10 Years Later, My Soul Still Flinches

I was recently triggered by a dear friend. He had no way of knowing – I don’t talk about these things, and on the rare occurrence that it comes up in any context, I take care of it myself. But we’ve been close for awhile now, and he deserved some sort of understanding as to why I nearly walked out, no reasons, to clear my head and calm my breathing.

My tendency is to not talk about things until I have both a clear understanding and a clear action to take. If understanding is all that is needed, I sometimes keep that to myself, unless it benefits everyone to express it. Mind you, with a high emotional metabolism, these processes can take from minutes to hours – rarely on the scale of a full or multiple days. But I suppose it’s important to talk about abuse, especially as someone who apparently seems functional.

Corey used to leave me places. We lived in a bad neighborhood in Suffolk, and I was new to the area, and I worked doubles at an Applebees a few miles from home. The one time I tried to walk home late at night, a car stopped to proposition me, and became quite angry when I didn’t accede. I was 19 at the time. I didn’t have a phone – we only had one, and Corey had taken it, but wasn’t answering. Being that poor also meant I didn’t have cab fare, there were no buses, and my new coworkers were uncaring. I didn’t have my car – he had taken that, too. To do… something.. while I worked and he didn’t. After that, even when I couldn’t get ahold of him, I would wait at the restaurant, sometimes for a couple hours, until he would come to get me. He would then “tease” me for how often I had called or texted him.

When I would insist on taking my car with me, it became an argument about trust. Why didn’t I trust him to have the car? It was just going to sit in the parking lot all day, whereas he could use it. Didn’t I trust him to come get me? Did that mean I didn’t trust him at all in anything else? I was a horrible person! He was simply absent minded. My lack of trust was undermining the relationship.

Later, things slowly escalated. We would get into regular yelling matches. He broke his hand from punching the floor when I stated my intentions of leaving, permanently and immediately. I drove him to the hospital instead of driving myself to my cousin’s, crying because I knew the ensuing hospital bills would threaten the move back to Indiana so I could return to school (my parents’ sneaky trick to get me back into a social safety net). I still don’t know the laws about physical abuse if you hit back. It wasn’t pretty. And always the underlying thread of distrust. Any fight always came back down to my not trusting him. I finally left him after 2 and a half years, discovering that the problem was not my lack of trust but his untrustworthiness. We still had to live together for awhile, again from his financial insolvency. There was a final morning with him not letting me leave the house, my finally calling the cops as he slammed doors back shut and then stood in front of my car.

Recovery takes time, and I’m still not done with it. I reflect less often, but more publicly. But it’s important to know that even badasses like me have baggage. So do others.

  • 2007 : http://willowperson.livejournal.com/129303.html
  • 2008 : http://willowperson.livejournal.com/167449.html
    • http://willowperson.livejournal.com/186020.html
  • 2009 : http://willowperson.livejournal.com/197463.html
  • 2010 : http://blog.bl00cyb.org/2010/09/diaf/
  • 2013 : http://brainmeats.net/ep8-social-scripts-for-abuse

When an ex-lover in Seattle had pulled my motorcycle battery to get his own going, I lost my shit. In his  excitement over mechanical triumph, he tossed his feature phone towards me to gain my attention while stopped on the curb. He had just removed both the ability to communicate and my transportation. Of course he had no idea why this would be so bad. Nor could he, until I expressed it.

The thing that makes emotional abuse difficult to overcome is that erosion in the baseline of trust. The initial giving of trust is still pretty easy to me, it’s the response to being in an iffy situation and determining how to navigate it. My attempts to vocalize about being uncomfortable in the past meant all the structure of the relationship was torn away (not by me, I know that now). So my knee-jerk response to situations now is that of having to choose to quietly deal with the feelings that I’m having, or having trust itself questioned. My heart doesn’t understand there can be an third option between stoicism and complete tear down. And I like the trust established with the Boston Sweetie (who I’ll note wanted to be called the Boston Strangler here, that is how awesome he is).

But now I have space again to ask questions and think through things safely, I don’t have to have a rational reason for feeling the way I feel. Maybe someday I get to be rational about all this again. Maybe. In the meantime, I just have to accept that the people around me might actually want to help, not take my need for help as a personal affront. All I have to do is be brave enough to explain what’s going on in the tumult of feels, even if it doesn’t yet make sense. Especially if it doesn’t yet make sense.

It’s important to know that even the ability to speaking about the abuse is what is ripped away. This is why it is difficult to speak out. The podcast, listed above, has some pretty heart-felt conversation from a variety of people in it. Worth checking out. And speak out. It helps. Even a decade later.

