A Crash Course for America on the Psychology of Harassment

You’re big. You’re strong. But why didn’t you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you?’”

“It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just… took it in.”

“At the time, did you say anything to the president about — that is not an appropriate request?”

“I didn’t, no.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I think the — as I said earlier, I think the circumstances were such that it was — I was a bit stunned, and didn’t have the presence of mind.”

“You told the president, I — I would see what we could do. What did you mean?”

“Well, it was kind of a slightly cowardly way of trying to avoid telling him, we’re not going to do that — that I would see what we could do. It was a way of kind of getting off the phone, frankly.”

“Why did you just say you need to talk to — why didn’t you say, “I’m not taking that call. You need to talk to the attorney general?”

“Well, I — I did, on the April 11th call, and I reported the calls — the March 30th call and the April 11th call — to my superior.”

“After April 11th, did he ask you more, ever, about the Russia investigation? Did he ask you any questions?”

“We never spoke again after April 11th.”

“If you’re trying to make an investigation go away, is firing an FBI director a good way to make that happen?”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I’m — I’m obviously hopelessly biased, given that I was the one fired.”

* * *

James Comey’s gripping testimony yesterday taught us much about national politics.  But honestly, that was less valuable than its education about and vindication of the experiences of all victims of workplace harassment and abusive authority.

If even the 56-year-old giant who led the federal police force feels like his only options are to constantly give “soft” rejections because a firm one could escalate badly, to get off the phone quickly, to hide in the curtains and hope to avoid notice, to beg his boss to stop him from being alone with the President of the United States – if even the FBI Director has these eminently human freeze and disbelief and avoidance reactions when placed in an unequal power dynamic with a mercurial leader, well then, to all you women and men who have suffered toxic environments, I hope it validates that you are not alone.

The problem isn’t you or your sanity or your strength.

We’re people, just like James Comey.  We expect those in our personal and professional relationships to act reasonably and rationally. We expect those in authority over us to play by the rules.  When they don’t, our instinct is to freeze.  We stay quiet and deflect attention and wait for the unpredictable danger to pass.

Then it’s gone in an instant.  We say nothing.  The threat is still there, and we don’t want to create a fuss or exacerbate the pain.  We hope we imagined it or misunderstood.  We might write it down later, but by then it feels surreal and stale.  It’s too late to do anything.

So we stew.  We doubt our experience; what happened can’t be true because what they did was unreasonable.  We avoid telling other people; no one would believe us because what they did was unbelievable.

At some point we admit reality, but then immediately blame ourselves.  We blame ourselves because we can control ourselves.  If everything is our fault, if everything could have been avoided if only we were faster or louder or stronger, then maybe we have the power to stop it from happening again.

It’s too terrifying to admit we don’t have that power.  To admit that a person who violated norms once will violate them again, and we don’t know how or when or why. We might get screamed at.  We might get fired.  We might get hit.

That’s not your fault.  It’s never your fault.  The problem isn’t you.

Comments

  1. Comey was asking for it. Look at those suits he wears. They just scream, “I want to give you my loyalty; please just come and demand my loyalty.”

  2. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Carolyn.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    A compelling commentary on workplace power dynamics (and yes, harassment).

  4. Thanks. Very important for all of us. A lesson that one hopes will survive the back and forth about who’s telling the truth and how bad it really was.
    Which reminds to say that from a few steps remove Comey’s experience is also revealing about gaslighting. I’ve been surprised, in my many decades of professional life, how often I — even as an apparently powerful white man — have had to make adjustments and allow for the fact that my boss would lie about an encounter, including telling me that it didn’t happen that way.

  5. Yes. This hits home in looking back at some interactions. Well written, thank you.

  6. Let’s not just limit this to workplace harassment. This kind of behavior by the one wielding power is at the heart of sexual harassment. This is the same pattern that a sexual predator engages in, and that Donald Trump boasted about, jokingly or not, in the Access Hollywood recordings.

  7. Carolyn says:

    Absolutely. Whether it’s bosses, co-workers, spouses, siblings, bishops, creepy strangers in bars — the abusive behavior violates norms and the human instincts on how to handle it are the same. In all cases, the victim’s shut-up-and-freeze reaction is normal, and in all cases it’s not the victim’s fault.

  8. As Mr. Comey indicated in his testimony, even the Attorney General and Jared Kushner gave the impression that they didn’t think it was appropriate to leave the President in the room with the FBI director, but they still did it when asked. It is completely natural to try and avoid direct confrontation while trying to do the right thing and manage your job that you love. And ultimately he was fired for not caving. It is so easy to second guess someone after the fact, when all of the facts are laid out publicly, but that doesn’t always happen either. I think he handled it pretty admirably.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I suspect Trump got a private thrill from that part of Comey’s testimony. The 6’8″ guy saying “if only I were stronger” with respect to the exchange. Trump really gets off on dominating interactions, so even if he wouldn’t admit it I bet he was quietly very pleased by that part of the testimony.

