“Because you asked….”: How to support victims of interpersonal abuse

One of this blog’s recurring themes has been interpersonal abuse across the life spectrum, and with it the importance of understanding of trauma in different contexts. My dear friend Mary Louise Allen, a psychology professor and activist, has become an emerging voice for trauma victims, and I’d like to share a compelling piece that she just published.

Mary Louise has experienced abuse and assault, as well as repeated institutional stonewalling and legal irregularities in her efforts to obtain assistance and justice in her home state of Ohio. Recently, she was asked how someone could support abuse victims who are dealing with ongoing trauma. This prompted her to write “Because you asked….,” and post it to her Unapologetic Civil Rights Activist site. It’s a brave, heartfelt, and intelligent statement. I’m excerpting parts of it here, and if you want to learn more about her experiences and those of others, then please read the full entry.

Listen to our voices.  The one thing that I can conclusively say is that silencing me and allowing a network of corruption to define my story with no ability to correct the fallacious version did me a grave disservice – ultimately causing my dire health conditions and current daily struggles. . . .


Don’t dismiss us as crazy. While our assertions appear, on face value, to be so outrageous that they must be fictitious, rest assured that most of us possess recordings and documentation that validate our allegations. . . .


Be cautious of victim-blaming/shaming questions. While I would like to think that the proverbial “why did you stay” interrogatory has dissipated in our society, it has not.


I implore you to consider your votes.  If these officials remain in office, your daughter, your sister, or your mother could be a future victim. . . .


Tag your local newspapers/news stations asking them if they have covered our stories, via links to our publications. . . .


Hold board members accountable.  As seen in the case of [Olympic gymnast doctor Larry] Nassar, how many children would have been protected had the board taken action? . . .


While I understand that everyone is entitled to representation and false reports exist (approximately 3%), I do take issue with law firms who are knowingly involved in harassing a victim, sustaining the chilling effect, and/or neglect their due diligence of representing the victim. . . .


Do not contribute to nonprofits who cooperate with the system. . . . Every single nonprofit organization in the state of Ohio whose mission was to assist me and my situation configured asinine excuses as to why they could not help . . . .


Ask hospitals of any statistics of mysteriously lost rape kits. . . . Often, the alleged assailant is a police officer, an attorney, a high-profile business official – but most assuredly, a well-connected man. . . .


Don’t assume that justice prevails. Consider accompanying victims to court hearings. I was treated with an entirely different demeanor when I had supporters present – as opposed to attending by myself where I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening. . . .


Oppose mysteriously passed state statutes abusively used to oppress and silence victims/witnesses. These statutes are often masked in an apparent attempt of genuine propriety but often abused to silence victims, witnesses, and Whistleblowers. . . .


Sadly, an entire system has directly and indirectly informed me, and so many others, that we don’t matter. . . .  I came to terms that I could never contact the police for any safety assistance – no matter what the situation. . . . The only way for victims to interpret this inaction is that we don’t matter. Our last names and familial lineage are not prominent enough to be considered worthy. Our lives aren’t important enough to warrant therapeutic jurisprudence.

In addition to being instructive on a personal level, Mary Louise’s statement highlights the social responsibilities of institutions to respond to abuse and trauma. When public and non-profit agencies that are supposed to help abuse victims don’t step up, when victims cannot obtain needed legal representation despite a surfeit of available attorneys, when the justice system fails them, and when media sources ignore their stories, that community has failed as a moral organism.

When Mary Louise posted her piece on Facebook, Dr. Maureen Duffy, a leading expert on workplace mobbing behaviors and trauma, left this comment for her, which I share with Maureen’s permission:

Mary Louise, this is a profoundly thoughtful, moving, and practical response to the question of what others can do to help victims. I appreciate the clarity and depth of your responses and that you took the time to put them together and publish them. Since a lot of my work is in the area of workplace mobbing, your account reminds us all again of the power of professional, workplace, and other kinds of social networks, both formal and informal. These networks can have a very dark side that is often ignored. Thanks for calling this form of abuse of power to our attention.

I wholeheartedly concur. And I’m guessing that readers who have experienced workplace abuse, only to find their employers and the legal system looking the other way or even complicit in the mistreatment, will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of Mary Louise’s observations and insights.

What are the roots of cruelty at work?