Conflict Engagement

Recently I predictably found myself careening towards the 520 by way of 5, my nose in a book, much like the rest of the passengers aboard. During a moment of looking up from my book – to see the sky, which looks remarkably like this some days (tho not that day), or to prevent car sickness, or whatever – I noticed something odd at the front of the bus. Someone standing by the driver, in that hunched way that usually means aggression but can also mean trouble keeping your balance while standing in a bus that’s moving down a highway at more than 50mph. I looked around. Being towards the back half of an accordion bus means there were plenty of people closer – surely if there was something wrong, one of them would have stepped up. Based on their body language, though, most were actually absorbed in their media. Some of that focus was obviously intentional, rather than on whatever was going on at the front. Not a good sign.

bus layout-1

I packed all my stuff away, put my phone and my wallet into my pockets. Asked the person next to me to watch my stuff, and walked towards the front. Walked past maybe 20 people, a few of whom looked up at me while I went by – we’re on an express route, and didn’t have a stop for a ways.

“How’s it going?” I asked, looking at the driver in the mirror.

“It’s.. ok,” he said, making eye contact.

The older, swaying man scoffed, turned to me, and said, “why, what would you do about it?”

“Whatever necessary to return the driver the attention he needs to keep us safe” I responded.

It then became an act of distracting him away from the driver, without having him escalate towards me, while our steersman got us to the next stop safely. The man experiencing angst had missed his stop (a significant thing on an express route), and the driver had not let him off at a non-stop area. Because of safety, and consistency, and because infrastructure does indeed have to adhere to The Rules. But I didn’t ask him about that (he was wrong, and would not have been persuaded otherwise. If he had valid concerns I would have focused on that, and proper channels to deal with complaints), I only kept reminding him that we were ON A BUS ON THE HIGHWAY AND HE WAS DISTRACTING THE DRIVER. I focused on the lives, in a very immediate and pressing way, which were at risk because of this distraction, not his behavior or what had triggered it. Focused only on potential outcome of his current approach. It mostly worked. He tried insults about my hair (heard it), my gender presentation (yawn), his physical superiority (just try). When we had arrived at our stop and he had been booted, I checked in with the driver – does he need my contact in case there is a report? Did he need anything else? – and then returned to my seat. Seething. Why is it an appallingly normal situation that, of all the people in an area, conflict resolution lands on the shoulders of myself and those I keep the company of? I nearly (nearly) had a “sheeple!” moment. And then I took a deep breath and drew a chart instead.

conflict engagement

Physical harm based on proximity to incidence. Of course this graph is subjective.



I started to think about why people don’t engage in situations like these. Things like Diffusion of Responsibility have been studied at great length in the past – the same reason asking someone to watch my bag for me is successful is also why individuals don’t step up to help an individual when a large group is present. See the obligatory reference to Bystander Effect and Kitty Genovese (case taken with grain of salt, but Bystander Effect is well established). But I would hope that the people I associate with would actively dislike being a bystander, and are simply lacking the understanding of how to engage.

Here’s a quick run-down on how I engage with conflict. The base assumption being that you HAVE to, as you’ll be the only one. (Except for when you’re not, and the beauty of a group of strangers coming together around a pressing issue is beautiful. You will be supported, and supporting someone else. Just because one person has stepped up doesn’t mean you shouldn’t as well.) First, you have to assess the situation. These are generalities and non-linear.

  • Assess what is going on, severity, is this for you or “official” response, etc. Who is most at risk? Are you protecting or breaking things up?
  • What is the end goal?
  • Where can you help, if you can? If you can’t help, what needs to happen to assist the situation?
  • What sort of engagement can you do, and what is the backup plan if it escalates past that?

Now that you know vaguely what you’re dealing with and what your limits are, it’s time to engage. Certainly contextual to danger you’re not prepared to deal with.

  • Check in, usually via eye contact. Do this with the person who is least in control. Also do this with the person in the most control to see if they’re of the persuading type. Ask each how they are doing.
  • No matter what insults are thrown, or arguments are made, stick to what your goal is. It can be hard to be rational in these situations, and easy to get pulled into the energy. Stick to your mental guns.
  • If needed, enlist someone nearby to call authority figures. You need your attention where it is, and hopefully this means you’ve pulled at least one person out of by-stander headspace into up-stander headspace.
  • Oftentimes, just being called on being inappropriate it enough to get an individual or group to desist.

Me, personally, I’m pretty ok with getting into a fist fight so long as I am fairly certain there aren’t any weapons around. While getting hit sucks, the mere willingness to put yourself at that risk deescalates most situations. Think of it like poker, and you’re calling a bluff – but you have to be willing to take the hit if you’re wrong. Here is why I think it’s imperative to take responsibility in these situations, broken down in chart format:

conflict grid

This is important to me because, honestly, sometimes I need backup too. I’m reminded of sitting on the BART, headed to the airport, when two guys came and sat in the seats near me. There was the pretty standard come-ons, accompanied by aggressive body language, clearly trying to box me into the seat. I did my usual progression: first good natured “sorry, not interested, and did you know your approach is kind of awkward?” followed by “not even cute. Piss off.” They even pushed it to the point of dead-on eye lock with “Look. Either persuade me you don’t have balls, or I’m going to remove them.” They got off at the next stop, muttering between themselves. While their actions were appalling, what I found so much more awful were that when I had tried to make eye contact with the other people on the car, of whom there were plenty, no one would. And while I can take care of myself, the thought of someone who is less willing to cause lots of damage (even if losing) seeking help and not getting it makes me feel utterly disgusted.

