Gas-lighting on Al Franken(stein)’s Street by LaChelle Schilling


I will add my #metoo, but don’t feel like going into details. I will just say that in light of my past experience and Al Franken’s statement of apology, I’m realizing why some of us don’t tell at an even deeper level.

This is Al Franken’s statement:

“I’ve met tens of thousands of people and taken thousands of photographs, often in crowded and chaotic situations. I’m a warm person; I hug people. I’ve learned from recent stories that in some of those encounters, I crossed a line for some women — and I know that any number is too many. Some women have found my greetings or embraces for a hug or photo inappropriate, and I respect their feelings about that. I’ve thought a lot in recent days about how that could happen, and recognize that I need to be much more careful and sensitive in these situations,” according to his statement. I feel terribly that I’ve made some women feel badly and for that I am so sorry, and I want to make sure that never happens again.”

Summary: It’s super hard to be a guy in this society.

When I had my own experience, I felt confused and disappointed . . . in myself. I guess I didn’t say “no” assertively enough. He must have not really heard me, noticed my emotional state. I don’t tell because I feel stupid, as if I allowed it to happen. And that embarrasses me. I don’t want to admit I’m weak, that I don’t effectively stand up for myself. Whose responsibility is it? I, the woman, am the eternal gatekeeper of responsibility and consent. I can’t expect men to pick up on cues, to have basic human skills like noticing or being aware. Like Al Franken, it must have been all good intentions. My perpetrator was “a warm person” too, and that was the most confusing part. I’m sure if I were to contact him today, he would echo Franken’s words: I feel TERRIBLY that YOU feel BAD. I’m sorry for YOUR feelings about what you have (subjectively) perceived.

Gaslighting is a form a manipulation that evokes doubt and confusion in other persons, making them question their perception of reality. The gaslighter uses persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, blaming and lying to destabilize and delegitimize the victim.

What are the subtle manipulations potentially contained in Franken’s statement?

1.) Feigning innocence. He’s met TENS of THOUSANDS of people and taken THOUSANDS of photographs. Read: Surely, in that mass number of instances, there might be one or two slip of hands or misunderstandings. Furthermore, the situations were CROWDED and CHAOTIC. I know chaos places my hand on other people’s asses and causes it to contract. The crowds bump my tongue into other people’s mouths as well. All the people, all the chaos. How could we expect anything else? Quite a nicely crafted set-up for an “apology.”

2.) Feigning ignorance. He had to LEARN from stories. There was nothing in the situation itself that could help him decipher at the time any misalignment of comfort. I am very familiar with his statement of obliviousness. I often have wondered why I seem so adequately intuitive about a grimace or expression of discomfort on another human’s face or sense the holding of breath or tightening of muscles, but so many men I meet in these situations of unwanted affection are just like Al: oblivious. Can’t they catch the cues or hear our “no’s” or do they just not want to?

3.) Bolstering of the self. He’s “a WARM person.” He just likes to HUG. Gee, that sounds like a really nice human being. It sounds like a sweet teddy bear, and teddy bears don’t sexually harass (I haven’t seen the movie Ted, so. . . ). Warm people who like to hug don’t do bad things. Is that the implication? He’s even a sympathizer, an almost-advocate for women, mirroring the “one is too many” phrase.

4.) Misdirecting blame to the woman’s subjectivity. It’s not all women who have a problem. It’s SOME women. “Some” is a very popular word carefully reiterated in this apology. When I tell someone I feel bad for making them feel bad, I’m re-directing the focus from what I actually did. I’m not telling a person that yes, I treated her disdainfully and said some mean things. I don’t mention that at all. I’m saying that SHE feels bad, so let’s focus on that. Furthermore, the lesson that I’ve learned, if I’m utilizing the language of this apology, is not to not be an asshole. It’s to be more sensitive because SOME women need that. Good lesson.

