He arrives in a single blinding moment with a smile that spreads out through your veins, and eyes that bore through your best defenses to weaken your soul. He is charming, clever, sensitive when he needs to be, and frighteningly manipulative behind the curtain. So much so that you wake up weeks, months, years later and wonder how you got there.
He is a master wordsmith, whether he is arranging lines that will compliment and seduce or whittling sentences into blades to slice into your jugular. He knows what he’s doing and he does it well. At some point, if you’re lucky, you realize that everything he says is about him. Even the compliments loop back to him, as in: “You’re the best thing that’s happened to me,” or “I have such a connection with you, so much more than …” (fill in the blank—one or all of his exes). You’re just a prop in his world, and his world is a planet of one.
Because the real story is much bigger than Mel Gibson and Oksana Grigorieva. It’s a story played out every day—between people we’ve never heard of and probably never will. It happens inside homes and cars, behind walls and doors; it sometimes elevates to physical violence, sometimes not. Two ingredients are always the same: a man who is controlling and narcissistic, and a woman who finds herself hobbled, who struggles to find the emotional strength to leave.
A long time ago, I had a lengthy relationship with a man who blazed into my life and took it over in so many ways that if I look back now I can barely find myself in the pictures that come up in my mind.
Nothing I did was good enough. If he brought me flowers and I arranged them in a vase, he’d scoff, take them out and rearrange them. He told me how to dress and mocked me if I made my own choices. If I cooked dinner, something was always wrong with it. My father was president at the time and I was followed around by Secret Service agents; admittedly, there were some inconveniences to being involved with me. However, I didn’t deserve to be told, “No one else would want to be with you. You don’t appreciate how much I have to put up with in this relationship.”
The problem was, I did think I deserved this treatment. I’ve never been infused with self-confidence, but whatever I did have, he drained out of me. That’s what dangerous men do—they pummel you with criticism, they mock, they belittle until you are emptied of self-esteem. This man never hit me or roughed me up—although there were moments when I was afraid it could happen. He had a searing temper. But if he had struck me, I can’t say for certain I’d have walked away. On the most profound level, I felt that I had no blood flow, no emotional musculature. I’d like to think physical violence would have zapped me out of my subservient state, sent me racing for the door. But I’m just not sure.
There did come a moment when everything narrowed into focus, when I felt like I’d been resurrected. It happened on a sunlit California day when I was at home working on what would, much later, become my first novel. My only success as a writer at that point was a song that the Eagles had recorded, but I worked hard on my craft, and he knew it. He called and wanted me to drive to his place right then. I said I couldn’t, that I was working. He laughed derisively and said, “Excuse me. What is this work you’re doing?”
Suddenly, I saw it all, as clearly as the sunlight angling through the window. I saw that if I stayed with him, he would keep cutting and whittling and slicing me up until there was nothing left of me. Two days later I broke up with him and watched with—I admit—great satisfaction as he went into such a dumbfounded state he could barely string three words together. I never saw him again.
Mel Gibson’s verbal violence and the recordings that everyone has probably heard by now is a news story because of his fame. It may also be unusual because of his fondness for racial epithets, but at its root the story is not unique. If you lined up all the women who could personally attest to that, it would be a very long line. And that’s why it’s a story we shouldn’t forget.
Dangerous men don’t just wake up like that one day. They grow into it. Little boys grow into men who either treat women respectfully or not. It starts with small signs, and perhaps if parents, teachers, family, and friends are vigilant, danger can be averted. It starts with words, but often doesn’t end there. Rage is like a forest fire that creates its own wind, and it leaves scorched lives behind. By the time you figure out how the fire started, it’s often too late.
Patti Davis’s most recent book is The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us.