In the movies and on TV, when someone blows the whistle and reveals the illegal doings of a company, or speaks out against their rapist, or outs an abusive leader, there’s always a happy ending. And–the person is always telling the truth.
The middle part of the movie might have a lot of dramatic tension where the whistle-blower is in danger, or people think they are lying, but ultimately they come out as the hero. I wish it were always that easy. I wish that people believed the activists who rise up to speak the truth.
For that matter, I wish the whistle-blower was always the truth-speaking hero. When I speak about whistle-blowing, I’m talking about a few things. I’m talking about activists out in the world who are calling attention to grievous, horrific actions by corporations in the name of making more money at the expense of the environment and people’s health. Or calling attention to embezzlement, social justice issues, and more.
I’m also talking about within the Pagan community. People have tried to speak up about sexual and other abuse issues and they have been silenced. To understand why speaking out against larger corporations and other more global activist issues poses a challenge, I think using the example of how this dynamic plays out within the smaller sandbox of the broader Pagan community serves as a useful illustration.
Handling Abuse in the Pagan Community
I’ve written rather a lot more about this in articles on my Pagan leadership blog, but sadly, there are a lot of people who stand up to speak out about a Pagan (usually a leader), and it turns out that they are just trying to get back at that person. They make up (or at least exaggerate) heinous actions in order to sway people against that person.
In the wake of Kenny Klein’s arrest, and the ensuing surge of people who said that he had touched them inappropriately at various Pagan festivals when they were teenagers…and then posts about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s alleged sexual abuse of her daughter as well as facilitating her husband’s abuse of a number of children…and in the wake of the Isla Vista murders and the #YesAllWomen campaign, there has been a lot of discussion in the Pagan community about what to do.
How do we handle this? How do we make our communities safer without becoming prudish and dogmatic? How do we hold people accountable without starting witch hunts?
Just days after the Kenny Klein announcement hit the Pagan blogosphere, I joined a group of folks who were creating an initiative called the Council of the Phoenix. These were people who, like me, wanted to figure out how we could do more to prevent abuse in the Pagan community. Sexual abuse in the Pagan community wasn’t news to me; when I travel and teach, people take me aside and tell me their stories about heinous things that they’ve experienced leaders and group members doing. Mostly I hear about egomaniacal, emotionally abusive leaders, but I also hear about group leaders and teachers pressuring people for sex, as well as rape, harassment, and other abuse.
However, what I started to hear was extreme fear that the Council of the Phoenix (or some other organizational body) would start defaming Pagans, putting them on trial, or otherwise starting witch hunts, and that nobody would be safe from the “values police.”
You can start to see the crux of the problem.
How do we honor the true whistle-blowers who are speaking up about abusive behavior without burning every alleged perpetrator at the stake? There’s a push within the anti-abuse groundswell to believe every person who claims to have been abused. But the reality is that there are sometimes people who lie, or even have a mental illness where they remember things that may be a delusion.
Here are a few real stories about whistle-blowers in the Pagan community. It’s worth noting that I hear stories like this with disturbing frequency. In fact, what will disturb me in the days to come is how many people will read this article and ask me, “How did you know about my local community/local leader?”
Scenario: Abusive Cult Leader
Person A contacts me about Pagan Leader B. Person A had some weird experiences with Pagan Leader B, and then people come forward to Person A to tell stories of things that Pagan Leader B did to them. Person A begins gathering information, and starts to put together some alarming patterns that point to abusive/cult leader behavior.
Yet, the folks who spoke to Person A aren’t prepared to come forward. And, though Person A is willing to (and feels obliged to) formally cut professional/local ties with Pagan Leader B, they are not prepared to be the visible whistle-blower and face all the flack. They’re perhaps willing to step forward if several of the others do, but those people are unwilling because they have already been subjected to harassment by Pagan Leader B and Pagan Leader B’s group/friends.
Pagan Leader B is beginning to gain additional status, and unless someone steps forward Pagan Leader B will continue to grow in their influence, and have access to more people they can abuse. But nothing can be done until someone steps forward to speak out.
What do you do with this information? I have met Person A, and I have met Pagan Leader B, but I don’t know either of them very well and I haven’t witnessed any of this directly. What if I believe Person A and then it turns out Person A was lying? What if I brush off what Person A has said and then Pagan Leader B seriously harms someone?
Scenario: Pagan-Owned Land
There’s a Pagan-owned land that hosts retreats/festivals, some with a heavy focus on kink and sex magic. Their leader/founder has spoken out about how amazing their sexual ethics are.
