Truth to Power

Dear Advice
I am grappling with the misbehavior of one person, and how that one person’s behavior issues are rippling in a community. The big problem here is that this community is essentially built around this woman, and the worship of her.

But hey, why do I care? Why not just navigate away from this woman?

She is a health practitioner with the utmost trust of this community, a radical caregiver that frequently gives unorthodox and perhaps untested advice. Her unchecked, and mostly secretive, behavioral issues indicate to me that she is not worthy of her position, and could be dangerous to others. But the problem is, most don’t see this side of her, and those who do, are afraid to out her, or even to approach the subject because there is so little critical thinking about her in general.

The woman I speak of is called a “rock star” practitioner by some. Even me, as I got to know her, wondered aloud to her, “How are you not on ‘Oprah?'” She is a practitioner in an Eastern alternative medical field, as well as a teacher of these foreign practices. I came to her with some training in this field. Though some of her teachings were pretty different from most of my previous teachers, I was refreshed by her confidence to stray from the popular theories. I attended her school because I was inspired by her build-out of a very large health care center, and because of her unique style and cult-like following.

I also decided to take her guided trip to a foreign country in order to study this medicine in its spiritual home. I was halfway through my 11-month program with this teacher when we embarked on this trip. The country we went to is quite poor and inexpensive for Westerners, but we paid a very hefty sum for what we thought was a very well-planned trip full of educational opportunities.

Just several days into our trip, it became apparent that things weren’t as awesome as we 16 students had hoped. Our teacher was so burned out by the difficulties in maintaining her not-yet-1-year-old center that she and her wife, who was also on the trip, hadn’t even been sleeping before we left.

Turns out, our whole trip was not planned by our teacher, but mostly by a man in this country that she had business interests with. This man immediately put us on a whirlwind adventure, with no room for the grueling jet lag. We were in a bus 12- even 16-plus hours per day, often skipping the meals we paid in advance for, getting little exposure to culture outside of the bus. We spent a lot of time in factories, weirdly. We didn’t follow the itinerary that was advertised when we signed up for this trip.

People on the trip started getting edema from lack of exercise. We were shocked that our trip left no room at all for self-care, as that is our teacher’s No. 1 teaching. We started feeling disappointed by our trip as a group, and meditated on how to speak to our teacher about it.

When we did approach our teacher, we were beside ourselves by her reaction. She stomped her foot, cried, accused us of ganging up on her, stormed out and refused to talk to us for 24 hours. Maybe this was a fluke? No, it happened time and time again. She ratcheted her control, saying that we had to obey the man who planned our trip because it would offend him if we didn’t. She forbade anyone in the group from taking a day off of programming.

The trip became a blur of yelling matches, power struggles, silent treatments, as well as our teacher starting to look psychotic while she would deliver us her daily “teachings,” which often revolved around how we are privleged and ungrateful people. People were chronically sick from food poisoning—immune systems were faltering due to the drama.

We started doing the math and realizing that the trip barely cost a quarter of what we paid for it—these equations started when our teacher put us on trains that were not for tourists. We were so intimidated by men on the train that clergy surrounded us to protect us, and English-speaking travelers admonished us for traveling so irresponsibly. An adequate train ticket would have cost something like $5 more; we had a daily budget of around $150/day in a country where a medium-class hotel is about $15 per person. We confronted our teacher’s wife looking for answers because we could not speak to our teacher without being screamed at, and she confessed that our teacher is abusive to her also. The drama was truly sickening; the group became divided into those who would follow the teacher no matter what, those who were willing to struggle against her misbehavior, and those who just checked out in order to be free of the drama.

I was lucky; I only signed up for half of the trip but most in the group had 8 total weeks of her abuse and it continued. When I returned home, I was 10-15 pounds lighter and looked like shit. I felt horrible. I went to my teacher’s health care center in order to volunteer and fulfill my internship hours while the others were still on the trip, and people wanted to know: “How was the trip? Was it amazing??” But I could not tell the truth.

I slowly told a few people some of the truth because it was killing me. My teacher returned eventually and I decided to continue with the 11-month program because I had already put so much money into it. It was nauseating to watch my teacher weave her web with students, lying about the success of the trip. The few people that I did confess the truth to just cocked an eyebrow and acted like I never said anything.

