Editor’s Note: This story, although true, is admittedly on the unconventional side of what we would normally offer; this example of dissociation, although extreme, serves nonetheless as a textbook portrayal of the phenomenon. For all those who do not understand why those in the grips of an abuser don’t “simply walk away,” for all those who cannot fathom how a parent could abandon a child, for all those who are unable to comprehend how a young idealist can go from spiritual seeker to suicide bomber, we present this illustration of just how far those under the grips of undue influence can lose their own identity. Not all cult members dissociate, but it is a common enough happenstance, even in much more conventional settings than the one presented here.
I huddle beneath the threadbare blanket, trying to convince myself that I do not hear the voice of my tormentor, the man who, just last night, as a “spiritual lesson,” gave me the bruises now spreading over my shoulders and upper arms.
“Sophia!” Nightmare calls again, his voice directly above me now. A rough hand shakes my shoulder. “Sophia,” he snarls, the cruel fingers tightening on my bruised flesh, “do not pretend to be asleep, Wife. Awake and face the consequences of thou actions.”
The arrogance in his voice, combined with the stilted, high-school theater delivery of his words and the misuse of ‘thou,’ is enough to flip a tiny switch in me, and I decide to go into hiding, in the only way I can. In a futile to escape the inevitable humiliation, I will dissociate from my physical sensations and retreat into my inner world.
If I try hard enough, I can almost believe it’s actually happening: I imagine myself surrounded by a cool, prismatic shell of pure crystalline ice, with the filigree gold setting just visible beyond. In my mind’s eye, my husband is just an indistinct blur behind the safe walls of the diamond in my wedding ring; when I am inside this stone, he can do me no harm.
I convince myself I do not feel his fingers squeezing harder. In my Empire-cut sanctuary, the violent jostling of my shoulder is just a gentle rocking. There is a slap to the top of an uninhabited head; clumsy enough to be passed off as a ‘slip of the hand,’ but hard enough to make me wince, although I am not there.
I am not there, no, not there at all. Absolutely not squeezing my eyes shut harder, and certainly not tensing my muscles, I imagine the prison of diamond grow harder around me. I am safe in protective custody.
“Sophia! I can tell you’re faking it! Awake, stupid girl, and attentive me.”
Attentive me?!? It’s all I can do not to burst out laughing. This idiot is the incarnation of Poseidon, Lord of the Oceans?
“Are you laughing at me, Wife? I shalt teach thou verily to laugh.” Another slap to the head, and the rising swell of anger in my mind festers and solidifies. The involuntary curve of my laugh becomes a sneer; like shrugging on a coat, I slip into another set of mannerisms, a different vocabulary of facial expressions, an internal shift of posture from prey to predator. The shivering body curled into a fetal position becomes the crouch of a tigress ready to spring, the sneer widens into a snarl, the helpless trembling becomes quivering rage.
I open my eyes: the glint that shines there is not mine. “Yes, I was laughing at you,” I tell the slovenly boy before me, my voice much deeper than my normal tone (but it is not my voice; I am not me, I am still within the diamond upon my finger, and I cannot hear what is going on so very, very far away). “I was laughing at you because you still mistake your daughter for your wife.”
The expression of blank incomprehension eventually shapes into a simpering play of compassion; his voice softens, the line of his mouth forms the parody of a warm smile. “Pumpkin?”
My eyes darken and I hear the voice fill with scorn, as my body raises itself up into a sitting position on the grimy ‘twin’ mattress we sleep on in this shoddy upstairs room. “Not that daughter.”
If I was really me, I would enjoy the look of confusion on Nightmare’s face as he rummages in his tiny brain for the names we’ve given to our future children, who exist, potentially, in an alternate universe, waiting for us to get our marriage “back on track.” As it is, our youngest imaginary daughter smirks openly at her father’s stupidity; they “have will never once” get along, as our leader Sequoia so charmingly puts it.
Finally, he manages to pull a name from his cannabis-clouded skull. “Malice,” he sighs. “Where is your mother?”
