Gaslighting: is an apology necessary to heal after youve been abused?
Restorative justice is an approach to healing. But how is it possible with sociopaths, pathological liars, blackout drinkers who rely on fractured memory for truth?
For anyone who has had legitimate anger disavowed, who has had to sublimate feelings in order to appease, who has had to tamp down their rage as a means to function and questioned whether their experience of trauma was really that bad, the Kavanaugh hearings and subsequent confirmation unleashed a pyroclastic cloud of salty ash into our wounds. It has activated and re-traumatized a lot of people and for many of us, the coping mechanism for survival is defiance.
When I wrote a memoir in 2016 about chronic gaslighting at the hands of my mother and its lingering effects, I was frequently asked to explain what the term meant. I wrote about it in 2017, and in the years since, Ive heard from hundreds of people who have shared their stories of having been on the receiving end of such psychological manipulation. Trumps presidency has ignited a cobalt triggered state and helped give this term a global platform. Gaslighting is now part of our common vernacular.
One of the most sinister components of gaslighting is the denial of a reality you know to be true. When Dr Fords compelling testimony was mocked, challenged, doubted and disputed, when in the end, it didnt alter the outcome, the emotional bullet that pierced our collective flesh carried the message: you wont be believed and even if you are, its not going to matter.
The vibrations of this dismissal were deeply felt. And when anger is disavowed, defiance kicks in. Acts of defiance, in various forms and sizes, have taken place every day.
Recently, the author and journalist Deborah Copakan, unable to tolerate her rage, when she saw, on the day before Yom Kippur the solemn Jewish holiday of atonement one of the first online posts of Kavanaughs senior yearbook page, with its misogyny, slut-shaming, and alcoholic antics, wrote a letter to the man who had raped her the night before graduation from college over 30 years ago. She received an immediate (and unexpected) apology and turned it into a powerful piece for the Atlantic.
In the wake of her article, I watched an interview she gave on CNN. When she was asked how this unexpected apology affected her, she spoke about the power of restorative justice.
Restorative justice is, quite broadly, an approach to healing. A way to relieve the burden of anger, pain, shame and helplessness with the aim of finding forgiveness. By uniting the victim with the perpetrator, the torment is ameliorated when the perpetrator takes responsibility for their actions, faces their victim, and makes amends. This act of recognition is often transformative for both victim and perpetrator and is frequently mediated by someone trained to manage the meeting.
At its core, restorative justice is predicated on the value of human communication. But also, that the perpetrator of the offense is capable of recognizing the harm they have caused and experiencing remorse.
Towards the end of Deborahs interview, I was struck by the question that wasnt asked. What if her rapist hadnt responded with regret? If he hadnt repeated, Im so sorry but had said, I cant remember what happened how do I know it happened If he had obfuscated and evaded? Essentially, if he had not been accountable. How would she have felt?
Since we are friends, I put the question to her directly.
The act of writing the letter provided the most relief, she said. The apology was the icing on the cake. Im used to not getting apologies in my life from those whove wronged me. Apologies are the exception, not the norm. Id placed the ball in his court. That was the whole point of writing the letter. Relieving myself of having to carry the burden of his crime alone.
Writing the letter was in itself, the catharsis. The restorative element of her experience was taking the action, not the result. She didnt need his recognition of what happened and how he harmed her to move on. She was, in fact, prepared for him to deny it and when he didnt, it was a bonus. And intrinsic to this scenario not having gone awry was the fact that the expectation for accountability was not there.
Restorative justice is a complex issue and having an expectation can be emotionally dangerous. When expectation exists, there is too much room for disappointment and re-traumatization. Its a perilous situation for the victim to be in when the potential for gaslighting is so high.
For people who have been on the receiving end of gaslighting, the wish for it to be different is so durable and intractable, that it insulates them to trauma. You desperately want it to make sense. Logic will prevail. The belief that the gaslighter will see the error of their ways and they will change is a hardwire that is difficult to unplug.
Confronting ones abuser can backfire if youre not prepared. How is restorative justice possible with sociopaths, pathological liars, blackout drinkers who rely on fractured memory for truth? How is it possible with malignant narcissists who are empathy-impaired?
I see the merits in it as an alternative to the criminal justice system which often fails to deliver and Im not against it, but its not universally relevant. And when it comes to violent sexual assault, chronic abuse over sustained period of time, emotional and psychological abuse what does it restore, exactly?
Gabriella Lettini, a professor of theological ethics and a dean at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, is someone who has worked with grassroots truth commissions, restorative and transformative justice models.
Restorative justice is helpful in many situations, she says, as it asks people to look at the larger picture of why the harm was perpetuated, and how it somehow affected everyone. However, that is exactly why for me it is not always helpful with sexual violence. Why would you have a woman have to understand and see the reasons that have brought a man to commit violence? We already know them. We have already been trained to excuse. If anything, we need the opposite.
She does not believe women should necessarily focus so much energy on understanding the perpetrator, caring for him, waiting for him or needing him to acknowledge what he has done to move on with healing.
I dont think victims of sexual violence owe the perpetrators anything, and I dont think they need a confrontation with them to engage with their healing (unless they really want to). Most often, an incredible amount of energy goes into preparing the perpetrator to acknowledge the harm so they can even be in the same space with their victim for restorative justice processes. That can still be traumatizing.
All of which provokes a bigger question. Why is an apology even necessary?
When the Catholic church formally apologized to the Jews for failing to take more decisive action during the Holocaust, what good did it do? My father said: Its better than nothing and I replied: Really? How so? Did it change anything for the victims? It was an act of repentance (53 years after the war) and they condemned and repudiated a genocide. Its now on the record, in a document that acknowledges Christians have been guilty of antisemitism over the past two millennia. OK. Its fine. But was anyone needing this apology in order to move on?
I understand the desire for an apology. Its about being seen and being heard. But needing the apology to move on, or lift a burden, is counting on an outside source for emancipation. There are other ways of accessing power for oneself.
Apologies, as one friend points out, are for bumping into people. Sure, theyre appreciated, but frequently meaningless. People afraid of confrontation will apologize to avoid it. People apologize if they spill wine on a couch. People apologize for forgetting a birthday. Im not sure an apology for gaslighting has any real traction because an apology is only significant if the person apologizing has the ability to recognize they have done something wrong. It is what a five-year-old learns: theres a difference between saying sorry and meaning it. Gaslighters are capable of being accountable one minute, denying it the next, so the apology can be disorienting as well.
Over two decades ago, when I was in my late 20s, I confronted my mother and, while making sure not to sound confrontational, used the words child abuse. She responded with, What about Mommy abuse? No one ever talks about that! It quickly escalated into a verbally and physically violent scene in a public place.
Many times before and after, I would reflexively assert the reality of what had been said or done and the denial that these incidents occurred and the accusation I was looking to punish her with my unjustified anger, made it worse. Remarkably it never made me doubt my perception of the truth, but it was harmful because I was seeking confirmation of a reality which was consistently canceled. The deprivation of what was needed most held me in its grip.
Now, that is no longer necessary. Writing the book was its own act of reclamation. To free myself was to be in control of my narrative. To know what you know and feel what you feel does not require outside validation.
Relinquishing that need is restorative in its own right.