Standing in the Gaslight
I never cared much for Star Trek Next Generation, feeling the show reflected humans in an advanced moral, technological, and educated state that held no substantive view for me. In particular, actor Wil Wheaton’s character, Wesley Crusher, filled me with hate watching him grow up on a starship of people who admired the boy-genius. Perhaps Wesley provided an escape for some people who had harsh upbringings, but to me, the Wesley facade held no salvation but glared when compared to my miserable life of privilege with corporately-successful parents. Wil Wheaton understands this, having struggled with parental abuse and gaslighting that makes you believe everything is your fault and the abuse a figment of imagination.
Wheaton’s bullying stepfather, I understand well from many years of seeking approval from an executive stepfather who communicated through humiliation; passive-aggressive, demeaning statements; and constant intimidation. Perhaps he hated me because I wasn’t tough, and that’s why he laughed at my “overreacting” on the many occasions I came home after being bullied by teachers and kids. From elementary school into adulthood, the man never relented in his emotional attacks, yet no one saw him as anything except a great guy, making me feel the fool for not seeing his nature sooner.
Unlike Wheaton, I didn’t have “a mother who somehow convinced herself that he wasn’t hurting me” but instead a mother who actively participated in the abuse. Really, she began the abuse long before the stepfather came into our lives — as long as I can remember. Before the stepfather and the money, my sister and I lived in a Baltimore rowhome filled with my mother’s screaming and rage. Fear haunted that house moment to moment in the uncertainty of a wrong word or action that resulted in me lying across a bed with my pants down with my mother beating me with a belt.
When not being struck, my mother locked my sister and me in the cockroach-infested basement while she mindlessly shrieked, banging and knocking things around upstairs. I can’t remember what we did, but I remember huddling at the top of the stairs watching the light from the door jamb’s bottom with darkness and bugs below. My sister and I prayed she wouldn’t open the door and unleash her hostility on us.
Once while walking home, my mother and sister walked ahead having a discussion, and like many conversations, my sister said something that enraged my mother enough to grab my sister by the ponytail and jerked her head so violently, she lifted my sister from the ground. I remember that incident vividly, but much like Wheaton, I have a sister whose memories are “like she grew up in a different family than I did” and won’t speak to me. Gaslighting perfection.
Abusers are very good at creating self-incrimination and doubt, claiming, “you’re overreacting,” “being emotional,” or “being paranoid.” They are equally skilled in persuading everyone else of your delinquency. Being told, “It’s your fault they bully you at school. It’s your fault that you get bad grades and teachers don’t like you,” translates to others as, “He was a bad seed. We did everything but just couldn’t help him. Look at all the money we spent. What else could we do?” Personified as the villain or the black sheep to everyone, including yourself, you become that person. Whether you break the law, become manipulative, go insane, or wallow in a bottle, you emerge from the gaslight the person they invented. What choice does a kid have? You lie because you’re deemed a liar; you steal because you’re deemed a thief, and then you’re punished and thrown away for being those inventions.
My parents will tell you I was a delinquent when they dumped me in a military school at age sixteen: an expensive solution to rid themselves of my embarrassing “out of control” nature they instigated. They’ll tell how terrible of a human being I am, the terrible son and father I am, and many other defining traits. They are correct in many claims; I won’t deny I spent three years of my daughter’s life trying to get the police or someone to shoot me dead and an additional four years paralyzed by self-incrimination that denied me the power to be a father. I don’t expect people to understand this because our culture mindlessly exalts the self-made and abhors the losers, no matter the rareness of success wrought from oppression, abuse, and other hardships. People want to believe the narrative of Wesley Crusher, whose father’s untimely death becomes the impetus for serving Starfleet as the brainchild of the Enterprise. People want the Wesley Crusher fairy tale, whose fate rose him to some higher purpose and new existence, forcing him to leave behind his starship family. If you hated Wesley Crusher like me, you understand this myth, and for sure, Wil Wheaton understands,
In the way Wheaton understands the ironic conflict between playing the near-perfect child and living the part of the abused, I know the conflict of trying to play the part of the good son, boyfriend, and father who fails miserably for having been filled with self-loathing and self-incrimination. No matter my effort, I could not fill those confusing roles. I once brought home a report card with As and Bs and became the butt of a joke with the punchline, “You’ll never achieve those grades again.” Good grades and bad grades warranted the same treatment, just like telling the truth held the same outcome as lies. Equally punished for good and bad behavior forms a confluence of apathy and rage that infers everything is meaningless, most of all you. In that theater of futility, we all become actors in a bad play, ad-libbing lines and taking cues for a part just like Wheaton’s. Whether you play the child actor, the good student, or the delinquent, you’re headed for a flop, which would be unsurprising to anyone who witnessed, but no one does because abusers control the stage the audience sees.
At twenty-one years old, I went to my abusers for help because that is what the abused do, knowing no better. I asked for help and told them I was losing my mind: confused about my sexuality, heavy in drugs, and trying to father a new child. Sure my parents had their faults, but ultimately they must care, just look at all their efforts to help their screwed-up son. Just look at all the money they spent on private schools.
Instead of help, I received screaming, accusations, and more of the same gaslighting that tells you, “You’re the one that’s wrong. You’re the liar. You’re the scumbag.” So I left and proceeded to destroy the next four years of my life with police, a sanitarium visit, and bad relationships before spending the next decade trying to atone for all the wrong I committed, but you can’t say you’re sorry to people who don’t care. Wheaton knows this,
I committed one crime that never incurred jail time and no other offense beyond a traffic violation, yet paid the rest of my life for that crime with my family. I know a guy who killed his girlfriend while drinking and driving, and his family accepted him when he returned home from prison. My self-righteous stepfather and mother were friends with people who served time or been in trouble with the law, but when it came to me, oh, there was no forgiveness. This situation fueled hatred of Wesley Crusher when one day I turned on the TV and watched a rerun of him taking part in the accidental death of a fellow Starfleet Academy student, then lied about it. The Captain of the Enterprise, who in the end, though disappointed, still cared for Wesley just like the rest of the ship’s crew. Wheaton understands life and fiction’s contradiction because he knows first-hand life isn’t television, and no matter how well you play the part of the good, bad, or prodigal son, the abused receive no mercy. Forgiveness requires empathy from all parties, and abusers know only cruelness.
Perhaps Wesley Crusher incited most of my hate in his lack of aloneness. Even when he thinks he is alone or gets in trouble, ever-present is the understanding, loving mother and the Captain, who remains a loyal father figure despite having difficulty dealing with children. Wesley would never wake up daily for thirty years wondering why mom and stepfather hate him. Wesley would never sit at the top of the stairs in the roach-filled basement, praying with the sister who would eventually forget he existed for having been brainwashed with his evilness. Wesley would always have the uncle-like engineer or friends like Data who wouldn’t call him stupid when he makes mistakes, but even if he did something wrong, the Enterprise family would rally to his defense, no matter the circumstance, because that’s what family does. Playing that character must have been difficult for Wheaton, knowing the truth. I know because watching him play that character was difficult for me, knowing the truth.
All my life, people denied me my pain and rage, either blaming me or using wealth and privilege to negate the possibility of abuse. All my life, people absolved my parents of any wrongdoing based on affluence. (A manipulation abusers count on.) As much as I hated Wesley Crusher, I think Wil Wheaton is cool for showing career, class, or wealth provide no shield against bullying and abuse.
Wil Wheaton i’m a good actor. growing up, the best acting i ever did wasn’t on the set. Medium October 8, 2021