Writer. Researcher. Editor.

The woman who cried wolf – and why we should always believe her

Quite a bizarre exchange has taken place on this website over the last couple of days. I’ve decided to write about it to clarify my stance, as well as to discuss the immensely problematic issues that have flared up as a result of what went down. I’ve also decided to remove the thread of comments from the original post and include them here as I screen grabbed them. This is for two reasons: 1) They completely distract from an important conversation that needs to happen there, and has nothing to do with the problems raised here; 2) I believe the comments shouldn’t be read without the context that I will unpack here. To read what went down, see here.

UPDATE: Due to concerns over the mental health of the woman in question, I have redacted her name as far as possible. UPDATE 2: I have decided to revert to a previous revision of this post so that I may include the woman’s name once again, since I have reason to believe she is impersonating people in order to comment on this post and claim that she is suicidal. This is now the second time Lisa Burger has used the threat of suicide to manipulate not only me, but also my readers. In fact, three comments from three different people have the exact same IP address. I will not be manipulated any further. I have no more sympathy for Burger – she is a manipulative and pathological liar who doesn’t deserve anyone’s protection for her abusive behaviour, and she won’t get any protection from me. Comments are and will remain closed.

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On Monday I posted a story submitted to me by an author about her experience of violence at the hands of white people. It is the first of a series of stories I intend to run on this site to “expose the violence within”, as fellow feminist writer Melanie Judge put it on Twitter. The author in question, who has asked to remain anonymous, included a story about her experience of violence at the hands of her brother, a schizophrenic. This was her narrative, her story and her truth, and I fully support her telling it.

Some of the comments were expected – racist suggestions of black people as the only ones capable of torture, gang rape and murder, as well as a pitiful comment about genocide denialism. One commenter, however, soon veered off the beaten track and accused myself and the author of discriminating against the mentally ill. Lisa Burger described herself as an activist for the mentally ill who opposed discrimination against that community. Fair enough.

I made Burger’s accusations known the author, who was quite offended and hurt at the suggestion that telling her story amounted to discrimination against her own brother, so she sent me a response to publish on her behalf. Burger completely disregarded her response, and instead honed on me with more allegations of discrimination.

It wasn’t long before Burger accused me of hate speech and bigotry and became increasingly abusive, calling me a “cunt” and “bigotted bitch [sic]”. I published her comments unedited and watched as the thread – meant to be a narrative resisting the racist overtones of Red October – completely unravelled, as did Burger. Soon she claimed to be a sufferer of a litany of mental illnesses – including dyslexia, ADHD and bipolar disorder – before accusing me, again, of discrimination and claimed that this was “worse than racism”.

I attempted to find some common ground with [Redacted] by telling her that I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Instead, [Redacted] then elected to play the mental illness version of the Oppression Olympics, and totally dismissed my admission because “half of SA has PTSD”. Apparently [Redacted]’s anti-discrimination activism for the mentally ill doesn’t extend to those of us who ostensibly have ‘common’ kinds of mental illnesses and troubles. If I am to understand Burger’s logic correctly, the commonness of a given illness reduces its impact on its sufferer’s life.

This line of thinking is not only clearly absurd, but it’s also harmful to PTSD sufferers. PTSD is an extremely painful and difficult condition to have, and the fact that “half of SA has PTSD” is cause for great concern, not petty swipes at sufferers.

Before I was diagnosed with PTSD, I was on the brink of developing a drinking problem and had not slept for a full night for weeks (sometimes months) without anti-anxiety medication or booze. I had rape nightmares that, when I was lucky enough to cry or scream myself awake, left me breathless, aching and terrified. Throughout I continued to work with rape survivors and on sexual violence related projects.

While many of our projects were executed without any negative effect on me, there were others that were deeply disturbing. These would have a lingering effect on me and my mental well-being.

In April last year, my allies and I were asked to help with a case involving two children, allegedly raped by a teacher at their school. We managed to get the teacher suspended from the school while an investigation was carried out. But beyond that, as hard as we tried, we couldn’t get justice for those kids. I worked closest with the children’s father, and I was with him when the only suspect was released for lack of evidence. He was standing behind me when a police officer told me that the children’s father was now a suspect.

