On Jamie Kilstein

Posted: March 1, 2017 in feminism, United States
Tags: , , ,

So, I found out recently that someone I used to follow for commentary on politics, a man who aggressively claimed to be a feminist, and a good guy engaged in progressive activism, has in fact been behaving in an emotionally abusive way to women for a long time, including his former employee, who worked for him at a time when I was doing some minor volunteer stuff for his community of activists. (His ex-wife still hosts the podcast they were involved in, Citizen Radio)

His ex-wife has come out publicly and talked about the fact that she’s going to have to cut professional ties with him, and has at least managed to convince him into therapy. I genuinely hope it helps him, and that he can start acting on those principles he claims to have, and make up for some of the harm he’s caused.

Now, obviously it’s not news that sometimes guys who have been terrible to women end up in left-wing circles. There have been abusers of all stripes or degrees in a lot of left-wing activist groups.

I’m glad to say that this person hasn’t been an idol or even someone I’ve really been listening to in years. But I feel extremely bad about this whole situation.

Why? Because I noticed he was behaving in a way that worried me. I felt that he was being overly aggressive in talking about supporting women, something that is a classic covering tactic for abusive behaviour. That he seemed to want validation for being a feminist rather than really care about treating everyone as equals. That things were a little too much about What Reflected Well On Jamie. Men who are genuine about supporting women don’t need to be praised for it, it’s not about them, it’s about doing the right thing and being a decent human being, and feminism is something ordinary that they only get loud about if nobody else is doing it yet and someone needs to step up. If they want a cookie they’ll bake it themselves, because baking is men’s work too. 😉

Jamie is someone who never handled criticism well. Who joked about having an eating disorder but really did need help around an unhealthy relationship with food that he wasn’t handling well, and had a hard time getting help for. Who admitted to manipulative behaviour publicly on smaller issues. It hurt me a lot to realise that I wasn’t even surprised at this news, it all clicked into place immediately and made sense with all of these smaller hints, and immediately horrified me. I can only imagine how Allison feels, having been married to him and having relied on him as her business partner. It was no surprise to me that he has declined to make any public statement or apology, and asked that it not be mentioned on what is now her podcast.

I hope he brings up those issues I mentioned in the therapy, and I really hope he gets the help he needs for everything, because if he doesn’t, then he’s gonna hurt people close to him one way or another, even if the word is out there on the internet now, it won’t get to all his casual acquaintances so easily, and he needs help to get some self-security so that he can avoid this sort of behaviour pattern in the future.

But that’s not an excuse to behave in an unsafe way, and not to listen when someone sets boundaries in place with you. There is no excuse for harassment when someone has told you to stop. I have had my own problems that I’ve needed to go to therapy for, as I allude to from time to time, and those are still no excuse for not reading the signs that you’re behaving unacceptably, especially when they’re made clear to you multiple times by different people.

I have a minor part in this play, and that’s the thing that’s worst about hearing this news. If you really want to know what’s going on, you should go read the personal accounts that some very brave women have put out in public about this, as it’s really their story. But even knowing that unjustified self-recrimination is part of the cycle of this sort of manipulation and harassment, I find myself wondering if I couldn’t have done something to stop this.

The incident that convinced me that I needed time away from that community was when a key volunteer who was a friend of mine had a jokey but slightly inappropriate discussion about what donor money was being spent on, that veered into some pretty invasive speculation about Jamie and Allison’s personal lives. As you may not be surprised to learn, Jamie had an immediate and pretty explosive reaction, didn’t even discuss the matter at all, and completely replaced him with no explanation, and installed me in his place with little to no transparency.

I felt horrible, this volunteer was a good guy who still supported me and also the community even after the incident. I was left trying to pick up a lot of pieces after an over-reaction about a stupid discussion that admittedly was out of line, but could have been handled so much better. It was easily fixable with an open letter to the community setting up some acceptable boundaries. I didn’t trust myself to handle the situation well, I simply got panicky whenever I thought about it, and in true fashion for someone with social anxiety, I simply faded away from the community.

I tried to hold it together for a while first, but I felt really bad about the whole thing no matter what I did, and I wasn’t yet entirely well in dealing with my own social anxieties at the time.

