How working with a male led campaign White Ribbon Ireland mirrored an emotionally abusive relationship.
I am reluctant to write this. It is a long time coming. It needs to be said. It isn’t a take-down or a revenge move. I am only speaking to my own experience and no one else’s. And it’s a long story, so you have been warned.
The problem with my experience with a male led campaign to end male violence against women - ‘White Ribbon Ireland’ — was that it replicated many aspects of an abusive relationship, structurally and personally. I feel confused, hoodwinked, lost and questioning myself.
I was involved in White Ribbon for about eight months in 2016. Men’s involvement is the only solution to preventing male violence so naturally this campaign appealed to me. I’ve been effected, multiple times in multiple ways, by male violence, so my involvement is also personal. I’d always wanted to be involved with White Ribbon but the timing wasn’t right until it was. I approached them with workshops I had designed for school kids, with the aim of unpacking the pyramid of violence against women and exploring attitudes etc.
The first thing I noticed was that the campaign comprises of two employed men, CEO Alan O’Neill, and Michael Hennessy, (White Ribbon is an off-shoot campaign from the NGO Men’s Development Network) and a group of mostly female volunteers (at the time there were also two men). For a ‘male led’ campaign this is a little suspect. Every single female volunteer was a survivor of some form of male violence, mostly multiple forms of it.
The red flags started more or less straight away. But my belief and trust and good faith in the campaign blinded me slightly to these things. Just like is common in the beginning of any unhealthy relationship, I justified these things away, saw them as being about me, rather than them. Initially I had received much support for the very first piece of activism I did with them, so I had that evidence to look back on regarding the initial red flags, similar to how abusive men ‘love bomb’ their targets and give them a sense of security. This first piece of activism was my inviting them into something I had been asked to do, rather than the other way around, so maybe that has something to do with it. Who knows.
The first red flag occured having given a talk of sorts in UCD following a screening of a documentary. The objective was to watch the documentary with the students and then share my thoughts, so, no need to share my stories. It wasn’t discussed and it was a very informal event so I didn’t even think about it, concentrating more on the contents of the documentary. Having finished sharing my brief thoughts on the documentary my colleague and the CEO, Alan, asked me, out of the blue, without asking me beforehand, if I wanted to say anything about what got me involved in activism — blatantly alluding to my having had experiences of sexual violence. It was either come up with something on the spot, or be honest, so I managed to fluff about and say that I’d some experiences and they led me to seek change, or something. I didn’t want to talk about my experiences but this wasn’t Alan’s concern. He should have discussed this with me beforehand, but I’ve a feeling that he thought I would just naturally tell the sad stories, as, again, that appears to be the womens’ role. You could see this as a very minor infraction, which is what I did, just noting it. In a phone call that evening he did acknowledge that he put me ‘on the spot’, so I forgave him instantly. We all make ‘mistakes’ or get things wrong, all the time.
However, with due thought put into working with survivors of male violence, this wouldn’t be something to learn on the job, it would be something forseen and prepared for. They aren’t survivor centred, or survivor informed, despite working with survivors, so why expect them to think of things like that? They are also totally comfortable with women telling their painful stories, repeatedly, without telling any of their own, without talking about their own struggles as men in a patriarchal society, how they might have contributed towards this in the past, how they reflected and developed themselves through self awareness, how they might have given up consuming porn, or whatever. The two men reveal absolutely nothing about their own personal journeys to activism, yet ask it from the rape, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation victims. Interesting, for a ‘male led’ campaign to be led by women’s sad stories and not much else.
During a school talk a boy of about 17 or 18 made a rape joke about me. I didn’t hear it but another student talked to me about it, as he was effected by having heard it. I mentioned it to Alan as we packed everthing back into his car. Without even looking at me, he immediately made a comment lamenting poor teenage boys’ social conditioning, rather than centering me and supporting me in any way whatsoever. I wasn’t looking for sympathy or some sort of psychotherapeutic intervention. What I needed was Alan to acknowledge me as a fellow human being and be aware that a rape survivor hearing a rape joke is not ideal in any context, let alone having put my heart into telling the rape story to two groups of teenagers over a long day. He never once checked in with me on the breaks, or even afterwards on the way home. I should have been his concern, his priority and his focus. He should have been supportive. If you work with survivors, that is the bare minimum requirement.
