In this courageous and powerful piece, Irenosen Okojie discusses the emotional abuse and exploitation Black women creatives have experienced in various arts industries and calls for greater accountability amongst white male perpetrators.
I found myself entangled with a charlatan once. I write this because it matters. Emotional abuse is a cunning process of entrapment, a behemoth you struggle grasping the language to define while it happens. Nobody tells you this. No one holds neon signs for you on the periphery saying exit at this point, worse is to come. Wreckage on the far left. You do not spot the lines of quicksand dogging your footsteps or the faint screaming of your nervous system alerting you, travelling then ebbing its way back to you as though returning from some distant, unnamed country. Nobody warns you of being ensnared by someone in fight or flight mode once their masks slip. It is impossible to have tunnel vision into mercurial, illusive beings who hide their traps.
I became involved with a three headed chameleon. A man wielding more chaotic illusions than Houdini on crack.
A brilliant, bright, intelligent man.
An insatiable, callous, ruthlessly interpersonally exploitative character.
I had emerged from a long period of being holed up writing, finishing a new draft of my first novel. He messaged me via twitter. He was an influential figure programming a series for various venues. Would I be up for doing one of these events and be happy to meet to discuss it? Sure. I am bubbly by nature, alternative in my interests, instinctively curious about others. I wanted to get to know more people outside my comfort zone in the arts which was mostly the spoken word scene. I met him at a pub in Hackney. Attractive, not my type but striking. I did not look at him that way in the beginning to be honest, although at the time, he had a palpable electricity. Gregarious, casually esoteric, he never stopped talking. He seemed to care for different communities which struck me. Possessing the ability of immediately making a person feel at ease, homing in as if they are a comet in the room. He was relentless at the start. There were text messages, emails, twitter dms, sometimes all on the same day. Initially, I did not spot this as a red flag. I simply saw it as his excitement getting to know someone new. I assumed he was like that with most people while forming a connection. During our involvement, he cultivated the dynamic intensely, initiating everything. He was extremely generous, often going above and beyond to do things for you without being asked. I cannot put my finger on how it all started to go wrong, but one day something flipped in his brain. Some cognitive depletion made his countenance towards me darker. He turned cold emotionally. His personality shifted. As if he stopped performing an appealing version of himself and the base state of manipulation, gaslighting, mind games and projections rose to the fore, of having a compulsive desire to control others. He became very judgemental. I did not recognise this different side to him. This grandiose, cutting, puffed up creature that would shoot you down just to destabilise you, to see its impact. That appeared to have an endless appetite for external validation.
The toxic cycles of love bombing followed by random cruelties began. Vindictive acts from nowhere interspersed with good moments came to epitomise our connection. Hand grenades which exploded. I never felt them being placed in my fingers. I just got caught up in the destructions. The smoke. Emotional peril akin to a nebulous mist, getting worse with each cycle. Increasingly, what I saw was a lack of empathy or true compassion. The gaslighting plus disassociation was so apparent, by the point it became normalised, I felt trapped. I explained my growing discomfort many times. He relished these occasions. If I got angry, he absorbed it with faux concern, a malevolent smugness yet changing nothing bar minutes of mirroring my own compassion back at me, Loving the attention, mining it like oxygen. This process is akin to a parasite inhabiting a host. I worried I had found myself involved with a possible sociopath. Charming, socially astute and popular wielding a fragile ego the size of Azerbaijan. Even worse, this man is the Kevin Bacon of literature. I could not turn around at a publishing event without somebody waxing lyrical about his qualities. He is excellent at currying good will. Nobody would believe this dark side. The lack of impulse control, a desire to cross boundaries, a need to be the centre of attention. All the time. There were gifts, letters, meetings every other week. Unbelievably upbeat postcards as though unwittingly trying to distort reality.
I’m thinking of you. You make me so excited about the world again. I haven’t felt like this in ten years!
Well. That enthusiasm took a left turn into fresh hell. Down the line, I wondered if he saw people as human beings or just objects in his fantasy play land. As someone used to being emotionally expressive, this was a nightmare. A derelict terrain. A ride screeching into an upward turn in crazy town.
I suspected many things. I believe he studied my social media regularly, watching for what to weaponize or use as currency. Love bombing one day, psychological warfare the next. There was a lot of passive aggression. Whenever I questioned what the problem could be, the answer I received was usually a variation of: You rarely do anything to anger me. You are a delight.
A bold faced lie.
He was reticent expressing himself deeply since revealing anything meant giving up some sort of power in his mind. It was an incessant push and pull dynamic. Communications were sometimes a series of petty one-upmanships on his part, like dealing with an emotionally stunted child the minute a perceived slight occurred.