I hoped he hadn’t heard and once the officer left I faced him and motored through an explanation for obtaining an interim protection order while checking left-right-left for cars and crossing High Street in the direction of the Legal Resources Centre. I was about to enter the property when I heard it, turned, and watched him break down into uncontrollable sobs. A proud Xhosa man deeply enmeshed in the patriarchal structures that deny him the right to be vulnerable, I knew expressing his heartache and despair in front of a (white) woman would bring him no small amount of shame. So I did what I thought would be best in that situation – I left him to cry in peace. And that night, and several nights after that, my nightmares were filled with his sobs and the image of his five year old son being escorted by police, limping, into a small room for a rape kit forensic exam.

At the time I didn’t have the tools I have now, which include training and self-study into vicarious trauma and self-care. And so the trauma and pain of the people I worked with fused with my own to make what I can only explain as a dark, black rip tide that dragged me out to sea and left me there to drown. The physical and emotional toll wrecked on me by the PTSD resulted in a deep depression that I very nearly didn’t make it out of. I had everything planned. But, despite myself, I broke my silence. It was the second such moment in as many years – and I’m grateful for them everyday. I asked for help.

And, thank god, someone took it seriously. If they hadn’t, rather than reading what you are now, you would be reading my suicide note. That is the truth of it, quite simply. My allies saved my life.

So imagine my response when I received this in my email inbox:

suicide

I considered letting it go. But Burger had made it quite plain (both in words and in action) that she had a mental disorder, so I decided to believe her.

And so started an emotionally fraught two hours while I tried to trace Burger. She had submitted her Facebook profile as a URL, so I found her profile and wrote to her, but didn’t receive a response as my message went into the infernal “Other” folder. So I wrote to her friends. Five, ten, twenty of them, each time setting out the problem and a sense of urgency regarding [Redacted]’s safety. I decided joining a small group – more likely to be friends than strangers – in hopes that many people at once could read the message. I was approved to such a group and posted there, explaining the urgency of the situation and asking everyone who knew her to contact her and find out whether she was safe.

I waited. This was the result:

sigh

And as you can imagine, I lost my shit – some of my keyboard keys are still looking a little worse for wear as a result. (My Ggg in particular seems to being a hard time.) Burger used a suicide threat to try to act out whatever revenge she could after I refused to acknowledge her mental disorders as an excuse for her bad behaviour. I find it outrageous that Burger can even begin to call herself an activist for the mentally ill. Crying wolf on suicide threats is exactly the kind of behaviour that a) stigmatises the mentally ill, and b) means that, when people do legitimately plan to kill themselves but have a last-minute cry for help, they won’t be believed.

FB1FB2

The harm Burger’s petulance caused is incalculable. Who knows how many people walked away from these events thinking suicide threats are little more than manipulative attempts at attention-seeking, as it was in Burger’s case?

The fact of the matter is that, without following it up, there was no way to tell the difference between Burger’s idiotic ploy and my sincere call for help. Either one of us could have done it for attention, and either one of us could have meant it. It’s a 50/50 chance. And I’m not in the game of gambling with people’s lives.

And neither should you.

If someone, anyone, threatens to take their life, take them seriously. Even if an obnoxious stranger on the internet threatens to kill themselves, you must try to stop them. Yes, there’s a chance that someone is fucking with you in some bizarre attempt at petty revenge.

But there’s just as much chance you’ve found someone like me.

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Categorised in: Opinion, Writing

16 Responses

  1. Wow… this entire thread is sad to read. Michelle, despite good points raised, there is an unkindness, a lack of empathy that I find disturbing.
    Everything is a mirror and what I see here is projection and a deplorable lack of compassion.
    [redacted], you are my friend and I respect the battle I have seen you fight. Granted, you did go ‘off the wall’ a bit here and profanities (however satisfying to utter in a fit of rage) aren’t a solution, but you are an AMAZING, kind, hard-working person and I am always here for you.
    As for the comment on ODing, I know you said it sarcastically but remember there is no ‘tone’ in a text.
    It’d be really nice to see BOTH parties here behave in a more humane manner.
    What begins in anger, ends in shame.

