I have a bully.
Not a sexual harasser or a rapist or a men’s rights activist. A good old fashioned playground bully.
I have mostly kept this story to myself for over a year, but I don’t feel I can continue to do so. It is destroying my peace of mind and making me feel terrible. I tried to ignore my feelings about this, hoping they would go away, but they have not. I need to share my story in order to move on from this.
I’m not posting this because I want anyone to do anything about this specific incident. I just want people to listen and to understand.
My first interaction with my bully was back in 2015. 2015 was the first year I really got into conference speaking. I had finished up school the year before and conference speaking was the only way I had to network and get my name out there in order to find a job.
I was invited to speak at a conference in 2015 by a friend of mine. As many of you know, I used to be in an abusive marriage. My previous husband would not allow me to have money to buy textbooks while I was going to school for computer programming. My friend sent me books, watched my first shitty conference talk while it was being live streamed, and used his connections to try to help me find a job.
My friend did this when I was nobody. I wasn’t an author yet. I didn’t have a blog. No one knew who I was. He helped me because it was a kind thing to do and he had no expectation that I would ever become anything. To me, the way someone treats you when they don’t get any benefit from it means a lot. I see way too many people who only network with people who are more visible than they are and tell anyone just starting out to fuck off. I don’t like those people.
I was invited to speak at a conference my friend was organizing, but I could not make it because I found out my ex-husband had put us significantly in debt. I felt very sad about not being able to go.
My friend also invited my bully to the conference. My bully could not go for different reasons than I had. They were very vocal about how unhappy they were with my friend regarding his handling of his conference. They started a Twitter mob against my friend and started a whisper network around him.
I felt some loyalty to my friend after his working to help me before I had a career. I kept hearing people at conferences say how terrible it was that he was being attacked, but no one said anything. I was probably dumb, but I put my neck out to defend my friend because no one else would. I understood that my bully would be unhappy about my defense and I really did the best I could to say this whole thing was probably a misunderstanding, as is wont to happen when people communicate online.
After I posted that post, the talk stopped. I thought I made a difference and got people to leave him alone. I now realize it’s probable that people were still talking about him, but that I had shown myself to be untrustworthy and thus no one included me in these conversations.
I knew there would probably be repercussions for my actions, but I figured I did the right thing and I would feel morally okay with whatever the blowback was.
Four years passed and I didn’t feel the blowback. I noticed I was never invited to a conference my bully was speaking at, but that was fine. I didn’t really care to interact with them.
My luck ran out in 2018.
A talk of mine was accepted at a conference. I had to spend nine months working on it. It was incredibly labor intensive, but I was happy to have the opportunity to speak.
Three weeks before the conference, I saw that the conference organizers announced my bully would be a keynote speaker at the conference.
I wrestled with what to do. I hadn’t had any contact with my bully in four years. I half hoped my bully had forgotten the whole incident and found someone else to be mad at about something. I thought about approaching the conference organizers about the situation, but I thought that would be petty. My bully hadn’t done anything so what would I complain about? What could they even do about it?
I found out.
Six days before the conference I was contacted on the conference Slack by the organizers telling me that they had to talk to me and had set a meeting for 10:00 the following morning. I kind of joked that I hoped I hadn’t done something wrong. They repeated that I was required to speak to them tomorrow morning at 10:00. They would not elaborate what had happened or what we would be speaking about. I had a sinking feeling this was about my bully. I was right.
The organizers, looking like police interrogators, told me there had been a complaint about me. They said they did not want to hear my side of the story because they didn’t care and would not believe me. They told me they had stringent conditions I was required to follow if I was to be allowed to keep my slot at their conference:
- I was not to be within 500 feet of my bully
- I was not to be in the same room as my bully
- I was not to speak to my bully
- I was not to speak about my bully to anyone at the conference
- I was not to attend a networking event my bully wanted to attend
- I was not to tell anyone that this conversation happened
I was dumbstruck. I was not surprised my bully had complained about me. I was surprised at how I was being treated by the organizers. I considered them to be friends. I had had them to my house and they had slept under my roof. They met my parents and I had fed them food I made myself. I considered this to be a deep transgression of my hospitality and relationship with them.
