“The legal system is designed to protect men from the superior power of the state but not to protect women and children from the superior power of men.” — feminist psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, M.D.
Widespread fascination with the term gaslighting is enjoying a resurgence, but the behavior never really went away. My ex-husband is a gaslighter. A very successful one. He has outsmarted lawyers who spent years training for what they do. But they never met anyone like him.
The year our divorce was finalized, the judge ordered my ex to sell the house that he was awarded in the divorce settlement — our first house — and to use the proceeds to pay off our second house, lawyers’ fees, child support, and two years of alimony (after a 20-year marriage). This was in 2006. Significantly, he was able to do all this without selling the first house. So while I was running around meeting with real estate agents trying to get our smaller house listed and sold, and fretting over whether the children and I would be able to continue to live in the [second] home where we’d lived as a family for 15 years, he secretly decided to keep the first house and pay the financial obligations using funds he hadn’t disclosed. He went through the motions of signing a listing agreement because he didn’t want to alert me — but especially the Court — that he had enough liquidity to do everything the Court had ordered him to do without having to sell the house to do it.
If the Court or I had known of his true financial means, his veneer as the hardworking victim of a “greedy, lazy” wife would have worn thin, and alimony would likely have been extended. After all, I had supported the family while he invested in his career and future.
To be clear, he paid this lump sum of money in late 2008, timed to coincide with the month my alimony expired. By waiting the full 2-year term of the support period before retiring the mortgage— while I was paying the note each month — he ensured that I had no mortgage-free time period to channel that money to pay off other debt and start over with a clean slate. The judge clearly intended for me to have a chance to start fresh by ordering him to sell the smaller house immediately. Delaying the payoff meant I was simply lurching from financial hardship to financial hardship. With narcissistic gaslighters, the cruelty is the point — and they especially like to punch down because their control over their target is complete.
Fast forward to 2018 when the house is finally sold, the proceeds are in escrow with the title company, and I have one final shot at justice.
Here is where it really gets confusing. You have to pay close attention to the time line when dealing with these tricksters, or they’ll adeptly mix up the chronology of events in a customized snow job full of small, imperceptible lies to suit the narrative they are selling. They tune into people’s unconscious preconceptions to manipulate their thinking. They strategically withhold information, releasing facts at opportune moments calculated to make their victim seem either dimwitted or mendacious. Picking up on the lies and disinformation takes a level of interest and energy most people generally don’t care to invest. The subtle details are not overly interesting to most normal people — unless you are the one being abused by a gaslighter. Then you become hypervigilant to their machinations in anticipation of danger.
It’s 2019, and we are back in Court to settle the disbursement of the proceeds from the sale of the smaller house last year. The proceeds are ostensibly supposed to go to my ex, but I have not signed off with the title company for the disbursement of funds. He files a Motion for Contempt against me. I file a counter motion.
Judge Elizabeth Wingo sweeps into the Courtroom; we all rise. What a rush that must be. Maybe such a rush that she forgets that the few papers she has in front of her represent the life of the woman sitting before her. I am essentially asking for the Motion Hearing that was long ago scheduled to happen after the sale of the house. It is now after the sale of the house. Her words to me are that this is a waste of time. When I ask to show her the paperwork I have, she carefully asks the Clerk, “We have sworn everybody, right?” seeming to imply that I am being fraudulent with the paper I am trying to show her. She pulls the Order up on her terminal and glances through it. I explain the relief I am seeking, and she says she has to read the Order again, more carefully this time, because it’s more complicated than she originally thought. I judge her behavior to be dismissive and careless of my concerns. She does ask why the house wasn’t sold before last year. My ex’s ready reply was: “It was very damaged, I can show you the pictures,” he proffers. She doesn’t need to see them, she says, because she knows it can take a long time to sell a house. An automatically sympathetic response. He breezes over the important backstory of why the house is damaged — and why that’s significant to the delay — and instead goes straight for the sympathy “kill” by offering pictures of the destroyed house. He was preparing to harvest sympathy from harm he caused himself, and me, but only he would receive the sympathy payoff.
The information he withholds at this strategic juncture in the gaslighting process is that he deliberately stopped paying the homeowner’s insurance on the house once I arranged to receive rental income from the house to provide living expenses. This was before the Court ordered him to provide money for the children and me to live on while we were separated. He doesn’t mention that a several ton tree fell on the house in the aftermath of the 2005 Katrina storm and destroyed the roof on the uninsured house. He doesn’t mention that he bullied me into co-signing for a construction loan in 2016 to repair the house, and gave $175k to a contractor recommended by his irresponsible younger sister. I implored him not to, but for him, his ideas are the best ideas and he would not be dissuaded. The contractor took off with the money, the repairs were not done, and we now owed $175k on the house.
Most important, it has not occurred to the judge to ask any questions whatsoever that might possibly force him to reveal details of his contemptuous, controlling behavior. She doesn’t scrutinize his statement that the house “just didn’t sell” back in 2007; neither does she ask how he managed to pay all those obligations when Judge Ryan thought he needed to sell the house to gather the money to pay. As someone practiced in courtroom performance, my ex knows how to lead the judge to the conclusion he wants, which is typically a mind-bending mix of fact, fallacy, and an acute awareness of the dashing figure he cuts, especially with women. He has said, even in front of our lawyer daughter, that the pretty girls go to law school, while the smart girls go to medical school. The judge concludes that she doesn’t need to hear me out at all; a positive for him because there’s nothing placed into the record that puts the slightest dent in his reputation. She asks no question that provokes his anger and contempt, so she catches no glimpse of his inner workings. Mission accomplished.
Judge Wingo orders me to sign over more than $300k to a wealthy surgeon, while I work as a documents editor for $30 an hour and can’t afford to retire despite a chronic, degenerative health condition that is exacerbated by sitting all day at work. She doesn’t give me a chance to demonstrate the insufficiency of the original order — I had/have amplified financial need because of the amplified emotional needs of my children, which required my availability and presence, and didn’t permit continuous, full-time work setting aside money for retirement. And the household of a surgeon-in-training can have only one focus, a singular goal for which all family members must sacrifice.
Even a judge as experienced as Elizabeth Wingo, who has done extensive judicial work involving survivors of direct domestic abuse, cannot pierce the machinations of the financial abuser. She excoriates the survivor and deepens the trauma instead of adjudicating relief.
Judge Wingo told me that I know I’m not entitled to any money from the sale of 618 Irving Street. No, In fact, I don’t know that; I don’t know that at all.