The President Michael D. Higgins wrote to me about a speech I gave at the National Women’s Council International Women’s Day event (before my involvement in this campaign), which was amazing, and Alan asked me to invite him to become patron of the campaign. Post arrived into the office from the President for me, and it was opened, scanned and sent to me. This is a massive breach of boundaries. When I very understandingly, casually, and politely asked for this not to happen again, I received an email outlining why he thought my consent and trust was to be taken for granted, because apparently for them, trust is assumed, not something to build. And apparently it was impossible to ring or text me to ask for permission to open the letter.
‘‘I’d be very sorry’. Not ‘I am sorry’ for opening your post. ‘I’d be sorry’ if you don’t trust me anymore. What.
No accountability or responsibility taken. Note the manipulative ‘I relied on the trust we have between us’. This email was an exercise in gas lighting. ‘Gaslighting’ is a tactic often used by abusive men to confuse the target and maintain control over the person, their sense of power, and the tone of whatever is happening. It also helps when they cross a boundary, to make the boundary the problem, rather than the crossing of it. By flipping it back onto me, saying that he ‘would’ be ‘sorry’ if the ‘trust has changed between us’, Alan is trying to flip responsibility for the privacy breach onto me. He never apologised, he didn’t take accountability, and he didn’t say it wouldn’t happen again. That’s all that was needed for the exchange to have remained professional and with integrity. Instead he put the blame of the incident onto me, akin to the shirking ‘sorry you feel that way’ — a tactic abusive partners cannot get enough of as it allows them to do zero self reflection whatsoever.
It was now I realised I had to pay attention the red flags, and either leave, or stay and try to help them with improvements. I chose the latter because unfortunately I had some form of Stockholm Syndrome and still believed in the organisation.
I asked if there was an ethical policy in place for working with female survivors of male violence. I asked, because I sensed there wasn’t one. If there had been, surely issues of consent, support, transparency, building trust, and boundaries would have featured. Alan assured me there was, and asked if I wanted to help ‘review’ it, which told me that it clearly wasn’t in existence.
I replied that I would, but called his bluff and asked it to be sent it to me first. It never arrived, depite numerous requests over months. This speaks to a total lack of transparency in the campaign. It is a lie, first of all, and also shows a total lack of consideration for me and the other survivors. Surely if you work with survivors you would be honest about this. If you don’t have any ethical guidelines, fine, maybe it’s something to look at, maybe not, but to lie to a survivor about having guidelines in employing survivors as volunteers — I have no words for this. I cannot articulate the level of betrayal it involves as a survivor. But more on that ridiculousness later.
Abusive partners show a clean face to the world. Their reputation and positive public opinion is tantamount. Think of the many cases of domestic abuse where we learn the abuser was ‘loved by the community’, or maybe did charity work, or was otherwise a positive role model, a leader? Quite often personal conflict is the only time you will see past the carefully constructed outer facade, and even then, you might only get a glimpse. If the people involved in White Ribbon are as narcissistic as I believe them to be, of course they won’t admit to not having a policy. Whether they needed it or not is irrelevant, they were afraid of looking bad. And instead of having integrity, instead of being honest, they lied and lied and lied. To a suvivor. Of male violence.
