Editor’s note: This post was contributed by the Lovefraud reader who goes by “D2.”
The coffee shop filled quickly as people grabbed their caffeine fixes before heading to the office. I sat with my book and my latte, glancing around the room occasionally to rest my eyes and then refocusing on the page. As I looked up once again, I noticed one of the baristas conversing intently with a middle-aged man over by a cork board on a side wall. I couldn’t hear them over the din of the other customers, but they appeared to be discussing something tacked on the board.
Nothing interesting going on here…except something about this man snagged my attention, something about his body language. He was a little too “on,” trying a little too hard to be engaging and pleasant. It felt like one of those movie distraction scenes where the husband corners his wife in the living room when she’s come home early and makes loud, cheery conversation with her while the girl he’s been cheating on her with sneaks out the bedroom window behind them.
And there was something else about him, some weird vibration emanating from him, that gave me the creeps. But the conversation ended, he took a place in the growing coffee line, and I returned to my book.
“Knock it off! Don’t try your STUFF on me!” I heard, only seconds later. As I glanced up, a young woman in professional dress whirled around in line and stared in shock at the person immediately behind her. It was him.
“Don’t try to hassle me with your STUFF!” he repeated in her face, not shouting, but still loud enough for many in the room to hear him clearly. The two had by now squared off so that I could see them in profile from where I was sitting, almost directly behind the line, and I could see his expression. He was gloating.
The woman bolted from the line and found the same barista to whom the man had previously been speaking, leading the barista to a table a few yards from mine. Agitated and in tears, she described the verbal attack and pointed through the line of people to the attacker, who seemed oblivious to the scene behind him.
“But I was just talking to him a few minutes ago,” the barista said, his tone a bit dismissive. “He seemed like a really nice guy. I’ll keep an eye on him, though.”
“I’m an absolute wreck, and I haven’t even gotten to the office yet!” the woman said through her sobs, then composed herself slightly and bolted from the building.
This bizarre incident may look like nothing but an adult version of “Let’s get YOU in trouble with the teacher,” but failure to recognize this tactic in other contexts is potentially lethal.
Here’s another example, this one a bit more personal:
During my college years, in the days when cell phones were the size of cinder blocks and few people had them, I got a job at a 24-hour restaurant. I’d interviewed in the evening after getting off work from another part-time job, and I’d been hired on the spot. By the time forms and orientation were completed and I was free to leave, it was 3 a.m.
One problem: I had no car, the buses weren’t running, I couldn’t get a ride, and since I was flat broke, I couldn’t pay for a cab. I needed to get home, so I decided that I had no choice but to walk the couple of miles to get there.
After passing through a street-side shopping area across from the restaurant, I continued to another main surface street leading home. And as I walked, I became aware that a young, scruffy-looking man on a bicycle seemed to be casing me. I kept walking, a bit faster now. To my relief, I spotted a security guard up ahead, probably on his way from a shift. But then, to my horror, the man on the bicycle rode over to the guard and started a chummy, animated conversation with him, giving me a smirking glance as I approached. It was just like the coffee shop—but he probably had something in mind other than verbal potshots.
I skirted around them to the main street, planning to double back to the security guard, but the man on the bicycle was once again behind me, blocking my path, and the guard disappeared down a side street.
The approaching patrol car was a miracle. My follower took off immediately. The officer pulled over, I told him I was stranded and being followed, and he drove me home. Disaster averted.
The Abuser’s Social Camouflage
Both of these incidents exemplify an “aren’t I wonderful” abusive technique, the purpose of which is to create protective social camouflage for the abuser.
It’s very simple: the abuser targets the victim and, before the strike, anyone surrounding the intended victim who could intervene or otherwise wield any social power against the abuser is treated to a show of charm and ingratiation. (Flattering and manipulating individuals into becoming proxy abusers is a frighteningly common variant of this ploy.) Once the audience has been hypnotized by this social subterfuge to see the abuser in a favorable light and then rationalize—or discredit the report of—any abusive behavior to follow, the abuser can then strike with relative impunity because, after all, “I’m such a great guy!” (Or gal.)
For an example of greater magnitude, picture a predator creating a pillar-of-society image in the larger social arena in which he or she preys, and you could come up with someone like John Wayne Gacy in his clown costume or Ted Bundy as, of all things, a suicide crisis hotline volunteer.
Here’s another scenario from my past, the implications of which I’d like you to ponder:
It was time for the self-introduction presentations in my senior psychology seminar, and the students sat nervously awaiting their turns to speak. One of the last speakers, a smiling, dark-haired fellow with an aura of electricity, took his place in front of the audience. He was decidedly not nervous.
He was singlehandedly designing and building his own house and many others, he claimed, while running multiple businesses and managing numerous contractors, and he played six musical instruments and was traveling the world while working on his degree to get into the counseling program because he wanted to help people. (He choked up a little here.)
It was a relentless stream of “me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, ME.”
I glanced around during his patter of little feats and noticed that many of the women and even a couple of the men—people ranging in age from twenties to fifties—were all but swooning. I slid my eyes over to the professor, who was listening quietly, a faint, tight smile on his face and an expression in his eyes I was too far away to read.
And then, his finale: he sang—to enthusiastic applause.
I did not applaud. If they let this flake into the counseling program, I thought, I’ll renounce my degree.
Now, think along with me. His exaggerated claims and overall presentation displayed grandiosity and self-absorption at the very least, neither of which quality is ideal in a therapist. The frightening part of this story is that more than a few of the audience members watching this performance—people aspiring to careers as counselors and psychologists—actually seemed to buy it, judging by the flattering comments I heard as we filed out of the room at the end of the class.
With this effect on many of the members of the audience in mind, imagine what happens when someone like this keeps the circus act under wraps well enough to survive a supervised clinical experience process on the way to a licensed position as a therapist. (It happens.) A vulnerable client, hypnotized by a larger-than-life fabricated persona lent validation by a degree, could at best be manipulated into fulfilling the disordered therapist’s desire for dominance and adulation and at worst be wide, wide open for more severe forms of violation.
The Coffee Shop Incident—A Case of Psychological Rape
All of this is not to say that anyone with an appealing social image or confident self-presentation is necessarily distracting attention from nefarious activities. It is only to say that social image or an individual’s self reports alone will not tell you who—or what—he or she really is. It’s the style and context of someone’s engagement of you—its pattern—that harbor clues to their intentions. In the cases involving the woman in the coffee shop and me, pre-emptive charm preceded the incident, or at least its attempt, in order to both isolate a target and create the illusion of deniability.
And as for the coffee shop verbal assault: it was a case of rape, in broad daylight, right out in the open, although the perpetrator didn’t lay a hand on her. But then, he hadn’t had to.