  10. “Then it’s gone in an instant. We say nothing. The threat is still there, and we don’t want to create a fuss or exacerbate the pain. We hope we imagined it or misunderstood. We might write it down later, but by then it feels surreal and stale. It’s too late to do anything.
    So we stew. We doubt our experience; what happened can’t be true because what they did was unreasonable. We avoid telling other people; no one would believe us because what they did was unbelievable.
    At some point we admit reality, but then immediately blame ourselves.”

    I find this when I hear people saying something racist or sexist at church. I didn’t record it, so I can’t prove they said it, but I play over and over whether or not I should have stood up to say something. But the doubting cycle takes over and so I just sit and stew.

  11. Carolyn says:

    It happens all. the. time. In so many contexts. I used to think I didn’t have a strong enough testimony because if I did then any such time someone said something wrong or hurtful at church, or every single time I got asked a hard question, I would be able to provide an on point, perfect, Christlike answer. But instead I gaped and stammered and froze.

    I started getting in the habit of using the “stew” time afterwards to come up with and rehearse better answers. And that actually works! By the fifth time someone says or asks the same thing you have a ready-made answer, and everyone thinks you’re so courageous and wise. I don’t tell them I’ve literally been practicing that response for years.

    Invariably, someone ten minutes later says something equally objectionable or challenging. That I’ve never rehearsed before. And so I humbly sit in chagrined silence all over again.

  12. Shantel says:

    I wish I had the words to express truly how I feel about this post. All I can manage right now are, Spot On, Timely, incredibly Smart and Preseptive. Thank You. Know you have made a positive difference in a survivors healing. All the Love…

  13. Shantel says:

    Perceptive…thats better.

  14. Thank you thank you for writing this. I hope that seeing a powerful, experienced, 6’8″, tough career man can have the same sorts of stunned reactions that other victims have will help us banish forever the misconception that such reactions are weak, crazy, or (ugh!!) evidence of lies. Love you, Carolyn!

  15. Carolyn says:

    @Shantel: I wish you well. You are loved, just the way you are.

  16. Agreed. It’s exactly why Clinton couldn’t be in the White House again after what he did to Lewenski. She had virtually no choice but to comply with his twisted perversions. I’m pretty sure a cigar inside of her by the President was something she’d never imagine would be all in a days work or let anyone else do. She probably felt like she couldn’t say no and has to go along which is tantamount to rape. Disgusting he’d be close to getting back into the white house again.

    Any yes the fact that he campaigned for, worked aggressively behind the scenes to ensure he made it in again should be weighed by the voters. It’s good he was rejected with his spouse.

    To bad we had to end up with Trump in the process.

  17. Bless your heart, ppcc.

  18. Marianna says:

    This is so validating. Two and a half years ago I was working as a manager at Office Depot. I was being bullied by the General Manager, the result of which was my being injured on the job, pressured into writing a resignation and spending the time since physically unable to work and beating myself up for putting myself in a situation of no work comp pay coming to me. It has truly been a nightmare physically and mentally. The fact that Comey reacted the same way makes me feel a little less stupid.

  19. hugs (((Marianna)))

  20. Bexter Linford says:

    Lordy, how I wish someone had written this very explanation 41 years ago when I suffered ecclesiastical abuse so severe that I continue to awaken from hellish nightmares screaming, sobbing, begging Heavenly Father for justice instead of the tortuous, cruel, unfair punishments pronounced by His servants. Carolyn, your essay validates and comforts all victims of abuse. Thank you.

  21. Carolyn,

    I found this post so wise and so comforting. I’ve been there. I’ve beat myself up. It sucks.

    I have a favor to ask you. You mention down further on the thread you’ve come up with responses for when ugly Things come up in church. Would you be willing to share, maybe in a separate post, what you’ve said? Like you say, to be able to have grace under this kind of pressure, preparing is key. Maybe a sort of a toolkit or just ideas for the rest of us?

    Love reading you here at BCC. Thank you.

  22. Notwithstanding my snarky response above, this is a really important thing. As someone who spent several years representing employees in litigation I did countless case evaluations with people that had been harassed or terminated or both, and these reactions are so completely normal.

  23. well, i am new to this site, and i am quite offended by this article—sooooo, you are all agreeing/assuming that JComey was actually harrassed & bullied by Trump?? during the Comey hearings i was laughing out loud at what a wuss he was. and please, i have true & heartfelt feelings for people who are actually bullied, like all of us, at one time or another. the “alone’ stuff is also a crack-up—do ya think Obama ever met with his FBI director alone? or any other president? like maybe a bazillion times? poor trump gets lying leaked everytime he speaks. the press will do and say ANYTHING to diminish him. i think i would meet with everybody “all alone” if i were Trump! if our FBI Director, who should be a total BADASS, cannot give the prez a few “whoa, don’t think i can help ya there boss” type comments, he is DEFINITELY not qualified to be the head of the FBI!! don’t hate me, i loved most of the article—we just need some TRUE bully accounts, not that biased political example.

  24. Poor Trump, indeed. Actually Comey did effectively say “whoa, don’t think i can help ya there boss.” The result was that he got fired. He even tried saying it nicely.

