Growing up, one of the lessons I learned was that something was not really important unless it was yelled at you.
Related to this, if something is important, you have to yell it. Otherwise, how would the listener know it was important?
Looking back on things, it is clear that people in my life were telling me important things which I should have paid more attention to. But they were not yelling it, so it didn’t contain the emotional import–not sufficient emotional affect–to stand out as a thing to pay specific attention to.
People often tell you what to do, or not to do, if you don’t want to hurt, disappoint, or otherwise do damage to your relationship with them. Most people don’t yell these things. I didn’t know that, until later in life. And I’m still trying to unlearn those early lessons, even today.
We all deal with childhood, and family life, with complications and difficulties. Many of the people I have known have had to deal with some amount of annoying, manipulative, or abusive behavior. We all have our baggage. But understanding the baggage of other people, and how that baggage compels problematic behavior, is perhaps one of the most difficult things to navigate.
It’s even harder to learn other people’s baggage is you don’t have a handle on your own, completely.
Most of the people out there who I have hurt gave me some form of warning, pleading, or simple conversation to point out what was wrong. The problem was that because I learned that intense, aggressive, and often loud emotional communication was necessary to get one’s attention, I just heard it as conversation without import. It was not that I wasn’t listening, it was that I was trained to listen for something else.
Ever since I realized this (and it’s been quite a while), it has frustrated me more and more that the lesson still is not unlearned.
There is a distinction between trusting a person and trusting their ideas. Even the worst people can be right, even if they use the truth as a weapon. If you seek true understanding, it is worth paying attention to the criticism we receive, even if that bouquet of criticism is delivered with brickbats.
I have always been a person who is interested in self-improvement and introspective knowledge. This set of self-challenging ideals has been a large source of motivation for myself over the years, and it is not something which is likely to change. This predilection had led me to gain some fairly significant insight into not only myself, but of the people around me. The more intimate I am with them, the more I understand them. And while I’m nowhere near always right, the value here comes in that we have the ability to see where others cannot. Being even partially right where another cannot see at all is better than the myopia that would result in ignoring that perspective completely.
The knowledge gained from these perspectives can be used in ways that are loving, and ways that are not. And depending on all sorts of factors, such as our own emotional maturity, levels of selfishness and security, etc, that knowledge can be used in a myriad of ways both good and bad. If a person severely hurt, depressed, or otherwise behaviorally compromised then that understanding can become a weapon. It’s a part of being human.
And sometimes shit gets hard, and when we’re afraid and hurt what we know can become clothed in the ability to hurt other people. When this happens to me, for example, my intellectual understanding does not simply go away, it just gets loaded into a (metaphorical) gun. I’ve been hurt (let’s say), some way or another, and I know something relevant to the situation or to the person involved. And now I’m going to use that knowledge to re-direct that pain. I’m going to take that truth, wrap it in a napkin of my pain, and I’m going to show the person who hurt me how I feel.
It’s an unhealthy reaction, but it is a human one. I do not believe that this ability, propensity, and even occasional desire is unique or even rare; I think it’s part of being human, especially during difficult times in our lives. And when times get difficult, people hurt each other. And when people hurt each other, the ability to see nuance, truth, and even to recognize the truth in what people say is lost in the mire of that pain.
This is very unfortunate, and I believe that it is a mistake to ignore or distrust an idea simply because of it’s source. Skepticism asks us to seek evidence, and sometimes data comes from places that we may wish we had never gone, but it is data nonetheless. Ignoring an idea simply because the way it reached us was painful is a reactionary and emotional response, not a skeptical one.
When we dismiss a person, even the truth that they might have had for us gets thrown away as well. In my darkest moments, when I’m least certain, I might think that a person who has criticized me cruelly is completely right about me. But this is merely one side of a spectrum. Because other times, when feeling more secure, I think that that person is completely wrong, and therefore I don’t need to keep in consideration their opinion. How are these two things not the same error?
While we all can mock the words of a person we have dismissed as deplorable (and often for good reason), might it be that those words might have something to teach us, and that we are only dismissing them because those words were wrapped in pain and weaponized?
Is it possible to learn from the content of painful words, even from painful people? Can even pacifists learn from the technology of war?
