What does it all mean? What does it tell us about the culture and what does the story tell us about how therapy is practiced?
Emily Bazelon has written a long and thoroughly-researched article about the relationship between Stanford undergraduate Ellie Clougherty and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jon Lonsdale.
We are left to examine, not only Clougherty’s charges of sexual abuse, rape and psychological kidnapping, but also the role that therapists played in allowing her to formulate the narrative that she used to understand her experience.
Clougherty’s therapists-- helped by her mother-- persuaded her that she was the victim of a predatory older man. She was a Catholic virgin before she met Lonsdale, the conservative Jewish libertarian who is now accused of having inflicted severe psychological and physical harm on her.
Bazelon only mentions the political and religious differences in passing, but the story of an evil Jewish conservative preying on an innocent Catholic girl ought to raise a few warning flags.
Clearly, Clougherty was naïve and inexperienced. Just as clearly, she suffered, apparently from the relationship itself, and from the fact that it did not end in marriage.
But, whatever she pain Lonsdale afflicted, Clougherty was also the victim of an ambient culture that imposed a narrative that framed and diminished her experience.
Today, the relationship has entered the world of competing lawsuits, charges and countercharges. Clougherty moved back to Virginia and finished her degree online. While she still wants to work in the tech world, she now sees herself as an advocate for abused women.
Bazelon concludes her article thusly:
He says he’s relieved to finally confront her accusations in open court. She says going public is liberating. “Now I’m free to live my life, knowing I sent this up into the world and more people can respond to it other than just me.” She has no plans to return to Silicon Valley and says she wants to advocate on behalf of abused women. She’s also looking for a path involving brain research and tech that would include social activism. “My only fear now is that people will judge me, and then if I become a neuroscientist, they won’t believe what I have to say,” she said a few days after filing suit. “It’s a risk, but I have to do this.”
Clougherty has abandoned her career plans in order to take up a cause. In effect, she has sacrificed her hopes and dreams to become a martyr for a cause.
One might say that, for her, the gesture is a consolation. She seems to prefer seeing herself as a powerless victim than imagining that she agreed to participate in experiences that she felt were degrading. Apparently, it’s the best that certain therapists can do.
A self-described good Catholic girl, Clougherty had wanted to save her virginity for marriage. So, we are within our rights to ask whether she would have employed the same narrative if she had married Lonsdale.
Were the sex acts she seems to have consented to intrinsically abusive, or did they become so when the couple broke up? Or did they become abusive when she discovered that she, an undergraduate was not being treated as an equal by Lonsdale’s friends?
One hesitates to doubt any woman’s word on so serious a matter, but one recalls Laura Kipnis’s description of Clougherty’s situation. Clearly, Kipnis does not sympathize with Ellie Clougherty:
The New York Times Magazine recently reported on the tangled story of a 21-year-old former Stanford undergraduate suing a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur she’d dated for a year. He’d been a mentor in a business class she was enrolled in, though they’d met long before. They traveled together and spent time with each other’s families. Marriage was discussed. After they broke up, she charged that their consensual relationship had actually been psychological kidnapping, and that she’d been raped every time they’d had sex. She seems to regard herself as a helpless child in a woman’s body. She demanded that Stanford investigate and is bringing a civil suit against the guy—this despite the fact that her own mother had introduced the couple, approved the relationship every step of the way, and been in more or less constant contact with the suitor.
In Bazelon’s account Clougherty lost her virginity to Lonsdale in a hotel room in Rome. Since they had agreed to share the room before their arrival, one imagines that Clougherty had freely decided to consummate her relationship at that time, in that place. There is no suggestion that she changed her mind at any time during the consummation.
Clougherty had very little experience in romantic relationships with men. Tall and beautifully striking, she had been ogled and harassed by men since she was a girl and was very sensitive to unwanted sexual advances.
Before she met Lonsdale she had attended numerous events in the tech world, a world which was mostly male and whose denizens mostly saw her as a prospective love interest. She did not know how to deal with the situation and developed an eating disorder. She had to fly home and seek treatment, finally in a clinic:
At the tech events that Clougherty went to, she was one of few women, and when men pursued her, she often felt overwhelmed and intimidated. She told her mother about it and could feel Anne’s concern radiating through their daily texts and phone calls. In the winter of her sophomore year, Clougherty developed an eating disorder. “I wanted to be invisible,” she told me. Alarmed, Anne flew from Virginia and spent two weeks on campus trying to get her daughter back on track.
But Clougherty was struggling, and she withdrew from her classes and went home for therapy for her eating disorder, including eight days of inpatient treatment.
After whatever happened in Rome, Lonsdale and Clougherty engaged in a relationship. Clougherty’s friend, Rachel described the scene.