Soon after this I had a confidential meeting with a TD which only a few select people knew about. I was talking to one of the men volunteers, a friend, via DM on the campaign’s Twitter and asked him if he’d like to come to the meeting, including details and my reason for being there, which was private. He said yes and we chatted a bit, and then I asked him to delete the DMs about the meeting as it suddenly struck me that Michael or Alan might have access and I wanted to keep it private. Unforunately my friend didn’t see the message and Michael popped up into the conversation, informing us with unbelievable arrogance that he has ‘24 hour access to all campaign accounts’. He ignored my request for the message to be deleted and told me that himself and Alan would support me in the meeting. I asked again for it to be deleted and was ignored. I emailed Michael privately in very good and optimistic faith, briefly outlining why I needed it to be kept private and feeling confident that would be all it would take. I got no reply. At this stage I was panicking about my private information becoming common knowledge in this organisation.
Instead of engaging me on it, maybe addressing why he felt he couldn’t keep it confidential between the three of us (there is no reason, but how and ever), he emailed screen shots to Alan, who then contacted my friend telling him that ‘secret’ meetings were not allowed and instructing him to inform me of that. Then Alan called the organiser of the meeting with the TD to get information on it. He did not contact me. This meeting had exactly nothing to do with him or his campaign — I was representing myself and no-one else, and I asked my friend to come because he is not only so articulate but also because I knew he would be supportive of me in the meeting, and this support is so important for survivors of any trauma. Alan’s grievance was that because we were both (vaguely, at this stage) involved in the campaign, that he should know everything we do, which is of course nonsense. I felt violated. I felt utterly violated. These are the emails I sent to Michael, who was responsible for screen shotting and sharing my private information:
Late the next afternoon I eventually got a call from Alan, less than two days before the meeting he knew I was anxious about. Instead of waiting until after the meeting to inject himself, he thought it fit to see himself as a more urgent priority. We had a lengthy telephone conversation in which, after much defending of his nonsense position, and much bullshit about how we all work (apparently) ‘trustingly together’ (there’s that magical assumed trust again!). He conceded that he should have spoken to me before discussing my meeting with three other people. He did not apologise for his or Michael’s outrageous behaviour and I haven’t received an apology since (seven months later). During this conversation I asked him directly about the existence of the ethical policy (I hadn’t heard anything about it in over a month, apart from saying it would be sent when he had ‘time’) and again was reassured it existed. He said he would send it to me and I could take a ‘red pen’ to it. I told him I would help with the policy ‘improvement’, out of my sense of responsibility to the other survivors in the campaign, so that nothing like this would ever happen to another survivor. I also told him I was out of White Ribbon myself due to this outrageous and blatant disrespect for my privacy and boundaries.
I was so taken aback. I was stunned. And so confused. If I had stumbled into a DM conversation where one person clearly isn’t aware until it is too late that others could read the messages, particularly if it contained sensitive subject matter, I would stumble immediately back out and forget I saw it. If, for some reason I felt strongly about my or my organisation’s involvement, I would contact the person directly myself, sensitively, tentatively. I certainly wouldn’t storm into it, be suspicious and paranoid, and then talk about it with three other people, fishing for details, while ignoring the person at the centre of it.
A few things here replicate the behaviour of an emotionally abusive partner — first is their total lack of respect for me, my privacy and my request for confidentiality. Abusers and narcissists have no respect for their partners, they are seen as objects, not as full human beings. The second is absolute paranoia that I was ‘up to something’, ‘behind their back’. They had zero trust in me as an individual and this is evidenced by the zero trust they afforded me in this instance. Instead of thinking that I must have a good reason for wanting to keep it private (no reason is a fine reason), Alan assumed his ‘right’ to know all and to be involved. His issue was that in my DM conversation with my friend, I said ‘please delete this as I don’t want Alan or Michael or anyone else with access to this to read it.’ The only problem was that I didn’t want him to read it — it was personal woe, not an organisational one. His ego was dented, nothing more, nothing less. The rest is just a nonsense vehicle to transport his monstrous ego, not actually legitimate, organisational, concerns. I feel strongly that if I hadn’t said the above, there would have been no problem.
Rather than all this paranoia and reactive drama, what was needed was calm. Thoughtful reflection, and calm. The kind of attitude you might expect from an older man with apparently over two decades experience in running an NGO. At the very least their behaviour goes against their own code of governance to ‘act ethically and honestly at all times’.
