On how the secret-teller who reveals abuse gets pushed or urged out of a group, and how to protect yourself as this happens.
Ousting the Secret-Teller: Why the Person Who Reports the Abuse Gets Banished
If you have been abused by a family member, a friend in your close friendship group, a leader or member in your religious group, or a boss or co-worker in a workplace, you have probably experienced the pain of attempting tell or warn others in the group about the behavior of your abuser, only to have the group ice you out, tell you confidently that what you’re describing didn’t happen, and that, besides, you’re a horrible person to make the accusation. Being the secret-teller is often the most difficult role in a dysfunctional group.
I’m going to walk you through why the secret-teller gets punished.
Human systems work to stay the same.
Your family, your friendship group, and your workplace are all human systems. In each every person has some relationship to every other person. Each person has a role to play. The system can bend a bit to let someone new in or release someone old, but for the most part it really prefers that there is no change at all. The system hates change, and if a harmful secret is revealed, the secret-teller is a huge threat to the system.
So your abuser, Uncle Bob, or cousin Jolene, is part of that system. On some level, the system already knows about Uncle Bob’s bad behavior. However, he adds something valuable to the system. Perhaps he’s a source of income. He may be someone with a great deal of power and influence. He may be extremely generous to many people with his time, expertise, or money. Or he may simply be someone that someone else with power or influence is fond of and protects.
Let me go back to something here. The system already knows about Bob. There is probably a whisper network along the lines of “watch out for Bob” going on. The whisper network is created by those who are scared of Bob, but even more scared of attempting to get Bob out of the system. So they instead try to communicate with whispers and hints and nudges so that anyone new to the system or newly a target of Bob’s attention. And they keep their own heads down and avoid Bob, or Jolene, as best they can to prevent damage to themselves
the person who abused you is usually important to the system.
The system has built Bob in. There are people who are assigned to watch Bob. There are others assigned to manage the damage Bob or Jolene causes. None of these assignments are written down anywhere, but when the time comes, it is always Tom that pulls Bob aside and asks him to knock it off. It is always Beth that handles those who have been harmed by Bob and convinces them that “it wasn’t that bad” and “that’s just the way he is.”
And it doesn’t matter what form of abuse Bob engaged in. Whether it was sexual, physical, emotional, or material, the pattern is the same. Bob harms someone, either inside or outside the group, and the group closes ranks to protect him while attempting to minimize the damage. Because the system is not actually protecting Bob, the system is actually attempting to protect itself. Because change, any change, is a threat. And the bigger the change, the bigger the threat that the secret-teller’s actions create.
how the system betrays the secret-teller
So Bob, or his female counterpart Jolene, has done something horrible to you. Something that is wrecking your life and giving you nightmares and having you look around corners and jump at shadows. Something that has you calling up a therapist and asking to see them “as soon as possible” because you’re afraid you’re losing your mind, and you can’t handle what Bob or Jolene is doing.
And you go to a therapist, or a friend, or a family member, or a church member, (usually someone outside Bob or Jolene’s system) and that one person, with the best intentions in the world, tells you that what Bob is doing is abuse, and you need to report it or to confront it, or in some way deal with it, depending on the circumstances. They in one way or another are telling you that Bob’s or Jolene’s abuse needs to come out of the closet.
So you think about it, and you remember how kind Beth is. Remember Beth, the one whose role in the system is to protect the system from the harm Bob or Jolene does? You go to her, and you say “Bob did this to me” or “Jolene did this to me.” You might even have dates and people who are willing to say that they remember the parts of the event that they were a part of.
You’re expecting Beth, who is so very warm and kind, to immediately be outraged on your behalf. You’re expecting her to jump right up and confront Bob or Jolene. Instead, she starts asking you a bunch of questions. She starts managing you. She is neutralizing the threat that you, the secret-teller, represent.
“It’s not that big a deal.”
At first, she’ll try to convince you that what he did wasn’t abuse or that it was an accident, a one-time thing.
“Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand?”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”
“Oh, hon. He must have been very tired. I’m sure that would never happen again.”
When that doesn’t work, she’ll start working on your credibility. Softly at first, and then, as you stand your ground, more firmly.
“You must be misremembering”
“I’m positive he wouldn’t do something like that.”
“Are you sure you didn’t dream up the whole thing?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t really your fault?”
