She Wouldn’t Give Me Up

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Dan Gallagher learned to dread the sound of a ringing phone and so did I. The constant calls from her interrupted a quiet night’s sleep and dinner parties and time with my family. In Fatal Attraction, the unanswered telephone becomes an ominous visual motif, more frightening than an abducted small child on a roller coaster or even a boiled bunny. The camera repeatedly pans back to the hallway and bedroom and the shrill ringtone remains insistent with demands: pick up the phone, listen to me, I’m not going away. Over time, Dan becomes overwhelmed by the incessant calls.

I rented Fatal Attraction as a virginal teenager, fascinated by sex even if I wasn’t quite ready to pursue it. The reviews online promised the movie’s unconventional love scenes would be explicit and steamy; the critics were right. I watched as the seemingly happily-married attorney Dan (Michael Douglas) and his client, the editor Alex (Glenn Close), flirt until the sexual tension boiled over into sex in the elevator, on a kitchen sink and in a bed as Alex dragged her nails down Dan’s back. But then Alex wanted more: more sex, more of a relationship. And Dan didn’t. She claimed she was pregnant and that as an older woman, it might be her last chance to have a baby. So Alex began to track Dan down. She wouldn’t stop calling his house or his office. She wanted him to acknowledge her as a lover, a partner, the mother of his unborn child.

“I’m looking for something, anything to get a handle on what I’m dealing with,” Dan says.

I saw the movie years before I met the woman who would become the Alex to my Dan – except, well, I wasn’t a Dan, I was Allison. And in truth, I couldn’t begin to get a handle on what I’d been dealing with for years until reading Shannon Perez-Darby’s essay “The Secret Joy of Accountability: Self-accountability as a Building Block for Change” in the anthology The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. As I read, I realized the connections between a controlling relationship and non-stop, all-hours texting. Her lines reached through years of denial and minimization:

Hardest to explain is how nothing was shocking: each insane reality made sense at the time. I loved getting his 2:00 a.m. text messages; it felt normal to be available to him any time day or night.

I remember everything: what normal felt like all through college in my relationship with her — an attractive and charismatic woman who was also a compulsive liar and an abusive lover. Of course it didn’t start out that way. Insane realities rarely do.


I. “You play fair with me, I’ll play fair with you.”

We were in the same high school drama classes. We both loved Marilyn Manson and patchouli incense and Camel cigarettes. I look back at five years’ worth of journal entries and even when I was writing about other people, she was the star of every page. Our friendship progressed from sleepovers into sexual experimentation and then into something else. We found excuses to meet up every week, then every other day, then every day. When we met, I felt like Dan at the beginning of the movie: unattached, on the prowl, in need of adventure. She was Alex, but not yet Alex on the edge. In the beginning, she was Alex the talented dancer, Alex the gourmet cook whipping up a batch of spaghetti sauce. She was educated, cultured, witty, beautiful, dazzling – the attraction didn’t take long to sink in.

For me, she was both the obsession and the obsessed. She left me at concerts and when she returned, she took me outside and kept me awake until four in the morning. She smoked all of my cigarettes. She went to restaurants and ordered food, then claimed she’d left her wallet in the car. I always paid. She called me in the middle of the night and I drove to wherever she was staying and watched the sunrise with her on a balcony before we left to find gas station coffee.

She said I was brilliant and dynamic and beautiful and that I diminished all of my gifts each time I didn’t insist on being the center of attention. But I didn’t want to be the center. I wanted to write and she wanted to analyze every word. So I wrote more.


II. “If you refuse to take my phone calls at the office, you leave me no choice.”

On the one hand, part of me loved the attention. The rapid-fire exchanges throughout the day served as fuel for our relationship, insomuch as we used the term. Each morning, there were loving notes waiting for me. She called me her “darling” and “sweetie.” I saved the texts and reread them when I felt lonely or depressed. I cherished the gifts from her, particularly books like the tattered paperback of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess inscribed with the words “For my princess.” But I hated the secrecy and the fact that she had a long-term monogamous boyfriend who didn’t know about our hook-ups. I wanted transparency and the freedom to explore our feelings without fears of being exposed or getting caught. We talked in circles until we contradicted ourselves. I didn’t know what I wanted from her, exactly, but it felt like I wanted to be treated publicly with the tenderness she reserved for our most private moments.

