The first time I was the target of a smear campaign, it was one hell of a painful learning experience. My partner (at the time) and I were questioning the bigotry in the local Animal Rights activism scene. There was blatant racism, sexism, classism, and more — worst of all, it was coming from leaders of major organizations, who had far-reaching influence on how people perceived veganism. So we did what we thought was the right thing to do: we called out the unacceptable behavior, thinking people simply needed their bigotry pointed out to them — we gave them the benefit of the doubt that they were oblivious, not bigots. Then people started acting funny around us. Conversations got awkward. People avoided us. We didn’t know why, until one lady sheepishly came forward and informed us that a prominent local leader was writing vicious emails about us, accusing us of trying to “divide” the animal rights movement with our “distracting” social justice concerns. She showed us the emails, which had been seen by potentially thousands of people (he was using his position as a board member of a local AR group to access their email subscription list). He called us names and even blatantly lied about certain incidents that never happened. Now it was clear. People were falling for his lies about us, and choosing his side, without bothering to ask for our side of things or even call this leader out on his inappropriate, antagonistic behavior.
We didn’t know what to do. This man had been our friend, or so we thought. He’d never made his concerns known to us. We never had the chance to talk and smooth things over. This all seemed terribly unfair. How could so many people not realize that we had good intentions, while he was actually the one who was trying to divide the movement by forcing them to take sides?
Hurt, confused, and desperate to clear our names, we (rather frantically, and with justifiable anger) posted the emails online in an attempt to hold him accountable, gave our side of things, and waited. Naively, we expected our “friends” to see the truth and stand up for us.
Quite the opposite happened.
It was ugly. SO ugly. We were accused of being antagonistic, aggressive and petty, among other things. They excused the leader’s behavior and framed us as though we had started the problem by calling him out. Standing up for ourselves made us the abusers, apparently. It was absolutely crazy-making. We ended up having to abandon every local animal rights group entirely — by the end of this fiasco, there was no longer a single group whose events and demos we felt safe to attend. All of our so-called friends had fallen for this leader’s fabricated version of reality.
That was only the first of many similar incidents. It’s starting to feel like a curse at this point. I can’t seem to escape the interest of power-seeking personalities who abuse their positions of authority in order to turn masses of people against me. I have been smeared by many narcissists, and also by members of many of my former groups and subcultures — Pentecostals, vegans, libfems, radfems, etc. It always seems to go like this:
I make a friend. We see eye-to-eye on most things and get along great. Then one day, there’s a single disagreement. Just ONE. That’s all it takes. Then suddenly, they’re running around smearing my reputation at every opportunity that presents itself, getting the first word in before anyone can hear my side of things, twisting the true events in a way that makes them look great and makes me look awful, taking quotes out of context and pointing out my history of abuse as a means of questioning my sanity and trustworthiness. They are relentless, obsessive and just plain mean. And they don’t just smear me in a gossipy way. No, they play dirty. So fucking dirty. They do really reallyyyy underhanded shit… like what happened this past week:
I was the subject of a blog post wherein many accusations were made about me. The writer, a former Facebook acquaintance, got pissed off at me for disagreeing with her and her friend during a Facebook debate — that was literally it. So she wrote a blog wherein she diagnosed me with a Cluster B personality disorder and accused me of lying about my childhood abuse. That wouldn’t have stung me so much, if the writer of this blog hadn’t crossed the line the way she did. She not only wrote this mean-spirited blog, but she also posted it in the cult-critical Facebook group that I met her in, knowing that this group is one of the few safe spaces I have available to me as a cult survivor. By the time I saw it, there were plenty of comments supporting her fabricated version of things. I later found out that she’s not only an administrator of this group, but that she mislead other administrators about the nature of the blog in order to get permission to post it (because personal attacks are against the group’s rules). Everything about her actions was premeditated, vengeful, calculated and malicious, and she was clearly using her authority in the group to get away with this smear campaign.
Time and experience has taught me not to react emotionally or hastily when someone targets me this way. So I took a few deep breaths. Waited a few hours. And then I made a calm, level-headed post in the group, pointing out that a personal attack had been made against me, which was clearly against the group rules. Instead of complaining, getting defensive, or trying to get people to see things my way, I simply asked the group admins how they planned to address this breach of the rules.