Blind Spots and Bad Drivers
No matter how self-aware I am or become, there are always aspects of myself that I cannot see, at least not well. As I go through my life, I have built up habits which, as I “drive”through life I cannot see unless I specifically turn my attention to them. But I have to be willing to look at at them. And sometimes it’s painful to look in that direction, because that section of my universe may have emotional associations which I prefer to avoid, ignore, or forget.
It’s quite easy to forget (or to avoid) to look in that direction, as a result. It’s much more pleasant, and easier, not to. As an actively defensive driver (and yes, this is somewhat of a metaphor as well), I will keep an eye, sometimes, on where cars are relative to me and anticipate when a car is moving into my blind spots. Thus, sometimes I know a car is there even if I am not looking. But my attention is not perfect, and so if I plan on changing lanes, I need to peek anyway.
Especially if I’m tired, hurt, or otherwise emotionally distracted. I need to build up the habit to check where I can only see when I intentionally move my attention. And sometimes I need other people, even ones I may not like, to help me see those blind spots. Because quite often the people we clash with see things within ourselves that we do not like to see, and whether or not we trust their intentions, their perspective can often see what we cannot.
But here we need to be careful, because there are people who want to manipulate, control, and influence us in a direction that is not necessarily in our favor. There are people in the world who, despite being able to see some of the problems with our behavior and may, potentially, have something to teach us, they are more focused on their own interests to actually help us. They might tell us there is something in that blind spot which is not there (they may be projecting or are directly trying to deceive us). They may not tell you there is something there because they may think it’s not a big deal or whatever. Or, they just may not see it either, and are just as blind to that spot as you are.
And such people may leave us hurt, traumatized, and possibly less trusting. In those cases, we are then subject to over-compensating and becoming too focused on our own perspectives, and then we start to change lanes without looking. Trusting our own judgment is good, but sometimes it is the judgment of others, especially those who have hurt us, which we need especially because it is painful. There is a reason certain things are painful, and sometimes it’s because some truth is painful. In order to grow, we need to look at difficult truths and be willing to make effort to understand. Growth does not come from personal avoidance and people willing to simply be content with your own parochial myopia. Love and friendship is not merely celebrating what’s important to you, what you want, and what you can see. That is much closer to submissiveness to a quasi-narcissism than to love.
Challenge v. Control
I’ve been through, in my life, many experiences where people attempted (and often succeeded) to control me. I am also guilty of, in moments of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty, attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to control other people. I don’t like doing it, at all. I don’t want to do it, either. However, it’s part of the human dynamic and the distinction between the desire to help and to control is sometimes a very fine line, one which sometimes even the person perpetrating the advice/control cannot see. Navigating such treacherous waters is difficult on all sides, and only a few people actually want to and enjoy the kind of intentional manipulation of that control.
And when a person has found themselves in the position of being controlled, manipulated, and influenced too much, the reaction is often to become less accepting of opinion, of trying to trust their own instincts, and to sometimes close themselves off to what people who have hurt them have to say. And in many cases, this is for very good reason. But I am of the (probably controversial) opinion that it is especially the people who have hurt us that have the most to teach us.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that people who are abusive and controlling are right, especially about our character. What I am saying is that often pain comes from truth, even if that truth is twisted and deformed for the purposes of that control and abuse. The affect such people often have on us is so real because a true thing has been used as a weapon. The fact that a hammer can be used to hurt or kill does not invalidate the usefulness of the hammer in building all sorts of things.
The Devil will often use the truth, whether for a greater lie or for the sake of power, as it is said. But we are not talking about the Devil (and even if we were, in Jewish/Christian mythology, the Devil is merely an interlocutor and questioner of God, not a psychopath or even evil), we are talking about people. Of course, if a person is overwhelmingly using their hammer to attack rather than to build, then that person probably should not be trusted. But ignoring and invalidating everything such a person would say is akin to eliminating hammers in your life, rather than unwieldy carpenters.
Having been the receiver of a lot of criticism based upon some truth, it is hard to hear the parts that are true and to disregard the parts which are interpretation, attempts to hurt and control, and the parts which are not true. Being human, I have flaws and have made mistakes in my life. But I will not ignore or dismiss the words of critics and ideas whole-cloth, because to do so opens me up to the possibility of conflating the message with the messenger. Even an abusive person, in using abusive words and actions, may have some insight worth paying attention to (even if they don’t follow it themselves).