My initial inclination was to tell them to fuck off and that I would not attend their conference. I felt that this would have looked bad professionally. I spent nine months working on my talk and it could not be replaced easily. I was also bringing my now-husband with me. He had bought a conference and a plane ticket. I didn’t feel I could tell him that he wasted that money because I was being petty.
So I swallowed my pride and faked my way through the conference. I spent most of the conference hiding in my room with my husband. I came out for my talks and for meals. I briefly saw my bully as I was taking my dog outside to walk her and I was terrified that they would complain about me violating the terms of my parole and have me kicked out before I could give my talk.
The biggest thing that bothers me about this situation is that I had reported harassment two years earlier, the first time I attended their conference. Someone at the conference touched me inappropriately and tried to get me to take them back to my hotel room to have sex. I reported the incident and they didn’t believe me. They told me it was a misunderstanding, the perpetrator was European, and that I had misunderstood his intentions. I had to physically demonstrate on one of the organizers how I had been touched for them to take it seriously.
So like sexual assault is just fine, but just make sure you don’t defend someone on Twitter? I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about that incident either. My bad.
I tried to tell myself that none of this is important and that I didn’t care. I felt deeply foolish for thinking these people were my friends when they clearly didn’t feel that way about me. I felt like I had been conned and was too stupid to realize it until it was too late. I was angry about the number of hours I wasted working on their projects and I wanted that time back.
I broke my agreement to not talk about this incident a few times with a few trusted friends in the community. Any time I tried to obscure the name of my bully, they always immediately knew who it was. No one I told was surprised any of this happened. They were always deeply sympathetic and told me that everyone knows how this person is.
Imagine my shock to see my confidants going out of their way to socialize and interact with my bully. I would see them having long involved conversations on Twitter or being asked to collaborate on their side projects.
I called one of them out about this. I reminded him about how I had been treated. His response was, “Yeah, but that has nothing to do with me. I can be friend with both of you and be Jonny in the Middle because I’m basically Switzerland.”
At first I tried not to let this bother me. I didn’t want to tell my friends they had to choose between me and a bully because that seemed shrewish. Also mostly because I know that my side would not be chosen. But the longer this goes on, the more this bothers me.
All of these people know this person is a bully. They know this person’s behavior is terrible. Conference organizers know that this person will ruin them on Twitter if they don’t do everything the bully says. So why do they keep giving my bully a platform? Why do they keep inviting the bully to speak and give them power and visibility? Why do they knowingly stick their neck in a noose and then punish anyone who threatens a situation where it might cut off their air?
I kept thinking that one day someone would catch wise to this situation and they would stop inviting my bully to speak, but it hasn’t happened. I realized that it’s not because people don’t know this person is a bully. It’s because people don’t care. They don’t care that this person treats people badly because they get something out of interacting with them.
That’s the piece that clicked into place that really made me feel I needed to talk about this. I knew my bully had mental health issues. Not that it’s an excuse for behavior. I don’t blame them for complaining about me to the conference organizers. I expected them to. I would not be surprised if my bully used their clout to keep me away from any conference they were at for so many years.
The people I do blame are the ones who know this is happening and do nothing.
I don’t know how I can continue to be friends with people who knowingly associate themselves with an abusive bully. I don’t know how they can feel that it’s okay for someone to ruin people’s lives as long as it’s not theirs.
I also keep thinking about how this was how I was treated when I WAS A SPEAKER!! I keep thinking of all the people this bully might have damaged who didn’t have the clout/visibility I do. What if I had been an attendee? A student? How many people have had their careers damaged or left the community because they ran afoul of this person? We’ll never know.
What Do I Want Out of This?
