I was about 14 years old when I figured out how to bug my family’s home telephone.
Although it was a touchtone phone instead of rotary dial by then, it looked a lot like this one. It was mounted on a wall in a hallway in the middle of the house. I had been tinkering for years with wires, batteries, phone parts and tape recorders. I understood the basics of the technology.
The cable containing four wires ran down the wall and through the floor to an unfinished basement. It was there that I conducted my experiment. I figured out how to trigger the power to a tape recorder when the phone rang. I had spliced the two wires carrying voices into a line-in cable to the recorder.
Every time the phone started ringing, the recorder started — with the record buttons already in position — and it recorded the conversation. I don’t recall how I rigged it to know when a call was over.
For a long time, I’ve told this story with amusement, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I understood what it was all about. The real insight in this story is that I didn’t trust anybody — and I thought nothing of betraying their trust, too.
What I was doing was very illegal at the time. The telephone company was a monopoly which owned all the equipment — even the phones in our houses — and it wasn’t even legal to attach privately owned devices to phone lines. Some people actually went to jail for such “crimes.”
After my recording setup had been in place for a bit — maybe a few days or a week, I guess — I got scared of being caught, so I disconnected it. Nobody at the time ever knew what I was doing. And I can assure you that the phone calls I recorded at my house weren’t very interesting.
I would never do such a thing today, because I’m mature enough and emotionally healthy enough to respect other people’s personal boundaries. I know that it would be a gross violation of a person’s normal expectation of privacy for me to figure out some way to get into his phone or email, for instance.
I’ve realized a couple of interesting things about my childhood programming that are related to this.
First, I grew up believing that it wasn’t safe to trust anyone. My father never told me this, but his example made it seem normal. Even when I was very young, I remember him attaching a little suction cup device to our phone before any of us called our mother. The device ran to a tape recorder and it was my first introduction to phone recording.
My father was constantly using one of his children to either manipulate my mother into doing something or else manipulate her into admitting something to one of us so he could have it recorded.
For instance, there was a time when my mother had been scheduled to visit the three of us, but she didn’t come. I have no idea why, but I think my father knew more than he was telling us. I just know that he had my youngest sister call her — while he recorded the call — and ask her why she didn’t come to see us.
He was using us as pawns in a larger battle with our mother. He got his recording of mother admitting to my sister whatever he wanted her to say. To him, that was ammunition for his larger battle with her.
Second, I learned that if you wanted something from anyone, you didn’t just trust that person to do the right thing. You carefully planned and connived to manipulate them into doing whatever you wanted. And you assured them the whole time that you wanted only what was best for that person, while you applied subtle pressure to get what you had already planned to accomplish.
My father was a master manipulator — and I learned well from him.
It’s still very difficult for me to trust people. I still have the gut-level fear — instilled very early by him — that people will betray me unless I manipulate their actions and trick them into doing what I want. I’ve learned, though, that believing that about other people leads to a horrible power imbalance in a relationship.
Whether you have the power or not, if you put yourself into such a manipulative position with people, you are setting yourself up to be unequal with another person. And even if that person does exactly as you want, you will never know whether that person really did a thing because he or she cared about you or if it was simply because you manipulated the situation enough to get your way.
Even if you get what you want, emotional manipulation of others leaves you feeling empty — and it’s almost impossible to feel real intimacy and trust with such a person.
I eventually had to learn to stop manipulating people — even in situations in which I knew exactly how to push people’s buttons. I don’t get my way as often as I once did, but when I do get what I want, I know it’s because someone really wanted to give me whatever I wanted.
I still struggle with trusting people, though. Experience has shown that most people aren’t to be trusted. Experience has shown me that most people aren’t going to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing. And most people aren’t going to keep their word to you if it’s more convenient to look the other way.
At this point, I feel like a cynical little boy in a man’s body, at least about this issue. My narcissistic and manipulative father taught me how to treat other people to try to get what you want, but I also know how that worked out for him in the end. So I’m waiting for evidence that there’s a better way.
I want to trust someone completely. I want someone to trust me completely. I don’t want to feel the need to manipulate. I don’t want to feel the need to “spot check” the person to make sure she’s being truthful.
I just want someone I can trust — completely — so I’ll finally be free of my old belief that I have to always be more clever than everybody else. I want to believe that things can go well for me in a relationship simply because of trust and love, not because of dishonesty and manipulation.
Trust is difficult if you had my childhood programming, but it’s the only way to develop intimacy that’s real and lasting. Manipulation creates loneliness and isolation. I can’t live that way anymore.