That wasn’t the right thing to do, obviously, but I did correctly recognise I needed to “put my own seatbelt on first,” and look after myself. I should have maybe outlined what went on and simply told everyone why I was bowing out. In hindsight I should have at least passed my concerns on to his then-wife and told her I trusted her to handle the situation if there was anything that needed to be done, so that maybe it would have clued her into things sooner. And I’m really sorry if my lack of action on this enabled this guy, who I thought shared my opinions and outlook, to get away with anything, because if I had had even a sniff of the allegations about abuse when this happened, I wouldn’t have faded away. I would have been with everyone trying to shout about this issue until it had been solved.

And now I’m left wondering: Did I help him get away with this behaviour by never talking about my worries? That’s the most frequent thought I’m hearing expressed by everyone who’s had a story to tell about this guy, that they’ve all been apologizing for not coming forward earlier, not talking enough, not believing in themselves, but they all have the excuse that he was directly manipulating them. I won’t absolve myself, (if anyone wants to tell me I should have said something, that’s probably a fair call, as he never harassed or manipulated me directly, and if anyone wants a personal apology, I will send you a genuine one in private, I promise) but I think all the women who’ve actually survived this behaviour deserve a pass. Please don’t attack anyone for not being able to bear bringing their story into the public. It’s hard enough having to deal with the situation in the first place, I hope everyone can understand why many people stayed anonymous.

This isn’t something that’s easy to come to terms with, and even though nobody is currently talking about physical or sexual abuse, (I really hope it never got that far, but if it did happen to anyone, please be brave and come forward, we’ll support you!) successful harassers have a lot of strategies to make you doubt yourself, and Jamie is actually a charismatic guy despite his issues, and his response made me consider that maybe I was being unreasonable, and that I should give him a chance, and let the hurt feelings cool down. I regret listening to those impulses that seemed reasonable at the time. I wish word of this had gotten to me, I would have happily acted as a go-between to keep people anonymous while still getting their stories out. It’s ridiculous that this makes me feel powerless and angry even though I had only the smallest chance to help. But that’s what situations like this do to everyone, and it’s part of why this whole situation is so wrong and enraging, and people who know me know I’m not quick to anger. (any longer, another lesson learnt in adolescence, fortunately)

So, there are lessons to be learned here:

Firstly, for anyone who doesn’t already, believe women when they make allegations. (I think there is #believewomen on twitter if you want to follow general conversation about this point, assuming you are comfortable reading twitter) This doesn’t mean someone who’s accused is guilty until proven innocent, it just means the allegations are serious and you need to hear out everyone’s story, and support people who make allegations and take them seriously so that this sort of stuff comes out into the open. It takes real leadership to admit to something like this and put it right, so kudos to Allison, who deserves a lot of support for doing the exact right things as soon as she got a story she could substantiate.

Secondly, not every guy who says feminist things is okay. You know that whole “every man is a rapist” quote that MRAs love to harp on about with regards to feminists? What it’s actually talking about is that, as far as any woman can tell, any man could be a rapist. It’s referring to “Schrödinger’s rapist,” if you will: that even the most aggressively feminist of guys can be manipulative, or harrassing, or compensate for their insecurity by being praise-dependent and manipulating women for that praise because they feel threatened by men, and the emotional abuse this guy commited is on the same spectrum as full-blown rape or rapey behaviour. Jamie hasn’t proven MRAs right, he’s proven feminists right: that it’s really difficult to tell who the “bad sorts” are, because those ideas that normalise harassing behaviour sneak into everyone’s psyche at some point, and even guys who are aggressively on the side of women’s rights can still do things that are hugely hurtful to women. Schrödinger’s rapist (or harasser) is real, and he’s often in a superposition of “good guy” and “bad guy,” where he’s making excuses that actually he’s good and didn’t do anything wrong, honest, why won’t you understand? And sadly even for some guys that have been virtue-signalling super hard, when you give them a chance, that waveform collapses and it turns out you’re stuck alone with a guy who will blow up on you if you criticise him, or won’t respect your boundaries, or will outright commit abuse. There is no excuse for that, and it’s a problem for everyone who dates men, and sometimes even for women who don’t have any interest in the idea.

