Tag Archives: abuse

The Venus Flytrap: Charismatic Abusers

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The mistake we make when thinking about charismatic and powerful abusers is to assume that their charisma and power come from their talent. That the sheer force of their brilliance makes them irresistible. This is why we ask questions about what to do with their art, whether it is necessary to boycott their work, whether it is fair to teach it to facilitate discussion or if that time is better spent on the under-rated (a category that overlaps with the abused). And we fixate on the one or three (or sixty-something) cases we get the identifying details of, as though they are the whole story. They are not. Because the secret to why charismatic and powerful abusers get away with what they do for decades, rising in the ranks, is that they are devious. Their abuses extend beyond the professional into the realm of the intimate. They weaponize the most beautiful thing of all: love, or more accurately, its possibility.

Beneath every list of allegations is something else, something far more nebulous – a collection, large or little, of broken hearts. There’s no chance that a perpetrator in the workplace (be that a studio or a boardroom) has not also behaved reprehensibly in his private life. That the ongoing, worldwide revelations about sexual harassment have begun to include abuse (particularly but not exclusively emotional abuse) in relationships delineates this.

This is only partially about author Alisa Valdes writing about how, 22 years ago when neither of them had established their careers, she dated Junot Diaz – and he treated her very badly. I’m thinking of the women who contacted Valdes to say he’d done the same to them. I’m thinking about how we aren’t entitled to any of their stories – but also of how many of them would certainly have been storytellers, and we’ll never hear of them, because they had to swallow their truths and stay in the shadows. I’m thinking, actually, about my own JDs. That archetype: the charismatic person (usually male) you fall in love with, whose overtures you consent to, whose maltreatment you don’t know what to name, the ghost of which lingers for a long time.

Many years before someone I knew, had liked and respected, and now know to be a perpetrator was outed, I read a book of stories by someone who’d loved him and saw her hurt spilled all across its pages. I knew of their history as we all know things, in our small-minded, wide-mouthed spaces. But not everyone gets to alchemise what happened, into art or into anything. If we manage to, we’re still harrowed by a lack of acknowledgement of abuse of that nature, which operates under the false promise of love. But it’s so gauche in these circles to speak of love.

We’re all fooled – as their audiences, as their friends, and even as spectators to their exploits. By charm, not by talent. It’s important to recognise this, because it helps those they fooled with greater repercussions. The ones who encountered their ugliness in the workplace, of course, but equally the ones who were overpowered in seemingly romantic configurations – and then dismantled, invisibly, from within.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 10th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Tamil Cinema & The Romanticisation Of Abuse

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For the first time, I’m not looking forward to a Mani Ratnam film. Not in that non-committal “well, maybe if someone insists that we go watch it” way or the lazy “I’ll just see if it’s on Netflix eventually” way but in very clear-minded and cautious way. The question is: can I watch this film without being triggered? The theatrical trailer I saw for Kaatru Veliyidai clearly tells me: No.

Here’s what I saw: a man (played by Karthi) yelling at a woman in front of his colleagues, her confusion slowly registering on her face. I saw that woman (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) say helplessly, in the manner of anyone unable to break out of a toxic scenario, “I don’t know why I keep coming back to you’. I saw him being extremely possessive, gripping her tightly as he yells at other people, telling them that regardless of all conflict between them she is “[his] girl”. In the clincher, I saw the woman whisper from behind a door, telling him: “I cannot gauge when you will come to me and when you will hit me instead”. Although “hit” doesn’t suffice; how do I translate the sheer physicality of the Tamil words vongi adi? In every frame, she is fragile or frightened. In short, all I see of Kaatru Veliyidai is an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

Trailers are often misleading, of course. Some will say heightened dramatic elements were purposely kept in focus so as to tug at the audience’s emotions. But mine were not so much tugged as they were triggered. Because abuse is never love. Whatever the contents of the film may ultimately reveal, I’m deeply disturbed by how a trailer edited in such a way is touted everywhere as a love story.

Tamil cinema has a long history of popular films with problematic takes on romance. Guna was about kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome. Mannan was about disempowering women, taking them out of the workplace and into the kitchen. Nattamai, among others, featured the trope of forced marriage to rapists. The examples – both older and current – are endless, really, for what passes for love. It is not only explicit violence, including stalking, that we need to cast a critical eye on, but the romanticisation of abuse itself. Call it a drama, a psychological thriller, even an action movie with an emotional twist. Just don’t call it a love story.

