Was it my fault?
A year before I left my wife, I read a book by Matt Wesolowski that disturbed me to my very core. On the surface, Changeling is a supernatural-chiller-cum-crime-mystery, but by the end you realise it’s about something else entirely, something that only becomes clear as you peel back the layers of lies and misdirection and see the ugly truth.
In his author’s note, Wesolowski explains that he wrote the book after discovering several people in his life had suffered abuse and control in their past relationships:
‘These people were a mix of male and female, as were their abusers…
What astounded me is how, even after years of abuse, these victims, these people who I hold dear, could still find an element of blame in themselves. Unfortunately for victims of people like [redacted], this is not uncommon. Monsters like [redacted] are cowards; they hide in the darkness. One of my motivations for writing Changeling was to thrust these cowards into the light and expose them for what they really are.’Matt Wesolowski
Something about the book got under my skin, touched something I wasn’t able to get a grip on. For weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everything in it was so ghastly, so horrifying, yet at the same time so familiar. It unnerved me that I could relate to so much of the book, despite not having experienced it myself.
It was only when I left my wife that I realised why it affected me so much: she had been abusing me for 10 years.
It was so familiar because I was reading about my life. I recognised myself in the victims featured in the book; I recognised her in the monster; but because I was so under her spell – and her true self was so hidden in the darkness – I didn’t understand what was really going on. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, when it’s happening to you, you often don’t even know it.
And even now, a year after leaving, and fully aware of the monstrous things she put me through, I still can’t help blaming myself.
When she became aggressive, I backed down: didn’t I therefore teach her to be aggressive to get her own way? When I drew a line in the sand and she crossed it, and I redrew it where she was now standing, didn’t I show her my boundaries were flexible? Every time she hit me and I stayed, didn’t I tell her that there were no consequences for her behaviour? When I married her, despite everything she did to me, didn’t I validate her treatment of me? And when I swore to love her until death do us part, didn’t I break the contract when I walked away?
I’m haunted by what ifs. What if I’d been firmer with my boundaries – would it have worked? What if I’d stood up to her sooner? What if, the times I threatened to call the police, I’d followed through with it? What if, what if, what if?
I reproach myself for my behaviour, my decisions, but never her. What she did to me was wrong, but she’s like a force of nature – if you stand in front of a boulder crashing down a hillside, is it the boulder’s fault if it crushes you, or yours for standing in front of it? It’s not like I wasn’t warned. People told me for ten years that she was abusing me; I only realised it a few weeks before I left her.
And as much as I want to blame her, I can’t help but think it’s my fault. I mean, she might have been an abuser, but she couldn’t have abused me if I hadn’t let myself be abused, could she? If I had walked away, I wouldn’t have been abused? Therefore, didn’t I bring it on myself?
There again, the first time I tried to leave, a few weeks into the relationship, she rang me 200 times in four hours, even when I threatened to call the police. When we got back together, she sat outside my flat and stared up at my window for hours at a time. She bombarded me with text messages demanding to know what I was doing every minute of the day. She stood behind my car to prevent me leaving; took my keys; sat against the door. On several occasions, she followed me home and forced her way in. As soon as she was pregnant, she threatened to take my children away if ever I left.
I think, when you’ve been the victim of controlling and coercive behaviour, it’s natural to blame yourself. Even when you never had a choice.
And as for Changeling? It should be required reading in schools.