Thursday, July 5, 2012

Just one ally.

When I worked on an ambulance (this is my personal "one time in band camp"), we were at a nursing home, dropping a patient off after a routine transport, when we saw something disturbing.  A nurse was giving liquid medication to another patient who was clearly choking on it.  The patient was gagging horribly, the nurse was holding his head in place and forcing the oral syringe down his throat even as he was thrashing and making drowning noises, and after she finished she walked away even though he was coughing up medication all over his pillow.

My work partner and I saw this, and, with that creeped out feeling of "did I just see what I think I saw?" and "something's not right," we... left and took another call and went off to the hospital.  Then we grabbed some lunch.  Then one of us--I don't even remember which one--blurted it out.

"That thing at the nursing home... you saw that too, right?  That was kind of fucked up, right?"

Those two sentences started the chain of events that lead to us filing a formal elder abuse report.

When we see something going on that's Not Right, often we face ourselves with a false dichotomy--either do The Right Thing, confront them or call the cops or blow a whistle... or do nothing because you blew it.  And doing The Right Thing can be hard if you're not sure that what you saw was wrong, or real, or any of your business.

It's easy to judge people for seeing something horrible and not responding, but I think most of us have been there.  We've been in that nail-biting state of being horribly distressed by what we saw, but unable to act in the moment--more afraid of making a fuss over nothing than about letting someone get away with something horrible.  Sounds stupid when you spell it out.  But it's a real state that humans are really subject to, and saying "well, don't do that" doesn't fix it.  I wrote about one of my experiences here.

Here's another one: I went to a Jewish summer camp one year when I was a preteen.  On the bus ride back, I heard the administrators telling all the boys from the eight-year-olds' cabin not to tell anyone about Counselor X.  Especially don't tell anyone about how he touched your butts.  Otherwise we won't be able to have camp next year and it'll be all your fault!  You'll ruin it for everyone!  You don't want that!

I was young, but I was not so young that I didn't know exactly what they were talking about.  But I didn't tell anyone.  Mostly because I had this sense of "it couldn't be."  I thought it couldn't really be molestation because molestation is a big serious deal and this was just some confused boys and a counselor who looked like an ordinary guy and everything seemed really quiet and normal except for those few sentences I overheard.  I managed to convince myself that the counselor had done some things that might sound like molestation, but obviously weren't, but if the boys told anyone then the camp might be shut down because of a misunderstanding.

I know how fucking stupid that sounds.

But calling it stupid doesn't help.  Giving me speeches about "enabling" and "all evil needs is for good people to stand by" and so forth doesn't help.  What would've helped?  Just one ally.  Just one person who turned to me and said "they're trying to get us to cover up for a molester, right?" would've made all the difference.  Just one person who let me know my concerns weren't all in my head.  Just one person to check myself against, and I might have been able to say "we're telling about this."

So I don't wish that I'd called the cops, or told my parents, or CPS or anything.  Not directly. I wish that I'd turned to one of the kids sitting next to me on the bus and gone "did they just say what I think they said?"

Next time you see something that seems wrong, but "oh my gosh maybe not really maybe I shouldn't say anything I don't know," you don't have to go right to the cops or the boss or run into the situation with your fists up.  What you do have to do--this is a goddamn order--is tell someone about it.  Someone as confused and powerless as you are.  Just check in.  "This seemed off to me, does it seem off to you?"

Sometimes it isn't even about how the other person reacts.  Sometimes it's just about putting it into words.  You hear yourself describe the situation and you realize what you're describing.

Sometimes it's just about taking a step, even if it isn't the perfectly right step, that makes you realize you are allowed to act on this; now that you've done something you can do more.

And sometimes they look back at you and say "yeah, that was fucked up. I was thinking the same thing but didn't want to say anything.  You think we should go tell someone about it?"

And that, two people realizing they're not the only one in the universe who has a problem with what's happening, much more often than any spectacular act of lone-hero courage, is how evil gets dragged into the light.

[Wow, I've been writing a lot of dark shit lately. Which is partly a reflection of things that have been going on in my life--working in an ER and dealing with ugly scene politics doesn't always prime you to see the good in everyone--but nonetheless, it's not all I want the blog to be.  I'll try to write something positive about sex next.]


  1. Thank you for this.

    I don't know how many people can say "today, I made the world a little bit better", but you do so with practically every post you make.

  2. This also applies to people in abusive situations- the abused person'll get so used to the fucked-up situation that it's not until they actually explain it to someone outside of it that they'll really understand the abuse properly, and maybe get out of it. I know that's what happened in my situation, and most of these things follow more or less the same pattern...
    I guess putting abuse into words sometimes has an even more shocking effect than the abuse itself.

