When I was a teenager, two friends confided in me that they had been abused by men in their lives. This was such a shock at the time–I was pretty sheltered–that it stunned me to silence. I didn’t know what to say or how to help, so I said and did nothing.
I remember a car ride back from a bar mitzvah when I was 13 years old. An older teenager, whom I did not know, sat next to me in the car and kept inappropriately touching my thigh. I tried to move over but somehow I was stricken with an inability to just push him away and tell him to stop. When I finally got out of the car, I ran into my friend’s house and cried for an hour and never spoke about it again.
And I remember more.
We all want to believe that if we were to see something, we’d say something. That abuse is black and white, a clear matter of right and wrong. That the abuser is always the creepy, evil person who is easily identifiable and deserves to be punished and put away. That if we were in a dangerous situation, we would run away, scream, or report it immediately with confidence. That we would never remain silent. But this is rarely the case. Abuse is complicated and wrapped up in shame and counterintuitive silence. Frequently the abuser is a well-liked person that many would never believe could do something so horrible. The survivor is often too ashamed or afraid to disclose the incident.
Like millions of others, I have been following the Harvey Weinstein story. But I am not surprised. Sadly, everything we are witnessing is typical for abuse, and the story is unfolding in a predictable way. Many people are shocked by the pervasive silence, the secret-keeping, the willful ignorance and the ‘looking the other way’ of Hollywood. But that’s the way it always goes with abuse. Until it doesn’t.
Sorry to burst our savior complex and self-righteous bubble, but few of us would have done anything differently than what we are seeing in this horrible tale, whether as the victim or the bystander. It’s not because we’re bad people; it’s because we are people, and unless otherwise trained and educated, most people are largely ignorant and insecure about how to handle issues related to abuse, their own or others’.
Let’s get something straight. Abuse messes with everyone’s mind, the victims and the bystanders.
It has certainly messed with mine.
In fact, I am willing to bet based on statistics that many people watching the sordid Weinstein story are themselves bystanders to ongoing abuse, but like the Hollywood community, are insecure about their suspicions, afraid of the consequences of speaking out, and have deluded themselves into believing that the person is really a good person and the concerns are probably? maybe? unfounded or exaggerated.
How many of us have doubted ourselves and worried that even raising concerns about a person’s inappropriate behavior could potentially harm the suspected abuser? How many of us have wondered what would happen to their career, their family, their reputation, not to mention what would happen to us?
How many of us have second-guessed our concerns because the person who has crossed lines is a person of power and influence, an upstanding member of our office, community, or perhaps even a beloved friend or family member?
Even worse, how many of us don’t even notice that abuse is happening because we have never educated ourselves about the signs and symptoms of abuse and wouldn’t notice it even if it was written in bright flashing Hollywood lights?
I am not trying to minimize any culpability. Not for Hollywood or for myself.
There is clear right and wrong when it comes to abuse, but its complicated nature creates cognitive dissonance and confusion and easily blurs judgment. And that’s why educating ourselves is critical.
Every time an abuse scandal blows up, I am hopeful that we are one step closer to better protecting victims and better educating the world to make a change. The more we all speak about abuse, the less taboo it is and the more empowered we become.
But that will never happen if we believe these “things” only happen to other people, like the rich and famous of Hollywood, and that it’s not really relevant to us. We won’t get any closer to making a difference if we just hate on Hollywood. We will totally miss the point if this becomes only about Weinstein because sadly, he is NOT an anomaly. The public nature of this scandal is, but the subject matter is all too common. Abuse happens in every sector, and is mishandled frequently in every sector. This is a deeply embedded cultural issue, not a Hollywood issue.
So let’s stop watching the Harvey Weinstein story voyeuristically and self righteously pointing fingers at the Hollywood elite. Let’s take a long collective look in the mirror, and actually muster the courage to speak up about our own stories and create space for others to safely tell theirs. Let’s educate ourselves and our children, and demystify abuse so no one is ever shocked into silence because they don’t know what to say or do. And let’s start giving an unambiguous damn about the victims so we can name abuse unabashedly when we see or hear about it and really make a difference.