Many abusive partners assume their partner is ‘up to something’, cheating on them and so on. They are followed, their texts and emails are read and scrutinised, all through the lens of what are they up to. My emotionally abusive ex used to call and text me constantly when I was out with friends, he’d ask me where I was, threaten to show up, get pissed off if I didn’t reply fast enough, he’d pretend he was outside my house in an effort to ‘catch me out’, he accused me of having feelings for an ex and wouldn’t accept or believe my rejection of this. Women who have been in abusive relationships often talk of having no privacy, of not being allowed privacy, and of the abuser claiming that they have a right to invade their privacy by default of being in a relationship. ‘Working together in a trusting way’, ‘we’re all part of the same campaign’, indeed.
The next day the texts began which was a deeply unprofessional rehashing of his arguments. Sadly I don’t have any copies of these as I deleted them. Also thrown in was an appeal to me to ‘set them right’ (I intended to) saying that because I was passionate about men and change, that I had a responsibility to continue working with them (lol). Alan repeatedly told me that he and his colleague were ‘the good guys’, and ‘good men’ and my ‘male allies’. The messages started out lovey dovey and wishing me ‘love’ and ‘respect’ and as I replied briefly and directly to the holes in each one they got meaner, letting me know that whatever ‘love’ this person expressed for me was yet another manipulation tactic to get me on side, and to get me to stop calling them out.
At around 3pm I replied that I didn’t want to communicate anymore, as I had the meeting early the next day and needed to prepare and be in a somewhat good state of mind. This entire fiasco had upset me deeply and I was aware that the texts wouldn’t stop unless I was explicit about it, so I was. At 10pm that night I received a giant essay length text, justifying why Alan and Michael did what they did, again with no apology (and I still haven’t received one) or accountability, just excuses and flustering, reminding me yet again that ‘we are all supposed to be working in a trusting way together’. I was unable to sleep, so angry with this constant boundary pushing, furious that he would rate himself and his desire to text me his re-hashed thoughts as more important than my explicit request to leave me alone until after the meeting. I was racked with upset and refreshed nerves about the meeting. I replied that a late night text was inappropriate in addition to being a blatant disregard of my request for no more communication. Eventually I got about about four hours sleep. At 8.20 the next morning yet again he texted me, ten minutes before the meeting, again no apology, just some nonsense that his ridiculous essay was supposed to be ‘reassuring’ (not sure how someone reiterating their argument in a clear attempt to to feel better about themselves is supposed to be ‘reassuring’). He knew the meeting was at 8.30am but this didn’t stop him, despite my requests to leave me alone until after it. I forced myself to put him to one side in order to be as present as possible for the meeting. The entire situation was about him, his wants, his needs, him.
I could have just said okay whatever it’s done and goodbye, but I still felt this nagging sense of responsibility to the other survivors, and if this policy existed, that it be vastly improved. I also wanted closure, an apology and a vaguely healthy ending to this disaster, so I asked Alan and Michael to meet me. Negotiating when they would be free took three weeks. I kept asking for the ‘policy’, as I wanted to look at it, should it exist, before meeting them. I was routinely ignored, then palmed off with various excuses, but informed several times he hadn’t had ‘time’ (in nearly two months at this stage) to send me this policy.
Eventually, a couple of days before Christmas, Alan agreed to meet me. It was clear he was reluctant. I had told him several times that it was important that Michael, who was responsible for starting all of this with his screen-shotting and emailing and total ignoring of my communication, be there also. Alan never once acknowledged this request in his emails. Instead, after me asking yet again once the date was confirmed, he told me that Michael couldn’t be there. What a crazy coincidence that Michael happened to be busy that day.
