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Why “he seems such a nice guy” is the wrong response to abuse allegations

“If we’re looking for monsters, we’ll never find them.” 

On 2 February, Evan Rachel Wood took to her official Instagram account to name Marilyn Manson (real name Brian Warner) as her former abuser.

“He started grooming me when I was a teenager and horrifically abused me for years,” alleged the Westworld actor, who met Manson at the age of 18, when he was 36 and married to Dita Von Teese, according to a 2016 Rolling Stone profile.

“I was brainwashed and manipulated into submission.” 

Standing alongside four other women, all of whom have accused Manson of abuse, Wood added: “I am done living in fear of retaliation, slander, or blackmail.

“I am here to expose this dangerous man and call out the many industries that have enabled him, before he ruins any more lives.” 

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In light of these disturbing allegations, which he has emphatically denied, Manson has been dropped from his recording label, Loma Vista Recordings, as well as an upcoming episode of fantasy drama series American Gods.

“My intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners,” Manson responded in his own social media post.

“Regardless of how – and why – others are now choosing to misrepresent the past, that is the truth.” 

Many questions remain, of course. We cannot draw conclusions about this specific case.

The public’s social media response to the allegations, though, have proven as predictable as ever. Because, when accusations of this nature are made about famous men, far too many fall back on the same tired arguments.

“Why wait until now to say anything then?” reads one such comment, wilfully ignoring the fact that negative consequences are not the only thing to keep victims from coming forward. Indeed, as experts have noted time and time again, when the perpetrator is someone they trusted, it can take years for victims even to identify what happened to them as a violation.

“I can’t believe Manson could do something like this,” insists another.

“But Dita Von Teese said he never abused her,” says one more, referencing a post shared by Manson’s ex-wife.

“He always comes across like a nice guy in interviews,” adds one more. 

Evan Rachel Wood has named Marilyn Manson as her former abuser.

“But he seems like such a nice guy.”

It’s a phrase that is thrown around a lot. And it is this – this strange idea that charisma and coercion are somehow mutually exclusive – which serves to bolster a damaging misconception about abusers.

As Janey Starling, co-director of campaigning organisation Level Up – which aims to build a community of feminists and end sexism in the UK, tells Stylist: “Human behaviour is complex and nuanced. But when it comes to abuse, we suddenly seem to forget we don’t live in a cartoon world of monsters, victims and heroes.

“If we’re looking for monsters, we’ll never find them. But what we can look for are controlling people.” 

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She continues: “Abuse is about power, control and getting others to do what you want. People who engage in abusive behaviour are controlling, and seek to gain power and control over people they engage in intimate relationships with, as well as friends, associates and professionals.

“Controlling people are skilled at managing others’ perceptions of them in order to get their own way, and charm is a proven tactic for this. However, should you challenge them, or things not go their way, you’ll get a glimpse into behaviours that are very different. And this is what those closest to them, including partners, will experience sooner or later.” 

Starling finishes: “Just as charm is a tool for control, so is coercion, isolation, guilt-tripping, threat, stalking and violence. The tactics are different but the goal beneath is the same. This is what crucially needs to be remembered.

“If we want to end abuse in our society, we must repeatedly look out for and challenge both ourselves and any individuals who attempt to control those around them, however ‘nice’ a person may seem.” 

Eric Bana and Connie Britton as John Meehan and Debra Newell in Netflix's Dirty John
Eric Bana and Connie Britton as John Meehan and Debra Newell in Netflix's Dirty John.

Starling, of course, is absolutely correct in her read of the ‘nice guy’ rhetoric here. Because, as we saw all too clearly in Netflix’s true crime series Dirty John – which explored John Meehan’s slow and meticulous campaign to gain full control over his partner, Debra Newell – charm and charisma are often vital tools in an abuser’s repertoire.

“A lot of people think that it’s about threats and somebody being very overtly abusive,” criminal behavioural analyst Laura Richards explains. “But [abuse can be] much more insidious, it’s this drip-drip-drip, under-the-skin behaviour, and the romancing can be part of the campaign.

“So people are like, ‘He makes you smoothies, he takes your stuff to the dry cleaner, what’s the problem? He’s doing these incredible things, what are you complaining about?’”

Essentially, it can be difficult for many people trapped in toxic and abusive relationships to spot the warning signs. And it can be even trickier for those on the outside looking in to see anything wrong with the situation, too. 

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It is also worth noting that abusers do not necessarily abuse everyone they form a relationship with; rather, predators choose their victims. And, finally, many abusers work assiduously to gain trust and appear benevolent – something which is particularly important to remember when considering new allegations of abuse that took place a long time ago.

As such, the relationships they work so hard to form do not disappear overnight, even after an abusive episode. And women in particular, experts point out, are conditioned to smooth things over.

“Victims think that it was their fault, so in many cases they want continued contact,” Roderick MacLeish, a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims of abuse by Catholic priests and schoolteachers, tells The New York Times.

“And then later they realise that it was for the perpetrator’s sexual gratification, and that’s devastating.” 

Of course, it is always difficult to accept that people we love – be it our brothers, husbands, dads, bosses, mentors, best friends, or beloved celebrity icons – might not be the “nice guy” we perceive them to be. That they might have bullied and harassed someone. That they might have employed that same charm we admire in them to control and abuse another human being.

It is for this reason that ‘the nice guy’ argument is so very damaging; it teaches us to instinctively assume we know all there is to know about someone, based solely on how they present themselves publicly. It convinces us that there’s nothing untoward happening behind closed doors. And it makes us far less likely to believe those who allege otherwise, too – no matter how much evidence they have on their side. 

As Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at Refuge, says: “We must listen to survivors of domestic abuse, and recognise the courage and bravery it takes to speak out, particularly when their perpetrator is wealthy or famous.

“Domestic abuse doesn’t discriminate – it can happen to anyone. One in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime, and two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales.

“These are not just statistics, they represent real women experiencing male violence.”

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King adds: “Refuge stands in solidarity with every woman who experiences male violence or abuse. Neither money nor power should ever be a barrier to reporting abuse.

“Abusers often use their wealth and status to try and silence women, telling that that no one will believe them. Refuge believes them and is here for any woman who needs us. You are not alone.”

If you would like more information or support, visit Rape Crisis UK – or, alternatively, call 0808 802 9999 (usual opening times are noon - 2.30pm and 7 - 9.30pm any day of the year and also between 3 - 5.30pm on weekdays).

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