The core method of abusive people is the verbal assault. This isn’t just the tiny jabs of relayed insults. It’s the full on screaming dress-down, where suddenly you are everything that’s wrong in the world. If you dare respond in any way, that’s when the physical violence follows.
A few years ago, a woman trying to get out of an abusive relationship secretly recorded her husband berating her with the verbal assault. Although he did not hit her, he got sentenced to three years in prison. I watched the horrifically triggering video, and recognized my mother in the man’s behavior – what she did to me on a regular basis was EXACTLY what this man did to his wife. This man got prison time for it. It was back in 2009, or 2008. If anyone has links to it, let me know – I’d like to have it here for documentation’s sake.
I was subject to those dress-downs about once a week between the ages of 4 and 18. My mother was an expert at delivering them. She’d call them “lectures” but that’s not what they were. Lectures usually had some improving or educational aspect to them. What these were were the nastiest, most mean-spirited attack on every fault she felt I had, real or imagined. My weight was always brought up, regardless of what I did to “deserve” the dress-down. Any vulnerability I had expressed was also brought into it. At around 16 she started working in the term “prick-tease” for me after a boy had essentially assaulted me in front of both my parents, and “just like your sister.” In college suddenly my friends got worked into the screaming dress-downs and tantrums, along with demands that I do whatever she or my sister wanted. There were a lot of assumptions made about how I felt or what I thought in those screaming lectures – most of which were completely inaccurate and did not come from any actual conversation with me. I’d learned early not to tell either my mother or my sister how I genuinely felt or what I thought about anything because I knew it would get worked into the screaming tantrums if not the daily manipulation.
This is actually a type of assault commonly used by men. I strongly suspect my mother learned it from her brother. She often told the story of how he got her in the car on the way home from her first semester at college and began screaming at her for daring to inconvenience him so. This is a technique that she liked to use since I was trapped in a car with her for at least 30 minutes a week while she drove me to clarinet lessons. She tried it a few times after I was 18, and it ultimately led to my refusal to be alone with her in any circumstances, ever. My dad did it twice, and after the second time I made it clear to him he would not see me again if he did it again – by that time I’d found a way to never, EVER, get in a car where it was just myself with my mother at the wheel.
I think of this now because of a link shared by my friend Lisa. It is titled “It May Happen to You, but Only if You’re a Woman.” The link goes to a Tumblr where a woman, who is reading on the subway, is often harassed by men who feel wholly entitled to her attention. One man actually became so irate at her refusal to let him invade her space and make use of her time like it belonged to him that he started screaming at her – including threats to kill her.
It made me start thinking about a few things.
I know other people that have been abused this way. It’s not just me. My college roommate’s boyfriend would give her verbal dress-downs and have screaming tantrums over stuff that had nothing to do with what actually went on in front of him. He felt very much entitled to do so, and openly believed that women did NOT have any right to express themselves back or respond to his tantrum. This is typical abuser behavior. I’ve often dealt with women shaken after someone got in their face – whether it was a relative, a stranger, or a friend.
Verbal assault is still assault.
I started thinking about it, because I’ve made myself deal with my triggers as rough as they are and watch some of the TV and film depictions of abuse. While most are still pretty inaccurate – some of these films of awareness are made by an industry notorious for its abusive behaviors – I noticed that this tactic, the verbal assault, is virtually invisible on TV and film.
Twisted, the retelling of Rapunzel, only recently exposed an emotionally abusive mother/daughter relationship. It was terribly triggering to watch, but so true.
Yet nowhere in visual fiction have I ever seen someone depict these dress downs, these fits, these tantrums… these acts of violence. Hitting, yes, Little insults, yes, intimidation in short bursts, yes.
But the lengthy “lectures” that really do break a person down and make it clear how the target of the abuse ends up broken enough to take it – that doesn’t get shown. This type of assault is so little known that a judge was horrified enough to actually send a man to jail for the behavior after he saw it. This tells me a lot of people aren’t even aware of how common this is, or that it is usually the first tool in an abuse cycle.
We need to see this depicted in film and TV. It needs to be made clear this behavior IS a type of assault – and that it is NOT NORMAL, JUSTIFIABLE, OR ACCEPTABLE. This isn’t simple difference of opinion – it’s a deliberate act to weaken the person that the verbal barrage is sent to. Awareness is the first step in disarming that weapon.