Throughout the 1980s, I was a big fan of the cheesy TV show, Fame. I’m not sure why I liked it so much. Even in the 80s, I knew it was a really cheesy show. I wasn’t involved in the performing arts at that time in my life, although my parents were. I just liked watching the reruns every night, which came on an independent, local television station in my area, WTVZ, channel 33. The independent version of WTVZ that I knew during my childhood went defunct years ago. It was bought out by a much bigger, national network. But, back in the day, I used to love watching prime time hits in syndication or reruns on channel 33. Now, I can do that on YouTube.
When I was in 7th or 8th grade, WTVZ ran episodes of Fame every evening at 7:00pm. I used to watch that show religiously. I still remember a lot of the musical numbers from the show. One such song was sung by the character, Coco (Erica Gimpel). It was called “Be Your Own Hero.” Actually, the song’s lyrics, themselves, aren’t that wise. They’re kind of corny and trite. But, the title is catchy, and the melody is upbeat and positive. And even if all you do is just look at the song’s title, you can take something away from it.
Fame was about talented kids in high school who hoped to make it big in show business someday. They knew they faced long odds of finding success, even though they were obviously gifted people. Being talented isn’t always enough, though. Luck plays a part, as does working hard, and believing in yourself. A big part of success, in any aspect of life, is not letting “the bastards” get you down. Because, as unfortunate as it is, there are always people out there who just like to watch the world burn. They like to see people fail. And some of these folks don’t even have the courtesy to be “real” about who they are. They put on a convincing act, and don’t reveal their true colors until after some time has passed. So, as the song goes, you gotta “be your own hero”, if you want to make it. You have to advocate for yourself and take opportunities as they arise, as you avoid falling into traps and pitfalls. Only you know what your reality is. No one else knows you, like you know yourself.
I am thinking about this song today, having had a discussion with Bill this morning about three situations in which we’ve managed not to be suckers. I’ve talked and written about these situations a lot over the years, but today was the first time I saw a pattern. It was a pattern of success– of us “being our own heroes” by knowing the differences between legitimate opportunities, and traps. This morning, we talked about three different scenarios that came up over the past twenty years, or so. These were circumstances in which other people were trying to take advantage of us. They were using the classic manipulative tactics to get what they wanted, when they weren’t entitled.
I’ll start with an old chestnut that I’ve trotted out umpteen times over the years– Christmas 2004. Detailed versions of the story of that holiday season are easily found in this blog, so I won’t rehash the tale. Basically, Ex was holding Bill’s daughters hostage– or bait, if you will. They were like carrots on the proverbial stick, as she used the prospect of Bill being allowed to see his own kids as reward for letting Ex come in to Bill’s father’s home and control everyone for the holidays. I was supposed to go to that gathering, but I saw it for the trap it was, and wisely stayed out of it. Yes, there was backlash, and plenty of people think I was wrong not to cooperate with Ex. However, I could plainly see what she was doing. I knew that no one– not even Ex– would benefit if I did what she wanted me to do. So I disobeyed her command to spend Christmas with her, and stayed home.
Now, Ex did retaliate, by stepping up her parental alienation campaign and being more toxic. In the years following that incident, there was a price to be paid for not acquiescing to her demands. However, if I had obeyed her, the price would have been much higher. In the long run, her actions have made her look like an asshole, and at least one (and probably more) of her kids know she’s an asshole. And I don’t have the memories of having to spend time in her presence. I was my own hero in that instance, because I realized that my own mental health matters. I don’t have to give in to emotional blackmail. If I had gone along with her plan, there was no guarantee that there would have been a reward of any kind. In fact, if I had given her the chance to know me in person, it might have made things a lot worse. The end result is that I haven’t had to deal with 20 years of her interfering with my marriage or trying to manipulate my husband, or me. Yes, she still manipulates other people, but we can’t control that. They have to be their own heroes and realize what she is, and what she does. Younger daughter has managed to do just that. I have high hopes that she will break the cycle of narcissistic abuse, at least in her own family.
The second scenario happened in 2009, when we busted then 21 year old former stepson secretly changing his last name as he continued to take child support from Bill (who isn’t his legal father). Ex had gotten the lad’s name changed to Bill’s when he was a toddler. When he was 21, he decided to change it back to his original surname (probably at Ex’s behest). But he still wanted Bill’s financial support, so he took these steps in secret. I later found out about it, quite by accident. I told Bill, and he decided to see if he could prompt the young man into coming clean. He never did.
For some reason, Ex had not filed for child support arranged by the state. My guess is that she knew that if she had the state handling child support, she wouldn’t get as much money. Bill was giving her $850 per child, which was a lot of money. When former stepson turned 18, Bill started paying him directly, which was what was required by their divorce agreement. Ex had a change of heart about that. She tried to get Bill to stop giving former stepson money directly. I guess she realized that the money gave her son power, and the ability to get away from her influence. But she did manage to get him to change his name, which was fine. He just should have had the common courtesy and respect to tell Bill what he was doing. Former stepson had neglected to do that, so it was left to Bill to practice some tough love.
As we realized what former stepson was up to, Bill came up with an idea. He’d given former stepson a chance to tell Bill about the name change, but former stepson had kept mum. So Bill, who was handling the “child support” payments directly, abruptly cut off the boy’s money. After a couple of days passed, and the child support money didn’t land in his bank account, as expected, the lad surfaced, asking what was going on. That was when Bill confronted him, and told him he had just declared himself no longer in need of getting “child support”. Changing one’s surname is, after all, the action of an adult.
