Stochastic Terror as a Tool of Conformity

In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.

What is stochastic terrorism? Dictionary.com defines it as:

the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted

It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.

Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”

This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.

But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.

Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.

All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.

Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.

Stochastic bullying

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:

People like to bully.

People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.

Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.

People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.

Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.

The Story

Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.

All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:

  1. All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
  2. Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
  3. The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.

It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.

Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.

So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.

Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”

You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted

This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”

I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.

I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.

And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.

The Bank Robber’s Gun

Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.

Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.

No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.

So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.

Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.

So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:

  1. He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
  2. He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
  3. Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.

Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.

He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .

What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?

That’s how stochastic bullying works.

And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.

Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable

There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:

But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.

The larger lesson here is this:

Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.

And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.

But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?

Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?

So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.

What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?

This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.

Bumper Sticker Morality

“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.

But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.

“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”

When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).

Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)

Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility

As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.

Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.

Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’

But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.

And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Will no one do something about this conference?

It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.

Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.

But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.

And we all lose.

The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.

That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!

That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.

And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.

Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.

Being Human in an Age of Social Media

If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.

There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.

Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.

Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.

So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.

Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.

The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.

And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.

Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage

The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.

Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?

What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?

You become easy to manipulate.

You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.

So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.

Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?

And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator

The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.

Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.

The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)

When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.

I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.

You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.

None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.

Don’t be a sucker

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.

So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.

So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

Breaking my silence

“If you are being abused, there is a very high chance that you will be accused of being abusive or of otherwise causing the abuse. That’s because this accusation is devastatingly effective at shutting you down and obtaining control in a dispute. It’s important to be able to distinguish abuse from other things that may happen in relationships that are hurtful, or may even be toxic or unhealthy, but are not fundamentally about entitlement and control.” —Shea Emma Fett

I fled Vancouver, and my relationship with Eve, on March 19, 2018. I crammed everything I could fit into a suitcase, and put everything else I had left in Canada that Eve hadn’t destroyed in her fits of rage into a rented storage locker, then climbed on a bus for the eight-hour journey to Portland.

When I sat down, I saw this written on the window:

It was the longest bus ride of my life. I was numb. I was blindsided. I was still trying to process what had happened, and understand what had gone so wrong. In many ways I still am.

How did I get here? Who am I without someone telling me how to be? Other people certainly seem to know who I am. The internet has some very strong opinions on who I am. My social media profiles say ‘Part mad scientist, part gonzo journalist.’ My website says that I am a writer, computer consultant, polyamory and BDSM activist, sex educator, and sometimes amateur photographer. But that’s what I do. I don’t know who I am. I’m not entirely sure I ever knew.

I still can’t talk about my experience with Eve without centering or referencing her. Our relationship revolved around her: her experiences, her feelings, her desires. I have been trying for over a year now to work out how to talk about my experiences, and it just keeps coming out as a story about Eve and what she did and what she wanted from me. Everything about me was lost. She controlled my clothing, my diet, my hair style, my activities, my friends, my other potential dating partners. Even my general physician could not be my own choice; when I chose a doctor, Eve said no, and demanded I go to the one she chose for me. I was a mirror, reflecting back Eve’s wants.

Part of this was my fault. I have always allowed other people to write over me. This is a wide open door for abuse. In all my years of watching other people go through it, it never occurred to me that I had opened this door myself and invited controlling partner after controlling partner into my domain, because I never even saw it as my space. It’s humbling and painful to write words like this, after spending so many years telling other people to have better boundaries, as if it’s that easy or that simple to do.

Knowing, deep down, that this was my fault for opening the door—that’s just one more tool to keep that door open. I deserve this. This is my fault. I am the bad one here. Clearly I need someone to take charge, because I obviously can’t manage myself. And the spiral continues down.

When I was barely into adulthood, I believed that I would never find anyone who would be like me and that I was lucky to have found even one person to put up with who I was. So I got into relationships with people who didn’t seem to really like me, exactly, but seemed to like what they could shape me into.

I didn’t know this at the time, but when I was still married to Celeste, my current wife was rather put off by some things she saw in my relationship with Celeste. When The Game Changer came out, and she learned about what my relationship with Celeste was like before she had come along, she said that she would never have dated that Franklin. My current wife waited until Celeste and I had separated before she started dating me, thinking that I would be out from under a controlling relationship and be better able to become a whole person.

I never saw my first marriage as “controlling.” I do now. I have a lot of things to unpack still. There were things in my relationship with my ex-wife that made my current wife uncomfortable, even after Amber came along and shook everything up.

When I didn’t magically become a whole person after my divorce, my current wife kept her distance, emotionally, even though we had started dating by then. She and Amber had several arguments over me after my relationship with Celeste ended and I moved in with Amber. This is one of the things I did that invited abuse into my relationships. I was largely absent in my own relationships.

I have often said that grown adults should be free to decide who they associate with. I’ve never believed that one of my partners has to like the others. We’re all adults, right? Every adult should sort out their relationships on their own, right?

