the toxic culture of support work

update: after i got the first couple of comments on this post, i went ahead & sent a brief, direct e-mail to the blogger in question, explaining how i felt about the way she referred to me & my writing. she was quick to apologize & posted an update on her blog clarifying her perspective. so. i feel a lot better & am glad that this didn’t turn into an issue. but maybe some of what i wrote here will continue to make people think about the culture of support & its limitations. supporting survivors takes a lot of strength & emotional energy, & there are a lot of seemingly innocuous things that other people can do to make that work even harder. i think it’s important for support people to take care of themselves & i also think it’s important for support people to remain intellectually & critically rigorous. a lot of support work is riddled with half-truths, mis-assumptions, & emotional meltdowns that detract in sometimes serious ways from the well-being of the survivors in question. i am a big defender of “gossip” & second-hand information, bit if we’re going to use those things as foundations for being in solidarity with survivors, we need to be careful of our intentions. i think this is a way bigger topic than i can cover in a paragraph, but…maybe it will expand into a larger conversation.

putzing around on the internet last night, i came across a blog by one of the people involved in the most recent accountability process in trying to get joe biel from microcosm to deal with abusive, manipulative tendencies. i was interested to see how the whole accountability attempt went (answer: not so well), & was especially interested in this person’s letter to microcosm, explaining her decision to remove her zines from their distro/eschew their publishing offers unless serious changes are made to the microcosm collective before the end of the year (specifically, a majority statement from the collective acknowledging joe’s history of abusiveness, & joe stepping downfrom the collective).

so imagine my surprise when i saw my own name in the letter! it was a really brief, almost passing reference in the greater scheme of things, but…i was somewhat confused, because as far as i know, i am only acquainted with maybe two or three people in the microcosm collective. i was surprised to find that apparently we are on enough of a first-name basis that a third party can casually drop just my first name & everyone will know who she’s talking about. but i was more upset & disappointed by the greater subtext of the mention. here it is:

“I read a blog by Ciara that was very inflamitory [sic]. I wrote a blog about how upset I was that Joe was continuing this behavior, then the next morning removed the blog because I realized I didn’t know exactly where Ciara had gotten her info.”

here’s a response i wrote this morning, which i haven’t sent…i don’t know if i will send it, or if the person who wrote the blog will find it here & want to reply/be offended/whatever…i feel that the issue of how support people are talked about is kind of thorny, because supporting survivors ISN’T about the support people (& i have very little patience for support people who make a fuss about how much they want support work to be resolved for their own sakes, because they are upset or angry that someone is being abusive, as if the people being abused probably aren’t a whole lot MORE upset & invested in finding a resolution!). at the same time, shit all over the support people & pretty soon no one is going to want to do it anymore. there needs to be a certain amount of respect for people who put the emotional energy into trying to do support work, & also a culture of accountability so they stay focused on the issue at hand & not about how super-awesome & badass they are for doing it. okay, my letter:

“i saw your most recent blog post, about microcosm & the end of the accountability process with joe. i was really surprised to see my name in the post. & i was pretty disappointed by the context.

“i am well aware of the blog post i wrote, which you described as ‘inflammatory’ in your letter to the microcosm crew. in no way do i think my blog post was anything but a straightforward statement of opinion concerning my personal feelings about microcosm & complicity in abuse & patriarchy. this is a subjective issue, but i do think referring to what i wrote as ‘inflammatory’ paints me as a drama-mongering shit-slinger who just wants get people’s hackles up & sow unnecessary divisiveness. this is far from the first time that people have used words like “inflammatory” in reference to me or other people making discomforting, but honest, statements about the sacrifices sometimes involved in supporting survivors. i do think that there are messed up, grandstanding, self-aggrandizing ways that some people support survivors, & sometimes those people can make choices that seem to do more harm than good, but i definitely don’t think my blog post falls into that category.

“i was also disappointed that you said you took down your own blog post specifically because you realized you ‘didn’t know where [i had] gotten [my] info.’ i don’t need to tell you that this is yet another way that people silence survivors & their supporters, by impugning their knowledge & feeling entitled to all the sordid little details before they make decisions about how much to believe. by saying you withdrew your blog post for that reason, you cast doubt on the veracity of the facts i offered in my own post, & set the stage for people already inclined to disbelieve me to join you in saying, ‘well, how does she know this stuff? joe never abused HER, right? isn’t it kind of gross that she’s sticking her nose into someone else’s personal relationship? she’s probably lying about this stuff anyway because she has some personal vendetta against joe.’ these are all accusations i have had to weather time & again for the last ten years.