5.) The Miseducation of Al Franken. This has just been mentioned in #1 and #4, but it bears mentioning in its own category. What do men need to learn, according to Franken? That they can’t be free and affectionate and hug because of SENSITIVITY. Not because these women who are speaking up demand to be treated as human beings instead of cattle showcased and prodded. Not because of basic human decency or ethics. Not because of mutual responsibility to do no harm. No, because they are unlike MOST women (because they are only some); because they are sensitive. The definition of ‘sensitive’? Easily hurt or damaged. Excessively or abnormally susceptible. Franken, thus, is apologizing for rare and fragile sentimentality, it would seem.

My take-away is that I need to be even more fiercely protective of my body in all cases and that men like Franken need to stop bull-shitting with a tickle-me-elmoesque I didn’t know tee hee. I just don’t want anyone reading Franken’s apology and thinking it is a good one to model. . . or that it is an apology.

This has nothing to do with religion explicitly some might say. Except maybe for the verse that keeps coming up in my mind: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them underfoot and turn and maul you” (Matt. 7:6). Fuck our politeness in crowds when we are getting groped physically or emotionally.

Let’s go ahead and raise hell exactly at that time and place, reserving our polite pearls for . . . well, I’m not sure how to finish this thought yet. But I have a flash of thought to swallow them and then shit them out on this apology.

Edited note: Frankenstein, in Mary Shelly’s novel, is not the “monster”/Creature. He is the scientist who creates the Creature and sort of escapes responsibility. I hope that clarifies my intent here and the analogy.

 

LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.

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Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, authority, Body, Breaking News, Consent, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, General, Herstory, Media, microaggressions, Rape Culture, Sexism, Sexual Violence

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28 replies

  1. Well said. Every “liberal nice guys” can and do sexually harass women. We need to talk about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think that we all make mistakes. It’s just more helpful to own up to them and contribute to a potentially and truly healing conversation about how sometimes we internalize power structures/privilege and act mindlessly and not carefully with bodies and ask what is it about our culture that leads to participation in/perpetuation of a phenomenon that turns out (surprisingly to those who participate sometimes) to be a serious, important issue. Thank you for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the way you deconstructed the apology. I have been surprised that so many progressive feminists defended him, hoping he only made the one mistake. #NeverOneMistake.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Your explanations made me remember something that happened to me, except someone else was doing the gaslighting. I used to stay with this guy and his family from a church I used to attend. One night, he kept messing with me. He tried to make it seem like it was my fault: “You shouldn’t have left your panties in the bathroom. I’ve never seen any like that.” I couldn’t focus at work the next day and my boss excused me and helped me phone for help. I left work for a woman’s shelter. That Sunday at church, the pastor’s wife was shocked I wasn’t with the family. I tried to tell her what happened: “He’s a deacon,” she stated, “he’s a good family man. Why are you trying to make him look bad?”

    Similar situation with my mother when I told her how my father used to try to get me to suck his dick as a teenager: “Why are you saying this? You know I’ll have to leave him now. He teaches Sunday school.” She is still with him.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, many times it starts with inappropriate comments, which are themselves a form of violence, intrusion, forcing us to feel discomfort and putting the burden on us to figure out how the hell we are supposed to react. The way others try to protect the people who cause harm . . . you explain it well. I’m so sorry you had to go through those impossible situations. I hope community and healing for you. Thank you so much for feeling like you can share here.

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  4. Excellent, LaChelle. I’ve also been disgusted by these gas-lighting apologies. You broke this one down perfectly. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Marie. Gas-lighting is a phenomenon I have a heightened sensibility about (not necessarily detecting it, although maybe), but feeling it as a stone in the pit of my stomach. I could absolutely not get through the film Big Eyes. I felt sick afterwards.

      Like

  5. http://www.kentonline.co.uk/dartford/news/child-marriages-sparks-bitter-row-128370

    This is an article that was written about the Church of England conducting role play marriages with children, as young as 5, in a church building in front of an ordained Priest.

    You might argue that this has nothing to do with your article, but whilst reading it, I was struck by the term ‘gaslighting’. I have had much correspondence with institutions over this matter, and they all seem to have the same way of defending their position. One classic tactic is one of trivialising one’s concerns – “no-one else has complained”. I always find that one difficult/impossible to handle.