Thankfully the group admins were very receptive when I told them my side of things, and they apologized sincerely for their oversight. The vicious post was removed, and the writer reprimanded for her abuse of authority as an administrator. The situation was handled very well, compared to how it usually goes. I think my calmness had something to do with why I was believed this time.
Every time this kind of smear campaign happens, my instinct is to fight like hell. I want to get emotional. I want to shout from rooftops: “NO, that is NOT what happened! They’re LITERALLY MAKING SHIT UP! I’m not the abusive one, it’s THEM! I’m not the one playing dirty! I’m not the one forcing people to pick sides! I’m not the one trying to ruin their reputation! THEY’RE the one using narcissistic tactics to get power!!! How are people not seeing this?!?!”
But if you say these things out loud, you look like the manipulator. If you react with a justified degree of anger, you look like the aggressor. Just as they set you up to look. People tend to bend to the louder, stronger personality — the one who Controls The Narrative and triangulates groups with force, swiftness and cunning.
I’ve learned the hard way to keep my mouth shut and stay calm when this happens. Let them say what they want about me. It sucks — I mean, it really fucking sucks. Nobody likes being insulted, especially in front of an audience, and on the Internet where everything lasts forever. And it’s absolutely maddening to be put in a position where standing up for yourself “confirms” everything they claimed about you. But the right people — the justice-minded people, the mature people — will always come to you to ask for your side of things. Those gossip-loving drama vultures who take sides with the Smear Campaigners, on the other hand? They’re probably not the kind of people you want in your life anyway. So why bother trying to convince them of your truth, if they’re so quick to turn their back on you when you need them?
Before I continue: Here’s a post I keep coming back to in times like these. It’s so validating.
“When healthy people feel upset about something, they may get angry. But toxic people don’t just get mad – they seethe – and wage a devious smear campaign. One of the clearest indicators you’ve got a mentally unstable person on your hands is smear campaigning. Smear campaigners carefully and strategically use lies, exaggerations, suspicions and false accusations to try destroying your credibility. They hide behind a cloak of upstanding heroism and feigned innocence in an attempt to make as many people as possible think their efforts are based not on their vindictiveness, but on upstanding concern….
Lies will be sprinkled in to try making their audience fear, prejudge and rebuke you for the supposed evil you’ve perpetrated against this innocent lamb (or a vulnerable, well-respected person). You didn’t ask for your boundaries to be respected — you are a vicious animal who attacked them, and you’ve supposedly attacked others, so everyone needs to “be careful” of you if they want to be “safe”. Everyone should stand up on behalf of this good person by shutting you out and standing up against your “abuse”….
Popular lies of the smear campaigner include statements and insinuations that you are mentally ill, incompetent, untrustworthy or unreasonable. The smear campaigner does this so that if your legitimate upset shows, the observer will attribute it to irrationality, ill intent or instability, and not to your normal upset at having been badly mistreated.”
Now what’s this about wolves?
Well, the funny thing is, in the blog post I vaguely alluded to above, the writer called me a “wolf in sheep’s clothing. ” I know what that phrase is supposed to mean —- a predator pretending to be innocent and trustworthy (ironic, considering that’s exactly what she’s doing), but I laughed at it. Because coincidentally, I do consider myself a wolf in situations like these — just not in the way wolves are generally perceived. Wolves are demonized as barbaric, monstrous terror-machines. They’re the Big Bad in many classic fairy tales. But I see them differently.
And I think my perspective on wolves might be useful to those of you who also repeatedly find yourself targeted by narcissist-style smear campaigns — as cult survivors, most of us are far too familiar with the horror of a scorned narcissist coming after us when we challenge them, and the pain of having entire groups turn against us in the blink of an eye.
So here. I’m turning this headache into a teaching moment, instead of letting myself feel victimized.
I had an emotionally abusive roommate when I first moved to Queens 3 years ago. When we moved in, we were very close friends — but that quickly changed. She would take constant digs at my self-esteem at the most unexpected and opportune times. We’d be having a normal conversation, whether one-on-one or in a group, and she’d randomly hurl an insult at me, then go on with the conversation while I froze, red in the face, too bewildered to respond. Other times, though, she’d be so sweet and likeable. I couldn’t make sense of her hot-and-cold nature, so I assumed the problem was with me. Over time, I noticed that there actually was a predictability to her behavior — she was only verbally abusive when I was doing well and she wasn’t. If a date cancelled plans with her, she’d disparage my boyfriend later that day. If she was late to pay the rent because of financial struggles, she’d make a comment about how immature she thought I was.
