A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 3: Abuse Survivor Storying Systems

Part 3 – Abuse Survivor Storying Systems

3 – Abuse Survivor Storying Systems. In this post, I describe key changes I’ve seen since beginning in 2007 to track how abuse survivors have been sharing their personal accounts of victimization, push-back, and recovery. It includes storying opportunities for abuse survivors, provided by six sources:

(1) in-person sharing,

(2) “survivor blogs,”

(3) social media platforms and campaigns,

(4) conventional media/news sources,

(5) conferences, and

(6) independent investigations.

This post also includes an example of how even one person’s sharing of their story can create a pebble-in-the-pond effect that ripples out to reach at least two more rings of impact.

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BACKGROUND ON THIS ARTICLE

I wrote the first draft of this article on October 29, 2018, a week after attending The Courage Conference, October 19-20 and the leadership training and brainstorming session on October 21. I’ve edited this slightly and have noted at the end where I will add the real-world example, if the parties involved give permission to share their story publicly.

At The Courage Conference a week ago, I was thinking through the history of how things had changed with the ways people can share their story of abuse victimization and recovery. Some mechanisms have long been in place, others have entered the arena or gained prominence sometime within the last 10 years or so. Some of these elements interconnect while others remain relatively isolated.

I’ll use 2007 as a starting point for some observations and opinions on the history of how these systems for survivor communities unfolded. That was the year I began tracking more issues dealing with abuse as they popped up on social media, and I began processing my own experiences of spiritual abuse more in depth. (Note: This is off the top of my head, so I have not done fact-checking on exact dates, and the history is based on both my research and general impressions from being in online survivor communities since the mid-2000 decade.)

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1. IN-PERSON STORYING

(Before 2007 and Thereafter)

Back then, about the only way to talk about experiences of spiritual abuse was to share in person. Unless you had your own situation-specific blog to write about abuse, your option for processing was to talk with someone who would listen.

In late 2007 and early 2008, I watched what happened when Julie McMahon Jones – who was then the wife of Emergent Village/progressive Christianity celebrity Tony Jones – attempted to share on various evangelical, church planter, and missional blogs about her experiences of domestic violence and spiritual abuse. She typically got shouted down directly by commenters, inferred as being “batshit crazy” by some commenters, and blog owners often deleted her comments about Tony. Sometimes Tony himself posted to commenters, saying people didn’t know him or his situation and so they shouldn’t be commenting. It also came to light later that Tony and some of his inner circle of supporters approached blog owners to persuade them to remove comments by Julie and anyone else who expressed support for her. In some cases that worked, to the later regret of the blogger, and in other cases the blog owner let all comments stand.

So, if that kind of barrage of secondary abuse is what happened with a Christian celebrity’s wife who tried to shine the spotlight of truth on her own situation, what could any everyday Christian expect if they tried to share their experience of abuse? Julie had her own blog briefly, but how could she even let others know about it? And there were no “survivor blogs” at that point where people could share their story. It would still be another year or so before The Wartburg Watch would pioneer what I’ve been calling the “broadband survivor blog.” This kind of survivor blog reports on a wide range of abuse situations involving individuals, institutions, and ideologies – mostly in the theological conservative, moderate, and evangelical streams of American Christianity.

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2. ENTER THE SURVIVOR BLOGS

(2009 and Thereafter)

In 2009, best friends Dee Parsons and Deb Martin started The Wartburg Watch (TWW) after going through a difficult experience where their Southern Baptist church grossly mishandled a severe situation of child abuse. They thought no one would be interested in reading what they were writing about situations of abuse, but it turned out they were pioneering the broadband survivor blog with a mission of “putting the survivors first” (see “The Prime Directive” section on the TWW Rules of the Road) and also providing resources for preventing further victimization. Dee and Deb have demonstrated this by their personal support for survivors, listening to survivors share their stories, only printing those stories if/when a survivor was ready to go public and to deal with potential costs and consequences, and provide related research into theologies and organizations.

