“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.

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.

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect”

Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, first published in 2007, has just been reissued in paperback for 2018 with a new Introduction. Especially for those interested in more manipulative forms of workplace bullying and abuse, this is a very useful and important book.

Dr. Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

According to Stern, gaslighting is a “mutually created relationship” involving a gaslighter who wants “the gaslightee to doubt her perceptions of reality,” and a gaslightee who is “equally intent on getting the gaslighter to see her as she wished to be seen.”

For those who are new to the term, gaslighting draws its inspiration from a 1944 film, “Gaslight,” in which a husband is trying to drive his wife insane, including the periodic dimming of gaslights in a house where her aunt was murdered years before.

Stern has played a major role in popularizing the concept of gaslighting, with her main focus being on such behaviors in interpersonal relationships, especially as experienced by women. This emphasis remains in the re-issued edition, but the new Introduction explains how gaslighting is now being applied to additional scenarios, including bullying. In fact, I was flattered to read a reference to this blog:

Meanwhile, an increasing number of blogs linked gaslighting to bullying, both in personal relationships and at work. “Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying?” asked David Yamada on his blog, Minding the Workplace, while numerous dating and self-help blogs talked about the importance of identifying and standing up to your gaslighter. 

I’m happy to recommend The Gaslight Effect. In addition, you can check out past blog posts about gaslighting at work and in society:

Gaslighting at work (2017)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012)

Telling stories about work abuse

Lots of folks have shared their workplace bullying stories with Massachusetts legislators

The #MeToo movement challenging sexual harassment and assault has been built on the stories of (mostly) women who have courageously shared their experiences in a public way. Some have gone into considerable detail, others have not. Some have named their harassers or abusers, others have not. Regardless of the choices they have made about what and how much to disclose, the stories themselves are driving this movement and empowering those who have faced identical or similar types of abuse.

Just as our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing has been informed by the dynamics of sexual harassment and other forms of mistreatment, we can learn from movements such as #MeToo about how to confront all types of abuse at work. The concept of storytelling is at the heart of this. Although facts and figures about workplace bullying are helpful in painting the picture, the human impacts and costs are more vividly illustrated by the growing body of individual stories.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog pieces about storytelling and workplace abuse. I’ve gathered links to five of them here because they continue to be relevant, and I’ve included snippets to give you an idea of what I was writing about. (There’s some overlap in points made, but that is the nature of blogging.) I hope you will find this collection helpful and enlightening. 

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017) — “Countless public speaking appearances about workplace bullying have taught me that covering the essential basics about work abuse is doable in about 15 minutes or so. . . . However, what I can’t do in the typical short presentation is adequately convey the twisted, sick, and utterly disturbing narratives of the worst individual bullying and mobbing experiences, where the abusive behavior has been ongoing, targeted, malicious, multidirectional, and often suggesting an absence of conscience on the part of the main perpetrator(s).”

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries (2016) — “But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.”

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (2016) — “Why is it that some targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing have difficulty telling or jotting down their stories in a straightforward, chronological manner? And why do they often launch into what sounds like a War and Peace version of their story, when all that’s needed (for now) is the quick elevator speech? It can make for a long, rambling account, laden with emotion. We should not blame this on the target. Work abuse situations are often complex and hard to summarize. Equally significant, the effects of psychological trauma may have a lot to do with the ‘word salad’ narrative.”

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016) — “Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment. But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.”

Storytelling for social change (2015) — “The best stories, including those intended to drive positive social change, are natural and authentic, not contrived and formulaic. That said, stories need planning, shaping, and editing in order to connect with others. After all, raw, scrambled recitations of events, experiences, impressions, and facts are much less likely to hold someone’s attention in any medium. That’s why I was pleased to stumble upon A Changemaker’s Eight-Step Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change (2013), published by Ashoka Changemakers. It’s freely accessible as a 14-page pdf booklet.”

In the news

It has been a year of prominent news stories related to the workplace, especially the avalanche of accounts concerning sexual harassment. Here are many of the 2017 news stories in which I’ve been quoted or where my work has been discussed:

Top 2017 reads

image courtesy of gallery.yopriceville.com

Hello dear readers, here are the top posts published here during 2017, as measured by “hits” or page views. I’ve divided them into two categories, in recognition of the fact that the overwhelming share of online searches that lead to this blog are about workplace bullying and related topics.

Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

  1. Gaslighting at work (March)
  2. Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing (June)
  3. Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue? (March)
  4. How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (April)
  5. Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief (April)
  6. Male targets of workplace bullying (June)
  7. “Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers (November)
  8. Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (April)
  9. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability (February)
  10. Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (July)
  11. When workplace predators silence and intimidate their targets (November)
  12. Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations (January)
  13. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR (May)
  14. Passing workplace anti-bullying laws during the Age of Trump (January)
  15. Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying) (January)

Other Topics

  1. Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist? (August)
  2. “First world” ethics of the Amtrak Quiet Car (March)
  3. Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (January)
  4. Work, savings, retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (August)
  5. “The rules don’t apply to me” (February)
%d bloggers like this: