to exist in the world as themselves, no matter how weird or strange or non-normative or queer they might be.

I think this is one of the main reasons why the purity culture of anti-fandom bothers me so much. If people are only supposed to write “pure” relationships – or even, to take this a step farther, if they’re supposed to be so pre-enlightened about social justice that they need to tag everything they write with all applicable content warnings – then that’s tantamount to being told that they need to police themselves at all times in fandom, just as in real life. In addition, because the rules about “safe shipping” are so arbitrary and contradictory, this feels very much like the same sort of “Well, what do you think is wrong with you?” nonsense I got in therapy as a teenager (and then later, when I tried therapy again at several points as an adult).

If we can call fandom a safe space, and if we can think of fandom as an activist space, I think that’s because it’s a space where the voices of people who are so often silenced, marginalized, and discounted in the real world are allowed free expression. In this sense, a sentiment such as “don’t like, don’t read” can be a powerful and almost politically transformative expression of tolerance and empathy.

By the way, I get that not all therapists are incompetent jerks. Many of them are, though, and finding one of the good ones (who also happens to be a good fit for any given client) is not just a difficult and time-consuming process but also a community effort in many cases. I don’t want to suggest that fanfic is an alternative to therapy… but it sure is a hell of a lot cheaper.

Tumblr Drama Annotated Reading List

I ended up doing a fair amount of research for my essays Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom and Censorship in Fandom, and I’d like to share a short annotated list of some of the online sources that were useful to me.

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens
https://newrepublic.com/article/129002/secret-lives-tumblr-teens

A long article from 2016 about the culture of shitposting on Tumblr and the rocky relationship between the site’s corporate owners and its userbase.

When Tumblr Bans Porn, Who Loses?
https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/4/18126112/tumblr-porn-ban-verizon-ad-goals-sex-work-fandom

An in-depth article about Tumblr’s December 2018 ban on “adult” material with a focus on how the new policy adversely affects minority communities.

Why Monetizing Social Media Through Advertising Is Doomed to Failure
https://synecdochic.dreamwidth.org/234496.html

A three-part blog post written by a tech insider about why it’s so difficult to actually make money from social media websites like Tumblr. This was originally written in 2008, back when people in fandom were starting to think about alternatives to LiveJournal in the wake of the Strikethrough and Boldthrough deletion of a number of prominent fandom-related accounts and communities.

The Rise of Anti-Fandom Fandom
https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/tumblr-anti-fandom-your-fave-problematic/

An article from 2013 about a Tumblr blog called Your Fave Is Problematic, which was dedicated to posting receipts on the weird, problematic, and downright shitty behavior of actors, musicians, writers, and other celebrities in the entertainment industry.

Toxic Fandom: When Criticism and Entitlement Go Too Far
https://geekdad.com/2018/10/toxic-fandom-when-criticism-and-entitlement-go-too-far

A short essay on the evolution of anti-fandom that uses the online unpleasantness associated with the Netflix cartoon Voltron: Legendary Defender as a starting point.

Towards a Working Definition of “Anti”
https://shinelikethunder.tumblr.com/post/154454617111/towards-a-working-definition-of-anti

A point-by-point breakdown of what anti-fandom is and how it’s different from simply critiquing a piece of media or an aspect of fandom culture.

The Boundary Between Critique, Purity Culture, and Censorship
https://lines-and-edges.tumblr.com/post/167426659087/imo-the-boundary-between-critique-purity-culture

A short Tumblr post on the ideological connection between the purity culture of religious fundamentalism and the purity culture of anti-fandom.

How Good People and Well-Intentioned Groups Go Bad
http://www.springhole.net/writing/how-good-people-and-well-intentioned-groups-can-go-bad.htm

An essay about cult mentality that was written by someone familiar with online fandom and concerned about bullying and purity culture. When people joke about Tumblr being “just like a cult,” this is what they mean.

An Unfunny Joke about Antis
https://freedom-of-fanfic.tumblr.com/post/170096625464/an-unfunny-joke-about-antis

A detailed and beautifully written post about how members of anti-fandom are in fact engaging in patterns of abusive behavior. This entire blog is brilliant, and two other posts I found particularly interesting are on the topics of Exclusionary Radical Feminism and Why Shipping Is Not Activism.

