Emotional Blackmail: Desi Style
Of all the books you ever read, which you most wish you had written. Reading this sentence the first time since spring 2007 flashed in my mind Susan Forward’s Emotional Blackmail (1997). I bought this book for a dollar in the old book sale at the local library in 2004. I could not find time to read this book as I was struggling to survive. I finally managed to read it in summer 2005 and this summer I reread it. In this book Forward exposed the dynamics of emotional blackmail. How emotional blackmailers play with our fears (F), our obligations (O) and guilt (G) to achieve what they want from us, she refers this to FOG. She used cases from her clinical therapy practice in the US.
The book was so intense that I finished it in one sitting. When I was done reading I felt a burden was lifted from my shoulders. I went back to my room not feeling guilty for the first time in my life. As I was turning the pages I found each case mentioned was my story with a different blackmailer. Oh my God, I had been living amongst the blackmailers all my life. Oh! what a relief to have some one validate that I was not crazy, selfish and stupid. But could I buy the reasoning in this book? I am not an American. Americans, they live in nuclear families, divorce spouses for frivolous reasons and put their seniors in the old age homes. I come from the great country of India that has taught the world the ideals of collective living, respect for family values and honor, sacrifice and unfaltering devotion to collective good.
And now you ask me to justify what could I have done differently if I had written this book? All I could have done was to add a chapter of complete life histories demonstrating that emotional blackmail is a life long phenomenon emerging from various sources through out ones life. How different cultures reinforce emotional blackmail through religion and social traditions. How women and men differ in executing emotional blackmail against opposite genders and within genders. I’ll begin with my life history. I trace a pattern that I later discussed with my friends and found we all went through similar experiences as first generation college educated women.
Every word in the book resonates with my life stages. As a child my mother tried to discipline me by withdrawing affection. I learnt early to be loved I should accede to what she said and wanted not to ask for attention when my baby brother was howling. She played on my abandonment fears. She punished me by not talking to me or helping me with my home work. If, I asked what did I do? She would say “you should know better what you did to hurt me”. Every time it was my fault. I hated it but I had no choice. I lived in a thick FOG. Things settled as soon as I followed her rules.
When I was a fifth grader, my classmates were bullying me. I yelled back get out of here. And my dear friend Bina told me she would tell Mr. Murti, our PE that I asked her to get off the public property. Oh, every one feared Mr. Murti. Every morning he beat the bad boys and girls in the morning assembly. I ended up letting her copy my home work for the next whole school year and, tried to win her goodwill for next three years until my family moved to another city. What was I thinking? I was trying to be accepted and loved. A love that was conditional at home did not come without price in the friendship. I was FOGed by my friend.
Familial blackmail became too intense in my adolescence. I was to be gender socialized as a good daughter, sister and a future wife. As my abandonment fears were diminishing my father introduced the threat of withdrawal of resources, namely preventing me from wearing skirts (it was my duty as a member of religious and caste minority to preserve my culture by adhering to my traditional dress and not exposing my legs) pulling me out of school and sending me to our ancestral village where I would have to tend cattle and get married. The harder I tried to please them with good grades and doing the chore around the home and being respectful to my younger brother. It was never enough. There was some or the other expectation left out. My resistance was pathologized, I was labeled, negative comparisons were made and allies were enlisted to team up against me. I was living in ever thickening FOG.
My tenth grade was really difficult I was questioning too much. I was my craft teacher’s favorite because I did exactly what she said. One day she asked me to sweep the craft room. I refused because it was not my job. Things changed in a moment. I was no longer welcome in the crafts room nor was my existence acknowledged. I was hurt what could I do, apologize. I did but it was too late. I was a bad influence on other girls. I was disobedient. So I became my class teacher’s pet. I ran her errands, monitored the class, collected the homework, and carried it to the staff room. One day I wanted to play during the games period but my teacher wanted me to help her with entering the test scores. She let me go but next day she called me to the staff room to tell me she would report to my parents that I was talking to boys. It meant I’ll be withdrawn from the school and sent to village to get married. Oh! God, how could I be so stupid to defy her wishes. I entered the scores for rest of the tenth grade. I wondered how did every one new how to FOG me. Why didn’t I have the opportunities to FOG others?
