No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I follow the rules and play the game, a man who works a fraction as hard will always succeed before I do simply because I'm a woman and people don't like women who have power, especially when they seek power.
Look, we can argue about whether the above statement is objectively true all the time...I know there are exceptions....but this *is* the rule. There are study after study after study on the double bind women face that makes this the truth not just emotionally but experientially. Yes, for all women. This is the rule under which being female in America operates and something about the Presidency following this rule to the painfully egregious degree it did in the wake of November 2016's election made me confront its truth more directly than I had before. And the bottomless indecency, the relentless corruption, and the endless circus going on because of the current occupant of the White House reminds me daily of the inequality and unfairness I face as a woman because of this steadfast and oppressive rule of life.
In the wake of not being able to be in denial, what happened to me was a psychological and philosophical shift that will stay with me for the rest of my life, summed up as: "never again". I believe we got this outcome because like everyone else I know, I bottled up truths and swept them under the rug. I focused on optimism. We all tried to live in a state of denial and belief that equality is inevitable on the long arc of the moral universe. And we could comfort ourselves with famous words telling us that arc bends towards justice. Just nobody ask what forces actually bend that arc. Keep it to a superficial catch phrase, don't look deeper into what Nobel peace prize winner Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr really said.
But today I don't want to focus on the people in power or reflect on the inherent inequity of the situation. We do a lot of that, all the time. Today I want to talk about the passive way in which we respond to the courage of whistleblowers who disrupt that script. How we discount the actions by the people who come forward first, who testify at great risk to their livelihoods and sometimes their life to speak truth to power.
We talk about power being held to account as something obvious and inevitable. Abstractly it always is talked about with phrases like "of course", as though naturally everyone does it in real life all day every day.
Look, not to go all hard-core Nazi history on you this early in a post, but everyone thinks they are Oskar Schindler and no one wants to admit they would've been in the Nazi party even though that math equation can't work out. More importantly, the majority of people would've been bystanders during that era of Germany: not actively perpetrating crimes against humanity, probably knowledgeable enough that something was amiss, and doing nothing about it. Go along to get along. That's human nature yo. That's where we're at.
So why do we persist in talking about whistleblowers as something run-of-the-mill we expect? Like their courage is so every day and common? I think that's because being righteous against oppressive power is so deeply in the narrative we have as Americans that it's part of our cultural DNA. Our country was founded by patriots who pushed back against a monarchy...who held power to account and founded a nation based on democratic principles and liberty, with a first amendment enshrining our freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We learn about that history in textbooks sanitized of not only the impact to indigenous communities and erasing the stories of non-white males who helped create that history, but more importantly, erased of the struggle to get there. We downplay the sacrifice because we know the outcome. We all know that the colonies defeat the British, that the North wins the Civil War and slavery ends, and we know that America and our Allies defeat the Nazis. Why focus on the messy middle when we have to get through 200 years of history in 2 months? Next decade please!
Today I want to reflect on the time periods when those outcomes were most unlikely and most uncertain. Because in order to truly appreciate the courage of someone speaking truth to hold power accountable, we have to marinate ourselves in the moments where its not inevitable at all and soak in the truth of how systems of power protect themselves. In order to understand the bravery it takes, we have to empathize with how much fear and abject terror a person has to overcome to speak up in the first place. The more powerful the person who is doing wrong, the more important it is to come forward, obviously. But also the higher the stakes, the scarier the threats towards the person who might speak out and the greater likelihood of irreversible, negative impact to that whistleblower.
And I'm not writing this down abstractly as a citizen. I'm writing this as a way to explain my absence from blogging these past few months. You see, I personally experienced something I knew was wrong in mid-June, a much worse second example that showed a pattern, and through a series of things that happened the week after, forces converged in my conscience and I was confronted with the choice every person in a situation like that faces: "do I speak up at great risk to myself and my future, or do I stay quiet and go along to get along".
Courage is one of my top five values and given the severe nature of the situation, I chose to speak up. This post isn't about whether I experienced this because of the organizations I volunteer with or where I worship or where I work. It's not about who I went to in reporting it. I want to level up to something more universal about the experience that applies to any power situation where speaking truth is somewhere in the range of hard to dangerous. Here's what I've learned in the still ongoing, painful aftermath of my decision to speak up....
Do you think Christine Blasey Ford needed anyone to remind her that the person she was saying assaulted her was Brett Kavanaugh...nominee for a seat to the most important and highest court in the land: the Supreme Court of the United States? Or Anita Hill when she testified during the hearings for Justice Thomas? It sounds like a silly question, but believe me, it's not. I've lost count of how many people have emphasized to me how important / valuable / irreplaceable the person is who did those wrong things after I came forward. And at first this whole thing was a head-scratcher for me. To the first person or two who said it to me, I kindly reminded them that I already knew those facts. I remember voicing how acutely aware I already was of their importance because it weighed extremely heavily on my mind before I spoke up in the first place. I was naive enough to believe if I just pointed out the obvious here, that it would stop, that they would stop saying it. But after I realized people were going to keep saying it to me, my response has changed. Now, honestly, I just don't engage. I've gotten to the point where I find the reminder insulting and any person who says it not worth my time. If you spend any time whatsoever reminding me how important that person is, then thanks for clarifying the flexibility of your morals and showing me you don't get it at all. Bye, Felicia.
