narcissists, overly helpful people, psychology

“Spanx” for the psyche– when your friends and family members don psychological shapewear…

Almost a month ago, I wrote a blog post about manipulators who insist that they’re straightforward and honest. In that post, I wrote about how I’d seen a meme on social media that really spoke to me. I saved it, and three days later, was presented with a real life situation that pretty much described the wisdom of that truism someone shared on Facebook. I will repost it below for those who don’t want to read the older post.

So true…

Bill and I were talking about this subject again this morning over breakfast. It’s Veteran’s Day, and he’s a veteran, so he’s at home. I asked him if, looking back on his experiences with people who turned out to be toxic and manipulative, if they had started off trying to look like they were “above reproach.” He said they mostly had… and in fact, thought of a few people in my life who had acted that way at first, and then turned out to be controlling, manipulative, deceptive, and underhanded. It’s as if someone designed Spanx for the psyche, put them on, and then tried to sell it to the unsure.

You know what Spanx are, right? Spanx are foundation garments designed to make people appear to be thinner and more shapely than they actually are. While Spanx may make a person look more attractive by compressing and smoothing out those trouble spots, people who wear them are basically hiding their true selves. Just as today’s featured photo implies, that’s all well and good until it’s time to get more intimate. Then, the truth comes out, and you find out if your partner only loves you for the illusion of your “perfect” body instead of your personality.

I don’t think shapewear can help me. I am who I am, like it or not. Have you ever noticed that the people who model shapewear don’t actually need to wear it? I think they should get someone who looks like me to model their products. But I don’t want to do it myself… love me, love my fat rolls.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a person covering up their physical flaws if it makes them feel more comfortable with themselves. I do, however, think trouble starts when a person hides their authentic selves with “shapewear for the psyche”. That’s when a person behaves like someone they’re not for the purpose of shaping or manipulating your opinion of them. Then, when you realize who they really are, you find out you were duped. It’s like the person wore psychological Spanx to hide their unsightly ego bulges, sagging virtue, and flabby morals. The next thing you know, you’re wondering if you’re crazy or stupid. Surely this person is as good as they first seemed. You wonder if you’re the problem. But nope… they were just hiding their true selves in psychological shapewear, designed to trick people with an illusion.

This type of behavior is a form of “gaslighting“. According to Medical News Today:

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.

A person who comes on strong, and tries hard to make a great first impression on you, is trying to shape your opinion of them. Then, when the behavior changes for the worse, as it always does, you will think back to that initial strong and positive first impression and be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. You will wonder if they’re just having a bad day. You will assume that someday, they’ll be that person with the warm, winsome personality who insisted that they are above reproach, and would never lie, cheat, steal, or do anything that isn’t for someone other than themselves. The reality is, they were never that person. They just wanted you to think they were. They want you to second guess yourself as you start to realize that they deceived you.

These folks are the ones who take it upon themselves to set a good example for others to follow. To give a recent and relevant example, there’s a woman I know casually who, when the pandemic was first in the news, made a point of posting pictures of herself wearing face masks while she was hanging out with her friends. She added a “PSA” of sorts about how important face masks are and– oh look!– she’s wearing one! Obviously, she was putting it out there that she’s a “caring” person, and you should try to emulate her. She sacrificed wearing lipstick so we could see her taking one for the team, dutifully wearing her face mask and being an example to all.

Later, I noticed that she deviated somewhat from that initial caring for the masses message she put out on her Facebook page. I got a taste of her control issues and the underhanded ways she tries to rope people in to doing her bidding. I realized that the first impression I got of her was just a facade. The reality is, she was wearing “Spanx for the psyche” and I had bought into that initial false image of her. I don’t think she’s a bad person, per se. I just think she tries to put forth an image that isn’t quite authentic or accurate. I find myself being more careful in my dealings with her.

Looking back, I can think of other people who made dynamite first impressions on me. I came away from meeting them thinking they were amazing. They were cordial, witty, charming, funny, and entertaining. Then, after awhile, the mask slipped, and I realized the first impression was just their version of a sales pitch. They were just trying to sell a false version of themselves so that when their real personality inevitably came out, I might cut them more of a break.

This phenomenon reminds me of that old joke about the man who visited Heaven and Hell to see where he’d like to spend eternity. Heaven is quiet, serene, beautiful, and comfortable. Hell looks like a raucous party, with sexy people having a blast with endless games. The man likes how Heaven looks, but ultimately chooses Hell, because it looks like it would be more fun. Then, when he shows up on this first day of eternity, he sees how miserable and awful Hell really is. He asks the demon who is showing him around what happened to the fun version of Hell he’d seen. The demon says, “Yesterday, we were recruiting you. Today, you’re committed.”

It’s easier in hindsight to acknowledge that sometimes people cover up who they really are. When you’re actually meeting them for the first time, it may not occur to you that they would be deceptive about their real selves. Most of us want to give people a chance, and try to see at least some good in others, especially when we first meet them. That’s kind of what our culture teaches us. If we let a negative impression cross our minds, we might hear the stern reproaches of someone from the past, chastising us for being “prejudicial”. However, I have found that that initial gut impression is often correct. There have been many times when I’ve regretted not heeding that impression. Because, once the more “intimate” part of a relationship begins, and the “Spanx for the psyche” is peeled off, the real ugliness sets in… and the person tries to sell that fake version of themselves again. I’m left wondering if I’m crazy or they’re just lying to me.

