What exactly is charisma? People use the word all the time to describe film stars, musicians, political leaders and revolutionaries. It’s a ‘compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.’ It can be someone who holds your attention with a smile or a few carefully chosen words. I once had the good fortune to meet Irish author Roddy Doyle, the perfect exponent of it. He speaks to you like you are the only person in the room, eyes sparkling, quiet humour bouncing off his tongue. Just for you. That’s the best of it.

But what of the other side of charisma? When charm is part of a sociopathic character set that allows someone to reel devotees in, unwittingly, into their web of abuse and keep them coming back for more? What of those charismatic dictators in history who’ve managed to convince entire countries to carry out evil deeds in their name?

I thought a lot about this subject after going to see the movie Whiplash at the cinema, and having a profound response to the bullying in the movie. Quite rightly, JK Simmons won an Oscar for brilliantly playing a charismatic music teacher whose idea of nurturing his students is to take them to breaking point. ‘Good job’ are the worst two words you can say to anyone, he says in the movie. But for me, they are the best.

What really struck me about this movie was the divide in audience reaction to it. It took me a while to process what I’d just experienced: that the astonishing levels of bullying in the movie were entertaining to the audience I was sitting with, who laughed when the sociopathic teacher began yet another hideous round of cruelty with his student. When the treatment forces the young drummer, played by Miles Teller, to raise his game, I was surprised that people found it empowering and cheered him on. I simply saw someone who was falling under the spell of so-called ‘charisma’, who was so desperate for validation that he kept going back for more. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Stockholm Syndrome.

When I came out of the movie I felt angry that I had appeared to watch a glorification of bullying that had audiences laughing and feeling inspired at the end. I railed against it on social media and found reviews that had it billed as a ‘dark comedy’. I couldn’t, and still don’t, see the funny side. Then I found a review that billed it as “Stockholm Syndrome set to a killer beat.” Yes – that’s it, I thought. The movie is about that very dynamic – the way that a person, especially a young, impressionable one, can be captivated by the charisma of an older, allegedly wiser one. Once I saw it through that lens, I felt much more able to appreciate the brilliance of the movie and the acting in it.

But what of those who disagreed with me? Largely these were men, used to a culture based on levels of abuse. It didn’t surprise me that some of them were public schoolboys, whose entire lives had been built on structures of abusive relationships. To some, that lives on in the form of ‘banter’ – I used to try and defend my ex-husband against the taunts of his friends until he took me to one side and told me it’s just how things are between them. They had horrible nicknames for each other, and took the piss out of each other relentlessly. I felt aggrieved on his behalf, but it was all part of the nature of straight male relationships, apparently. Lads and bantz.

After Whiplash, a number of guys asked me if it was really bullying if the music student wanted the abuse in order to make him a better drummer? Of course it bloody is, guys. Open your eyes. The student was going back for more because he was under the thrall of his abuser, not objectively seeking out a teacher who would take him to the very edge of existence.

It really does disturb me, the fact that a number of my acquaintances found the movie inspiring and empowering. It inspired nothing but loathing for the abuser in my mind, and pity for the victim, however great he became at drumming. Surely this isn’t the only way to achieve creative greatness – are we saying we can only achieve it if someone else is pushing us beyond our boundaries? I’d rather achieve it on my own, thanks.

I know that in this situation that I would just get my things and walk away. I wouldn’t try and go back to impress my abuser, I’d simply never look in his ‘charismatic’ eyes ever again. Why would you want to impress someone like that? These are simply deeply insecure people who have mastered a way of exacting revenge for that on others. I see it for what it is and I’m very glad I do.

I’ve watched people look into the eyes of would-be dictators and crave their attention and it makes me very sad. What’s inspiring and empowering is watching someone extract themselves from that situation, if they can. So I didn’t cheer at the end of Whiplash, I simply felt loathing and pity. I am genuinely interested in other people’s reactions to it, so do comment away.



Angry Young Men

In a recent post I mentioned an angry Parisian man I’d dated in the past year, but didn’t tell the story, saving it for a future post. It came back to me this week, because I read this piece about a woman called Alexandra Tweten who is ‘outing’ abusive online-dating matches for their sense of entitlement to her attention:


Fortunately, it hasn’t happened much to me, mainly because I use Tinder, where the matching is reciprocal and you don’t have to deal with the tidal wave of unwanted attention as soon as you appear on there. (Here’s my piece on Tinder: http://becauseicanblog.com/2014/10/12/tinder-is-the-night/).

Tweten is using OKCupid which is pretty much a free for all for wanted and unwanted attention. But actually, abusive moments HAVE happened to me, even with all my careful filtering and my supposed radar for nice guys, and when it does happen it is a very scary experience.

(A quick note to all the nice guys out there whom I date or don’t date: this post isn’t representative of you, it’s a group of a*holes of which you are not part. Please don’t get all defensive about men in general because I’m not talking about all men. You just need to know that this stuff happens to women. All the time. Thanks for reading and supporting me – I’m very glad to know you.)