I finally graduated, in a ceremony that deepened the madness for me. Students fell to the ground, literally kissing her feet. It was disgusting. I have never really witnessed that kind of prostration, and it was dizzying to reconcile that image with the image of my teacher having a daily tantrum like a 2 year old on our trip. “Two faced” doesn’t even begin to touch on the extent of the deception.

Fast forward some months. I am now working to make a living with my studies, but the outrage about my teacher won’t loosen. It feels like it’s holding me back, but I need to do something productive with this energy. My conscience also implores me to warn others of the teacher’s deceptions. This is where I need advice.

I want to start with a personal letter to the teacher, but judging from my experiences since we returned from the educational trip, my teacher will most likely be very resistant to my message. As a matter of fact, since we’ve returned, the administrators of my teacher’s little school have seemingly singled us “trouble-makers” out for especially negligent treatment, avoiding us even if we still have legitimate business with the school. For instance, a simple email about tuition was not answered for five weeks in my case, and when it was answered, I was lectured that “you aren’t the only student in our school,” just for wanting a more prompt answer! I was in a class of 20 people!

Some of the other travelers speak of suing her, as we have plenty of grounds, but I doubt that will happen because it will bankrupt her and her center. That’s just too much to take on.

But what will do in this case? Yelp review? Contacting the oversight board of our profession, which the teacher is a member of? Contact our teacher’s very famous teacher, who would be quite dismayed to hear of her behavior, and that she touts his lineage while misbehaving? I have even considered interrupting one of her regular community classes to express myself, though that would be drama-laden and I would probably blush to the point of exploding. I just can’t stand by and watch her continue this madness. She is a public face of my cherished profession and I can’t stand by and witness her tarnish its integrity by behaving like a brat.

Advice, I love your sense of justice, and your higher education background might illuminate the standards and protocol of professionalism in educational settings. Any insight on this issue is greatly appreciated!

Thank you

Holy crap! This is truly an epic tale of woe. It’s complicated and there are so many different facets to it. It also engages with the culture and practices of a very specific, insular profession, and so it may be hard for me to know exactly how to navigate within the bounded rules and traditions of that profession. I know that the more fully entrenched in academia I get, the more like a separate culture it seems, with its own bizarre, arcane hierarchies and power dynamics and ways of saying certain things–I can imagine having a similar issue within my own field, and my non-academic friends not really understanding how the chains of command work and how certain language would need to be used as I built my case. I say that just to say: take my advice as the advice of an outsider, and try to see how it might apply to your own specific cultural/professional milieu, which you understand far better than I do.

Lets explore some ideas and options. First, though, I just want to say that I’m proud of you for having ethical beliefs surrounding your profession and the idea of mentorship. I think it’s to your credit (obviously) that you are trying to find a way to actually help fix this situation, without hurting innocents in the process. People like this get so much power over others only because enough individuals over time have decided not to rock the boat. It’s hard to rock the boat, but I do think you’re right in feeling like you must.

There are issues both grand and small in your problem. Your letter makes me think about power and how fucked up it is; how even when we don’t want power sometimes we get it and have to figure out what to do with it; how knowledge can be power, and controlling knowledge can also be power; how there are so many ways to be a power-hungry asshole. It’s dangerous to assume only a soulless Wall Street jagoff can be a power-hungry asshole; there are many ways to exercise power over others, and one way of doing that is to hold a given group’s ideals against them, in a way. You’re describing a non-western tradition of healing that engages with spiritual practices based on peacefulness, acceptance, non-judgmentalism, etc. All these beautiful practices and beliefs, and yet all it takes is one power-hungry asshole to use it all for her own gain, knowing that those very practices and beliefs will inhibit everyone from taking action against her. It seems like you’re in much more than simply a professional bind or even an ethical bind–your bind is a spiritual one. I imagine ideas of vengeance and destruction probably rub uncomfortably against some of the peaceful practices you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. You’re having to carefully ponder, pick apart, and identify so many different strands of desire and belief–how much of your desire to expose her is based on the desire for personal vengeance, a desire that probably doesn’t gibe with your spiritual beliefs? Or is it only care for others driving you, in which case it DOES gibe, it gibes powerfully? How can you show your care for others while doing something (exposing this fraud) that will be perceived by so many of them as harmful and even selfish, when your goal is so totally the opposite of that? It truly is assholes like this that ruin everything for everyone.