There are a very small set of people who are on the other end: the people who have their own bad experiences with the person-in-the-wrong. The most important thing that I re-learned as part of this journey is there are always more people who have bad experiences. Always. In fact, I think it is very likely that even now, even with everything quote-unquote "transparent" [insert dripping sarcasm], I am still grossly underestimating how many people have had something inappropriate happen to them because of the exact same person who impacted me. Here's the thing, people who do inappropriate things are abusing their power. And just like absolute power corrupts absolutely, the more important they are and the more they get away with it, the higher the body count. So I can 100% guarantee you that if the person who has done something inappropriate or illegal to you is a very important person, they are 100% doing it to others. Probably many others. And those other people...they are gems. They are your diamonds in the rough. I hope you have the luxury of knowing at least one because they will boost your spirit when you need it the most. They will provide temporary inoculation from the inevitable gaslighting with meaningful eye contact or a quiet word. Because they know. They are the only ones who know exactly how hard it was to come forward in the first place. They know precisely the measure and full weight of what you did, what I did, what it took to say something in the first place.
Listen, I am not going to lie to you dear reader. I played rugby and I was chased by elephants in the South African bush so I have moments of grandeur where I believe I'm tough. This experience has worn me down so thoroughly I don't think I'm tough anymore. This person making me low grade miserable has made me feel weak and vulnerable every minute of every day. And if you've been there too...you know what I'm about to say. Having another human understand and recognize what you're going through is meaningful. It's validation when the person-in-the-wrong harms you further and the jerks under #1 make you want to scream.
I don't need to look farther than Ambra Gutierrez or Ronan Farrow or Gretchen Carlson or Ellen Pao to know in my bones that speaking up comes at a severe, relationship-losing, life-altering penalty. And while those feelings never, ever go away, there are glimmers of hope. Those glimmers are delivered by the people also impacted by person-in-the-wrong. They look at me and without a word remind me that what I did was right, and that doing so against my own best interest was brave. It doesn't get me through but on the rough seas that toss me and turn me around, those moments are buoys I have desperately needed to catch my breath. And here's the thing, you definitely, for certain, need those glimmers of hope because....
3) The impacts are always significantly worse than you anticipated.
What I came forward about doesn't lead to threats to my personal safety at home, like it does for others. Journalists and whistleblowers face truly threatening situations around the world every day for speaking truth to hold power accountable. As I write this, the whistleblower on the Ukraine scandal was named by the President's son and is receiving death threats, and even someone who was wrongly identified as the anonymous White House senior official is getting death threats. This is no joke and very serious.
This is not my situation.
I would propose to you though, that speaking truth to power at any level is scary. Doing so for me did not threaten my life but it has threatened me in other ways. I knew that before I spoke up. I did a LOT of thinking before coming forward and I thought that maybe if I came forward to someone who could make it right and maybe if I kept it tight to just the really obviously egregious stuff...that maybe common sense would prevail, the person-in-the-wrong would feel checked on their behavior, and they would stop. Getting that person to stop the really obviously egregious stuff was the goal. And yet, I had a fundamental flaw in my thinking.
The extremely obvious flaw I realized later is:
a person who would do that really obviously egregious stuff in the first place makes horrible decisions and won't react normally when someone asks them to please stop doing really obviously egregious stuff.
The scenario I thought would happen was some form of a verbal "oops, it won't happen again," then turning around, quietly over time figuring out who came forward (i.e. me), and then some subtle payback. I genuinely expected this. I expected to have blowback, but I expected it to be under the radar and unprovable. I figured: that's the way the world works, buckle up buttercup.
The scenario that actually happened was right away being outed in front of others for coming forward and being taunted with justifications for why the really obviously egregious stuff was actually OK and how they would keep doing it. And within days of that, I was called a troublemaker and poison, glared at at, blamed for things, questioned and denied agreed-upon things. Person-in-the-wrong went full tilt (props to my bro for that totes apropos phrase here).
The aftermath is still happening - months later. It is swirling around me, and piercing me, and punishing me for coming forward. This is all still nearly every day and acute. And all I can think on is a question to myself:
"why did I think someone doing indecent things would ever act decently?"
