Most novels that you read, though written by a writer, are mediated through a narrator. Everything that you, the reader, experience is funneled through the thoughts, feelings, and worldview of a particular character (or characters). For instance, the Hunger Games is told from Katniss Everdeen’s point of view. Everything that you know or see or think about the Hunger Games is being relayed to you as an output of her feelings and understanding of the events and you, the reader, take it at face value. In fact, we tend to take most narrators at their word. We trust that the story they are relaying to us about their own experiences is accurate.
Unreliable narrators, however, are characters who cannot be trusted. They have, for whatever reason, a serious credibility problem. There could be many reasons for their lack of credibility, including mental illness, naivete or youth, or even plain old bias. Take the protagonist from Gillian Flyn’s Gone Girl for example. By the end of the book, you understand that she suffers from some disorder that makes us distrust what she’s told us or the lead from the Girl on The Train who blacks out or is drunk through most of the book. Or even the five-year old narrator of Emma Donoghue’s Room who isn’t malicious or conniving like Amy Adams, but who is simply too young to fully understand (and impart to you the reader) exactly what is happening.
What this year has taught me is that women are often viewed as unreliable narrators of our own lives. Our stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and discrimination in our work places are ignored, denied, glossed over, and gas-lighted. Our complaints are written off as the ramblings of a person who is “too sensitive” or “too obsessed with race/gender,” or as “not a big deal.” Even other women in your office will gleefully proclaim, “well it didn’t happen to me.” To even bring up an issue in your work environment is to mark yourself as the issue. As Sara Ahmed writes in Living A Feminist Life, “we become a problem when we describe a problem.”
I became a problem this year by describing the sexism and discrimination that I faced in my work environment. I laid out in plain language the touching, the comments, the inappropriateness, the male students drinking with the instructors, the utter lack of professionalism continuously demonstrated by the course lead. I was constantly treated like an unreliable narrator. When an instructor told me that I wasn’t qualified to be at this Army school, I replied that his comment was unprofessional and unwarranted, and the institutional response was to write that I needed to “control my emotions” on an academic performance report. I wrote this as a response:
I reject the continued implications (both verbal and written) that I need to control my emotions. It is not my behavior that is out of control here, but the fact that a teacher told me that I wasn’t qualified to be here. It isn’t a lack of control on my part for walking away from an untenable situation, but the fact that instructors permitted such a repugnant situation to develop. Countering someone’s use of stereotypes to justify murder isn’t a problem, the problem is that an instructor is proclaiming them in the first place.
I wholeheartedly reject the characterizations of my valid concerns about the events that have taken place in this school as “lack of controlling my emotions.” This is dismissive and sexist. The men in class raise their voices, they point their fingers, they get out of their seats and pace the classroom, they roll their eyes in boredom, they even demand things and not once has anyone ever referred to this behavior as “emotional,” or implied that they were losing control. My very real concerns should not be written off as “lack of control,” but should, instead, be addressed.
The school did an “investigation” in which the investigating officer told me that my perceptions seemed to him to be “really skewed” and he believed I was making “bold claims.” Over and over again, there continued to be backlash from the chain of command at this school and zero accountability regarding the behavior of the instructors and leadership. Institutional behavior only grew worse and finally culminated in the course lead drinking a beer, in uniform, at school, at 11 am while harassing me about contacting another instructor who I told him I had no desire to keep in contact with, while other students looked on. “You’re just stubborn,” he told me. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” he said.
Every time I discussed an issue at this school, the leadership would bring up my career. No one came out and said “think of your career and would might happen,” but it was implied: “If you continue with this complaint, then your career could be in jeopardy….” I spoke to every person/organization possible in dealing with this from the base equal opportunity office to the Inspector General’s office to the acting commandant of the school and in each place I was treated as an unreliable narrator and told that this issue didn’t fall in their wheelhouse or that it was my response that was the problem.
This is what happens when you make a complaint and the reason why so many people remain silent about what goes on in their workplaces. Because of the institutional backlash that threatens your career and reputation. Because of the myriad ways you are accused of not being “part of the team,” or in the case of this school, “part of the familia.” Because of the ways some of your co-workers take part in the backlash. Here’s what happens once you become a problem:
The accounts of becoming the problem in this study are descriptions of institutional violence. One person spoke of how “the viciousness started to kick in.” The institutional response to complaint is to treat the complaint not necessarily as malicious (although many complaint policies do in fact include warnings about malicious complaints) but as being motivated in some problematic way: as if the complainer has some other agenda such as a desire to target others or to damage the university or to elevate themselves. Simply put: the efforts to stop a complaint include attempts to discredit the complainer. Indeed many of those I have spoken to have spoken of how they became the complained about; a complaint can be redirected to the complainer; as if she says something is wrong because something is wrong with her (3).
~ Sara Ahmed from Feminist Killjoy
I graduated from that school in May, thirty pounds overweight and with stress that manifested itself in unrelenting neck pain and an eventual diagnosis of Type II diabetes and high cholesterol. I was exhausted. Because it was an Army school, I had to submit an end of tour report to my own Navy chain of command. My report was finally taken seriously and an investigation was initiated in July. I was contacted last week and told that the investigation was concluded and they were forwarding me the results.
I hold out very little faith in the investigation process. That isn’t cynicism speaking so much as reality. People lie during investigations for the very same reason that they don’t make complaints: fear for their own career, reputation, and livelihood. The things that people told you happened will suddenly unhappen in an investigation. The things that you directly witnessed will be verified as accurate, but will be minimized: “it was not the intent of the course director to harass the student. It was just a joke.” And the institution will proclaim itself committed to creating an “equal environment for everybody!” Wash, rinse repeat. If 2017 has taught us nothing else, it’s that institutions which create and maintain atmospheres where sexual harassment and discrimination are prevalent are unlikely to recognize that such toxic environments exist in the first place, nor investigate themselves properly.
Either way, I write this without having seen those results, without knowing what the investigation concluded. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m not an unreliable narrator. I’m not crazy. I’m not a liar. I am not “too sensitive” or any of the other things that I was constantly of accused of being. I believe women. I believe myself. I trust myself and my judgment whether that is validated by an investigation or not.
Going forward, I leave behind the stress and crazy-making of this year. I leave behind the gas-lighting and the accusations of being an unreliable narrator. I fully embrace living the consequences of becoming a problem by naming the problem.