I, too, have a story of abuse to tell. Since 2007, I have been emotionally abused by bosses and staff at the Lemmens Institute of music and drama in Leuven, now part of the LUCA School of Arts, the arts faculty of Leuven University. All the classics from the handbook on the abuse of power are there: lying, manipulating and isolating, threatening and intimidating, and placing the blame for what is happening on the victim himself.
For eleven years, I have been denouncing this undeserved and unfair treatment. I have called the perpetrators themselves to account frequently and in all kinds of ways – always without any result. I have told my story to various people and bodies both inside and outside the institution but this, too, never led to the desired result: recovery, atonement, some slight degree of justice.
For years this made me feel bad every hour of the day. I experienced long periods of severe depression, with feelings of failure, guilt, anxiety, frustration, bitterness and anger that I was unable to shake off. For extended periods I was unfit for work, although I carried on as well as I could with my freelance work, mainly for the Psallentes ensemble. (These activities earn me income that I cannot do without and I also have a responsibility as an employer). Since 2010, I have been receiving intensive support from a therapist.
I often find support and understanding from friends and colleagues but unfortunately there are also many who prefer to look away when they notice that you are involved in a fight with the gods. So dozens of my friendships and work relations have been disrupted or destroyed. And I am no longer able to enter the workplace itself – too much trauma.
You see people think – or they literally say to you – that there are two sides to every story, that there is no smoke without fire. That’s true: I have the fire of commitment, of involvement, of insight into how an organisation is malfunctioning, of annoyance about decisions that have not been thought through, of indignation about wrongs. I was naive and stupid enough not to lower myself to become a yes-man, but on the contrary to offer resistance. I could have expected somewhat that I could be in for a rude awakening, but I did not at all foresee the slyness and treachery that went with this.
It is no coincidence that I began this message with the words Me Too. Under this painful name, countless disconcerting stories have come to our knowledge recently about sexual abuse. Prior to that, we also had terrible accounts of child abuse. I think it is now high time for a new hashtag, again with a theme, so that stories about classic abuse of power can come to light as well. This sort of abuse, although not physical, often also has very serious consequences.
I believe that a new style of exercising power is needed, or rather a new way of cooperating, with shared responsibility, with far fewer intermediate levels, with far fewer committees and meetings, with reductions in scale, with fast rotating leadership. All things that could start us on the way to that which many of us urgently need: a friendly, open, pleasant, satisfying work environment.
Hendrik Elie Vanden Abeele, 5 February 2018