Why we don’t always believe victims

It would seem a no-brainer, if you are a decent human being, that you would listen to and believe people who report abuse and bullying. But we don’t, and it is important to look at why if that’s ever going to change.

Bullies and abusers don’t go along with being called out. They deny everything, or they tell you that they are the real victim and the person who first clamed victimhood is really the bully. There are bullies who, as part of their routine, accuse their victims of attacking them. If two people are claiming to be victims of each other, the idea of always believing the victim doesn’t stand up very well, because you may not know who it is. More thoughts on this over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/07/28/calling-out-abusers/

Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.

Victim blaming is widespread. Many of us have internalised some of that.

Abusers know what they are doing, and around people who are not their victims, they act in ways that hide this. We are persuaded because they were always so nice to us. In public, they may have seemed like exemplary spouses and parents. They may tell us, with great love and concern how worried they are about the poor mental health and strange beliefs of their victim. We may sympathise, and go on to not believe the victim when they confide in us.

Victims are usually in distress. If they’ve suffered gaslighting, been blamed and made responsible, they may feel it is all their fault. If the bully has persuaded the victim that the victim is the bully, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what to believe. I am inclined to take care of people who are afraid and distressed and seeking safety. I tend to disbelieve people who are angry and demanding retribution. I look at the power balances. I also figure, if I get this wrong, the angry person is probably better resourced to take care of themselves. It’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

An un-nuanced approach that goes ‘I always believe victims’ can be deeply threatening if you are someone whose abuser has cast them in the role of the bully. If you have had your reality dismantled in this way, this is such a hard thing to deal with. For a long time, I believed myself to be an awful person, deserving of any punishment that came my way. For some years now, I’ve lived in a strange, inbetween place where some days I think I have experienced gaslighting in the past, and some days I think I’m an awful person who deserves everything they get. On the good days, I dare to think I might get over having been made responsible in this way. I’m able to write this because today is a good day.

On a bad day, a flat statement about always believing victims can, and has panicked me. I think about the people (there were several) who were so loud and confident about being my victims, and how knocked down and powerless I felt in face of them. There is always the fear one of them will come back for another go and that they will be believed, and I will not. And the fear that no matter how hard I try, I am so inherently awful that I can only cause harm. On a good day, I think that’s the gaslighting impacting on me.

And I also know that for some people, any experience of being said no to, any criticism, any less than perfectly positive feedback counts as an attack. I know that several of the people in my history experienced me as a terrible person because I couldn’t give them what they needed. I did not prove kind, patient, generous, forgiving, understanding and co-operative enough for them and they experienced that insufficiency as abusive. They’re not making it up, it was their experience of me, and some of them I have seen go through similar issues with other people.

Abuse and bullying are really complicated. A superficial response that says ‘I will always believe victims’ and doesn’t dig into the mechanics and specifics of anything it encounters, is not a magic solution to the woes of the world.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

12 responses to “Why we don’t always believe victims

  • Ladysag77

    Very true and I agree with you. As a woman who has lived through domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, rape and an emotionally dysfunctional upbringing…I never take claims lightly. There are 2 sides to every story and it is infuriating when people falsely claim abuse. It’s not ok. It can destroy someone’s life. For what, to get back at someone? Your post brings up many good points. I see you.
    Thank you for this.

  • Laetitia

    Reblogged this on Laetitia Latham Jones and commented:
    A good article on bullies who claim to be victims.

  • Yvonne Aburrow

    Great post! A couple of extra things to watch out for: does the purported victim’s account make sense? I’ve been approached by a person claiming sexual abuse who then went on to claim that a whole group of people were sending them messages about it via the classified ads in the paper; and another person who claimed to be under psychic attack by the alleged perpetrator, and told this to three separate people, all of whom said to bring it to the whole group, but the accuser never did that. So always ask for more detail. Check for internal consistency of the story. Check for consistency with reality.

    • Nimue Brown

      good advice! that needs balancing against how difficult it is recounting trauma, if someone is distressed its best not to push for too many details.

      • Yvonne Aburrow

        Yes, also true. My approach is to start with an open mind (the default is to believe survivors) and listen to them. Retraumatizing people by making them recount the details to multiple people is also not great, but sometimes that has to happen in order to get the perpetrator barred from an event. However, in the cases where I came to doubt that they were being abused, it wasn’t that I was asking for more details — they just didn’t stop talking about it.

      • Yvonne Aburrow

        I’ve also been a trade union caseworker so I’m accustomed to listening to accounts of people’s trauma. Real trauma comes out piecemeal, rather jumbled, and people often remember the details in a weird order. As a caseworker I had to turn it into a coherent case. I also had to learn to spot the difference between paranoid people and people who had actually been bullied, because if I was going to represent them, I needed to be able to do so in a convincing manner. Once I had to gently tell someone that I didn’t believe they had a case that would stand. So when it comes to listening to abuse survivors, I can apply some of this experience as well.

  • cheriewhite

    You are so on point with this article! When I was in school, I dealt with the same thing. My bullies were so cruel to me and had everyone convinced that I was the bad person. And for a while they even had me convinced of it. It’s a hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone!

    Thank goodness I now realize the truth and have regained my confidence and self-esteem!

    Thank you for sharing this!

  • Why we don’t always believe victims — Druid Life | Chateau Cherie

    […] via Why we don’t always believe victims — Druid Life […]

  • Sipho Melkisedek

    This 👇 is so true

    “Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.”

    It is up to us as the community to change thiswrong behavoir, begining by changing our mind sets in engaging thisbehavoir and others like them.

  • Belladonna

    I’ve dealt with this ao ew times. I believed the victim and they were the abuser. One particular time she called the police and had her boyfriend arrested in the middle of the night. The police came in while he was sleeping and cuffed him. she later confessed that she was hitting him and was upset because she couldn’t get a reaction out of him.

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