"When someone shows you you they are,
believe them the first time"
These questions are rhetorical and pointless. People accustomed to full use and abuse of their power will always behave in this manner. Given that I was already on the path of having come forward, my options became severely limited. I wish I could say that I'm like my fictional heroine Lizzie Bennet in that "my courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me." While I've exhibited moments of courage, I can't say the intimidation doesn't work. It does. The fear is gripping and it is suffocating. It washes over me with every new injustice and dart. All the more because the person-in-the-wrong has no decency to pause let alone stop; they have decided to turn a 20 mph speeding ticket into mach 10 hyperspeed damage. They are acting like the victim here, and they have zero chill.
Because here's the ugly truth about Harvey Weinstein...reporters may have won a Pulitzer for breaking the stories of his sexual assault and he may now be a pariah....but he had absolute control on the indie / art / awards scene in Hollywood for decades because he exerted his power ruthlessly without any inhibitions. There were women who went to the police and reported crimes with a recording as proof, and journalists who tried to publish stories that were all drowned for years before that dam finally broke in 2017. I picture myself like one of those women who came too many years before...I'm underwater and I'm pushed up against that dam wall hoping with the pressure in the situation there will be a crack...that maybe it will break so I will get to breathe oxygen once again.
These dams don't break. They break you. Women get crushed en masse every day for coming forward. Seriously, what was I thinking? What is one tiny human against Hoover Dam?
4) People you don't expect excuse and protect those in power in a way that makes it so much worse.
This can be summed up in one word: gaslighting.
to manipulate someone by psychological means to question their own sanity
Bill O'Reilly stayed put at Fox News because Roger Ailes also sexually assaulted women too. Thousands of victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests could have been spared if not for the protection of leaders like Cardinal Law who moved the priests around to different churches and suppressed police reports.
So what do these authorities do when confronted by a group who prove that the person they want to stay in power has done really obviously egregious stuff? They ignore or try to talk people out of it and it works for most. They delegitimize to try to silence and it works for others by playing into the feelings we all have of being powerless. And to the person like me who came forward and has the worst of it, they gaslight. They pretend they can Jedi mind trick me into not believing what I actually see.
- Some of my experiences didn't happen
- I should have empathy for how hard it is for person-in-the-wrong
- Person-in-the-wrong makes great decisions
- I am being watched
- My behavior is being analyzed in discussion with person-in-the-wrong and others
- That person-in-the-wrong does not actually have power
- I'm emotional
- I ask too many questions
#BelieveAllWomen ....hahahaha. HAHAHAHAHA.
Hearing these statements comes at a toll. It makes the entire situation a whole lot worse. If I keep speaking up, I know I'll hear in another, new way how the problem is somehow my own mindset or behavior....and why would I want that misery to be repeated?
I'm afraid to talk further about what I do in the face of gaslighting, but I can say two things:
- I am not the problem. Speaking up, saying something...that is not the problem. The behaviors and impacts from the person doing the really obviously egregious stuff is the problem. Period. Full stop. I have to repeat this to myself a lot, and if you ever find yourself in an unfortunate situation, I recommend you do too.
- People have a sadly huge capacity to compartmentalize. As time passes in a situation like this, what happens is the true nature of people's character is revealed. And as the lack of character really shows itself....it becomes impossible to see those other people the same. The ones protecting the structure, the authorities, and people in positions who can make this better...I continue to hope for a fix from them. It adds salt to the wound when they choose not to.
I'm Catholic and so my faith tradition teaches me to forgive. It's pretty well summed up by a quote from Mother Teresa: "People are often unreasonable and self-centered, forgive them anyway". In this situation I haven't been able to yet....because it's not yet over. Principles on justice require the scope to be set in order to move on to the next steps. In order to forgive, in order to try to find justice that way, I feel like the harm has to have been in the past. How can I forgive when the extent of the harm is still stacking up? Do I forgive the past stuff knowing more is coming? At what point does my faith call me to speak righteous truth to power in this situation?
These are unanswerable questions but ones that I think about and struggle with every day, and especially because...
5) It's not just once, you have to continually find the courage to repeatedly tell your story in a way that is exhausting.
There was a point where I had to go back through and explain everything that happened to me to someone new. Saying it all again was brutal. I have found that I can get through a lot of what happened, the facts, without much impact. Those were things that were real, that happened, and being asked to explain them is something I want to do out of hope for a better outcome. However, when I talk about the impact it has on me going forward...I can't talk about that without tears in my eyes.
When the circumstances all came together earlier this year I felt I was on a precipice. I could chose to turn around and walk away, which many people before me did. I instead chose to look down and see what I could, to think about it and really evaluate this choice. I weighed the high likelihood it would happen again in the near future to me. While I couldn't see the safety net, I was told by people I trusted it was there. I asked myself if I would be able to live with knowing I didn't say anything. After careful consideration of these things and more, I stepped off that cliff.
I've been falling ever since with no end in sight.