I’ve often discovered that people who need “psychological Spanx” also tend to be surface acquaintances. They aren’t interested in getting to know other people as much as they want some dirt on them so they can use it to their advantage at some point. Most of the fake people I’ve known are much more concerned about their reputations and images than they are in forming solid and honest relationships with other people. They’re more worried about how they look to others than they are in caring for friends and loved ones who have already committed to them. They don’t value deep relationships; they just want people to submit to their control tactics. Once someone is on the hook as a supporter, they aren’t going to go to the effort of covering up their flaws anymore. And if that’s not acceptable to you, the person who was duped, they’ll make it painful for you to object.

It’s kind of like when we first met our ex landlady. She tried hard to present herself as caring, understanding, and decent. But there were a number of signs that she was being deceptive. We chose to ignore them, even though I know I picked up on the signals from the first meeting. Her words and actions weren’t congruent. And later, after we heard many assurances from her about what a good and responsible person she is, she became the worst landlady we’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with. Over the course of our relationship with her, she made a number of external improvements to the house, but they were mostly cosmetic and meant to make the house more appealing to people on the street. She couldn’t have cared less about the comfort and convenience of the people who actually lived in the house and paid rent to her. That’s why she replaced the driveway and put up a flimsy fence instead of replacing the weird toilet that repeatedly backed up and required her husband to give me a tutorial. That’s also why she didn’t get rid of the disgusting carpet that reeked of cat piss. People on the street can’t see those things and don’t have to deal with them. But tenants have a contract, and are subjected to seeing her as she really is when things go wrong.

I have also seen how these types of people, when they have a commitment with others in their lives, feel free to mistreat them. I always pity people who are born to manipulative liars. It’s much easier to get away from someone who is a not a close blood relative. When it’s your parent or sibling, the stakes are much higher, and people tend to tolerate their bad behavior for longer. Then, when they can’t take it anymore, other people judge them for escaping the clutches of their tormentors. More often than not, the judgmental folks have only seen the charming, appealing, “psychological Spanx” wearing versions of the relative who is being abusive. They haven’t see them when the Spanx come off and the person lets everything unattractive about their true selves hang out.

Now… I’m not saying that it’s wrong for a person to try to make a good first impression. To some extent, most of us try to do that. What I am saying is that when a person tries too hard, or, when you first meet them, they insist that they’re “good, honest people” who never have problems with others, that’s a red flag. Nine times out of ten, they’re going to turn out to be the opposite of what they claimed to be. Or, at the very least, you’re going to find out that they aren’t authentic.

Authentic people don’t have to tell you how good they are. It shows in the honest way they behave and how they relate to other people. They don’t need “psychological Spanx”, because their personalities are naturally attractive. It’s possible to meet someone who is lovely and that’s who they really are. Usually, those types of people don’t give you a bad feeling. You don’t have that little voice in your head, warning you. The authentically good people don’t need to bowl you over with charm. They have no need to impress. They’re just good people who are real. No psychological Spanx or shapewear required.

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mental health, poor judgment, psychology

When manipulators INSIST they’re being straightforward and honest…

A few days ago, I saw today’s featured photo on my social media feed. I decided to share it myself, mainly because I wanted to write a blog post about this phenomenon manipulative people use when they’re trying to get their way. Manipulative people try to frame your impression of them before they engage in manipulative behavior.

When I think about the people in my life who have turned out to be manipulative, I realize that they all seem to follow a pattern. At first, they’re super nice and flattering. Then, often at the beginning of a relationship, they tell you how “honest” they are. I remember very clearly, early on in a business relationship Bill and I had, our former associate told us how they didn’t care about money and wouldn’t look for money until at least a couple of days had passed the due date. This person tried to play themselves off as unconcerned about money. Instead, they stressed to us that they wanted us to be “happy”. I also remember hearing a pretty speech from them about how important “trust” is…

Later, when we had an issue that required bills to be paid, the person put all of the responsibility on us, even though the responsibility was actually not ours. I remember being told that they’d “never had a problem” like the one we were experiencing. I was invited to call other people and hear it from them. Something tells me that if I’d actually requested to make those phone calls, the manipulator would have been insulted… and they would have ultimately refused to give me the information, or had me call someone I suspect was a “flying monkey” type who was in cahoots with them.

As time went on, it became obvious that this person we were doing business with was neither trusting nor honest. I was blamed, personally, for everything that went wrong, and they went to great lengths to pass all responsibility to me, personally. We were subjected to guilt trips, insults, and devaluation. I remember it to be a very uncomfortable situation. Sadly, it ended with a lengthy legal battle that ultimately ended in our favor, but only after a lot of psychic pain and inconvenience.

