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We Are Not Monsters: Dealing with people who let you suffer [Curing The Bystander Effect]

Posted Feb 21 2013 12:23am


Monsters live among us. The only problem is that there aren’t more of them.

“You must have misunderstood him.”  The words rattled around my head, unsettling me. How could I have misunderstood him? The evidence – torn clothing, bloodied razor blades, notes in his own handwriting, pictures, death threats – sat before me, piled limply in the bottom of a green plastic box. (The box that was topped by a note saying “If I ever don’t come home…” and stashed in my closet where my roommate who always borrowed my clothes would surely find it.) Not to mention the bruises left on my skin. And yet his hold on me was compelling enough that even staring myself down in the mirror, my eyes tired and blank, I began to doubt my own reality. Had it really happened? Had it happened the way I remembered it? If so, did it matter? What had I done to make this happen? Was I overreacting?

That phrase and the seeds of doubt it planted- ones that grew into full choking vines by the time I finally testified against him in court – were not planted by my abusive ex-boyfriend. It was, in fact, put there by one of my best friends. Even now, years later, it chills me to write that. But there you have it: The day after my ex sexually assaulted me (another sentence that still chills me to write), I told my close friend what had happened. I probably should have told someone else, someone in a better position to help me, but I was young, terrified, exhausted and very broken. Months of being told I was ugly, stupid, fat and un-loveable had worn me down to the point where I couldn’t trust myself even to take care of myself. So I put myself in my friend’s hands. He was my ex’s friend too and I knew he would understand the situation better than anyone.

“You must have misunderstood him,” he pronounced finally after I finished my story.

I stifled my confusion, my questions, my hurt. “It just can’t happen again,” I pleaded through my sobs.

“I’ll talk to him,” he laid my head on his shoulder and put his arm around me. “It won’t.”

But it did. And this time I told no one.

Thankfully the second time was bad enough (what does “enough” even mean in a situation like this?) that it impelled me to break up, get out, escape. And while I went on to graduate with my Master’s degree, get married and even have two babies, the door I thought I’d slammed shut behind me still sometimes blew open, mostly at night, mostly when I was vulnerable to ghosts. I struggled with the nightmares and self-doubt, churning with guilt over the memories I kept trying not to remember, either until dawn came or I threw up. I was always, always doubting the reality of it – maybe it really was all just a terrible misunderstanding? It wasn’t until at last it was dragged out into the light of day, thanks to a courageous girl who wasn’t cowed by him and went to the police, that I was able to see the abuse for what it was and say it out loud.

The court case was its own special hell – and one I’ve written extensively about on here before so I won’t cover old territory – but here’s the worst detail: Because of the way the court was arranged, my ex was seated right behind the microphone the other victims (oh yes, plural) and I used to address the judge. I could have sat down in his lap. Here’s the second-to-worst detail: my friend, the one who had seen the damage first hand, was seated right behind my ex. He was there to support him.

All of us felt immensely betrayed by my friend – and while I won’t detail all his alleged crimes, I’ll just say that he had knowledge of many more “incidents” besides mine, and leave it at that. At the time I wasn’t able to explain it but I hated my friend worse than I hated my ex at that moment. Actually, I hated him for a really long time.

Several years later, a friend of a friend got engaged to my friend (still with me? I  need to just think of a pseudonym already) and I lost it. I was afraid she’d be offered up like a sacrificial lamb to the altar of my ex’s ego. My hysteria led to a long-distance phone call with my friend. It had been years but he sounded exactly the same when he picked up the phone. His voice brought back a rush of emotions.

“How could you know about that – about what he did to me – and still have let it happen over and over again?” I asked through clenched teeth. I left my real question - Why didn’t you save me? - unasked. Because I knew the answer. Girls like me are disposable. I was not the princess that knights fought to save. I was the animal sacrificed so that other girls could be saved.

“You must have misunderstood me,” he answered and my skin crawled. My brain reeled as he explained that at the time he had had no idea how bad it was and that he was young too and didn’t understand the import of what I was telling him. When I confronted him with various pieces of evidence of his complicity, he always responded the same – that he didn’t realize how bad it was, that he wasn’t covering for my ex and if he’d known he would have helped me and the others. By the end of the call we’d come to an uneasy peace. He said he’d done the best he could with the information he had at the time and I couldn’t argue with that. Perhaps he truly did. I finally had to just realize that while I still thought what he did was shady, it wasn’t criminal and perhaps in a way he was a secondary victim of my ex. My ex had a powerful way of manipulating people into doing what he wanted and in the end my friend, for all his faults, was still who he had always been. I had once adored him and part of me still saw in him that funny, entertaining, elegant person he was - and that person wasn’t a monster.


See, with a monster, it makes sense for them to be evil and hurt people – that’s just what monsters do. We storm their castles, fight them and lock them up – that’s just what we do. And that model works well for your Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers. But what about all the flawed people who do bad things, sometimes really bad things, who can’t be written off as monsters, as pure evil? What about those people, who are in the end, all of us?