Little jabs. A jab here. A jab there. Subtle, quick, and persistent. It was a clear case of someone feeling insecure and needing to cut someone else down to feel better about themselves. She was a classic bully.
I had zero self-esteem at the time, and my anxiety was off the charts because of the recent death of my best friend. So I couldn’t muster the courage to stand up to her. Instead, I’d hide in my room and avoid her as much as possible. She was aware that her actions had this effect on me, and took advantage of my submissiveness to her by using and stealing my things. When I did attempt to stick up for myself, my attempts were laughable. I’d always end up stammering and apologizing, because she was intimidating.
Over time, I got sick of being pushed around this way. But I knew I wasn’t ready to stand up to her yet. If I was going to confront her, I needed to be certain that I wouldn’t hesitate, stutter, back down or get scared. So for a long time, I waited, and pondered how to proceed. All the while, she continued to make her hurtful little remarks. Little jab, little jab, little jab.
It was around this time that I saw this video:
In the comments, somebody explained:
“This coyote was not playing or being “bold.” This is how they hunt prey that is larger than them. The coyote knows full well that there is no chance of it taking something down as large as a human. Notice how it comes in for a bite and then instantly jumps back many times.”
The coyote knows he is small and weaker than his target. He is insecure. That’s why he takes little jabs. To weaken and confuse his prey with persistent, quick and small movements. Like my roommate.
Which made me wonder: If this is how an insecure predator like a coyote tries to take down a target, how does an apex predator like a wolf handle the same situation? (Interesting to note: “coyotes are only apex predators when larger predators such as the gray wolf … are absent.” – Wikipedia)
There’s lots of info out there about how wolves hunt, but I’ll summarize what’s relevant to the point I’m making: Wolves spend a lot of time thinking before they go after their target. They strategize. They adapt their plans based on the weather, their surroundings, and other factors. They use discernment to determine the best plan of action before they act — so when they finally make their move, they are more likely to be successful. They don’t engage in the insecure, frantic dance of the coyote. No. Wolves are patient, because they know their strength and skill, and they trust themselves to carry through.
After learning all this, I decided that if my roommate was going to behave like a coyote, I was going to behave like a wolf.
Long story short, it worked.
I waited until the time was right. Until I felt confident and sure of myself. Then, about a year into living with her, I finally confronted her. Everything I’d ever wanted to say to her, came out. LOUDLY. I did not falter, or back down, or shrink myself for her. Not anymore. I was done with being her target. I made her take responsibility for every hurtful and awful thing she’d ever said to me, and I made her own up to stealing my food and using my property without permission.
She was absolutely and utterly blindsided — so much so, that the next day she sat me and our other roommate down, and announced that she’d be moving out. She also (of her own accord) admitted to everything she’d ever stolen, and volunteered to pay us back for all of it.
Just like that. All it took was one strategic move on my part, and the mistreatment stopped dead in its tracks — with recompense to boot.
I see these Smear Campaigners the way I see my former roommate. They feel small and insecure, so they compensate with persistent aggression — taking small, quick jabs, tiny bites, leaving tiny subtle injuries, constantly, for long stretches of time. Their objective is to use a sort of obsessive persistence to exhaust and weaken a target who they know is bigger and stronger than them.
My solution is to also acknowledge that I am bigger and stronger than them.
It’s tempting to join in their frantic dance, to defend myself from every accusation, to rebut them point-by-point and salvage my reputation from the scrutinizing eyes of their duped audience. But to sink to their level would be to cheat myself out of my own power. Their insecure actions betray their own self-perception. Why match their actions and disempower myself in doing so?
As much as these situations hurt, ultimately I know that have nothing to fear when Smear Campaigners come after me, with their attempts to weaken and confuse me. I trust my instincts to restore peace and order to my life when these trickster coyotes attempt to throw everything into disarray, and I refuse to engage in their frantic little routine.
I promise myself to be calm, patient and quiet, and to only take action when the time is right.