So no, I won’t be catching Kaatru Veliyidai at the cinema. There’ll be too much standing up involved, you see. First, I’ll have to stand up because I may get beaten up if I don’t during the mandatory national anthem. Then, I’ll have to stand up again to walk out of the theatre because some scene in which a woman is brutalised, either emotionally or physically, is probably going to push me over the edge. I’m sure someone will write to me now to say I’ve misunderstood, that the film is about a fighter’s PTSD from being on battle frontlines. Let me pre-empt you by saying: my response to the trailer is also PTSD, another fighter’s, from the frontlines of a lifelong war.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Every Age You’ve Ever Been

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How strange it was, her reaction to the story about the famous writer who had been pulled out of school in the 8th grade for bunking class to go the cinema. “How sad,” she said, with sincere sympathy. “Poor child!” I said nothing, at least not immediately. She had forgotten, in the thrall of someone else’s life, her own daughter’s. She had pulled me out of school after the 6th grade, then the 8th, then refused to send me to college, then sabotaged my tertiary studies at least thrice. I never finished them. I am not a college drop-out in the cool sense of the word, not a genius who invented a software or sold an app or became a superstar. I am the other kind.

This is not a special story. I meet them all the time: high-functioning, ambitious – even accomplished – adults like myself who carry the scars of family dysfunction. Families who made bad choices and blamed it on circumstances. Families who justified abuse. Families who forced their young into situations the young should not know, so that they were raised half on their own sheer will and half on slow-release poison. More importantly, I meet scarred adults like myself who work hard to forge relationships with those same families. We do it out of love, yes, but we also do it because the alternative is an abyss of too much pain.

So to all of us who try, I want to say: I see you, I know you. I’ve seen you at all the ages you have ever been. I see their layers glimmer beneath every brick you lay in a life of your own assemblage, and I know what it has taken you and what it takes you every day.

There are places beyond which the well-adjusted cannot understand what we mean. There are places beyond which the well-concealed cannot carry their trauma across without spilling it, and so they refuse to acknowledge ours. And sometimes these categories are nebulous. We see ourselves reflected clearly, or we are oblivious of our blind spots.

I’ll take a crack in my heart over a chip on my shoulder, but some days it all feels the same.

As a writer, I believe the story belongs to whoever needs it. As a survivor, I believe the story belongs only to the one who lived it. These are contradictions, balanced by a single word, for a scarce thing: care. The story, like the survivor, is alive: it changes based on the hour or the day, evolves over years, is shaped by battering and by craft, sandpapered by retellings, distorted by silences. The story, like the survivor, requires care.

Redemption is not denial of all that came before. It’s only an extension of the sheer will through which that survival was – and is – managed. I am writing the future by force. The past is trauma, and trauma is memory. The present is a project, and that too will become memory. The ones we make today are the ones we’ll live with later. And wanting to live means having to try.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 23rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dear Mrs. XOX…

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The other day, I received an email that could have been a threat, a case of mistaken identity, a prank, or a strategy by some slick operator. The sender warned me to stay away from their boyfriend – let’s call him Mr. XOX. They’d even created an email address expressly for this purpose – “Mrs. XOX” was their chosen pseudonym. Considering that I don’t know anyone by that name, I had no initial clue what to make of this.

Bizarrely enough (and this is where the slick operator suspicion comes in), Mrs. XOX told me, in explicit terms, that women crave her boyfriend due his impressive appendage. She also told me to delete a particular number (which, of course, I never had to begin with). Yup, my poison penpal gave me the phone number of a well-endowed man.

First, I laughed. And then, just in case this sender was real, I felt very sorry for anyone who’s been driven to such insecurity in a relationship.

So, Mrs. XOX, if you’re reading this – I want you to know first of all that I don’t know and have never met your boyfriend. I’d never want to meet him either, because something tells me he doesn’t treat you right. And I don’t like to be around those who disrespect women.

Maybe you’ve written to me because your boyfriend put the idea into your head that he’s involved with a stranger. This tactic is called gaslighting. It’s when someone controls you by convincing you of a false reality, wearing away at your reason and intuition, until you can no longer trust yourself. As a result, you become paranoid and are driven to extreme behaviours. Gaslighting is one of the most common tactics of emotional abuse.

I want you to know, Mrs. XOX, that emotional abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it by its name. It happens to the best of us.

You’re not crazy. You’re not possessive. You’re not desperate. These may be words you have been called. But they are not who you are, they are just the effects of this abuse.

But those harsh words are not what other women are either. If he has cheated on you, remember – that was his decision. The fault is entirely his and you can blame no one else. If he has made you hate and punish other women, he has made you hate and punish yourself. You must look squarely at him and see him for who he is. And then, freed of the need to possess or belong to him, begin the process of rebuilding who you are.

Most of all, Mrs. XOX, I want you to know that I don’t mean to insult your intelligence. You probably know all of these things already. I’m only here to remind you: you deserve so much better. This is not what love is supposed to feel like.

Maybe you’re Mrs. XOX. Or maybe you’re someone like her – pushed beyond your pain threshold out of love. My wish for you is this: walk away. You will heal. You won’t need to be Mrs. XOX when you can truly be your own person.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 4th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.