In a November 2017 New Yorker essay reviewing books that examine cruelty and evil in their historical contexts, Paul Bloom questions the common assumption that dehumanization is the underlying dynamic when violence, aggression, and exclusion come into play:

The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.

After combing through recent works that examine a wide variety of extraordinary and sadly ordinary events, including genocide, slavery, sexual assault, social exclusion, and others, he concludes:

As the scholar of warfare Johannes Lang has observed of the Nazi death camps, “What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.

Cruelty at work

Yes, I’ve used the term dehumanization (or variations of it) to describe various instances of work abuse, including bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of mistreatment.

But Paul Bloom’s conclusions make more sense to me, including when applying them to the workplace. At the core, work abuse is about exercising power and control over other persons, which may involve marginalizing them (maybe considerably), but still regarding them as human. For example, we now understand that sexual harassment is very much about power and control. Those who have been bullied or mobbed at work comprehend this reality all too well. (For those who want to ponder this subject further, Bloom’s full review essay is worth your time and attention.)

These varying forms of work abuse constitute denials of human dignity, marked by the fear, humiliation, and embarrassment that often accompany them. Cruelties at work are deeply human acts, with profoundly human impacts.

“The Week”: What would your tattoo say?

The Week is a newsmagazine that, among other things, has a back-of-the-book puzzle and contest page. Its weekly contest invites readers to send in creative responses to questions posed, with the winner getting a one-year subscription. Here’s the contest in the current issue:

A growing number of workers are flaunting their bond with their employers by getting tattoos of corporate logos. If you were to get tattooed with a phrase that expressed your relationship with your employer in seven words or fewer, what would it say?

OK, dear readers, this “trend” is new to me. And given that many people find this blog after enduring bad work experiences, I’m guessing that if I offered the same contest, some of the entries would be unprintable. However, others might actually have positive words for their proposed tattoo.

I’m not a “tat” guy, so my tattoo language is purely theoretical, and I’ll keep mine to myself, thank you. I leave it to you to decide how you would memorialize a present or former employer on your own epidermis.

My 2017 live testimony in support of the MA Healthy Workplace Bill

In April 2017, union local president Greg Sorozan and I testified in support of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development of the Massachusetts state legislature. Until recently, I didn’t know that Greg’s union, the National Association of Government Employees, had posted a video of our testimony on their YouTube page. It runs for just under six minutes.

I’m happy to report that the HWB, filed in Massachusetts as Senate Bill No. 1013 for the current 2017-18 session, has been favorably reported out of the Joint Committee, putting it an important step closer to a full floor vote in the Senate. As the author of the HWB’s template language, I am hoping that Massachusetts will become the first state to enact the full version of the HWB. Several other states have enacted workplace bullying legislation that draws upon the model language but falls short of creating a legal right to file a legal claim for damages.

Pioneering trauma researcher terminated for bullying behaviors

Pioneering trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, whose bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) has been highly recommended by this blog, has been terminated from his position at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, for alleged bullying and mistreatment of staff members. Liz Kowalczyk reports for the Boston Globe:

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a best-selling author on trauma whose research has attracted a worldwide following, has been fired from his job over allegations that he bullied and denigrated employees at his renowned Trauma Center.

Van der Kolk was removed as medical director of the Brookline center in January, according to several accounts…. His firing capped a tumultuous three months at the center that van der Kolk founded 35 years ago.

Executive director Joseph Spinazzola, like van der Kolk a longtime advocate for abuse victims, was removed in November over his alleged mistreatment of female employees, executives said.

Andy Pond, president of the Trauma Center’s parent organization, told the Globe that van der Kolk had “violated the code of conduct by creating a hostile work environment. His behavior could be characterized as bullying and making employees feel denigrated and uncomfortable.’’

Van der Kolk has denied the allegations and has filed a lawsuit challenging his termination.

This is enormously disappointing news to report. Van der Kolk has earned his reputation as one of the world’s most influential trauma researchers, and The Body Keeps the Score remains, in my opinion, the best book on psychological trauma and its treatment for both general and specialized audiences.

However, I also feel obliged to share this development, even as I struggle to process it. At the very least, it is a head spinning reminder of human fallibility and imperfection. As for the decision to terminate van der Kolk, it reminds us that doing the right thing in a management context can sometimes be enormously difficult. Within the community of researchers and practitioners addressing psychological trauma, the repercussions will be considerable.