“Where is your self-control?” The Demigoddess of Revenge asks sharply. “I’ve only been in this body five minutes and I can feel the bruises you’ve given her. And less than half of them are from what apparently passes for sex with you. Just what ‘spiritual lesson’ were you teaching her this time?”
“That’s between thou mother and I,” he proclaims stiffly, drawing himself up haughtily, all five foot four inches of scrawny, filthy, couch-surfing drifter covered in threadbare clothes from the clearance racks of Hot Topic (by way of Goodwill). Malice sums up her feelings for her father in one disdainful glance, and, theatrically looking around for where her mother hid the last pack of cigarettes, retrieves them and lights one up.
“It’s ‘thy mother and me,’” she says on the exhale. “If you’re going to insist on using archaic language, at least get the right usage. And get your modern grammar right, too.”
“And what wouldst thy know,” he snaps, “about grammar?”
“Enough to know that it’s ‘wouldst thou know.’ It’s not just one or the other; you have to know which to use when, kind of like forks at a formal dinner, if anyone invited you to any formal dinners.”
“We are the Lord of Atlantis. And what wouldst thou know about grammar, then? Thee is not a denzien of this time and place.”
Malice rolls her eyes. “‘Thou art not a denizen,’ Father, not ‘denzien.’ And if you’d be troubled to rack your aged brain a bit, you’d remember the formal dinners in Atlantis involve slaves carrying vomit buckets and people throwing chicken bones across the table. In any case, the grammar expertise is in Mom’s memory engrams – four years of hard grammar, university level. So just give it up and talk like a normal person from your century.”
Nightmare’s eyes blaze dangerously, and I realize he thinks he’s caught me in a trap. “I thought we got rid of all the engrams from that body’s ego.”
I puff casually on the cigarette, thinking quickly as I take a long drag. But I am not here – I am still in the diamond, safe and so far away ….
But still, a daughter must do what she can to protect her mother. Malice, Demigoddess of Revenge, laughs derisively. “Not the informational ones,” she says lightly, even breezily. “I mean, how would you expect Mom to remember how to drive a car or do her mundane job? or even how to digest her food?”
With a sinking heart, I can see that Nightmare has seized on a fault he can use against me. My husband’s eyes glint menacingly. “Still, we might have to do some exploratory surgery again to see that there’s no emotional attachments to these engrams.” He does his best to look calculating and intelligent, but only captures calculating and brutal.
The walls of my diamond refuge shimmer, and I feel Malice’s confident façade crumbling. Great Mother, I can’t do this …
She’s gone; I’ve lost Malice, but still I dare not venture from my mineral fortress. Instead, I go with weakness; rage is replaced with anxiety, the insouciant smile melts into a trembling lower lip, and the rebellious gleam in the eye becomes a helpless, silent plea for mercy.
The Demigoddess of Sea-Foam gazes helplessly up at her father, her whole posture and manner begging to be nurtured and protected. For some reason, our ‘oldest’ daughter manifests far younger than the adult personas of our other future offspring: Effervescia, my husband’s favorite child, is always barely out of toddler-hood, her voice wispy, ethereal.
“Daddy,” she whispers, “why do you have to hurt Mommy?”
Once again, Nightmare’s stony glare grows soft. Only years later will I wonder who it was he thought he was protecting in this strange playacting dance of ours. But now, only the smallest shadow of my original self is present to squirm at the twisted caricature of a concerned parent that sits down by my side and wraps his arm round a pair of shoulders still bearing bruises from his fists; the rest of me is far away, and yet literally at my fingertips. But still, an icy layer of super-hardened carbon, protected by a gleaming web of gold filigree, protects me from the poisonous murmurings of this horrible, horrible man.