    1. Also, sometimes the people around the abused person are very aware of the abuse, but are in too much "maybe that's just their relationship" paralysis to say anything, and the instant a conversation starts, it's like a dam breaking there's so much pent-up concern that everyone was hiding.

    2. Yes! I had a friend in a fucked-up marriage, and she was so used to it that she'd tell these horrible stories like they were silly anecdotes ("So I wanted to take my favourite cleavage-y shirt with to your place for when we went clubbing, but I couldn't find it...[husband] must have thrown it out. He's always throwing out my sexy clothes 'cause he doesn't want other people being attracted to me. He also throws out my porn and anything of mine that he believes takes up too much space." [Nonchalant eyeroll])

      I wanted so badly to scream "Break up with hiiiiiiiiim!!!!!" but I was sure my friend wouldn't listen to me/would side with her husband/whatever. Then a different friend pointed out that maybe she just didn't know how fucked up her marriage really was. So I told my horribly married friend, "Listen, I've had something on my mind, and I know you didn't ask for my advice and might not even want it so I'm only gonna say it the one time and then drop it forever, but: [husband] is an abusive asshole and you could do SO. MUCH. BETTER." And she was like "really?" and immediately started planning her escape.

      I've never been so proud to have broken up a marriage. :D

    3. Same thing happened to me. When I moved back to my hometown, I ran into a friend from high school I had lost touch with. I went by her place to pick her up and take her to lunch and her husband was all kinds of pissed that she was going out with some chick he had only met a few times (despite the fact that she told him we've known each other since we were 14).

      When she would talk to me about their marriage, I would cringe. He would leave her with the kids and disappear Friday-Monday nearly every week, not respond to calls or messages, and when he would return just tell her that it was none of her business.

      When they split up (and it took a while because of the kids, she wanted to find a job before she left him, and some other things) he blamed it all on me. Although, she did get a kick out of the two of us making faces at each other when the other wasn't looking.

  3. Sweet Christ, your timing is eerily impeccable.

    I've had to act as referee for my immediate family's blowouts, always involving my little brother (age 12). They're raising him the same way they raised me, namely all wrong and then beating the crap out of him when he takes his upbringing to its logical conclusions: reflexive lying (for self-preservation or privacy's sake), secretiveness, acting out in school, etc. I see history repeating itself right before my eyes, and it scares the hell out of me.

    Last night, Mom caught him watching porn on the laptop they let him have (and presumably he was masturbating, as his pants were unzipped when I burst in after her to see what all the yelling and crying was about). Then Dad got involved, and whenever either me or my brother get out of line and Mom flies off the handle first, he always seems to feel the need to go even more over the top. Perhaps as a way to establish that he's the head of the household. Perhaps because he feels like neither of us will feel truly punished if they don't both get into the act.

    Dad went so far as to kick him while he was down, literally. Not hard enough to do any damage, more a very swift, forceful nudge with his foot, but still. He kicked him while he was crying on the ground. And I stayed in the room and managed to talk everyone down, even though he tried to shove me out, because I seemed to be the only one thinking clearly, and I knew if things went too far, there needed to be a witness if my brother was hurt, or someone in their right mind to call an ambulance in case dad gave himself a stroke right then and there.

    But somehow I knew (or at least hoped I knew) things wouldn't go that far. I had been beaten in much the same manner growing up (usually by Mom, the only time Dad ever really got to that level with me was when I retaliated and nearly gouged her eye out), and it was deserved, at least some of the time. But even as I "know" this with one side of my brain, the other side calls bullshit, cries foul, says they didn't know the whole story, they could have talked it out (loudly, if they had to, but words first, dammit), but they didn't, so fuck them, I'm not leaving you alone with him, even if its just a mild scolding, because I don't trust either of you to do the right thing by him and I hope he'll have the sense to distance himself while he's still young the way I did.

    I guess what I'm getting at is that I go to that place in my mind, too. Where I can say "I know its intense and ugly and the neighbors can probably hear all this and holy hell, I wish they'd finally call the cops, but ... It's mom and dad. They have their reasons. They were raised old school. So it's not abuse. It can't be. Right?"

    Right now both the rents are at work. My brother refuses to get out of bed or even look me in the eye. And presumably there's going to be some sort of talk tonight, about curfews and trust and all that bullshit. We've been here before.

    -- CoronerCountess

    1. Is there someone you can talk to? I mean like now. A friend or a neighbor or someone you know and trust?

      Because no, this is not okay, it's goddamn horrible, you and your brother don't deserve it, and it's not going to get better just by you being good enough and nice enough but never disturbing anything. It's not your fault--I've been in the same "if I can all calm them down it'll be okay" place myself--but at the same time, the fact that you can just barely manage to keep them from committing really bad physical violence does not mean you've got the situation under control.

