Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth
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Becoming Pariahs and When Mentors Fail: Abusive Dynamics
Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1 here.
Abuse sneaks up on us. When we find a spiritual home, we don't want to believe that our leaders can be toxic, harmful. When we have intense spiritual experiences, when we find people who get us, when we find that place we are welcome...it's hard to reconcile that with the fact that the people leading that group or those experiences might be abusive.
Morning Meetings and Emotional Abuse
So, I'm sitting in a meeting. It's the daily morning meeting of the on-site staff at Diana's Grove. I moved to the Grove over the summer (circa 2005) and I'm struggling to adapt to being up early for the meetings. I'm eager to help serve and do the work needed to run the retreat center, but I'm not a morning person and I constantly feel guilty if I'm running late. Every day I commit to working my ass off to make up for being a little late, because I want to be a valued member of the staff, I want their approval.
At the meeting, I'm taking notes on what needs to be done. I'm trying to figure out how much can be realistically be done in a day; there's always so much to do out on the land, and we never get everything done. Today's meeting is like many other days; my mentor and the founder of Diana's Grove is agitated. Her body is tense. Her voice is rising in volume as she talks about all that must be done, there's a rising intensity of emotion I can hear the stress, the upset, the anger, the...something. Hard to name it.
I feel my own body growing more tense in response, and I notice tension in everyone else at the table. After the founder ends her rant on how there's too much to get done and we all need to work harder, there's silence.
Calmly--in as emotionally flat a voice as I can--I say, "I have a number of items on my to-do list for today and you've said all of these are high priority. I wanted to ask which ones I should focus on first to ensure I get those done for you."
This eases some of the tension and we do some prioritizing. After the meeting, another on-site staffer takes me aside. "You are so good with her," she says. "You manage to ask things in such a calm way that she's able to settle down and respond. I'm so grateful to have you here."
I'm proud in that moment that I brought something useful to the group, to the Mystery School, to this work that I love. I'm proud.
What am I Proud Of?
Later, I realize that I was proud...of being co-dependent, of being an enabler. You see, what I did is common for victims of abuse, people enmeshed in co-dependent behavior. For people who enable abuse. Emotional abuse is always a part of any abusive dynamic, and in this instance, what I was doing was enabling that. The abuser (the founder) constantly manipulated us with her emotions. We all danced around her, trying to keep her from getting into that stressed out state where her voice went strident and she took us to task.
How it works, especially with someone that charismatic, is that we bend ourselves into a pretzel to gain their approval and their love, and to avoid their displeasure.
I was proud, but what I later realized is that I'd learned a series of skills and coping mechanisms early on with my parents, with the bullies in school, and later, with toxic bosses and coworkers. Keep them calm, figure out how to defuse the tension, and get them what they want so they stay in a good mood.
Co-dependents and enablers learn, in essence, to be emotionally manipulative in return. We learn to manage the emotions of the abusive manipulator as a method of self protection.
In fact, many of the things done at Diana's Grove were in an attempt to keep our founder in a good mood. People would help out with the work of the dog rescue because, if that work wasn't done, the founder would take it out on someone. We had logistical reasons we all helped out in ways we otherwise wouldn't. The founder was so busy, working long days every day, and she'd be running late on the monthly Mystery School packet/chapter. If we shared the load she could focus on that, right?
The Impact of Love-Bombing
But it's more insidious than just letting someone focus on their task; that's reasonable and logical. The response to love-bombing is more visceral. When people first come to Diana's Grove, they are love bombed. They are embraced and welcomed, they are given lots of attention. The founder is one of those charismatic people who can look right into you. She'd look in our eyes and tell us...something. Something we desperately needed to hear in that moment. That we were worthy, that we belonged. That we were special. She had a knack for looking people in the eye and knowing just what would make them feel loved and welcome and part of things.
Sometimes all she did was listen; she told me once that she often sat there and listened while people poured out their life stories and their misery and pain and they loved her because nobody had ever listened to them before. She told me that it wasn't even really important to care about what they were saying, just that you had to sculpt your body language and facial expression to show that you cared. And--while that's certainly true of certain aspects of pastoral counseling and other therapeutic work, it was intentionally used in this instance as a way to keep people emotionally invested in Diana's Grove, and the founder in specific. She would dole out this attention to people on a select basis.