It seems that other broadband survivor blogs operate with a similar mission. And, regularly, some of these bloggers collaborate with each other on research-oriented posts, as different bloggers have different giftings, plus different areas of expertise in terms of knowledge on certain individuals, theologies, organizations, or denominations. Survivor bloggers sometimes collaborate in working with a survivor to help him/her prepare and share his/her story – or help them discern when it’s not a good time to go public, and why.

In the past, survivors often did not find a receptive audience with conventional media or news outlets, whether those were Christian- or community-based. So, the only real options were in-person sharing, or connecting with survivor bloggers. These advocates were gaining skill in empowering and equipping people to process their experiences so they would personally be helped, and the bloggers sometimes helped them publish their experiences so others would be educated and encouraged.

The use of post categories, tags, and archive search functions has made it easier to access information on specific issues, individuals, institutions, and ideologies when the need arises. This applies to other social media as well, and such platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been increasingly used to publicize fresh blog posts as well as older but still relevant resource materials.

We’ll look at more survivor blogging details and dynamics in Part 5, “The Layout of the ‘Watchblog’ Community.”

NOTES ON CHRISTIAN PUBLISHERS

It occurred to me as I was doing the final edit on this article that I hadn’t mentioned Christian book publishing. As I pondered that, I realize it hadn’t simply slipped my mind, it was just that it’s rare abuse survivors have their experiences published by conventional Christian publishers. It’s a niche market and has not been financially sustainable. The same seems to go for survivor advocates and activists, who write about support, recovery, and resistance processes, and for pastors and theologians who write about relevant issues of faith and practice. However, a growing number of women and menhave been self-publishing their own material, the past five years or so especially.

There is also an insidious side to this situation. Unfortunately, a significant number of celebrity authors end up with credible accusations against them for some type of moral failure and/or abuse of power — such as clergy sexual misconduct with a congregant, authoritarian bullying, plagiarizing materials others produced, domestic violence, child sexual abuse. I have a hunch that Christian publishers who prove slow to address these situations or to remove these celebrities’ books from their catalog, also rarely publish any resources on dealing with systemic abuse or leaders who act like overlords. Research such potential connections would be something to consider for those studying patterns of complicity with abusers.

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3. SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS AND HASHTAG CAMPAIGNS

(Around 2014 and Thereafter)

Members of survivor communities – including bloggers, commenters, and advocates – got a further boost from social media in publicizing survivor stories. Christian abuse survivor hashtag campaigns that spotlighted malignant leaders and sick systems may have been around much earlier, but the first one I recall and participated in was in May 2014. It was to shine the light on Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM, now renamed Sovereign Grace Churches). Their leader, C.J. Mahaney continued to be revered despite credible accusations and ever-increasing evidence of mishandling child sexual abuse reports and of cover-up and disinformation. The #IStandWithSGMVictims had campaigns on both Twitter and Facebook.

Another hashtag campaign was instigated in January 2015 for #IBelieveJulie [McMahon], although this hashtag has been applied to others named Julie since then. This was in the midst of ongoing and increasing numbers of public postings by the now-divorced Julie McMahon and her former husband Tony Jones. This followed a hiatus of several years when Julie was relatively silent because Tony had threatened to sue for full custody of their three children. When Julie was ready to share her story again, her voice was amplified by numerous blogs, including a category of posts on survivor blogs The Wartburg Watch and Spiritual Sounding Board, and an in-depth case study that I developed on Diagnosing Emergent Movement.

Hashtag campaigns are now commonplace, especially with the wave of the #MeToo movement. It was started in 2007 by Tarana Burke and reignited in late 2017 from the exposure of serial predation by Harvey Weinstein and institution tactics that served to cover up his many instances of sexual harassment and assault. Online petitions and resource downloads have also become a staple in survivor communities, and often tie in with hashtag campaigns.