      I had been beaten in much the same manner growing up... and it was deserved, at least some of the time.
      I'm really sad to hear this. Because there is NO way for a child to deserve to be beaten.

      I know what you mean about that place in your head, and I hope you can get out of it. But believe me, even if you already know or half-know these things: This is not normal. It's not okay. It's not deserved. It is capital-A Abuse and your dad just kicked a 12-year-old kid and that is not just "old school." Whether you call the cops, or your brother's school, or yours if you're still in school, is your decision. But please at least talk to someone you trust about this.

    2. Also, I'll repeat what Anon said in case you're only getting replies to this thread - if you don't have anyone you can talk to in person, 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) is a hotline with people who can talk to you. The call is anonymous and they will not automatically report you to the cops or your school or force you to take action, but they will talk to you about your situation, give you an outside perspective and some options.

      Call them even if you're not sure it's abuse. Calling them isn't a commitment; but it's an important way to check in.

    3. That's abuse. What your parents are doing to your brother is abuse, and what they did to you as a kid was also abuse. It might be hard to envision because a lot of the time when people hear about abuse, they think of the worst stories they've ever heard of, and go "It's not that bad, so it must not be abuse, right?" But what you're describing sounds pretty clearly abusive to me.

      Also, you didn't deserve to be beaten, even if you did some things wrong as a kid.

      But even as I "know" this with one side of my brain, the other side calls bullshit, cries foul, says they didn't know the whole story, they could have talked it out (loudly, if they had to, but words first, dammit), but they didn't, so fuck them, I'm not leaving you alone with him, even if its just a mild scolding, because I don't trust either of you to do the right thing by him

      This is very true. "I only beat the kid until he was curled up on the ground crying and then kicked him some more because he misbehaved!" is bullshit, they should have talked instead of hitting, and you have no reason to trust them to do right by him, because they have shown they aren't trustworthy.

    4. ...Reflexive lying? Oh gods, the poor thing. I've been there, even if I wasn't subject to physical beatings. Your brother is in a bad place, and you need to get him out.

    5. CoronerCountess, your brother is being abused and if you were treated the same way, you were being abused. You are not wrong about this, you are not overreacting. Being parents does not equal being right or justified or being above the basic requirements for human decency: to not mistreat others, especially those who are weaker. Your parents too must be judged by their actions, like any other person. Trust your first instinct to protect your brother.
      I hope you can find the resolve to search for help, and I hope you can get that help soon. Your brother and you deserve to be in a healthier place.

  4. 1.800.4ACHILD is a National Child Abuse Hotline. If you don't have someone you trust, give them a call. It's anonymous and someone is available 24.7. You don't have to take any action except call and see what they can offer. I hope this helps you. Please consider it.

  5. I guess you all know the basic set-up of the Milgram experiments, right? I read the actual book Milgram wrote about the experiments for my dissertation, and it's really interesting. They really did lots and lots of versions of this experiment to check out which factors make obedience go up or down.
    One version of the experiment looks like this: When the test subject is asked to electro-shock his victim, another "test subject", who is seemingly just waiting for his turn to participate, calls out that this is completely fucked up. In this setting, the obedience rate was really low (don't remember the exact numbers right now).

    1. I don't know who or what Milgram is, but this reminds me of an experiment a friend told me about: a bunch of test subjects were put in a waiting room (ostensibly until someone called them in for the actual experiment) which the scientists slowly filled with smoke. Apparently, hidden camera footage showed that people noticed the smoke and looked concerned...but nobody said anything because they were all waiting for someone else to be the first to bring it up.

      People are messed up.

    2. Here's a really good description of the study:

      I actually was in something like that smoke situation a few years ago. I was down at the local dog club, training with my dogs, and noticed smoke was coming up from the ground at an ash-covered spot behind the club house. I started asking people like "you notice that smoke? Shouldn't it be put out?" and everyone was like "Well, I don't think there's anything to worry about...". I kicked a bit at the spot with my boots and little sparks flew up.
      Then I thought "Gee, this is like a social psychology experiment where everybody should realize something is wrong, but don't react because nobody else does". Then I called the fire station. When the fire men came along and kicked around a bit more with THEIR (fire-proof) boots, they said it looked like somebody had had a camp fire and hadn't put it out properly. Somehow there was now lots of embers glowing beneath the ash and underground, and it was all calm as long as there was no wind, but if a wind started to mess around with the ashes a big roaring fire could quickly start. So they drove their enormous firetruck all over the lawns where people were training dogs to reach the spot and drenched the ground in water, then left.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. The "nobody wants to be the first one" phenomenon is well-known. I don't know the formal terminology for it, but I call it the Seed Crystal thing. Surprisingly often, once one person stands up and says/does something, a whole bunch of other people will fall in behind them -- they've all been thinking that this was wrong, but everyone was waiting for someone else to say/do something. It's like the way a supersaturated solution will explode into crystallization when you drop a seed crystal into it.