That’s just one example. There have been others. In fact, just this morning, someone tried to manipulate me into doing something with which I’m uncomfortable. I don’t want to get into specifics because, frankly, I’m still a bit pissed about it. Long story short, this young guy sent me a PM late last night, asking me for help with a “fundraiser”. I don’t know this guy personally; he lives in another country, and he doesn’t speak English very well. I know of him because he’s the one who rescued Noyzi.

A couple of months ago, he asked me to help him share information about his dog rescue. I told him I would, once he had a Web site set up. I didn’t hear from him for weeks and forgot all about it.

Now, he seems to be saying that he wants me to set up a fundraiser for him. When I replied that I wasn’t comfortable doing that, he basically tried to guilt me using insults. He accused me of “playing games” with him and scolded me for saying I would help him and then declining to help. He insists that he’s not asking me to do anything dishonest, even though warning bells are going off in my head.

I explained to him that I had donated a lot of money when I adopted Noyzi. I gave money to help with vet care and food. I didn’t mind doing that, and I thought he was asking me to share information. But I don’t want to be in charge of setting up a fundraiser, collecting money, and sending it to him. I’m just not comfortable with that. Aside from that, it’s now Sunday, and I don’t want to spend my day setting up a fundraiser for a person I’ve never met in the flesh.

What’s more, before I realized he wanted me to set up a fundraiser for him, he sent me some screenshots of the Web site he has prepared, but hasn’t launched. I noticed a couple of typos. I asked him to fix them. He said he doesn’t have the password to the program he used to make the Web site. Then he told me to just share it as it is– very directive. He’s insistent that this must be done right now. When I demurred, he tried to make me feel bad, and implied that I wasn’t being fair and was reneging on a promise. This statement was meant to put me on the defensive. I don’t remember promising anything. I said I would help, but I never promised– and I certainly never agreed to do what he seems to be proposing.

Of course I want to be kind and helpful. I always prefer to be nice when I can. But I just became aware of all of this twelve hours ago. Now he’s pressuring me to help him with what seems like a sketchy proposal… just a little while ago, he brings up using Western Union. I finally decided to mute the conversation, because I just don’t feel comfortable with it. I quite clearly and firmly said “no”, but he’s still insisting, and has engaged in several manipulative tactics to get me to do what he wants, along with implying that I’m being “shady” because I am questioning what he’s asked me to do (which is still not altogether clear). It’s definitely not something I want to deal with on a Sunday morning… especially when the only thing I would get out of it is feeling like I did someone I don’t know very well a favor.

I am very grateful that he rescued Noyzi and has helped so many dogs. I would like to help him. But he’s come to me with a mess, and has insulted me to boot. Even if what he’s proposing is totally above board, I’m just not comfortable with it. Getting involved in these kinds of things can lead to big trouble if one isn’t careful. Or, at the very least, it can become a real hassle.

It’s interesting that this situation came up last night. I saved today’s featured photo two or three days ago, with no idea that this morning, I would be reading it and realizing that I’d be dealing with manipulative tactics this morning. I think most of us are manipulative sometimes… it’s part of being human. Some people take it to an art form. I don’t know this person well enough to know if he’s a manipulator or not, but I didn’t like his tactics this morning.

I just read a great article about characteristics of manipulators. Many of the signs in that list are familiar. Follow the link to have a look for yourself.

Maybe now he thinks I’m a bitch. He wouldn’t be the first. This is just one more reason why I hate Facebook Messenger… it’s so often the source of angst.

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communication, complaints, rants

Back to the chum bucket with you…

We just arrived home a little while ago from our brief trip to the Schwarzwald. What should have been a relaxing break from Hesse turned into a bit of a shit show.

Before I get into the specifics of what happened, I will state upfront that this issue is partly my fault for not unplugging from social media. I really need to break the Facebook habit. It seems to bring me a lot of displeasure and discontent lately. I also need to quit caring about people and things that ultimately don’t matter.

Our trip began on Wednesday. The drama started a couple of days prior, and culminated into a trifecta of toxicity last night. I’ll try to keep it simple…

Last Monday, I got a private message from a woman who used to live in Stuttgart and moved back to the States a few years ago. She was very active in the community when she was here, ran several groups, and organized tours and such. Every year, she helped a vintner in Stuttgart with their harvest. This year, she says she got so busy that she forgot about the harvest. She asked me if I would mind helping her.

At first, I was pretty cool to the idea, because it sounded like I would have to be in Stuttgart. We live three hours away now. I have never met the people she’s been working with, and I don’t want to be expected to go to Stuttgart every weekend for three weeks. But then she said I didn’t have to actually be in Stuttgart to help pick the grapes or anything. So I told her I wouldn’t mind hearing what she had to say. She said we would have a video chat the next day. But then she never contacted me.

Off I went to Baiersbronn. Didn’t hear from the woman until Friday, as we were enjoying a fantastic lunch. She wanted to video chat. I said we were busy, so she rang off. Then last night, she contacted me again, wanting to video chat. I told her today would be better, since we still weren’t home. Then I told her that we had to go get our dogs between 6 and 7 our time, so 7:30pm would work best.

She asked which video chat program I preferred. I told her that I actually hate video chats, so I rarely use the programs. I get nervous on camera. But I have Skype and Zoom, and I didn’t say I wouldn’t do a video chat. I just said I don’t like doing them. She said there was no reason to be nervous… then she said maybe she should find someone else. I agreed with her.