Most of us wanted that charisma-sunlight from her. We wanted her to look at us like that again. We wanted her time, her attention, her love, her energy. We wanted her to see us being special, being worthy. And so we'd volunteer to help, we'd take on more service and work because those who do service and work are rewarded with the founder's attention.
Many people went through the leadership training in large part to earn the founder's approval and attention.
The Cycle of Golden Child to Scapegoat
The founder has favorites, but the favorites change every year or so. Typically the ones who are the favorite, the golden child, are the people who are doing the most service for Diana's Grove, the people who are busting their asses in support of the Mystery School, the land, or the dog rescue.
One thing's for sure, though--the golden child will almost always inevitably become the scapegoat.
When I moved to Diana's Grove, one of the staffers seemed to be the primary golden child. That staffer once confided in me that she was in a select team of people being asked to take over the Grove when the founder retired. She's actually the staffer that introduced me to Diana's Grove, and I was in awe of her skills as a ritualist. After I was living on-site, though, the founder began complaining bitterly about this staffer. Telling me horrible, intimate things about her, how she was a failure to the Grove, about how she needed to do more, about how she wasn't pulling her weight, about how she was a drain on the Grove...I can't even remember all the things that were said about this staffer.
Over my years at Diana's Grove, I watched this staffer go in and out of golden child/scapegoat status, as well as others. I watched how staffers climbed over themselves trying to keep the founder in a good mood so that they wouldn't become the scapegoat.
Even in the morning meetings every day, I felt that energy. There was a lot of blame and pass the buck on why things didn't get done, an almost sibling rivalry of trying to not be "The Bad Kid" and get mom mad at us. The rest of us tried to offer benign excuses for why a task took a long time. And there were two simple answers; one was, we had more to do in a single day than six people could possibly do.
The other was, the fact that Diana's Grove was a retreat center as well as a dog rescue made every task more complicated.
Let's say today I'm tasked with moving a chair from the Great Room in the house, across the yard to the Staff Cabin. Except, there are twenty dogs in the house that must stay in the house, and dogs in the cabin that must stay in the cabin. Between the house and the cabin is a small dog that likes to bite your heels if you aren't looking at her, so you must constantly turn while she circles you and barks. While carrying the chair.
A task that should take five minutes tops takes a half hour to negotiate.
Or, let's say today I was given three priority tasks, but halfway through the day, we get an emergency call from the founder that we must immediately drop everything and build a new kennel for some dogs arriving that evening. We are already far over capacity on how many dogs we can care for, but the founder can't say no, and so we drop everything to build the kennel.
The next morning, the founder dresses us down for not getting our primary tasks done, but nobody will say the words. Nobody will say, "We couldn't get that done because we dropped everything to build your extra kennel." Because that will light her into a rage and nobody wants to be the scapegoat.
Nobody wants to be subject to the emotional abuse, the withdrawal of affection and approval. If you haven't experienced love bombing and then the withdrawal of that affection, it's hard to describe. Disapproval feels like death in that emotionally abusive dynamic.
Authenticity and Integrity
In my training as a design and strategic consultant, I often had to deliver bad news. It was crucial to my job to be able to offer constructive critique to people loathe to hear it. For a brief amount of time, the founder appreciated my direct feedback. I was the golden child for a while when I first moved to Diana's Grove. They desperately needed someone physically strong and willing to serve on the land, and I offered that. And--just like when a corporation hires a consultant--the consultant can often get away with saying things that a long-time employee can't.
I ended up designing the Diana's Grove marketing materials because of one moment where I couldn't keep my mouth shut. The founder was looking through photographs of the land to consider what might be a good brochure cover to promote the next year's Mystery School. (Most of the Mystery School's income came from the annual registration fees, which were around $250 for the year.) The brochure was the Grove's biggest annual expense, and also considered to be the most important aspect of getting people to sign up.
