Thursday, February 12, 2009

Breaking Free



When I taught 8th grade, I sometimes used a classic book, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, to both entertain and teach my classes. This historical novel, written for middle grades, is thematically sophisticated. The main character, Kit, is a sixteen year old orphan, who must go to live with relatives in 17th century Connecticut. The novel spans one year, and includes her introduction to Puritan society, her efforts to fit in, which are not particularly successful, and ends with characters coming to a greater understanding of each other. At the conclusion, Kit faces a realization that she must leave her relatives to become her own person.

There is much to like about this fifty year old novel. Preteens and teens often identify with Kit, because they are struggling with not fitting in, just as Kit does. The author does a good job of introducing a time period and a place, as each chapter lets the reader see, feel, taste, and smell New England in the making. Unlike more modern explorations of this time, The Witch of Blackbird Pond uses the religious views of the characters without being overly judgmental against Puritanism. Of course, the title indicates that the views of the locals conflict with the main character, who is cosmopolitan by their standards, and yet modern readers may view her as a bit childish. Teachers can use this little book to examine other themes, including duty vs. self-actualization, gender roles, and continuity vs. change. The characters do change, but not very much, and that makes this story realistic in a way that modern literature and film tends to ignore, always seeking the happy ending.

I just finished a self-help book, Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You, by Susan Forward. Okay, this text is not particularly entertaining, but does a good job of spelling out why certain people do precisely what the title states. Often those who victimize others are actually people who have learned this behavior from a parent, or have some fears and/or inadequacies which cause them to ruin their most intimate relationships. With a liberal use of cases from her practice, therapist Forward shows how different people use emotional blackmail to get what they want from those around them. Here are some excerpts about emotional blackmail, taken from the book:

Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten (either directly or indirectly) to punish us if we don't do what they want. At the heart of any kind of blackmail is one basic threat, which can be expressed in many different ways: If you don't behave the way I want you to, you will suffer. A criminal blackmailer might threaten to use knowledge about a person's past to ruin her reputation, or ask to be paid off in cash to hide a secret. Emotional blackmail hits closer to home. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities. And no matter how much they care about us, when they fear things won't go their way, they use this intimate knowledge to shape the threats that give them the payoff they want: our compliance. Knowing that we want love or approval, our blackmailers threaten to withhold it or take it away altogether, or make feel we must earn it.

Emotional blackmailers hate to lose. They take the old adage "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game", and turn it on its head to read "It doesn't matter how you play the game as long as you do not lose." To an emotional blackmailer, keeping your trust doesn't count, respecting your feelings doesn't count, being fair doesn't count.

Why is winning so important to blackmailers, we ask ourselves. Why are they doing this to us? Why do they need to get their way so badly that they'll punish us if they don't?

Blackmailers frequently win with tactics that create an insurmountable rift in the relationship....Most blackmailers operate from an I-want-what-I-want-when-I-want-it mindset. They seem to have a childlike inability to connect behavior to consequences, and they don’t appear to give any thought to what they will be left with once they’ve gotten the target’s compliance.


Most of the author’s examples are from either parent/adult child relationships, or marriage/domestic partner relationships. She mentions that emotional blackmail does happen in the workplace, but I would think that most people who experience it would simply find other employment. Alas, family is harder to jettison. Indeed, Forward devotes a section to the efforts of the emotional blackmailer to rekindle relationships after “winning” a battle, but losing the war. The last third of the book contains common sense answers to dealing with emotional blackmailers, but she leaves out the most obvious one— get out of Dodge! (That is what a counselor suggested to me, when I mentioned a situation which is similar to the ones in this book.) Dr. Forward does, however, go into the lack of intimacy that accompanies such blackmail.

In the final chapter of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Kit realizes that she must leave the Puritans, despite her youth, to find any peace, which makes this a "coming of age" story. It would seem to me that leaving an emotional blackmailer behind would be an equally good solution to behaviors that seek to destroy, while professing to love and to care for the victim. Actually, it is far easier to respect the Puritans, who did honestly believe they were doing God’s work, than an emotional blackmailer, although author Forward does devote a section to why these blackmailers must maintain a strong connection with their victims, and how they will seek to rekindle a “fractured relationship” so they can continue to manipulate the target.

These two books would seem to have little in common, but reading Emotional Blackmail caused me to think about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Both books are quite worthy, and I hope my readers will seek out one or both, depending on individual interest.

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