Monday, July 27, 2009


In my family while I was growing up, everyone it seemed had the skill of manipulation down to a fine art. I used to hate being manipulated or guilt-tripped into anything. In my younger days, sometimes I would catch myself doing the self same thing to people in my life. Even today, I occasionally backslide into guilt-tripping territory but, by and large, I've learned not to do it because I know all too well how it feels and I don't want to make people feel that way.

We all try to dominate, control or manipulate others in some way, shape or form whether we realize it or not. Most people consider this to be a bad thing; often it is but, like many things in life, whether it's good or bad really depends on the circumstances. It's been my experience that whether it's a good thing or bad thing depends largely on the motivation behind the person trying to exert the control.

To illustrate the point, let's draw examples from two popular movies that most of you have probably seen: Forrest Gump and Titanic.

In Forrest Gump, when Forrest's mother tries to get him into school, the principal tells her he can't accept him because his IQ is five points too low. However, the principal implies that, if she was to grant him a sexual favor or two, he might be persuaded to look the other way. Obviously she doesn't want to have sex with the man but she also doesn't want Forrest relegated to "special classes." So she agrees to the sex.

In this case, the principal manipulates Forrest's mother to have sex with him. He isn't doing this to help Mrs. Gump or Forrest for that matter; he's doing it solely for his own pleasure. This is a case of bad manipulation: manipulating a person to do something that benefits him alone. Selfish manipulation like this is inevitably destructive to the person being manipulated; this was undoubtedly not one of Mrs. Gump's happier memories.

In Titanic, Jack comes upon Rose getting ready to commit suicide by jumping off the back of the ship. He manipulates her into reconsidering what she's doing by describing in intimate detail how painful what she's about to do is likely to be. In the end, this breaks Rose's resolve and she decides not to go through with it.

In this case, Jack manipulates Rose out of committing suicide. Doing so is of no direct benefit to him; he does it solely to help her. This is a case of good manipulation: manipulating a person to do something that benefits them. There are times when it's necessary to manipulate someone for their own good; a person about to commit suicide convinced to live is probably among the best of examples.

Now, fiction has the advantage of being a bit more black and white than real life. In both of these cases, the motivation behind the manipulator was absolute black or white. One was entirely selfish; the other was entirely selfless. Unfortunately, real life is rarely so cut and dried. The trouble with manipulation is the very nature of manipulation most times makes it extraordinarily complex both in motivation and execution.

For example, the friend I've mentioned before whom I love so dearly has an unfortunate predilection for putting herself directly in harm's way. Now this is one of those situations where manipulation, theoretically, is good; if she's putting herself in danger, like Jack with Rose it makes sense for me to try to talk her out of it. Unfortunately, the situations are more often than not a hell of a lot more complicated than Jack and Rose's.

First of all, it's often like pulling teeth just to get her to recognize danger in the first place. One incident I remember was she was going boating. She said there'd be drinking which is never a good idea when boating. Since I couldn't stop the drinking I asked her to wear a life jacket; she refused saying, "I can swim." I tried to tell her that, under the influence of alcohol, even good swimmers drown but I simply could not convince her to put on that life jacket.

Second, even when she does recognize danger, she often doesn't seem to care. She seems convinced that, if she were to die, no one would miss her. When I tried to explain how much it would hurt me if she died, I remember her exact words to me: "You'll survive." Well, maybe my body would survive but my soul wouldn't. She's claimed a huge piece of my heart; if she died, that piece would die with her and I doubt there'd be enough heart left to keep me going.

Now the problem is she's clearly putting herself at risk in situations like this but, again, it's not totally cut and dried like fictional situations often are. It's not like she's hanging off the back of a ship threatening to jump. She's not trying to hurt herself; she's just being reckless.

How far you can go trying to control a person also depends on the situation. For example, if she was standing on a bridge threatening to drown herself, I'd be perfectly justified in grabbing her and physically restraining her. However, I would not be justified going down to the dock where she's boating, grabbing her and forcing a life jacket over her head. Actually trying to hurt oneself is different from just being careless with one's safety.

Of course, where do you draw that line? Sometimes it actually seems like she has a death wish, deliberately putting herself in situations like the boating and drinking which she herself would admit were dangerous; she'd defend her actions saying, "If God wants to take me, He will; if He doesn't, He won't." Is she trying to put herself in situations where she'll die without having to do it by her own hand? If so, is that the same as actually threatening to drown herself?

