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.

The First Day of Class

The worst campus interview I ever had was at Michigan State University, which is located in the sad city of East Lansing, Michigan. I was living in Indiana at the time, and I made an executive decision to drive through a snowstorm (instead of flying through a snowstorm) to get there. Despite leaving as early as I possibly could, I still arrived at the scheduled welcome dinner 45 minutes late, and the search committee was not happy with me. Things went downhill from there.

I made it through the three-day dog and pony show of the campus interview by telling myself that there was a comic book store in East Lansing that I would visit once everything was over. MSU has a strong Visual Arts program, and the university library also has the largest collection of zines in the United States. Many comic book stores sell zines created by the local community, and I was excited to see what sort of cool things the store right next to MSU would have.

So after a great deal of misery this awful, harrowing process is finished, and the last lunch has filled me with so much anxiety that I spend a good fifteen minutes crying in the restaurant bathroom after everyone else has left, but finally I can go to the comic book store. I get there, and it turns out to be a small box of a room with stained carpet and fluorescent lighting and a few cheap particleboard bookshelves from Target displaying a depressing collection of the most mass-market graphic novels you can think of, like, The Complete Far Side and the first five volumes of Naruto.

Thinking that it’s rude to walk in only to then immediately walk out again, I go to one of the shelves and pretend to look at the titles. I start counting in my head, like, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” reasoning that maybe it will be okay to leave after three minutes. I pick up Watchmen or something, and I begin to zone out, replaying some particularly mean thing someone said to me during the interview or some idiotic and cringeworthy thing I said in response, and then the store clerk comes up to me.

“Do you need any help?” she asks.

“No,” I reply, panicking. “I already have everything in the store.”

She looks at me, and I look at her, and then I suddenly become aware that I smell like I just spent fifteen minutes crying in a restaurant bathroom, and I put down the book I’m holding and walk right out the door. I already have everything in the store. I wonder if she still tells people that story sometimes, you know?

Anyway, sometimes I get nervous about the first day of class, but it’s comforting to know that at least it won’t be as awkward as this one exchange I had with a clerk in the comic book store of East Lansing, Michigan.

The Stan Bryant Saga

I want to share a story about my mother’s family, who all live in rural Georgia. This story is about how strange that part of the world is, and it involves one of my mother’s cousins, Stan Bryant.

Everything I’ve been told is somewhat corroborated by public court records and articles drawn from the local paper, but it’s mostly hearsay. The only thing I can say with 100% certainty is that Stan Bryant is dead.

Stan Bryant was the son of my maternal grandfather’s sister, whom I knew as my Aunt Mervyn. When I was a kid, my Aunt Mervyn scared the bejesus out of me, and I later learned that she had schizophrenia. The disease apparently runs in my mom’s family. My grandfather’s mother, one of my mom’s sisters, and another of my mom’s cousins had it as well. I used to be worried that I would develop symptoms myself, but I think I turned out okay. In any case, Stan was my Aunt Mervyn’s only son, which can’t have been easy.

Stan grew up to be a nurse, and he lived in various cities up and down the East Coast. I met him a few times as an adult, and he seemed like a perfectly normal person, if somewhat mild-mannered and overly polite. Apparently, however, he was a serial wife beater. According to one of my uncles, Stan would be a perfect gentleman until a woman married him, at which point he would commence physically and emotionally assaulting her. This abuse would escalate until Stan felt compelled to flee whatever city he was living in so as to escape legal action. In this manner he married and divorced four wives, leaving behind four sons, all named Stan Bryant.

I should probably mention here that “Stan Bryant” is a pseudonym I created. This business gets weird, and I don’t want anything to be searchable.

Okay, so. After his most recent divorce, Stan Bryant returned to my hometown. Although he ostensibly came back to help care for his mother, Stan didn’t move back in with her. I believe Aunt Mervyn was supported with funds supplied by a trust set up by my grandfather, who had owned land all across the county. He built houses on some of this land; and, after he died, he left various properties to members of the family. Stan was living in one of these houses, which he legally owned. I’m not sure if he was working, but we later found out that he certainly wasn’t paying taxes.

Regardless, Stan started dating a woman named Tammy (also a pseudonym) who had no legal residence of her own and promptly moved in with him. It turns out that Stan had finally met his match, as Tammy was more than a little unstable herself. The two didn’t wait to get married before launching into a series of increasingly violent altercations, the last of which ended in Stan getting shot in the face.

The official account is that Stan threatened Tammy with a gun and then, filled with self-loathing, committed suicide by shooting himself. It’s important to note, however, that Stan never owned a gun, and the gun was registered in Tammy’s name. Tammy also happened to be cheating on Stan with the county sheriff, who was the first person to appear on the scene after the incident.

Because my Aunt Mervyn was not of sound mind, the management of Stan’s estate was overseen by my mother and her two brothers, all three of whom are lawyers. They jointly handled the legal proceedings and unilaterally claimed that the formal investigation of Stan’s death was off-the-charts bizarre. Because none of them felt the need to antagonize the sheriff, however, they let the matter slide. Who knows what actually happened?

Tammy sued the estate for Stan’s house; but, as soon as it came to light that Stan owed tens of thousands of dollars of back taxes, she decided that she wasn’t so interested after all. Instead of declaring bankruptcy on the estate and washing their hands of the affair, my mother and uncles decided that they would rent out Stan’s house. The person they hired to clean the place apparently found things that deeply upset him, and he started spreading stories that the house was haunted. In the end, the only person who would rent it was a Vietnam War veteran living on disability checks.

It initially seemed that this man was a perfect tenant. He paid his rent on time, kept to himself, and didn’t cause trouble. Unfortunately, his neighbor’s wife, whom my mother charmingly refers to as “the town bicycle,” had a crush on him, and he presumably ended up sleeping with her. Her husband, in a fit of jealous rage, reported to the sheriff that the man was using his military connections to run a drug cartel. The veracity of this accusation is debatable (and highly dubious), but the sheriff decided to investigate anyway. What he found in the woods behind the house were two growhouses in which the tenant had been cultivating marijuana. The sheriff confiscated the plants and put the man in jail. Since then, the house has been empty. I’m still not sure who’s doing what about the taxes on the property; but, as long as my mother doesn’t get shot in the face herself, I’ll probably never find out.

Meanwhile, the incident allowed Tammy to receive disability compensation, which she used to buy a house of her own. She also managed to acquire a large commercial property that’s been unoccupied for more than a decade, and she was recently granted a license to convert it into an animal shelter. The officer who heads the local Animal Control was extremely upset about this, as she had prohibited Tammy from setting foot onto the grounds of all the animal shelters in the county years ago because Tammy had been adopting cats and selling them on eBay. As a compromise, the Magistrate’s Office restricted Tammy’s shelter license to a maximum residential capacity of twenty-five cats. This restriction has been relaxed, and the shelter now houses more than fifty cats, which are apparently free to roam the building and grounds.

So the end result of Stan Bryant’s strange life and stranger death is a live-action Neko Atsume. If this story were fiction, I suppose it would have a more fitting conclusion, but I couldn’t make up this sort of thing if I tried.

The world is a weird place, y’all.