What you are describing sounds like a cult. Cults come in many shapes and sizes, of course, but at bottom they are always about one charismatic leader having an unhealthy degree of control over the lives AND MINDS of the group. I actually don’t know if that is true, as I did not google it, so that’s just my personal understanding of what a cult is. It’s being held hostage by someone, but not physically. Your MIND is in bondage to them. These are really hard chains to break. It’s hard enough to come to consciousness yourself, and break those chains–how do you teach others to come to similar realizations about their own enslavement? What you describe, about the students kissing her feet, is really upsetting. And, I think, it’s telling–a true spiritual leader, who leads from a place of sincere belief rather than power-hunger, doesn’t encourage that sort of worship of themselves. Do they? Even Jesus Christ is always raising people UP from kissing his feet, being like, hey, don’t do that, we’re brothers or whatever. I’m sure people kissed Gandhi’s feet but I bet he didn’t like it.

Exposing a fraud like Bernie Madoff can in many ways be straightforward. Somebody just says “hey, this guy took my money and now the money’s gone,” and everyone freaks out and he goes to jail. Exposing a fraud of the spiritual kind is much harder. “Hey, this person taught me certain things, but their behavior doesn’t uphold those things,” ugh, you’re in such muddy territory already. How can you prove what her behavior was/is, when even other people on the trip turned a blind eye to it? How can you confront someone who has a strong, spiritually-enforced wish to believe the opposite of what you’re saying? Welcome to religious wars! It’s really hard to do!

I think you’re lucky in the sense that there IS some cold hard data at work here. There is the issue of the money spent on the trip. You have that data; you’ve done that math. I think one prong of your plan should be exposing her misuse of funds, which frankly sounds like embezzlement but what do I know.

People wholly in thrall to someone they consider spiritually higher than them will probably not find this kind of financial skullduggery compelling. But higher-ups might. The governing board of your profession might, if you could get this data to them without her knowing, at first (so that they could chew it over without her skewing the facts). Perhaps most importantly, future potential students might find it compelling. If I were researching where to go to study this profession, and I saw enough of a hoo-ra about the shady financial dealings on this trip, it might taint my perception of this teacher enough to not want to give her my money. These would all be good things, I think.

In breaking the chains in which your colleagues’ MINDS are wrapped, you’ll have to be less straightforward. It will be harder. They won’t care about the money; they’ll find ways to excuse it or explain it. They’ll accuse you of being a capitalist pig or something–how could you care about money, when you were supposed to be having a transcendent experience traveling around that country, learning at your amazing teacher’s feet? Money doesn’t matter; we’re not supposed to care about money. Your motivations will be suspect; your commitment to the practice will be questioned. No one will believe your descriptions of her behavior. This is how it works.

And many people have been in your shoes before you–perhaps it will be helpful to think of yourself in the grand tradition of whistle blowers. It’s fucking awful to be a whistle blower. Look at Edward Snowden! Dude has to live in Moscow in a secret location, never seeing his family again in his life, knowing full well that the minute the American press stops paying attention to him, the CIA is going to murder him. Straight-up. At least this won’t be your fate, no matter WHAT happens. Is that comforting?? That you don’t have to have Edward Snowden’s life? That no matter what you do to unmask your teacher, the government won’t murder you? At least there is that! I find comparisons like this helpful, honestly, I’m not just being flip. The stakes are high for you, but they aren’t THAT high. You’re facing some spiritual anguish, some social discomfort, perhaps the loss of a few friends. I know that is bad, and scary, but it’s not THAT bad. You can do it.

You need to think about the people involved in this situation who are like you. I think there are two kinds of people, in a situation like this, regardless of what type of community it arises in: weak-minded people who yearn for authority, for a leader to cede all their personal responsibility to, so they don’t have to think for themselves; and people like you, who are just sincerely trying to find someone to teach them stuff they want to know in this very particular area. The latter type of person is the kind you can reach; I wouldn’t worry about the former, if I were you. The only thing that can break their chains is a new leader, a different authority.

So, with everything you do, think about what kinds of evidence and what kinds of arguments would have worked on YOU, had you heard them back before you’d seen this teacher’s actions for yourself.

