4-02 Writing Our Personal Experiences of Abuse


  • Where Does My Story Fit on the Spectrum of an Individual Account of Abuse to an Institutional Case Study?
  • Basics for Writing About Personal Experiences of Abuse
  • Advanced Tutorial for Writing Personal Accounts of Abuse and Developing Case Studies that Connect Personal Experiences with Systemic Patterns
  • Transitioning from Individual Narratives to Institutional Investigations: Thoughts on Similarities and Differences Found Across Various Forms of Abuse

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Where Does My Story Fit on the Spectrum of

an Individual Account of Abuse to an Institutional Case Study?

One factor that serves as a distinctive on this website is my emphasis on researching systemic abuse. That involves keeping the connection intact between individuals and institutions, and between diagnosing problems and developing solutions. In research on systemic abuse, the micro-focus can shift between the personal and organizational at times. However, the macro-focus remains: Investigating systemic abuse is ultimately for the purpose of removing malignant people from positions of influence and breaking up toxic organizational connections in order to bring greater health to individuals and a safer, more sustainable environment to institutions.

Wherever our personal story lands on the spectrum from a individual account of experiences of abuse to part of an institutional case study of systemic abuse, it contributes value to us (singular) personally and to us (plural) socially. When it comes to identifying and dealing with systemic abuse, accounts of our personal experiences can play many different roles. For instance:

  • Writing up our own story can prove a huge stepping stone in validating what we did indeed experience, even if no one seems to believe us. Externalizing it solidifies it.
  • It can lead us to deeper levels of recovery as we continue to reflect over time on the facts of what happened, how we felt and responded, how we choose to go forward.
  • One individual’s story going public can pave the way for others to take courage to share their own experiences, even if only with one other person.
  • The accounts of multiple people from the same organization can help the public see emerging destructive patterns of abuse that add up to diagnosing a case of toxic institution.
  • Destructive similarities that show up across multiple individuals and organizations can help us diagnose toxicity in an even larger system, such as an “industrial complex.”

While sharing our story can have purpose regardless of where it fits on that spectrum of impact, the preparation techniques can differ.

PERSONAL NARRATIVE. A personal story tends to focus on the details of what happened, the impact, and the responses by ourselves and others. Resources more geared to this type of personal accounts are on this page.

PART OF A CASE STUDY. A personal story that is more geared for use in a case study involves such details as those, plus typically also includes documentation that serves as supporting evidence. Documentation includes things like journals, emails, texts, receipts, and photos. Resources more geared to this type of personal account for case studies are on the page 6-02 Tutorial: How I Develop Case Studies on Institutions (link to be added).

I bring up these differences because survivors sometimes think that if they don’t have documents or other kinds of evidence, they’re not being believed, their account is being invalidated, their story doesn’t count. It may help to think about the personal narrative that we share being an eye-witness account to abuse. First-person, eye-witness observations ARE a form of evidence — regardless of any other documentation that may or may not otherwise be available.

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Basics for Writing About Personal Experiences of Abuse

Barbara Orlowski Survey – Background, Experiences, Recovery

Barbara Orlowski’s 26-question survey helps us begin thinking through the before, during, and after periods of spiritual abuse in church or ministry settings, plus recovery processes. This survey was the basis for her Doctor of Ministry research project, which focused on church and ministry leaders who had been victims of abuse of power by others in the church/ministry. Her questions  provides an essential framework on spiritual abuse, but we can adapt the set of questions for other kinds of abuse experienced.

I was part of her initial survey group. My response took me the equivalent of a full week’s work to compile, since I’d been in five major spiritually abusive situations covering almost 20 years out of 45 in theological conservative and evangelical churches. So, I needed to respond to the questions for each setting. But it was one of the most helpful exercises I did in thinking through those incidents systematically and constructively. I believe survivors, support advocates, and social activists would find it insightful to at least look at her questions to see the flow of how they work together. Barb crafted a well-constructed survey, and it can be immensely helpful in processing experiences of abuse.

Futuristguy How-To Articles on Writing About Our Experiences

Is It Time To Tell My Story? gives suggestions for spiritual abuse survivors on how, when, and why in sharing their accounts of abuse and recovery. This process can be adapted for other kinds of abuse experiences.

Many people are now writing or commenting on spiritual abuse survivor topics. Given the damage to our souls wrought by such so-called “discipleship,” it is no surprise that some of what we write demonstrates anger, sarcasm, innuendo, curses, and language that is harsh, vulgar, base. However, if this does perhaps help us in our venting about abuse and abusers, it can also prove “triggering” for others who read it – stirring up emotional responses that are draining to them, or otherwise destructive. So, in this post, I offer  practical advice on Writing Respectfully and Defusing “Triggers” that I’ve learned over the years in my research writing on abuse, violence, and social action.