  25. Thank you, this is a very good study in power. It’s easy for people on the outside (including our future selves) to look back on abusive dynamics and think, ‘Why didn’t you just calmly say no? If you had just done [X, Y, or Z] you wouldn’t be in this situation.” But it’s a false narrative that comes from our desire to believe that people with power over us are reasonable and that it’s theoretically possible to handle any situation gracefully and effectively. Unfortunately, sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who will not let you be graceful no matter what you do, who will deny facts, who will take advantage of you for giving them the benefit of the doubt, or who will punish you unfairly and disproportionately for not doing what they want.

  26. I can’t help but wonder if the people who keep insisting that he coulda-shoulda-woulda resisted more, are the ones who are the semi-bullies in workplace situations; are the ones who think that physical size has or should have an impact on who gets pushed around and who pushes; are the ones who don’t really believe in “intangibles” like “power dynamics” that inhibit people’s responses. The rest of us have all been in situations where we held our tongues because it was politic to do so, or failed to hold our tongues and paid the price.

  27. The day the Temple Department Director, that I was assigned to, took an interest in me, and took me to lunch, was a major red flag for me. I knew something was wrong for this Director was neither friendly to me, cared about me personally, and he never had previously cared about my background. I called my wife and told her something was wrong, I just didn’t know what because I had done nothing to warrant any action. Not long after this luncheon I was forced out of the employment with the LDS Church, not just out of the department but entirely out of Church Employment..

    I created a blog, abuse-in-lds-employment.blogspot.com, which details the most heartbreaking and heart wrenching employment experience of my life. I am writing about my employment experience at the LDS Church because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been notified of the abusive and hostile work environments that I worked in and protected the abusers while I was forced out of employment. I have tried to get someone, anyone, to sit down with me to discuss what happened to me but my appeals, pleadings, and letters to the Temple Department, Human Resource Department, and to General Authorities have been completely ignored. The absolute silence from Church Employment is crushing to my soul because it is the exact opposite of what I have been taught by the Church my entire life regarding how to deal with abuse as a leader.

    When a Temple Recorder brags about golfing of the top of a temple, plays golf on the sealing room floor, jumps out of an alter, calls General Authorities and his boss and high level executives “scum sucking maggots”, tells me how he is going to get revenge because he was given a lower rating than he wanted, and ignores unethical and in fact illegal activities – and the Temple Department, Human Resources, and the General Authorities ignore these reports – something is seriously wrong with the Church Employment system. Abuse clearly occurred and they refuse to acknowledge or address it. Likewise when a Temple Department Director creates a hostile and abusive and retaliatory environment where people fear for their jobs – and the Temple Department, Human Resources, and the General Authorities ignore these reports – something is seriously wrong with the Church Employment system. Furthermore, when LDS Employment doesn’t want to know about abuse, or desire to correct the abusive actions of their managers, and ignore the abuse to apparently cover it up – something is seriously wrong with the Church Employment system.

    The abusive and hostile managers I worked for eventually forced me out of Church Employment under threat of termination. I submitted my resignation in December of 2006 which was devastating to my family and I. To date, not a single individual from the Church or Church Employment is willing to speak with me about the abuse or to sincerely look at the facts. As a result, this blog was born and will provide volumes of documentation that I have. It should be embarrassing to Church Employment that their employees were able to be so abusive and that Church Employment protected the abusers rather than the victim. But, I truly believe they don’t care – not in the least.

    The Church don’t want to know because it means they have a problem. It’s shameful that the Church will not respond to my reports and that the allow these hostile men to continue in their powerful positions. As an active Church member it’s also embarrassing that the Church reacts this way to reports of abuse and has to be forced through lawsuits to deal with it rather than doing what is right.

  28. WHOA! I do not know what to make of that from jsmith. Big organization where probably lotsa things go wrong. So sorry for your bad experience…

  29. Elyse Allen says: sooooo, you are all agreeing/assuming that JComey was actually harrassed & bullied by Trump??

    I don’t know that “bullied” is exactly the word. Elyse, I don’t know anything about your background or age or corporate experience, but what we’re seeing here is a power differential dynamic that is not untypical in corporate (and presumably government) situations. Trump made a request, a thinly veiled threat (‘do you want to keep your job?’) that Comey drop an investigation. He didn’t come right out and say it, but he did it in a “deniable” way. Nonetheless, many of us have been in situations where this sort of thing has happened. A hint is dropped, the intent in that place and context is unmistakable, but it’s phrased in such a way that the senior person can claim that they were misinterpreted if someone calls them on it.

    “Will no one rid me of that troublesome priest?”
    (stab-stab-stab)
    “Oh, well, I didn’t mean they should kill him!”

    Yeah, you did mean that, Henry; you’re just not willing to face murder charges. Yet history recognizes, as people familiar with this type of situation do in the Trump/Comey case, that the president asked the director of the FBI to drop an investigation for political reasons. Not the first, nor the last, time it’s ever happened, but this director at least had the nerve to stand up.

    The Marines say, “the preference or wish of your superior officer should be considered as an order.” That’s where Comey is coming from. What you’re saying, Elyse, might be true in an ideal world – but in reality it is, as Em says, “a false narrative.”

  30. @thinkermom Thank you very much.

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