Trigger warning for abuse. Also, spoiler alert for House, M.D., up to S8E1.
I’ve finally gotten around to watching the last season of House, M.D. Last night, I watched Season 8, Episode 1, in which House is incarcerated. He’s up for parole, and one of the parole board members is telling him he needs to show remorse in order to be let out of prison:
Parole board member: You drove your car into your ex-girlfriend’s house and then fled the country for three months.
House: I knew that her daughter was at Grandma’s, like every Friday, and I saw everyone else move into the living room.
Parole board member: They could have moved back.
House: Which I would have noticed, as I was driving right toward them.
Now, maybe House is offering post hoc justifications for something that he hadn’t actually thought through at the time, but, since House is a methodical and extremely manipulative character, let’s assume (for the sake of argument) that his recollection is accurate, and he did actually think these things through and make a conscious decision to drive his car into Cuddy’s house.
House thinks this makes it better, judging by the way he argues with the woman at his parole hearing about it. He thinks that, since he planned his crime so that no one would be injured, he’s more remorseful and therefore more deserving of parole.
I think it makes it a whole lot worse. There’s this narrative abusers use in which they wouldn’t have to hurt their victims, except their victims just anger them so much that they can’t help themselves. This was a prominent feature of my relationship with B.H.
I was looking through old IM chat logs recently (I may elaborate on why in a later post), and I came upon one from him near the end of our relationship. He was mad at me because I had told him I could do something with him in the afternoon of a Saturday, and then I later told him I had other plans in the evening. He thought the fact that we had plans in the afternoon meant that he had reserved me for the remainder of the day, and he wanted me to cancel my plans and spend the evening with him instead. Additionally, I had made plans for the evening because I did not care about his feelings and liked the other people I’d made plans with better than him, and also I was being malicious and wanted to hurt him. Finally, I was lying about not realizing that going to an event with him in the afternoon meant that I was not allowed to make plans for the rest of the day. The general tone of the discussion was that I was a horrible person who hated him and existed only to make him sad.
This was pretty typical for our relationship. (Needless to say, the no-hanging-out-with-two-people-on-the-same-day rule, which he made up on the spot, did not apply to him, only to me.) It sounds ridiculous in retrospect–because it is–but when you’ve heard “you are a horrible person who hurts me so badly” for years and you already had somewhat low self-esteem and you’ve never really found any evidence that you’re not a horrible person who just exists to make your boyfriend sad and there are plenty of cultural tropes about how women like you do just exist to make men sad, you tend to lose sight of how ridiculous it is. For reference, if anyone reading this is in a similar situation:
Partner1: Hey, after we go to ReallyCoolThing on Saturday, do you want to grab dinner?
Partner2: Aww, sorry! I have plans with OtherPeople that night. But maybe Sunday?
Partner1: Aww, well Sunday will work! Have fun! And hey, I miss you–can we schedule some time for just us soon?
Partner2: Of course!
Partner1: What the fuck?! You knew I would want to hang out with you and you made plans with OtherPeople? You’re such a bitch to me; you always do this!
Partner2: I’m sorry; I didn’t know you would want to hang out… you just said “let’s go to ReallyCoolThing”…
Partner1: You are such a liar, you know that? What the fuck else would I have meant?!
I’m really serious about this, by the way. There are relationships out there where your partner(s) will never be dicks to you. And if they are mistakenly dicks to you, they will apologize and not do it again. For reals.
Anyway, I said this was a chat log from near the end of our relationship. So I had gotten pretty sick of his shit. And I said something like “I’m tired and I want to go to bed–if you’re just going to tell me what a terrible person I am, then I don’t want to talk to you right now”.
And, being an abuser, he didn’t say that he wasn’t saying that, or that he would talk to me tomorrow since I wanted to go to sleep. He just restated his thesis–“I just don’t understand why you didn’t [read my mind and do what I wanted]!”
Which brings me back to my original point–abusers tell you you are terrible, and that’s why they’re behaving badly. B.H. had to say mean things about me because I was bad and I deserved it.
I have a starker example: A little over a year before this, our relationship was on the rocks once again. B.H. had wanted an open relationship, you see, and I had started seeing another guy. This made B.H. very upset, and he eventually told me I had to end it, or at least pretend I wasn’t seeing the other guy anymore. This all went okay until one day I had a date planned with the other guy (which I had obligingly not told B.H. about), and B.H. probably got wind of it, or possibly it was a coincidence, but anyway he showed up in my house about an hour before the date and began to cry about how extremely sad his live was and how very depressed it was making him.
Now, I didn’t want to be rude to my date and cancel (I have always been paranoid about politeness; it’s something I’m working on), but I couldn’t very well tell B.H. that I had a date and had to leave while he was whining about how awful his life was. (His life was not awful.) So I told him that I had made plans to have dinner with a different friend, and I was very sorry, but I didn’t want to be rude, and I already had these plans, and I was really sorry, but I had to go? And eventually I was able to get out of the house and off to my date.