“i’m reluctant to make a fuss over any of this, because i don’t want to be all ‘woe is me, supporting survivors is hard!’ being a survivor is obviously a hell of a lot harder. but i do think an important part of supporting survivors is contributing to a culture where support can flourish, & that means that it’s helpful when supporters don’t throw one another under the bus to make their own work look better or more credible…which is kind of the vibe i got from your blog post. like, ‘ciara said all this stuff & i found it upsetting & responded to it with a blog post of my own, but then i realized that, you know, ciara could be a big axe-grinding liar, so i formed an accountability team so i could get access to all the facts & every side of the story & all the information, & my accountability team found that pretty much everything i’d heard was in fact true.’

“this is weird, because it’s not like i specifically want credit for being right. i have never called joe out because i was waiting for vindication or my day in the sun or anything. i called him out because i really do think that financially supporting an unrepentant, un-self-aware abusive manipulator like joe contributes to a culture of patriarchy & silence within a sub-culture that matters a lot to me, personally & creatively. so while i don’t mind that no one is throwing a parade in my honor, i do mind being cast in the role of “inflammatory possible liar, compared to a semi-professional accountability team that came to the exact same conclusions i did casting themselves as somehow very objective & in possession of huge amounts of auxiliary information.

“it kind of reminds me of a situation where someone says, ‘hey, i was abused,’ & someone else says, ‘really? tell me every last detail of everything that happened before i decide whether or not your feelings are accurate & true, & whether or not i personally can feel like supporting you is the right choice.’ that was my take on the accountability thing from the get-go, but i didn’t say anything because i hoped something productive would come of it. & it looks like something has, & i acknowledge that sometimes these are very gray issues where there’s no clear-cut villain & no one obvious way to support someone. but still.

“i am also reminded of when i was super-involved in dealing with a serial rapist in my local community…i was kind of the face of calling this dude out, & all the different women he violated were coming to me with their stories & wanting me to somehow disseminate them without using their names or identifying details. i got unbelievable personal amounts of shit from that, bodily threats, etc, & when we had a community meeting to address the issue of sexual assault in our radical community, the facilitator (a friend of mine) asked me not to sit next to her because she thought she wouldn’t seem ‘objective’ if people saw us socializing. in other words, i was crazy accusation-spouting ciara, well-intentioned but maybe a liar or too ‘inflammatory,’ while she was trying to approach things in the ‘correct,’ objective way where no one would really be challenged to make a hard decision about their loyalties.

“you know it’s not easy to do support work. it’s even less easy when the people you consider your allies abandon you, or create dichotomies where you are pitted against each other–the ‘good’ supporter & the ‘bad’ supporter. again, it’s harder to be a survivor…but i think fostering a second wave of aggressively objective, agonizingly un-inflammatory support people that use the information & groundwork already done by the first wave of supporters (the ones without access to things like accountability processes, a community familiar with the accusations & eager for resolution, etc) while painting those first supporters as somehow reckless or divisive helps contribute to a culture where it’s hard for survivors to find any support at all. i know that after all this joe biel shit, i feel a lot less inclined to stick my neck out for someone & endure the slings & arrows, only to be shit upon by the relief squad when they show up. i still think it’s the right thing to do; i just don’t know if i have the emotional energy for it anymore.”

feedback welcome. i really am having a tough time discerning whether this is actually worth being upset about, or if my nerves are just flayed on this particular topic, because there’s a whole ten-year history of bullshit behind it.

Published by Ciara

Ciara Xyerra wrote zines for the better part of two decades. She has a brilliant & adorable preschooler named Ramona & sews as much as she possibly can. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her boyfriend. She enjoys catching up on "The New Yorker", meatball subs, keeping it cranky, intersectional post-third wave feminism, dinosaurs, & monsters. If you have nothing nice to say, she recommends that you come sit here by her, so you can say not-nice things together.

22 thoughts on “the toxic culture of support work

  1. When I read that blog post yesterday my eyes widened at the mention of your name & the context in which it was written. I felt that you’d been thrown under the bus, and by someone I thought knew your character better than that. Even if the blog writer did feel you were being inflammatory they should also know that you’re not one to just make shit up, that if anything you simply don’t like to sugar-coat.

    I think your response is understandable & well-expressed. And I think the recipient should be open to it.