I don’t want anyone to be coerced, controlled, or abused, but I also don’t want people to shrink into their shells and accept only words from people who are willing to coddle them and not challenge their comfort zone. That is not love, that is how growth stagnates. There is a very difficult rope to walk on between self-absorbed obliviousness and accepting victimhood. One of the questiona I keep asking myself recently is whether one’s own obliviousness, self-absorption, and arrogance (sometimes framed as confidence or strength of will) is any better, in the long run, to being subject to the coercion and abuse from others. Either way, you are letting a limited perspective control you.
Trusting my own judgment and instincts is only in tension with, and not in contradiction to, hearing the criticisms of friends, acquaintance, or even foes. This is because even if I cannot trust a person’s intentions or motivations, sometimes I must trust their ability to see my blind spots when I can’t.
Therefore, I pay attention to criticisms, even from those I consider to be not trustworthy. I do not seek to internalize the ideas of abusive people, but to ignore their perspective seems equally problematic. The error in abusive control comes in the abuse, not necessarily the content. If abusive people could learn to find loving ways to show us what we cannot see, then nobody would need to shy away from their knowledge.
And this is as true of me as it is of anyone. My struggle is to find ways to share my perspective in ways that are not hurtful, and to understand the knowledge that even abusive people might have to teach me. I trust my judgment, but my judgment is limited. Those who can see some things that I can see, and some of those people are truly assholes, must complement what I can already see, or I risk the blindness and myopia that follows fear and mistrust.
I agree, generally, with her post. She is more optimistic than I am about the possibility of Wes’ (in particular) ability to make amends in an appropriate way (especially since he is still harassing and abusing at least one person close to me in the exact same way that we have been describing), but I will still hold out some hope that he will take responsibility for his mistakes, try to genuinely make meaningful amends, and alter his toxic behavior which dominates many of his relationships and interactions with people.
I believe in rehabilitation, restoration, and forgiveness. So far, Wes has shown no capability to even recognize he has done or is continuing to do anything wrong. On the contrary, his behavior has been the exact opposite of that. While I was at the talk, given by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, about Abuse in poly dynamics, I was sitting in the back of the room, while Wes sat directly up front. At some point in the talk, it seemed to me (And not only to me, BTW) that Franklin and Eve were describing him and his behavior to the room, while he sat directly in front of them on his phone (seemingly tweeting about the hashtag #AbuseInPoly, which some of the people he’s hurt took exception to) and chatting with a woman next to him off and on.
I don’t know what he was talking about with the woman next to him, but he seemed to be flirting. Here we were, talking about abuse, which he had been accused of, removed from the PLN because of those accusations, and he had the myopic temerity to not only be tweeting about #AbuseInPoly during the talk but also to be potentially flirting with a woman next to him while a very difficult and emotional presentation was going on.
What the actual fuck?
It’s like he’s completely incapable of even considering that maybe, just maybe, he’s done anything wrong.
[Content Warning: Manipulation, abuse, victim grooming, sexual assault, physical assault, mild reference to BDSM themes, toxic relationships, general squick]
[Author’s note: this account, while full, is not exhaustive or replete. It can’t be. There are hundreds of moments I could include in this narrative that illustrate and illuminate the dynamics of the relationships I’ve survived, and despite which, have chosen to thrive and flourish. Comments will remain open, but as always, moderated strictly by me, prior to posting publicly. ]
Being in an abusive or exploitative plural relationship is a lot like falling asleep in the bathtub with the lights out and no map. Wait. Let me explain.
Okay, so let me back up. Have you ever fallen asleep in a hot bath? I do it with some regularity. It’s a rather odd experience and feels as close as I can get to describing what it’s like to find yourself…
There’s no good way to start a post like this. This is a difficult post to compose, and a terrifying one to publish. But I don’t feel as if I can leave this unsaid.
I feel as if I must say a few of things about Wes Fenza, because I think it’s worth saying in the interest of people within our community being able to make more informed decisions concerning an individual who seeks to have influence and respected status within our community.
Many people out there like Wes Fenza. Hell, I did at first as well. He’s smart, entertaining, and he throws a pretty good party. Then I lived with him and his family for 18 months or so, and eventually saw beneath the mask he wears for most people and saw him behave abusively to many people, myself included. Later, I found out that he was much more than a mere assclown, but we’ll get to that.