See what I mean about it being complicated? It's a no-brainer that she should be wearing that life jacket so my attempts to convince her to do so in and of themselves are obviously the right thing, but how do you decide how far to go when you're trying to get someone to do something for their own good?

As it happened, she didn't wear the life jacket and she ultimately got through the night safely though I was terrified the whole night; I was never so glad to get a call from her as I was that following day.

Of course, attempts to manipulate someone in a positive way aren't always tied to safety or life-or-death situations. For example, when I got out of high school, I wanted to take a year off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life before I went to college. My uncle, however, pressured me hard to go to college right out of high school because he thought that was the right thing to do.

Now, he had the best intentions; he was trying to give me a head start. However, in this case he was wrong. He ultimately pushed me into a business management course at Cape Breton University that I absolutely hated; in the end, I just couldn't do it. Maybe if I'd taken a year I might've realized what I know now: that I really wanted to make films. Maybe if I'd realized that then and gotten into the industry, I might've made something of myself by now.

Not that I blame my uncle; I don't. No one can manipulate you unless you let them (remember my friend above did not wear that life jacket I tried so hard to convince her to wear). Still, if it hadn't been for his influence, I certainly wouldn't have wasted two years of my life in a course that has been of little or no use to me in life.

Ultimately, though, I think it turned out for the best. The most important thing in my life is to always be there for the people I love. Making a film tends to be an all-consuming thing; you have very little time for anyone or anything but the project. I don't want to be that way and, if I had gotten into the industry the way I wanted, I probably would be that way.

Still, I continue to write screenplays; I'd just prefer to leave the execution of them to other people whose vision I trust to bring my stories to life. You can always get up from writing a screenplay if someone needs you; getting away from a film you're directing, however, with all the actors and crew being paid by the hour waiting for you, is way more difficult.

Therein lies the biggest problem with trying to manipulate someone: you never really know what the ultimate outcome will be. No one's perfect. You might think what you're pushing someone to do is the right thing but that doesn't mean you're right.

For example, my friend is in an abusive relationship that she obviously needs to get out of. Now she doesn't want any interference so if I wanted to manipulate her into acting I could, say, threaten to call the police. The problem is, she'd resent that so, even if it did force her to act, she'd probably end up back with him in the end and I'd be risking damaging our friendship as well at a time when she needs a friend probably more than she ever has.

Of course, even if I did call the police, that also would probably make the situation worse. The abuse is not physical (yet; it's definitely headed in that direction) and abuse cases where there's no physical injury are notoriously difficult to prove. In the end, when the police leave, he'd be angry that they were called and would likely take his anger out on her. Transition House warned me about that possibility (though I'd already surmised that).

Unfortunately, that's why I often feel so helpless when someone I love's in trouble. Sometimes, it's obvious what the solution is and I know where I need to try to push them. Other times, however, situations can be much more complicated and, while I know my loved one's in trouble, I might not have any idea what to do to help. In these situations, all I can do is pray for them, be there for them and hope they survive.

That, however, is one of the hardest things to do in life. Particularly with my friend above, I sometimes wish I had access to Star Trek-type technology like transporters so, if I saw she was about to do something foolish or dangerous, I could just beam her away from the danger. She probably wouldn't like that but at least I'd know I wasn't going to lose her to some senseless, avoidable tragedy.

I often wonder why God guided me to this woman and gave me such love for her. Maybe if I was able to actually do something to help her I might understand but, most of the time, I'm rendered powerless by circumstance. Sometimes I just want to go to her, grab her by the shoulders and scream: "What is wrong with you?! Can't you see the danger you're in?!" then drag her out of the situation, kicking and screaming if need be.

But I can't do that. Just like I had the right to stay in my abusive situation with Lisa for 12 years, so too does she have the right to stay in hers. I will say this: watching her situation has given me a whole new respect for my friends who stuck by me through the "Lisa years." They must've been going ballistic worrying about me and I must've been just as frustrating as my friend above is to me; I never listened to them any more than she listens to me.

In the end, we all try to manipulate the people in our lives. How and why is mostly a function of the kind of person you are. The good person will try to use manipulation to help those they love; the bad person will use manipulation to get what they want out of people. Even when you're manipulating someone for good reasons, though, you still need to remember that old saying:

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

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