Systems of Abuse in Structures of Power
I grew up with an emotionally abusive parent. I was the target. I believe there were a lot of reasons that caused this parent to be emotionally abusive to me, but that’s really not my concern. My concern is how those reasons manifested in abuse towards me, how I learned about the world through this abuse, including how to survive. The emotional abuse I experienced, formed my reality, and my definition of love — as it will for any child, who can only learn that concept from their caregivers — so when I was 18 and went out into the world, I sought out partners who were also emotionally abusive, in order to maintain my perception of reality. The abuse that I experienced from my partners was, to me, totally normal. I didn’t know things could be any other way.
This is not to say that I sought them out consciously — I didn’t at all. In fact, I didn’t even know I was being abused. That’s what emotional abuse does, of course. It blinds the victim to any other realities. Until one day the abuse becomes so acute, the victim’s own self defense system kicks in and lets them fully see and comprehend what is going on.
In current political terms, it’s called “woke”.
This happened to me in the last relationship I was involved in. As I felt I was falling in love, I even mentioned to a friend that the person I was about to enter an abusive relationship with was exactly like all the people I’ve ever dated, rolled into one extreme version. Had I listened to myself speak, and had I been more aware of how abusive my past relationships had been, perhaps I would have saved myself a dangerous, damaging experience. On the other hand, it was the final experience that opened my eyes, so maybe it was a good thing. I wish it hadn’t been necessary, is all.
This person was perhaps not yet as practiced and suave in their manipulation and control tactics as previous partners, or my parent. But because their gestures, tactics, mindgames and manipulations were so obvious, it helped me see how abusive they were.
The alarming thing was recognizing how familiar they were to me — how I had already experienced the exact same things in previous romantic partnerships, with that parent, with some friendships, colleagues and even bosses — basically, any relationship that started out with, “I feel like I already know you” or “I feel like I’ve always known you”.
That feeling was there because I did already know them — and they knew me. We were part of an ecosystem that depended on one another to survive and function, and we were all of a type: me of the victim type — the way my personality grew around that experience; and they of the abuser type, and the way their personality grew around that.
My personality was developed around survival skills: I have a high pain tolerance, I am an over-acheiver but also a self-saboteur. I am really impatient. I have a deep seated belief that I am not wanted in any group situation (threat of exclusion being a favorite weapon of emotionally abusive people). I am always ready to bolt, and in the past, always had one foot already out the door, wherever I was and whatever I was doing. (Nowadays, I’m content to just know where the exits are.)
The abusers I’ve known, including the parent, tend to be physically attractive or distinctive, very charming, intelligent, fast-talkers, confident. They need to be in the spotlight and they don’t like to share, they are often narcissists and they lack empathy for the people in their lives (although they may display empathy for a cause or a group suffering somewhere far away).
They are bold, and are often Type A personalities, very concerned with their appearance and how others perceive them, although also possessing the ability to convince themselves that however they look is great. They are very social — they have to be, actually, in order to always find new victims. They are commitment-phobes, but they are obsessive, possessive and controlling. They also cannot deal with rejection, and cannot stomach the idea of anyone disliking them… although only for loyalty reasons, rather than to be accepted into a group.
The last romantic relationship I had with an abuser displayed these traits to such an extreme and obvious degree, I couldn’t NOT see them: gas-lighting, changing the rules, punishment and reward, dangling golden carrots, economic abuse, outright lying, sexual manipulation, degrading, downgrading, dismissing, praises/insults, grand gestures, special promises that never came to fruition, coded language, overuse of the word “special”, control.
It was like a solid year or two of mental torture, but I couldn’t NOT see what was happening… even as part of me felt comfortable and even deeply connected. As time went on and the obvious became more and more obvious even to me, the excuses I had previously employed to justify their behavior, the salves I applied to my own wounds, the tricks I had always used to prop myself and keep going, failed. One by one they fell to the wayside until I was left with nothing — no more resources, no more tricks, no more tools — and I was forced to face the truth.
That moment was painful. The reality I had spent 40+ years of my life subconsciously maintaining — through my choices of work and friends and lovers — fissured, cracked, and split apart. I had a breakdown: I woke up one morning trying to tear my own brain out of my head. Nothing was as I had understood it before. Nothing was as it seemed. I couldn’t trust myself, nor anyone or anything around me: not the bed I was in, not the air I was breathing, not my own skin.
The lead-up to that moment took 1 year of extreme abuse, but had probably started with as the parent was dying. Maybe it even started before that, I don’t know. But it was several years of things not seeming right, not feeling quite so normal to me, not solid, before the breakdown actually came.
I will be honest with you: I did not like any single part of that experience. Not a moment of it. Not any of the weeks and months and years that led up to it, and certainly not that morning waking up desperate to make it all stop. It was horrible.
But I got through it. Some very trusted (and kind!) friends helped. I found a good therapist. I cut off all contact with the abuser and everyone attached to them. I worked at healing.