Also, I think you need to know what your objectives are, very clearly. I think you have the primary objective of removing this person from her position of power over others. You’re also worried, though, about destroying the school she has built, which you think is a positive force in the world in spite of this teacher’s bullshit. Is there a way to envision her losing her job without it destroying the school? You need to figure out what that would look like, so you can methodically direct your attack toward accomplishing it. I think having clear goals will be very helpful–I think you can’t simply “expose her as a fraud” and have that be enough. WHO do you need to expose her to, in order to accomplish WHAT objective(s)?

With this in mind, my advice I think begins with two suggestions, both of which are actually just taken from your letter:

ONE: I do feel that contacting the board that oversees your profession is something that needs to happen. I wonder if you could make contact with a member of the board you have any reason to trust, and feel it out, before submitting a full report. I think the more professional and evidence-based you can be as you do this, the better. Every single thing you utter or commit to paper needs to be thoroughly vetted by your highest intellectual self, not your emotional one. Does this sentence come off as vindictive? Does this word connote personal anger? You are wise to realize you don’t want to go the route of just wildly writing emotional comments on random blog entries about this teacher or something; you want to be careful, calm, rational, and go through appropriate channels, so that you won’t be perceived as a loose cannon. Can you craft a very clear, very evidence-based report (one very similar to the letter you sent me, which I think is extremely calm and gives a lot of good hard data) to submit to this board–and are there other people who would be willing to sign this report? In my experience, a bunch of signatures makes a much bigger impact on a governing body than just one signature. Is there anyone who has your back on this? Put out feelers, and start coalition-building. You CAN’T be the only person who feels this way. There MUST be others who have had your same realizations about this teacher. I think you need to find them and build that community, so you aren’t going this alone. If you write up a good report–ideally with the input of other people–and get as many other people in your field to sign it as you can, then I would send it to just one or two members of the overseeing committee who you have some reason to trust. This could backfire; your trust could be misplaced. Who knows what these other people are like? They may be just like your teacher. But I can’t think of how else to accomplish your goals and do what your conscience knows to be right. You are supposed to report bullying to your supervisor; you are supposed to report shit to higher-ups. All these professions have these power hierarchies that you’re supposed to negotiate; it’s impossible for you to take this woman’s job away, so what else can you do but appeal to those in charge, and at the very least make your reservations known in a somewhat public fashion? You have to try this tactic, I think. I think the multiple signatures would help, as would the hard evidence–as much as you can get together. The financial stuff, the actual details of what happened on the trip–where you went, what you did–vs. the amount of money you paid. Then personal testimonies from as many people as you can find who are willing to give them to you. What was witnessed, what happened, what the daily schedule did to people. Clear and direct examples of her behavior being the opposite of her teachings. Multiple testimonies about the story of the train ride. etc. Carefully and without undue emotion, REPORT IT.

– this might work. I bet many potential instances of whistle-blowing were headed off at the pass by decent governing boards who received a report of malfeasance and actually acted on it. I could give you an example of a type of situation that was handled in two very different ways by the two very different schools I have recently been involved with, and how one of those ways was successful because the people in charge actually took a situation seriously and handled it in a quick, un-ambiguous, and transparent way, while the other school ended up getting embroiled in a very embarrassing and snowballing public relations brouhaha because the people in charge did not engage in this way. People in charge CAN SOMETIMES do the right thing, as much as it seems like that will never happen (ahem, the police system, the entire American government, etc.).

– it might not work. They might be in her thrall too; they might have similar power-hungry asshole personalities; they might all have their own former students complaining about them, acting as thorns in their side. They might see you as a threat to their power. But this is out of your control.

TWO: I think you should deliver a similar report to this teacher’s teacher. In fact, when you got to the part about the teacher’s teacher, I was filled with relief–it seems like a very good way to go. This person has more authority and respect in the profession than you do; if they are appalled by your report (meaning: if they are a decent person and not another power-hungry asshole), they will at the very least investigate it or contact their student/your shitty teacher about it. At the VERY LEAST, it could be a wakeup call to your teacher, and at the very most it could result in the kind of action at the higher level you aren’t able to enact for yourself. If this fancypants teacher decided to take action, to expose the fraud, to get her disbarred or whatever, they are in a better position to accomplish this than you are. And I think you’re right–I think there is a good chance that at the very least, this teacher won’t want their name associated with these kinds of shenanigans. That desire can be a powerful ally for you.

