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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.