Ina, a former arts & crafts teacher, tells her story about a failed character assassination attempt. Her narrative does not focus on the causes or conflicts that lie at the roots of the attempt nor on the mortally malcontented being in need to vent their frustrations on her and her family. Instead Ina’s story centers around the notion of a failed attempt. Why did it fail? And how did it fail? What role did art play? Ina shares her experiences because she profoundly hopes that it might help others. ‘Even if it is one teenager or woman that is helped by my story, I am happy‘. Her story is illustrated by several artworks.
Ina’s interview takes place at her studio. Her large work table and various artisan tools ignite a desire to become creative. Various unfinished projects give evidence of an overload of inspiration. Ina reluctantly revisits a time in her life in which she and her family received hate mail after hate mail. ‘Hateful emails seek a reaction, a response, they invite a counter attack’.
‘I read ‘Religion and Violence’ by historian René Girard when I was in my twenties and I was struck by his theory of the Scapegoat Mechanism. How important a scapegoat is for social cohesion and how collectively accusing is more important than the substance. Thinking back of Girard’s theory, I concluded that -unluckily and apparently- it was my time in life to experience that mechanism first-hand. Scapegoating me was skillfully done with drip-feeding fabricated and exaggerating accusations that resulted in attacks on me’.
As soon as Ina realized that attempts to counterbalance false accusations didn’t help, and that she wasn’t responsible for one other’s envy, she withdrew and refused to interact with those who made it their mission to bring her down. She hoped that the campaign against her would die down as soon as some fact-checking was done. It was not the accusations that hurt her (they were silly, made-up, and unfounded) but the fact that people were so willingly believing gossip. Ina knew therefore that trying to get into the good books of her aggressors was a Sisyphean task. Thus, Ina decided to wait it out. That didn’t work. Eventually, she had to hire a lawyer as a firewall. ‘Seal off your personal space, and resort to things that are soul nourishing, like studying, being creative, doing sports,’ advises Ina.
‘Just because there is an attempt to harm your life, to bring you down, to harm your family, it does not imply that you should get emotionally involved. That said, hate-mails hurt no matter how unfounded or dumb the content is. I noticed that I started to excuse myself and resorted to using disclaimers, I adopted an apologetic attitude. That was not good, so I changed that’.
‘I realized one has to live one’s own life, suffer one’s own sufferings and rejoicing in one’s own luck and happiness. Not to say that I have adopted a hyper-individualized form of existence, instead, I am Aristotelian in believing that one’s telos, one’s full potential should be the focus of our lives in relation to others. We are inherently social beings. But you need to select carefully with whom you hang out. Relations are healthy when they support each other’s telos and growth, unhealthy when they hamper one’s telos. It was unfair to ask from me (and my family) to absorb other people’s hate and discontentment.
What does character assassination look like? What is its anatomy?
‘It is much more than an ordinary squabble or an unresolved conflict. Character assassination is a coordinated and prolonged effort to maliciously harm a person, to damage a person’s good reputation, and to destroy someone’s self esteem. I will not sum up the long list of areas of my life that were targeted but the vile accusations were emotive, paternalizing, and downright hateful. There was relentless criticism on almost every aspect of my life along with reproaches and objections. My education, my past, my choices, what I said-thought-felt, the way I looked… my husband, his work, his voluntary work, even my child, nothing got spared. It was obsessive.
I noticed many characteristics of conspiracy thinking too: deep and unfounded suspicion, blaming without evidence, no fair hearing (jumping to conclusions or unsubstantiated ideas). The amount of emails describing me and my family as elitists and elite were significant. And of course, the ‘elite’ was to blame for ‘everything’.
It grew -even without me interacting- and after a few months the hate had accumulated in that I was a despicable and dangerous person. That I was dangerous made me almost laugh, had it not been so sad, because I am a boringly good citizen. And, also very conspiracy-like, I was to blame for everything that was wrong. My villains were so proud of echoing that I was the single cause of a layered, multi-faceted, and complex problem. Ever since Eve! Such is the beautiful, simple world in which one woman causes the fall out of paradise.
‘Things completely spiraled out of control. It was frightening (and interesting) to see how every next email or letter was harsher in tone, more accusative. When my family and I received a physical threat and a death-wish, we were advised to go to the police and a lawyer.
‘At that time, I came across ‘Tax Collectors’ by Reymerswale but I did not know the title of this artwork. It shows two tax collectors doing their paperwork. Despite their luxurious clothing and fine interior, the painter has deliberately made them look downright ugly. To me, this painting could have been titled ‘Two Hate Mail Writers’ because hate makes ugly’.
