ICSA Today, 2020, Vol. 11, No. 1, 15-17
Reflections Upon Attending ICSA’s 2018 Conference: Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control
In 2006, a longtime friend and I were comparing notes on our respective relationships gone wrong. We were stunned at the similarities. Both ex-partners employed identical strategies and vocabulary, as if they were working off of a script from a How to Control Unsuspecting Romantic Partners training manual.
“How about selfish? Did he pull the ‘You are so selfish!’ card?”
“Yes, that was in the rotation.”
“Did he lie and then accuse you of lying?”
“All the time!”
We wondered, “Is there a secret summer camp on coaching for aspiring verbal abusers?”
Shortly after that, a new friend invited me to a philosophy group, and I started attending. The group was engaging and interesting at first. It offered community and help for life’s challenges. But 5 years later, I left the group, depressed, depleted, and lost.
For months after my exit from this cultic group, I obsessed on my misadventure. Scenes played out, my psyche a private movie theater. Locked into my memories, I watched the group and my ex-boyfriend leverage the same tactics. Obsessive research on my part followed. I was determined to understand this phenomenon of abuse, and why some people, for selfish gains, seem wired to manipulate others through the natural psychological makeup and social needs of those they manipulate. Frankly, I have been motivated by anger, but also more philosophical questions: Why the need for power, control, and hierarchy? Will there ever be a day in human history when that need disappears?
What Is Coercive Control?
As my obsessive research continues, I often say to my cohorts and friends, “…abuse is abuse. The dynamics are the same, wherever, whatever, whenever.” In December 2018, I joined professionals across fields—academic, mental health, legal, and advocacy—at ICSA’s Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control conference in Philadelphia, PA. Professors Linda and Rod Dubrow-Marshall brought participants from cultic studies and sexual-identity studies, and domestic-violence advocates, immigration experts, researchers, and mental-health clinicians together to discuss coercive control, share knowledge and resources, and seek solutions.
I heard the name Evan Stark, the Rutger’s professor, for the first time that day. I have since learned that, in 2007, while I was entrenched in the cultic group, Stark published his book Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Stark, 2007). In the book, he reframed domestic violence as a crime against freedom, also called a “liberty crime”—behavior that violates personhood, the basic civil rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Amazon.com’s website frames this book as showing how “domestic violence is … a pattern of controlling behaviors more akin to terrorism and hostage-taking” [Amazon.com (n.d.)]. Stark used court records, interviews, and FBI statistics to detail control that includes food logs, micromanagement of dress, speech, sexual activity, and work. The Association of American Publishers granted Stark its Excellence Award for the book.
When I left the group in 2011, I soon recognized that my mind had been hijacked and locked into an ideology—a psychological prison. Similar to such depictions in Stark’s book (2007)—terrorism, hostage taking, cults, human trafficking, extremist groups, domestic abusers—whatever the context, abusers use a template. Specific behaviors play out through stages of relationship development. The intent behind the behavior is always to strip the victim of agency, freedom, and independence, through a cycle of seduction followed by cruelty, a progression that rinses and repeats.
Over the course of my obsessive odyssey, I had come up with the phrase, cultic social engineering: “unique group” offers “exclusive help” to those seeking betterment; employs love bombing; isolates members from nonmembers; fosters dependence; increases demands through the you owe us and we own you doctrine to eventually deploy for selfish gain.
At the conference, I learned about the cycle of coercion: bait, seduce, foster dependence, isolate, switch, attack, rinse out with kindness, and repeat. I was also reminded that domestic violence experts have boiled the abusive strategies down to a three-part cycle: honeymoon, tension building, and explosion; and then a recycling back to the honeymoon stage, also known as hearts and flowers. I’m confident that extremist groups and human traffickers have their own take on the template.
The 2018 conference was the first time that I had seen professionals across fields come together to bridge gaps between areas of study and specifically address the template.