My contributions to our relationship felt as if I was throwing belongings into a bottomless void.
This is a man who championed me a great deal professionally in the earlier stage of my career yet attempted to crucify me personally. That conflict is partially what makes all this difficult to talk about.
Let me iterate that I have been gracious considering some of the terrible experiences I had with this individual. I walked away. I have remained silent over several years in light of the intimate horrors and personal betrayals that occurred. I have not retaliated. I do not want to rain on anybody’s parade, but I discovered something truly mind boggling; that said influential figure intends to set up an initiative for Black women. Trust me, I like to experience Black women thriving. I always want to see them win. It is important to have spaces open up to celebrate their voices. They deserve the world. But using Black women after problematic behaviour behind the scenes to build one’s self image, legacy and brand is where there should be a line drawn. We want genuine allies. I cannot help questioning the true intentions of individuals who have gleefully harmed women from the very groups they claim to advocate for. What insane topsy turvy Monty pythonesque realm is this? How can you in good conscience as a white man with power in publishing, having had a calamitous relationship then friendship with a Black woman where you were emotionally cruel aim to champion said group following no concrete accountability. How do you reconcile between private diminishments and this public advocacy? I am astounded by the sheer gall of this. It is astonishing hypocrisy. On multiple levels. Particularly considering occasional past excruciating examples of contempt for Black bodies including one of the most shocking casually said anti-Black comments I have ever heard in my life, a remark made during a panicked moment asking me to take the morning after pill because he did not want any half black babies. In a flash, his performative wokeness fell off like an ill-fitting charade. Made worse by his initial boasting early on of being attracted to dark skinned women. He may have forgotten. I have not. He later apologised for these incidents after I confronted him. This desire of certain individuals to ingratiate themselves with Black people while secretly harbouring a superiority complex, ingrained anti-Blackness that remains glossed over by doing “publicly performative good deeds” is a kind of madness. It is utterly shameless. It is pathological sickness. It is warped white saviour syndrome. Narcissism on steroids. A form of duper’s delight. What chapter of revisionist history for beginners are we on? Is Tony Montana going to set up a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts next? Perhaps this is some sort of redemption. I cannot help being conflicted about the specific context I know given what I experienced.
You must truly do the work. All the time. It should be a constant thing to unlearn some of the conditioning of growing up within a white male patriarchal system. One must have the courage to confront any harm caused. If you are a person of colour working in an environment where you discover harm has been perpetrated in the past, you should do the right thing. Ask yourself what that looks like then proceed accordingly.
I am not stating there cannot be genuine contrition, atonement for past sins. We are all sinners. I am not saying people are unable to grow.
Black women are not collateral damage in the wake of a personal reconstruction.
We are not magical beings to help you become a better person during a crisis.
We are not teachable moments that fade to nothing over periods of tension.
We are not repositories for injured folk unable to process their traumas.
We are not momentary fads to make your brands look cool.
The great toll that structural inequalities take means life is not a game for us. It is not a gap year in some exotic location where you dip your toes in for a while during a kumbaya period then exit once you realise there are complexities beyond your comprehension.
I accept my mistakes. I offer my spirit radical kindness in the aftermath. I do not consider myself a victim, only a survivor. I never deserved any of the wreckage. Nobody does.
So before the knee-jerk victim blaming starts, let me stop you right there.
There are never justifiable excuses for abuse, especially from white perpetrators against members of marginalized communities where the power dynamic is skewed.
Before you have a gotcha moment to “not all men” me, I am already there. We need to start having honest conversations about how societal conditioning of young boys from an early age can lead to an inability to express their emotions in healthy ways or equip them with the correct tools to do so. This is a wrecking ball waiting to take aim at women unlucky enough to get caught in the crosshairs.
Many men think emotional harm is not abusive since it is not physical. Abuse in all forms is always about the power. Who has it, who does not. Who needs to enforce it in intimate relationships when it is lacking elsewhere in their lives? This entitled sense of dominion extends to women’s bodies. Men, look within. Ask hard questions. Watch your friendship groups. There may be someone internally wounded in there. A ticking time bomb who might be damaged, who is unable to express his pain or anxieties lest it be seen as a sign of weakness. And covertly takes it out on the women that are close instead. Cruelties over a period of time keep their sharp edges if we do not name them in the light.
Before you diminish my experience as a Black woman let me confide a difficult truth. I have pre-empted that. There is a particular disdain reserved for us. A lack of empathy, an unwillingness to see our full humanity that permeates everything. We know this. Women like me understand this double-edged existence.
