Accountability in Polyamory

The hardest thing I've ever written

This has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to write. I’ve scrapped it and rewritten it dozens of times, trying to find the right words to say. My head has been twisted into a funhouse mirror reality where I don’t trust my own memories and can’t even tell what happened and what didn’t.

About two and a half years ago, I left Vancouver, Canada and my relationship with Eve Rickert. By the time I left, I’d been verbally, emotionally, and physically abused for years. About a year and a half ago, I started seeing a therapist. I had near-constant nightmares—nightmares about being trapped in a room while someone shot at me through the windows, about being stabbed by a faceless person while the floor swallowed up my feet, preventing me from running away.

My friends and partners, all of them, became the ground beneath my feet. I am incredibly grateful for them. Even with their support, though, I eventually realized I needed help dealing with the aftermath of the relationship, so I reached out to a poly and kink friendly therapist in Portland. My therapist formally diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from years of verbal, emotional, and in the last half of our relationship, physical abuse from Eve.

Having a diagnosis felt...validating. Empowering, even, in a strange sort of way. Those simple words put a name to all the things I’d been feeling: the sleepless nights, the nightmares, the hypervigilance, the panic attacks, and always, always, the constant stress.

I’ve spoken to few people about the verbal and physical abuse in my relationship with Eve, even after the diagnosis. I absolutely did not—and do not—feel safe talking about what had happened to me in that relationship. Since I left her, my ex has been hard at work creating a narrative that is objectively, empirically not true, carefully tailored to the biases baked into the polyamory scene. (My therapist was up front about this in our very first sessions—she said point blank that the poly scene talks about egalitarianism, but it’s still a place where abuse is something that men do to women, and more specifically cis men do to cis women. “You could have video of your ex abusing you,” she told me, “and a lot of people in the poly scene still wouldn’t believe you”). I still don’t know who to trust.

In the past few months, I’ve made headway against the darkness. The people around me have noticed. My therapist has noticed. The old me, the happy me, is finally returning. The nightmares, the hypervigilance, the anxiety are fading. That’s given space to explore other issues with my therapist, and to start to unpack decades of toxic habits that have led me to harm my romantic partners.

Art and Reality

When Eve and I went on the road talking about our book More Than Two, we would often be introduced at book events as “polyamory experts.” Whenever that happened, Eve would explain that she sees herself not as an expert, but as an artist, someone who takes experiences and makes them relatable.

After I left, she turned that skill to creating a story about me. She used the experiences of other people, some of them former partners, as raw material, to construct a narrative where I had abused her, and other people in my life.

Some of the events in this narrative flat-out didn’t happen. Some of them kinda sorta happened, in a manner of speaking, if you squint your eyes hard enough. Most of the work I’ve done with my therapist has been focused on learning to trust my own reality. Many times, I’ve seen something she’s written and found myself doubting my own recollection. “Did that really happen?” “Did I really do that?” I downloaded my entire Facebook Messenger history, archived all my text messages, and kept all my emails, and I’ve looked back on them frequently to help ground me. I’ve been able to look at them and see no, my memory is just fine. If I didn’t have those records, I don’t know what I’d do.

I’ve tried to put into words how violated and disempowered I’ve felt standing accused of things I didn’t do in events that didn’t happen. That’s part of why I’ve said nothing these past two and a half years. When you’ve been told you’ve done something you haven’t done, and that story is accepted by people who don’t even know you, it’s hard not to get defensive. And in getting defensive, in trying to say, hey, wait a minute, that’s not what happened, I lost sight of something important: Being defensive about the things I didn’t do is less important than being accountable for all those things I did do, including the worst.

Even if the things I did do aren't what I’m being accused of.

The worst thing I’ve ever done

The fact is, I have done harm. I have done shitty things that have hurt other people. The worst thing I’ve ever done happened in September 2017, almost exactly three years ago.

I was in Vienna with Eve to speak about polyamory. We pretty much had our routine down by then; I think we could probably give our presentation in our sleep. We said all the things you’re supposed to say about consent and polyamory and abuse—things you’re supposed to say but that, when rubber meets road, few people are willing to do. Including us.

While we were at the conference, an ex-girlfriend of Eve’s published a survivor story about being abused by Eve on a poly blog. It wasn’t a call-out. She didn’t explicitly name Eve. She simply wanted to talk about her experiences.

As soon as we became aware of the survivor story, Eve and I reached out to Pepper Mint, another activist in the poly community. He was at the same convention, giving a workshop on how to handle reports of abuse in polyamorous communities.

After his workshop on believing survivors and responding to abuse reports, Eve and I and Pepper and Pepper’s partner whose name I don’t remember went out to lunch to talk about how to handle the survivor story. Eve’s first priority was to figure out a way to get the story off the Web. We threw around a lot of strategies for responding, like:

Asking the owner of the blog to take the survivor story down. Reaching out to other poly organizers to tell them to exclude Eve’s ex from their groups. Finding people—ex-lovers, former friends, people like that—willing to say bad things about Eve’s ex, in order to discredit her story. Massaging and reshaping events in Eve’s ex’s past to try to create a narrative that painted Eve’s ex as an abuser Reaching out to people who host online forums about polyamory to tell them not to carry anything written by Eve’s ex.

