2018 Science | The Science of Abuse Tactics and How They Affect Your Brain

Motivated forgetting (Sherlock Holmes, BBC Sherlock)

BBC’s adaptation of Sherlock isn’t exactly famous for its lack of plot twists, but it was still surprising when they dropped these bombshells: Redbeard wasn’t the dog Sherlock had to put down as a child. Redbeard was his childhood friend, Victor Trevor. Victor was drowned by Sherlock’s psychopath sister, Eurus when they were kids, so he “deleted” both of them and made up a story about Redbeard the Irish Setter to make him feel better (And I thought finding out the dog died was the saddest part of his life sniffle).

This is arguably the only scene in the show that portrays motivated forgetting correctly. Before that, Sherlock seems to have the luxury of “deleting” whatever he wants from his mind. Needless to say, motivated forgetting is more of a coping mechanism you can’t control than a convenient recycle bin for your brain. And while it’s certainly convenient for an abuse victim to simply “forget”, let’s just say it’s not the solution to dealing with your past.

Gaslighting (Mother Gothel, Tangled)

The term originated from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, in which the husband dims the gas lights but denies doing so when his wife points it out, claiming she was delusional. Similarly, gaslighters (commonly abusers) often use denial, misdirection and lying to discredit their victim’s words, eventually leaving that victim dependent on the gaslighter to perceive reality for them, as even the victim doesn’t trust their own perception of reality. For examples of gaslighting, look no further than Mother Gothel from Tangled.

Seriously. When Rapunzel tells her mom about the lanterns, she literally replies by saying they’re not. She also forbids Rapunzel from seeing the outside world, frames herself as the martyr mommy protecting her from the bad guys, all in the name of love. These actions were all done with only one goal: to fool Rapunzel into thinking she’s weak, helpless and entirely dependent on Mother Gothel.

Flashback (Anastasia / Anya, Anastasia)

Also known as “involuntary recurrent memory” – when someone is suddenly re-experiencing an event or parts of a past experience as well as the emotions that are associated with the experience. This means that although the event is not happening in real time, the person cannot recognise it as a memory. Emotions experienced during flashbacks don’t necessarily have to be a negative emotion, but flashbacks are usually associated to PTSD (see below).

For example, in the Anastasia animated film, when Anya sees a plate in the abandoned palace, she keeps seeing the Romanovs waltzing on the dance floor. However this is actually a past memory that she once experienced before she got amnesia, and it is not happening in real time.

PTSD (Harry Potter, the entire HP series)

Didn’t notice The Boy Who Lived had been dealing with PTSD since the Philosopher’s Stone? That’s because as much as Hollywood wants you to think PTSD is all about horrible flashbacks and nightmares, that’s only part of how it can hijack your brain. It can also make someone avoidant of anything/anyone related to the traumatic incident, hypervigilant, irritable and sometimes dissociate (see below. Again).

There’s no denying that Harry wasn’t traumatised at all, either. If 11 years of abuse didn’t count for you, you certainly can’t deny Cedric’s death was traumatising. Or Sirius’s. Or Dumbledore’s. Or the deaths of a dozen people in The Deathly Hallows. All of which happened when Harry didn’t have the luxury of being too young to remember.

So yeah. If any of you were wondering why he got so irritable in The Order of The Phoenix, you know why. PTSD sometimes waits for years to sink in and mess with you, and Harry certainly didn’t need years for that to happen.

Dissociation (Bojack Horseman, Bojack Horseman)

Most accurately described as “detachment from reality”, dissociation is extremely common among trauma survivors and the mentally ill, both of which see dissociation as an effective coping mechanism. And the opening theme of Netflix show “Bojack Horseman” alone portrays it perfectly.

If you have 1 minute to kill, go watch it here. Note how throughout the entire song, the background seems so surreal and how Bojack cruises through a whole day largely unaffected by whatever’s going on around him, remaining emotionless even as he falls off the balcony and into the pool.

Or if you’re looking for a relatable analogy, imagine trying to enjoy your life when your brain suddenly pulls the plug on you and nothing seems real to you anymore. You should be laughing at a joke, but you feel nothing. You try getting ice cream to cheer yourself up but it doesn’t taste good or bad, just…okay. You keep screaming at your brain to “feel something, darn it” but it just won’t respond. That’s what dissociation is like and needless to say, it can seriously mess with your relationships long after the trauma has been dealt with.