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“You are the smartest person in the room.”
“I was hoping you could do me a favor,”
“You and I have more in common than you think.”
Tactics of charm, like flattery, favors, and alliances, may seem harmless enough, but in the hands of an abuser, they can be devastating. That’s part of what’s so disorienting and disillusioning about abuse: the realization that the kindness you once enjoyed and appreciated was actually a deception intended to harm you. Understandably after such a betrayal, it may be difficult to trust future displays of sincere kindness, to enter into genuine relationships, and to walk closely with another person. It is normal for people who have been abused by clergy—those who appear safe and who should be safe—to never want to enter a church again.
Again, though these ingratiating tactics of abusive individuals and organizations are not explicitly violent or in themselves harmful, if they go unnoticed or ignored, they actually make the community more vulnerable to further abuse. Ingratiating tactics appear, on the surface, to be positive displays of kindness, generosity, and friendship. Especially in cultures that place a high value on maintaining tact, avoiding disruptions, and believing the best about others, abusers can use these subtle tactics to repeatedly cross boundaries without consequence, knowing they’ll be overlooked.
Flattery, excessive attention, gifts, and kindnesses can groom whole groups of people to accept abusive situations. There are numerous cases in which entire communities have rallied to defend the character of an abuser on the basis of his or her kindness. I came across one case in my own research in which a revered youth pastor and schoolteacher was accused of child molestation. The church and community held events to raise support for the accused, showed up at hearings, and purchased billboards to express their support. Meanwhile, the young victim and her family moved out of the neighborhood to escape harassment. The wave of support worked. He was even awarded Teacher of the Year. Fifteen years later he was convicted for the sexual abuse of seven children. In more recent cases, this display of community support is seen in social media posts where supporters claim the accused could not be guilty because of how generous they know the accused to be. In cases like these, the very behaviors used to groom someone for abuse are offered as evidence of innocence.
In order to see how charms can prepare you for abuse, imagine the following scenario: a man sits down next to you in a coffee shop while you are reading a book. He engages you in conversation and asks you what you are reading. His behavior seems a bit intrusive, but he appears innocent enough, so you tell him it’s a novel about a newlywed American couple who decide to live “off the grid” for an entire year. He volunteers a story of his own experience hiking the Adirondack Trail. “You should try it someday,” he finishes. “I’d be happy to talk you through what I learned if you ever want to give it a go.” At this point you are not sure how the conversation led to such an offer. You respond with a simple, “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”
As you return to your book, he settles in and starts watching a movie without earphones. A few minutes in, it’s clear others are annoyed—there are lots of side-eye glances, and you can hear passive-aggressive huffing from several others—and though you think about saying something, you choose instead to ignore the behavior to maintain order and peace. Maybe you do not want to create a scene. After all, you did just have a friendly conversation. Perhaps you fear a negative response. Or maybe you think this behavior can’t last forever—either you’ll leave or he will. Whatever the reason, you and the others in the coffee shop say nothing as if you cannot hear the movie or are not bothered by it.
A few weeks later, you find yourself back in the coffee shop, and the same man walks in and sits next to you. Not again, you think. He strikes up some more conversation, throws in a few compliments, and then begins watching his earbuds-free movie, but this time you notice the volume is louder than before.
What has happened? Since nobody said anything during prior visits, the man feels confident: he has learned what he can get away with, and now he can cite past precedent if someone objects to his behavior. “I did it before,” you can picture him saying with a winning smile, “and no one complained.” Knowingly or not, the community has worked together to redefine boundaries that communicate which behaviors are tolerated and which are confronted.
Erving Goffman used the term tactful inattention to describe a phenomenon in which everyone works together to maintain order despite the existence of questionable behaviors, knowing that speaking up will likely cause disruption.3
The coffee shop example is a fairly harmless, albeit annoying, situation. But now consider how tactful inattention can aid abusers.
Abusive people, like the man in the coffee shop, will test boundaries to discover what can be done without objection. They often use charms to win people’s favor and trust, and then they exploit that trust by crossing boundaries—boundaries that would ordinarily be met with resistance if that trust were not present. It is exactly that trust gained through charms that allows them to further their abuse to more extreme and violent behavior.
Not all kindnesses are harmful or tactics of abuse. But it is because charms are so hard to detect that they are often the dangerous camouflage for abuse.
Adapted from Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse—and Freeing Yourself from Its Power by Wade Mullen, releasing from Tyndale House Publishers in October 2020.