When Good Intentions Cause Harm

LouisaActivism, More Than Two, Relationship Fluidity & BeyondLeave a Comment

It was the worst of times; I was in the middle of a breakdown of my relationship, having just given birth to his child. I was also in the middle of a masters course for journalism in Berlin, struggling to help my older two children adapt to a new country, language, culture and schooling system. I was on depression medication, which wasn't proving particularly helpful. And then she called me.

Eve Rickert, my friend and publisher, told me over skype that her co-author, her business partner (therefore also my publisher) and ex-partner Franklin Veaux had been gaslighting her. Then she asked me to document the stories of the women who preferred not to write their own experience of abuse and/or harm at his hands. 

As a woman who has experienced abuse herself and who had published memoirs about both polyamory and abuse, it seemed a perfect fit. And perhaps it was, for a time.

Yet I hadn't ever had an assignment like this, where I would help other women go up against someone like Franklin, who was the guru of (mainly) the cis-het portion of the community. I was scared. Scared of letting the women down, if the shit hit the fan. Scared of the vitriol that would no doubt be spewed forth my way. Scared of harming my own writing career. Understand that writing, to me, is like breathing. I must write...or die. 

I proposed to Eve that if I did it, it had to be combined with my thesis in some way, because my life was already chaotic and hellish. That was a mistake--the first one. It meant my agendas became conflicted: it became about my goals and decentered the women. 

To agree to do something enormous with no time to do it justice was also a mistake (and indicative of my own lack of boundaries, I'm afraid). I had even less time to educate myself on the concept of transformative justice. Still, I read a hell of a lot about it (and then forgot most of it). Today only three things have stuck with me. Transformative justice seeks

  1. Not to deprive the perpetrator of their freedom
  2. To preserve their dignity throughout the process
  3. To transform the community structures which enabled the abuse in the first place

They turned out not to be the most important things (this is a handy resource about TJ if you want to know what the other things are). I also picked the press codex apart, which, for those of you who don't know, is a lengthy document on the ethics of journalism. I particularly noted the part about confidentiality and corroboration. I couldn't, wouldn't let the women who confided in me be exposed to unnecessary risk. These were the tools I had when I started the journey.

It wasn't long before I encountered obstacles for which my tools were woefully inadequate. They couldn't fight or mitigate my own trauma responses.

Often I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Franklin Veaux had been blogging for two decades on ethical polyamory. He was admired, and successful at relationships—at least to the outside world. But the women told me about the awful things he had done, and I heard their very real hurt. I recognised and resonated with their experiences. I felt that my high stress reaction of extreme cognitive dissonance would be experienced by many in the community. So I had to verify what they were saying, again and again, to see if I could see the patterns myself, compare it with what he'd said—both in order to understand how such a thing had happened in the public eye and, as a journalist, to make sure no one could dispute the women's accounts.

To my horror, I found not only that  these women were telling the truth, but that LiveJournal had documented every single lie Franklin told, every abusive pattern, and every misogynous snide remark. It was all there. People had seen it happen. But it had still continued over a period of 20 years, harming multiple women.

I don't even know if I can convey the despair I felt at the time. As an abuse survivor with complex trauma, my depression had been triggered by Trump's ascension to the White House. The world was built to benefit abusive men. How could I live in it? And here it was again, this time in my close and intimate circle. Additionally, I had qualms. It seemed to me that I was flushing Franklin’s reputation down the toilet. And how was that compatible with transformative justice?

What if by making these accounts and the evidence I'd found public, I was destroying any chance Franklin had of preserving his dignity? Didn't it go against the entire concept of TJ? After seeking advice, this was how I eventually understood it:

Franklin's actions had done harm, and the consequences of his actions were Franklin’s responsibility. The women who named the harm weren’t responsible for whether his harm damaged his reputation, or his dignity. He did this to himself. 

My conscious goal was to amplify the women's voices. I found that I couldnt do my masters thesis as well, and it slipped away. My failure dogged me as I continued the work. I haven't been able to touch my thesis for the last six months, and I don't know whether I will ever pick it up again. I'd committed to supporting these women, and I couldn't disappoint them or let them down. it seemed that it was the most important thing. 

It didn't occur to me then that this was also a fawn response, created from my own complex trauma. Obviously I have a lot of healing to do and my own trauma had started to get in the way. I'd already made other errors, which I documented and published in an article on my blog—this blog—Ways I fucked up (so far). But the work was progessing.

Yet, my disgust at Franklin's behaviour and at Franklin himself was driving me down a very dark path. The cognitive dissonance of having to preserve someone's dignity when their behaviours disgust and trigger you is huge. I wasn't sleeping. Many of the interviews took place in the middle of the night, because I was in Germany and the women were in North America. Then I had a full day of classes, and a small baby who woke me at all hours.

When I look at the work on the polyamory-metoo site, I can see where it fell apart. Where my own trauma started to impact the work. It’s after the first set of testimonies. Franklin's power and influence grew as soon as he and his wife Celeste divorced. He was everywhere—not only on LiveJournal, but on his website, in newspaper articles and interviews. The sheer amount of material I had to wade through was vast. As a writer I see story blocks everywhere. It's literally my craft to create a story arc out of seemingly unconnected experiences. I lived and breathed Franklin’s work, because I was researching him. Part of me drowned in it. And as I drowned, I forgot that is was not about him. It was about the women. 

By then I was afraid that the community would minimize the next set of women's stories. It had already started. Comments on every social media outlet disparaged the first set of stories, and these were stories that I had personally documented, corroborated, researched and published on behalf of the women I was committed to protect...it felt like hot needles. But the commenters couldn't have known what I knew. They hadn't been treading in Franklin's LiveJournal filth like I had. I knew. And I felt it was my job to convince the world of it so that the women would be believed. 

The ultimate purpose of this process was to empower the women. Elaine, Celeste, Amber, Lauren, Lisa, Joanna, Melanie, and the women who have released their testimonies last week. My trauma, and my adherence to investigative journalistic principles—check and check again—made it impossible to hear them after awhile. Their testimonies became a means to an end, and that end was to expose an abusive man whose behaviours appalled me.

And that's not the way it's supposed to work. As I tried to make sense of the stories, I built an overarching narrative.  In doing so, I suppressed and erased their voices. I did this. I’m a good person, but I’ve done harm. Although the final versions were approved by all the women, and they stand behind them, some of them were hurt unecessarily in the process.

Here's my takeaway:

In doing this work, I'd taken on the rescuer position, and although I knew the drama triangle theory, I hadn't realised how incredibly damaging that could be. I contributed to two survivors’ experience of erasure. I wanted to support them. I wanted to empower them all. But intentions don't count as much as impact. 

The women have now taken the reins of the process, and not before time. Eve and I have had several deep and tearful conversations. I have apologized and tried to make amends. The work we did together still stands. As we move forward in this process, the remaining testimonies have been taken by my esteemed colleague Kali Tal, who has a PhD in Trauma Studies. I think she's doing a really great job. They can be found here at:

I Tripped On the (Polyamorous) Missing Stair

It is my fervent hope that these women, many of whom have become my friends, can get through this remaining time without any further trauma and harm. But I also know that you can't know in advance, not for sure. Harm is inflicted by bad people, but also good people. Above all it is inflicted by people, period. So it would be wise to remember the phrase that started this movement:

"All of us are a mix of light and shadow, good and bad…If we were neatly sorted into piles marked ‘good people’ and ‘bad people,’ life would be much simpler."