Those private moments are where the abuse began. She denigrated me with small insults. “Your tattoo looks like Clip Art,” she’d say. But later, she held me and said I’d misunderstood. She was sorry – and I needed to get over it. She praised me and reprimanded me in equal measure for being “so sensitive.”

As her harassment escalates, Dan stands up to Alex, but she insists that her intentions in contacting him are pure. “I’m not trying to hurt you, Dan,” she tells him. “I love you.”

Dan is incredulous. “You what?”

She declares her feelings again: “I love you.”

But Dan doesn’t take the bait. “You don’t even know me.”

Darling. Sweetie. My princess. How well do you really know me?

I didn’t tell anyone how bad it was getting because she had started isolating me from other friends. She told me they weren’t as smart, they didn’t really know me, how could anyone judge what was between us? Her demands on my free time soon became my top priority. If I had an open weekend, I was going to visit her. But her schedule was shrouded in vague details.


III. “Well, what am I supposed to do? You won’t answer my calls, you change your number.”

The deterioration of our friendship and romantic relationship coincided with her increased symptoms of alcoholism. At first her drinking binges didn’t seem abnormal for a college student, but as her course load and internships and job applications piled on, she turned more and more to drinking to soothe the strain. Naturally, I fielded my share of drunk dials from her – and then I drank to relieve my stress from dealing with her crying jags or screaming.

Her problems surpassed my ability to help, even though she leaned on me to enable her. She started stealing alcohol and hiding it in her car. She came over in the middle of the night to tell me that she had something to show me, which turned out to be a bottle of vodka. She chugged in the backseat and chased it with a clove cigarette. She often drove and couldn’t remember how she’d gotten from one place to another. She woke up in parking lots after Happy Hour. It was dangerous and I worried constantly, but she wasn’t going to stop drinking for anyone. She told me that I didn’t understand addiction and that I needed to be more supportive. This support, of course, entailed being available for her all day, every day.

During this time period, she vacillated between no contact and long, stream-of-consciousness missives at odd hours of the day and night. If I didn’t call her back within fifteen minutes of reading her texts, she called me. If I didn’t answer the phone, she left voicemails that went on for three or four or five minutes at a stretch. Then she called again.

When Dan feels overwhelmed by Alex’s demands, he seeks out the advice of his doctor. “Whatever resentment she’s feeling,” the doc says, “she probably got it out of her system.”

But Dan is not convinced by his doctor’s nonchalance on the matter. “What if she didn’t get it out of her system? What then?”

With her alcoholism in full-swing, the problems between us never seemed to go away; none of her outbursts were ever really finished, even if they were supposedly out of her system. Every phone call and text message demanded my immediate action and response. It was “rude” or “uncaring” if I chose other obligations – friends, classes, time to write – over whatever conversation she needed to have with me right then and there. The times we went without talking were meant as a punishment for me. I missed her when we didn’t speak, though I sometimes admitted to my other friends that I wondered if I should take a break from the relationship.


IV. “This is not going to stop. It keeps going on and on.”

Journal entry – Thursday, August 23, 2007:

“Three hours and twenty dollars’ worth of phone cards later, one in which she told me very coldly that there was ‘no choice’ in her mind – he was it… She hung up the phone on me. When I was outside smoking a cigarette on the balcony, she called me back and left a long voicemail message, apologizing for yelling and calling me names, saying that we had stuff to work out before I just walked away. She won’t give me up after all.”

Reading this now, nearly a decade after I documented this particular call, I’m shocked by the manipulative quality of her behavior and my inability to see how she pulled the strings. I’m not allowed to walk away from her. Only she can determine the outcome of our relationship. She won’t give me up.

What about what I wanted? Why did she have so much power over me?