Networks vs. hierarchies

Historian Niall Ferguson has written a very interesting book for anyone interested in the intersections of power, institutional hierarchies, and social networks. It’s titled The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies, and the Struggle for Global Power (2018). Here’s a snippet from the publisher’s description:

Most history is hierarchical: it’s about popes, presidents, and prime ministers. But what if that’s simply because they create the historical archives? What if we are missing equally powerful but less visible networks – leaving them to the conspiracy theorists, with their dreams of all-powerful Illuminati?

The twenty-first century has been hailed as the Networked Age. But in The Square and the Tower Niall Ferguson argues that social networks are nothing new. From the printers and preachers who made the Reformation to the freemasons who led the American Revolution, it was the networkers who disrupted the old order of popes and kings. Far from being novel, our era is the Second Networked Age, with the computer in the role of the printing press. Once we understand this, both the past, and the future, start to look very different indeed.

I’ve spent some time with this book, and although its focus is on the grander sweep of history, it’s a thoughtful and provocative read for anyone who wants to contemplate the hierarchy vs. network dichotomy generally.

In fact, the book’s main theme may have special significance for those of us in “underdog” roles with the ideas and causes we’re advocating for, in a world where political, economic, and social power can feel so stubbornly concentrated. In essence, The Square and the Tower invites us to think about how we can use our horizontal networks to overcome entrenched hierarchies. It’s not easy, but it can happen, and access to digital communications can help us do it. Technology is not a panacea, but it can be an accessible and relatively affordable connector, not to mention a welcomed complement to face-to-face communications.

Of course we shouldn’t err in assuming that all networks are good and all hierarchies are bad. Structures can be created and activated for positive and nefarious purposes alike; human motivations and actions give them their meaning.

This theme is but one element of the much larger conversation of how we can change an increasingly plutocratic society, with its enormous hierarchies of wealth and power. Nevertheless, it puts some historical “oomph” behind the notion that networks matter and can impact change.

Should taxpayers pay when elected officials engage in sexual misconduct?

Stateline‘s Jen Fifield, in a piece that ran on PBS News Hour, asks why taxpayers should have to foot the bill when a legislator engages in sexual misconduct and a settlement is reached with the victim:

When Pennsylvania state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone was accused of harassing a staff member, the Legislature settled the matter outside of court. The state’s insurance paid out $250,000 in 2015, and no one said a word — even during the next year’s elections, when Caltagirone retained his seat.

This secret settlement is one of many involving state lawmakers or legislative aides that have been exposed in the last few months, as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations has flooded the country. And in state after state, the allegations of wrongdoing quietly went away after victims received payouts from public funds.

The revelation that legislatures frequently use taxpayer money to protect lawmakers and staff accused of harassment or assault has sparked outrage and prompted reporters to try to tally up the bill.

I was among those whom Fifield contacted for an opinion, and here’s what I said:

But some employment lawyers, such as David Yamada, a law professor and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University in Boston, say the issue is more complicated than it seems.

Holding individual lawmakers, and not the government, responsible for sexual harassment may lessen the incentive for legislatures to offer sexual harassment training and to police their own, Yamada said. And, because some lawmakers may not be able to come up with the money for a settlement, it also may make it less likely that the victim will receive compensation for her claim.

“There are better ways to spend public money than to have to spend it to atone for the misdeeds of public servants,” Yamada said. But, he said, “We have to hold public employers liable.”

In other words, I understand the outrage over using taxpayer monies to cover for misbehaving legislators and other elected officials. However, if local, state, and federal governments are not held at least jointly responsible for the misconduct, then there’s scant organizational incentive to act preventively and responsively.

In addition, let me add that especially in the public sector, such settlements and dispositions should always be public. As the phrase goes, sunlight is always the best policy. Furthermore, there also should be ways to publicly discipline or, where appropriate, remove an elected official who engages in sexual misconduct. After all, holding elected office should not insulate someone from responsibility for his or her wrongful actions. In severe cases of misconduct, having to wait until the next election for a chance to “throw the bum out” should be unnecessary; once an appropriate investigative finding is made, out the door they should go.

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