    When I asked the Archbishop’s secretary about whether it would be ok for same sex role play marriages to occur (I personally don’t think any role play – heterosexual or homosexual should occur) his reply was “As far as I am aware the circumstances in which two 5 year old boys or girls role play a marriage has not arisen and so ‘the Church’ has not formulated a ‘stance’ on it, and I am not going to invent one in response to such an unlikely and obscure hypothetical situation.” How do you deal with that?!

    Two signed for delivery letters to the Church didn’t get answered.(stonewalling – a type of verbal abuse) The Headmaster said “we have a good relationship with the Church and we expect to have a good relationship in the future” (Did not answer the question and diverted the attention onto the good relations he has with the Priest – who is on the school board – a form of verbal abuse) When I wrote to Social Services for an independent decision, they handed the letter to an Education Officer to deal with who said there was “no serious concerns as christian services are part of the RE syllabus and would have formed part of a greater understanding and learning of all religious ceremonies for the children”. I find it incredible that I write to Social Services for an independent decision about abuse and they pass my letter onto the Education system, that is perpetrating this situation, in the first place!

    I have not got to the point of the C of E making an apology – it still continues this practice – damaging our children, but if and when it does, no doubt the ‘apology’ will be similar to that proffered by Al Franken.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely – trivializing is a part of gaslighting. The implication is that, it’s just us; therefore, it is of questionable validity. The exception. You do well in pointing out verbal abuse in the refusal to acknowledge a potentially harmful situation. Thank you so much for adding this relevant experiential example. After looking at the link, I especially resonated with the sentiment, “If the school can ban all sorts of things for the potential risk of harm [. . .]” and found it helpful. If children role play on their own, it seems quite a different manner than if adults construct such a set-up for them and emotionally reward them for it. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

      Like

      • Thank LaChelle for your kind reply and validation. I wasn’t actually sure my post would be posted. This situation has got me to such a point that I doubt people’s humanity.

        The most recent retaliation was from an online ‘spiritual’ group who banned me because “child abuse is not spiritual is it?”.

        I decided to speak out because I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and I realised I could not criticise the people who did not speak out for me, if I could now not speak out for others. I honestly thought I could write a letter to the Priest and he would say something like, yes, you might have a point,, no harm was meant but maybe we could review things and maybe use teddy bears/toys instead.
        How wrong I was!

        One thing that you mentioned was that this is a “potentially harmful situation”. I would gently say that this is actually a harmful situation – not potential. This is so difficult, obviously should this situation progress to sexual exploration/rape that would be deemed ‘worse’ but the fact is, this is a harmful situation in itself.

        There is an increase on child on child sexual abuse (See recent Panorama episode) and the church should not be adding to that situation. One young 6 year old girl was recently raped by 2 seven year old boys in the playground. The school apparently said this was “PLAYFUL ACTIVITY”.(extreme trivialisation) The boys cannot be punished and it was apparently suggested to the parents of the young girl, that she move to another school.

        I, for one, can say I have done everything I can for the last 3 years to get this stopped, at the expense of my own health.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Good analysis. I still like Al’s politics, but I’m not sure about….well, the way he acted. I’m wondering if–in his case only–being on SNL has anything to do with his attitude. Or does this create an excuse and complexify the issue?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for this analysis! The privileged assumptions lived out in gas-lighting are often difficult to perceive because, in my experience, such apologies are sincerely believed to be genuine and effective apologies by the person making them. The contradiction between the vibe of sincerity and the actual dynamics at work are so hard to navigate!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly. When we start to doubt and second-guess ourselves . . . I wonder if there is a hope and a wish involved, maybe even an expectation of human decency to the extent I kept narrating during my own experiences with gaslighting, “There must be a mistake; I must be wrong.” We don’t want to believe that others do not have our best interests in mind. Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate the articulation of “the contradiction between the vibe of sincerity and the actual dynamics at work”. . . amazing.