– again, this might work. The teacher might be a rad, wise mentor who cares about the profession and about other people. The teacher might even harbor their own niggling doubts about this former student, who perhaps always gave them a bit of a gross feeling they could never put into words. Who knows? If this teacher is wise and good, and if your report is clear, evidence-based, and includes more signatures/perspectives than just your own, I would imagine this would be a very effective thing to do.

– and again, it might not work. The teacher might be a power-hungry asshole. The teacher might be so devoted to their students that they simply won’t believe you. The teacher might be a coward, and unwilling to rock the boat. The teacher might have reached such a place of unattachment that they just don’t care. Again, you can’t control this. All you can do is try your best.

I have other ideas, like, is there a publication that everyone in your field reads? Could you submit your report to them, in hopes that they might publish it? But I don’t know…if the first two tactics failed, it’s hard to believe you could get your report published, and furthermore, that kind of thing always just devolves into a dumb letter-to-the-editor he said/she said war. I just wonder if there are some serious people involved with such a publication who might investigate your claims further. It might be worth a shot, but I don’t know if such a publication exists or what your vibe is regarding it. Could you start a blog where you publish this report, in the hopes that potential future students of this teacher might find it while googling and have second thoughts? It could also serve as a community-building device, for other people who feel isolated and powerless after being misused and betrayed by this teacher. And also, honestly, maybe Yelp reviews aren’t such a bad idea? Yelp is pretty powerful. I recently chose a person to cut my hair based solely on Yelp. Are there already lots of Yelp reviews of this school/teacher? A well-written, clear, unemotional, data-filled Yelp review might at least plant a seed of doubt in potential future students’ minds. I don’t know if this is a bad suggestion, because I also know that Yelp is incredibly stupid. I am interested to see what other commenters think–I hope people will leave suggestions in the comments.

If these tactics don’t work, then I’m not sure there is anything else you can do, except continue building your community of people who feel as you do, if for no other reason than that it will make you feel better. Also, I think you have to be prepared to tell your story whenever you get the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. I am sure that as you continue practicing your profession, you’ll run across people who are considering going to this school/studying with this teacher. Or even people who want to talk to you about how amazing this teacher is. I think you need to find a method of unmasking her as a fraud even just in personal conversations of this nature. A way of calmly, clearly, succinctly explaining that this teacher is not worthy of her position. Without gossiping, without “talking shit,” without getting wrapped up in your tale and starting to sound overwrought or like you are embellishing. I think you should prepare yourself to deliver a calm, clear, fact-based, short report on this situation whenever the teacher comes up in conversation, as you continue your life. Maybe some people will think you’re crazy, or that you just have sour grapes. But others will listen. And that’s all you can do.

Am I missing some grand tactic? I am trying to imagine myself in a similar situation, but in academia, and these are the things I would do. Carefully report to someone higher up who I had some reason to hope would help me. Document EVERYTHING, with data and evidence and specifics. What time, what day, how much money. Print out emails and texts. Etc. Reach out to others who might share my experience; try to come up with tactics as a group. Reach out to the shitty person’s mentor or direct supervisor, and request a meeting if possible, and send my report to them if not. Calmly and rationally warn future students away from studying with the person. Make myself available to support anyone else currently being brutalized by the person, and help THEM document and report.

If there is any other hot idea someone has, please let us know!

And to you, writer, I say: STAY STRONG, know you are doing what is right, and that you want to do what is right because you truly care about other people. Know that you aren’t alone in these thoughts–go out and find the others. Build a community that will be more powerful in its statements than any individual voice. Reach out to authority figures you think might feel similarly, and ask for their help and guidance. Don’t hide what you know.

But also, don’t become obsessed and unhealthy about it. Work for change, do whatever you can, but also know that you are your own person, and so is everyone else. There is only so much you can do to change the world. You should never stop trying, you should never stop believing in change, but you also have to find ways of living in the present without being haunted by other people’s bullshit. Try to find that good middle ground between working for these changes / not letting your thoughts about this person eat you up inside.

GOOD LUCK. Please follow up with us if you have additional thoughts, ideas, responses, and to those reading this blog, please let us know if you have more advice! Have you been in a similar situation? How did you resolve it?

DOWN WITH POWER-HUNGRY ASSHOLES

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One Response to Truth to Power

  1. dv says:

    seems chill

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