      Not everyone has the physical/emotional capacity to be the Seed Crystal, and there's nothing wrong with that. But for those who can, remembering that this phenomenon exists can be a real boost toward actually getting up on your hind legs and saying/doing something when you see something wrong happening.

  6. That first story ... wow. Did the guy get inhalation pneumonia?

    1. I don't know; I didn't really get a chance to follow up on him. I do know he was transferred to another nursing home within the week. So thank God for that at least.

  7. Wow. Wow, wow, wow. I've never really sat down and thought about the way an observational ally can shift the plane of perception towards sanity.

    Coroner Countess, you just made my heart go all achy. I'll go ahead and third what Cliff said, because she said it better than I could.

    When I was a kid, my mother was very, very good at shifting realities. Probably this is a genetically-inherited thing (undiagnosed and untreated schizophrenia runs in the family); what was allowed one hour would not be allowed the next, and the rule change would never be would always have been, and I was a terrible person for not knowing it. A stupid, minor example: my curfew changed from day to day. It would be eight PM one day, and seven the next, and ten the day after that. And if I wasn't home by the arbitrarily assigned curfew, I would be screamed at. When questioned, I would be informed that no, it had always been eight, I was lying and/or crazy.

    I think the thing that sticks with me is the simple fact that this wasn't done out of malicious intent...not usually, anyway. The reality of the moment was genuinely the reality in which my mother was living. She genuinely did think I was a crazy liar. And thus, for years, so did I.

    My mother was equally good at convincing other people that her reality was the correct reality, and in the years that I grew up under these circumstances, out of the ARMIES of psychiatrists I was sent to for being such a crazy liar, only one person ever figured it out.

    It was life-changing. I will always be grateful for the psychologist who, when I told her about the strange, cracked and constantly shifting landscape that was life with my mother, didn't chalk it up to preteen/teen angst.

    She didn't get me out of there, she didn't try to call the cops or get anyone in an official capacity involved, and truth be told, it was such a subtle and weird form of abuse that I don't think it would have done any good. What she DID do was infinitely more valuable in the long run...she BELIEVED ME. She told me that what I was living was not normal and was not in my head.

    Even with this, and a lifetime of working against the voice in my head that tells me that my mother's reality is the correct one, I occasionally have moments where my husband has to remind me that my mother has said terrible things in his presence, that he has witnessed the shifts, because otherwise I can still manage to convince myself that I'm crazy, horrible, lying or exaggerating.

    I never really thought about it in those terms, though!

    So thank you for that, you wonderful person!

    1. That technique's called "gaslighting" (, and it breaks people.

  8. CoronerCountess,

    I know you'll do nothing, it's what I did anyway. I waited the years out, then I waited more years. It never is a good time. It is scarier than anything in the world. If you leave will you go from the frying pan into the fire? I am paralyzed with fear and everyone wants to take advantage. I'm an adult, it should be easy for me to get away. It might be if I wasn't too scared to breathe.

    Sending you love.

    1. Please don't say "I know you'll do nothing." Sometimes people do nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and then at one moment after years of nothing they take the first step toward getting away.

      1−800−799−SAFE(7233) is the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Can I ask you to call them at a safe time, with no intention of making plans to get away and/or call the cops and/or do everything perfectly and everything at once? Only with the intention of telling them what you're going through? Maybe all you'll end up doing is talking. Even that's not nothing.

      Posting here about it was not nothing. If you can tell me, I hope you can tell people with a lot more experience and knowledge in helping you.

      As for "frying pan to fire," I'm not sure what the "fire" is here, but I do know the feeling of "I can't live any other way," because I lived with it as a kid. And now I don't. It took me time to realize I wasn't some special case of "The one person on Earth too horribly broken to live like a regular person," but I did. I hope you do too.

    2. I'm an adult, it should be easy for me to get away.

      It's never easy to get away. I hope you find a way to get out of there, but you shouldn't feel bad for being scared or not being able to leave just yet.

    3. It's never easy to break out of fear, especially one you have lived with for so long. You don't have to feel bad about being paralyzed. You are just being human, a person who is scared. Fear is powerful.
      It will take courage to break out and get away, but you are not alone with it. There are numbers like the one Cliff gave you, people you can talk to without any pressure or expectations attached to do more than you can at that moment. You can get courage and strength from these people to bolster your own. I hope you can find the help you need and break free one day.

