I Was Brainwashed to Believe I Wasn’t Human. Now I’m on a Mission Against that Cult – Part 1 by Trelawney Grenfell-Muir

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, domestic abuse

I was so thoroughly brainwashed that my voice changed without me realizing it. My appearance changed so much that close family members did not recognize me. Multiple therapists told me that I had undergone such sustained brainwashing and abuse that I was like a POW or a sex trafficking victim. Here is my story.

I will never forget the first time I came across the famous quote, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Reading that phrase rocked me back on my heels as few things have done. Suddenly, with that simple summary, so much of my experience, so much of life, so much of the world made perfect sense. Clarity struck, bringing both pain and relief: in my society, females are not considered human.

Yes, I felt relief. I felt the kind of relief you feel when you’ve been suffering from terrible chronic pain and suddenly find the right diagnosis, the underlying cause of all the symptoms that have been debilitating you for years.

And pain… the pain of admitting how bad it really is, of realizing that this particular disease is unlikely ever to be cured. For thousands of years, females have been oppressed because patriarchy defines us as subhuman. In order to sustain itself, patriarchy must convince society that violence against women is justified, normal, expected, and no big deal. And patriarchy has convinced us all of that lie, very thoroughly. First, let’s define violence. Then I’ll give some examples.

The best definition of violence comes from a sociologist commonly known as the “Father of Peace Studies,” Johan Galtung. Galtung developed a brilliant taxonomy of violence, which he divides into Cultural, Structural, and Direct violence. Direct violence is obvious violence, the violence that is easiest to see, such as murder, assault, etc. Structural violence comes from unjust systems that oppress or exploit, such as racist housing restrictions. Galtung defines Cultural violence as: “…any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form. Symbolic violence built into a culture does not kill or maim like direct violence or the violence built into the structure. However, it is used to legitimize either or both.”[1]



According to Galtung, these different forms of violence all reinforce each other, but cultural violence provides the support and legitimization for the other two forms. Here’s where it gets thorny: how do we identify cultural violence, the root, the most important culprit? Galtung defines violence as whatever prevents a person (or group) from meeting h/er inherent bodily and psychological needs.[2] Sexist violence of all three forms saturates our society in a toxic fog that shapes our worldview and blinds us to just how prevalent, how endemic, and how horrifying is the current, ongoing epidemic of violence against females. Here are some examples:


Direct Violence Structural Violence Cultural Violence
Infanticide, selective abortion, rape, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, honor killings, the vast majority of activity depicted in pornography and experienced by prostitutes, street harassment, female genital mutilation, child brides Glass ceilings, wage gap, disparity in: crime conviction and sentencing, hiring, work schedules, promotions, pricing of personal products, health care access and quality, value of visible labor, invisible labor and expectations Normalization and promotion of pornography, prostitution, degradation, and sexual objectification of females in media, predominantly male language in civic, business, and religious institutions, gender roles and stereotypes, misogynist humor, gaslighting, minimizing or denying any of these forms of violence

These forms of violence all prevent women from meeting their basic physical and mental needs for wellness. Some of them are easier to understand than others, and some of them have become contested topics among liberal feminists. The greatest trick Patriarchy ever pulls is convincing feminists that female exploitation is female empowerment. I’ll talk more later about these examples. But I learned the truth of Galtung’s model in the most personal, dramatic way: by living it.

When I was 18, I entered a four year relationship with a malignant narcissist abuser. It’s not surprising that I dated him. I had been molested by an older male cousin when I was six, and I had been abandoned by my mother at age 11 to my father’s abusive home (never sexually abusive, but he was rageful, unpredictably violent, and taught me to silence my needs and feelings). And as do all females, I grew up in a culture that taught me that my most important value was pleasing men and the male gaze.

My abuser followed the typical script: charming, hyper-romantic, making it seem as though he was doing me a huge favor by choosing me. Then he gradually isolated me from my family and friends, preyed on my society-given insecurities, manipulated me via guilt and loyalty to leave MIT, my school, and move away with him. That whole first stage of our relationship, he slowly started trying to convince me that it was perfectly normal for him to ogle other women – whether on sleazy pictures, television, or walking down the sidewalk – because he appreciated their beauty, the same way he appreciated the beauty of a fancy car or a sunset. I knew I disagreed with him. I just did not have the tools to explain why. So, I had no defense against his argument. Besides, my entire wider culture obviously agreed with him.

He gradually went further, describing in minute detail exactly how a woman should look in order to please her (male) partner, and pressuring me to try to look that way for him, out of love for him. Aerobics classes, trips to the gym, more makeup, higher heels, red nail polish, and clothing from Fredricks of Hollywood – but it was somehow never enough. One particularly painful day, a defining day that seared itself into my bodily memory, he forced me to name things I did not like about every single part of my body, because they were different from his ideal. That tactic of coerced self-rejection epitomized his approach to our relationship.

But it was only when I moved to Minnesota with him, thoroughly isolated from my family, friends, and community, that I learned what he was truly capable of.

To be continued…


Trelawney Grenfell-Muir  teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. Previously a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation, Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland.  Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.


[1] Galtung, Johan. Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3) 1990, p291.

This paragraph is taken from my previous work https://gcsrw.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/expansive-language-for-the-divine-come-holy-power-within-help-us-thy-names-to-sing/#_ftn3

[2] Galtung, Johan. Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1969), pp. 167-191.

12 thoughts on “I Was Brainwashed to Believe I Wasn’t Human. Now I’m on a Mission Against that Cult – Part 1 by Trelawney Grenfell-Muir”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story here and for giving it broader cultural context. It is a story so many of us share. And it is a context in which we all live and breath and experience the constraining, brain and body-altering impacts in many, many different ways. Prayers for you to have all the love and support you need to continue your journey of truth-telling and healing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Marcia. Yes, it’s so scary and painful to voice all this. But also so liberating. I very much appreciate you holding me in your prayers. ❤️❤️


  2. I remember the first time I saw the display windows of the Frederick’s store in Hollywood. Talk about the horrors of the male gaze! Those clothes–that looked like torture outfits to me–made me want to run away. I think patriarchal control of the business world is one of the reasons I’m self-employed. I was once fired by a man who had only an M.A., was younger than I was, and weighed less than I did. And he had all the power.

    Blessings to you and the courage you have to tell your story. Blessings to your healing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Riveting essay…Can’t wait to read next segment… these horrific stories must be told.
    Like you I was stunned by the words “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” When you grow up “less than” there is no space for being enough – so how can one be a person?


  4. I read what you shared. And then I read your accomplishments so far, and saw your beautiful eyes and smile. I can’t help but to honour the courage, resilience, fortitude, and plain old spunk and spirit that is in you. May you always blossom!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Trelawney. So far a powerful piece! And thanks for sharing Galtung’s definition of violence. I think it’s extremely useful for all of us feminists. I will be sharing it with a male acquaintance who seems to think patriarchy is inherent in our species, although he should know better.


  6. Thank you for your willingness to relive these terrifying and excruciating experiences in order to help educate others and offer solace and liberation. You are the bravest person I know.


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