Recently, his family has been painting themselves publicly as the victims of a vendetta and smear campaign, the seeming intention of which is to ruin their reputation, by people formerly close to them.
And what form has this imagined vendetta taken?
Wes was, for a while, a member of the Polyamory Leadership Network (PLN). He isn’t a member any more.
Wes was removed from the PLN due to some people coming out from their various hiding places in order to tell their stories about how he had abused, sexually assaulted, and manipulated them. I don’t know very much about those stories, but what I do know is deeply upsetting to me and all too familiar. From what I know about the people who contacted the PLN, they were offended, hurt, and angry that a person who was so criminally insensitive to boundaries, consent, and the truth was allowed to be in a position of any respect or leadership within our community. If Wes Fenza is to be representative of our community, then we are failing as arbiters and examples of healthy and loving relationships.
Wes, as well as his family, seem to think this action was the result of an ongoing campaign by “delusional” people who have been trying to smear his reputation. Nobody has done more to damage the reputation of Wes than he has done through his own actions. Nobody had to make up any stories, all they need to do is talk about their experiences with him and his reputation takes the hit it deserves.
The fact that a growing list of people have started to speak about their experiences is a sign not of a conspiracy to ruin them, but of something much simpler; it’s an attempt to warn people of what he has done, how he responds to people he hurts, and how he tries to control narratives to protect his image.
What people are responsible, according to him? Well, he apparently thinks this is “team Shaun” in action. Let me make something absolutely clear; I had nothing to do with the process to remove him from the PLN. In fact, I did not know he was a member until I was informed that the process was already initiated to remove him. I did not initiate the complaints nor did I contribute when it was brought to my attention that it was going to happen. I knew about it because some of the people involved informed me, but I decided to keep my distance from the process.
Wes does not know who was responsible for him being removed from the PLN, but that does not stop him and his partners from casting blame and crying “abuse” towards the people he assumes it was. He may have some guesses as to who is responsible (I mean, all he has to do is remember who he abused, right?), but the fact is that this action was not a smear campaign by any “League of Evil Exes.” This was the result of a number of people, unknown to him, sharing their stories with the PLN, and the PLN taking appropriate action.
His pointing blame towards the people who have been abused by him, and calling them “evil,” is nothing more than an attempt to re-frame themselves as the victims; it’s a distraction. Calling the people who Wes has emotionally abused, sexually assaulted, and manipulated (among other infractions) “evil” is hugely inappropriate at very least.
People have come out, bravely, to share their stories and they are being treated as the aggressors. Let me emphasize this; people who have had the strength of character to stand up against a man who abused, manipulated, and sexually assaulted them are being mocked, dismissed, and attacked publicly for daring to tell their stories–and not only by him! For a person who talks a lot about consent, ethics, and abuse, I find that highly problematic, disturbing, and horrifying.
Speaking only for myself, I wish I could put this all behind me more easily, but a year of actual smear campaigns against me, PTSD caused by the abuse leveled against me, and running into other people with similar experiences has not allowed it to die away. Wes and his family claim to want to be able to move on and not be bothered by others’ “misery and delusional hatred” of them, but those who commit abuse while claiming to want to move on are tragically missing the point. When you hurt people, you don’t get to simply move on and put it behind you.
Wesley Fenza is not only manipulative and abusive, but when he is confronted with these facts he consistently turns the accusation around and paints himself as the victim. I’ve rarely heard him even directly address the accusations (in fact, when you directly accuse him of hurting you at that very moment, he has been known to ignore it and argue with you more), because he understands that a good offense is better than playing defense. Also, some of his friends and family have flatly denied that there is any reason to take the allegations seriously. The fact is, Wes is not universally abusive, so those who don’t receive it (at least, not often) get to be his choir.
speaking up [edited title]
[edited for clarity and out if respect for privacy]The people Wes has harmed [/edited] have been speaking up over the last year about his behavior, and will continue to do so until he actually takes some responsibility for his actions. Wes and his family can dismiss us, mock us, and ignore his deep flaws and crimes all they want, but we are not “planning attacks”. To the contrary, we are responding to the toxic, abusive, and unconscionable behavior shown by Wes. Whereas I (for I can only represent myself) have been forthcoming about my mistakes, Wes has never acknowledged his own without blaming someone else for them or simply denying it.