We saw with the Paige Patterson and Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) sexual abuse situations of summer 2018 how social media was a key component in resistance and activism. Take for example the For Such A Time As This Rally. They had at the least the following social media platform elements: website, Twitter account, Facebook account, their own Twitter hashtag campaign, and a downloadable PDF resource for pastors. This was in addition to an in-person rally on June 12 at the site of the annual Southern Baptist Convention messengers’ meeting. They also promoted the hashtags #ChurchToo, #ChurchDV (domestic violence), and #SBCtoo.

I suspect the reach of Twitter especially is amplifying the voice of survivor communities, as numerous survivors who do not have their own blogs often tweet parts of their own story and links to resources and social action projects. While Twitter seems to be where much of the action is for survivor communities when it comes to advocacy and activism, survivor blogs are still where it’s at for in-depth personal storying and critical analysis of those who perpetrate and perpetuate abuse. However, as the prominence of survivor bloggers has grown in the last few years, another element has been increasingly added to the mix: conventional media/news sources.

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4. CONVENTIONAL MEDIA/NEWS

(Around 2015/2016 and Thereafter)

It seems that survivor blogging and other kinds of investigative reporting (such as by GRACE – see #6 below) have gained enough trust that some secular and Christian news sources reference them as credible sources in abuse-related reports. This may happen more frequently, given the expansion of #MeToo into Christian survivor communities, #ChurchToo, and various denomination/situation-specific versions like #SBCtoo or #CatholicChurchToo. But the locus of access has shifted, and news-maker abuse survivors are now sometimes shielded (by their choice) behind confidential conversations with survivor bloggers.

Much has affected these dynamics over the past decade. Because news sources did not often break survivor stories previously, there was a period where survivors no longer tried to get their story publicized. But now, conventional media are more interested in abuse-related stories, due to #MeToo and perhaps other reasons.

These days, they sometimes have to go to survivor bloggers as intermediaries for the sources. News media has a primary obligation to information – to get the facts. In contrast, survivor bloggers have a prime obligation to impact – their directive is to listen to and support the survivor. In fact, these bloggers may have been a main source of emotional support for a survivor for several years before the person felt ready to go public. And the survivor may not even be interested in going public with a conventional news media source.

However, in the past five years or so, some working relationships between survivor bloggers and certain members of the Christian and community press have developed. Although those mostly remain confidential, they occasionally are public when survivor blogger interview quotes or comments are part of the news story. These bloggers are sometimes the best experts available for interpreting a case, because they have been doing research writing on trauma-related issues in general and perhaps tracking the specific situation for years. So, these kinds of emerging relationships are something to be watching.

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5. CONFERENCES AND OTHER GATHERINGS

(Starting Middle to Late 2010s)

As far as I am aware, conferences for survivors of abuse/violence have only recently emerged. MK Safety Net had an event a few years ago. The Courage Conference, led by Ashley Easter, started its annual event in 2016 and is in the planning stages to expand their reach in 2019.

Such gatherings have served to connect face-to-face people who may have previously only known each other from online interactions. For instance, The Courage Conference 2018 had around 150 people from all over North America. This included abuse survivors, family members and friends of survivors, support advocates, social change activists, organizational representatives (e.g., church and non-profit leaders), bloggers, investigators, abuse prevention trainers, therapists, counselors, social workers, and pastors. Also noteworthy is Ms. Easter’s tweet about the theological composition of event:

I suspect these kinds of conferences will amplify future resistance actions, because people will have a face and a voice to connect with an avatar and a handle. This will make collaboration far more personal, and easier to facilitate than trying to do everything virtually online. I think these events will also inspire more women and men to prepare themselves for when they come forward to share their story, because the courage of others who shared has infused into their own soul.