I was blind to the effect that condoning bad behavior might have on the people I love, and to the sheer amount of work I was expecting them to do in maintaining those peaceful relations around me. My current wife tried to explain this to me a long time ago, but we were both much younger then. She says that she didn’t have the right words, and I didn’t have the context to understand.

My partners were left to their own devices to work out their conflicts without my presence. My wife and Amber fought for the better part of two or three years before finally learning how to work together. I could have solved some of those conflicts by simply participating in the relationship, since they were all about me and how I was or was not relating to each of them. All I had to do was show up and say “I want this” or “I don’t want that”, and the conflict might have been over. Because my consent was relevant. It should have been vital.

But I didn’t do that. I didn’t really know who I was, let alone what I wanted or didn’t want. I had to go along with whatever my partners wanted, even if that resulted in conflicting wants from different people, because I didn’t have wants of my own. Not really, other than larger, generalized, overarching wants, such as being non-monogamous. So my wife and Amber fought in long phone calls and email chains over a couple of years, and I wasn’t present for any of it. They brought their conclusions to me, and I went along with whatever their resolution ended up being.

These arguments all boiled down to me not being a whole person and Amber taking on too much responsibility for managing my other relationships. I don’t know why Amber did this, but it was probably related to the socialization pressure she felt to “care for her man”. And I let her. Because I could, and because it was less work than developing skills that I had never been pressured to learn (in fact, that Celeste had actively encouraged me not to learn) in the first place. They don’t come naturally to me.

Someone had always taken care of me. I am only just now getting a peek into how big a problem this was, thanks to my current partners, painstakingly, in excruciating detail and with the help of my therapist, explaining my privilege to me. Even this is a symptom of my privilege – that I have people who have been socialized as women around me, taking the time and energy to chip away at my blindness—even as they receive social penalties for continuing to associate with me.

What neither I nor my current wife knew at the time was just how this pattern of accommodating my privilege could leave the door wide open for abusive partners, starting with Celeste and culminating in the nuclear fallout that was my relationship with Eve.

It can’t happen to me

I always assumed I was too ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ to be taken in by an abuser. But when your abuser manages to turn your own brain against you….you will twist yourself into all sorts of painful shapes to fit with their image of you. And when I inevitably failed—every time I couldn’t twist or cram or break myself into small enough pieces to satisfy her—then she would blame me. She would lay out my flaws and explain how I had failed her this time. And I would agree with her, because I had already accepted that I needed to be improved, to be retrained, and she was doing this all selflessly, for my own good.

This even happened on the day I was getting handfasted to my current wife. I spent hours just trying to console her, appease her, understand what I had done wrong this time, on a day when I was supposed to be joyously celebrating with my new wife and my polyfamily around me. Even when she abruptly left the night before, taking both my tuxedo and the van I was supposed to be sleeping in, I still believed it was my fault, that my own failures meant I deserved that treatment. That all her demands for attention—the long, intense, angry messages, the absolute refusal to allow me any time or space to focus on my wife or our handfasting later that day—were all reasonable behaviour, and that if only I could find the right combination of words she wouldn’t be angry at me anymore. That I wouldn’t flinch every time my phone dinged. That being curled, silent and shaking, in a fetal position in the back of the van on my handfasting night with my new wife holding me was just what I deserved for having made a simple scheduling mistake.

Early warning signs

Very early in our relationship, in October of 2012, Eve decided she wanted nothing at all to do with my live-in partner Zaiah. She mailed Zaiah a letter telling her that Eve wanted no contact with her whatsoever, then or in the future, under any circumstances. There was no argument, no fight, no clash; Eve simply didn’t like her.

Zaiah was so hurt and devastated by the nastiness in Eve’s letter, she got together with some of her friends and burned it.

Later, Eve would gaslight me about it. She told me that I discourage communication among my partners. I encourage my partners not to talk to each other, she said. I keep them apart. And, as I later discovered, she didn’t just tell me that, she told everyone who would listen that I kept them apart.

And the thing was, she was so convincing. She was so absolutely certain that her estrangement from Zaiah was my fault that she had me believing it. How on earth did I just forget that nasty letter? How on earth did I allow Eve’s funhouse-mirror reality to overwrite my own?

It’s fucked up and deeply violating to have someone you love replace your reality with something else. I doubted my own mind. Do I keep my partners apart? Did I just make up this whole episode where Eve didn’t want to talk to Zaiah? Did I just imagine all the things Eve did to my partner Maxine?

I fell so far down the rabbit hole that even when Zaiah and Maxine and my wife were telling me about their experiences and perceptions of being violently pushed away by Eve, I still accepted Eve’s narrative that it was somehow my fault she wasn’t talking to them.

During my handfasting, when I was curled up in the van, disassociating from everyone, my loved ones sat outside trying to figure out what was going on, it all came out. My partners, the ones who I supposedly “kept apart” from each other, physically sat in a circle and talked. Listening from inside the van, I was reminded that they all had troubling experiences with Eve over the years, and they all had memories of conversations where Eve instilled doubt and distrust about each of them to the other.