Then she said this was their “livelihood”, so it was “serious business”. And that came off as a bit manipulative and passive aggressive, so it pissed me off. Especially since she came to me for a favor. But as I’m looking at the chat log now, I see she’s put in a bunch of smilies and stuff. Maybe she wasn’t trying to be manipulative and lay a guilt trip, but that’s how it came across. Bill thought so, too, when I showed him the chat.

Then I shared a wonderful article from the New York Times Magazine about Baiersbronn. We decided to visit it in 2018, after I read that piece. I shared it in the wine group I run. One of the members left an “angry” reaction and snapped, “I’m not paying for a subscription to read that!”

I responded that she didn’t have to subscribe. I don’t get commissions from the New York Times. It was just a nice article about the town and its many chefs. I thought it would be a good read for people in the group. But… then I got a comment from someone wanting to know the names of the restaurants… and someone else who linked to a vastly inferior blog post about Baiersbronn. Neither of the comments had anything to do with the article I posted.

Bill commented that people shouldn’t expect to read content for free. Then the woman came back and wrote that the New York Times isn’t a “credible” news source. Guess she’s a Trumper. Either way, though, all she had to do was scroll on, if the link wasn’t useful or interesting. Instead, she basically implied that she doesn’t like the source because of her politics. There wasn’t a fucking thing in that article about politics. It was written during the Obama era. I just thought it was an informative and interesting link…. and I was sharing information. Evidently, that wasn’t okay.

And then, I noticed a “like” from the formerly resident troublemaker. A couple of months ago, this chick, who is a sommelier or something, and runs her own wine group in Stuttgart, was pimping her group in my group. I slightly lost my temper with her and told her that pimping her group in my group was disrespectful. I finally implied that I was going to kick her out. She laid low for awhile, which was nice for me, but recently started posting again. She never posted her own stuff, though. She would just leave comments on my stuff, often in an attempt to make me look incompetent. Or, at least that is how it appeared to me.

A few days ago, I shared an ad from the Stuttgart Sky Beach about an event they’re having. I have no stake in the Sky Beach. I was just sharing information about an event. She posted a link to a competing event in the comment section, writing about why people shouldn’t choose the Sky Beach event. I suspect that she was getting kickbacks from selling tickets to that event. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that she’s hooked up with a bunch of wine sellers and is about making money.

I thanked her for sharing the information, then asked her to put it in a separate post. People can choose for themselves what activity they want to do. She ignored me.

This morning, she added her two cents to my New York Times link… a link to the Michelin site, for the woman who asked about the names of the restaurants. She helpfully added that the Michelin link is “free”.

Maybe I’m crazy… but it seemed to me, that once again, she was trying to make me look incompetent. She has asked me more than once to join her group. If I did that, my group would be redundant, and she would be in charge. I don’t care that she has her own group. I don’t care if people in my group are in her group. But I don’t want to be in a Stuttgart area group, because they tend to be toxic. Aside from that, I know that she promotes things that make her money. I don’t care about making money. I just want to have a group that is friendly and helpful and fun for everyone, including me. I don’t claim to be a wine or food expert. I just want to share information, and I want to do it without having someone posting after me, trying to undermine me.

It was getting to the point that I would cringe when I saw her name pop up. She literally made me feel sick to my stomach this morning. So I decided to kick her out of the group. The decision was a long time coming, and it brought me no pleasure to do it. But you know what they say– “too many cooks spoil the soup…” She wanted to be in charge of my group. She has her own group to run.

Bill pointed out that the toxic chick was acting a lot like Plankton on Spongebob Squarepants. He said I should send her back to the Chum Bucket. I agreed.

I didn’t send her a PM or address her in the group. I just quietly kicked her out and permanently banned her. Then… perhaps by coincidence, I got three new requests to join. I’m wondering if one or more were from her friends. I let two in. The other claimed to be living in Germany, but his profile indicated that he’s a chef who lives in Barcelona, Spain. My guess is that he’s someone she does business with. In any case, he can always join her group. He doesn’t need to be in mine.

I think this chick wanted to be in my group for ideas, new members to spam, and to irritate me to the point of closing the group. I came close to doing it a few weeks ago, but then decided not to when some people seemed to be enjoying the group. I found myself revisiting the idea this morning, as I choked down breakfast. That’s how “toxic” I feel about this woman. Her motives may be innocent, but my intuition tells me that she’s up to no good. I’m usually right about these things. She has her own group, though, and she can run it the way she wants to. And if everybody else wants to join her, that’s fine with me. I’m not trying to make money or be popular. I just want to share information.

Poor Bill had to listen to me complain most of the way home… all of this stuff comes from the neuroses I have from growing up with a very dysfunctional family. I really hate conflict. I don’t like dealing with manipulators. I can’t stand feeling like I have to confront people… especially people who ought to be adults. That woman who posted an angry reaction to a newspaper link got me a bit irritated. I was tempted to kick her out, too… But I know that doing such a thing would probably lead to a lot of high school styled drama.