    4. Cliff, you can't be the only person on earth too horribly broken to live like a regular person, because *I'm* that person!

      But seriously, none of us is that person, and I hope that hearing that other people feel the same way helps.

  9. I have developed a general rule of thumb: the darkest, most horrible things that I feel the most need to hide are the ones I SHOULD talk about, to bring out this moment that you describe. Because often what I FEEL are the most horrible things that I've ever done, once confessed to someone else, turn out to be bearable and not worth destroying myself over.

    And god, CoronerCountess, I'm sorry. I hope you and your brother escape.


  10. This almost brought me to tears at my desk. My mother emotionally abused/gaslit me throughout my childhood, especially as a teenager, much in the same way as Flying Fish's mother; however, her social skills are subpar so she could never convince many people outside of our nuclear family of "her" reality. I could go on about the "moving target" of her rules and expectations, but that is for another time.

    When I go back to my hometown and/or see friends of mine from that time, INEVITABLY both they AND THEIR PARENTS will make comments that boil down to, "Oh we knew your mom was crazy as shit. It always seemed like things were wrong." I know this is meant to make me feel better by validating my experiences (it took forever for me to realize that they weren't normal) but honestly.....they make me want to scream. You were an ADULT! Why didn't you HELP ME?!

    Like Cliff says, please please please be the person that checks in....if ANYONE had done that...well, it's just too hard to think about how things might be different.

  11. As others have said, you have impeccable timing, Cliff. My partner and I just had a "Did you see that?" conversation.

    A couple hetero friends of ours used to date, then broke up. They have had the ugliest, most drawn-out and painful breakup imaginable. Lots of screaming, crying, and upset on both sides.

    About a month ago, my partner was hanging out with the female half of this former couple when the ex-boyfriend showed up out of nowhere, uninvited. They fought for literally hours, my partner caught in the middle. Eventually, the boy broke down in tears, and the girl offered to get him some tissues. My partner stayed with him while the girl left.

    And then the boy sat up and deliberately winked at my partner. Yes, winked.

    My partner later told me this story as we lay in our bed, and she said sheepishly, "I mean, it could have been nothing," when she had been so sure just a moment before as she told me. It was exactly as you said, Cliff: She's just witnessed something with implications so horrible that she was doubting she'd ever seen it.

    And had she not had someone she trusted to confide in, she might have done nothing for fear of "making a fuss over nothing."

    But we didn't do nothing. We couldn't keep the boy away from the girl, but we did help the girl get counselling so she could keep herself away from him, and things are steadily getting better.

    But my partner also just needed some confirmation, some perspective, some assurance that she wasn't crazy or being dramatic. It's amazing what simple, beautiful validation and acknowledgement of feelings can do for a human being.

  12. I know exactly what you're talking about Cliff and I'm feeling the same way right now. I'm so disappointed in someone I thought was cool and I really don't know what to do. I'm sorry I didn't support you and the other people speaking out about that bullshit before the time ran out for me to do it and I have no idea what to do right now.

  13. This is so, so, true. I remember when I was a senior in high school, a friend of mine posted a giant screed on her blog about how she would kill herself without her boyfriend. I don't know what would have happened if one of my friends hadn't said, instead of "yeah, that's L being weird again" (what all the other people I talked to said), "What are we going to do?".

    So we printed it out, and showed it to the school's guidance counselor.

    A huge group of L's friends started shunning us for it. L was furious. But when her boyfriend fighting with her caused her to try to drink bleach, the school was already paying attention, and she was able to get mental help.

    To be honest, L stopped talking to me after it happened, and I was too scared that she was angry at me to explain my reasoning. But I'm glad I did what I did, and I'm glad that I had a friend to support me.

  14. Sometimes you need to go where the blog takes you, post what's happening.

    I formerly worked in the emergency services and I totally remember that feeling of 'did that just happen' - we have this ingrained sense that nurses/doctors/teachers are inherently trust worthy and do the right thing. So when we see something fucked up, it can take a bit of processing to make the connection that what they are doing is in fact fucked up. I'm so glad you filed that abuse report.

  15. While I've been aware of this phenomenon for quite some time, it's not something that I can easily relate to, personally. As a kid, I was the type to correct the teacher in the middle of class when they were blatantly wrong, and when my parents went off the rails even by the standards of their already messed-up behavior I would point it out and threaten them with the police. (Which worked because they *really* wanted to be thought of as decent adults, even though they were horribly bad at it.) As an adult that hasn't changed much, being quick to point out that something is wrong or to get a reality check if I'm not sure. (Well, usually. If I have to point something out repeatedly and nothing ever comes of it, then eventually I just give up.)