Helpless, I called my best friend and read the journal entry to her, every last embarrassing word. She was quiet for a moment. “Well, you were in love with her,” she said.

That painful cycle of angry phone calls continued for another two years. In the movie, Dan had the resources to get away from Alex: he changed his phone number, moved to a new house and for a while, he succeeds in keeping Alex at a distance. But I didn’t have the money to move. I didn’t think to change my number. I loved her, but I couldn’t make any of the madness stop.


V. “It only takes a phone call!”

On a Sunday afternoon call, she told me that she had never loved me, not once, not even a little bit. Later, she tried to take it back. She wrote emails and I never answered them. She said she wanted closure and I was tired of talking about her feelings.

She called me and said she was sitting outside of my house and wanted me to come out and talk to her, “just for ten minutes.” I didn’t even answer the phone. At the time, it felt like less of a seismic shift and more like surrender to the inevitable end of our contact; I could no longer keep up with her needs and demands and the relationship she so badly wanted to control. At the end of the movie, Alex screams at Dan’s wife, telling her over and over again how selfish she is for taking Dan away. But I didn’t have a wife to take me away. And what Alex didn’t (or couldn’t) understand was that Dan removed himself from her life: no one made him leave.

When I got the voicemail from her the next morning, I peered out my window to look for her car, just in case she’d been drinking and passed out on my street. But she’d already left. I don’t know when she drove off. There was no dramatic bathtub shooting, no last gasp. There was only “delete this message” and “delete this contact.”

I never heard from her again.

Yes, our “insane reality” made sense at the time. We were constantly available to each other – until I cut the cord. I took action, a series of deliberate steps that included moving her incoming emails to a folder I would never read and not answering the texts that had once pulled at my every responsive nerve. My passive role in the relationship needed to become an active one if I was going to survive the abuse and come out intact. And I did. Boundaries are still a challenge for me in many respects. When a new relationship begins, it’s hard not to get swept away by the flurry of contact – Facebook messages, Gchats, text messages, phone calls that start with “I just wanted to hear your voice.” It’s flattering, soothing and even desirable – right up until it crosses the line into unceasingly clingy, co-dependent demands. But the signs are more obvious to me now: if my gut instinct says “this is too much,” I trust myself enough to step back rather than jump into an extended conversation meant to reassure my partner.

Now, when the phone goes off or I have an incoming text, I answer at my leisure. I’m not afraid to respond when I want to and I don’t dread talking to the people in my life about any complications in my personal relationships. A phone call is not a dreaded omen of bad things to come. Those once-terrifying rings have no power over me.


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Profile gravatar of Allison McCarthy

Allison McCarthy is a writer with a focus on personal essays, intersectional feminism and social justice. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian (U.K.), AlterNet, Time.com, Bitch, make/shift, DAME, Ms. (blog), Global Comment, Role/Reboot, The Feminist Wire, and The Baltimore Review, as well as in several anthologies. Her writing can be found at http://allisonmccarthy.net

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20 Comments

  1. 0

    …damn. These words are powerful. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    I’ve had at least three relationships like this, though none of them were romantic. Sometimes it would be a straight girl I had a misguided crush on, but other times it was just a friend who started depending on me too much. Took me up until this year to figure out the pattern. You’re definitely right in saying that insane realities seem normal when we’re living in them. I’m glad you’re out of yours, even if it did take years.

  2. 0

    I had someone in my life like this and took all the same steps as you very recently. The filtered email messages I don’t read, blocking all numbers…suddenly I am a 10x happier person, without this constant burden, worrying about checking my phone and email…but the worst part was that that person held the purse strings. Luckily I got out of that situation. i notice the signs early now too!! And sometimes I worry that I’m just being paranoid. But I’m like nope, gotta read the signs.

  3. 0

    This certainly hits home and it took me 8 years to finally figure out that I was in an abusive relationship. In fact, I’m unpacking all of this very recently. That my fear of commitment, that my hangups regarding certain aspects of intimacy stemmed from my very first relationship that lasted 9 months (and has been my longest relationship to date).