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Advanced Tutorial for Writing Personal Accounts

of Abuse and Developing Case Studies that Connect

Personal Experiences with Systemic Patterns

For advanced suggestions on writing a personal story or developing a case study, see page 6-02 Tutorial: How I Develop Case Studies on Institutions (link to be added). This tutorial covers a series of critical thinking skills and tools for detailing events, discerning patterns, and interpreting the impact and meaning of what happened. It has the ultimate goal of moving ourselves and our organizations beyond our current paradigms and past factors that shaped them, and pursuing a future that is both possible and preferable.

The tutorial contains two lists of leads to case studies built upon the experiences of survivors plus investigations into institutions.

Community. Select abuse situations from the general community that have been turned into case studies. It includes examples from academia, athletics, media, and non-profit organizations.

Church. Select spiritual abuse investigation and archive sites. These represent a range of conservative/evangelical theologies, and many present the stories of individual survivors – especially from very specific church denominations or ministry organizations.

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Transitioning from Individual Narratives to Institutional

Investigations: Thoughts on Similarities and Differences

Found Across Various Forms of Abuse

Picking up on patterns of abusive strategies and tactics is a major part of what makes research into systemic abuse different from telling one’s personal story. This doesn’t mean patterns are absent from personal narratives about surviving abuse. We are very likely to find patterns in our own story when we get the details out, line them up in a way that makes sense, and start comparing events for similarities.

Patterns we find in that sort of analysis internal to just one story finds greater impact when we find similar patterns by drawing in other people’s accounts of what happened in the same organization or in similar situations. The patterns yield even greater “explanatory power” when we find them across multiple different organizations or situations. So, this isn’t to negate or invalidate the power of a personal story, it’s about how the power of demonstrating patterns can get amplified when we draw from a larger pool of stories and reach similar findings. It becomes much harder to deny those kinds of larger patterns — if one is open to reason. This ties in with the idea that there is a spectrum of ways people are inspired to change their mind about abuse, and so, a spectrum of types of narratives and analysis are needed to reach a broader range of people. And when individuals change — often through the power of story — that helps build momentum toward the threshold needed for a social transformation movement.

INDIVIDUAL NARRATIVES. I don’t fully know why, but it seems both long-time friends and even relatively new acquaintances sense they feel freedom to share their difficult personal stories with me, and they do. Periodically over my entire 45 years as an adult, I find myself welcomed to listen in as men and women tell me some of the deepest, most wounding experiences in their own life, their family, or an organization they’ve been associated with. Here are as many overriding topics I can think of that I’ve heard from them.

  • Victims of racial, religious, and cultural prejudices, including bullying by individuals and blocking by institutions.
  • Prisoner of war in Vietnam, refugees from the end of the war in Vietnam, and boat people escapees from Cambodia.
  • Survivors of child sexual abuse and incest.
  • Survivors of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse, including family violence, intimate partner/domestic violence, and sexual assault.
  • People who have lived in or worked in authoritarian countries.
  • Survivors of abuse from someone in a role of authority in a church, ministry, or other kind of religious institution.
  • Women who have had to decide whether to seek an abortion or refuse pressure to get an abortion; keep their newborn or give this child up for adoption — and how their decisions affected their life.
  • People dealing with various kinds of addictions, and family/friends who seek to be supportive.
  • People who have chronic illnesses and/or physical disabilities, and who may especially face prejudice if they don’t seem to “look sick.”
  • People who cope with life-dominating coping mechanisms or “mental illness,” or have loved ones who do.

The range of what they’ve shared has given me a broad base for exercising and expanding my empathy for the human condition — the traumas that befall us, how we cope with hope-altering circumstances, and our resilience as individuals and communities. Beyond just listening, I sometimes help people get their story to a wider audience, by coaching them in the writing process or editing their article or book. I’ve also written extensively about my own personal recollections and reflections on spiritual abuse. All of this together has expanded my base of data to discern potential patterns on the dynamics of abuse, survivor recovery, support advocacy, social activism, and organizational remediation (repairing the damage that’s been done, or dismantling the institution if it is too far gone).

INSTITUTIONAL CASE STUDIES. During the last decade, I expanded the scope of my writing to include case studies. These compilations of evidence and analysis are based in the personal experiences of myself or others, plus research into institutional factors and problem patterns. During that same time frame, I also expanded the scope of my professional editing work to include grants and articles on social entrepreneurship, medical research, public health topics. These are all important for their holistic, organic approaches to systems — namely, emphasizing the interconnections among the parts, whether it’s our physical body, or a social body, where change in one sector affects the whole. So, it seems that everything I’ve been doing continues to move my thinking toward ever-increasing complexity in analysis and interpreting of situations involving systems.