‘I asked myself what in my life had been left untouched by hate. There was not much left. Realizing this, I knew it was about a need for hating, exactly like Girard had theorized. There was a need for a shared enemy on the part of the accusers to ease tensions. I had become a lightning rod for an unsolvable conflict and problem. I was deeply shocked.’
HOW TO DEAL WITH ATTEMPTS TO DESTROY YOU?
‘I suffered terribly. I have had moments wondering whether I could cope with all the anger directed at me. Hate is a terrible monster, like Cerberus (the three-headed dog of Greek myth guarding the entrance to the underworld). Envy is an even more devilish monster. You have to protect yourself against monsters. I was greatly supported by my husband but I needed judicial help too. So, get help is number one.’
‘Number two: look at where the anger comes from. Is it justified? Does it come from a well-educated, well balanced person (or persons) who is open to mediation, respecting the choices you make in your life? No? Then try to stay unaffected. People willingly venting their unrestrained anger are harming themselves; it is like the trash taking itself out. So, get help and try to stay unaffected. That sounds contradictory, but it isn’t’.
Ina came across a painting of a mother with her child positioned between man-high saguaro cacti navigating her way through a barren and hostile landscape. She felt one with the painting. ‘This is a great expressionist painting. You immediately are drawn into the painting. The background shows a sunset but it looks like it is on fire, adding to the dramatic scene. I loved this painting because it so cleverly shows danger juxtaposing tenderness. I felt like the mother in this picture. But I also felt like the child, held by the protective arms of my family. As long as my family and I kept on walking, that landscape would change for the better’.
‘During the prolonged attacks, I felt as if I had died a bit inside. A crisis can break or make you. If I died a bit inside, I decided that I would be like a phoenix, the mythological, immortal bird, who dies by flames and arises from its ashes. It took time, but I completed my regeneration. My health was restored (that took more than a year) and I felt good again. The biggest compliment I gained is that I looked younger. There is much truth to that observation. I adopted a Phoenix as my mascot. Its picture helped me to keep strongly focused on regeneration. That was very important to me’.
Will you forgive and what did you learn?
‘It would be a mistake to forgive because it was a well-planned and prolonged attack, not a faux pass. I decided against forgiving because I am setting an example to never allow emotional abuse’.
‘The long period of harassment happened during the pandemic. It was a shameful fact that in the Netherlands there was an increase of women and children abuse during the pandemic, especially during lock-downs. Apparently, some were in need to vent their boiled up anger. Perhaps it helped them to write hate mails, but they should have dealt with their feelings differently’.
‘What I learned? I learned that people are shockingly easy to mobilize against another person. All the instigator had to do is preying on feelings of envy or frustrations’.
DID THE HARM CAMPAIGN FAILED OR SUCCEEDED?
‘Shame withheld me to look for help. It is probably a womanly thing to react as a sin-eater. I felt ashamed being so hated. Shame is a very bad reaction to bullying (there is no way you have brought scapegoating onto yourself). It results in withdrawal and silence. What one needs is the opposite, to set up a robust defense. I remember my lawyer hearing my story and saying; ‘This is awful, let me take it from here and I’ll run this pass a criminal lawyer too’. The intense relief that caused! So, did the character assassination fail? Initially, no. It caused emotional and physical damage. Also, money was spent on judicial help which better could have benefited the next generation. And I still keep my friends at an arm’s length, afraid they too pop out of Pandora’s box as hateful puppets. But overcoming shame and seeking help changed everything. I am absolutely not a fan of Nietzsche, but he is frequently quoted for having said that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. In the end, the character assassination epically failed’.
Any advice for teenagers who get bullied, for women who become conduits of anger?
‘In teenage language? ‘What the fuck! Seek support NOW. You are worth living your cool life without the bullshit of others’. To adults, I advise the same, though in different wording: go to the police, get a good lawyer. Stop feeling shame, stop suffering; harassing behaviour by others is socially or judicially unacceptable. Seek help’.
THE MORAL OF THIS BLOG-POST? You have read this before on this website: We make art, appreciate art, and see our lives reflected in art. The great stories about the human predicament, whether Ancient Greek, Biblical or classical literary sources, or famous fine art paintings, all cover some part of our lives. Seek refuge in art and literature. Nourish your soul with literature and art. Art matters. Books matter. Art heals. We -humans- have created a huge reservoir of healing properties to be found in libraries, museums, galleries, studios, and bookshops. Use it; enjoy it.
Next blog post will be about what is a Cassandra Syndrome?
Mindfuldrawing.com is owned by Paula Kuitenbrouwer who holds an MA degree in Philosophy. Paula’s pen and pencils are always fighting for her attention nevertheless they are best friends; Paula likes her art to be brainy and her essays to be artistic. Paula has an Etsy shop here. Her Instagram account serves as an online portfolio and is here. Contact Paula freely by email or a contact form for commissioned artwork.
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