Abusers Groom Victims into Accepting the Abuse
Thursday, February 28 2019 Kristen Milstead
There is an explosion in pop culture TV right now depicting how abusers are grooming their victims for abuse and I have mixed feelings about it.
Consider the following recent examples:
- Surviving R. Kelly, a multi-part documentary, details the long history of singer R. Kelly's physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and exploitation of girls and women. He had even established such a high level of psychological control over a handful of them, he isolated them in his homes and had total domination over their lives.
- Abducted in Plain Sight, another documentary, is about a man who spent two-and-a-half years grooming his victims -- in this case an entire family. He manipulates them all in shocking ways before developing a sexual and emotional relationship with the 12-year-old daughter--and kidnapping her twice.
- Dirty John, a television series, dramatizes a true story about a man with a long and varied criminal history who creates the fake persona of a surgeon, sweeps a well-off woman off her feet, and convinces her to marry him in a few short weeks before things eventually turn violent.
The victims in these stories are all very different from one another, but what these stories all have in common is that they illustrate a similar pattern of abuse because the perpetrators are all very similar. In each situation, a charismatic man targeted the victims, and then, using certain characteristics about them in combination with his charm, he deceived them to gain their trust. He was able to slowly erode their boundaries so he could exploit and abuse them. They were unaware they were being abused until it had gone on for a very long time. He successfully grooms his victims.
Why These Shows About Grooming Abuse Victims Are Problematic
I am torn about these stories being popularized and discussed. On one hand, they are raising awareness about the horrible nature of the abuse and how someone grooms a victim for abuse. In the case of R. Kelly, the documentary has even been credited with his arrest.
On the other hand, the documentaries and dramatizations have spent so much time focusing on sensationalizing the bizarre aspects of the abuse, that the shock value has engendered a backlash. There has been little-to-no time spent explaining how love-bombing, cognitive dissonance, or trauma bonding work.
Focusing on how outrageous and unbelievable the abuse is without the moderating effect of why people endure abuse distances the viewer and opens the door for victim-blaming. How the victims react becomes harder to understand as the perpetrators' behavior becomes increasingly abusive:
- "How could she not have noticed the red flags?"
- "Why are the parents so selfish/blind/uncaring?"
- "Why is she so stupid?"
- "She deserves it for getting in the situation/not leaving."
And so on.
The fact that the victims in these three stories come from vastly different backgrounds should speak for itself.
From the safe vantage point of the couch and with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to think that we might have seen something the victims didn't or that we'd be able to walk away if it happened to us.
That's exactly how abusers get away with it.
How My Abuser Groomed Me for Abuse
It's in our best interest to stop thinking of abuse victims as "someone other than me," or that "if I only do 'x' I'll never be victimized."
My own biggest blind spot was that I thought I didn’t have any.
In my recent abusive relationship, I'd believed I was in complete control of myself and where the relationship was going. I hadn't even wanted to get serious. In the beginning, I'd thought, based on our conversations, that I knew more about relationships than he did and that made me feel safe.
Yet every once in a while, he'd try to tell me what to do in an aggressive way or explode over something minor. Instead of reading it as a red flag, I chalked it up to the impression I had already formed: he was inexperienced in relationships and didn't know how to communicate. After all, he was so sweet and loving the rest of the time. He let me keep my impression.
One day I woke up and I found I wasn't in control of myself at all. I never really had been.
As they say, the frog gets boiled slowly. So let me say it again: my own biggest blind spot was that I thought I didn't have any. Victims get groomed in a variety of ways.