It was slow going and I had a couple backslides, a bad bout of depression that was unfortunately timed with a terrorist attack in the city where I lived. But I kept going, one step at a time, and I got through it. I changed cities, I took a moment to pick a direction, and I went. And I built a new life.
I share all this not to trumpet my own achievements or gain sympathy, but because I honestly feel this is what the world has been going through since 2016: the reality we’ve known for so long is not OUR reality. It is the reality of the abusers — the people in power, from heads of state to cops in uniform to multi-billion dollar CEOs: over-archingly male, predominantly white, but there are people like this in India too, and South Africa and Nigeria, in Colombia and Venezuela, and Syria and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and China and Japan.
Over the course of history, there have been some women in this world pantheon of abusers as well: Eva Perón, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Imelda Marcos, Beata Szydło, Nikki Haley, Gina Haspel, Ivanka Trump to name a few of the most recent.
It’s not a gender thing, it’s a personality thing: the personality of the abuser. Someone who likes to, gets off on, only knows how to, abuse. And I believe we’re finally beginning to see it for what it is because we, collectively, have finally met that bad boyfriend, the one that all the other ones are rolled up into, the golem of abuse: Donald Trump.
I believe that the current world structure — economically, socially, politically — was designed by abusers, for the benefit of abusers.
The dominant system that we humans have constructed for ourselves, the one that persists, was also created by abusers. Modern ideas of democracy are most often based on the definitions constructed in Ancient Greece, the cradle of civilization, e.g., a socio-political system that benefited a very few, privileged men who all looked like each other.
It was not created to benefit women, or any human that didn’t look like the ancient Senate. Social and economic hierarchies, gross economic imbalance, racism, sexism, slavery were all parts of ancient Greek “democracy”, and they are certainly part of our world today. While about half of the countries in the world are democracies, almost all of them call themselves a democracy (“The Democratic People’s Republic of South Korea, or “democractic republic of Congo” for example), when in fact they are anything but.
The fact that average men and specifically white men, also benefit from this world order does not mean that all men are abusive creeps; I think it’s often a benefit of circumstance and proximity, but it’s the ones who claim to have gamed the system that indeed truly benefit.
Except they haven’t gamed anything at all — they’ve simply figured out that the system is actually for them and they’re willing to work it: Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, MLB, Elon Musk, etc., etc., etc.
Tax breaks, favoritism, nepotism, trade embargos and trade deals, special laws, pork bellies, federal money laundering, racial privilege, colonialism, totalitarianism have all been around for a long time. And for a long time, they have been designed specifically to benefit a privileged few, but are often presented as benefiting everyone (tax breaks so more jobs can be created; trade negotiations to encourage innovation; exorbitant military spending to keep the people safe). President Trump has stated that only fools pay their taxes — which is true. We are the fools. We support our societies’ infrastructures with our hard-earned salaries while the Trumps and Bezos and the Musks of the world not only profit from our work but also lobby for and win tax breaks only for themselves. We are literally paying to support their realities. That anyone else benefits at all is circumstantial; the true beneficiaries are the abusers.
Victims, left on their own, must also maintain their own status quo, and if abuse is their status quo, then they must find a way to be abused. It’s a vicious cycle that can, one day, turn the victim into an abuser him- or herself.
On a macro level, we also seek out the means to maintain our collective reality, a vast mechanism of abuse that we actively contribute to maintaining: through our work structures, gender and race politics, through consumerism, through doing the Sisyphean work of saving the planet and solving humanity’s injustices as though they’re our fault rather than the responsibility of the abusers.
On a micro level, I think that this is why so many men have been so confused over the past few years in the face of #metoo, #timesup, #blacklivesmatter and all the other social movements that are signals of one collectively maintained reality starting to fall apart. I think the good men, the not-creeps, the ones who cry #notallmen because, while they have been circumstantially, even passively benefiting from this system, they have not worked the system… and wouldn’t. Because to work the system and reap the full benefit of it requires a level of comfort with the suffering of others, a disconnect from the humanity of others’, and of course from the Earth itself. It requires the character of an abuser.
On a macro level, here’s the counter-argument: While other companies may not have lobbied for tax breaks, they still benefit from them and they still take them, even if they choose to use the money saved for the greater good.
But that doesn’t stop the cycle, it simply repackages it, like believing one abuser is different from another because they have different colored hair, while ignoring the fact that all the flags are still red.
You start with donating your tax break. You evolve to changing the system that gave it to you in the first place.
To be aware of your own entitlement is an uncomfortable point of self-evolution, and one we have collectively been experiencing over the past decade. To become aware of your own sense of entitlement, though, requires a painful level of self-awareness, a soul-searing split from your previously maintained reality. (Incidentally, I believe this is what the Wachowskis really meant that red pill in The Matrix to be for.) To walk away from a system that supports both is the scariest thing of all.
The break is scary, the breakdown is painful. But you can recover, heal, and move forward to building something entirely new.