The other day I got a comment on a really old post I’d written about my assault. It reads,

“I wanted to ask you more about your friend, this super-close male friend who you later found out knew about and blew off your assault.  Did you ever get to confront him?  Was his behavior typical of your and X’s mutual friends?  I just don’t get it.  Why would he be loyal to X over you?  It’s such a multifacted betrayal, coming at you from every direction: first your boyfriend, then your mutual friends, then even your close male friend.  Who did you have in your corner?”

I was momentarily stunned when I read it – mostly because that’s generally not the part of the story people tend to focus on and yet it is still such a tender spot for me. So I answered her, explaining that one of the first things my ex did was isolate me from most of my friends and family so I really didn’t have anyone, giving an abbreviated version of the above story. Then I added, “Do I wish he [my friend] would have protected me? Yes. Do I wish he would have supported me? Absolutely. But perhaps he really didn’t understand what was going on. Or perhaps he just didn’t have the capacity to deal with it in a helpful way at that time. In the end we’ve put it behind us and while we haven’t stayed in touch I think we ended on fairly good terms.” Then I asked her why she wanted to know (the paranoid part of my brain had kicked in by that point).

She wrote a measured and deeply interesting response (which I got her permission to share with you):

“I asked you because while I can accept that there are bad men and women out there who manipulate and hurt people, I have a harder time accepting (the apparently true fact) that our entire society helps them out.  It’s not just your story; I read about a woman who was shunned from a group game night (both males and females in the group) because she accused a male member of groping her and trying to kiss her.  The group didn’t deny that the assault had happened, just didn’t agree that it was a serious offense.  Other stories that stick with me are ones about family members covering for abusers in their midst.  Victims don’t have control over whether they’re targeted, so I guess that I just pin my hopes on the idea that if I’m ever targeted, someone will come to my defense, someone will help me.  So to see the nearest and dearest of the victims participate in the abuse…  I can make sense of the abuser – he’s either a very disturbed or awful human being.  But what do I make of those who stand by?  Can I write them off as terrible people?  (Your point that they themselves can be duped by the abusers is an important one.)  It makes me think that ever knowing who to trust is very difficult, since the bad guys seem to always have more support than the victims.
I was never assaulted.  (Well…I’ve had my share of close calls, especially in foreign countries.  I was lucky enough to get away.)  I come from a loving family.  But I still have that, “But for the grace of God, there go I” sense.  Yes my family is loving, but it was also never tested in that way.  We talk about rape culture, but it’s deeper than that, isn’t it.  It’s about trusting and admiring charismatic people, enjoying the peace of the status quo, believing that men have special rights and women have special responsibilities, and yes, probably cowardice.  It scares me to my core to think that many of us share these traits, that many of us are susceptible to being duped by abusers.
I hope I didn’t dig up unpleasant memories for you on flimsy grounds.  Thank you so much for talking and sharing.  But yes, I’m not a survivor; I’m just another woman who’s watching these interactions, wide-eyed.  It’s scary and frustrating.”
Her letter gave me chills because I’d never put my experience with my friend in the larger context of society as a whole. It’s true – while I generally try to focus on the good and beauty in people, there is yet a darkness that will go unchecked unless we talk about it. And that darkness lies in every single one of us as the ones who stand by. The thing is, the cure is so beautifully simple. The best way to not be a “bystander” – defined in social psychology as one who stands by watching an awful act occur but does not seek help or intervene – is to simply learn about the well-documented “bystander effect.” Psychologists first coined the term after dozens of people watched or heard at least part Kitty Genovese being brutally murdered over a 30-minute period and only one called the police, and even then not until it was too late, assuming someone else was taking care of it.  (UPDATE: The story of Kitty Genovese has gone through several revisions since it was first reported, as a commenter pointed out. And to this day we’re not sure exactly who saw what or how much of it they understood. My point isn’t to blame those poor people but to point out that doing nothing in a scary situation may be our natural instinct but there are ways to overcome it. I’ve tried to rewrite this sentence to reflect more accurately what we don’t know. For more info, read her wiki .) A young woman died a horrible death but an entire city had to face a horrible truth: they are us. Since then the phenomenon has been much studied and invariably once people are aware that the bystander effect exists and that one should never assume that someone else will help, people do generally step in to help. Knowledge. That’s the first step.
But what are the other steps? I’m not entirely sure. I think it varies from situation to situation and person to person. Things are never as simple on the inside as they look from without. Yet I think we prepare our whole lives, in various ways, to do that right thing at just the right time, in those short moments that define our lives. In the end I think it comes down to answering one of the basic questions of humanity: Because if you ask “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (and we inevitably do) then you must also ask “Why do good people do bad things?” Perhaps it’s as simple as asking yourself now, in this moment where you’re safe (and possibly bored – this is getting ridiculously long), “What would I do…?”
How do you answer this question for yourself? Have you ever been a bystander? What did you do (or not do)? What tips/advice/consolation/deep thoughts would you offer this astute letter writer?


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