Our system is incredibly flawed in how we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. I am not disputing that. But equally (or more) dangerous is a lack of taking bystanders to task. And to that end, I want you to listen to the most recent Brainmeats! podcast on Social Scripts for Abuse, and think about how we can fix this. What role does a community play around bad actors? That community can be social or geographic. As always, it starts with you. Stand up. I hope this has given the beginning structures on which to engage.

Safe space (online and off) isn’t just about policies and retributions, it’s about how we as individuals encourage, expect, and enforce it. It’s not about ego (either it getting bruised if you fail, or bolstered if you don’t), it’s about being able to exist.

Co-opting and Saturation

I read this study recently, about the inequality of online contributions. You should go read it as well, and then come back here. It’s easy to digest, and a quick read. You can even just skim it.

The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.

I wonder if there are studies on off-line communities, and if they show a similar trend. If you know of any, please post to comments.

Imagine if we could push people up this pyramid. What an incredible world we would live in, were more people to be creators, or at least to actively contribute in some way! Or at the least, we would be less fucked. I sincerely believe many of the problems facing humanity could be addressed if more people took an active role in their lives. Blame my socialist upbringing if you like. It’s why I worked (and continue to work) so hard at Jigsaw – creating an entry-level environment for n00bs to get their hands around a soldering iron before facing what can be rather intimidating robotics and the like. I gave a talk at Berlin-Sides in 2010 about hackerspaces being extroverted, and how it was an absolute necessity. Not for every group, but for at least some. We can’t just serve the people who already know, and request, what they want. We can’t just create a new class of elite. We have to welcome, and actively invite, lurkers to become editors; and editors to become creators. (Or do we? I am sad to question this assumption)

So while this pyramid might hold true for online communities, what about communities which simply do most of their interactions online? Makerspaces have become A Thing. Tech conferences are blowing further and further past their capacities (On what feels beyond an expected progression. I would love actual numbers on this if anyone has them). What is causing this? People wanting to have an active role in their lives? Is consumption finally not enough? Or is it just the new shiny?

Insert plug for the totally rockin’ Brainmeats podcast on Co-Option of Subcultures here. (Download mp3)

Regardless of the reason for the shift, one of the strengths of these movements has been that we all KNOW each other. We’re engaging in things that, while sometimes not inherently dangerous themselves, bring upheaval and unrest. And now that things are gaining traction and the public eye, we’re gaining mass like some sort of burgeoning star. How do we encourage the engagement of more people while not diluting the vision of what we are? As Johannes said at HOPE, “isn’t being elite part of being a hacker”? So how do we balance that necessity and functional form of seclusion with a wider vision of the world? How do we infect memetics without turning into homeopathy? Meaning: how do we actually change larger culture as it gobbles us up, while holding onto our ethos? Becoming diluted will not increase our impact.

This was my third DEFCON. Saw old friends, actually went to a few talks, and got into bed before 3a both nights (no lie!). This year was massive – over 10 thousand people. And we talked a lot, in continuation of HOPE, about what to do when your community gets huge. We’ve been way past Dunbar’s number for awhile now, but still broke into manageable group sizes. But now… there’s a worry, just like at Congress… what is “too big”?

Something I’d like to see: specialized, smaller conferences happening in tandem across a city. See the tracks that interest you, speak to the people who share your background. But at night, visit the people you know well and share what you’ve learned. You likely already work closely with friends who share your interests. Now see what patterns exist across interests.
Another thing I’d like to draw on: there are now more medical journal articles coming out than anyone could ever read, for many individual fields, and still have time to work. So what’s started happening is there will be academics who just read a bunch of those papers and pull out the meta aspects of them. Then practicing folk read those meta articles.

A small group of friends and myself hope to try out these methods next year in July. I’ll post about it soonish.

One of my favorite things is to meet someone who is inspired, brilliant, driven.. and realize that we have no overlap. That we aren’t going to be working together. I love that because there are so many things that need to be worked on, and I am but one person. That someone I can grow to trust, and who I respect, is working on one of those myriad aspects gives me a bit more hope for the world. We can continue to break down silos through communication, sharing, and transparency. We can balance that with diving deep into our specialized areas.

When conversing about all this with a dear friend, this was their response:

Profitable problems will always explode with magic-seekers. Computer hacking is now a profitable problem, and participation is accordingly weird.

