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Narcissistic Gaslighting

The Case of Brett Kavanaugh

For the past few days, I have been fixated on ideas of who has voice and who does not, and why that is.

 Clem Onojeghuo/ Unsplash
Source: Clem Onojeghuo/ Unsplash

On Thursday, September 28, 2018, we heard as Christine Blasey Ford bravely testified about Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her. She spoke about how when she tried to call for help, “Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling. This is what terrified me the most and has had the most lasting impact on my life.”

Stifled. Muffled. With difficulty escaping. This is the experience of entrapment.

For many years, I counseled abusers in battering intervention groups and heard the myriad ways they viciously went about demanding acquiescence and silence from their wives and girlfriends. Like Brett Kavanaugh, these were men who talked down to women, shouted over women, snuck around women, came charging at women, towered above women, pounced on women, and generally got their way with women.

I worked with abusers who strangled their partners with electric cords of hairdryers, bathing suits, and their own hands. Some abusers stuffed things in the mouths of their partners so they could not speak. I heard a survivor speak of when her ex-husband lured her back home saying he hoped they could get back together and then stuck a pistol in her mouth playing Russian roulette. All of these abusers demonstrated a desperate attempt to control and silence their partners and ex-partners. Similarly, when molesters prey on children and seek their compliance and secrecy, they are demanding silent shame from their victims. These coercive actions spin webs of fear for victims, insist on collusion, inhibit resistance, and suspend accountability.

So, when Blasey Ford explained that having Brett’s hand over her mouth prevented her from yelling for help, we heard the story of violation and assault, for sure, but we also heard another significant storyline that is at the crux of the stories of victims and survivors: the violation of voice.

There was such sharp contrast between Blasey Ford tentatively, terrifyingly coming to voice around trauma she experienced years ago and Kavanaugh seeking to establish a permanent voice on the Supreme Court.

But isn’t the Supreme Court supposed to be the largest forum for voice, the biggest mouthpiece for justice? Anyone who is considered for this position should be interested in enlarging the scope, range, depth and breadth of voices across this land. There is the understanding that they represent the voice of many and I would hope there would be an interest in representing the voices of those who for one reason or another have been historically and culturally marginalized. This means we need judges and Supreme Court Justices who listen carefully and speak without engaging in tactics and strategies of abuse and control such as denial, minimization, sidetracking, blaming, and seeing themselves as the victims.

We need judges and Supreme Court justices who know how to sustain focus, particularly at the toughest moments and especially when they are challenged to their core. We heard Kavanaugh desperately and proudly insert anywhere he could about his graduation from Yale and his hard work. We also heard as he interrupted others, and we heard as he sidetracked. He tried to shift questioning and responsibility to Senator Klobuchar when she asked him if he ever blacked out from drinking. Rather than respond, he pressed at her asking if she had ever done that. This is what abusers do; they claim the frame, they distort the truth, they manipulate the conversation for their own gain and in an attempt to save face. This is narcissistic gaslighting at work.

Fast forward days later, and now we are exposed to a blackout day on Facebook asking women to make their profile pictures all black to symbolize a day without women. As would be expected, not everyone has gone for that gimmick and has instead pledged to use their voices boldly, loudly and proudly. Thank goodness for that.

Coming to voice is part of the powerful path toward resistance and personal and collective change. It’s how we make meaning out of what has been done to us. It’s central to telling our truth. And to making it a little easier for the next woman to tell hers.