Long Before I Had a Name for It, I Experienced Coercive Control
I’m sitting alone in a plain police interview room at the end of a long, exhausting morning. I’m waiting for them to say that they are done with me and that I can go home. I’d braced myself for a rough interrogation, but was surprised when the detective interviewing me seemed supportive, and was very thorough in trying to understand what I had experienced. Over the previous hours, I described in considerable detail the extortion, physical violence, and rape I suffered at the hands of my abuser, as well as the constant coercion, repeated threats, manipulative texts, and pervasive fear that I lived under for more than a year. The detective had sat through it all, taken her notes, and asked questions to draw out more details than I had ever told anyone before.
I’m pondering this and processing it in my own mind when the detective and her partner re-enter the interview room for the wrap-up meeting. They ask me a few last questions, then tell me that they’ll call later to let me know about any charges they decide to lay. My heart pounds as they say the words ‘extortion’ and ‘sexual assault’.
If it’s possible to feel both overwhelming relief and extreme anxiety at the very same time, that is how I feel; relief to be believed and taken seriously but also anxiety and fear that my abuser will now know that I’ve finally told the police about what he did to me. His anger still terrifies me, even though it’s been more than a year since I’ve seen him. Tears start to well in my eyes as I steel myself to walk back out into the world. Still, there is one last thing I want to say before I leave the station: I know there is no charge for completely terrorizing someone, I tell the detectives, but that is truly what this man has done to me.
It’s been even more years since that morning in the police station, and since my abuser was charged with extortion and sexual assault for what he did to me. So many things have happened since then. Today, I still count myself as fortunate (or perhaps privileged) to have been treated with respect by the police because the experience of so many women who report sexual violence is often very different. Yet despite my gratitude that those two detectives took my case seriously, I admit that the charges they laid against my abuser always felt incomplete. He did so much more, and so much worse, than extort and rape me. To me, it was the ways that he manipulated, intimidated, and isolated me that were by far the worst of what I lived through. He kept me so afraid all of the time.
Throughout the year that I spent under that man’s control, he revelled in telling me stories of his role with the Hell’s Angels. He said that it was his job to exact violent revenge on anyone who betrayed them. Today, I have come to realize that his stories were not 100% true, but at the time I was too scared not to believe him. He was very convincing and would text me with real-time descriptions of club initiations, meetings, and road trips. Sometimes, he included pictures of him with his buddies. My phone was his main conduit of control, and I never felt safe from whatever demand or disturbing picture he might message to me. He made it clear that there would be hell to pay if I ever betrayed him by attempting to escape or by confiding in someone about what he was doing to me.
The more he got inside my head, the more I began to question my own sanity. On the rare occasion that I got up the courage to challenge him about some terrible thing he did or said to me, he minimized it, denied it altogether, or claimed that it didn’t happen the way I remembered. He also got into my head by telling stories about how he monitored the activities of other women. I started to believe that he could do the same to me, and that he knew where I was at all times. As crazy as it seems now, it got to the point where I believed there was no where I could go to escape from him; not my car, my office, or even my own home. My fear of him was ever-present, and his control over me was complete because I came to believe that he knew everything and could do anything to me that he wanted. I couldn’t see that there was any way out except to die by his hand or mine. That my life had turned into this nightmare seemed impossible to believe, yet I felt completely powerless and, apart from the man controlling the plot, completely alone.
When I tried to describe to the police what my abuser had done to me, I found myself recounting specific incidents — individual times when he made me take hundreds of dollars out of a bank machine, repeatedly hit me in cheap motel rooms, or slashed my clothes with a knife before he raped me in my car. I’ve similarly recounted a few of these specific incidents on this blog through short vignettes to help you understand what it is like to be a woman trapped in abuse. Yet while those individual incidents each tell a small piece of the story, they fail to capture the whole picture. It’s true that I was extorted, hit, and raped, but what would you call the rest of what I experienced? How do I describe the system of constant terror and dread that I lived under, never knowing what the nightmare would bring next?
It wasn’t until this past year that I finally had a name for the bigger picture of what I lived through. A few months after I started writing this blog, a lawyer began following me on Twitter whose profile mentioned being a doctoral researcher in ‘coercive control’. I’d never heard of coercive control, but I was curious, so I looked it up. What I read resonated so strongly with my experience that I couldn’t help but cry as I kept digging, looking for more information and descriptions that explained so much about what had happened to me. Having a name for my experience was so incredibly meaningful. As a physician, I would liken it to being a patient who suffers from multiple different symptoms for several years until she is finally given a diagnosis that unites them all.
So, what did I discover? What is coercive control? It has been described as ‘intimate terrorism’ and encompasses a broad range of behaviours that someone (usually a man) uses to intimidate, humiliate, threaten, monitor, gaslight, and isolate another person (usually a woman); stripping her of her sense of autonomy and self-worth in order to have control over her. It can include outright physical and sexual violence, but it doesn’t have to. Rather than focusing on a specific event or multiple separate incidents, coercive control is a pattern of behaviours that exist over time. Cumulatively, those behaviours can have devastating effects on a victim’s mental and physical health, as well as her relationships, employment, and finances. Coercive control can also be fatal; escalating to homicide or driving the victim to end her own life. In fact, coercive control has been identified as the most common factor in domestic homicides. In response, England, Wales, and Scotland have recognized the central role of coercive control in domestic abuse and homicide by making it a crime of its own.
In my own case, the man who tormented me was not charged with coercive control. It is not (yet) a criminal offence in Canada. Yet, even though my abuser will likely never spend time in prison for the coercive control that he has perpetrated against me and many other women, that does not diminish how meaningful it has been to me to simply give a name to my experience. It has helped me understand more fully what happened, fostered self-compassion for why it took me so long to finally try to escape, and it has helped me feel less alone. It is both horrifying and comforting to realize that a lot of other women have experienced coercive control too.
To my tremendous disappointment, the extortion and sexual assault charges that the police did lay against my abuser never made it to trial. Yet even if they had, they would have failed to capture the big picture of the horror that I lived through. It is neither the extortion nor the violence that still haunt me the most. Now that I have a name for it, I can tell you that it is the coercive control.