I wrote over a dozen case studies about abuse over the last 10 years. Some were more along the lines of investigative research, done entirely from online sources and no in-person interviews. From these, I typically produced at least one article or report about the situation. More often, it ended up as a series of articles, plus other “sidebar tools” for organizing key kinds of information. For example, sidebar items included: executive summaries, timelines, annotated bibliographies, charts, infographics, glossaries of technical terms, and reference lists such as all the key people involved or the relevant legal statutes.

The more complex the situation, the larger the information base, and the more complicated the analysis. Also, the more time it takes to filter through different angles to interpret the layers of material, produce a case study, and create sidebar tools for the report. It’s like doing an MRI to get both the contours of the body of information, and the interior structures. The three most involved toxic situations that I produced case studies on each required over 300 hours to research and write.

One of them was about a defamation lawsuit that turned into an Anti-SLAPP situation. This meant there were numerous tools involving such things as technical legal terms, chronologies, lists of defendants and plaintiffs and descriptions of how they were related to the court case.

Another was a mega-church with credible questions about the leadership’s transparency, governance, excessive financial benefits to themselves and their families, and misuse of funds solicited for restricted spending. This multi-campus church had an organizational system with at least eight different kinds of organizational components (non-profits, campuses, for-profit businesses and contractual agreements, etc.) totaling almost 20 separate elements — and that left off the head pastor’s personal organizational chart with 13 elements (LLCs, trusts, intellectual properties) that sometimes overlapped with the church’s.

Another was an “industrial complex” with a small core of key people whose involvement overlapped in multiple types of “platform promoting” for one another. This involved a set of activities and organizations that included: non-profit and ministry leadership, hiring one another for teaching positions and speaking events, setting up book publishing projects, organizing events that feature one another, giving public endorsements and product reviews for each other, etc.

Several other case studies took between 150 to 200 hours each, and the rest usually between 50 to 100 hours. That set of a dozen or so case studies involved sifting through a mountain of evidence, and investigation into any combination from all kinds of domains — theological, denominational, legal, moral/ethical, social, political, financial. This exposed me to many individual and institutional stories where I came to this one metaphor for the main pattern I saw, regardless of the kind of organization:

Abusers and enablers steal the stage of someone’s story, hijacking others into subordinate roles while they made it so everyone revolved around them as the main actor — and everyone else plays bit parts in the ensemble cast.

LARGER HISTORICAL SITUATIONS AND STUDIES. And then there are even larger, more complicated, historical situations where I’ve invested hundreds to thousands of hours over many years to study what happened. Typically, I’ve entered this research with very specific issues or questions in mind. For instance:

  • In an industrial complex that involves businesses, lobbyists, and politicians, how do we “follow the money” to find where unethical/illegal activities are transpiring?
  • Why aren’t all toxic situations the same, even if they all exert control over the people in them? What are the tell-tale profiles of tactics used for control by: compliance, chaos, charisma, and competition — what aspects tend to overlap and what are distinctive?
  • Are there differences between historical versus fictional types of dystopian societies?
  • What historical situation(s) give us the best base of information for thinking through the range of possibilities for resisting malignant leaders and their toxic systems — and how do we evaluate differences in degrees of responsibility/culpability/complicity for those who enable evil?
  • Why do many leaders of human rights movements seem to be people who come from science backgrounds, or other professions that require fact-based analysis?
  • How do social systems of subjugation work, where the personal identity of underclass members is negated, there is constant fear of harm, and terrorizing is a regular occurrence — and how can such societies be changed?

These long-term investigations cover historical situations across the globe, so that many different kinds of cultural frameworks are included: guilt-based/punishment, shame-based/dishonor, and fear-based/overpower. Studies I’ve done into the “anatomy of evil” include: Wall Street and the financial crisis of 2008, Stalinist Soviet Union, Maoist Cultural Revolution, Jim Jones/The Peoples Temple, Hitler’s upper echelon of leaders, numerous dystopian novels and movies, the Helsinki Watch, Black Americans under Jim Crow laws, the American civil rights and Black Power movements, and Apartheid and the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS FOR IDENTIFYING “HUMAN UNIVERSALS.” Comparing these global, historical studies with institutional systemic abuse situations and the range of personal stories of abuse I’ve heard all helped me see how similar control tactics are across the field, regardless of specific type of abuse and the kinds of cultures in which they occur. It likewise helped me see patterns of underlying similarity in people’s responses to trauma, recovery, advocacy, and activism.