    1. “thrown under the bus” is the exact same terminology that jared used. it’s nice to hear you & him & some other folks getting my back on this, because i really couldn’t tell if i was over-reacting. not that i know what the fuck to do about it. i wrote to the person in question after i got your comment & let her know how i feel & basically asked if she just hadn’t considered the consequences of the language she used, or if she was purposefully trying to create the illusion of distance between her & me. i would definitely like to think that she’d have more faith in me than to think i’d make shit up for the sake of drama (i have even been known to occasionally correct misinformation being spread about joe, such as the idea that he has a trust fund with which he bought the house in north portland–not the case at all). but…who knows? maybe she perceives of me as some kind of untrustworthy loose cannon. i’d like to know, so i know not to really consider her a friend, you know?

  2. I think you are justified in your objections, Ciara. If anything, I would have used the word “informative” to describe your blog post and everything else you have written on this subject. I was personally grateful that you shared what you knew in the “Creeps in the Zine Scene” thread at We Make Zines, since I have only been reading zines since 2008 and was completely ignorant about it. I had placed one order with Microcosim previous to that thread, but I have not ordered from them since. I realize that people post all sorts of crap on the Internet, but from reading your zines and posts I have the impression that you are completely forthright about everything and would not pass along any false or misleading information – especially concerning a topic so serious.

    I really need to write you a letter and properly introduce myself, instead of popping up in your comments now and again. I have no blog or web presence whatsoever, or I would direct you there. My old second-wave self thanks you for sticking your neck out and standing up for women’s rights. Don’t let them silence you, Ciara.

    1. thanks, kim. i appreciate the vote of confidence. i have definitely struggled to be as straightforward as possible on this matter, because it is a serious one & it doesn’t need to be gussied up with any half-truths or salacious rumors. i have even occasionally been frustrated with other people “on my side” for mixing fact & (mis)assumption in their attempts to call joe out, or tackling the issue in other ways that i felt muddied the waters & created more trouble than necessary. i think the facts are pretty straightforward & people can choose how to handle the information once they have it. the “inflammatory” blog post in question merely stated that i personally wouldn’t support microcosm for as long as joe is involved in the project, because doing so is pretty directly supporting someone who is manipulative & abusive & seems unable to really take for responsibility for his actions. it’s not something i’m comfortable with, in terms of my politics & my reasons for being involved with zines. i’m hopeful that other people who care about these issues would come to a similar conclusion. this is what passes as “inflammatory”? how sad is that?

      1. Mr. Biehl has just posted a lengthy public statement at WMZ asking for a new accountability group.

        Here it goes again…

  3. I don’t know anything about this blog post that you are referring to, but I came across some discussion about Joe Biel and Microcosm on WMZ that you were involved in, and the way people spoke to and about you made my eyes about fall out of my head, as if you couldn’t possibly object to the actions of guys like Joe or Rich on ethical grounds, and it had to be some bug up your ass about them, like some personal vendetta you had against them. Not only is it incorrect, but it fails to take into consideration the fact that a lot of other people have problems with those guys as well. It’s not like it’s just you.

    I think you are right to be upset about this, and I think your email response was very fair and well-reasoned.

    1. yeah, changes things a bit, eh? but i think it’s all okay now. i am thinking of it as just a very unfortunate choice of words, perhaps borne of a certain naivete about the way these arguments so often play out on the internet.

      it is kind of weird that people so often want to turn these kinds of issues personal, like, “oh, you can’t possibly be upset about what you’re claiming to be upset about. there must be something else at play.” i guess it’s really not uncommon for people to give a politicized gloss to a personal dispute. i feel that it’s happened to me before. but i don’t know how to argue with it. i just try to be honest with myself about intentions & motivations & try not to fall into the whole “confusing a personal problem for a political one” trap.

      1. I’m glad to hear it is resolved. Knowing who wrote such things now, I can only guess that you are right, that she might have chosen to make her point in a less-than-effective way.

        What I find annoying about the claims that you are merely politicizing a personal dispute is that it disregards the fact that this whole thing isn’t even about you. You might have become peripherally involved by virtue of your willingness to speak up and call out fucked-up shit when it happens, but a) you aren’t the central person in this issue and b) you aren’t the only person to come out with opinions like this on the subject. So while I don’t think this applies to the situation referenced in your post, I do think that what I have seen is some people scapegoating you as a troublemaker rather than looking at what you say and evaluating your statements on their own for their validity. Which is too bad, because I don’t think that what you say is all that controversial. I mean, should holding people responsible for their abusive behavior really be such a radical idea for people who pride themselves on being such free-thinking lovers of social justice?

