This is part 2 of a series of posts I’m going to be writing on the topic of gaslighting (& my personal experiences with it). This particular post in the series is more general and doesn’t dive into any specifics of my mother’s abuse, not really. I am not putting any trigger warnings on this blog post. If you think I need a content note/trigger warning, let me know.
Part 1 talked more about her abuse, specifically, and that post can be found here: Gaslighting & Crocodile Tears
Christmas was only a month-and-a-half ago, and every year, it brings its fair share of memories, both positive and negative, and also plenty of memories that just “are” – neutral memories, as well.
Something just hit me one morning a couple of weeks ago, though, and that’s just how much gaslighting was involved in things my mother did around Christmas in my childhood.
In the past, when I would read posts like this on the signs of emotional abuse: http://luvtheheaven.tumblr.com/post/138652549987/what-are-the-signs-of-emotional-abuse, I always thought my mom didn’t engage in the particular abusive tactic known as “gaslighting”. I’d been reading posts like that for a long while now, and I always though that if gaslighting is defined as:
A form of psychological abuse involving the manipulation of situations or events that cause a person to be confused or to doubt his perceptions and memories. Gaslighting causes victims to constantly second-guess themselves and wonder if they’re losing their minds.
then, well, I didn’t experience it. I never really second-guessed my experiences, and I definitely never thought I was losing my mind.
But then, a few weeks ago when I started the draft of this blog post, which I actually started writing before my post on Crocodile Tears, I did a Google search for more explanation on the abuse tactic that is gaslighting, and the first thing I clicked on was this Everyday Feminism article on the topic (“10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic”), and… the degree to which I can relate to multiple aspects of this post when I think back on specific things with my mom is… um… actually a little scary.
Look at these quotes from the article:
Gaslighting does not require deliberate plotting. Gaslighting only requires a belief that it is acceptable to overwrite another person’s reality.
I believe that gaslighting is happening culturally and interpersonally on an unprecedented scale, and that this is the result of a societal framework where we pretend everyone is equal while trying simultaneously to preserve inequality.
You can see it in the media constantly.
For instance, every time an obvious hate crime is portrayed as an isolated case of mental illness, this is gaslighting. The media is saying to you, What you know to be true is not true.
The quotes will become relevant soon.
In order for me to explain the relevance… I’m going to recount my experience with Santa Claus, because my lovely abusive mother (note the sarcasm dripping from my voice as I call her “lovely”) left me a voicemail on my cell phone on December 28th saying she remembers my reaction when she told me Santa wasn’t real.
She remembers that?!?
I finally listened to this voicemail in mid-January, along with a few other voicemails from her. I was quite surprised by that being mentioned in the message.
The reason this moment being remembered by my mom is so shocking to me is that it is one of the most lasting memories I have of traumatic childhood experiences, actually. It’s silly, it was not the worst thing to happen to me, but there I was, standing on Bethany Beach in the US state of Delaware. It was during the summer of 1998, the summer before I entered third grade when I was only 8-years-old.
It was almost definitely the final time my divorced* parents tried to go on a vacation together (“For the kids’ sake”), so also the final time I ever went on a vacation with my mother. She was not happy during the trip, but then again she was never happy (I would later learn about Persistent Depressive Disorder, but at the time none of us understood it at all).
But I was on the beach, having fun at that moment regardless. The vacation had its fun times, for sure. But that fun was marred when my parents both made a point to tell me Santa wasn’t real. They (later?) told me they chose then to break the news to me because they wanted to do it at a time far away from Christmas, in order to try to make sure I had time to get used to that truth before December. They told me I still should keep the truth about Santa not-actually-existing a secret for my younger brother until he reached my age, and I don’t really remember everything that they said, but I’m sure it was relatively brief. I just remember trying not to cry and literally pretending to be okay with this truth, reacting with an “Oh,” or something, and then turning away and crying but hoping by running into the literal ocean that my tears would be pretty well hidden.
In recent years, I’ve told some people this story of my memory of how upset I was, and tried to explain it.