Thirdly, not every guy who supports women is going to have Jamie’s sorts of issues or respond to similar issues the way he did, but it’s okay if you’re not feeling up to trusting any particular guy or even all guys after this sort of incident, in fact, please do whatever you feel you need to to stay safe, whoever you are. Some guys who have a lot of female friends and are emotionally dependent on their good opinion of them aren’t very good at respecting boundaries and need clear communication and possibly someone to threaten them into doing the right thing. Some men don’t fall into that situation. Others, like me, have had issues judging social situations correctly in the past, but will actually respond well to feedback. One of my friends in college deserves a big thankyou for having been really nice about having a boundary discussion with me once and setting me right, because I was getting a little obsessive about our friendship and it made her feel uncomfortable. Thanks for being classy, and you’ll know who you are if you ever read this, because you’re the only person that ever had to do that for me.

It’s okay that people won’t know which kind of guy they’re handling until they’re in a situation like this. Women or anyone else being harassed should trust their guts around this sort of thing, if someone disturbs you it’s okay to set up boundaries or get away in any way you need to. They might be a good guy who’ll react well and respect their friend, or who will be a little taken aback but will get over it and be better in the future, in which case, no harm done. They might be a good guy who’s totally offended, or they might genuinely be a bad guy who’ll flip out, in which case, they didn’t deserve to be your friend in the first place, and it’s good to know you can ditch them, because everyone deserves better than that. If someone won’t respect your boundaries or you don’t feel comfortable having the talk to set them, talk to your friends, people you trust, people in authority, and find people who’ll help you sort it out. It’s okay to need help to get through it, especially if the person harassing you is your boss.

The good thing that has come about because of this is that there’s been a large discussion of this issue that’s almost exclusively positive. The closest I saw to anyone being a troll was one guy asking very aggressively for details of the story so he could “know what’s going on.”

It’s okay to be skeptical, that guy, but please have some sensitivity while you do it. If you’re going to ask questions, be super polite and accept “I don’t want to tell you” or “please follow this/these links” for an answer with grace. You don’t need to weigh in about what that says about someone’s credibility, you can be judgemental in your head rather than on social media if it doesn’t impact you personally. Please don’t imply that it’s not reasonable to default to believing people who bring up these allegations and then be skeptical if things don’t actually check out. Not every woman is going to be okay sharing every detail of their story in public. Some are, and they’re courageous and deserve praise. But not everyone can do that, okay?

Overall, every angle of this story sucks. Now we’re going to have MRA trolls arguing that every feminist guy is some sort of “beta male,” (haha sure, some of the strongest guys I know respect women, you assholes. Ironically I’ve never met someone who I would think of as anything near an “alpha male” who is actually concerned about who is “alpha” and who is “beta,” because they’ve all been way too cool for that insecure bullshit) that all guys are predators of women and that’s natural and okay, and there will be many women who will feel even more like they can’t trust men. (which okay, may be a reasonable starting point in some cases…) All I can say to everyone who disagrees with them, or who has survived this type of harassment, is that you have as much of my support as you’d like, and as much space as you want, too, at your own discretion.

  1. Oh, an addendum before I head out- please don’t hesitate to support Allison because of Jamie’s behaviour. Too often people close to a situation like this who do the right thing and demand better become a sort of ancilliary victim to the behaviour.

    Allison is taking back control of Citizen Radio’s finances right now, and she is a talented and ethical journalist who deserves your support, and I am going to follow her and support her how I can in the wake of this. I imagine most people know she’s a good person and don’t hold her responsible for what happened, although I can tell from how she talked about not being able to dig into earlier anonymous stories that she too is feeling regret about not catching this pattern sooner. Please be kind to her, she has done everything she can in this situation and has also been let down. This sort of manipulative behaviour can hit hard for close relations and friends too, and reaction to this sort of behaviour can often impact the partners, business or otherwise, of the person actually at fault when they didn’t do anything wrong.

    If anyone wants me to link specific stories or tweets about this, feel free to comment, I will edit them in later. I’ve been being careful about what I link to from this blog as many of them seem intended for close friends rather than the wider community, and I’ve stuck to retweets for now. Thanks.

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