I really don’t like feeling like a tyrant. I don’t think I act like one. But I think my instincts are right about these situations…

I probably should sign up for a Fuck It retreat in Italy. I need to learn not to engage with these people… and just say “fuck it” and delete the people who get under my skin.

As for the vintner lady looking for free labor, I calmly wished her luck in finding the right person to help her. I think it’s a tall order, but I’m sure someone out there would be more than happy to get involved in her project.

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family, funny stories, memories, mental health, music, nostalgia, psychology

“Go with the flow”…

A few days ago, I wrote about a conversation I had with one of my relatives, who quipped in passing that she thinks that she and I are both empaths. I didn’t contradict her at the time because I had a feeling that if I did, we might end up fighting. So I let the comment pass, but I was definitely shaking my head about it. I guess I had decided to “go with the flow” and “sweep it under the rug”, which sometimes is a good idea. On the other hand, sometimes, it’s not.

Last night, we were chatting again. This relative has been interested in my musical pursuits, which includes my attempts to learn guitar. After I wrote yesterday’s post about “musical flu”, which was inspired by watching an online concert by the jazz ensemble at my alma mater, Longwood University, I actually sat down and learned a new song. I not only learned it; I played it– shakily– on the guitar. No, I don’t play particularly well, but I did manage to play a song yesterday as well as sing the vocals. Fair disclosure, I did the vocals before the guitar part. I’m not quite ready to do them both at the same time. Still working on that pesky F chord, too.

This is a cover of an old song done by Linda Ronstadt with Dolly Parton doing harmony…

I don’t actually relate to the lyrics of “I Never Will Marry”. I just think the harmonies are pretty. I wanted to see if I could replicate them. And, with the help of Chordify and a capo, I was able to play it somewhat. I literally learned the song and the guitar part and recorded it in a few hours. And, because I was feeling tired and bitchy after that effort, I used a clip of my dog, Noyzi, as the video part. The video doesn’t really matter that much to me, anyway. I’m about the music.

A year ago, I could not have done what I did yesterday, even if my efforts from yesterday are imperfect. This was a pretty big achievement for me. I have a long way to go before I’m ready for busking on the street corner, but I felt pretty accomplished.

My relative listened to the song, praised it, but then said she didn’t like the song itself. She said she thought the lyrics were self-pitying. I don’t disagree, but I still think the harmonies are lovely. My relative went on to explain that she doesn’t like “whiney” songs, and that reminded me of a funny story from my past. I proceeded to relate a short version of the story to my relative, but she completely missed the point in a non-empathic way. Since I’m not drunk on wine right now, have nothing better to do, and I’m writing with a clear head, here’s a longer version of the story for all of you dear readers.

When I was a freshman at Longwood College (now Longwood University), I was forced to move out of my dorm after the first week of school. I ended up in what was considered the “worst” hall on campus. Well… it wasn’t really the “worst”. It was just a single-sex dorm with hall bathrooms. And, unlike the dorm I had moved from, it didn’t have air conditioning, which really sucked during the late August Virginia summer heat. I imagine the heat lasts longer these days than it did in 1990.

Anyway, the hall below us was an all men’s floor for freshmen. At the time, it was the only all men’s hall that wasn’t used by a fraternity. The women on the second floor and the men on the first floor all hung out together, and most of them attended a mandatory class called Longwood Seminar. It was a special class for incoming freshmen, designed to teach them about how to survive in college. The sections were divided by dorms, which back in the 90s, were still where most Longwood students were living. There wasn’t a lot of off campus housing then, nor did people tend to commute a lot.

I was not in the same Seminar class as my new hallmates were, since I was still in the group I was put in with my original dorm. Because I was not in the same Seminar group, I missed the incident that led up to the invention of the word “brently”, coined by my old friend, Chris.

Back in 1990, Longwood instituted a new rule that freshman dorms were to be “dry”. That meant that alcohol was forbidden on the halls dedicated to freshmen students. Of course, even though there was a rule against booze in freshmen areas, that doesn’t mean people obeyed. One day, early in the semester of our first year, the Longwood Seminar professor talked about avoiding alcohol. And a guy named Brent stood up and said, “If Longwood is so serious about preventing underage drinking, how come half my hall was drunk last weekend?”

Naturally, that confrontation did not put Brent in good stead with his peers. Brent also had an unfortunate habit of being a bit “whiney” and “self-pitying”, much like the song my relative said she didn’t like. Brent would go around saying things like, “Basically, I’m just fucked up the rectum…” as he cringed and complained that he’d just shit his pants because he had amoebic dysentery. I swear… I am not making this shit up. 🙂

Brent also got a lot of people upset because he was involved in an interracial relationship. I’m sorry to say that despite its many progressions lately, Virginia is still a southern state, and even in 1990, some people had issues with the races mixing. Personally, I didn’t really know Brent or his girlfriend that well, and I didn’t care who he was dating. But people supposedly said something to him about his girlfriend and Brent’s response was, “I can have any white woman I want,” which I think we all know is patently untrue. No one can have “any person they want”, no matter who they are. Anyway, the general consensus was that Brent was an arrogant asshole who was very uncool. And he also bore a slight resemblance to Ronald McDonald, except he used to bike shirtless around campus.