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    • Any “kindness” I had went out the window after I was called a cunt and bitch by [redacted]. Your charge re: compassion, however, is entirely baseless. I see you completely overlooked the part where I hunted down a complete stranger to ensure she didn’t kill herself? Any compassion I had at that point evaporated when Lisa accused me of harassing her for trying to ensure she lives to see another day. Lisa’s behaviour was deplorable and she used her illness to both abuse and manipulate me. Your minimisation of Lisa’s behaviour only enables her further – if you really cared about her well-being you would take congnisance of that.

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  2. Lisa, I know how debilitating bipolar can be and I sincerely hope that you are on medication because it makes a huge difference in the way that you cope with life. I am sure you are aware that the medication for depression is different to that of bipolar – so please make sure that the medication is working for you. Every person metabolises this differently and when you get the correct combination, you will feel a different person. Stay strong and do not let this awful disease get the better of you. We have only one life and it needs to be AWESOME ! I pray that you will find this and live a fulfilled life together with everybody that loves you.

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  3. I read your article and was trying to explain my experience of rape and trauma as a bipolar sufferer. The double bind of mental illness and gender violence. Writing on your blog opened up a whole lot of anger and unresolved trauma – I am sorry I took it out on you. I have suffering from severe depression and ironically was close to suicide when I “glibbly” wrote that remark. Maybe I do need to talk about this in therapy. I just wanted you to understand bipolar as people mock me all the time. I am truely sorry for the harm I caused.

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  4. I can only ask that you consider the prejudice I face on a daily basis. I have already apologised for my impulsive and rash action. I did not intend harm. I was angry for you insulting me – perhaps ill-perceived. But please do not attack my person any further – My job and welfare are at stake. Please have consideration before carry ouyt a personal vendetta. Most people treat me as if I’m stupid because I am mentally ill – my anger was in response to your perceived stigmatisation of my condition You need to hear the other side of the story.

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    • I think it’s quite clear that any prejudice you suffer has very little to do with your mental illness(es), and much more to do with your deplorable behaviour. You have not apologised, and even if you had, it will not undo the immeasurable damage you have to all people who struggle with mental illness. You aren’t an activist for anyone. Your behaviour can only be described as immensely harmful for our community.

      I did not once insult you, you dippy cow. (THERE. That’s an insult!) There is no vendetta against you. The vendetta is against your behaviour. Not everything is about you – there’s that narcissism again.

      As I said in a previous comment – I will give you ONE chance to tell “the other side of the story”. Note that I am doing you a favour because it’s a Friday and I’m feeling generous. This is your last chance to behave like a decent human being. Don’t waste it.

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  5. Bipolar disorder is registered as a disabiliy – I can claim a disability grant from the state – I have had 8 breakdowns in 10 years and suffer myself from PTSD – but continue to volunteer at Valkenberg and am currently being supported by my parents – I am now at home under supervision of my doctor and have been severely depressed for days since writing to your blog – you misunderstood evveeything I wrote – Please don’t make it worse for me I may lose my job as a tutor.

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    • Yes, Lisa, WE KNOW. I didn’t misunderstand anything – you were perfectly clear. You use your disability as an excuse to abuse people and generally behave like an absolute troll. What could I *possibly* misunderstand? Enlighten me. What is the deeper meaning to calling me a cunt, bitch, bigot and sensationalist journalist? Please, do share the mystical alternate meaning to your admitting you used a suicide threat “glibly”, “sarcastically” for “revenge”?

      If you lose your job it’s because of your own bad behaviour, and has nothing to do with me. You will not manipulate me or any of my readers. You have behaved atrociously – and any consequences that result are squarely your responsibility. I suggest you take it.

      You clearly haven’t learn anything from this experience. Fortunately, I have. You have one final opportunity to have your say – it’s only fair that I give you an opportunity to defend yourself – and thereafter I not post ANY of your comments. I will mark you as spam, and that’s the end of it.

      So, I suggest you take your time and think about what you want to say. If you want to act like a mature adult, now is your chance.

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  6. Wow, Michelle, I think you often write about difficult subjects, and are not afraid to voice your opinion, I completely support you, I applaud the way you dealt with this entire situation and I sincerely hope, that this will not stop you from continuing to write on subjects in the future, which I am 100% sure it wont. In fact my guess is that this probably gave you fuel to write even more. Looking forward to the future.