Naturally, former stepson was angry that the man he had disingenuously been calling “Dad” had found out that he was changing his last name. His initial response wasn’t shame, embarrassment, or contrition. It was outrage. But there was Bill, now in charge. He had “been his own hero”, and not let this kid use his generosity to control and manipulate him. Bill had realized that letting his former stepson get away with this deceptive and shady behavior wasn’t good in the long run. It would make their relationship transactional, encourage more shady behavior in the future, and frankly, make Bill his former stepson’s lackey. That would have done some serious damage to Bill’s self-respect, while it gave former stepson a victory that he shouldn’t have. It would have been bad parenting for Bill to let his former stepson get away with what he was doing.
Yes, there were repercussions. Former stepson was furious, and now he doesn’t talk to Bill anymore. But we’ve heard he also doesn’t talk much to Ex, either. He’s paying his own way now, and has a family of his own. Bill is sorry they don’t talk anymore, but he also knows he’s not in a relationship with someone who only values him for money. Maybe someday they can heal the rift; but if they don’t, it’s okay. Bill will survive. So will former stepson. Hopefully, neither of his children will ever pull the same shameful bullshit with him when they get older.
And finally, we were our own heroes a couple of years ago, when our former landlady tried to steal our security deposit after we left her hovel. In retrospect, we should not have stayed in that house for four years. We should not have allowed her to treat us the way she did. Being nice and acquiescing to her demands only emboldened her, and apparently made her think that she could egregiously break German law and ignore our rights. At the end of our time in her house, we were left having, once again, to be tough and confrontational.
I had determined the year before we moved that ex landlady was going to be a major pain in the ass about our deposit when we moved. Actually, my concern was that she might try to sue us, because the 17 year old awning on her house had collapsed on my watch (due to high winds, NOT my negligence– in fact, she was negligent in not having it repaired by an actual technician, instead of her husband). I talked Bill into getting legal insurance, thinking we might need it if she tried to take action against us, even though it would have been ludicrous and probably doomed to failure.
What ended up happening, though, is that she simply refused to give us our money, and became very rude and insulting. She said we were the “worst” tenants she’d ever had, not realizing that she was the least professional landlady/landlord we’ve ever had. She did a lot of things wrong. She hadn’t done a proper protocol when we moved in, and she never did a former reconciliation of our “other costs”, which is required by German law. She also made false accusations against us that we could prove were false, and there was strong evidence that she had broken and entered the house when we weren’t home. That’s a huge “no no” in Germany.
When Bill received a very insulting, berating, and downright mean shaming email from the former landlady, he resolved not to respond to her. Instead, he closed his computer and went to sleep. He knew exactly what he was going to do next, and it was going to come as a very unpleasant surprise to the old bitch. She was expecting him to roll over for him, as he had done when we still lived in her house. Instead, he called a lawyer and had her write a letter demanding over 9000 euros, to include our stolen deposit, and the “other costs” she had received from us, but never reconciled. Naturally, ex landlady went berserk, and threatened to countersue. However, she had zero case against us because she couldn’t prove her claims. What’s more, we had a whole stack of rude, unhinged, hostile emails she had sent to Bill, at the end of our tenancy. Bill, on the other hand, had stayed professional and polite.
Ex landlady hadn’t had any respect for me, or what I do– writing blogs, taking photos, and the like. But the fact that I do these things– keep records, that is– was her downfall. And because I am a writer and researcher, we had that evidence to submit in our support of a lawsuit against her. If she had gone to court, it would have likely been a fucking massacre– especially since she falsely accused us of theft, and we could easily prove that her accusation was patently false. It was obvious that she wanted us to buy her a new, fancy awning. But she’s damned lucky that we let her file an insurance claim, under the circumstances. The awning wasn’t repaired properly. If it had fallen on me and caused injury, she would have been liable.
In the end, she settled with us, and was forced to not only give back most of the money she had illegally withheld, but she also had to pay for our lawyer, her lawyer, and court costs. And she’s now blacklisted from renting to anyone in the U.S. military community. I mean, I suppose she could rent to another contractor, like Bill. But most military contractors know that they can access the list of unapproved landlords. If they’re smart, they avoid renting from those folks. And government workers and military servicemembers won’t get government support/housing allowance if they rent from her. Her house is definitely nothing special, so I can’t see anyone paying out of pocket to live there.
That situation was very stressful for us. It gave us no joy or pleasure to sue our ex landlady. But as awful as that situation was, it was also exhilarating not to be someone’s chump. Bill actually described it that way to me. People underestimate him all the time. They take his kind, gentle nature as weakness. They are usually very surprised when he reminds them that he’s spent his whole adult life as a Soldier. Soldiers engage in war for a living. Soldiers are often career heroes. So she should not have been surprised. Bill was just doing what the Army trained him to do. Bill was “being his own hero.”
There have been other incidences of us “being our own heroes”, but this post is long enough already. I write these stories for those who find themselves in similar tough spots. I think our culture teaches us to “go along to get along”, or take the path of least resistance. That’s not always a bad thing to do. Sometimes, cooperating really is the best course of action. But, when you’re dealing with a bully who has no respect for you, it’s usually best not to negotiate. They will always try to make it so that you’re their chump. You can’t expect a fair shake from these people, and if you give them what they want, you will only embolden them to do worse things to you, or other innocent people. So be your own hero.
When you are confronted by high conflict bully types, try not to react emotionally. Stop for a moment. Don’t dash off a response, especially in writing. In fact, you might want to go radio silent and privately hatch some plans. As you can see from our stories, the element of surprise can be very effective in getting these people to fuck off. Above all, realize that you matter, and your mental health matters. Always advocate for yourself, and in a situation in which there isn’t a “win-win” option, do what suits you best. Most of the time, that will be the healthiest choice for everybody. Especially if you’re dealing with a high conflict person.