  4. Caitlin (there’s no “reply” link on your most recent post, which is what I’m responding to), you totally hit the nail on the head. Ciara is most definitely viewed as a troublemaker amongst some zinesters & therefore she’s an easy scapegoat. As has been brought up a few times now, it just makes it easy for certain people to ignore her valid arguments. I envision people rolling their eyes at her whenever she points out fucked-up behaviors/attitudes because those people view her as a drama-monger. And what a fucking injustice that is to the REAL ISSUE (which is not Ciara).

    I won’t bother reiterating everything already said, but a resounding “HELL YES” to the observations made.

    1. (replying to both ericka & caitlin here)

      caitlin: it is a little bit weird that people try to make things like this whole joe biel mess about me (as happened on the last few pages of the big microcosm-themed thread on we make zines a few months ago). but at the same time, i understand it. not because i think i am a troublemaker, but because other people convincing themselves that that’s the problem creates a very convincing strawman distraction so they don’t have to contend with more uncomfortable topics, such as their own complicity in supporting abuse, manipulation, & patriarchy vis a vis their support of microcosm. i definitely understand that it’s difficult to learn that friend or an organization you want to support has been getting up to something shady. it makes a person question their own judgment. i can understand the inclination to try to place blame for the situation on someone else that maybe you personally don’t like, or are not as invested in. i basically just see it as a big defense mechanism & i try not to take it personally.

      but like ericka said, i think these problems have come up often enough, & i feel that i am so often the squeaky wheel who will continue trying to make other people see the light long after it’s obvious to everyone else that it’s a lost cause, that sometimes i wonder if me sticking my neck out doesn’t actually do more harm than good–not just to me, but to whoever i’m trying to help. i definitely think there are at least a few people in the zine community who would probably refuse to acknowledge that the sky is blue if i were the one pointing it out. it’s frustrating & sometimes it pisses me off, & sometimes i wonder if i could have done something differently to avoid this state of affairs. but i also sometimes think that probably for every kid out there who absolutely can’t stand me, there’s probably someone who will think twice about what i have to say because they have liked something else i’ve had to say, you know? the thing about being a scapegoat is that you don’t get that way by being totally ineffective. turning someone into a scapegoat is a way of trying to neutralize a perceived threat–& sometimes it’s very effective.

      & it is all really a big injustice to the real issues at hand. this is why i have so often thought about getting involved in the zine world under a completely assumed identity, so even my closest friends wouldn’t know it was me, & see what happens. it would be such a weird experiment!

      1. I think you have made a ton of really great points there, particularly that it can be difficult to evaluate one’s relationship to someone who is known to be abusive and manipulative when that relationship can mean certain privileges for that person. I know that I had a moment where I was like, well, Joe has done messed-up stuff but Microcosm got my zine into the hands of people who wouldn’t have otherwise had it, and I had to evaluate what I got out of my relationship with Microcosm against my own set of personal ethics, and then decide what is more important to me. I’m kind of an outsider so it was easy for me, but for people who are more intertwined with the zine scene, it might not seem quite so clear-cut. So I bet you are right, that a lot of it is not knowing how to cope with having personal proximity to such things. I’ve seen that it can be a lot easier to proclaim adherence to certain values when they are abstract ideas than when they require actions and sacrifices on a personal level.

        At any rate, I’m glad that you have such a healthy, long-view perspective on all of this shit. I’m not sure I’d be able to cope – I’m kind of a wuss when it comes to confrontation, which I hate about myself – but I am sure as fuck glad that you are.

    2. I envision people rolling their eyes at her whenever she points out fucked-up behaviors/attitudes because those people view her as a drama-monger.

      God, why do I feel like I see this in so many of the communities I’ve been part of? Someone who consistently offers critique of prevailing attitudes gets shut down as promoting drama or whining or that horrid “tone” dismissal, rather than addressing the criticism itself, even to go so far as to say why a person disagrees or whatever. It’s completely frustrating and counterproductive, and I’m so tired of it.