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    • Thanks, Duncs. Thanks so much, friend. And you’re right – I plan to write more regularly with a column on Tuesdays, I think. Please follow the blog (there a sign-up box on the home page) then you can keep reading. 🙂

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  7. People on the internet experience cognitive dissonance – they treat strangers in unbelievable, and scary ways. It seems you’ve got a nest of rabid trolls trying to silence you. Don’t let them. 🙂

    You’re a survivor, and you have a right to speak out, no matter your race or the race of those who harmed you. Your stories about violence against women are very similar to experiences I’ve had, as well as women I know. We’re in different countries. We’re in different societies. The problem of violence against women is global, it affects women of every nationality, age, height, weight, race.

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    • Hi Melissa,

      Thank you very much for your wonderful writing about PTSD and your feminism. And your thoughts echo mine, but I’d like to add that, while violence against women is global, it’s true – so is our movement. We can do this.

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  8. Michelle, I am nothing short of very impressed with this piece. I too watched the exchange yesterday, and though at first I simply shook my head, after reading this I seriously commend you. I probably would have turned away, or not wanted to get involved, but the shame in that is that I too have suffered with serious depression which left me on the brink of suicide. For the past three years, since I recovered from that dark period, I have been so grateful every day that I did not end my life. Amazing things have happened for me, and I’ve had wonderful days I never would have seen if I had killed myself. The thought that I could have makes me shudder now, and I love life! So yes, of course every threat should be taken seriously, because suicide is serious, and if you can save someone’s life, they may look back in a year, three, ten… and profess how grateful they are to have had every day in between that dark moment and their present moment.

    I hope seeing this will show people to take suicide threats more serious, when they hear them, or if they consider making them as well.

    Thank you.

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    • Stella,

      I’m sorry you had to experience that. It wasn’t until I fell that far into depression that I realised how apt “darkness” is as a descriptor for it. There is one particular story that I read somewhere in my teens and stuck with me, for whatever reason. Whenever I speak publicly and in the presence of rape survivors, I tell them:

      To the survivors: I want to tell you a story about two wells.

      The first is almost infinitely deep, the second is shallow not unlike a pond. It is a struggle, a seemingly endless battle to fill the deepest well with water. It may take years to fill. The second well is filled by the first rain. Once the deepest well is filled however, it will sustain its keepers through hardship, and will not be dried up. The second well, the shallow well, will be gone with the first sign of drought. If the depth of a well is the depth of the sorrow of the human soul, then our wells are some of the deepest. But when we, through the support of others, are able to claw our way to the top of the well, the happiness, strength and resolve left there will make us virtually impervious and impenetrable. We will be strong, where shallow wells crumble.

      I like to think that’s true.

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  9. Michelle, you are quite remarkable. I watched this interchange yesterday between meetings, with growing dismay. I applaud your strong sense of self which shone through all the insults hurled at you. And then your remarkable selflessness in trying to save a stranger (to whom you owed nothing but disdain) from doing herself harm. How remarkable! I stand in awe.

    I sincerely hope that Lisa finds some peace for herself.

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    • Michelle, I never read your “new post” when I get notifications thereof in my mailbox because, for the most part I know it’s going to be something I need to “process”. You always give fair trigger warnings, but as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, I know that I need to be in the right frame of mind to read your blog…. and gosh… am I happy I have only got round to reading all this now. I would have been in a “toestand”, and I am in awe of how you handled this. Well done.

      What bothers me immensely though is the fact that [redacted] works… okay, volunteers at Valkenburg and has seemingly not received the help she needs. And I think back to the days when I was in my 20’s… angry, confused, broken and hurting… when I thought suicide was the only way out. I landed up in Valkenburg and fortunately for me I got the help I needed at the time. My journey of healing started then… and continues some 30 years later… and each day is hard work… some easier than others…
      Life was much easier being an angry deprived coloured lesbian victim of rape and childhood sexual abuse… All those things will ALWAYS be a part of who I am… but NONE of them will ever define who I am.

      [redacted] it seems… enjoys her victim status… and will only heal when she wants a different life for herself and I can say this because I personally know someone with Bipolar disorder.

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