Before I started dating Eve, each of my partners had a long-standing relationship with each other, independent of me. They had all met each other through other venues before I started dating each of them. They all also strongly believed in good metamour communications. So, as I so often do, I absented myself from the relationship and I let them all work themselves out. They each considered each other friends, separate from me.

As my relationship with Eve grew, their friendships all got strained. It started with that letter to Zaiah. Eve went to each of my other partners to complain about Zaiah, telling her “truth” in a way that was believable, but not accurate. This left Zaiah without her support system when she got the letter from Eve, effectively isolating her in the way a good abuser does, because my other partners pulled away, thinking that Zaiah was the instigator because of how Eve framed their conflict.

But at the handfasting, their natural caring and compassion for each other overrode all the seeds of mistrust that had been sown. And they talked again, like they used to. Because, for them, their relationships with each other were always more present than their relationships with me, since I wasn’t really there. It’s strange, now, to hear other people describe my network as all the women centering me in their lives and being estranged from each other, whilst the women in my network tell me that one of their biggest criticisms of our relationship is that I’m mostly not really in it and that they have a stronger relationship with each other than with me.

Listening to them talk to each other that day while I was, once again, absent and in my own space in the van, the veil was lifted. I had no idea all of the not-exactly-untruths Eve had been spreading or how each of my partners felt about Eve. Even though they had all, separately, told me their feelings, I still did not hear it until that day, when I was forced to hear it all echoed by each of them, one after the other.

But I was in pain. I was in denial. Eve and I had a brilliant, creative relationship. We accomplished extraordinary things together: we wrote a fantastic book, we traveled the world, we founded two companies together. I loved her. I trusted her. So when I left our family space, filled with people who see from different perspectives and who share their perspectives and who respect each other’s agency, and who respect mine, I went back to Eve alone. The veil got pulled down again. Without my own sense of self, and without my loved ones’ handles on their own identities and on my agency to shield me, I lost my reality again to Eve’s and it took another 6 months for things to finally fall apart for good.

My abuser is woke

I’ve spent a lot of time with my therapist unpacking how I could allow another person to so distort my sense of reality. Part of it is that Eve is extremely gifted with manipulating the language of social justice—she was able to take me to a place where I believed things that weren’t true without technically lying. (I’ve since learned there’s a word for lying without uttering a technical falsehood; it’s called “paltering.”) She wove facts into tapestries that made me believe up was down and left was right. I’m still working to untangle it. My feet still aren’t steady beneath me. I don’t yet know when or if they will be.

Every time she publishes another article or does another podcast interview, the world underneath me shifts. I go to my partners and close friends and ask “did that happen? Did I really say that? I don’t remember that. Am I going crazy?” I was never very good at the details. I’m more a big-picture person. I grasp larger concepts, but I tend to forget the details of how we got there. This leads to the opening of more doors for people to abuse me and my partners.

Nothing is as it seems. Everything about who I am – what I want, what I’ve done, what I’ve said – everything is nebulous. I feel misty, amorphous, intangible. How can anyone get a sense of who they are, when who they are can so easily be overwritten? How do you all do it? How do you know who you are without someone telling you who you ought to be? How do you know who you are, underneath what other people want you to be? That’s the question I’m still trying to answer for myself. Maybe someday I’ll find out.

Why am I speaking out now?

I have not spoken publicly because my lawyer has told me not to. There’s a legal dispute going on over ownership of the companies Eve and I cofounded. When I left, I was told to give up my share of our publishing company with no compensation. I was also made starkly aware of just how little control I had over my own life.

For such a long time, my employment, my living situation, the majority of my income, the likelihood of my Canadian citizenship application being rejected (with the associated risk of losing my access to Canadian healthcare) was not under my control. “Unless I see a certificate of divorce,” Eve told me, “I will make sure you never get Canadian residency.”

When I finally managed to extract myself, I risked losing all of these things by refusing to just hand over my part of our publishing company. That risk increased when I refused to divorce my wife. I would lose everything I had poured so much of my time and energy and love into.

The legal fight is still ongoing. But I am exhausted, weary of the constant battle of trying to find reality in a world of funhouse mirrors. My lawyer no longer believes that Eve is, or ever was, acting in good faith in our legal dispute. When there’s nothing left, when even that small hope of being able to rescue something of value from that time is burned out…when there’s no longer anything left but the sure knowledge that my part in all those beautiful, glorious, creative projects I was so proud to have been involved in has been gradually, intentionally, ruthlessly stripped away…

The constant anxiety, that repeated raising and crushing of hope, the ongoing stress of the last year and a half, has burned out all the energy I had left to fear loss. I’m done. There’s nothing left for me to lose. So I’m choosing truth. I’m choosing vulnerability. I’m choosing openness, and courage, and hope. I’m choosing to reach out to my community.

I’m choosing not to be silent any more.

I haven’t dared take that risk before now.