I had invited the original friend to come, and was happy he could make it as I didn’t think I could face this man on my own. When he found out, Alan refused to meet me, unless it was alone, for a reason he never explained to me despite me asking several times. He also told me, yet again, for some reason, that he is a ‘trustworthy and safe man’. Pal if you need to say it that much it’s not me who needs persuading. My intention for this meeting, and Alan knew this, was to go through what happened and investigate structures to be put in place should anything like it ever happen again in order to protect everyone in the organisation, in addition to going through the policy from a survivor/therapist point of view. All stuff for his benefit. Knowing that other survivors would be safe in their work was the closure I needed to close the door on the fiasco.
But I guess Alan didn’t want to look bad in the meeting in front of my friend, and it was his way or no way, so it didn’t happen. I guess not wanting to look bad trumps improving his own organisation. I guess not wanting to look bad trumps resolving a conflict with a volunteer survivor of male violence.
The story doesn’t quite end there sadly. I requested again, again, again, to be sent the magical ethical policy. Here are some of my requests for it (there were many more), and some of the responses:
Here are some of the Alan’s responses.
Finally, the day before Christmas eve, two months to the day since I asked for it in October, I was sent this ‘policy’. Now, when you think ‘policy’, or ‘guidelines’, what do you think? I think of a carefully considered document, covering several points. What Alan sent me was a copied and pasted list of websites into the body of the email. These websites included NGO’s like the Rape Crisis Network Ireland and so on, and govenment organisations like Tusla. The website addresses of a couple of UK organisations were thrown in as well. Strangely, the very first one on the list was the IACP ethical code. Strange that the ethics in psychotherapy would be on the number 1 slot of a previously put together ‘policy’ that apparently existed long before my involvement. What a striking coincidence that I happen to be a psychotherapist.
This is obviously riduclous. It doesn’t even vaguely pertain to what a policy is. Does Alan really think I’m that thick? Does he think I’ve never seen ethical guidelines before in my life? But even in the face of being caught out blatantly lying, Alan remained defensive. I had to tell him, one final time, to stop all communication with me. I was disgusted at how they would treat not only a survivor of male violence, but a professional in the mental health field, someone who understands ethics and could have leant personal and professional expertise to this ‘policy’, if only he had been honest about it. And what exactly was I supposed to do with a ‘red pen’ to a list of websites?
Abusers and narcissists are compulsive liars. They will lie and lie and lie and lie and lie, feel no conscience about it, and will defend their lies even when caught out, telling ridiculous stories and using manipulation, gaslighting and back peddling to get around it and defend the facade. And they will never, ever apologise. Alan is an old man, old enough to know better, and he was happy to lie to a survivor of male violence about having a policy in place which would be to all survivors benefit, including me, someone who’s stories he has listened to. He was happy to continue to lie even when caught out.
This is abuse.
This is also an organisation which receives significant government funding for their ‘violence prevention’ work. Which means that we are paying for them. We are paying for all of this crap.
Sorry, story still not over. One day a few months ago I spoke with a friend about the whole thing on the phone and I became emotional. I felt like if only I could go back to how I felt about the campaign before I became involved in it, I could still have faith and hope in it and therefore in their message and therefore in men to be the solution to male violence against women. Hope is so important to me. It is so important.
After hanging up on her I rang Michael who did the screen shotting and confidentiality breaching and ignoring of all of my emails. I thought if I spoke to him on the phone he might explain, and, who knows, I might get an apology or some acknowledgement of some kind. He might treat me like a human being. He clearly either was uncomfortable putting things in writing or had been told not to. I’ve a feeling he was told not to write anything alluding to wrongdoing. Alan had told me he was ‘probably scared’. All I wanted and needed was an acknowledgement of the distress caused and an apology. That’s all I needed to bow out of the campaign while retaining my good wishes and faith in the work. Anyway, so I thought I’d give him a chance, very aware that things are so different in person as opposed to on paper. Michael answered and I said ‘Hi, it’s Mia here, it’s been a few months and I haven’t heard from you-’ and I didn’t get any further. He (very aggressively) said ‘Mia I do not appreciate you calling me like this’, and hung up on me. I, naively, ridiculously, thought it was an accident and rang back but it was engaged. No doubt he was already onto Alan.