Spending evenings with Lonsdale and Clougherty, Rachel felt like a third wheel. She also found Lonsdale condescending. When Lonsdale hosted dinners at his house with other executives, Rachel said, she and Clougherty were sometimes the only women, and Rachel felt they were belittled. Sometimes Clougherty would sit on his lap. “It was like she was the pretty wallpaper,” Rachel said. He talked about marrying Clougherty and made jokes like, “ ‘I have no power with you — I’m a powerful man but I’m at your mercy,’ ” Rachel said. Clougherty told me that she wanted to believe she and Lonsdale could eventually be equals, using their joint influence for good. “I thought it would be so nice to have the chance to have an impact,” she said. “There are respectable women married to respectable guys in the valley. I wanted to think, I could be happy like that, too.”
Note that Clougherty, an undergraduate, sees herself as the equal of a Silican Valley entrepreneur. She is offended that she and her friend are treated like undergraduates by the tech entrepreneurs. Apparently, they believe that their accomplishments are equal to those of the men around them, regardless of what they have accomplished. One does not need to use too many little gray cells to figure out where she learned that.
Note also that Clougherty also saw herself as a respectable woman who could be married to a respectable guy. For many women, being respectable is enormously important. In some cases a woman will believe that there are certain sex acts that a respectable woman does not perform, period. She will not perform them, even for her husband. And some women believe that sex acts that might have signaled a lack of respectability can be redeemed by marriage.
At the very least Cougherty seems to have been of two minds about her sexual activities:
In emails Clougherty wrote at the time, she told Lonsdale that she found him attractive. “Kiss kiss kiss, you are super handsome,” she wrote in June, and later, “You are a sexy man” and “It was so nice sleeping with you.” But around the same time, she also told Rachel that she never wanted to have sex with Lonsdale, beginning in Rome. “She said, ‘I don’t want to be having sex, but he’s not listening to me,’ ” Rachel said.
Lonsdale seemed to be confused:
The first [email from him to Clougherty] read: “Sometimes I feel it’s very clear you are eager to engage sexually, but other times you will talk about me taking advantage of you and forcing myself on you as if there is this dirty old man/young innocent student dynamic, and I should feel badly about it. We will do something and then just a bit later you’ll talk as if ‘how can I stop you from making me do that?’ and yet earlier I honestly thought you wanted to.”
At one juncture in the relationship, Clougherty started feeling that her status was changing. Instead of being a girlfriend and a potential spouse, she started feeling like a booty call. Worse yet, Lonsdale was spending less time with her, something she saw as a bad sign.
If Clougherty was feeling abandoned, she must also have been feeling that she had given up her virginity for nothing.
Later, a therapist would convince her that she had suffered from psychological kidnapping. Perhaps it's too obvious, but feeling that your boyfriend is abandoning you is not the same as feeling psychologically kidnapped. To correct the apparent contradiction you would need to think that the distancing is a manipulative manoeuver designed to make her more dependent.
Bazelon reports the situation:
Lonsdale hit a crucial period of fund-raising for Formation 8, and Clougherty expressed resentment when he would ask her to come over late at night. He responded impatiently. “I don’t know what analogy makes sense to you, and Odysseus is probably not the right one,” he wrote in the fall. “But I am on a really big, difficult, critical mission the next several weeks.” It would be hard for the relationship to work, he warned, “if my darling is actually just sort of annoyed at me and isn’t in a position where of course she is eager to see me anytime I can.”
Perhaps Clougherty was distressed because she was not engaged. Perhaps she was distressed because she saw that she would not be marrying Lonsdale. Perhaps she was distressed because she did not feel like an equal.
As her relationship ended, she fell into despair and anguish, probably for feeling that she had lost her self-respect.
Whatever the reason, Clougherty was clearly in trouble. Her mother flew to California to help her daughter. She brought a book that offered a narrative explanation for Clougherty’s anguish.
In Bazelon’s words:
Clougherty’s fragility reminded Anne of the state her daughter was in when she had to leave school more than a year earlier. She decided to go to California again. On the flight, she read a book suggested by a friend who had been in an abusive relationship called “Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men,” by a domestic-violence counselor, Lundy Bancroft. The book riveted Anne. She saw Lonsdale in the descriptions of an abuser and she saw Clougherty in the role of a victim in denial. Anne got to Stanford bent on an urgent rescue. “I was bringing my daughter home no matter what,” she said.
Clougherty’s despair sounded to one psychologist like a clear case of post-traumatic stress. One hastens to note that this diagnostic category has lately been applied to far too many cases.
The psychologist also believed that the victim narrative made a lot of sense.
Another therapist, Keith Saylor, with whom Clougherty consulted in Virginia taught her how to reconstruct her experience within the bounds of a narrative that made her a helpless and hopeless victim.
Bazelon summarizes the approaches taken by two therapists, one a psychologist at Stanford, another Keith Saylor:
She said that Lonsdale had forced her to have sex when she didn’t want to and also talked about the man who accosted her in the restaurant bathroom when she was 10. The university psychologist noted in a report that she “seems to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from current and past trauma.” Clougherty went home to Virginia and spent days crying and rocking in a corner of her family’s living room. Clougherty embarked on therapy twice a week with Keith Saylor, a clinical psychologist who treated her eating disorder. He used prolonged-exposure therapy, a treatment developed for combat-related disorders, in which a therapist prompts a patient to describe deeply traumatic events. Later, patients listen to tapes of their sessions at home every day in an attempt to drain the memories of their power.
