There was this article that came in my feed recently about 10 tricks the Devil uses to get us playing his game. While it was pretty fascinating to read overall, one of the tricks really stuck with me, and that was his use of “incrementalism”.
The author defines that as “the devil doesn’t put his plan in place all at once.” This really is true; our abusers usually groom us (or like my uncle, pick out a victim who’s already groomed) before attacking, so why not The Abuser? The author goes on to say, “Be clear what he is doing from the start and don’t give in. He will get you to give in to his ways through sentimentalism here, utilitarian arguments there, here a bit of indifferentism, there a bit of relativism. He’s working all the time, nibbling away, never sleeping, never at rest.”
That last bit about “nibbling away” reminded me of a very frightful creature in Norse/Scandinavian folklore called Nidhogg. It was this huge serpentine dragon that lived at the very bottom of Yggdrasil, the cosmic World Tree, gnawing on its roots. It also would gnaw on the souls of those who did the most evil things in life (eg. murder, rape, and oath-breaking to them, and hopefully the rest of the world). The use of the words “nibble”, “gnaw”, or “chew” to describe what he does to the roots, to the evil souls, tells me that this thing takes its time with what it has in its teeth, savoring instead of outright ingesting for presumably all eternity. Reminds me of those really old Where-The-Wild-Things-Are-esque drawings of the gates of hell being literally the wide open mouth of a demon. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” indeed.
Like other ancient stories from around the world, I couldn’t help but feel that those Scandinavians saw at least some things of the truth, specifically with Nidhogg, the truth of the Devil.
One of the things the Devil is also known as is the Serpent or Dragon. We can remember (if we had the privilege of watching him on TV while he was still alive and adventuring) the Crocodile Hunter’s lessons on snakes and their talent for eating things whole. Fitting: CS Lewis described demons in The Screwtape Letters as pursuing souls (or even each other) as food for their table, not unlike the Orcs or Uruk-hai in his friend, JRR Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings
aaaaand now I have to watch it again.
Now, I don’t know about you…but the idea of the Devil as a devourer of souls kind of paints a much more frightening picture of what he is. The rise in zombies in media and urban myth as a dire threat to humanity suggests to me that the inherent fear of one’s soul being eaten is only increasing in our minds (if more interpreted as losing one’s brains or identity, but whatever, it works). Seriously though, the idea of being reduced to nothing but food for something (or worse, someone) to consume is probably one of the worst fates we can imagine for ourselves. It’s actually the sad reality, as that’s how many of us victim/survivors feel about our abusers. I know I sure did.
But…we live in a more civilized world now, right? Many of us don’t hunt or harvest our food anymore, and while some have gone fishing or hunting, the concept of skinning and cleaning meat is largely lost.
We understand a good meal, though. We understand recipes, mincing, shredding, seasoning, baking, frying, and roasting. Even if we don’t cook, there’s all sorts of channels on TV or YouTube for us to watch and admire. My mother has a culinary arts degree, so I have some understanding about cooking as her sous-chef or just from watching her. Some more decadent foods require a long time to marinate, and sometimes that melts-off-the-bone goodness needs a slow-cooker.
I’ve found that abusers, and of course The Abuser, are often civilized like that, too, or at least the worst ones were. They take their time, set their tables, make all the preparations with careful patience before sinking their teeth into us. Even a crime of passion usually has something simmering inside the offender before they make that seemingly sudden act.
Okay, now that we’ve established all the food metaphors, onto the topic of grooming:
There are a number of ways abusers groom their victims. It’s easier when they’re younger; grown-ups by default are regarded as authority. They, we, adults have that respect because of our duty and capacity to care for, protect, and love children. Of course, adults abuse this power, and oftentimes children don’t know what to do with that. This also applies when one gets older, of course; it helps when we’re “softened up” by prior grooming, but there are so many sad cases out there of people abusing their authority or strength to “tenderize” another so they’re easier to (ab)use.
In one of his videos I binged-watched, Fr. Mike Schmitz introduced a whole new spin on the same-old Genesis story of the First Fall. The word originally used for “snake”, see, could also be translated as “‘sea-monster,’ or ‘leviathan,’ or ‘dragon’.” Revelations refers to the Devil as the Dragon, so I’d lean more towards this being the “snake” that showed up before our first parents than the cute little green snake in the tree we saw all our lives. This made me think more about that story in a number of ways. While a lot was already said by the good Father, I’d add that this reveals the three (really, four) main ingredients or flavors of grooming abusers like to use:
The first thing the Devil does is ask Eve (and the curiously silent Adam) is if God really said not to eat from any tree from the Garden. This seemingly innocent question makes them question reality. In abusive situations, this happens through invalidation, gaslighting, and/or other crazy-making behaviors. Just as this opens the idea of having the forbidden fruit, this is what helps abusers get away with what they do. They even do it to the public, presenting themselves as “the real victims”, the one to be more pitied than feared as they should.
The next thing he says is, “You will certainly not die.” Now that he made them question what God told them, he now makes what Fr. Mike says was more of a “veiled threat”. Even if he wasn’t a Dragon or Leviathan, snakes aren’t very friendly-looking creatures, just as even though my father wasn’t as frightening or obvious as my mother or uncle, he was no less a threat when it came down to it. This is maybe the most obvious form of grooming, using threats. Sometimes it’s the overt threat to one’s life (or in the case with my uncle, my sister’s life), or the covert threat to their own life (like my father using that story about the little girl’s daddy who died of a heart attack when she left the family property).
After that, the Devil hissed that “God knows if you eat it, your eyes will be opened.” So many abusers would try to poison our relationships with wholesome people in our lives, especially if they can help us. Just about every one of mine did this, especially my mother in ways I’d already shared. When they do this, they isolate you, breaking the support nets that could keep you from falling into their traps, or pull you out of said trap. All it takes is one rope; they know this, so they try to break each and every healthy, loving bond you have.
Finally, the Devil says, “And you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” For a victim whose strength and confidence is shattered, just any sort of control sounds good, even if unhealthy, self-destructive, or fake. We long for those words of empowerment, of affirmation, even flattery or bribery. Just as I was more susceptible to sharing too much with someone who acted and spoke nicely, we’re more likely to trust someone who’s nice or polite. Like the frog that makes no attempt to escape a slowly boiling pot, that’s how this befriending/comforting style of grooming slowly, patiently breaks through boundaries while at the same time giving the illusion to the victim that he/she invited it and the worse things that follows.
Just like the poor frog or our first parents, we don’t even realize we’re cooked until it’s too late. Eve saw the fruit was good for eating, and had some, giving it to Adam with her like Persephone’s pomegranate.
It really is uncanny to me how close abuse and grooming looks to sin and temptation. Like Blessed Mother Teresa said about the Devil trying to convince us we’re not worth of love, our abusers kicked us while we were down, didn’t they? After they commit the abuse, every single time, I’d hear things that shamed me, confused me, and broke me. It was worse when it would sound like love or commitment, going once again back to my father’s use of the word “divorce” at me. The Devil does that too, telling us we’re too dirty, too beyond help, too weak and broken.
Just like someone used to junk food switching to something more healthy, it’s hard for us to stop forcing this stuff down, isn’t it? It’s so bad for us, but we still swallow it. We even get addicted more often than not, adding to the problem. This is how I feel most of the time at this stage of my life, like what my confessor said about the poison water I compared my old habits to; “Of course you’d go back to the poison water; you know what it tastes like.”