Memories with Gaslighting

Memories with Gaslighting

by Brigid Flanagan

Right in my face, a great breathing threat to my personal space: my father. He’s the antithesis of fatherly love. With his angry face, scrunched up nose, and teeth flashing, he blasts word after word. I stand like a deer in headlights, thinking, “Oh god he’s gonna hit me. Any second now. He’s gonna hit me.” I steel myself. Whenever he felt I had disrespected him or if he had a bad day at work or if he just wanted to get out his emotion, he reacts this way. He frightens me so often that all that is left in the aftermath is fear and then a continuing state of shock.

“Don’t you ever speak to me like that. I deserve to be treated with some fucking respect. Don’t you treat me like dirt.”

I remember watching him as he stood towering over me, lying in wait for the collapse, the fall of his seventeen-year-old daughter. I understood what he wanted and said nothing. He wanted me to cry. I ran to my room and locked the door, collapsing against a wall. Time seemed to slow and fear heightened everything in my body. Hands shaking, twisting, gripping each other to get a hold on myself, I couldn’t stop so I tucked them around my legs.

There were footsteps and then a knock, “Brigid. Why did you lock the door? Open it right now.”

I knew from experience that if I chose not to open the door he would open it by force. It pulled me back to earlier my childhood when he would pound on it while I hid in a closet, too afraid to respond.

I got up and opened the door. Only minutes ago, I looked on a furious face but now all I could see was his hurt frown and tight jaw. While he tried hard to get me to acknowledge him (all those damn sighs) I sat picking at the stains on my jeans. He gave out a long depressed sigh.

“Now come on…don’t do this. Don’t try to manipulate me. I’m sorry but you made me upset. I don’t deserve to be treated like this. Why are you acting like this? Now come down to dinner.” He had already forgotten how he treated me. In his mind all that mattered was that he felt disrespected.

What I remember from those years is always marked by my father’s insistence that I have only imagined his abuse. My memories are overshadowed by his claim that I was trying to manipulate him. Decades ago, a year, five minutes, it doesn’t matter. He won’t remember and I struggle to. He rewrites my memories with “You’re overreacting.” He denies saying I can’t amount to anything because I’m not as smart as my brother. He doesn’t remember calling me a manipulative bitch. He was never intentional. He thinks his abuse of me and my mother was normal. He refers to his marriage with my mother as “nothing out of the ordinary.”

He twists my worldview, wants me to see that I’ve concocted an imagined reality. He forgets his abuse so convincingly that more than once I’ve almost believed him. Next to his, my own memories are foggy and faded. It’s like there are pieces missing and I’m constantly trying to recapture them. It’s like I know what’s happening but I can’t quite see or hear clearly. I feel the emotions, but I don’t fully remember the actions and words. Still the memories pop up, seemingly out of nowhere, again and again.

I suppose for people who’ve never experienced verbal or emotional abuse it may seem like I’m planting false memories or I’ve confused conflict with abuse. These people don’t want to acknowledge that seemingly good people can be abusive assholes. They minimize and dismiss our memories. I remember my father screaming, punching walls, bending over me until he saw me tear up. I remember my father screaming into my ten-year-old face. This is as vivid as it happened yesterday.

Not long ago I asked a friend of my mother’s, Becky, to speak to me about my father. She said, “The thing about your father is that his goal was solely to humiliate your mother.” She told me about her confrontation with my father back when I was a young girl. My father told her, “You don’t tell me how I should treat my wife,” and kicked her out of the house. Becky and my mother would stay in contact, though. Worrying about her friend, she sent a letter that expressed her concern for her and her children and provided information on how to safely get out an abusive relationship. Afraid for her friend, Becky waited for some response. Eventually, she got a call. “Becky, I’m leaving him. But I’m doing it carefully.”

I told Becky that my father used to get very physical when he was angry.

“That was my concern,” she said. “I was worried he would do something.”

I had never known that my mother had taken steps to get us away from my father. My father told me that he had asked for the divorce. She didn’t tell me that she left him because he was an abuser.

“He always wanted the last word,” Becky said, and my mother couldn’t do much of anything unless he gave her permission. “It was just constant, Brigid. After so many years, he had completely destroyed any self-confidence she had.”

My grandfather also did this. He was beloved by everyone. People would visit my grandparents’ house just to be entertained by what my mother termed his “philosophical discussions.” At home, he physically, emotionally, and verbally abused his wife and children. He’d leave for months at a time. Eventually he left his family with no money and no clue as to his whereabouts. No one helped them. They had to make their own way.

After her traumatic childhood, my mother would meet my father at the University of Minnesota. Throughout the years of picking at her memories, my mother would eventually tell me she had noticed my father’s abusive behavior even while they were dating. If I had to guess why she married him, I would guess that, as an abuse victim, it felt mostly normal to her. Abuse is cyclical. My mother married my father, a person who could easily pick at her already damaged self-confidence. As abuse victims, we have both had a difficult time healing from our pasts.

My father’s insistence that he didn’t abuse my mother reaffirmed her opinion that she should stay silent. In the few times after their divorce that she tried to talk to him about it, he’d say that their marriage was completely normal. People who’ve experienced emotional and verbal abuse have been convinced that it’s normal. They learn that talking about the abuse invites more criticism and humiliation.

There’s this atmosphere that President Trump creates that reminds me of my father. Last year, Trump mocked reporter Serge Kovaleski at a rally in South Carolina. Kovaleski has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition which limits joint movement. “You gotta see this guy”, Trump shouted, flailing his arms about while he positioned his hands at strange angles. “Ahh, I don’t know what I said! Ahh, I don’t remember!” Kovaleski doesn’t have a speech impediment nor does he wave his arms about, as Trump suggests. Instead Kovaleski wrote a piece that claimed that there were “a number of people celebrating the terrorist attack in 2001 and when Trump said to an audience “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” after the terrorist attack of 2001, Kovaleski rebutted Trump’s reworking of his article. Obviously, Trump didn’t like that too much.

Trump denied his mocking treatment of Kovaleski. In a twitter post on June 12th of last year, he wrote, “Clinton made a false ad about me where I was imitating a reporter GROVELING after he changed his story. I would NEVER mock disabled. Shame!”

What troubles me is how abusers minimize and forget their own actions. What worries me is the normalization of abusive behavior by someone in such a powerful position. For me, that willingness to forget feels too much like what my father did to me, and I don’t want to remain silent anymore.

Brigid Flanagan studies literature and writing at the University of Iowa. When not drowning in her school studies, she’s obsessively fangirling about comedians and other funny things. She enjoys discussing her mental health with complete strangers and looking at youtube videos of people punching Nazis.