    One time when my mother and I were living together, our landlord showed up with a cameraman and demanded to look around. I just stood in the doorway and described in detail how his demands were violating two different State landlord-tenant regulations. He just looked stunned and left. My mother, who was standing behind me, asked how I could possibly say that, as she wouldn't have been brave enough to do it. (Which sounds strange coming out of her mouth in retrospect, as since then she's been fired more than once for repeatedly telling her bosses how to do their job.) My response was, "It didn't occur to me to do otherwise." And it usually doesn't. Maybe if I ever faced any obvious consequences for speaking out (and as far as I can remember, I haven't) then I'd think twice, but it's pretty much always my first and only reaction to such a situation. Even without any "allies".

    (As for what was up with my landlord, it turns out that he was a fundamentalist christian who believed that unmarried couples were living in sin [my mother and I have different last names and he didn't know our relationship, not to mention that she looked really young] and was taking it into his hands to drive them all out of his properties... after firing much of the property management staff for allowing such people in. As he couldn't legally terminate the lease for no reason, he was looking for evidence that we were "bad tenants". We were far from the only targets. Though I wasn't the one who initiated it, eventually I was part of a class-action lawsuit against him, which, among other things, forced him to sell off most of his properties. He was eventually jailed for harassing the people who did initiate the lawsuit.)

    1. I find it interesting and a little bit inspiring that speaking out is always your first impulse, because I am the opposite. A lot of the time, it doesn't occur to me to say anything or to resist anyone else's demands. It's not even a matter of being too scared or not believing what I'm simply DOES NOT OCCUR TO ME that doing anything but what I'm asked is even a possibility.

      Which perhaps illustrates even more clearly the necessity of allies.

    2. I was the kid who wasn't afraid to correct least until I was 6 or 7. By 16, I was so terrified of rocking the boat with my parents, that lies of omission were far more common than for me to tell the whole truth. Make of that what you will.

    3. Same here. It's a coping mechanism, I think. You can only stand up with no allies for so long. When you're young, your brain is still trying to figure out how to act, so you try to fight for yourself for so long until you eventually give up. It happened to me in my teenage years--I stopped rocking the boat, or even responding when I got yelled at, and my parents approvingly told me that I was learning.

    4. ARC, I want to retroactively slap your parents right upside their heads. Just...wanted to put that out there.

  16. What you are describing is, unfortunately, a basic of group psychology. When an event happens with multiple witnesses, they each look to the others to determine the correct course of action. Since everyone is looking, no one acts. This tends to be self-reinforcing until someone steps out and does something - anything. This is why the first thing you do, before beginning first aid, is to single someone out, point at them, and order them to call 911. If you just yell, "Someone call 911!" - no one will. You have to delegate someone to make sure it happens.

    A few days ago, I was standing in a shopping center when a woman drove up over the curb and hit a fence. Everyone stood for a moment or two and muttered, "I hope she's okay!" and "Is she hurt?" Since I saw what was happening - it was moving towards spectacle - I walked over and looked in the window. When the woman made eye contact, I held up my hand in an "okay" sign. She put down her window and said she was okay...and within half a minute, eight of the previous by-standers had come to check on her. She called her husband and I sat on the curb with her until he got there. The only thing hurt was her car and the fence...but it could have been much worse, and no one was going to step out on their own.

    Humans are herd animals. When we are scared, we cling to each other for better or worse. Fortunately, we also have a brain that is strong enough to assess the situation and choose to be different. It just isn't easy.

    I'm not patting myself on the back, just pointing out that you are discussing typical group behavior. The guy who jumps on the train tracks to help someone is a rarity, but only slightly rarer than the guy who stands up in a crowd and says, "This is wrong! I'm not going to tolerate it!"

  17. This is a really smart post. I love it when you write about how to communicate with people and fix problems, and the posts you've made lately about consent and speaking up have been extremely lucid and helpful. Please don't feel like you have to avoid writing about "dark" topics; some of your "darkest" posts have been the ones that have helped me think the most. Deep, deep thanks for being here and doing what you're doing. You're becoming one of my favourite thinkers.

  18. A friend just shared this with me, after I stuck up for someone in an extremely questionable situation tonight - and it made all the difference that that person was not alone. You make some great points, and now I'm going to keep reading your blog because sounds like it's right up my alley.

  19. What you're talking about here is called "Social Proof". You need validation that there's an objective injustice occuring before whistleblowing because you don't want to risk being wrong. There was a experiment on this, the summary is as follows.