I resorted to Tweeting (I know, but what else was I supposed to do to get acknowledgement from this person?) a message to Michael enquiring as to why he hung up on me. Rather than reply, privately if they wanted to, with an apology for hanging up on me, I was instantly blocked across all White Ribbon and Men’s Development Network platforms and a friend and colleague was harassed by Alan with essay length non stop texts, multiple times for days and days, badgering her to ‘talk to me’ with the aim of getting me to delete it, suggesting we all sit down and have a ‘meeting’. Strange how suddenly Alan is into the idea of meeting when his reputation is at stake, even if it’s only on Twitter. Needless to say she didn’t ask me to do any such thing. When he got nowhere with her he gave up and I haven’t heard from him since. Small mercies. The irony is if they had apologised and actually listened to me, respected me, my privacy, and what I required to move forward, rather than gaslighting me and trying to manipulate the truth to something that suited them, it would all be done now and I would be wishing them well, content that other survivors are safe in their hands.
So I was discarded. Zero closure or resolution of conflict of any kind, from an organisation is irresponsible and staggeringly unprofessional.
They know why women get involved in these campaigns. And they don’t give a shit. If they did, I would have had the requested meeting, on my terms, and I would have had recieved an apology. My needs would have been respected. There are massive problems with White Ribbon Ireland; personal problems regarding Alan and Michael’s lack of professionalism, and massive organisational problems, the most urgent of all I feel is their inability to even be open to hearing, let alone do anything about, feedback or constructive criticism, or even a someone’s own personal boundary, again, mirroring tendencies of abusive partners.
We need men to be involved in the fight against male violence against women or nothing will change. But not at a cost to women. We need men to lead other men in this. But not to use women in the process. We need men to do the deep and hard work on themselves and not appoint themselves CEO of organisations with no checks and balances. We need men to be leaders of men, not women. Not survivors. It’s too dangerous. Much has been written about why, and I particularly like this piece. They talk the talk alright, for days, forever, but then don’t do any actual walking.
I did attempt to complain, but those with a complaint are directed to the two ‘info’ email address — going directly to the two people you have issue with. If the CEO is the problem where do you go? I investigated the board and dropped the idea very quickly. Refusing to have any women on the board (despite them working on issues pertaining to women) the board consists of several older men, and, as far as I know - I could be wrong —are friends of Alan. I was not going to take my complaint to a bunch of men who would likely not understand the issues at hand.
If this campaign was truly about preventing harm and abuse to women and promoting respect they might start with looking at themselves but as we all know, abusers will never self reflect.
My trust and belief in the campaign is obviously totally gone. My trust in men is massively depleted. I am betrayed, viciously. No apology. No accountability. Just nothing.
I don’t think men will ever truly understand how healing it is to see them stand up and do some work, any work, on this, and how powerful and impactful it is. When that power is turned against survivors of male violence, used against them, I cannot articulate the damage done, the level of betrayal. The lack of safety, compounded.
So as for this campaign, women, stay away from it.
On the 21st of July 2017, one week after I published the story above, Michael (not the CEO Alan) rang me from a private number, which I unwittingly answered. He sounded very contrite but didn’t get to say much as I told him to email me if he wanted to communicate with me.
Five days later I received an incredibly formal email from Michael informing me that the two of them would like to meet me regarding ‘putting closure on this ongoing topic’, without asking me if I would actually be interested in meeting them. He also thanked me for ‘taking’ his call, which I found an interesting term for something I didn’t have much choice in.
I replied on the 31st of July saying that Alan the CEO was the person who needed to be requesting this meeting and that I also needed an apology before I would ever consider meeting them. (Remember how much I begged Alan for a meeting before Christmas and he refused? I was not going to do anything until I got some form of apology). This idea for a meeting was clearly entirely for their own purposes and had nothing to do with me.
Three weeks later, and very unsurprisingly they still haven’t responded, proving to me once again that my closure, my experience, my concerns, are not and never will be their concern.