There will always be too many interesting problems in the world and never enough people connecting to solve those problems. Valuing hacks over hackers helps, as does creating opportunities to gain social status by teaching others. I’m not worried about losing a unified vision because I don’t think there should be one. As for maintaining a community, decentralized networks of curious and creative people scale well. – Kaleen

What does education mean to you?

As you all likely know, my intent is always towards education. I don’t mean traditional systems, though that works for some folk quite well (myself included). I mean the simple act of learning. The fulfillment and deepening of curiosity. It means an engagement with the world that can only be temporarily dimmed by complacency. It means the survival and prosperity of individuals, their community, and the superorganism we all compose together. But for me it’s one simple idea:

Education is the best possible fulcrum for social change.

Everyone interacts with it, even if it’s explicitly not to. Everyone agrees our current systems are broken. And through the examination of those systems, we come to understand our cultures, and how we are affected by and effecting those cultures.

I’ve gotten into 50-comment-deep threads on Google Reader before (sadface to my recently departed favorite social forum) about this sort of cultural awareness, so let me explain a bit more.
I can support whatever choices someone is making, even if I don’t fully get it or if it doesn’t seat well with my personal world view. I can only do this, though, if they have examined those choices in light of other cultural knowledge. I respect the Catholics of Seattle I’ve met because they have also understood science, Greek mythology, and what they personally get out of religion. They have educated themselves about many aspects of culture and decided what works best for them.

This is what got me into Transhumanism – that we are at a point in our evolution where through awareness, we can become self-determining. It’s why I have “we are the machine” as my first tattoo – our interactions with each other are what set us going in certain directions. That is ultimate compassion and ambition.

So. This brings us to the most recent Brainmeats podcast. It’s me and Lisha; James Carlson, my mentor and founder of Bucketworks; Beth Kolko, awesome education hacker at University of Washington; Pete Hall, another amazing education hacker, though in Auckland; Dale Dougherty of MAKE and various hands-on education initiatives; and Kushal Chakrabarti of education microloan foundation Vittana. I have the absurd pleasure of calling each of these folk “friend,” some even “dear friend” or “partner in crime.”

Kushal is doing a blogger challenge right now for Vittana. You should check that out, plus the student I just supported, and get in on one or both of these extensions of opportunity. Those of us who are privileged enough to be able to choose between if school works for us or not, and how we will pay for it if we do, have a responsibility to offer those same opportunities. How often can you say $25 changed someone’s life? I lose that in the dryer every month.

This blog post is part of the Vittana “Make a Difference” blogger challenge. The contest invites bloggers from around the world to discuss various ways to make a difference in the world, as well as share stories on who or what has made a difference in their lives.

The winning blog post will be the post that drives the most loans to students in need. Please support this cause (and this blog!) by making a loan in my name: “Willow Brugh.” Be sure to type that in when you reach the checkout page (example screenshot) The more loans you make the more educations get funded and the more recognition and traffic my site gets!

Please support this blog and contest by using this special link to tweet about it (You can edit the tweet before it’s posted, but make sure this link (http://bit.ly/s5beTT)and the hashtag #vittanachallenge is part of the tweet or Vittana won’t know you tweeted about me!)

Brainmeats : Occupy Everything

Brainmeats Episode 1 – Occupy Everything!

Download ogg format or mp3 format.

The inaugural episode of the BrainMeats podcast is devoted to the Occupy movement and what hackers and makers can do to support the protesters on the ground. Willow spoke over Skype to AriEllaMattRuben, and Smári about the history of OWS, the meaning of illegibility within the movement, software tools for protesters, and more. Absolute thanks also to Lisha who came up with the idea of these podcasts (and who will be joining in future episodes), and who also edited and is hosting the audio.

The episode is licensed Creative Commons: Attribution, Share Alike, Non Commercial

Smári writes more about the concept of illegibility within Occupy at http://www.smarimccarthy.com/2011/10/occupied-with-illegibility/

The RSA Animate videos mentioned in the podcast can be viewed here:
The Internet in Society: Empowering and Censoring Citizens
Language as a Window into Human Nature

Also mentioned:

A mobile tool for viewing what protesters and police are saying and where they are.
Briar is a secure news and discussion system designed to be used by journalists, activists and civil society groups in authoritarian countries.
The Guardian Project
Creators of Android apps and firmware MODs intended to protect communications and personal data from unjust intrusion and monitoring.
The Free Network Foundation
An organization committed to the tenets of free information, free culture, and free society. They use peer-to-peer technologies to create a global network intended to be immune to censorship and resistant to breakdown.
A donation-funded Tor exit node project
A (non-secure) tool for communicating micro-blog-style for a specific amount of time to people within a specific radius around your present location.
Fluid Nexus security issues