Brainwashed in Modern Suburbia

Deborah J. Sergeant


     Brainwashing is the stuff of war movies, in which the prisoner falsely confesses to spying. But in reality, brainwashing happens in middle-class America. In fact, it happened to me.


I grew up in an emotionally-healthy home. My parents seldom fought, and then only privately. They loved my five siblings and me and wanted only the best for us. As a result of this and other factors, I grew up to be an emotionally stable adult with a desire to achieve and grow.


Ten years ago, I married the man that

embodied everything for which I was looking in a husband. We shared values, ideals, and dreams. That is, until the honeymoon.


He first struck me on our wedding night. It stunned more that it hurt. I loved him so much that I attributed his “mistake” to stress. Besides, he apologized so sweetly, how could I not forgive?


Excusing his first blow started me down the path to condoning worse from him. I attributed his gradually degenerating behavior to stress at his new job, adjustment to married life, and missing his old home and family must be getting to him.


I did not believe it really was abuse because he didn’t give me black eyes or send me to the hospital. It was just a single punch. Afterwards, he always apologized convincingly and bought me a present or took me out to dinner to prove his sincerity.


To break someone’s will, the antagonist needs only to brutalize his victim relentlessly. To brainwash, the victim receives alternating good and bad treatment.


My husband could be sweet and tender, playful and childlike. I lived for these times, and began using them as the excuse to rectify the bad behavior.


The dark times worsened more and more. The single punches turned to doubles and triples. He moved his target from my upper leg to my ribs, hands, arms, and head, above the hairline. He attacked me more often and with no provocation. His overall behavior became more violent, too. He threw glasses to smash on the wall near me. He threatened to harm my cat and to destroy my keepsakes.


In contrast, the good treatment improved also. He bought new furniture to please me. He took me on wonderful weekend getaways in the mountains. He bought dinners at the nicest restaurant in town on a whim.


As a result of his Jekyll/Hyde approach, I could never know what would happen. I did notice that the fewer things in our life that went wrong, the nicer he tended to act. I felt like I was juggling plates. If I dropped one, he exploded. In retrospect, I can see that he bumped my elbow constantly just to see a few plates shatter so he could attack me.


At the time, I was so busy trying to please him that I did not notice the encroachment of his control over me. For example, what began as “budgeting” morphed into his disallowing me any spending money or input as to how our money was spent, despite the fact that I contributed equally to our household and was a thrifty person by nature. He dominated every minutiae of our life, such as the adjustment of the Venetian blinds, to the important things, such as having children (he wanted me to have a hysterectomy—to the horror of my OB/GYN—to ensure I could not have children).


I questioned none of this because it all happened so gradually. Plus, I loved my tormentor, not because of what he did, but for himself.


The battering escalated even more. He stomped on my bare foot, breaking it. He picked me up by my neck and threw me across the room. He tried choking me a few times. He threatened to kill me while holding to my head a loaded gun with the safety off.


I ran out of excuses for him, but I hid all of this because he had convinced me that no one would believe me. He constantly told me that my family would never help me. He claimed if I called the police, he would “take out a few of them before killing you and myself.”


I held a vague belief that things would be better someday if I were only faithful to him. Like his moods, the success of our marriage (supposedly) depended upon me.


I finally left after an incident that shocked me out of my lethargy and the cult of my torturer-god. We were talking about finances and he said, “If you ever made more than what I do, I might have some respect for you.”


The irony of his statement riled up a smattering of spunk in me. For three of our six years of marriage, I had made more and he never respected me then.


I made the “mistake” that would change my life. I rolled my eyes and say, “Yeah, right!”


He chased me, cornered me in a closet and slugged my temple. The punch hurt so badly that I thought I would vomit. He stalked off. I walked on wobbly legs to the bathroom mirror to survey the damage. A spherical bruise the size of half a golf ball swelled up near my right eye. It later drained into a huge black eye that I covered with heavy makeup for two weeks. I still did not call the police or leave, but I began thinking. That was the first step. I realized that if he was willing to strike me where it showed, he truly would not stop until he killed me.


He had described to me once in detail that he would dismember and grind up my remains in a wood chipper and then burn them. I was absolutely convinced he spoke the truth, and being punched in the face seemed to verify what he said. The possibility of being caught no longer restrained him.


One morning, I decided to leave while he was gone for the day. As I packed, my mindset veered from vengeance to pity. One moment, I ransacked the video collection; the next, I left the manicure kit so he wouldn’t have to go buy one himself. I hoped he would forgive me for leaving. Imagine! Wanting him to forgive me!


After leaving, I felt very lost. A local pastor’s family had given me a temporary place to stay in the same town. He had dominated my thinking for so long that I had trouble deciding what to have for lunch, to say nothing of decisions that would impact the next day, week or month. After a couple of days, the pastor advised me to call my parents, as I still had not done so. I still feared they would reject me.


Calling them represented the next step to recovery. They grieved for my suffering and welcomed me to come home. They lived several hundred miles from me, so making the trip deepened my resolve to improve my life.


I cried in amazement whenever anyone showed any consideration for me. For example, my mother had made up the guest bed with her best sheets. I cried to think that she would such a nice thing for me.


I cried a lot those first few months, for joy, relief, thanksgiving, sadness, anger, loneliness, or any strong emotion. I had repressed expressing my emotions for so long that I had trouble handling them now that the floodgates opened. For so long, all of my experiences were so centered around my husband that every aspect of everyday life reminded me of him and twanged my already taut nerves. My mother had an epiphany and remarked that I needed to have new experiences to fill up my thinking.


The therapy sessions I attended helped me eliminate the wrong thinking with which he had programmed me. I also sorted out my feelings, validated them, and learned that happiness for myself is not only acceptable-it’s vital.


Building a life without him as its focus helped me even more than therapy. He had made me a mere annex of him, an extra appendage he could wield at his will. When I wrested myself free, I had to rebuild, which was very difficult initially because my thoughts still centered around him. For the first three months, we e-mailed back and forth with the possibility of reconciliation. Then he dropped the bomb: he had quit batter’s counseling and wanted a divorce. That took three more months of thinking mostly about him. His goal had been to graft me into himself. To be free, I had to establish my own roots.


I began taking short-term and long-term classes in subjects interesting to me, such as swimming, martial arts, and first aid. I reacquainted with old friends and became acquainted with new ones. I began deciding what I really liked in clothing, entertainment, food and decor, instead of going with my (his) stock preferences.


As I tried new things, my thoughts branched out and I gained a sense of self worth as a capable person. My confidence grew until I could believe that others can rely upon me and if I make a mistake, it’s okay. I am worthy of love, happiness, and freedom. I am so much more than a credit to another person.


Today, I am part of a healthy marriage with a caring and compassionate man who appreciates who I am and what I can do. He forgives my mistakes, lauds my accomplishments and comforts my disappointments. Although he brings to my life so many wonderful things, I am, once again, a whole being just as I am.


Deborah J. Sergeant is a freelance writer living in Wolcott, N.Y. Her work appears regularly in local newspapers, along with regional and national magazines.


Photo Courtesy of 123rf.



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Article Copyright © 2006 Deborah J. Sergeant. All rights reserved.