      1. it happens because it’s so much easier to blame, dismiss, & ignore than it is to listen. it takes a certain courage of conviction & inner strength to really listen to a criticism–even if you are just listening so you can assess it fairly & realize that you still disagree. it is frustrating, it is counter-productive, but at this point, i accept it as just a fundamentally disappointing part of human nature. as defeatist as that may sound…

  5. caitlin, i really don’t care for confrontation or drama either. my actual day to day life off the internet & away from zines is just 100% laid-back & purposefully drama-free.

    but i do think it’s important to stick up for what you think is right, instead of waiting around for someone else to maybe possibly take action. i get frustrated sometimes with it…i can’t tell you how many private e-mails & messages i have gotten over the years relating to this whole microcosm thing, from people thanking me for saying something, but too freaked out or insecure or whatever to speak up themselves. it’s nice to get that positive feedback from people, but it would be a lot nicer to build a critical mass of voices in agreement so that joe’s friends & supporters can no longer cling to the illusion that the people calling him out are this tiny marginalized fringe minority of troublemakers & shit-stirrers.

    most people i’ve talked to about microcosm who have been supportive of joe or reluctant to take sides have said things like, “well, maybe joe is shitty in his personal life, but look at all the great stuff he’s done for zines professionally.” this doesn’t fly for me because, look at all the other people who have done awesome things for zines & still managed not to be douchenozzles in their personal lives! & how many more people would be able to step forward to continue joe’s “good work,” also without being assholes in their personal lives, while he retires to get his shit together? or they say that microcosm is a “necessary evil” because no other distro can sell as many copies of their zines. this to me is like buying all your household goods & groceries at wal-mart, so that independent shops & grocery stores can’t stay open, or have to re-locate, or have to raise prices, & then complaining that you don’t want to support wal-mart, but they’re the most convenient. convenience is nice, but what can smaller alternatives do when not being choked by the big convenient “necessary evil”? somehow i managed not to buy from or distro through microcosm for nearly ten years, with no ill effects for my zine involvement.

    every pro-microcosm argument i’ve ever heard has basically been a product of someone not actually having the tools to put their lofty ideals into action, especially if such action might mean that they are inconvenienced in some way–that they have to think twice about a friendship, or lose a publishing opportunity, or find other distribution outlets for their zines. & this is EXACTLY what joe counts on. he keeps finding more & more ways to knit microcosm into the bedrock of zine culture so that it, & he, by extension, are, shall we say, “too big to fail”. at some point, the people who give a shit about standing up against abuse, manipulation, exploitation, & sexism have to make a hard choice & say, “you are not too big to fail, we can foster an awesome zine community without your help, & we’re going to put our time, energy, & money into supporting alternatives that share our values.”

    1. You may not care for it (who does?), but you are capable of handling it pretty well. Not everyone can make that claim & it shouldn’t be dismissed as not “stick[ing] up for what you think is right.” One does not have to be literally vocal to express dissent & I hope that’s not what you’re actually saying.

      1. there may be other ways to express dissent, but even if half of the people who have e-mailed me privately to say they agreed with something i have said in public actually said so IN PUBLIC, i think i would be way less of an easily dismissed target. it really, really, really wears me down to have to deal with so much shit in public settings, knowing i have all this silent behind the scenes support that could help me out so much by being just a tiny bit less silent.

    2. You know, I had all of these things to say but I realized they would just come across as excuses, because the bottom line is that you are right, that it is bullshit that you are out there taking all of this shit in public and that people are emailing you privately to tell you they agree with you.

      And it’s not that I don’t believe in standing up for the things I believe in, so I hope I did not come across as seeming like I cower away from all situations like this. I just realize that I have about a quarter-century of all this bullshit conditioning from church, family and ex-husband to overcome, which I have been working on for the past couple of years now and I’ve actually made some big improvements when it comes to things like this. But at the same time we can’t all hide behind our histories and use them as excuses for not doing the right thing, otherwise nothing would ever get done.

      This conversation has given me a lot to think about.

  6. Why is it that comment threads can only be 3 posts long?

    At any rate, I definitely agree that if those people can’t even do the simple yet powerful thing of just agreeing with you in a public space it’s pretty sad.

    1. you bring up an important & powerful way to support survivors. This has made me reconsider how nonvocal is damaging. I think I was waiting for an okay from A. to publicly show nonsupport for micro- I don’t know if that was the right way to go about it.

  7. learning about joe’s call for a new accountability team made me laugh out loud. reading his tedious, manipulative statement made me frowth.

  8. this thing where people agree with you in the hall and then don’t say anything in the public meeting? story of my brief professional life and reason enough (for me) to despair of “collective” activities almost entirely. thanks for a fascinating post (and thread).

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