With ups and downs emotional blackmails in everyday life I graduated from college and went to another city for higher studies. Met this wonderful person who assured me I was the one who could put an end to all his miseries if I agreed to marry him. If I didn’t he would die. I advised him on his career, finances and appearance. I was his world. He needed me. His total devotion blew me up. I had never felt so important in my life. Most of all he had seen his mother being emotionally abused by her in-laws so he knew how not to repeat that. I told my parents I wanted to marry this guy. My father threatened suicide. I reasoned with him how good this guy was. And finally he gave in. After three years of courtship I insisted we should get engage. He agreed we could, all I had to do was to send my parents to ask his parents for permission to let us marry. I said what? Why should my parents seek permission from your parents? He innocently replied, “Look, I picked a partner of my choice, I deprived my parents of the right to marry their only son so at least they should have the pleasure of having the wedding according to their tradition and liking? I was FOGed by love, I bought his argument. My cultural wisdom advises to win the good will of the mother-in-laws if you want a happy marriage. I begged my parents to go. Then came wedding expenses, decorations and gifts my parents bought my happiness for $6,000.00 against suggested price of $12,000.00. And we could never do enough to make up the difference.
Now my spouse lived in the guilt that he deprived his mother of the pleasure of arranging her only son’s marriage. I lived in guilt for compromising my feminist ideals. Each of us had learnt the tricks of the game called emotional blackmail. He played on my fears of abandonment as desertion and divorce in my culture is highly stigmatized and I played on his failure to be a man of his word. His mother used his failure to meet his obligation of arranged marriage intensifying his guilt. His sister never forgot to remind him how much he owed to his mother and family. Ah, we were living in a perpetual mess. He blamed me for his mother’s unhappiness but could not word it. So he started with self punishing- not eating, banging his head in the walls followed by suffering- sulking, tantalizing- putting me through tests and then finally punishing me- not talking, breaking furniture and gadgets around the hall. I tried harder to buy peace by giving into his unjust demands of apologies to mama-in-law. But in the next two years my marriage went from emotional blackmail to physical battery.
Reading this book dispelled my doubts about my behavior and of those who tormented me. Yes, I was questioning, but I had no skills to avert the situations in any way. This book gave me a new understanding about; a sense of forgiving my parents, teachers, friends, spouse and most of all my self. I ran to share this information with my friend Atiya. Her life story was similar to mine. We concluded our mothers exhibited control over female children because they were emotionally blackmailed by their parents and partners. This was the only way they knew they could experience reverence or obedience from their children (male children had to be trained differently in manly behavior). Why my father emotionally withdrew from my mother if she asked for anything? Because he felt he was betraying his widowed mother. Why did my mother-in-law blackmail my ex spouse? Because she was blackmailed by her spouse and learned it worked when she tried it. Why did my teachers do that? They knew it extracted good behavior, obedience. “Oh! Priya” said Atiya, “we have been living all our lives amongst the blackmailers and wondering if we were to blame for their displeasures.” We ran to Anshu with this information then to Ranu. Atiya asked Ranu “why didn’t you visit me when I was in the town?” She replied, “My parents do not want me to meet you. You are divorced now.” But Ranu you are an adult. Yes, I know, but you know how it works in the Indian families.
I am spreading the message of “Emotional Blackmail” far and wide coloring it with Indian life histories. This would have been my addition to this book.
Now please check the information on “Emotional Abuse”, “Cycle of Violence” and” What You Can Do” on the side bar under “All About Relationships.”
Forward, Susan, 1997, Emotional Blackmail, Harper Collins Publishers, New York.