    She was so manipulative; forced me to say “I love you” to her after she would say it to me, forced me to partake in levels of PDA that I wasn’t comfortable with (I was still in my coming out process at the time), she told me what I should act like in the bedroom, suggested we should have a joint checking account after a month of dating, and she accused me of cheating on her with every queer woman (and non) I was friends with. I remember a moment when I just snapped.

    She went to a college 40 minutes away from me and I would pick her up on Thursday nights and then drive her to my college apartment so she could spend the weekends with me. (Never once would she suggest me staying with her, or her taking the train to see me.) One night, we started one of our infamous arguments where she would sling insults at me (“Spoiled little rich bitch” was her favorite) and she then demanded I take her back to her place. Mind you, we’re literally two blocks away from my apartment. I put the car in park in the middle of the street and told her that if she wanted to go home, she was going to be walking, because I had enough. The script some how got flipped, and I ended up feeling bad that I yelled at her and told her to get out. We ended up breaking the relationship off a month after that incident.

    It feels good to finally express these emotions that I had suppressed for so long, and I know I’m not alone.

  4. 0

    Thank you for writing this.

    I remember being in a relationship with someone who put me on a pedestal and used me as their only bit of support. I’d stay up into the early hours of the morning talking to them, reassuring them that they aren’t worthless, useless, hated. Their loathing was a constant, and never seemed to get better. They clung on to me, constant texts, my grades declined and so did my own health. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating much, I was entirely focused on them and their wellbeing.

    They kept telling me I was the only one who cared. That I was the only pillar of help.
    I didn’t feel any better.

    Eventually, I broke it off. They were fine being friends, and still texted me throughout the day, and night, until I got sick of that too.

    Then I challenged them to a rap battle and we both cut contact ever since.
    Why did I challenge them to a rap battle. I can’t even rap.

    I’m now happily single and having fun holding hands with my best friend who’s also queer as heck. I’m still a little messed from that relationship, but I’m doing much, much better. It helps to know that that person is and has been terrified of me ever since.

  5. 0

    What an incredible piece. These words are powerfully strung together. Thank you for being brave and telling us your story.

    I’m sorry that you had to go through something like this. I was definitely in the beginnings of a similar situation almost 2 years ago. It took me 6 months, but eventually I listened to my gut and ended things. She was in mental freefall and I had to admit to myself that a- I couldn’t fix her, and b- That although I loved her, I really didn’t need her drama in my life. It was a hard time, but I know I made the right choice for both of us.

  6. 0

    I am so sorry you had to go through that. Thank god I never again have to be with someone who doesn’t “let” me break up with her, puts the responsibility of her mental well-being (if you can call it that) solely on me, and tries to convince me that I have all these problems that really I only had because of how unhappy I was at the time. The reason I’ll never have to deal with her/someone like her again is because I now have the most perfect wife and I can’t believe I ever let myself be miserable (and in turn make many other people miserable) for someone else’s sake.

  7. 0

    This hits home. It is impressive how distance can give one perspective! It is sad that for so many achieving that involves painful breaks, but I am grateful the universe aligned itself in such a way that it allowed me a fresh start–though not without the necessary heartbreak.
    Now that I’m single, I’m starting to wonder whether I am attracted manipulative types. Hmm I should work on that.

  8. 0

    “On a Sunday afternoon call, she told me that she had never loved me, not once, not even a little bit. Later, she tried to take it back. She wrote emails and I never answered them. She said she wanted closure and I was tired of talking about her feelings.

    …At the time, it felt like less of a seismic shift and more like surrender to the inevitable end of our contact”

    So similar to my experience, even down to the fact that our final argument came on a Sunday! It’s 8 years since I met her and 4 since I finally stopped speaking to her and I’ve moved on in so many ways but reading this still helps, thank you

  9. 0

    It was only six months of my life, but it catalyzed me disastrously coming out to my family, two stints of homelessness, being unable to complete university, and losing almost all of my friends in one shot.