Next, she’ll try victim-blaming. By this time, the rumor mill has done its work, so you’ll probably get these lines from lots of people in the group you and Bob or Jolene share. As you listen to these examples, keep in mind that some of Bob’s or Jolene’s victims, the ones that Beth and her helpers are addressing, are children.
“You were drinking, weren’t you?”
“You should know better than to not lock the shower door when you’re showering.”
“Why were you dressed that way.”
“If only you hadn’t confronted him about that, everything would have been okay.”
“You must have made him angry.”
Finally, when nothing else works, Beth, and the system she protects, will flat out accuse you of lying, even if the evidence is good, even if everyone knows that Bob or Jolene not only is capable of doing the things you’re accusing them of, but that they’ve actually done it again.
“Stop stirring up trouble”
“Why did you have to make a big deal about it?”
how flying monkeys make the secret-teller’s life miserable
Beth and the rest who are accusing you of lying and exaggerating and causing trouble are called “flying monkeys” in abuse recovery circles, after the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz that swarmed after Dorothy and her companions when they tried to end the abuses of the Wicked Witch of the West. They will attempt to hound you back into silence, and if that doesn’t work, they’ll attempt to hound you out of the group.
Systems with abusers in them — families, friendship groups, religious organizations, businesses — are remarkably sophisticated in the ways they protect abusers. Society has whole systems built up around protecting abusers from consequences.
“Look at all the reasons we shouldn’t believe you.”
Many abuse victims, somewhere in the process of attempting to let their group know what Bob or Jolene do, go public. Attempting to protect themselves they may notify the police, or human resources, or some other authority. At this point, the system will go into overdrive to protect itself from the threat of change that you represent. They will make you into a villain. They will dig through your past to find every single thing you have ever done and attempt to discredit you. Let’s pretend for a moment that your name is Alex, short for Alexis or Alexander. They might say:
“You know, Alex has always lied to get what they need. Remember that time when they were 7?
“Alex likes sex. They had at least five partners last year. I bet they just changed their mind.”
“I hear Alex has a drinking problem. They were at the bar last week chugging down margaritas all night long.”
“If I remember right, Alex has been in and out of inpatient mental health wards four or five times in the last couple of years.”
Almost every single person who reports abuse done to them goes through some variation of this process with at least some of the people who share a relationship with Bob or Jolene. It is a fact of life that going public about abuse or reporting it to authorities almost always comes with the loss of a relationship you thought was supportive.
Protecting Yourself When You’re the Secret-Teller
So what can you do?
before you go public
First, be aware of the “flying monkeys” phenomenon. Know that at least a couple of the people you thought would support you, won’t. Plan for that and for the support you’ll need to replace those relationships as best you can by building a professional relationship with a therapist or counselor or minister or friend or family member outside the abusive system.
Second, write everything down. If you don’t write well, record it on video or audio. Write down the story of what Bob or Jolene did to you, with as many dates and specifics as you can remember. Write down how Beth and all the others in your system responded. Who had a duty to act and didn’t? Make sure that tidbit gets in there.
Make the decision whether you think you have enough support and evidence to go to an authority and see the process through. Don’t forget that your testimony is evidence. Lawyers are trained in how to find the truth in conflicting testimony and how to convince a judge or jury of it. If you decide to proceed, make sure you have a solid support system that is able to help you deal with the fallout of going public.
Finally, whether or not you go to an authority, it is very likely that you will either be ousted by the system that is protecting Bob or Jolene or that you will voluntarily choose to leave it. Strategize how you deal with the situation in such a way that you are able to keep income coming in, still have the support and a roof over your head, and take care of your physical and mental health and those of any dependents of yours that might be affected.
After you’re ousted For Being a Secret-teller
As you get further from the abusive group you might want to:
Join a support group (in person or online) for survivors of abuse like the kind you suffered.
Advocate for others in similar situations, either formally or just through being a supportive person in the process.
Work to ensure that others understand how abusive systems protect abusers and help weed out other abusers from other systems.
Learn better interpersonal skills yourself so that the cycle of abuse you endured, especially if it was family abuse, ends with you.
You are strong. You were right to come forward. Being a secret-teller doesn’t make you a “narc” or a “snitch”. You did the right thing. Your feeling of betrayal is real, because you were betrayed. You deserve safety and compassion and respect in your life. You deserve to like yourself and to build healthy relationships with others. None of it was ever your fault, and you didn’t deserve the abuse, no matter how many people told you differently.
Thank You For Visiting
Take care of yourself, now and always.
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