You see, the whole world had been gaslighting me. Movies & TV shows I watched as a child, “Santa” being in the mall where you can sit on his lap, everyone in my extended family asking each year what “Santa” got you as gifts. Both my wonderful dad AND my abusive mother had, in addition to all of these other people, participated in overwriting my reality, participated in deciding to trick me, a kid who had not yet learned to be skeptical, about what was real.
When I hear about how other kids experience Santa, and the subsequent learning that he’s not real, or “figuring out”, it’s never as traumatic for them. But you see, they didn’t have the kind of mother that I did. The kids I hear about, first of all, usually actually felt loved by their mother. I don’t think I ever really felt that. But more importantly, they didn’t experience:
- Gifts so well hidden I would never accidentally find them ahead of time
- Different wrapping paper on the gifts from Santa vs. the gifts from my parents
- Different faked handwriting for gifts from Santa
- Non-brand name chocolate from a local place that made their own chocolates that I only ever saw in my stocking from Santa (and in my basket from the Easter bunny), serving as further evidence of how Santa didn’t buy gifts but rather made everything himself or with his elves’ help, even the chocolates
- cookies left out on the kitchen table for Santa would get eaten, further proof of how real he was
- preschool and young elementary school teachers (even all of the non-abusive adults in my life!) giving you reindeer food to literally set out on your lawn, again reinforcing the lie that Santa is completely real and so is all aspects of the myth
- Any questions I had about logistics of how Santa worked being actually answered one way or another by my parents who were trying very hard to keep me immersed in the lie
- Absolutely no doubts as to his existence until jarringly my parents just told me he wasn’t real and they were the ones pretending to be him when “he” gave me presents all along
It was a big deal to me. It was more traumatic than a lot of what I went through, because I had no right to feel betrayed. This happens to EVERYONE. It’s not “only bad parents” who do it, it’s every parent (or so it seemed to me as a kid, and it really is probably the majority of parents in this country, even if I later learned there are a lot of parents who don’t because they are Muslim, Jewish, too deeply Christian and find it sacrilegious, etc). This time, it wasn’t only my abusive mom hurting me — it was even my dad, too, who, having grown up Jewish, had followed whatever my mom wanted in terms of how to do the Santa myth for me and my brother. So to hear, now, almost two decades later, that my mom actually remembers this moment in my life, when I never even brought it up to her again, is really jarring and unsettling. I can’t believe she even ever knew that it hurt me so much.
To call the way the Santa Claus myth was presented to me “gaslighting” might offend some of you, might seem like too extreme an accusation, especially if any of you readers have already participated in encouraging your young kids to believe in the Santa Claus myth. But if gaslighting is “A form of psychological abuse involving the manipulation of situations or events that cause a person to…. doubt [her] perceptions”, the moment I was told Santa wasn’t real, that is exactly what happened. I realized that situations and events, many of them, had been manipulated, and now, everything I had thought was “proof” of Santa existing was now not proof, it was only proof that the whole world buys into this lie, and it made me certainly doubt that I could trust the world anymore, that I could trust my parents about the truth of things, etc.
If the media saying to you, “What you know to be true is not true.” is gaslighting, then, how is what my parents did with Santa Claus not the same? Spending years, as far back as I could remember, convincing me of one truth, then sitting me down and telling me “actually, the truth is the opposite”.
I think, if gaslighting can be defined as an unintentional thing that still hurts you, one of the best explanations for why it was so upsetting, traumatizing even, for me to learn the truth about Santa and learn about all the lies I’d been being told for years is that it’s actually similar to how abuse victims feel in other situations.
Maybe there is a better way to explain my reaction, I don’t know. But I felt like writing about this for a gaslighting-related post here on my blog. Please feel free to let me know what you think, to tell me if you disagree with my assessment. 😛
I haven’t decided yet what part 3 in this series will be, but… I think at some point there will be a part 3. My next blog post will probably be more about my aromanticsm though.
*Okay my parents were not actually divorced at that time, they wouldn’t make it legal for another decade, but they had been essentially divorced in my mind. Regardless of legally being married, they had been living in separate, non-bordering, states (Maryland/Massachusetts and later Maryland/California) since I was 3 years old.