So, the Parisian. Let’s call him ‘Maxime’. He described himself as 31 and 6ft 7. Yes, Maxime was tall, dark and handsome, played basketball in France semi-professionally and could string a sentence together in a text. Against my usual rules of not letting anyone have my number before I’ve met them in real life, we Whatsapped before our date, and he seemed ok with my ‘no sexting or pics’ rule. So far, so normal.

To the date. We met at the Ape and Bird – a fab pub in London on Cambridge Circus owned by the same people who run Polpo. It’s perfect for dating – lively enough to fill in awkward silences, three different bars to choose from if you need a change of scenery, and the option of eating in the bar or restaurant later if the date goes well.

The warning bell started to sound when I met him outside the bar. He was lounging louchely against one of the windows, smoking of course. What Parisian doesn’t? He seemed to not want to make eye contact, which I put down to being at a different altitude to me, or maybe just nervousness. Ok, let’s get to the bar. The choosing of the drinks took a while – I know exactly what I want in there (the Garganega house white is great) but he huffed and puffed over the choice of beers. I laughed to myself and thought, ‘how Parisian’ as he took time to choose just the right drink. How very French.

The second alarm bell rang softly as he talked at length about his life, his likes and dislikes, his travels, his favourite food, his his his his his… I just settled into the usual ego-pleasing nodding routine, wondering how I was going to extract myself from the scenario. But then the wine kicked in, and I thought, ‘well, things could be worse’ and somehow we ended up staying and getting a table for dinner in the bar.

Ok, so the choosing of the food took a while – Ape and Bird have a ‘distinctive’ menu with uniquely British things on there that threw Maxime a bit. I think he ended up with steak and chips – so far, so French. I can’t remember what I had, because the whole moment was blighted by his fussing and faffing over the food. “This is not steak!” he cried, forking the meat with a sneer on his face. I’m afraid I just started to laugh, and to tease him about being so French about his food.

Oh dear.

One does not tease a French man about his food.

He got very, very angry with me. And all British people, really. For not having the balls to complain about food. I don’t complain, as a rule, unless it’s really terrible and I can’t eat it. I’ll have an opinion on it, but if it’s not ‘wrong’, then I won’t send it back. Not Maxime’s style it seems.

So he made a huge fuss and I ended up apologising to the startled waitress when he’d flounced off to the loo (in a 6ft 7 gangly way). I did contemplate paying and leaving while he was down there, but I thought, ‘no – I’ll see this through like an adult’. What he obviously thought in the loo was, “I’ve paid for drinks for this woman and am about to pay for half a meal I didn’t like – I’ll damn well have sex from her in payment.”

When he returned to the table I’d already ordered the bill and made noises about leaving. “You’re going home?!” he asked incredulously, as if his table manners had undeniably wooed me into sexual submission. “Yes – I’ll be going to Piccadilly Circus – where do you need to be?” He was determined to come with me.

So there I was, striding down Shaftesbury Avenue with a massive Frenchman, angrily snarking at me about how it was ok to complain about food. I kept a fixed smile on my face so as not to anger him further – it felt as though he was about to blow (I certainly wasn’t).

I may be making you laugh with this story, but reader, it was so not funny. I genuinely felt really scared. When he suddenly swerved off into a Chinatown street, I felt relieved, but then panicked as to where he was going to pop out and accost me. I scanned the tube, the bus stop on my way home, the outside of my building – everything. Thankfully a friend was in the pub down the road and I went and told her the story, still shaking slightly from the encounter.

In the last month I’ve had another miniature version of this, in which again, I gave my number out when I should not have. I made it clear that I had no intention of picture-swapping or sexting, but this ‘nice guy’ Toby just wanted to hear my voice. Ahh how sweet. Until he got on the phone, telling me he’d lost his voice and asking, “could he just whisper to me?” “Stalker voice!” I teased, but I’d actually started to wonder…

“Could he also talk about lots of other things he’d like to do?”


He put the phone down in a fit of rage, quickly followed by Tinder messages telling me I’d “spoiled the mood.” I managed to unmatch him on Tinder pretty quickly, but then came the stroppy “that was mean” texts on Whatsapp, which I subsequently blocked. I then got a barrage of ‘no caller ID’ calls for the next two days – with no voicemail, thankfully. But I was truly scared at what this person might do. Could he track me down and wait for me outside work or my home? When would he stop calling? After two days, thankfully.

I’ve wondered over and over about what I did that made these guys feel entitled to be so angry with me, and then I realised. I was just a woman who refused to give them what they felt they deserved and they got angry, even though I was very clear about what was and wasn’t going to happen. It’s like my voice merged into white noise under the loud gushing sound of their monstrous egos in motion.

I’ve only just remembered about a guy I dated about three years ago who made me cry on a date. Yes, cry. He’d been dumped by his last girlfriend and his ‘little revenge’ was to make women feel crap about themselves. The way he did it with me was to flirt outrageously with the waitress and ignore me. He was happy with me over the pre-dinner drinks, then grumpy over the menu, refusing to look me in the eye, then all over the waitress every time she appeared. I let him do it over and over and just sat there in disbelief. Then he smiled cruelly as he asked me if I was crying, which I was a little bit. I’ve never been made to feel so rubbish in all my life.

And it will never happen again.


Jessica Valenti on why some men are so angry:


Katie McDonough on male entitlement to women: