A blog post in support of #HoldOnToTheLight SF/F Authors and Fans for Mental Wellness
Everybody wants to be a hero. Finding our cause might take a while, but it’s always there waiting.
For me the epiphany happened when I was an intern at the old Army Development and Research Command. I thought my office was great. My colleagues were pleasant, respectful and never asked me to make coffee a second time. (Back then men never made their own coffee. In my own small way I helped change that. All it took was a little lemon juice.)
Then the excellent colonel who ran the office went away on an extended training course. His temporary replacement was a part-time lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who thought his rank and gender entitled him to chase me around the office desks when nobody but the colonel’s secretary was looking. Accustomed to friendship and support from all the other women in the office, I approached her for help.
“Get used to it,” she sneered. “It used to happen to me all the time. Now it’s your turn.”
Her voice seethed with malice and a warped kind of triumph. What was wrong with this woman? Harassment wasn’t something you passed on like a family heirloom. It was something you fought, not just for yourself but for all the people who came after you. I resolved I would never be like her. I would fight for people being sexually victimized by their supervisors, colleagues, or anybody who thought themselves entitled to prey on others by virtue of their position or gender.
I was lucky. I found other allies, and together we encouraged the lieutenant colonel to return home seven weeks early. But I never lost my resolve to protect others from sexual predation. It led some interesting throw-downs with military officers, senior enlisted personnel and political appointees during my Pentagon years. But defending others made me feel useful and good, far beyond any of my bureaucratic achievements.
Caught up in my vision of myself as an anti-harassment crusader, it never occurred to me that I, too, could be a bully.
Don’t waste any sympathy the jerks who went trolling the interns, the summer hires and the secretarial pool. They deserved everything they got and then some. But the same ferocity that made me so good at fending off predators also left unintended damage in its wake. Government offices are surprisingly random. They bring together people of all backgrounds, education and personalities, and every single one of them has a breaking point.
Thirteen years after my encounter my life-changing encounter with the colonel’s secretary I was hired as the senior public affairs officer for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. The job entailed managing corporate communications and public relations for the agency’s headquarters, operating centers and field offices. My center staffs included some exceptional writers and publications people, and I held them up as examples to the rest. I had high standards. I wanted us to be the best public affairs outfit in the Department of Defense. But I liked to think of myself as fair. I never insulted or belittled my public affairs personnel in front of their colleagues and peers. I always praised them to their supervisors and center chiefs.
I also judged everyone’s products—news releases, publications, outreach initiatives—against the best of the best. When asked for my opinion, I gave it. In detail. How would those who didn’t excel at writing, design or programming improve if I didn’t tell them when they got it wrong?
In case you haven’t noticed, I can be rather…forceful. I grew up on Army bases where even little skinny little girls in glasses learned to be wicked fighters. As an adult, when I finally graduated to the government’s version of the grown-up table, I was frequently the only woman in the room. I learned to pitch my voice low and hard, and to stare down men twice my weight. As a result, scary became my default setting.
I didn’t realize how intimidating I’d become until we held a conference for center public affairs officers in Indianapolis. Whenever I staged an agency-wide conference, I always scheduled a “fun event” where participants could mingle without worrying about official directions or agendas. At my request, the Indianapolis center made reservations at a restaurant/magic museum the evening before the conference’s official start.
Everyone arrived on time except one center public affairs officer. We waited for her until the group nearly lost our reservation. She still didn’t appear. We double-checked her hotel and the restaurant—it was a magic museum, after all. But she wasn’t in her room or in collusion with the magicians.
Since her boss, the center director, could be capricious, we figured it must be something work-related and settled back to enjoy the meal and the show. Recovering reporters and marketing types have a reputation as heavy drinkers, but we all went light on the alcohol. The night was pouring rain, and all of us out-of-towners had gotten lost at least once on the way to the restaurant. We didn’t want to risk something worse on our way back to our respective hotels.
By mid-meal I was worried. Where was the missing public affairs officer? Yeah, her boss could’ve sent her on a snipe hunt, why didn’t she call and tell us about it? We had some of the best public affairs officers in the department at that table. Between us we could fix whatever her director might have broken.
This was in the Dark Ages before cell phones, so I couldn’t call more than a couple of times from the restaurant. She didn’t answer no matter how long I let it ring. I returned to my hotel and called again. She still wasn’t answering. Now I was really alarmed. I decided to call every hour until midnight. If I didn’t reach her by twelve my next call would be to the police.
I finally connected around eleven. She sounded groggy and upset, like I’d woken her after she’d cried herself to sleep.
I asked her what was wrong. Why hadn’t she come to the restaurant? Everybody missed her.
“Really? Really?” she practically shrieked. “Well, I couldn’t. I couldn’t find the damn place. I got lost downtown. In the rain. I wound up going the wrong way on a one way street. Then this cop pulled me over. And…and…” Her voice broke on a sob.
“Oh no, [Name Redacted], are you all right? Do you need me to pay your ticket?“
“No, I’m not all right! My husband’s in the hospital for a double bypass, and I’m here in Indianapolis for this stupid conference, and a cop pulled me over and now I’m going to lose my job.”
“Your husband’s in the hospital?” I repeated stupidly. For a double bypass? My mind boggled. “What are you doing here?” Why didn’t you tell me?
“Why do you think I’m here? I’m attending your stupid conference. My center director told me I had to come. He said it was important. You could get me fired. I can’t get fired. My husband has a bad heart. I need this job.”
Your center director said what?
But in a way I had. This public affairs officer had come up through the secretarial ranks, which gave her a distinct inferiority complex with respect to those of us who’d always been classified as professionals. She never worked on newspapers or studied publication design, which meant she bore the brunt of my “helpful” opinions. I’d never given her a reason to trust me or believe I had her best interests at heart. To her I was an unfeeling, judgmental harpy who kept shoving her into a mold she couldn’t possibly fit. I never praised her for all the things she did right. Hell, I never bothered to find out what they were.
I spent the next fifteen minutes apologizing and trying to find some way to help. Had she received a ticket? Did she need me to pay it?
No to both. She was already crying when the cop pulled her over. He let her go with a warning and drew a map to get her back to the hotel.
Did she want to go home? I’d clear it with her center director. Hell, I’d figure out a way she could stay with her husband for the duration.
No, she wanted to stay. She wanted to do her job.
I was humbled. I was horrified. I was sickened by the unintended consequences of my actions. I was disgusted with myself in ways I hadn’t been disgusted by anyone since that long-ago secretary refused to help me with that jerk of a reserve lieutenant colonel. How did this happen? I thought I was one of the good guys. Yet I behaved like a bully. I terrorized a colleague into abandoning a desperately ill spouse out of fear for her job. She was so afraid of me and what I might do, she couldn’t bring herself to tell me what was happening until it was almost too late.
The experience changed me in many ways. Most importantly, I learned it wasn’t enough to prevent others from doing harm. We need to police ourselves. We’re all heroes in our own minds, but nobody gets a pass for good intentions. The road to Hell is paved with them, after all. What matters is our actions and how they affect those around us. Or to quote an instruction more venerable than any contained in the U.S. Code: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Speaking from personal experience, it’s never easy. But it’s always worth it.
About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors, or reach a media contact, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/.