Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by phone calls, emails, public comments and DMs of support in response to an open letter that I had posted on social media about my personal experience with an abuse of professional power.
The truth is that while the inundation of comments and calls were rooted in good intentions, some still fell short. It dawned on me that many may not know how to be an ally or to best support a survivor of trauma. I’m regrettably all too familiar with experiencing physical and mental abuse. I was terrorized at the hands of an abusive family member when I was a child. And I’ve had a gun held to my head at point-blank range while barely escaping rape. And based on the open letter I wrote, you now know about the psychological abuse I endured while acting on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
I shared my experiences about my former boss, Joss Whedon, so that we may identify a very real problem that is still happening 20 years later. My open letter is not just trauma unpacking or dumping. It’s a wake-up call. And a call to action. It was written in a concerted effort to foster change.
As a result of sharing my personal experience, others have come forward to confide in me and reveal their own experiences with abuse. So it is my aim to help educate anyone reading this on how to be an ally and support a person who has survived trauma in its many incarnations. While I am not a licensed therapist, I’ve gone through two decades of therapy for my PTSD and, in a genuine desire to overcome my pain, I’ve learned so much. I hope these suggestions will not only provide more empathy for victims of abuse but create an evolved, empathetic society that will encourage the next person to come forward. And the next one. And the next one — until there’s no longer a need for anyone to have to come forward at all.
• Please don’t tell people to “rise above,” “just move on, it was a long time ago,” “get over it” and “forgive and forget” abusive experiences. This is dismissive and devoid of empathy. Justice for the abused is an integral part of the healing process. It’s hard for a traumatized person to move on when they watch the transgressors move up the ladder and gain power even as they repeat patterns of toxic behavior without answerability.
• Don’t ask others to share details of their trauma beyond what they are willing to volunteer. Questioning someone’s experience when it is not a part of a formal investigation is insensitive and signals that you, the judge, need more evidence to evaluate what you are being told is truthful. Just listen. Be empathetic. Be a safe person.
• Believe others when they tell you they are hurt or traumatized by events that occurred in their life. It’s taken serious courage for them to identify their pain and be able to speak about it aloud.
• Don’t play devil’s advocate for an abuser, make excuses for them or imply that victims have somehow misunderstood their trauma. If they are speaking about it publicly, they have likely done hard work in regards to their trauma and gotten help to process their experience clearly.
• Don’t expect victims of abuse to talk about their abuse at the time it happened. Often it takes years for survivors to process their trauma and even longer to realize the extent of harm it has caused.
• Ranking verbal and mental abuse as less intense or serious than acts of physical violence is also a form of abuse. It denies and dismisses a person’s experience as not being “painful enough.”
• Empathize with people who have experienced verbal, mental or sexual abuse. Just because you can’t see the scars doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
• Don’t blame people for staying in abusive situations. Blame the abuser or institutions still in place for making it difficult or impossible to leave. The underlying message is that the victim “asked for it” or that it’s their fault they were abused. It’s not. It’s the abuser’s fault.
• Sexist jokes, job-security threats, microaggressions and passive-aggressive behavior can no longer be accepted as “part of the game” to get ahead. Let’s cultivate change away from such toxic tropes. We owe it to the next generation to leave a better legacy in the workplace.
• Rationalizing power abuse, misogyny, racism or sexism to a survivor by explaining, “It was a different time then,” is unacceptable. These things were never OK. If we minimize these past behaviors, we’re bound to keep doing them in the future.
• Refrain from making comments, especially publicly, that unwittingly undermine the pain of others. Ask yourself: Do I have anything substantive to add to this conversation? Have I experienced trauma from abuse and discrimination? If the answer is no, it is not your turn to be heard.
• Believe people when they say, “This happened to me.” Believe it the first time.
• When an abuser is identified, keep the focus on the culprit instead of diverting the conversation to the abuses of others. Comparisons and “whataboutism” are tactics used to obfuscate the process of holding a specific person accountable and bringing them to justice.
• Seeking accountability and consequences for patterns of workplace abuse aren’t about “cancel culture.” It’s best to reframe it as “consequences culture.”
• Don’t make a survivor responsible for how their trauma makes you feel. Rather, consider the person who has been violated. That’s where the focus belongs.
• Headlines often describe acts of rape, assault or drugging victims as “sexual misconduct.” It is not “misconduct.” These behaviors are predatory and criminal. They should be labeled accordingly. Call the thing, the thing.
• Hire people who have spoken out. Nothing is more isolating and scary than having your ability to feed your family taken away. This fear holds people hostage to their suffering and supports a broken system. Stop labeling victims of abuse as the ones who are problematic. The abuser is problematic — not the abused.
Joss Whedon has declined to comment on Charisma Carpenter’s allegations.