    "In Dr. Robert Cialdini's book Influence, he describes a classic experiment in which someone yells 'Rape!' for a subject's benefit while two people (psychological plants) ignore the cries for help and keep walking. The subject doesn't know whether to respond to the pleas or not, but when he sees the other two people act as if nothing is wrong, he decides that the cries for help are insignificant ignores them also." --Tony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within

    The solution, of course, is to recognize the fact that it is better to be mistaken and temporarily inconvinience a suspect than it is to allow someone to be victimized.

  20. More than one person said in the comments that Cliff's timing is impeccable. While that may be the case, it's much more likely that these kind of situations are just *really really* common.

    When I read about the bystander effect, it said in the article that knowing about it helps people act in these situations of diffuse responsibility. The bizarre thing is that I had read about it before, but this extra remark was what did it for me.

  21. Don't apologise for writing about dark stuff when you write about it *so* well, that you help those of us reading it so much, just by introducing a new idea, and helping to reconfigure our internal thought processes.
    I'm sorry I can't really say it more eloquently, but yeah - this, *so much*.

  22. Thank you Cliff for posting this, it’s wonderful! In abuse prevention awareness you hear so much about, “Be the one who speaks up.” but because of the psychological dynamics some of the posters above described it’s dam hard. You have given a really good solution to this problem. If public awareness adds, schools, ect… changed their focus to “talk to the person beside you” instead of “talk to the victim.” or “call the cops.” I think that a lot more people would feel able to get involved.

    On a personal level this principle has helped me. I grew up in an abusive home, we were a 6 person religious cult. I was miserable but because there was no physical abuse after we were really little (like almost too little to remember) and thanks to the crazymaking and gas lighting I couldn’t make the jump in my mind to say, “this is WRONG, I need to get out.” What got me to see how bad it was, was two people who chose to get close to me and then gently point out that things were messed up. It took me a little while but when I saw that it wasn’t just in my head, I got the hell out and I am thankful every day I did.

    I love your blog Cliff, keep up the good work!

  23. Oh, I love you for saying this. I hope I bear it in mind forever.

  24. thanks for this post.

  25. It's always interesting to see my favorite writers apologizing for the subjects they write about. Appears to be some kind of universal impulse among those who have a heart for their audience, but also a strong internal drive to write about important, difficult subjects.

    Anyway, this is an amazing post and a good point. Thank you for writing.

  26. Write what you feel, dark or not. I needed to read this, as do a lot of people.

    Besides, light will come out of this darkness; sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that's what we're discussing here, no?

  27. A few years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in the middle of the day and through the window I saw someone lying down in the middle of the sidewalk. I did nothing. Eventually someone did something and an ambulance and police came for him. He was very likely suffering from alcohol poisoning, and maybe I could have gotten him help sooner. After that, I resolved that when I saw someone who could be in trouble, or a situation that could be hazardous to others, I will do something, even if that's just calling the police. And I've been pretty good about keeping that resolution, though there's one situation I have discussed with another but not (yet) acted on.

  28. Thank you for not just making this about how awful people are who don't do anything. Good explanations of psychology and possible fixes. I love the idea of 'checking' with someone. Because sometimes, speaking up to the authorities or calling out the person doing it isn't going to happen for many reasons.

    I think also, people are worried about being wrong. Because, not every situation that looks 'hinky' is. Sometimes the horsing around really is mutual and enjoyed by both parties. Sometimes the abuse report was filed by a bitter grandparent who wants more access to the kids. Sometimes the joke *was* just a joke.

    One way to help make people feel more OK with speaking up would be not immediately flying off the handle when someone 'checks' your behaviour. If I'm consensually whipping my boyfriend, and someone sees the marks and worries and says something, I should address their concerns and explain if possible. Not do the crime-show thing of 'how dare you accuse me!'

  29. Abuse in my life has always been a tricky thing. For one, I know for a fact that my mom was actually sexually abused- probably several times. And her mom was a violent alcoholic single mom who chased her and her brothers around with a knife when they got bad grades. She ran away when she was 15 and had to get a job working in fast food to pay the rent. She had bulimia for a long time (probably still had it to some extent while she was pregnant with me, which is probably why I have more health problems than my siblings who were born after she stopped doing it). And secondly, we all recently confirmed what we've suspected for years- she has tiny blood vessels in her head and may have been having small strokes for years- which often made her behaviors strange and terrifying and completely contrary.