    It was in 2012, but my brain has no idea what time it is anymore. I’m a CSA and incest survivor, but it took a pretty girl on an abroad trip telling me she thought I was beautiful and deserved love for me to finally break. I’m legally disabled now and can’t work or go to school. I can’t leave the apartment without my current partner yet.

    She was coming to terms with her sexuality, and she had an abusive boyfriend who threatened to beat me. Even after breaking contact, they both frequented my workspace. Even though it was a queer student group, they couldn’t do anything to protect me.

    She lied about everything, to the point where my strongly held beliefs – like, “the sky is blue” – can crumble if I sense disagreement mixed with upset in a friend. I don’t know how to recover from gas lighting. I don’t know how to recover from being sexually assaulted by a woman who doesn’t even realize what she did. I’ve had to abandon blogs and social media to get away from our formal mutual friends — talking about my experience, to them, is grounds for suing for libel.

    I’ve been made unwelcome in so many women’s spaces because I was assaulted by another woman. So many women who love women don’t know what to do with that information. I’m still scared to make friends. I’m terrified that she’s convinced people that I did something wrong, something bad. I can remember one time I lashed out and acted rudely, and I felt so, so bad for it.

    I’m so alone in my apartment every day. All I can do is read stories like this and hope I’ll be able to tell mine so well one day.

    I’m so sorry you went through this, Allison.

    • 0

      Hi, JHM

      You’ve undergone a very abusive and delusional relationship, where you couldn’t tell night from day.

      We often doubt ourselves and feel unable to move on, because our bad experiences tell us that the future will be bad. When this happens a lot, we all feel lost and lonely.
      Life is really about making decisions, and patting ourselves on the back when they go well.

      I remember there are rape crisis centers in the United States – you might be able to report your sexual assault there. You could also get the counseling you need.
      If they are not LGBT friendly, you might be able to go to your nearest LGBT center.

      Whatever you do, you have already taken the first step by telling your story here.
      You will be able to help others someday soon, I am sure.

  10. 0

    What if you are the Alex? Sometimes I know I am getting manipulative and I don’t know how to stop. I mostly do it during breakups, I think, like I get so upset and angry and I sometimes feel like I start to be manipulative but I’m stuck and I’m doing it and I can’t stop. What then? Why do we do this?

  11. 0

    You are a very eloquent writer. It appears that you were involved with a narcissist, and it’s very important that we acknowledge that this type of problem exists within queer communities. You have done a great service in writing this, and I commend you for your courage.

    I started seeing a woman last summer who had very similar qualities. On the surface, all appeared well. However, she went around telling people she’d hit the jackpot in terms of finding a partner. This did not sit right with me. I also began to notice her temper would flare increasingly over little things that she felt no control over; and this side to her was only reserved for an intimate partner. She was very demanding, sexually. She texted me and called me to keep track of me. I never had any time to myself. She even became upset if I watched a little bit of TV or went on-line. She wanted to monopolize all of my time. Her private outbursts escalated to the point at which I had to break it off. I did as you did; I stopped answering texts and calls. When I tried to confide in a friend about the trauma I experienced in the relationship, I was told I was gossiping and that I should just let it go and be grateful I didn’t lose anything more than a few months of my life with this person (I left after 4 months).

    Perhaps because I’ve made point to look out for narcissistic features in people, I’m a bit dismayed that this one flew under the radar. Some are very good manipulators and are able to fool (if only temporarily) even those of us who work in the metal health field.

    The saddest part of all is that many of our queer communities still have a difficult time handling the concept of relational abuse. The “incestuous” nature of lesbian relationships, in particular, seems to dictate that we all just get along (or pretend to). This requires bottling feelings, isolation and/or enduring a multitude of indignities as the alternative to ostracism. Lesbian and feminist politics, unfortunately, don’t address female on female abuse, and this leads to a particularly unhealthy form of cognitive dissonance when it comes to showing empathy toward people who are, or have been, in such relationships.

  12. 0

    I still remember the day when I finally broke the last ties in a similar situation – it was the ability to take a full breath that was truly my own. Then started (continues) the rebuilding process. Thank you so much for sharing your words and experience.

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