Before you scoff or minimise to lamentations of what women should or should not have done in these instances or how your sisters or such and such aunt would never tolerate this treatment or how every argument circling in your head right now ultimately leaves the blame at the doors of women.
Shut the fuck up.
The blame rightly belongs with the perpetrator. However nice a guy he appears to be. Whether you are a woman in the industry too and he never did that to you. That is because you are at a professional distance. You do not know the weaknesses, blind spots, the secret shame. Any woman close enough to see everything is a threat.
Let me break this down for you. This is how an emotionally abusive dynamic works.
The trauma bond sets in. Learned helplessness takes over. New neuro pathways are formed in the brain that render one unable to move. Stockholm syndrome has you in a vice-like grip. Chemical changes happen. These ties occur on a cellular level. They are extraordinarily difficult to shake off. On the perpetrator’s part egoic addictions want to be endlessly fed, they need to devour both parties.
Whatever idea of an ideal victim languishes in the mind reality obliterates.
Shirley Jackson, Tina Turner, FKA Twigs, Reese Witherspoon. These are all incredible, accomplished women for whom the men in their lives attempted to swallow their light because of ego, insecurity, fear. We should take inspiration from their stories. I still made my art despite everything. On reflection, this is miraculous.
Emotional abuse within a toxic dynamic is a gutting, crippling thing. Rendering you helpless against an onslaught of psychological cruelty.
We must talk about the toll to women from experiences like this.
The work lost.
A lethargy that seeps into various areas.
A slow erosion of self.
Hyper vigilance to avoid those who like to blow things up as if they have dynamite tucked inside their sleeves.
Understand, this is not a hit piece. I cannot lie about undeniable realities. I am incapable of that. I can only stand in my truth. Unapologetically. I could face career backlash although it is time to release this fanged entity into the world. I have carried it for so long. I cannot do so anymore. Underneath my pluckiness is a deep compassion and sensitivity, traits that have gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. People who know me will attest that I keep my head down. I keep it moving. I am not part of any publishing cliques. I do not care about being popular. I never have. I only want to build authentic worlds through storytelling. I do not want to spend my time educating men who should know better that there has to be some semblance of internal reflection, integrity and a quality the best men have, humility. An ability to say to oneself, x is the right thing to do. I must find a way to follow through even if it is deeply uncomfortable.
Listen to Black women. Believe us. I will only ever write this story once. That matters.
I have left names out. I do not want to tarnish anybody’s reputation. Publishing is a small community. People work hard to build their platforms.
I return to the behemoth to end this. It appears clutching that exit sign. I have borrowed its white fangs. I peer into its weightless internal chasm drifting away then fracturing. We must confront the hidden cost to women from experiences like this. Because it matters. Sit with that a while before you reach for those distractions disintegrating it into tiny bright particles impossible to hold.
About Irenosen Okojie
Irenosen Okojie is an experimental Nigerian British author whose works push the boundaries of ideas, form and language. Her books Butterfly Fish, Speak Gigantular and Nudibranch have won and been shortlisted for multiple awards. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post. Her short story, Grace Jones won the 2020 AKO Caine Prize. A fellow and Vice Chair of The Royal Society of Literature, she was awarded an MBE For Services to Literature in 2021. Follow Irenosen on Twitter @IrenosenOkojie and via Instagram @irenosenokojie
About Rolake Osabia
Rolake Osabia is an artist and PhD researcher in the English Language and Literature department at UCL. Her research explores the nuances of Blackness, feminism, and escapism with concentrated thematic focuses on isolation and kinship in contemporary Black British women’s literature. Drawing on works by Yrsa Daley-Ward, Bernardine Evaristo, Winsome Pinnock, and Zadie Smith, her thesis examines how the writers construct representations of loneliness and Black communities/friendships/intimacies in their respective texts. She intends to locate varied depictions of Black women and non-binary characters through the exploration of these themes. Rolake also leans into her artistic practice by using her paintings and illustrations as a research method to accompany literary and theoretical analysis. In 2020, her artwork ‘Pattern Up’ was selected by Tate Collective to feature on a billboard in Camden. Follow Rolake on Instagram @rolakeosabia and Twitter @rolsisrols. For more information or to commission Rolake, contact her via email@example.com
Feature image: ‘Dwaal’ by Rolake Osabia, watercolour on paper, 2021.
Lucy Writers would like to express their heartfelt thanks to Irenosen Okojie and Rolake Osabia for their time, energy, vision, care and courage with this piece, and for allowing us to publish it.