By Denarii Grace
Author’s content note: emotional and psychological abuse, domestic abuse in general, reference to sexual abuse
Born in 1987, I’m a proud elder(ish) Millennial. As I relish in our nostalgia years, I reflect a lot on the media I consumed as a kid, tween, and teen. One of my younger brother’s and my favorite shows growing up was Boy Meets World. We prefer the later seasons, when Cory, Shawn, Topanga, and Eric were in their last years of high school and, especially, their college years.
One of my favorite episodes from those years is when Topanga is sexually harassed by her college professor, aptly (and ironically) played by Fred Savage, older brother of BMW star Ben Savage. I was also very engaged by 1996 films Fear (Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon) and No One Would Tell (Candace Cameron Bure and Fred Savage).
In the 80s and 90s, television geared toward pre-teens and teens often employed the “Special Episode” method, attempting to influence our perspectives on “serious” topics. Often bluntly saccharine, it hit you over the head with fearmongering (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) about everything from gun violence and teen pregnancy to date rape, domestic abuse, and cannabis (lol).
I was already a survivor by the time many of these projects came along, but I devoured them anyway. Maybe not consciously but, on a very fundamental level, I thought that I was prepared. I believed that I knew what to expect, what to do. I could finally identify and handle predators.
But real life doesn’t come with a script to follow; there are so many aspects of these situations that movies and shows just didn’t cover. So much gets lost in translation. And, because of that (and a general lack of rape and abuse education), there was so much that I still didn’t know.
I’ve only experienced domestic abuse once; my abuser is a minor celebrity I’d been a fan of for years. When we met, I’d already worked through trauma from multiple incidents of sexual violence throughout my life—some over extended periods of time, some one-time experiences. Unfortunately, I understand it intimately. But I’d healed so much from the damage that people (and institutions) had done to me over the years. I still had complex PTSD, but my nightmares were almost non-existent. Overall, I felt good about myself.
So, imagine the crushing devastation that overtook me when, after two and a half months of talking, I finally realized that his sole purpose in entering my life—under the deceptive guise of having feelings for me—was to gaslight, manipulate, and belittle me.
I haven’t always been treated kindly in life (and I’m not even talking about all the abuse). It’s really par for the course as a hypermarginalized person. But I had never, ever experienced such an intense, strategic violation of my mind and feelings. Not only were my mind and heart violated, but I would later learn that, as a part of his tactics, my privacy was violated on multiple levels as well.
I shared so much with him, intimate things that I never would have divulged if I’d known his true intentions. That was just one level of privacy violation. The rest I can’t discuss publicly at this time, if ever.
It hovered over me like a ghost. Everywhere I went, it menacingly shouted. I was fucking terrified, exacerbated by the fact that he began cyberstalking me after I left. I struggled to sleep. I struggled to eat. I struggled to write or get any work done. Often, I still struggle with those things.
For a long time, I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. It felt too big, too overwhelming. In many ways, it still does. After cutting off contact in November 2021, I asked myself so many questions over and over, the most painful of them being “Why?”
Of course, the only thing that roped me into an intimate, though non-romantic, connection with an abuser was his fervent desire to abuse me. I was targeted. That’s it. But not knowing the signs, not being able to name them, is one of the things that left me vulnerable to one of the most insidious kinds of cruelty: emotional and psychological abuse.
It’s funny because, from both my experience and observation, it’s the kind of abuse that is inherent in pretty much any abusive relationship. Yet it seems to be one of the most invisible and often deliberately misunderstood. We rarely talk about it on its own.
For me, this culture had become the second specter. I was haunted by the silence, the invisibility, the isolation. I dread the ridicule, the victim-blaming, the suspicions. “How could anyone fall for that?!” “She obviously don’t love herself.” “That’s one crazy, obsessed bitch.”
But one of the lessons learned in those “special episodes” is that we have the right to say “no” to physical and sexual violence. We own our bodies and no one is entitled to them. No one is entitled to hurt us. And, if they choose to do that, it’s not our fault.
It took many years, but I eventually internalized that my physical body is mine to control, to share, to withhold as I please.
But I’ve figured out that my mind is a sacred place, too. It deserves care, gentleness, and protection. It is worthy of consent. It doesn’t deserve to be manipulated, deceived, or controlled under false pretenses. My heart should receive truth and honesty. My feelings should be allowed to grow (or not) organically.
About a month or so after I cut off contact, I finally got around to watching Maid on Netflix. It’s a loose adaptation of Stephanie Land’s memoir about her struggle to survive poverty while taking care of her small daughter. A large part of the narrative revolves around her experience with intimate partner abuse, and the obstacles, shame, and isolation it creates.
What stood out to me—and was so relevant to what I was (and am) going through—was that the abusive relationship was strictly emotional and psychological. He never hits or rapes her; it’s for this reason that, on multiple occasions, she isn’t taken seriously. Not even by family.
At the time, I was in the very beginning stages of having left. I’d only begun to realize that I was being cyberstalked. I was confused, heartbroken, angry, terrified. But I’d finally found a piece of storytelling that made sense. I’d found it “too late,” so to speak, but it validated so much of my experience as a survivor of emotional and psychological abuse specifically.
It’s behind a Patreon paywall but, last year, award-winning anti-rape activist, theorist, and educator Wagatwe Wanjuki asked the question: “Have feminists neglected domestic violence victims?” I encourage you to support her so that you can really dig in, but the basic premise of the essay is an important interrogation. In the wake of #MeToo, feminist movements against gendered violence seem to have abandoned important conversations and education around domestic abuse to focus on sexual violence specifically, to detrimental effects.
And that’s why I will continue to shout about what he did to me from the rooftops. One day, I will name him. If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t educate, it will fester.
It’s no secret, within our community at least, that bi+/m-spec people are statistically more likely to experience domestic abuse than our straight, gay, and lesbian counterparts. I fucking hate being a statistic. I don’t give a shit about what “good” might come out of this experience. I would much rather be a healthier person, without the burden of yet another trauma. I’d much prefer to know the Denarii that wasn’t abused repeatedly, the Denarii that isn’t still being cyberstalked.
And I miss watching Buffy; she was always the one to save me.
Denarii Grace (she/they) is an activist of over 15 years and a multi-hyphenate creative New Yorker. They are the Editor-in-Chief of Disability Rights Washington’s Rooted in Rights blog, dedicated to stories for and about disabled people.