In some ways I prefer the everyday freefall because although it's scary, and it takes a little bit of energy to focus and try not to panic, it's not directly causing me harm.
The ongoing stuff from person-in-the-wrong are like branches I hit on the way down. It takes energy to try and avoid those branches, to block my face, but sometimes I don't see them coming. Some of them scratch me up. But in the end, even if they make me bleed a little, its nothing I don't think can be fixed when this nightmare finally ends at the bottom.
But the conversations that make me relive it all can be worse. Going back through everything is like me hitting a jagged, rocky point sticking out from the cliff-face. It breaks me and bruises me, taking days to recover, and hurts me so much worse that I find myself wanting to be back freefalling and hitting an occasional branch. Freefalling is a breeze, literally, compared to that.
But there are times when reliving what happened to me is important in spite of the abrupt shock it causes system. There are times when expressing my pain, brutal as it is to relive it, is necessary. I do it only when required because it's exhausting and re-traumatizing. And for more on this I bring the esteemed voice of the Me Too movement Tarana Burke:
I have taken her advice, and I fill my day with as many joyful things I can, through volunteering, at work, at church, with friends. I curate these things with purpose, to try to fill me up when this situation is an open spigot draining me a little bit every day and a lot on some days.
I'm still in a phase where the situation just keeps compounding. I feel like I'm daily hustling to try to process out the previous trauma so that I can take on the new trauma that's coming my way. Because it is. If I've learned anything these past months, when you mess with the bull, you definitely get the horns. Over and over again. And at this rodeo there is no clown to distract the bull; there is no one trying to get the bull away from me; there's no timeclock to stop and save me; there's no where to run except around floor of the arena because I can't get away or jump the sideboards. I'm getting gored by this bull and everyone is watching me bleed out...the other people who didn't come forward, the people who told the truth when asked because I had come forward, the authorities...everyone. Regardless of whether it's the freefall or the rodeo metaphor, I have to consider every day that maybe there is no end. Maybe I never stop falling. Maybe the bull never stops impaling me. Maybe this is my new normal.
Nothing to do but keep trying to get back up and keep trying. And when I think of what I tell myself in that moment of doubt, I say...
6) I have to believe there is possibility for something better to come from this, if not for me then for the next woman.
This is the last learning I have for you and I struggle with writing it down. Because it's measures my own hope. On the days where something bad has happened yet again, where the fear has gripped me, and on the days where I'm exhausted and drained...I don't have this optimism. There are many moments on those days where I don't believe this statement. On coming forward, I'm not ashamed, but I'm not proud. I feel...resigned.
But when a little time has passed, and when I think on it, I always come back around to here: to believing in what's possible like Tarana Burke says in the end of her TED talk. There are people who know what happened to me is wrong. Maybe something good isn't possible for me, but they are in a position to help the next poor soul, and I have to believe that they will. I hang my hopes on that possibility.
I just celebrated Diwali for the first time in my life with friends and coworkers. It is the Hindu festival of "victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance." With everything going on with me, it carried extra meaning. It reminded me of the time a friend said I inspire her by living out the mottos of my alma maters: Fiat Lux (let there be light) and Vox Clamantis in Deserto (a lone voice crying out in the wilderness).
I've posted before a quote from Suffragette...about how the woman wanderer seeking the land of freedom must go down the banks of labor, through the waters of suffering because there is no other way. She feels alone until she hears the feet of the thousands who will come after in the fight for women's right to vote.
Living my values in this life is a kick in the teeth and a punch in the gut. And yet, it's true that I know without a doubt that I am not alone, and I find courage in that.
And I know that the power of being a light for others may cost me in the short term, and may cost me dearly, but is the right thing in the end. I believe that light wins over darkness and I will make that bet every time.
And with that I'll end with thanks to Jon Lovett for this podcast conversation that made me feel more understood than maybe anything else has, helped when I needed it most and did indeed give me hope:
"So I hope people close this book [Catch and Kill] and feel hopeful because I feel hopeful looking at the people who refused to shut up even in the face of spin machines and smear campaigns and legal threats."
"Its moving in reading it, its moving in reflecting on it honestly, because there's no siren that goes off when somebody is doing the wrong thing. There's no siren that goes off to tell you its your turn to say the right thing and speak out. The past few years we have seen so much misconduct across our government, in companies...and we have really relied on people who no one was gonna tell them to do the right thing. And in fact, there was a bunch of people around them that were doing the wrong thing and telling them to continue to do the wrong thing. Whether it is a whistleblower on Ukraine, or this person that managed to leak you documents on what Blackcube was doing, Rich McHugh, all these people that are still inside of a system that was telling everyone to just ‘go along to get along’. We have been so lucky and fortunate that these people have been willing to recognize that they were in a moment where they had to make a choice and they couldn't just pretend that they didn't have a choice.”