However, I was aware of a number of people who’d had some issues at this particular venue, specifically, they had experienced sexual misconduct. I did a little digging. I found several people who had felt sexually harassed by other attendees. They followed the prescribed format for filing complaints, and the complaints were ignored by the staff, and the people who spoke up found themselves banned from future events.
These people then told me about several others who had been sexually assaulted by a staffer. Those people had also filed grievances, but they too were banned from future events, and the staffer remains. I was also informed that the founder of this land was banned from another Pagan festival grounds for sexual misconduct many years ago, though I have as yet been unable to verify this.
What do you do with this information? I haven’t heard first-hand from the alleged victims claiming sexual assault. Further, there’s no proof of any of this (other than perhaps any reports filed if copies can be obtained). If I believe the alleged victims and they are lying, they’ve essentially just shut down a resource (Pagan-owned land). If I do nothing, the abuse continues and more unsuspecting people attend events at this place.
When I brought this scenario up to members of the Council of the Phoenix, it was pretty unanimously agreed upon that we couldn’t create a listing of “bad” Pagan venues or festivals or we’d all get sued for defamation.
But how do you verify the truth? Further, how do you verify the truth without blaming, shaming, and tormenting the victim?
Scenario: Speaking Out About my Ex
In the wake of the Kenny Klein announcement, I found myself in the position of encouraging people to speak out about abusive behavior in the Pagan community. I realized, however, that I couldn’t really ask others to step up and speak out if I wasn’t willing to take that risk myself.
So I became the whistle-blower and spoke out against my ex fiance and former teaching partner. I won’t go into the details here because it’s on my main blog (my Pagans and Predators series from April). Now–I had already gone public about some of what my ex did to me years ago, and I took some flack for it then. However, I decided to speak out more specifically about what he’d done, including what I gather would be categorized as spousal rape.
The comments on my Facebook thread shocked me. I went into the symptoms of a low-grade panic attack for several days…People were (even unintentionally) engaged in victim blaming. Some of the messages sounded innocent, but try reading these as a victim who is trying to speak up about an abuser:
- You’re just doing it to get back at him, it’s just sour grapes
- Why didn’t you file charges?
- You might have to just move further away from him so you won’t have to see him
- It was just domestic abuse, that doesn’t impact his ability to teach
- You are inviting drama into your life by speaking out
- You must really be enjoying this
- Live and let live, stop focusing on the negative
- Just let it go and move on
- Why didn’t you say no?
- That doesn’t count as rape
There was more, but I admit–I don’t have the fortitude in this moment to go back and reread those threads on my FB wall from April, or the private messages I was sent at that time.
- Some sent me notes about their own horrific abuse that far outstripped my own. Stories that literally nauseated me. They thanked me for sharing my own story and said, “I can’t share my story the way you have, there would be too many repercussions against me.”
- Several people (friends of my ex fiance) posted on my Facebook, and sent some really hateful private notes.
- My ex fiance threatened to sue me for libel.
- I received an anonymously-sent email from someone who threatened to “out” me for having had an abortion as a way to get back at me for what I was posting about my ex.
The Fallacy of Confronting Your Abuser
Being the whistle-blower has some serious consequences; the hatemail I received is on the low end of the scale. Some whistle-blowers get death threats or are physically harmed. Diana Rajchel posted on her blog about the “Very Special Episode” television fallacy where someone confronts their abuser and the abuser is punished and the victim gets to heal and move on from their lives. Life is not that clean.
My ex fiance is still out there, still trying to teach at Pagan events. I had to see him last time I taught at Convocation, and worse, he was co-teaching a workshop that was specifically intended to get women into a vulnerable headspace.
My Word Against His
I’m very aware that it’s my word against his. You, the reader, have no reason to believe me. Now–my ex has been kicked out of one festival and is somewhat unwelcome at several others, and there are a number of other women that he has harmed who have spoken to me. But most of them (or any other victim) wouldn’t want to speak out.
Why? Because whistle-blowing sucks. It’s excruciating. These folks just want to heal and move on and hope they don’t ever have to engage with him again. Having gone through even a minor amount of the blowback, I can’t say I blame them for wanting to just bury their heads.
Victims, Banishing, and Burying Our Heads
One of the catalysts of my speaking out was a friend saying, “It sounds like you really need to banish this guy from your life.” I thought about that. What would it mean to banish him from my life?
I could do the duck and cover model–that’s what most people do. What we really want is to just never see our abuser again, never hear from them again, never have to deal with them. That’s what we want. So a lot of people do a banishing ritual where they cut a string to represent cutting that person out of their life and bury their head.