Well, people were upset with Brent for busting them in Longwood Seminar class, so my friend Chris decided to play a prank on Brent. He knew Brent had an illegal sword collection in his dorm room. Chris was an English major, so he knew how to draft professional letters. At Longwood, we had a student run Honor Board and a Judicial Board. So Chris wrote a letter to Brent, ostensibly from the Honor Board, inviting him to a “hearing” about his illegal sword collection. Brent, lacking situational awareness, quickly panicked and started searching frantically for the R.A., a guy named Jack.

Chris felt sorry for Brent, so he said, “Brent, man, it was just a joke. Calm down.”

Brent then seized Chris, threw him up against the wall, and snarled, “Oh… so you think it’s funny, huh?” And then he kneed Chris right in the balls.

Chris said, “No Brently… I just feel… SICK.” as he crumpled to the ground. I still laugh when I think about this part of the story.

From that day on, whenever someone said or did anything victim-esque, my friend Chris would say, “Brently!” And we all knew it meant the person was being a martyr or acting like a victim. To this day, I still think of the made up word “brently” when someone is self-pitying or pathetic. Bill’s ex wife is a prime example of someone who is “brently”.

I thought I was just sharing a funny story from my college days. But my relative, the non-empath, immediately calls me (and my friends) out for “bullying” Brent, just because of his looks. She said Chris deserved to be kneed in the nuts, because “karma is a bitch”.

I said, “Wait a minute. People weren’t bullying Brent because of his looks. It was his behavior that did it, although his looks didn’t help. Aside from that, this was thirty years ago. I haven’t seen or talked to Brent since the early 90s. And when I did know him, I wasn’t involved in these incidents at all. I was not mean to Brent, nor am I routinely mean to anyone, unless they ask for it.”

My relative continued on about how she felt sorry for Brent, being “bullied” by us… and she basically lectured me as if I was still a child, even though I’m almost menopausal.

So I said, “I don’t have any pity for Brent. He brought that treatment on himself. Moreover, all Chris did was play a harmless prank and scare him for a minute. Brent committed assault and battery and could have been arrested for his retaliation.”

Again, I really don’t think people picked on Brent solely because of his appearance. I don’t think most people cared who he was dating, either. Some people did, because it was Virginia and some people are backwards and racist. But I don’t think that was the overall attitude toward Brent. It was his arrogant behavior and confrontational attitude that got him picked on… calling out freshmen for drinking when he was, himself, breaking the rules by keeping knives and swords in his dorm room.

So then, I said to my relative, “Anyway– the POINT of the story is not about Brent being bullied. I was trying to tell you about a funny word made up by my friend, which could describe the song, ‘I Never Will Marry’. It’s a ‘brently’ song.”

Now… how does this relate to my relative falsely referring to herself as an “empath”? Besides the fact that she completely missed the point of the funny story and went straight to shaming me, as if I were 12 years old, it’s also because I have many memories of her bullying me. I remember her telling me she thought I was “stupid, fat, and ugly” when I was a kid. I also remember her physically abusing me when I was a small child and couldn’t fight back. I remember many, many meltdowns from her over the years, and a lot of entitled behavior, even after I had reached adulthood. For instance, here’s another rerun story from the past.

Christmas 2003– Bill and I lived in northern Virginia, not far from my relative’s home. My family was having Christmas at their house. My relative, then in her 40s, asked if we wouldn’t mind taking her down there with us. I said it would be okay, but she needed to realize that if things got shitty, we would be leaving. I didn’t want to hang around if there was any fighting.

My relative agreed, so on the day we were leaving, Bill went to pick her up. Naturally, she wasn’t dressed when he got there at the pre-appointed time, so he had to wait for her to take a shower, dry her hair, get dressed, and have coffee. This put us on the road later than we needed to be.

We got down to my parents’ house. All the other relatives were there, and most were sleeping at the house. Bill and I were relegated to the office, where there was a very uncomfortable fold out couch with a metal bar that would hit right in the middle of the back. I had also started my period, so I wasn’t feeling very well.

There was a lot of tension in the air and we were all walking on eggshells… Sure enough, hours after our arrival, I got into a fight with one of my sisters, who decided to get all self-righteous and holier-than-thou with me. My feelings were hurt and, whether or not the fight was my fault, I didn’t feel like staying in that environment, which had become pretty toxic. I just wanted to go home and be in my own house, with a comfortable bed and a toilet where I could tend to Aunt Flow in peace.

Remembering that I had vowed to leave if there was a fight, I told Bill I wanted to go home the next morning. So we told the relative who had bummed a ride with us that we would be leaving early. She had said, before accepting a ride with us, that she was okay with us leaving early if the need arose. But then, when the situation actually came up, her response was to try to manipulate Bill into talking me into staying. Why? Because she was hoping we’d drive her to nearby Williamsburg to go shopping. She wanted us to drive her around, even though at that time, we didn’t have much money, and I sure as hell don’t get my kicks watching her buy stuff. She really can be a terror to clerks and wait staff.