About 30 minutes into the date, B.H. started calling. And texting, and calling again. He knew that I was on a date, he knew who I was with, he just wanted me to come home so we could talk, why wouldn’t I pick up my phone, why was I such a bitch, why was I so horrible to him, why did I lie, where was I, he was just concerned damn it where was I, he just wanted to talk to me.
I was scared and I didn’t want to be rude to my date and I really didn’t want to go home and get screamed at and called terrible things and God knows what else. B.H. was strong and he made sure everyone knew it, although of course he would never hurt me! How could I even think that? So I turned my phone off and stayed out on the date. When it was time to go home, B.H. was still calling and I knew somehow he was at my house. (Not knew as in woo-woo supernatural shit–I had a hunch based on his past behavior.) So I stayed over at my date’s house.
That was Friday. I stayed at his house until Sunday, periodically turning my phone on and checking it and finding new messages from B.H. and turning it off again. I pretended that I was just having so much fun spending time with him–and don’t get me wrong, he’s a good guy, it was fun–but mostly I was just scared to go home. Finally on Sunday my date had work to finish before the end of the weekend, so I went home, hoping all the way that B.H. would not be there.
When I got home, my housemates had told me that B.H. had been staying in my room since I left Friday, refusing to come out, and that he had badgered my other housemates for my date’s number. They had only been able to convince him to leave early in the afternoon, on the theory that someone had tipped me off where he was and if they got him to leave I would come home. No one had tipped me off–I think I later learned someone had sent me a Facebook message, but I hadn’t had Internet access while I was hiding so I was unaware.
Oh, and they let me know: he was being unreasonable, but he was just really upset that I had lied, and he couldn’t help himself. The poor guy, he was just really hurt, and he didn’t behave perfectly or anything, but I really set him off by lying and I shouldn’t have done that. (See above about how abusers just can’t help it because you are so terrible.)
In the midst of all this it-wasn’t-your-fault-except-it-kind-of-was, the doorbell rang and it was B.H. I don’t know if someone told him I was back (although some of my housemates were giant douchebags and I wouldn’t put it past them) or if he was just coming by to check, but someone answered the door and told him I was home and he demanded to see me.
I have to give props to a couple of my housemates, who told him that they understood that he was upset but that I lived here and the house needed to be a safe space for me. They managed to keep him outside, but he didn’t leave. He stood there on our porch as housemate after housemate went outside to try to reason with him, and he kept repeating that he needed to talk to me and otherwise he would kill himself. I refused to talk to him. Inside the house, we debated whether to call the police, except one of our housemates didn’t want us to because he might be hospitalized in a psych ward and that was apparently the worst thing that can possibly happen to a person and he did not deserve that.
And we were consensus decision-making people, so we decided to call his parents. (Note to anyone reading this who may be in a similar situation in the future: If someone’s threatening to kill themselves, just call the police. If they’re serious, they need help, and if they’re not serious, the experience may dissuade them from doing it again. It’s not your responsibility; just call the police.) The problem was, we didn’t have his parents’ phone numbers, and we had to get the numbers from his phone in order to call them. A couple different housemates tried to talk him into handing over the phone, but to no avail, and finally one of my female housemates decided she would try to slip it out of his pocket while giving him a hug.
I didn’t see this part, but according to her, he grabbed her arm, stopped crying, looked right at her, and said “I’m not an idiot.” When she stopped, he snapped right back into the inconsolable crying punctuated by threats of suicide, as though the phone incident had never happened.
And now we have at last worked our way back around to the House episode, in which House argues that premeditating his crime in a way that meant it wouldn’t hurt anyone made his crime less morally reprehensible than the loss of control it appeared to be. In the show, House didn’t lose control and drive his car into Cuddy’s house. He saw that Cuddy was in her house with another guy and her family and he was angry and he wanted to punish her. He didn’t want to hurt or kill her; he didn’t want her daughter to witness it, but he wanted to punish her enough to drive his car into her house. He knew exactly the amount of harm he wanted to inflict; it wasn’t a crime of passion.
This is one of the big lies about abuse–that it results from a loss of control on the part of the abusers. We see from how B.H. reacted to my friend trying to take his phone that he wasn’t really out of his mind with grief because I wouldn’t talk to him–he just wanted us to think he was. And that’s worse. Had he actually lost control, maybe he would feel remorse for his actions. Maybe he would get help, maybe he would promise himself never to do that again. But a manipulator faces no consequences from his actions, and therefore is unlikely to be remorseful.
So that’s why programs to train abusers to control their anger or better deal with their emotions are misguided. They can already control their anger–they don’t go out of control at work or in public–and they deal with their emotions by abusing others until their emotions are taken care of. When an abuser says “Well, I didn’t hit her; I only held her down”, he is really saying “I thought about hitting her, but I decided it would be better just to hold her down instead.” It’s not that he’s remorseful, it’s that he knows what he can get away with, and what is likely to get him the results he wants.