Silence Is Poison

Yes, I am going to talk about this. No, I won’t leave it alone. I won’t be silent. Silence is poison.

Go read this sad tale. Here is a corroborating account and another.

I want to know why things got this bad? Why didn’t he acknowledge the situation and apologize? Why didn’t she seek professional help before she became self destructive? They both remained silent and, in these situations, silence is poison.

I was not present for the events Justine describes. I arrived at CodeMash the following day. I’ve spoken about similar issues before because I believe it is productive to have this conversation. I share my thoughts here in an attempt to contribute positively to the public dialogue. It is important that we not let this conversation die. We must not be silent.

I know many amazing women in the developer community. Whenever the issue of gender imbalance in my profession is mentioned, my initial reaction is to think that the issue is overblown because I can quickly think of so many great women in technology. My wife reminds me that I know all the women in my corner of technology so my perspective is skewed. Also, the women I know must be amazing to navigate the forces against them and succeed despite the inequalities they face.

My female developer friends love to have a good time. We frequently drink to excess. We do silly things. We respect one another’s personal boundaries.  Most of these friends I only see at conferences so spending time with them is a high priority. Alcohol and mixed company do not naturally lead to misbehavior and abuse. Still, things can get out of hand.

At a conference last year, in a very unusual situation, I witnessed a guy creeping out on a woman and I intervened. In Justine’s account, someone intervened on her behalf but possibly too late. We must train our community to speak up and intervene in similar circumstances when they arise. Intervention doesn’t mean anyone needs to play enforcer. A simple inquiry of “Is everybody having fun” at the right time can keep things from getting out of hand. It is imperative that we take care of one another.

I don’t recall ever meeting Justine but I think she is an incredibly brave person for speaking out publicly. I wish I did know Justine. There are so few vegans in the tech community, it would be great to hang out with another vegan.

I can’t imagine the mental and emotional torture she’s been through. I hope she gets the professional and personal support she needs to recover and move on with her life. It is unfair to second guess someone who is suffering, but it appears that she remained silent too long and let the silence poison her body, her career and her relationships. It is tragic that she couldn’t find an outlet for her pain sooner.

I know women who have been through similar and worse experiences. They managed to move on but the scars are still with them and trust does not come easily. My thoughts are with Justine as she tries to heal. That won’t happen overnight.

I read multiple comments stating that Justine invited Joe’s behavior by lying on the bar and offering a body shot. I find this attitude ridiculous. Adults are free to do silly things and have a good time. Her behavior excuses none of his behavior. If she had been strolling naked around the bar, that wouldn’t give anyone the right to lay hands on her uninvited.

In her blog post, Justine tangentially mentions my good friends, Mike Eaton and Leon Gersing. They are not mentioned critically, but I want to insure that their names do not get sullied by association. Mike Eaton and Leon Gersing are two of the finest people I know. I’ve stayed in their homes. I know their families. They would never participate in, or excuse Joe’s actions, despite their friendship with him. Leon and Mike have my full confidence and I know them both to be men of honor. They are also a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with.

I know Joe O’Brien. We are not close, but I’ve known him for years. I always looked up to him for growing a business that employed great people and treated them like adults. I don’t doubt the veracity of Justine’s account of his actions and I find them disgusting. I can’t imagine what he was thinking to treat another person like that. I also can’t understand why he didn’t do everything he could to take responsibility for his actions and apologize. Why did he remain silent? Why did he allow the poison to spread?

I will not participate in the hate campaign mounted against Joe O’Brien. I don’t believe anything productive can come from hate and fear. I believe that loving support is the way to heal. While my attitude may not be popular, I believe we should extend loving support to both parties. This excuses nothing. We should hold Joe accountable while assisting him to accept responsibility and take public and private steps to heal. My attitude derives from personal experience.

I want to dispel any assumptions that I am taking a position of superiority or practicing hypocrisy. I’ve been in some uncomfortable and potentially inappropriate situations while attending tech conferences. Nothing horrific but I cringe at the recollection of some situations. That excuses nothing. If I don’t put a stop to events before things get weird, it is not the fault of alcohol or the event organizers. I’m a grownup and I’m responsible for checking myself.

When I fuck up, I try to make things right. I don’t know of friendships that I’ve lost as a result of misbehavior at conferences. Still, this excuses nothing. I have had to suck it up and apologize more than once. I do my best to not remain silent and let the poison spread. This was a lesson not easily learned.

About 15 years ago, a friend of my ex-wife, accused me of sexually assaulting her. She did everything she could to assassinate my character. She contacted my friends and even my neighbors to tell them what a piece of shit I was. I’m not sure that what I did merited her actions. I’m not sure my actions qualified as sexual assault. In my mind I made an advance and it was rejected. The situation was unclear to me. Yes, I was very drunk. That excuses nothing.

I felt like a piece of shit. I remained silent. I hid. The poison spread. Prior to these developments, I was, as is my nature, very active in my community of like minded peers and had been a leader of various groups. After this woman’s campaign against me, I shut down. I kept a very low profile. I was silent and silence is poison. It was seven years before I felt confident enough to put myself in front of people again and risk public humiliation.

I am not a piece of shit. I sometimes make shitty choices. I do not believe that my entire character should be defined by any one situation. I believe I was worthy of a second chance and forgiveness. By remaining silent, I made a bad situation worse. I have tried to learn from an awful situation and I believe I have. I’ve certainly not repeated that experience.

I don’t think Joe O’Brien is a piece of shit either. He made some shitty choices, but that doesn’t put him beyond redemption. Joe was obviously unhappy. Happy people don’t treat others that way. I don’t know what his issues were, but he clearly needed help. This excuses nothing.

Through his silence, Joe made a bad situation worse. I’m sure he has suffered beyond the loss of his professional position. This excuses nothing. The suffering Justine experienced is a direct result of his actions and his ensuing silence. Justine has been emotionally damaged by this experience and needs help as well. Her silence was poison too. Nobody got away unscathed.

Conference organizers are responsible for presentation content at their event and the behavior of speakers, who act as representatives of the conference. Organizers can do their best to prevent assault, humiliation and harassment during event activities and after hours but they cannot be nannies to adults. The events Justine describes happened the night before CodeMash 2013 even began. I know the organizers of CodeMash. These are top notch people. I have no doubt that they are as appalled by these revelations as I am. They will take steps to try to prevent future events like this. It won’t work.

Adults are responsible for their own actions. Adults will drink and carry on until late in the evening. The events Justine relates are exceptional in my experience. I do not believe this awful situation should be treated as systemic of the developer community. That excuses nothing. Similar events will occur. We must talk about these issues. We must empower our community to speak up and take steps to intervene to stop such situations before they get out of hand. We must not be silent. Silence is poison.

Take care of one another.