Twitter has been a pretty fraught place the last few days for anyone who pays attention to the world of indie videogame development, as the #metoo wave finally catches up with that industry. Women are finally speaking the names of industry legends (men) who abused them and it is a good and hard and sad conversation to watch. It is also a very fraught conversation, and one that requires a lot of support – but not always in obvious ways:
- It’s obvious to say that the victims who are speaking their truths will need support to heal. Of course they will.
- It’s also obvious to say that people who are reframing experiences that they didn’t realize weren’t okay at the time will also need support. Realizing that something that you had taken as benign or even funny was actually abusive is a hard and scary thing to process.
But what is maybe not so obvious is that the friends and close associates of predators being outed – those who don’t side with the predator by defending him or trying to muddy the waters – these people also need support, but will often find that support difficult to ask for. The friends who walk away are experiencing grief for a person who never actually existed – a person who was worthy of the love invested in that relationship. But so often for the friends who walk away, that grief comes with shame:
Shame for not knowing. Shame for feeling complicit, or maybe even inadvertently being complicit.
Lots of folks will write smart and good things about the people in groups 1 and 2. For myself as a nonbinary person, I tend to take the part of the overlooked and invisible. So today, I’m going to write something for folks in the third group (who may also be in the first and second group with regards to other people – this shit gets real messy). The people whose response to learning that someone they cared for was a predator was to walk away (and not pull this kind of shit). Listen up.
First: You did not ask for this
Grieving the loss of a friend who turned out to be a predator is a real mindfuck. You start going through the details of your relationship, looking for the signs that you should have seen, clues you should have picked up, chances to prevent harm that you ignored. You think about the times you promoted that friend or their work, or times when you introduced that friend to other people, and (if you’re not a monster) you get caught up castigating yourself for enabling that friend’s abuse or shielding them from criticism.
So here is the most important thing: you did not ask to be made complicit in their abuse.
Predators take advantage of the desire of good and normal people to believe the best of people and twist that to their advantage. The fact that you feel shame and anxiety about your part in their abuse is validation of the fact that you are a good person. It is not your responsibility as a good person to disclaim to everyone in your life that you do not want to be used as a shield against accusations of abuse. It is their responsibility not to fucking abuse people.
It is not your fault when someone you trust abuses people behind your back. Okay? Okay.
Second: You can still use this as a learning experience to avoid being used as a shield in the future
Predators operate from a common playbook, and while it’s important not to beat yourself up for the abuse someone else committed and hid from you, it’s still important to recognize that you can learn from this experience. And what does that look like? Well.
Everyone’s experience is sadly different. But I can tell you a story of my own experiences, and what I learned:
A boy named Steve
In 2014, I met a guy who changed my life. We’ll call him Steve (though that’s obviously not his name). Steve introduced me to a lot of people, and to a hobby which would become (and remain) a great passion of mine. He was dynamic and exciting and intelligent, and we became fast friends. He was one of the most important people in my life, and none of it was fucking real.
As it turns out, Steve was a serial emotional predator. He knew it was wrong to manipulate women he liked into touching his junk, so instead he would manipulate them into becoming emotionally dependent on him through love bombing, gaslighting, and avoidant emotional abuse. (Trauma bonding is a hell of a drug, y’all.) And then when he inevitably lost interest, he’d move on to the next woman who gave him pantsfeelings and do it all over again.
Steve had a type – loudmouth gender non-conforming feminist gamer women. And he knew all the right things to say – all the jargon, all the ways to perform wokeness without actually caring about women as anything other than props to gratify his desire for emotional dependence and validation. I wasn’t the first woman-appearing-person he’d targeted, and I definitely wouldn’t be the last.
At one point during our exhausting emotional boom/bust cycle, he took me out to lunch and held my hand as he apologized for all the ways he’d been mistreating me. And he told me the story of how he’d manipulated a woman into doing something he regretted later, but it was consensual at the time, only now she said it wasn’t and he knew that “believe women” meant that he couldn’t argue with her and, and, and…
Friends. I would love to tell you that I read him the riot act and cut ties. I didn’t. I was so caught up in the emotional abuse, the rush of his apology (which wasn’t real), and the belief that this time things would get better and that he really was the good, decent guy that I thought he was… I held his hand, looked into his eyes, and told him he was a good person, and what happened was sad and unfortunate but he was not a predator. And he proceeded to emotionally abuse me for another two years.
The woman from that story and I are friends now. I was profoundly relieved when she didn’t hold a grudge for me siding with Steve for two years, and we’ve talked about the ways that Steve manipulated both of us. But what I learned from Steve is this:
- If someone tells you they are an abuser, believe them: I made the decision to believe Steve and validate his belief that he was not a predator because I had never experienced that kind of abuse before. But I know better now. Abusers will tell you about their abusive pasts, and then give you all sorts of reasons to believe that they are no longer abusers. They do this to spin the narrative in their favor and to make you more reluctant to cut ties with them by making you complicit, by making you a knowing party to their abusive behavior.
- Don’t make excuses for someone else’s abuse: I’ve written before that not all abusers are monsters. Some people who abuse others really do learn to stop, to do and be better. But that change can’t happen as long as their behavior is excused. Real, honest reform begins with accountability and ownership of the harmful actions. And even if you sincerely believe that someone you care about is trying to turn away from their abusive past, you are doing them no favors by making excuses for them.I doubt that Steve would have changed if I hadn’t made excuses for him. But if I hadn’t made excuses and he remained committed to his abusive patterns of behavior, his reaction would have told me what I needed to know to get him the hell out of my life a whole lot sooner.
- A display of emotional pain is not the same as actual contrition: Just because a predator cries and tells you they are sorry doesn’t mean they are sincere in their desire to change. Predators use their emotional pain as a weapon to prevent you from holding them accountable. They want you to think that they have changed because they feel bad, and really haven’t they been punished enough? But an apology without change is manipulation.Steve held my hand and cried about how sorry he was because he wanted me to cut him slack and to not leave. He used my empathy against me, to convince me to ignore my better instincts and remain in a situation that was bad for me – because I made his pain more important than my own needs. Which brings us to:
- Believe patterns, not individual actions: Just because an abuser is nice one time or they do the right thing one time or they support you one time does not mean that they are not abusers. Steve did a lot to support me through some pretty awful shit. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was a fucking predator. Ultimately, being able to recognize the pattern of abuse helped me know that I had to get him out of my life. But that would have been so much easier if I had known to look for it in the first place.
Lastly: Be gentle with yourself. It is okay to grieve.
Steve has been out of my life for two and a half years now, and even knowing that he’s a goddamn predator, I still sometimes grieve our friendship. Predators are often very charismatic, and he was energizing and fun to be around. My life is very much better without him in it, but that doesn’t keep me from missing the time we spent together. And it doesn’t keep me from wishing I could have that person – the person who was my friend who actually cared about me as a person – back, even if that person was never real.
If there is someone in your life who you have recently learned is a predator, it is okay to grieve the version of them that you loved – even if that version was never real. Love isn’t a switch we can turn off just because we learned something horrible, and having these feelings means that you are human. And that’s okay.