        Like

    • I think we are all just, as Ram Das and/or Anne Lamott has said, “walking each other home.” It’s hard to apologize in a way that admits a blind understanding of power abuse that goes beyond any particular person (like A.F.) and is shared by too many of us. And I think that explanations are not always excuses or ways to justify or brush off the harm that has been done. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the dirty bath water. We just figure out how to clean the baby and ourselves and the kitchen up in the process. We’re all figuring it out together. I think A.F. could have had something really helpful to contribute to the conversation, but it just hasn’t happened, in my opinion, with this apology. Like Victor Frankenstein, he sort of goes off to the haze of a mountain and doesn’t directly or thoroughly make an account for the chaos he had a part in creating.

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  7. Like everyone I am having a difficult time with all this. I’m almost 70, still a teaching and performing artist with lovely cheekbones. How many #me toos are we allowed to report? But my feelings are a little different than this blog.

    Al Franken is not a monster from my POV. I have spent decades in “show business”. I have walked into men’s dressing rooms and vice versa. You are expected – paid – to be close and open on stage (kissing scenes, sexy tangos,etc) with someone you are not in a relationship with, and then, you are saying, immediately go back stage and become an insurance salesperson? What I am saying is that this doesn’t feel to me like a power play on his part. I don’t know him after all, but neither does Ms. Schilling. Instead I suggest that he forgot, didn’t learn, etc. to transition from a “showbusiness” approach to dealing with people to a modern, careful and respectful relationship which we all deserve. In other words, he didn’t grow up. He occasionally wasn’t careful with his hands. Ugh.

    But monster? I have personal stories about monsters. We have come a very long way since the 50s and 60s and 70s when I was a nubile innocent in NYC. Use your imagination. But this? Please. I have women friends who touch and stroke and hug/choke me more than I am comfortable with. This is being an insensitive duffus, not a sexual predator. I see no gas lighting in his apologies, rather a message of “calm down, take a breath”. Then Mr. Franken, I now reply, go get some training on how not to be a jerk.

    Like

    • Thank you so much for your comment. Frankenstein was not the monster. Victor Frankenstein was the man who created the Creature in the novel. He took it upon himself to craft disparate elements in order to, as the literary Romantics did – transcend ordinary, actual reality. He created the “monster”; he was not one himself. Not literally. Rather, Victor Frankenstein, in the novel, had a sense of inflated hope and, some might say, entitlement, and as you say, I think, privilege. I’m not comparing Franken to the Creature in the novel, but as I say, Frankenstein (i.e. Victor).

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  8. Your sentiments echo mine with this essay. Your expose the underworld side of so called apology without genuine accountability. Thank you

    Like

  9. P.S. And now I’m wondering if this bad behavior has any connection with all the TV ads and spam about getting “hard as a rock” and the secrets to picking up women, etc., etc. Which is, so to speak, the chicken–the rooster, the cock–and which is the egg? (Sorry. I just hadda ask.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The more I think about this whole situation (#metoo, apologies, etc) the more it seems to me that it has absolutely nothing to do with sex or “playfulness” or lack of awareness. It’s all about Patriarchal Power. I don’t think a lot of men, or some women, realize this. And because our society is based on this power inequality, it is more difficult to recognize and change. Apologies for inappropriate touching only scratch the surface. We need a change of heart and mind, and society.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! At least that is how it feels to me in the #metoo situations that have peppered my life in varying degrees. I agree that I’m not sure it could happen without a perceived power dynamic difference, without some habitual expectation about one’s power and the lack of consequences that usually follow. The free reign of Victor Frankenstein in spinning a narrative/physical and symbolic without general limits or restrictions was what I was hoping to connect here in this post.

      Like

    • Barbara, you are exactly right. It is all about power and we do need to change how we look at this.

      Like

  11. LOVE your closing paragraph!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I would like to recommend Patricia Evan’s book “Verbal Abuse – how to recognise it and how to respond”

    Like

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