Wes has cultivated credibility both locally and nationally. He likes attention. That he speaks at conferences and goes about the poly world publicly decrying the behaviors he often practices in his private life is hugely problematic for the people he has hurt, those he seeks to control, and the polyamorous community as a whole. And, to our partial relief, some of that community is listening now.
There are too many stories, too many people, and to much harm done for those of us who Wes has hurt to remain quiet. Even if I were to stop writing about this, others have their own stories to share. RabbitDarling has shared part of hers here (and elsewhere), previously (and she has more, if she decides to share it). I have written some things too. I have heard the stories of others, and if they decide to share, they will.
We are not delusional and we are not wrong. And we are not afraid to speak about what we know.
No doubt that Wes and his family will respond to this, as is their wont. He will invariably try to re-focus the attention on what we have done to hurt his family, which has become their childish “nu uh” narrative. In anticipation, allow me to say one last set of things.
I have been talking with some close friends over the last few days about whether to post this or not. We all know the type of response he will make. We all know that writing such things will not convince them, or anyone they are close to, of anything. I write such a thing knowing what kind of response we have gotten thus far, and that writing this will not likely change Wes’ behavior or his family from crying “we’re being attacked.”
But here’s the thing. Every night this last week, I have not been able to sleep well. Why? Because stepping out of the shadows, being in the same social space as Wes, is terrifying to me. Writing this was terrifying to me. Publishing it is, I believe, necessary, but terrifying. I’m traumatized. Not pretend traumatized, but actually terrified of his lack of scruples or concern for any meaningful self-reflection.
So, why am I speaking? Am I crazy? Am I delusional? Am I maliciously trying to ruin his reputation so that I can “win” (that’s their goal; to “win”)? No. I have had moments when I thought I might be seeing this wrong, but the more I have talked with other people hurt by him, the more I see the pattern of how he inflicts fear, destruction of self-esteem, and unhealthy self-doubt in people. He actually rationalizes his emotionally abusive behavior, in some cases, by saying that he treats people who he trusts and respects that way (they should be so lucky!).
The process seems to be to treat some people who gets within his trust/respect sphere like an asshole, and anyone who does not object to being treated like shit? keep them. If you object, then he argues with you, berates you, and only occasionally is nice to keep you guessing. It’s a bombardment upon self-worth he launches until either you turn out to be able to take some selfish mistreatment (or are equally willing to give it to the same targets), you submissively relent, or you are deposed from the court of Lord Wesselton and labeled as “terrible,” not worth his time, or “abusive” for daring to tell people what he did.
And also to treat the people he knows he won’t get away with that bullshit decently. You know, mostly.
Wes creates, within the people he repeatedly hurts, the fear that has two edges. If you say anything, you know he will respond with his rhetoric and effectively market himself as the victim. If you say nothing, then he can continue to paint whatever narrative he likes, knowing that if you later speak up then he’ll be able to call you “dishonest” for not saying anything sooner, “delusional” because what you are saying does not match the narrative he subsequently manipulated people around him to believe, and “abusive” because playing the victim allows him to turn the tables on those he hurts. No need to actually deny anything, because everyone’s too busy wondering if it’s true that Wes has been judged unfairly.
Arguing with him, when he’s being abusive in the way that many people have seen, is pointless and only seeks to deepen the hurt he’s causing while allowing him to paint his own victimhood and distance himself from addressing how he’s hurting someone. It’s sort of brilliant, is a terrifying way. Power, control, and manipulation at its sociopathic best.
The more I have become convinced that my experiences, feelings, and thoughts about Wes are not only valid, but shared by many others, the more I’m certain that this needs to be said publicly. And yet, I write this knowing I’ll receive more abuse, whining, and counter-narrative from him.
Why would I put myself through this, unless I thought that it was necessary? What do I have to gain by this? There are plenty of people who have hurt me, who I don’t like, and who I would not speak reverently of in private. Why stick my neck out here? Why take this risk? Why expose myself to the inevitable and childish responses?
Simple: he’ll keep doing it.
[images removed. It was wrong for me to include screenshots of private posts not directly relevant to Wes’ behavior]
Let’s take a look at some of it, and let me say a few things.