Here is what I DON’T want out of this:
- I don’t want anyone who figured out who these people are to harass them on Twitter in any capacity. That’s their MO, not mine.
- I don’t want to start a feud. This is about me talking about my feelings, not trying to start some kind of retribution against anyone. I’m not trying to damage anyone’s business/living because I feel slighted. I just want to be able to speak openly about how this made me feel.
- I don’t want an apology. The organizers made a calculated risk that they could treat me like shit and have nothing bad happen to them because I have no power to make their lives miserable and they were right. That burns me up a little, but it’s reality. I don’t want a fake apology from anyone trying to make themselves look better. The bridge is burned and it’s not coming back.
I do want two things out of this. The first thing is I just want to talk about how this made me feel. I feel deeply angry and hurt by this situation. I have bottled this up for over a year and I am tired of it. I kept telling myself I had no right to feel upset about this because there are kids locked in concentration camps along the border and the world is slowly microwaving to death. Being slighted at a conference is the most First World Problem there is. Also, I may be in the wrong here. What if I did something terrible and I was told not to tell because it would look bad for me? I know I should get over this and if I just keep trying to be a good person and ship projects that in the long run this doesn’t matter. But I feel I have the right to my anger and my pain regarding this.
I want to be clear that I didn’t expect the organizers to tell my bully to fuck off. I was pretty sure my bully would complain about me, but I wish the organizers had handled their interaction with me differently. Instead of treating me like a pedophile caught next to a playground, I wish they had privately reached out and been like, “Hey, look. Someone complained about you. We know you’re cool. Do you mind just like avoiding them so that they don’t cause an incident?” I would have been like, sure, no problem. See you next week. They chose instead to completely burn our entire personal and professional relationship. It wasn’t necessary. They chose to do it. That kind of stings.
I want to get over this. This is a festering wound that never heals and constantly reopens over nothing. I don’t trust people who were my friends. I don’t feel comfortable or trust anyone anymore. I am consumed with a desire to become so powerful that no one can ever fuck me over like this again. I hate feeling this way. I want to build things that make me happy. I want this to not bother me anymore.
The second thing I want out of this is for people to realize there is no neutral position in a situation where someone is being bullied or harassed. If someone is being bullied because they disagreed with another person’s behavior towards someone else and they are being harassed, you don’t get to sit there and think, “Sucks to be them! Should have keep their mouth shut!” and still be a good person.
There is a somewhat large subset of people on Twitter who feel that any kind of disagreement with them constitutes harassment. It does not. Hating someone isn’t justification for complaining about their presence at a professional event.
How to Handle Bullying
Here’s a handy guide to dealing with bullying.
If you see someone being harassed, you gently insert yourself into the conversation and you tell the harasser that their behavior is inappropriate. The harasser must back off and apologize and the incident is over. There is no retaliation or blame from either party. It’s just over.
If you see someone try to step between a harasser and someone else who is also being harassed, you don’t sit back smugly and think they should have kept to themselves. You step in and also assert that this behavior isn’t acceptable.
This works even in the situations where people are afraid of being called out as creepy or socially awkward. If you are bothering someone and you don’t mean to, the person just wants the behavior to stop. Someone lets you know that you are bothering another person, you apologize, and you leave them alone. Kindergartners understand this. Had I been asked to apologize to my bully but be allowed free range of the conference, I would have been happy to do so. But the point was retribution not fear.
Bullies are allowed to act the way they do because most people sit back and let it happen because they figure it’s nothing to do with them. It is to do with you. If you sit back and let people behave this way, you’re contributing to a hostile environment. Your friends see when you sit back and let them be treated like crap. They remember. They pretend it doesn’t hurt them when you tell them later that what happened sucked but you didn’t want to get involved, but it does. You are hurting your friends when you let them be harassed.
We can’t do anything about the concentration camps along the border or the inevitable heat death of the Universe, but god damn it, we can make our community a little bit more welcoming and friendly place for everyone.