    This does not excuse how she started teaching me that I was "fat" and "ugly" when I was still in elementary school- calling my developing breasts ugly and demanding I lose weight so they'd go away (they just got bigger, unfortunately). She'd simultaneously go into graphic detail about rape and what "bad men" do to little girls to my sister and I as though it was some kind of way to deter us from "getting into a situation where that could happen" (implying it would be OUR fault if it did happen). But then she'd go into heavily sensual stories about how all the boys liked her even in elementary school and junior high and I'd never find a man if I didn't stop acting so smart and crap.

    And this doesn't even begin to go into the amount of abuse she's heaped at my sister because my sister has a defiant personality and I'm more of a "ok, I'll play along with your bullshit" type of person. I remember watching a movie about an abusive family and according to the video, there's always the abusive person, the placater, the one who works hard to make everything "look normal" and diffuse the abuser, the one who Acts Out, and the one who Goofs off. My mom was the abuser, my dad was the placater, I worked hard to make everything as normal as possible (and unfortunately, this often meant manipulating and steering my mom around to thinking she had come up with ideas instead of me even though I hated doing it). My sister acted out. My brother just goofed off. I felt like I was living in a text book, but there was no way to get out. And it's not like she beat us bloody or anything. We had a roof over our heads, a pair of shoes, a few hand-me-downs from cousins, hell I got piano lessons. But I spent a long time basically trying to undo my mother's abusive behaviors, like convincing her not to send my sister to a mental institution for talking back to her.

  30. If I cut my mom out of my life, I have to cut my dad, my brother (who still lives at home while going to school), and pretty much every family function with the family I like out of my life. And I can't do that. Some people might be able to, but I just can't. I don't have a strong friend network. I don't have an adopted "family" to go to. My husband's family is at least as broken as mine (he doesn't speak to his abusive dad), most of his uncles are alcoholics and his mom is starting to have really frightening memory problems that scare the shit out of us. And that's the thing. My mom is bearable in small amounts. She's self-centered (histrionic, even) and has to make everything about herself. She also cannot seem to be happy or appreciate anything that anyone else does for her ever (I got her car washed and gassed it up as a surprise and she freaked out and said I would "ruin the paint job" by doing that for her). But she's still my mom. And most of her abusive behaviors do not seem to start manifesting until kids hit puberty. She's perfectly fine with babies and small children (and actually, is almost insanely protective against anyone doing anything "bad" to them- probably due to her sexual abuse history), but I pretty much know that I would never let my daughter be alone with her once she starts hitting puberty. I can't let my child be abused the same way that I was, especially if she is chubby or develops breasts in the 4th grade like I did. I can only hope that as I raise my own children, that I can help them understand that abusers are out there, and that what they say and do to control or break you down is not the truth- it's just the way that they try to trap people in their web. And while I feel sad that some people are so twisted that they feel they cannot get people to love them unless they break them first, I cannot in good conscience allow myself to let others be hurt if I can protect them.

    I'm not sure how I feel about my mom. I don't think I love her. I don't think that I will cry when she dies. But I don't think that she's this monster who only brought darkness to my life. Without her, I would never have learned the skills to sniff out gaslighting. I would never have learned how to become an expert manipulator with dangerous and abusive people. I would never have learned how to be the best narrative for my experience and stand up for it no matter what situation I was in or who was trying to pressure me to do things I did not want to do.

    But I'm not sure that these survival skills are really something that I ought to be "proud" of.

    1. Even though some details are different---this is very much like how I feel towards my dad. It's very frustrating not having a clear answer what to do, not being able to just cut that person out. I feel pity for him since I know he had even worse parents than he was, but sometimes FUBAR is still FUBAR no matter how understandable the reason.

    2. You don't have a strong friend network? You can make one. It takes time and effort, but it can be done. Also, by cutting off contact with your family, you may be the first person who sends a message to them saying, "what you are doing is not okay."

      Without my abusive ex-boyfriend, I never would've learned all the warning signs exhibited by people who are subtly mentally disturbed and likely to be emotionally abusive. I have no feelings towards him whatsoever. He didn't give me the gift of those skills any more than your mother gave you the gift of the skills you have. Both of us gave those skills to ourselves. Both of us learned them in the cruelest of classrooms, Real Life Experience. Take the gift of skill and understanding that you have given yourself, and start the first steps in walking away from the abuse.

  31. I've had those "Did you see that?" moments.

    Excellent post.

  32. Over this past weekend, I saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair being physically abused by her caretaker.

    Because of this entry being on my mind, I was able to find someone else at the festival I was at to help me understand it. Together, we confronted the caretaker.

    Thank you, Cliff! :)


  33. I just ran across your blog today and was reading some of your old posts, and this one hit me quite hard.

    So, thank you. I don't think I've ever heard anybody talk honestly about these sorts of situations before, and they need talking about. Kudos for being awesome/thinky/brave enough to discuss it so rationally.