When I first tried to articulate what I thought the community response to abuse should be, the only thing I could really think was that abusers need good friends. The kind of friends who are willing to tell them when they are not being the best that they can be. And survivors need good friends. The kind of friends who will be on their side, who will believe them, who will protect them, and who will provide unwavering support when their inner support fails.
I agree with this. The simple fact is that as human beings, complicated as we are, we have the potential to harm others and to take harm from others in a myriad of ways. I have made mistakes and hurt partners myself, and regret doing so immensely. I’m glad that I have friends who are willing to honestly point out where I err, and I am glad that my friends have been there to help me through my own traumatic experiences from both partners and metamours.
Both survivors AND abusers need community support.
Specifically, survivors need protection and validation and abusers need support for accountability.
Again, agreed. People who hurt others, especially if it’s part of a pattern of behavior (and especially if it’s ongoing and unacknowledged) need the people around them to not only keep pointing it out, but also be willing to be ready to support them when they are ready to take steps towards whatever kind of reconciliation or at least personal improvement may be possible.
In most cases, I think that those who hurt other people will be able to find a path back to respectability and welcome by any community. In the cases where they cannot find that path, then the community needs to know about those people in order to make a more informed decision as to what kind of relationship to pursue with those people.
People who don’t want to change will often tell you that they don’t change because of the way that you are asking. This is horse puckey. Change is a personal matter, and it’s hard no matter what. If you want to change, no amount of assholery will be able to stop you. If you don’t, no amount of gentle crooning will make it happen. However, having said that, when we threaten community members who do not support community standards, what we do, mostly, is encourage them to hide their bad behavior.
Change must come from within. It starts with the recognition of wrong-doing, and moves through understanding the cause of the behavior and how it is seen by others. Those who feel attacked, criticized, or maligned by accusations will often find a way to camouflage, rationalize, or re-direct attention from their behavior.
Two of the biggest seeds are the invalidation and naming of another person’s experience and the sense of entitlement over someone else’s choices. Look for it, in yourself and others. Call it out. We can all weed the garden. Remember,
This is my experience. You can not know my experience.
That is your experience. I can not know your experience.
These are my choices. You are not entitled to control over them, you are not victimized by them.
Those are your choices. I am not entitled to control over them, I am not victimized by them.
Look for systemic oppression, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about why it’s ok. Challenge the stories, and think about how to best support someone who wants to change.
Word. This is a problem which all communities must face, as the atheist community has been facing issues related to harassment and feminism in the last few years. We, within the poly community, have some things to learn about how to deal with accusations of abuse.
How to be the friend of a survivor
Give them a safe space away from their abuser
While you may still be friends with their abuser (remember, abusers need good friends), understand that if you invite both people to the same space, you are actually only inviting the abuser. Try to also create events that are safe for the survivor. If you do not, understand that you aren’t a friend anymore.
I cannot emphasize this enough. I have (and I’m not the only one) avoided a plethora of social activities over the last year to avoid a specific person who I knew would be there, even if the social event was in my neighborhood and would be attended by friends of mine. I have avoided being around this person because almost any memory of him causes a miniature panic-attack. The sound of whistling still gives me chills, because he whistles tunes much of the time. For months after I left his house, the sound of his notification, on someone else’s phone, would cause me to become highly anxious that he was around.
I did not want to be anywhere near him. And the couple of time in the last year I was, it was terrifying and upsetting. Luckily, that is all fading (the nightmares still come around now and then), so I will no longer be hiding, but the fear, anger, and trauma still exist.
We need to be aware of accusations because a victim will avoid their abuser, often for a very long time.
Be willing to distance yourself from people who display abusive behaviors
Sometimes you can’t be a friend of someone who is abusive unless you support their beliefs. It’s hard to fracture your community that way, especially when it is already small. It’s hard when you realize that maybe you can’t just invite everyone to your party. But you know who doesn’t have the choice that you’re struggling with? People who have been abused. Our lives are about avoiding places our abusers are going to be, about losing friends, about being incredibly careful about where and how we share our experiences and about not being able to go to parties. Suck it up.
On top of this, be willing to listen to people who have stories of being abused. I know quite a few people who, upon being faced with the stories of what friends of theirs have done, have refused to even hear their stories. In some cases, the victims are dismissed and the abuser not given a second thought.