“Now, Pumpkin,” he coos in a sickly-sweet voice, “if Mommy is malfunctioning, I’ll need to –”
“She isn’t malfunctioning!” the child screams, hysterical tears burning to sudden life in her eyes. “You’ve been hitting her!” The rage is spent as rapidly as it arose, and once more Effervescia crumples into a tiny ball, shrinking away from her father’s frightening embrace. “You’ve been hitting her,” she repeats in a tiny, far-off voice. “And you’re not supposed to hit her.”
Nightmare’s voice grows angry again, as he repeats his constant refrain when challenged on anything: “We’re supposed to work in tandem.” Only later, when I leaned the term thought-stopping phrase, would I understand just how he was always able to shut me down; even if I had snapped back to “myself” to argue the point, it would now be about the definition of working in tandem, rather than a discussion about his inability to keep his temper. And working in tandem inevitably meant that I must do as I was told.
Instead, I give the imaginary child free rein to plow through the whole mess, allowing myself to dissolve into a vapor of tears, my cries of protest growing ever more incoherent until they trail away into sad little hiccups of bubbling froth. Like water draining out of a tub, I envision the spirit of Sea-Foam leaving my body, spiraling away, back into the realm of unrealized potential from whence she came. Again I focus on the hard shell around me, and envision it becoming my outer body, growing to fill the space where once there was vulnerable flesh. But like the diamond on my finger, this body is harder than anything in the room, even my husband’s voice as he realizes that the favorite daughter is gone and only his wife’s hated body remains, the body he despises, the body which, he tells me constantly, disgusts him so much that sometimes he is forced to abuse it, if only to push its odious presence further from him – he loves his wife, but the body she has chosen for this lifetime simply repulses him.
That body does not feel anything now, not when Nightmare shakes the bruised shoulder roughly again and again, not even when he “accidentally” kicks a shin as he gets up from the mattress with an angry, simian grunt. The sound of heavy footsteps across the creaking floorboards does not register; a body made of diamond cannot hear.
And yet I manage to hear what the pathetic headbanger I’ve been married off to would call a ‘Pythonian shot,’ as he turns and delivers a final threat.
“I know you can hear me in that ring of yours, Sophia,” he growls. “If you’re not out in the kitchen to make breakfast for us in five minutes, I’ll send Pain in to wake you up.” There’s a sickening pause. “Remember, Brother Pain doesn’t mind hurting … children,” my husband finishes with a dark chuckle. Even though I am not there to hear him, I can envision his sneering face. “I’ll leave you to work it out,” he says, and closes the door softly behind him.
Years later, I learned that disassociation is a normal reaction to bullying in destructive relationships – those who are abused retreat into an imaginary world until the predator’s attention moves away. Back then, I just thought I was either a gifted “channeler,” or just going insane, depending on how much I believed the fantasy world our leader kept spinning around us.
How much did I really believe all of this? Over two decades later, I honestly don’t know, and the point is moot, anyway: back in that grubby apartment surrounded by the cornfields of northwest Ohio, we were ensnared in the net of a narcissistic leader who made us pawns in his megalomania, promoting himself as the “Magnus of the Eon,” who would utter the magickal spell to bring the world into a New Age – to disobey him was to risk catastrophe for the entire Cosmos. Even spelling “magickal” without the “k” could have dire consequences.
Now I can see that I had been cowed into subservience, skilfully manipulated into believing the crazy scripts of this narcissist. It might seem hard to believe that I was taken in by such insane fantasies, but I know through my work that the grip of undue influence is worldwide and pervasive, and that millions of people in all strata of life are currently living under the spell of exploitative persuasion – from coercive control in the household, through pseudo-religious cults and on to whole nations – like North Korea – all of them caught up in the fantasy of a narcissistic predator.
As a final note, although it was hard for me to dredge up these unpleasant memories of long ago, they are a valuable reminder of how much I have survived and how far I have come. I know, because I’ve lived it, that we humans are amazingly resilient creatures, and although we can be ensnared in a net of undue influence set for us by a narcissistic predator, we are also able survive, to escape, to help others out of the trap, and ultimately, to flourish.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about dissociation that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!