When I was 26, I had what I sometimes call a quarter-life crisis. In typical 20-something form, I thought what I needed was to escape city life. To get closer to nature and eschew technology or some crap.
I subletted my apartment and hung around on some of the little islands off the coast of British Columbia doing work trade — living in trailers or spare rooms on people’s property, feeding chickens, picking strawberries, and weeding their gardens. I quickly learned that I hated chickens and doing anything resembling physical labour/being near bugs and got a job at the local cafe.
I lived in a tent for the summer. I stopped shaving my armpits and made a bunch of ugly hemp necklaces. I learned to play Janis Joplin songs on my guitar and read a lot of Anarchist pamphlets. I didn’t have much money, but I didn’t need much. I felt relaxed for the first time in years.
When I first met Dan, he seemed fun and smart, but he was 20 years older than me which, to a 26-year-old who’d only ever slept with men relatively close in age, seemed gross. I brushed him off as a bit of a silly middle-aged man who was trying a little too hard to hang on to his youth. He obviously liked me, but I didn’t give it much thought. I had zero plans to actually date this guy. I wasn’t attracted to him and the idea of introducing my friends to him seemed humiliating.
He hung around the cafe, took me to local parties, and pretty much became my chauffeur. I hate to admit that I felt I was the one taking advantage of him. I felt I was the one in control.
This is, of course, the trouble with not having real power in this world. We take what we can get. Women learn they have power because men desire them, but it isn’t true.
Fall came and it began to cool down, so I moved out of my tent and into a trailer. I needed to get my belongings, strewn about various friends’ houses in the city. Dan offered to get a U-Haul and help me move my things.
We stayed at the Four Seasons and ordered room service and drank expensive drinks. I’d never been around people with money, really. I’d never had money, myself. I think I believed I was being practical or something. He didn’t seem to mind spending money and I clearly didn’t understand the consequences of “taking advantage” of someone older and richer than I.
I slept with him one night after too many drinks, regretted it immediately and then regretted it even more when, about a month later, I learned I was pregnant. I scheduled an abortion, but suffered a rather traumatic miscarriage a week before my appointment. Dan took care of me while I recovered that week, bedridden and high on OxyContin, prescribed for the pain. Looking back, I see our relationship as one forged through a kind of trauma-bonding.
I quickly became dependent on Dan. But he was smart. He was able to engage in debates about the things I was interested in -– politics, feminism, progressive movements. He aligned himself with lefty causes and with women’s rights. He believed himself to be a progressive guy. I believed it, too.
He talked a big game about community. About how this small island community took care of its own. He told me we didn’t need cops because we were self-policing. He told me that abusive men were kicked off the island by the “good men.” Of course he saw himself one of the “good” ones.
He made a point of telling as many people as possible about the thousands of dollars he’d donated to the local women’s anti-violence group. He would identify as a feminist and then talk over all the women in the room.
Eventually his true nature began to show through his carefully crafted persona, but he was a master manipulator and somehow I always ended up believing that either his behaviour would change or that his blow-ups were my fault. He seemed able to own his own behaviour: “I acknowledge my part in this,” he’d say, referencing nothing in particular.
He dominated every conversation and would practically foam at the mouth if anyone disagreed with him. He made excuses as to why he had a pattern of dating much younger women. Older women had already had families, he claimed. If he wanted a family (in his 50s, one presumes?) he had no choice but to date 20-somethings.
At 47, he had all but retired. Alone and without debt or obligation to anyone but a couple of cats, he now had the freedom to pursue the good life and make up for the 10 years he’d wasted sober and employed. He moved to the island, promptly returned to alcoholism, and began a rigorous routine of smoking joints outside the local café and writing letters to the local newspaper.
He had a “poor me” story, as so many abusers do. The locals, he said, had been initially skeptical of his presence on the island. Why wasn’t he — a lone, middle-aged, white man with a fancy car — immediately deserving of their trust? The thought that anyone would question his authenticity or his good guy persona drove him crazy.
Dan was a great actor. He’d mastered the art of imitating emotion — able to conjure up convenient crocodile tears when pity was required. He’d memorized pseudo-therapeutic language, impressing women who were accustomed to men who were emotionally disengaged.
He was also always the victim. In past relationships and in life. He was “struggling,” he always said. He described the 10 years of his life spent as vice-president of A&R at a large record label as akin to serving time in a war. Part of his backstory of victimization, he claimed he needed to “recover” and demanded everyone “be gentle with him,” which meant tiptoeing around him, never knowing what might cause an outburst.
Explanations of his life were full of holes. His house was a mess and he used paper towels as dishes. He told me he had a cleaning lady who used to come once a week but she called in sick one day and never came back. He would tell me about women he’d dated or slept with, and then months later I’d learn these stories were lies. He’d laugh it off: “Oh I was just joking about that.”
Through the year and a half we were together, we broke up constantly. The nonstop lying and mind games made me feel crazy and insecure. Dan would sneak out in the middle of the night while I was asleep and come home the next morning, never saying a word about where he’d been. If I asked, he’d scream at me — accusing me of being jealous or having “issues.” Sometimes I wouldn’t even have known he’d gone anywhere until we ran into friends the next day and they’d reference the party last night.
I’d hear all sorts of stories from others -– sometimes about him cheating with other women, even younger than me. When I’d ask him about what I’d heard, he’d track down the people who ratted him out, threatening them and spreading rumors around the island that they were crazy and out to get him. Everyone was out to get him for some inexplicable reason.
I left him temporarily after he backhanded me across the face one night. He told everyone, even me, a variety of stories in explanation: It had been an accident -– he reached for something and my face got in the way. I’d lunged at him and he’d defended himself. One woman I’d told, a friend, I’d thought, responded: “Oh but you two were fighting, weren’t you?”
Well, yes. If you call being screamed at, called a “fucking cunt,” and then smacked across the face “a fight,” then yeah. I guess we were fighting.
Still, I went back to him after that. He seemed remorseful. Remorse is a good tactic. We all want to believe people can change.
I didn’t leave for good until I found out he’d cheated on me with a 21-year-old. She told me what had happened and he quickly began a campaign to ruin her reputation. He told me and anyone else who would listen that she had pursued him relentlessly, that she was obsessed and unstable, that when he rejected her, she wanted revenge. He immediately threatened to sue us both for libel, emailing us both aggressively and incessantly.
In all this, he stuck close by the more powerful women on the island, claiming persecution. One of them said I should be ashamed to call myself a feminist. For “crying wolf.”
Emotional, physical, and verbal abuse is destructive enough. When your abuser is convinced, and has others convinced, he is a supporter of women’s rights and social justice, the alienation and betrayal feels all the more disquieting.