When Bill didn’t talk me into changing my mind, my relative tried. I said I wanted to leave and nothing was going to change my mind. So she flew into an EPIC rage. She was still in bed when we packed the car, but she got up, took a shower, and came storming into the kitchen with wet hair. She screamed at me that she needed to dry her hair and have coffee, so she wouldn’t catch cold. I was just flabbergasted that a woman in her 40s was acting like this. I turned to Bill and said, “Let’s just go.” Because I knew that having her in the car would be hours of hell, and I had had enough hell.

So, while my relative was still angrily orbiting around the house, Bill and I got in the car and fucking left! And my relative ended up taking a bus home. She gave me the silent treatment for a year after that, not that I minded. Somehow, our decision to enforce a boundary also became a reason for shaming. I remember my dad telling me I was “mean” to leave my relative stranded like that. He had no idea what had transpired, but just assumed, after hearing her side, that the whole thing was my fault.

Leaving my relative at my parents’ house was the right thing to do, but it was also a hard thing to do. Because I have been trained since childhood to overlook other people’s bad behavior and be “nice” at all costs. And when something goes south, I get blamed for it, even if the other person was the one acting like a jerk. I was expected to just “go with the flow” and sweep it under the rug.

My mom was always a big fan of “going with the flow”, and she always tried to tell me that’s what I should do, even when someone was outrageously abusive to me. Like, for instance, the time my father humiliated me in public, treating me like a six year old when I was a married woman in my 30s. That incident occurred, again, when I was doing a favor for my “empath” relative, who had asked us to drive my elderly parents around northern Virginia.

Bill and I were sitting with my relative’s boyfriend in a noisy stadium on the occasion of my relative’s master’s degree graduation. My parents were not sitting next to us, but they must have seemed like they were with us, because some strange woman who sat near us apparently felt we were being too rowdy. Instead of speaking to us directly (we weren’t being any louder than anyone else in the stadium was, and we were all adults), she complained to my parents. And my dad turned around and yelled at me, “Shut up! You’re DISTURBING PEOPLE!” It was really loud, and I’m sure everyone heard it. Including that cunty woman who complained to my parents instead of directly to us. I still don’t know how she knew we were together.

Anyway, after my dad screamed at me, Bill says the look on my face was one of unbridled rage. I wanted to kill my father right then and there. I was absolutely LIVID. Instead, I got up and left. Bill found me, and I told him I just wanted to go home. But because we had driven my parents’ car, that would have meant arranging for alternative transportation. At the time, we had very little disposable income to waste on rental cars or even train fare. Once he had me calmed down somewhat, we found my mom. I went to the bathroom, and my mom was telling Bill that I should just “go with the flow” and not let that incident ruin our “lovely day.”

Bill, being the prince he is, told my mom that actually, my dad’s outburst was embarrassing, uncalled for, and totally wrong, and that I had every right to be as angry as I was. Moreover, we were at the graduation as a favor to my parents and my relative. I hadn’t even WANTED to be there. I had just let her talk me into doing her a favor, yet again. As we rode in the car to the very nice restaurant where Bill and I had gotten engaged the year before, Bill was making small talk while I squeezed the blood out of his hand. I was so PISSED.

It happened to be Mother’s Day that day, and the restaurant was giving out pretty potted Impatiens flowers. They gave one to me and my dad said, “Why do you get one? You’re not a mother.” To which I said, “I am a stepmother.” This was before Ex’s parental alienation campaign had ramped up to the toxic levels it eventually got to. And then, when we sat down to brunch, which my father would be paying for, I proceeded to order steak and eggs, several whiskey sours, and dessert. Bill smirked at me, knowing full well that I was passively aggressively taking my rage at my father out of his wallet.

The following week, Bill finished his first master’s degree. We went back to that same restaurant and had a less expensive, but still very enjoyable, do over of that brunch. And ever since those incidents in 2003, as well as Ex’s sick Christmas stunt of 2004, in which she tried to compel me to spend Christmas with her in my father-in-law’s house, I have become a lot more assertive and less likely to just “go with the flow”. Especially, when it comes to dealing with my relative who, I repeat with emphasis, is NOT AN EMPATH by any stretch of the imagination. However, she is sometimes pretty “brently”.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: A review of Burl Barer’s Mom Said Kill…

Here’s a repost of a grisly true crime book I read and reviewed in 2009. I am reposting it as/is here. Incidentally, Burl Barer once commented on my original blog. He responded to a rant I wrote about being frustrated by writing, but also noted a positive review I had written of his work.

Mom Said Kill… and unfortunately the kids obeyed

I’ve often heard it said that people who want to become parents ought to be subjected to a licensing process. We license people before they can legally drive cars. We license people before they can legally practice certain professions. We even license dogs. But when it comes to raising children, arguably one of life’s most challenging jobs, it sometimes seems the least qualified people are first in line for the position. Such was the case for Barbara Opel, a mother of three who lived in Everett, Washington. Barbara Opel had always impressed upon her children the importance of minding their mother. With their help, along with that of several other teens and pre-teens, Barbara Opel plotted 64 year old Jerry Heimann’s murder. Burl Barer writes about the shocking case in his 2008 book, Mom Said Kill.