In light of #MeToo and the ripple movements it has started, all five of these sources for storying I’ve mentioned may well become more prominent. They add weight toward a tipping point such that church and society cannot just go back to the ways things have always been in excusing and covering up abuse. The more kinds of survivors who share their story, the more kinds of those who’ve been silent may be encouraged into recovery and perhaps eventually sharing their own story.

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6. INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATIONS

(Early 2010 Decade)

One last element in the storying system for abuse survivors is rarely available at this point, but still could become more visible in the future. And that involves organizations that carry out investigations.

Not all that claim to be an “independent” investigation are that. I am not sure where I got the following framework, probably from something that leaders in GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) said. But there are two kinds of investigations. One is by an organization that is committed to the best interests of “victims and the vulnerable” (a phrase I know GRACE founder Boz Tchividjian has used). The other is by an organization that is committed to limiting the liability of the organization that hired them. The former tend to share the story of the abused; unfortunately, the latter tend to become part of the story of abuse.

A 2015 article by Boz Tchividjian, posted on the Religious News Service website, sets out what are frequently seen as the four gold standard indicators of whether an investigation is truly independent or not: “Are abuse survivors best served when institutions investigate themselves?” He urges us to evaluate potential “investigations” by watching for who is (1) in control (2) of information, (3) of the process, and (4) of what is done with the findings. Some agencies that try to present themselves as objective and independent in actuality require some form of arbitration, conciliation, mediation, and reconciliation to carry out the task. Some technicalities of these approaches typically may limit the ability of participants to have any follow-up legal recourse, may include non-disclosure agreements, and may bury the findings – any of which could ultimately allow perpetuation of abuse to occur. (And, as has been mentioned before, survivors typically do not want what happened to them to happen to others, so prevention of abuse is a prime value to them.)

We have seen these differences in commitment – to survivors and the vulnerable versus to the hiring institution – several times in the past year. One example was the attempt initiated by Willow Creek Elders to engage reported victims of Bill Hybels’ harassment and power abuse into a conciliation process. Their approach would have imposed restrictions on the victims speaking about the process, and it sought reconciliation without first truth-finding. As such, the women survivors were against these pre-emptive efforts, as detailed in blog posts from Vonda Dyer and Betty Schmidt, and a news report from the Chicago Tribune (which broke the original news story about reported sexual abuse/harassment by Bill Hybels, and whose reporters issued updates regularly).

We will consider more details about investigations, what practices they use in attempts to resolve issues with victims, and categories of investigative agencies. Part 4 looks at “Investigations and Their Integration Points,” and whether they focus on benefiting information, institutions, ideologies, or survivors. Part 6 looks at “Pursuing a Process of ‘Truth Before Reconciliation’ – and Identifying Shortcomings of Reliance on Arbitration, Conciliation, and/or Mediation.” Part 7 looks at “Evaluating Christian Agencies That Deal with Abuse Investigations, Arbitration, Conciliation, and/or Mediation.”

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“Advocacy Dominoes – Tracking Ripples in a Story of Impact”

Note: There are more details to this set of interconnected stories that showed up in my Twitter thread on May 24, 2019. I may add material later, but for now, I’ll let these tweets speak for themselves. It’s about a chain of human dominoes, and how individuals credit the courage of others who came before them as empowering them to likewise take courage to share their own experiences as survivors of abuse.

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All of this reminds me of a poem I wrote many years back, about how our legacy should be measured in the quality of how our lives touch and help transform the lives of others.

In a systems perspective, our lives are interdependent and so our actions are interconnected. The immense, positive impact of three men–Kenny, Brooks, and Michael–coming forward as abuse survivors has already led to two more rings of waves–Jules and then Anne–who likewise are sending forth waves of change others’ trajectories and transform the lakes of human suffering …

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Note: For an extended version of this tweet series, plus links to articles in which various people mentioned in this example share their stories, see this Twitter Moment on “How Abuse Survivors Now Become ‘Advocacy Dominoes’ for the Next Waves.”

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