Taming Femslash
http://smallswingshoes.tumblr.com/post/158010358049/hi-i-wanted-to-address-an-ask-you-answered-a-few

A conversation between several Tumblr users that illustrates how sexism masquerading as social justice has been used to silence the voices and stories of queer women in fandom.

The Mixon Report
http://failfandomanon.wikia.com/wiki/The_Mixon_Report

A wiki entry about a toxic fan who successfully used social justice as an excuse to bully people in fandom and professional SF writers’ communities on LiveJournal. All evidence points to a disproportionate number of her victims being young women, queer, and people of color. This rabbithole goes down deep, so be warned.

A Woman of a Certain Age

It’s so strange how Tumblr culture fetishizes youth, like, it’s all about promoting creativity and social justice until a woman is older than 21, at which she should really get a life and stop messing around in fandom. And this is especially bizarre because most of the content creators I know on Tumblr are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

Instead of trying to fight this attitude, I’ve decided to embrace its weirdness wholeheartedly and start hardcore lying about my age.

From now on I am going to tell people that I am 57 years old and got into fandom when I retired.

…But actually, though. About a year ago I commissioned a drawing from an artist whose character designs I admire, and when I found out (from her profile on Paypal, of all places) that she has an online portfolio, I visited her site and realized that she had worked as a successful commercial artist for decades and decided to only draw self-indulgent fan art once she retired.

That woman is awesome, and I aspire to be exactly like her one day.

#MeToo Four Months Later

I’m currently reading a book called All These Wonders, which is a collection of transcripts from The Moth podcast. The idea behind The Moth, which began as a sort of curated open mic event, is that people with interesting stories to tell stand up in front of a live audience and speak for about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Louis C.K. has a piece in the collection in which he talks about taking a break from television writing to visit Russia in 1994. At the beginning of the story, he says that, he used to love reading Russian literature when he was a kid, and that he would open the window while he read so that he could feel cold like the characters did. This is such a lovely idea that I almost forgot what a piece of human garbage Louis C.K. is.

I was never a big fan of Louis C.K., but I was casually invested enough in his career to go see one of his live shows, which I think displays a certain level of commitment – especially from someone like me who would rather play video games than leave the house for any reason. I never thought his signature jokes about masturbation were funny, but I always figured that, you know, he’s a male stand-up comedian, and at least he wasn’t making jokes about rape.

When the #MeToo movement gave several women the immense courage it must have taken to come forward and say that he did what he did, though, I wasn’t surprised. With a lot of the men who got called out in the conversations surrounding the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter, I think we all always sort of knew that there was something weird going on.

I say this not only about public figures who got called out but also people in my own life. I was included in a number of Facebook group conversations that were started for women (and a few men and nonbinary people) to share their bad experiences with mutual male acquaintances; and, while I was extremely upset to hear about what my friends had had to suffer through, nothing I learned came as a surprise. We all knew that these men were rude and condescending and a bit creepy, but we had never had anything to point to and say, “This is why I can no longer tolerate your behavior.”

My circle of connections has never been that wide, but I still ended up cutting all ties with about a dozen men, and I regret nothing. There has been so much less noise in my life since then, and I’m much happier.

What does hurt me is cutting ties with the women who stood up to defend these men. If I’m being honest, though, I always knew that there was something a bit off about these women as well, but again, I never had something concrete that I could point to and say “this is why we can’t be friends.” It’s one thing, for example, if a female colleague has been consistently rude and condescending to me. It’s another thing entirely if she’s presented with a wall of undergraduate comments on the website Rate My Professors that all say that a male professor sexually harasses his female students, and she responds by saying, “Kids just use that website to say mean things about instructors they don’t like, and all of those girls are lying.”

Or rather, I say these two attitudes are two separate things, but are they really? After all, you don’t need to have a penis to be affected by our culture’s insistence that women are less worthy of empathy and respect than men.

In any case, my life looks radically different now than it did last October, and four months later I’m still trying to process what happened and how I personally can continue moving forward.

To return to the Louis C.K. story, his punchline is that, no matter how bad his life in New York seemed, at least he didn’t live in Moscow. Because Russia sucks, I guess? What an asshole. In retrospect, maybe it’s better that there’s now less of his bullshit in the world.

( Header image by Melanie Westfall )