Evidence indicates a growing interest in the phenomenon of coercive control. A July 2016 blog post in The New York Times entitled “With Coercive Control the Abuse Is Psychological,” defined coercive control as “an abusive relationship in which the abuser applies an ongoing and multipronged strategy, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation, financial abuse, stalking, gaslighting and sometimes physical or sexual abuse” (Ellin, 2016). Blog author Abby Ellin noted that, in 2015, both England and Wales criminalized “coercive and controlling behavior in an intimate or family relationship” (Ellin, 2016). She reported that “at least four men” had been sentenced (Ellin, 2016).
Numerous fictional TV series and programs have centered their plotlines on social control and chaos: The Leftovers (2014–2017), Wild Wild Country (2018–present), The Path (2016–2018), and, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–present). Leah Remini’s series, Scientology and the Aftermath (2016–2019), is now pointing the spotlight at Jehovah’s Witnesses. Additionally, the 2010 documentary film Power and Control depicted one woman’s struggle to leave her abusive marriage with her three children.
On the one hand, it can be depressing to recognize the pervasive presence of abusive relationships. At the Coercive Control conference, a good portion of the day addressed coercion through the courts. Andrea Silverstone, the Executive Director of Sagesse, a Canadian nonprofit tackling domestic violence, pointed out that a savvy enough perpetrator can play federal courts against provincial courts. On the other hand, it was heartening to see others recognize, name, and openly address the template that I have been recognizing more and more over time—the one that abusers worldwide employ. It wasn’t that long ago that such secrecy prevailed; victim blame was so prevalent that most people preferred to stay silent in the face of abuse.
At the Coercive Control conference, it was also exciting to engage in an open discussion that proposed solutions: best practices when working with specific populations such as immigrant communities, persons struggling with sexuality and gender identity, and victims of abusive partners, and with societal mechanisms such as those that establish case law regarding coercive control through civil courts and educational programs for police.
Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall presented on the United Kingdom’s Serious Crime Act (2015), which specifically includes psychological control and coercion. He contended that legislators are sending a clear message: Psychological badgering constitutes a serious crime: Threats, isolation, and financial control are criminal offenses, akin to physical violence and rape. This perspective gives me hope that humanity is tipping the scales of social acceptance toward those who have experienced such treatment and said no to abuse.
If efforts to collaborate across professions and fields of study continue, I feel confident that a myriad of innovative solutions will follow. It’s exciting to see those connections starting to happen. Community within the social-service, policy-making, legal, public-safety, and education professions could provide an answer to my question, “Will abusive relationships ever be eradicated, or at least reduced to rare incidents, unaccepted by the world at large, prosecuted, or, better yet, treated as an illness.?” I’m happy to say that I remain hopeful that these outcomes are possible, and that maybe that trend was launched, in part, by this day-long conference that unfolded in Philadelphia in December of 2018.
Amazon.com. (n.d.). Online book review. Available online at https://smile.amazon.com/Coercive-Control-Personal-Interpersonal-Violence/dp/0195384040/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=E.+Stark%2C+2007%2C+Coercive+control%3A+How+men+entrap+women+in+personal+life&qid=1573846070&s=books&sr=1-1
Ellin, A. (2016). With coercive control the abuse is psychological. The New York Times, Well Blog, July 11. Available online at https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/07/11/with-coercive-control-the-abuse-is-psychological/
Stark, E. (2007). Coercive control: How men entrap women in personal life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Esther Ruth Friedman, MA, LMHC, is a former cult member, expressive arts therapist, and licensed mental health counselor with a Master’s degree from Lesley University. She designed and opened a Boston-area therapy practice specifically for former cult members: The Gentle Souls Revolution—Healing Arts. She recovered from her experience through writing, songwriting, music, and performance. Today she works with former members, family members, and current members who reach out for support while exiting. In 2014, she interviewed defendants threatened by cultic litigation for an ICSA study on how litigious cults corrode free speech. She wrote a report and presented her findings in 2015 at ICSA’s biannual Santa Fe conference. As part of that study, she interviewed attorney Peter Skolnik, the lawyer for Rick Ross of the Cult Education Institute. ICSA Today published the interview in its February 2017 issue. She considers free speech to be integral to recovery as reclamation of self through the exercise of authentic voice, personal narrative, and self-empowerment. Her mission is to raise awareness, educate, and facilitate healing. Contact information: (781) 951-4433, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org