In 2001, Barbara Opel and her kids, 13 year old Heather, 11 year old Derek, and 7 year old Tiffany, were living with Jerry Heimann, a generous, kind-hearted man who had needed help taking care of his 89 year old mother, Evelyn. Jerry Heimann was managing the pain of his terminal cancer and his wheelchair-bound mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Barbara Opel’s weapons: her kids and her temper

Heather Opel was an attractive girl. Naturally athletic and a good student, she seemed to have a good future ahead of her, even though her mother had a reputation for being “mean”. Heather and her brother, Derek, had been denied access to their father, William Opel, ever since their parents divorced in 1991. Their sister, Tiffany, was the product of another relationship.

Heather was involved in sports, which her mother always attended. She was widely known among the other parents, kids, and the coach as having a “hell of a temper”.  Evidently, Heather Opel had learned at an early age never to question her mother under any circumstances, lest she suffer dire consequences. And yet, despite her allegedly fearsome temper, Barbara Opel had more teenaged friends than adult friends.

Building up to murder

On April 7, 2001, Marriam Oliver, one of Heather’s friends, approached 17 year old Jeff Grote at a skating rink and told him that Heather thought he was cute. The next day, Heather Opel and Jeff Grote had sex in Derek Opel’s bedroom. When they were finished, Barbara Opel gave Jeff permission to spend the night with Heather. A couple of days later, Barbara finally sat down with Jeff to have a serious chat, but she didn’t want to talk about the consequences of having unprotected sex. Instead, Barbara Opel proposed murder. She wanted Jeff’s help in killing her employer, Jerry Heimann, claiming that he had been cruel to Heather.

At first, Jeff Grote refused any part of Barbara Opel’s plan, but the ever persistant woman kept nagging him, demanding that he find someone to carry out the deed. She offered him cash and a new car, and told him that after they killed Heimann, they could get their hands on the $40,000 in his bank account. For Heather’s help in the murder, Barbara Opel promised a new bike.

Jeff Grote came through with a few friends and on April 13, 2001, Barbara Opel’s gang of teens and pre-teens savagely attacked Jerry Heimann with knives and baseball bats. Once Heimann was dead, they doused his body with corrosive acid and dumped it. Seven year old Tiffany helped her mother in her unsuccessful attempt to clean up the mess. They took Heimann’s furniture and helped themselves to his checkbook. They left Heimann’s mother in her wheelchair, where she sat alone without food, water, or heat. Evelyn Heimann’s grandson, Gregory Heimann, found her eight days later, starving and dehydrated. He had shown up at the house looking for his father, who was supposed to meet him at the airport. It was to have been their first visit in five years.

My thoughts

Mom Said Kill is a very well written and researched account of a shockingly brutal murder. Of course, what makes this case more shocking than most is that it was perpetrated by children. Besides her daughter, Heather, and Jeff Grote, Barbara Opel managed to get several other young teenagers involved in the crime. Most of the teens, including Heather, ended up being tried as adults for the murder and will now spend many years in prison for following Barbara’s orders.  Thankfully, Barbara Opel is also now forever behind bars.

Burl Barer does a good job explaining the case. He also adds in some interesting commentary about brain development in adolescents and teenagers, pointing out that teenagers are not able to think as adults do and see the consequences of their behavior. For example, Barer explains that a fourteen year old may not have the capacity to understand what it means to spend twenty-five years in prison, nor may they understand what “the right to remain silent” actually means. Aside from his account of this case, Barer also explains how traumatic brain injuries and alcohol abuse during pregnancy and before adulthood can affect brain development. Sixteen pages of black and white photos are included.

Barbara Opel was, by Barer’s account, also a victim of child abuse.  Besides having been raised in an abusive environment, Barbara’s mother apparently drank a lot of alcohol during her pregnancy and had worked in a dry cleaning store, which exposed her to chemicals that may have affected Barbara’s brain development before she was born. Even as Barer demonstrates how horrible Barbara Opel’s crimes are, he also shows how she, too, was a product of the cycle of abuse. Nevertheless, while I could understand feeling some slight empathy toward Barbara Opel, my overwhelming reaction to this story was disgust and sorrow, for the senseless way Jerry Heimann died, for the grief his survivors have been forced to endure, and for the children, most of whom had no criminal record before the murder took place.

One additional personal note…

I have to admit that reading Mom Said Kill made me very uncomfortable. My husband was once married to a woman who, in many ways, reminds me of Barbara Opel. Reading this book made me feel some compassion toward my husband’s two daughters, neither of whom have spoken to him in years after disowning him at their mother’s behest. This book reminded me that many teenagers, particularly younger ones, just aren’t capable of thinking as rationally as adults are. Part of being a teen is making stupid mistakes, which may include challenging authority when it’s unwise to do so or not knowing when to question authority. On the other hand, this book also shows what can happen when the cycle of child abuse and neglect isn’t broken. And that’s why, besides compassion toward my husband’s kids, I also feel uneasy about their futures.

Anyway… I wholeheartedly recommend this book to true crime fans.

Burl Barer’s Web site…

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon from sales made through my site.

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