This is problematic.
It’s especially problematic if the reason this happens is because the abuser turns it around and blames the victims of abuse. Recently, a dear friend of mine broke out of such a spell, and has received a fair amount of dismissal and disrespect from people within the circle of a person who has caused considerable pain and trauma to people close to me. Her crime? she left the inner circle around the person responsible, after going through her own ordeal with him and his family. She wrote about her experience with this falling out here. Subsequently, someone I know could only speak disdainfully about her for having left the way she did while defending the culpable person as being a victim himself.
Those who do not distance themselves will land on the other side of that rift, and will often not be trusted by victims any longer. The unfortunate reality of social and tribal behavior is that sometimes we lose friends merely because they are no longer part of the safe space.
This is actually not as simple as it seems. Because people who are abusive almost always hide as victims. If we believe them, unequivocally, we give safe harbor for abuse. But if we are always suspicious of people who report abuse, we do not give a safe space to survivors who already doubt their own experience. Even more uncomfortable is the fact that when I am talking about “abusers” and “survivors,” I am talking about potential that is in all of us. We are all susceptible to abuse, and we are all capable of it.
Let me emphasize something there: “people who are abusive almost always hide as victims.” Holy shit yes. This is hard, I know. Hearing accusations about abuse and other problematic behavior is tough, especially if you know one or more of the people involved. There is almost always nuance and blame to be shared, and knowing what to believe is hard, especially if accusations are coming from all sides.
But when someone who is the perpetrator of a long and established pattern of abusing others starts to claim to be the victim, the terrifying thing is that it often works. Telling the difference, from the outside, is hard as fuck. I get it. I get it because I think most of us, and maybe all of us, know what it’s like to have hurt someone. A person facing an accusation often wants to emphasize how they were wronged, and having the strength of character to look at one’s own crimes is really really difficult. The result is we become defensive, start spinning counter-narratives, and we may even start to concentrate on our own pain caused by others rather than take an honest look at what we have done.
Recognizing this pattern is the only means towards cutting that shit out.
Throughout our lives, we will be both the accused and the accuser, to varying degrees. And having been through that, we can recognize and empathize with all sides of a situation. And from that vantage point, seeing people on all sides claim to be victims, we tend to want to side with accepting that those people are victims, rather than those responsible for the harm.
It’s hard to look at someone responsible for abuse and see it, especially if the look on their face is one of pain. But it’s possible to be in pain and to be responsible, and we need to be able to handle each separately.
So I want to propose a meditation. When we really understand the difference between these statements, we will understand how to support both survivors and abusers.
“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”
“This is my experience” is not the same as “This is someone else’s experience.”
This is critical, because I am not sure that when people are in a space of culpability, they understand the difference between the statements above, as they pertain to their actions. I have seen examples of the conflation of these statements from people in my life, and this type of distinction has been topic of discussion around me for some time, now.
This is especially relevant to people who seek to, and are good at, controlling narratives. Persuasion is a powerful tool, and if used well it can be a very effective means of manipulation. Those who seek control may view push-back against that attempt as an infringement on them, and perhaps an injury. This is essentially similar to how power and privilege work against those who have neither; they are used to getting their way, and this time they are not.
It seems simple, but it is not. And I feel that not being able to tell the difference between these things allows us to harbor abuse in our communities and abusive behaviors in ourselves. Being able to see the difference between these statements will allow you to really, truly and solidly hear the story of a survivor. It’s not simple, but if it was, we would have figured it out by now. I’m willing to be imperfect while we figure this out, how about you?
We will all fail, from time to time. We need to be comfortable with failure, if we are to process and improve as people.
We as a community, especially our leaders, need to take the time to learn about how to respond to allegations. When abuse rears its head, they need to not only hear the stories that victims tell, but they need to make sure that they have a means to respond to the accused.
In some extreme cases, there may be nothing to do but to ask them to leave. In most cases, however, there must be room for rehabilitation. But that rehabilitation must keep in mind the place of those they have hurt, and prioritize them. The must be rom for rehabilitated people, but that room should not be next to their victims, and certainly not in a place of authority or leadership over their community.
The community needs to create safe spaces, and those safe spaces must be carved out by those leaders in that community better. We all have more to learn, and more we could be doing better.