Hullo, Rabbit Darling, here. I’ve been thinking…
It is so hard, discovering that people you once loved are not – and likely were never – what you thought them to be. Expecting the best of people is not without risk. I’ve been told to blame myself perhaps a bit less, because dudes: when charismatic and skilled people lie, most folks get taken for whatever they had the guts to put out on the table. That’s the whole idea, right? That’s how aggressive mimicry and predation work. You lull your mark into a false sense of safety, luring them with well-honed techniques that speak to the most basic needs and desires they possess, and strike when the mark drops her guard. Ideally, you have a network of dupes and fellow mimics in place to run and signal boost plausible deniability and interference on your behalf while you shrug your shoulders and claim it was all just a miscommunication. Recently, I was reading up on aggressive mimicry in nature, and stopped, chilled to my blood and bones at this passage:
A case of the latter situation is a species of cleaner fish and its mimic, though in this example the model is greatly disadvantaged by the presence of the mimic. Cleaner fish are the allies of many other species, who allow them to eat their parasites and dead skin. Some allow the cleaner to venture inside their body to hunt these parasites. However, one species of cleaner, the Bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus), is the unknowing model of a mimetic species, the Sabre-toothed blenny (Aspidontus taeniatus). This wrasse, shown to the right cleaning a grouper of the genus Epinephelus, resides in coral reefs in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and is recognized by other fishes who then allow it to clean them. Its imposter, a species of blenny, lives in the Indian Ocean and not only looks like it in terms of size and coloration, but even mimics the cleaner’s “dance”. Having fooled its prey into letting its guard down, it then bites it, tearing off a piece of its fin before fleeing the scene. Fish grazed upon in this fashion soon learn to distinguish mimic from model, but because the similarity is close between the two they become much more cautious of the model as well, such that both are affected. Due to victims’ ability to discriminate between foe and helper, the blennies have evolved close similarity, right down to the regional level.
One of the things that is so damaging about mistaking a blenny for a wrasse is that we become vigilant, even growing suspicious of our true allies. Predation wreaks a lot of havoc, but one of the most lasting of its legacies is that it sends a clear and intentional message: You cannot trust yourself. You are not the arbiter of your own experiences. Whenever you risk love, you also risk becoming prey. We become wary fish, even when wariness is demonstrably not necessary. This is alienating. It places us in a space of self-enforced aloneness – the very thing that continues to make us vulnerable to a Blenny. We separate from our school, and swim cold waters alone, too busy questioning our own judgment to notice what’s lurking in the coral.
I am a very fortunate person, woman, and feminist. My life is absolutely chock full of true symbiots. But I have had recent and prolonged contact with an imposter who took a swipe at my fin, and missed. But only narrowly. So taken was I by the appearance of safety, by the sheer volume of rhetoric, by the carefully manicured and micromanaged façade of advocacy and care, that I occasionally shudder at the thought, “What if I had stuck around longer.” What’s perhaps most painful is, someone I loved even more was fully aware of the potential danger – and did not tell me. This person did not warn or even inform me. I was routinely left alone with this potentially dangerous person, unaware of their manipulation of someone they had violated. While I was pressured to engage in open, honest, and transparent dialogue about my deepest, hardest, and most vulnerable feelings (with the promise and expectation they would do the same!), in the background there was a campaign of secrecy, denial, and micromanagement surrounding the violation the blenny-posing-as-wrasse had perpetrated.
I was fortunate enough to have relied on my instincts. I severed contact with some mimics because I had begun to note a pattern of hypocrisy and exploitation independent of the truth they had deliberately kept from me. When that truth came to light, I wanted so badly to be surprised.
But I wasn’t. It was like turning the light on in a dark room, and finding out the furniture was exactly where you thought it would be.
The fact stared me in the face: This was not an isolated incident or a misunderstanding; this was a pattern I had already begun to recognize. In the weeks and months that followed my swift and final egress, micro-aggression and minor consent infractions continued to take place despite my clearly communicated, well-documented, and explicitly reinforced boundaries. This wasn’t miscommunication. It was bullying. It was fully intended to guilt, manipulate, shame, and gaslight. Everything I’ve experienced says, “Watch out: that’s a Blenny. Swim fast, little fish, and never stop. Find your school. Find your wrasse.” And I can. And I do. And I will.
It’s taken me a long time to come forward about this, largely because I’ve always struggled with finding the space to speak my own truth. I still couch it in terms of metaphor and story, partially because it helps me insulate myself against the cold vacuum of empty waters; and also because story has always been how I’ve managed to distill my own experiences into the lessons they have taught me. Fables are always stories with a moral. The morals to this story, and the ones adjacent to it are still surfacing. But as the sun glints on the surface above, distorted and shattered across waves I know exist but cannot yet feel while immersed, I feel certain that whatever those morals wind up being, I am safer now. My instincts have been tested, and have shown themselves to be trustworthy. I do not have to suspect all my fellow fish, but I do need to listen closely when my heart says, “Beware.” I need not swim these waters alone, if I vow to watch carefully, to listen closely, and to maintain a healthy skepticism about the motives and desires of other fish in this sea.