Where can we find principles and practices can help us identify common ground in the midst of such potentially divisive differences in race, place, and cultural space? In my opinion, the answer is what are called human universals – issues of common design and development that transcend categories that often create conflict: gender, generation, country of origin, culture, and religion/faith/philosophy.

The study of human universals is a mostly neglected interdisciplinary perspective, centered in the field of anthropology, though it may be making a bit of a come-back in this era when social entrepreneurship and the pursuit of “good” is refocusing people worldwide on what we hold as commonalities instead of as differences. To get some background on this discipline, see the table of contents and reviews for Our Common Denominator: Revisiting Human Universals, by Christoph Antweiler (2016; Berghahn Books. Here’s the publisher’s description of this very current book:

Since the politicization of anthropology in the 1970s, most anthropologists have been reluctant to approach the topic of universals—that is, phenomena that occur regularly in all known human societies. In this volume, Christoph Antweiler reasserts the importance of these cross-cultural commonalities for anthropological research and for life and co-existence beyond the academy. The question presented here is how anthropology can help us approach humanity in its entirety, understanding the world less as a globe, with an emphasis on differences, but as a planet, from a vantage point open to commonalities.

A volume from 25 years earlier, considered a classic in this field, is Human Universals, by Donald E. Brown (1991; McGraw-Hill Humanities). Thankfully, it is available in a relatively inexpensive ebook edition (2017). Here is a summary of the book from a Temple University review page:

Challenging the assumption that human behavior is primarily determined by culture, Donald E. Brown contends that certain behavioral traits are common to human beings everywhere. In Human Universals, he addresses the problems posed for anthropology by the topic of universals, discusses studies that have caused anthropologists to rethink their position, and provides an ethnography of “The Universal People.”

Although human universals were of considerable interest to early anthropologists, a later emphasis on sociocultural determinants of behavior produced an ambivalence both toward universals and the concept of human nature. This ambivalence toward universals has persisted since the 1920s. However, six important case studies involving the classification of basic colors, facial expressions of emotion, sex roles, time, adolescent stress, and the Oedipus Complex have reopened this nearly taboo topic.

After he discusses the distinctions between the various kinds of universals, the history of attempts to study universals, and the means by which universality may be demonstrated and explained, Brown presents a list of approximately four hundred human universals in the form of an ethnography that describes any and all peoples known to anthropologists.

That overviews the theoretical academic roots to studying human universals. I believe we also find help from other paradigm systems in understanding the sources of our commonalities.

THEOLOGICAL, ETHICAL, AND PHILOSOPHICAL ROOTS. As a Christian, I believe these kinds of universal patterns that appear in many different cultures find theological, ethical, and philosophical explanations for sources in the nature of good and evil. In my personal belief system, universal features of potential good — righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy, shalom — flow from God creating humanity in his image. Evil inverses of them — perversion, partiality, manipulation, cruelty, violence — flow from brokenness inside us, corruption outside us, and sometimes even evil forces beyond us.

That last part about evil usually gets summarized as “the world system, the flesh, and the Devil.” And, in my belief system, evil systems are meant to be removed, their impact to be repaired/redeemed, and their personal source to be resisted. At least in my thinking, this is why investigating systemic abuse and addressing its corrosive influence is a crucial practice for pursuing the good, in order to leave to the next generation a world better than the one we arrived in. In this quest, God wants to take a personal role through showing us what the ultimate good looks like as embodied by Jesus Christ, and giving us the equipping and empowerment to live this out through the presence of the Holy Spirit in us.

As I’ve noted elsewhere in an article about my Field Guide series, “People in a robust system look for what brings us together – human universals, such as the desire for a better life – and then builds on that common ground for the common good. The person of peace embodies this outlook by respecting the dignity of all, hospitable, and advocating for justice and against tyranny.” (See the section on The Golden Rule, which represents one such universal, the essence of which is apparently found in almost every world religion and many major ethical systems/philosophies.)

For me, as a follower of Jesus Christ, this kind of Christlike character on the personal level looks like his kingdom being manifested on the social level. While it embodies the good, it is also far beyond just some utopian ideal; it can be lived out even in the midst of corrupted cultures and in the presence of people bent on inflicting evil, and make a constructive difference for all.

All of this informs my motivations for working in such a challenging area as researching systemic abuse, and in seeking to develop tools like the Pyramid of Abuse that help survivors, advocates, and activists analyze specific situations and move toward practical solutions. It’s been worth the investment …

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