Five years ago, I remember Googling phrases like "Am I in an abusive relationship?" or "Can an abusive boyfriend ever change?" Now, as a journalist who has been using past personal trauma as a motivator to report on misconceptions surrounding intimate partner violence, I've learned about the soul-sucking process known by psychological experts as the "cycle of abuse."
At the start of the cycle, an abuser might use "love," in the form of charm and nice gestures, as a smokescreen to control their partners. To me, that's always been the scariest part of abuse—someone who is willing to distort love and vulnerability as a means to degrade and control their partner. When a victim musters up the courage to leave, the abuser will typically make threats, undermining safety (and the safety of loved ones) along with access to finances, health care, or children. My abuser would often tell me things like, "No one will ever love someone as messed up as you." Then, he would revert back to step one, apologize, justify his actions, and tell me that he loved me. After five years of therapy, I've learned to identify this process as a "cycle of abuse."
In a debut memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival, author Kelly Sundberg explores this cycle, investigating the interplay between violence, love, manipulation, and terror. Sundberg details her survival during and after her marriage with a man who was at once compassionate and supportive but also vindictive and violent. Like many, when she fell in love with her husband, Caleb, she saw no warning signs of an abusive relationship. Sundberg was 26 and working toward an undergraduate degree from Boise State University when she learned she was pregnant. Within a few years, she was trapped in a hazy, relentless fog of abuse.
Early in their relationship, Sundberg describes Caleb as "sweet" and "tender," capable of speaking to her with a sense of loving no man had ever shown. She was swept away when he sang her praises: "You are the most beautiful woman I know. You are so smart. You are so sweet. You are so much more to me than all the other women I've been with." Sundberg never glosses over the more affectionate times in her relationship with Caleb. By showing a complete picture, Sundberg offers a far more insidious truth: An abuser can slowly creep into his victim's life, seizing, inch by inch, control of her heart and mind.
Speaking with Pacific Standard, Sundberg admits that, before marrying Caleb, she took a somewhat more myopic view of domestic abuse. She assumed any act of violence would prompt to her to leave a partner. "But then," she says, "I did become someone who stayed when someone hit me."
Sundberg is never polemic in her pursuit to spark compassion in readers. Caleb, as Sundberg describes to Pacific Standard, was a "smart abuser." He concealed his cruel side while around Sundberg's parents or his colleagues. He only hit her in the face once—better, he figured, to limit any visible signs of abuse.
And readers see Caleb's soft side: He cooks for Sundberg and massages her feet. He's a good father even. But the reader is spared no details of his violence either. After he'd hit Sundberg, Caleb would place the onus on his wife: "Now you've made me act so awful that I have to apologize to you," he would say. That victim-blaming sowed seeds of self-doubt in Sundberg. "Had I created this anger?" she wonders in the book. "Had I pushed him so hard that he was forced to lash out at me in those ways? Was I somehow responsible for his behavior? I only knew that I no longer felt like myself."
Like me, Sundberg turned to Google to gauge if Caleb was, in fact, an abusive partner. Like me, the search results confirmed her suspicions.
Five years ago, when Sundberg was leaving Caleb, the word "gaslighting" wasn't familiar to most. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, it's entered into the mainstream lexicon. Gaslighting, as defined by Psychology Today, is "a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders," a process whereby a perpetrator brainwashes and deceives a victim (or group of victims) to the point where they question reality. Denying facts, accusations of lying, the strategic deployment of positive reinforcement vis-a-vis compliments or gifts—all classic gaslighting characteristics, and all very familiar to Sundberg.
"[Gaslighting] was something I learned in the process of researching," she tells Pacific Standard. "I think it's hard to understand unless you've experienced it yourself. I really wanted to show it in the book. I wanted [readers] to feel it with me."
Goodbye Sweet Girl is a harrowing and urgent work that chips away at the culture of blaming and shaming those who become caught in the cycle of abuse. It'd be impossible, reading the book, not to feel Sundberg's pain.