As he typically does when conducting prolonged-exposure therapy, Saylor reflected back Clougherty’s account, saying that she had experienced “multiple traumas over a prolonged period of time that did repeated damage.” In one session, he told Clougherty, repeating her words, that Lonsdale “held you captive,” continuing, “You were essentially brainwashed over a year.”
Bazeon listened to the therapy tapes herself. I quote her description at length:
On the tapes, Clougherty swallows sobs and speaks in a thin, small voice. She described particular sexual acts that she didn’t want to take part in and how Lonsdale cajoled, begged and insisted until she gave in. She also said that during sex he slapped and shoved her and put his hands around her neck. “It was rape in a sadomasochist way nine times a day,” she said. In a later session, Saylor again mirrored what she told him: “You didn’t have personal agency, you didn’t have personal choice, all of those things had been robbed from you.”
Before she went into therapy, Clougherty told me, she didn’t want to admit even to herself that she had been raped. She wanted to believe that the relationship was loving, and she also felt she had a lot to lose. “It was like I could call him a rapist, and I could get judged and get in big trouble and not know how to handle it or I could say, ‘He’s great, look at these emails, I want to date that person,’ ” she said. “Trauma therapy was the first time I felt allowed to talk about how I felt.”
She now calls it a “psychological kidnapping,” a term she came up with after watching a video about domestic abuse on the Internet, and she says she was raped every time she and Lonsdale had sex. Saylor, who agreed to speak with me at Clougherty’s request, said, “People in these kinds of dramatic circumstances sometimes don’t tell anyone.” He also said that prolonged-exposure therapy doesn’t “encourage perspective-taking” and that Lonsdale might have an entirely different view of the relationship. “My role is not to question her veracity but to help her get well.”
Saylor might have believed he was offering a version of cognitive therapy, his approach had less to with science and more to do with forgiving sins and offering a special kind of absolution, a kind in which the individual does not need to take any responsibility for her actions.
He was absolving Clougherty of all responsibility for anything that happened. The notion that every time she had sex with Lonsdale was a rape seems contradicted by some of the facts we know.
Saylor told Clougherty that she was a mere victim, that she did not exercise free will at any time in the course of the relationship. Might we not recognize that this is wildly judgmental, that it defames and slanders Lonsdale and that it tells Clougherty that she was a mere puppet, manipulated by a brutal male oppressor.
Besides, if she was so easily manipulated by a male oppressor, how can we know whether she was also being manipulated by her therapist?
In essence, Saylor seemed to be saying that Clougherty’s experiences were not hers. Thus, perhaps she can now tell herself that she remains innocent. And yet, once she went public with her allegations, the world would see her within the context of those experiences.
Would it not have been better for Clougherty to take responsibility for some of her decisions? If she bears no responsibility, then she is being diminished and also deprived of the power to do anything more than to make her narrative, with herself in the starring role, part of a larger a cause.
In other words, she was given no chance of escaping the narrative. Therapy taught her to sacrifice herself for a cause.
She did not do it for herself, but for other women:
Clougherty and her mother were rattled but undeterred about speaking out. “It’s not an easy decision, but I just see it as a moral obligation,” Clougherty said. “I really want to help other women.” In January, Clougherty filed a civil suit against Lonsdale, accusing him of sexual abuse. She called his behavior “violent and deviant,” saying he employed “psychological manipulation and coercion” including “isolation, sleep deprivation, food deprivation.” She also accused him of “strangling her, slapping her, scratching her, yanking her by the hair so hard that he would lift her torso off the bed and slamming her body against the walls and bed boards.” In addition, she sued Formation 8 for being negligent in its supervision during the summer she was doing the project with Rachel. The lawsuit states that she “wrote him numerous emails and love letters to let him know how much she cared about him in the hope that it would end the abuse.”
And yet, what do you think that this level of public exposure will do for her future dating and marital prospects. One needs to understand that making oneself a public spectacle, even for a good cause, even when one is in the right, exacts a heavy price.
Alternately, we might imagine that once her relationship with Lonsdale was over, Clougherty believed that she could never again be a virgin, never again be innocent, and thus that she could never be the respectable wife of another man. If that was her belief, her therapist inadvertently sustained it.
As for the way therapy changed Clougherty, her friend Jane noted this:
In the months after Jane helped Clougherty break up with Lonsdale, she says that she watched with increasing unease as Clougherty’s accusations mounted, from emotional abuse to rape. “In March 2014, she texted me that she considered herself a ‘sex slave’ during her relationship with Joe,” Jane wrote in her statement. “This is far, far beyond anything that she ever said about the relationship when it was happening or for a long time afterward. It also made no sense in light of her clear enthusiasm about the relationship.”