I realized that if I kept my head ducked beneath the ground like that, I wasn’t really banishing him…I was just ignoring him like a festering boil under the surface. This would in no way banish him from my life, much less remove him from his easy access to more victims.
I’ve often said that speaking up and speaking the truth is some of the most powerful magic out there. During the days where I was posting my Pagans and Predators blog posts I posted something on Facebook, “Truth is my favorite hex.” Some folks liked it so much I made a t-shirt design out of it, but it really cuts to the core of my beliefs.
When we speak the truth there is power in it.
It’s not to say that truthspeakers don’t get raked over the coals. Usually when people don’t want to hear the horrifying truth they bury their heads, or they attack the messenger.
I hold a paradox. I believe that those who have been through something horrible have a moral obligation to speak up against those that harmed them or that harm others. It’s part of our social contract–and this covers abuses of a corporation or abuses of a partner. This includes Pagans who have been discriminated against.
And yet, the damage to a whistle-blower’s life must be taken into account. The blowback causes real harm to the person who speaks up.
I still wish I could believe every story I hear. And yet I know that there are people who lie to get back at others. So where does that leave us? When I listen to a whistleblower, I listen with two ears. One believes their story. The other questions it. And then, I fact check. I use my discernment.
Sometimes, what happened becomes clear because I hear a lot of consistent stories. While I’m often dealing with hearsay, there’s a certain point where I’m pretty confident I understand the pattern that is being defined. It may not be illegal activity, and it may not be provable in a court of law.
But, it’s enough for me to decide whether or not I want to work with a particular person or Pagan group, or to decide if it’s time to kick someone out of my group. In some very rare cases, I gather enough information where I decide it’s really time to actively warn people away from an abuser/harmful group.
Most Pagan communities I’m familiar with have a passive/aggressive rug-sweeping avoidance-heavy way of dealing with abusive leaders and members. That has to change. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I know that building awareness of these issues is a beginning.
This stuff is not easy for our communities to face. It’s a “Tower” moment (to offer a Tarot reference) where that structure is burning down around our ears. What is that structure that is our burning “Tower?” I think it’s all the poor boundaries, the lack of accountability, the silencing of victims, the harassment and sexual pressuring in the name of being sex positive, and it’s the lack of skills around how to deal with predators and how to help victims.
We can’t unsee what we’ve seen; we have to look in the mirror now and see that abuses of various types are happening in our communities. The burning Tower was all the people who buried their head in the sand and tried to pretend like this stuff doesn’t happen and Pagans don’t do that. It’s here, and now we need strategies to deal with it.
Denial doesn’t make it go away.
Speaking Up is an Act of Courage
Often the bravest act of an activist is to stand up and say the hard thing. Even though they know they will be slandered. Even though they know they will get hate mail, or death threats, or get arrested, or even just shamed by people they thought loved them. However, one of the problems is that often when an activist speaks out, they are so riddled with anxiety, so angry, so much in pain, that they are speaking from that place of anger in a way that fails to get their message across.
I find the simple magical and intentional process outlined here: “I will Notice, I will Discern, I will Act.”
Put in other words: Don’t look away.
Trust me on this one; it’s human nature. We look away from uncomfortable things. And I’m asking you, don’t look away. Don’t look away from the skeevy behavior of a Pagan at a festival. Watch them. Notice them. Discern if what they are doing is actually abusive, and if so, confront them or find someone in a position of authority to assist. Don’t look away.
Don’t look away when someone comes to you with a tale of abuse by a Pagan. Don’t dismiss them. Don’t tell them “You must have been mistaken,” even if you know the alleged perpetrator. Acknowledge that this stuff could happen. Don’t look away.
Don’t look away in the world around you when you see grievous injustice. When you hear about things that are going on, when you hear a whistle-blower speaking out about issues of social justice, the environment, corporations and governments. Don’t assume they are lying. Don’t assume they are speaking the truth. Listen to them and discern. Be ready to acknowledge that your belief may need to be challenged, even though that feels uncomfortable. But don’t look away.
We won’t always know which whistle-blowers are speaking the truth, but I find that the truth points to itself. Over time, it becomes clear who is speaking the truth. But we can only begin to hear the truth when we listen, when we discern.
Next time you hear someone speaking out, don’t automatically dismiss them. Don’t shame and blame the whistle-blower. Question your assumptions. You’ll never learn the truth if you look away.
Shauna Aura Knight writes on the topics of community leadership, spiritual transformation, and activism. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and Spiritual Scents, as well as a contributor to many magazines and anthologies, as well as a fiction author and fantasy artist. Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, facilitation, leadership, and personal growth.