I was asked, "Shauna, you're a graphic designer, what do you think of the brochure design?"
I had a choice. I could just nod and say it was fine (a lie) or I could point out the visual design issues as well as the strategic marketing issues.
If you read my work, you already know I did the latter.
I said something like, "I believe it's poorly visually designed and does little to encourage anyone to actually sign up." And I got away with it because I was the newest golden child. And I was asked to take on designing the brochure. The first thing I did was interview attendees about what brought them to Diana's Grove, and try to ask (without asking directly) if they'd actually ever read the 30-plus pages of solid text in the brochure. (It was more of a half-fold booklet than a brochure.)
Not a single person I'd talked to had read the brochure. "Oh no, it's so long," they'd laugh.
The founder (like me) is a writer, and loved words. All the words. Like me, brevity was not necessarily her gift. So we'd work on the design and I'd encourage her to cut her text in half, and then again. This put pressure on her and she grew frustrated. I kept pointing out, "You want something you can skim. You want something that communicates the vital essence of what an experience is here. You want people who have been here to remember the magic, and people who haven't been here to get a glimpse of it. You can't overwhelm them with the wall of text."
Our discussions and debates over the marketing materials got more heated the longer I was there. Sometimes other staffers sat in on our meetings. Those staffers would nervously take me aside. "Just...let her have her way, ok? You just need to let her do what she wants." What wasn't spoken: The founder's in a bad mood and shit's rolling downhill onto us. She's scapegoating us because you are disagreeing with her.
It was them asking me to enable emotionally abusive behavior. For a while, I refused. I would push back, sometimes even point out that wasn't that hypocritical to everything we were taught in the leadership program? Wasn't that poor boundaries? Wasn't it a failure to engage any number of the leadership tools we were taught?
There was a certain point when I was asked to compromise my professional ethics and design something in a way that I strongly disagreed with. I was told to make corrections to a design like I was a production artist, not as a strategic designer. I wrote an intense letter from (as best I could) a place of deep authenticity. I told the Grove staffers that if they wanted a production artist (someone who just executes a graphic concept) that they should hire one. If they wanted me to remain on board as a strategic designer and give my best advice as to what I thought would achieve the strategic goals of Diana's Grove, then that's what I would do.
I was called by one of the staffers. During the conversation, she grew angry at me when I called out our founder on some of her behaviors, and how our founder complained about me and my approach to design behind my back instead of using the tools of direct communication that she taught. "You're telling me," she said, "That my mentor is not living her values. That she's not being authentic."
"Yes," I said. "That's what I'm saying."
Ethics and Compromise
We reached some kind of a compromise, I don't recall what, but after that, I backed down. I made my stand, and I realized I had a choice. I could either complete my culminating (third) year of leadership training in the Rites of Passage program, I could suck it up and ignore the Emperor's lack of clothing, or I could walk away.
And I knew, deep in my bones, I knew that Diana's Grove would be gone soon. I knew that the structure was crumbling and it couldn't last. I knew that--despite the dysfunction--there were amazing things being taught at Diana's Grove. That I could, if I worked hard, take things I learned there and bring them out into the world.
In fact, the founder told me once (not long after I moved to Diana's Grove) that the best thing anyone could ever do for Diana's Grove would be to go out and become a famous teacher in the Pagan community. If the name of Diana's Grove would be made more public, it would bring in more attendees and help the Grove become more financially sustainable. The founder looked at me (with that charisma-bombing intensity that made me feel like the full force of the sun was shining on me) and told me, "You could do that. You could be that."
I said no, no way, I wasn't a public speaker, I wasn't a ritualist, I was a behind-the-scenes supporter. The founder deliberately worked to draw me out into more and more public speaking, to encourage me, teaching me skills like trance technique and other ritual facilitation techniques. She wanted me to learn how to do it, and encouraged me to teach classes in nearby St. Louis.
Of course, once I started actually teaching those classes, the founder became a complete micromanaging control freak about it, taking me to task about any mistake I made as a teacher and leader. But that's a story for the next installment.
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