Don’t Call Me Crazy: 5 Letters and the Marks They Leave

TW: Abuse

“I’m sorry you have to work with crazy”.

A direct quote, from an ex-boyfriend who hated me to my debate partner.  He could have chosen any adjective in the world to describe me.  He picked crazy.

Was I crazy?  No.  Was it strategic to call me that?  Of course.  Because in a society that allegedly values rationality-~-an attribute that we conflate with masculinity only because we teach boys to detach themselves from their feelings such that many lack full emotional literacy in their grown lives-~-there’s nothing worse than being considered irrational, nonsensical, not worth listening to.  We use the word crazy all the time: as a teammate pointed out, calling someone crazy is the easiest way to delegitimize them.   And that, of course, is exactly the problem.  (Half the problem, the other half being that the use of the word “crazy” stigmatizes people with actual mental illnesses, which is a widespread issue.)

I wrote about the use of the word crazy and its role in gaslighting a couple of years ago, and mentioned it in a post about the language of delegitimization, but a recent op-ed made me want to revisit the subject.

The author of the op-ed, Harris O’Malley, points out that “‘Crazy’ is one of the five deadly words guys use to shame women into compliance. The others: Fat. Ugly. Slutty. Bitchy. They sum up the supposedly worst things a woman can be.”  I think he phrases it accurately, that men (and sometimes women, too) shame women into compliance by attacking them with the labels they/we are taught to fear the most.  Fat and ugly we fear because we are told that our value as people is tied into our attractiveness, to how men see us.  Slutty we fear (though perhaps less and less so?  Only time will really tell) because female sexuality is a difficult thing to navigate, with social consequences for failure.  Bitchy we fear because we’re taught that we should be soft, that being bitchy is being mean, that it’s unbecoming, that people won’t like us.

But crazy is the one that’s used the most often and again, I think O’Malley hits the nail on the head when he writes that “As soon as the “crazy” card is in play, women are put on the defensive. It derails the discussion from what she’s saying to how she’s saying it. We insist that someone can’t be emotional and rational at the same time, so she has to prove that she’s not being irrational. Anything she says to the contrary can just be used as evidence against her.”

He’s right.  “Crazy” forces women to defend the fact that what they’re saying is, in fact, reasonable.  The fact that we refuse to accept that someone can be upset, and for good reason, or angry, and for good reason, is immensely problematic.  Of course there are good reasons to be upset, and they’re worth discussing.  But as soon as people are forced to defend their rationality, the point becomes almost moot.  The person is already not listening, not dealing with the issue, acting like its absurd, acting like the person is absurd.

O’Malley points out that this is, as previously mentioned, a form of gaslighting, a way to make people second-guess their emotions and come to rely on another person as an emotional barometer.  He rightly brings up the fact that this is, in fact, a common tactic used by abusers, and it’s this point, more than anything, that makes me want to discuss this issue further.  Emotional abuse is, as previously mentioned, one of the harder forms of abuse to spot, because it doesn’t leave visible marks.  It does, however, leave real emotional damage, and the use of gaslighting-~-the use of words like crazy-~-is a part of it.

One of the most significant issues, in this writer’s mind, with the way that “crazy” is used to delegitimize women’s emotions, is this: it doesn’t only make the woman question the validity of her own experiences, it makes others question their validity as well.  When an abusive individual uses this kind of emotional manipulation, the abused person may have trouble recognizing that it is not their fault, that their partner is at fault, or that they are being hurt.  When the abusive person also writes off any fights, or anything else that friends might hear about, as the abused person being “crazy”, they allow-~-really, invite-~-their social group to dismiss the abused person’s experiences as well.  And because people are all too willing to accept “crazy” as a reason, there’s a real chance of this working…which leaves the abused person in a position where they struggle to trust their own assessment of the situation, and others have ceased to take it seriously.  It allows the perpetuation of abuse in situations where it might otherwise have been disrupted.

I certainly wouldn’t say I’m crazy.  I’d say that during the time of my breakup/abuse, I was emotional.  I was confused.  I’d say that I had trouble coping, because I was having trouble recognizing what was really going on with me.  That’s the end result of gaslighting, where the person can no longer tell whether or not their understanding is legitimate, and tries to get a sense of whether they are right by going off of the behavior of others.  At the end of the day, I had to waste time digging through different sides of the story to figure out the truth, and had to waste time defending my ultimate understanding and feelings about the situation as reasonable, because that’s the power of the word “crazy”.  And that’s exactly why we need to stop using it.

If you are concerned about your safety, or think you might be in an abusive relationship, you can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at http://www.thehotline.org/ or  1-800-799-7233 .  Remember, abuse is never the survivor’s fault.

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~ by Randi Saunders on July 12, 2014.

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