We thought if we could make Eve’s ex out to be the abuser, and get her survivor story off the web, we could make sure she didn’t have an audience for her survivor story.

I even reached out to Joreth, who knows the owner of the blog where the survivor statement appeared, to ask her to help have the survivor statement removed. Joreth had her own conflict with Eve’s ex, but when I asked her to help silence Eve’s ex, she refused. She knew this was wrong, even if I couldn’t admit it myself.

At the end of the meeting, Pepper volunteered to use his personal friendship with the owner of the blog where the survivor story appeared to have it taken down.

Afterward, we all went to an amusement park together.

Amusement Park, Vienna

The next day, Pepper told us the survivor story had been removed. Three weeks almost to the day after that, Eve signed a book publishing contract with the blog’s owner. (As an aside, I don’t blame the blog’s owner. His book is good and deserved to be published. I wasn’t involved in, and didn’t know anything about, the state of the negotiations while this was happening, but if the decision had been mine, I would have chosen to sign him in an instant. He was in an impossible situation. If you’re in negotiations to sign your first publishing contract and the person who will make the final decision about your future tells you to remove an abuse report about her, you do it. Nor am I saying it was a direct quid pro quo; only that if you're in negotiations with a publisher and the person you're negotiating with asks for something, you'll naturally tend to to take that request in the best possible light. She held all the power, including the power to shape his future.)

When we returned from Vienna, we went around to all the local poly groups to spread the word: don’t allow Eve’s ex-girlfriend to attend, don’t give her a platform. One of the local Vancouver poly organizers, who ironically has a long history of saying “listen to women,” helped us coordinate with other poly groups to deplatform Eve’s ex-girlfriend.

That was an incredibly shitty thing to do. I participated fully in doing it, and I am deeply, profoundly ashamed of myself for doing it. I can offer no rationalization and no justification.

I can tell you why I did it. Well, some of why I did it, anyway. I’m still working with my therapist to unpack all the tangled threads that led me there.

I did it because I allowed myself to be sucked into Stephen Karpman’s “Drama Triangle.”

The Drama Triangle

When Eve claimed the Victim spot, there were only two places left to go. If I wasn’t a rescuer, I was a persecutor, and I didn’t want that.

I did it because it felt good. It feels good to be the rescuer. It feels good to ride in on the white horse, showing up to defend the victim and strike down the abuser. It feels good to Take A Stand. It feels good to be seen as the hero, standing up for all that is right and noble.

And it didn’t cost me anything to do it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Whenever you do something that makes you feel righteous, like you're rising up to strike a blow against the forces of evil and showing what a good person you are, but doing that thing is completely comfortable and it costs you nothing...maybe it isn’t as virtuous as you think it is.

And I did it because we’re told to believe survivors, but we aren’t told how to respond if a loved one is accused of abuse. Short of getting out the torches and pitchforks at every report, regardless of whether the reports even make sense, we aren’t provided with any kind of model for what to do when someone we love has been the subject of a survivor’s story. I think on some level I might have thought I had no choice but to disregard Eve’s ex-girlfriend’s survivor story, because the only other option, if I accepted it, would be to end my relationship with Eve immediately. That’s the position we put people in—the moment any accusation is made, the partners of the accused must either leave or be labeled “enablers.”

There was also the door in the living room.

The door you never open

Imagine you live in a house. And in that house, you have a living room, and in that living room, there’s a door. It’s a door that’s always kept shut. Maybe there’s a sofa in front of it. You never go through that door. You never open that door. You don’t know what’s on the other side of that door, even though you live there.

You never even acknowledge the door. You treat it like a blank wall. If anyone asks about the door, you say “Door? What door?”

You know that even mentioning the door will lead to disaster.

When I helped Eve bury her ex-girlfriend’s survivor story and deplatform her ex, that door was an idea in the living room of our relationship:

Why would your ex write an anonymous survivor story about being abused by you if she wasn’t abused by you?

We never talked about it. We never considered it. We never even acknowledged the question might be there.

I’ve had people in my accountability pod reach out to Eve’s ex to offer her my apology for the incredibly shitty way I treated her. As you might imagine, it wasn’t exactly warmly received. And honestly, I don’t blame her. If our positions were switched, I’d probably tell myself to fuck right off.

I don’t expect her ever to forgive me, and I certainly never expect her to trust me again. I don’t owe her an apology because it will make things right, I owe her an apology because if I am ever to be the person I want to be, I need to be responsible for the harm I’ve caused other people.

The door in my own living room

You are personally responsible for being more ethical than the society you grew up in

As I’ve worked to untangle what’s happened, I’ve come to realize there’s a door like that in my own living room.

That door is this: Why do I have former partners who are accusing me of mistreating them?

The specific accusations themselves aren’t true. For example, my ex “Amber” tells a story about how I “got her” to participate in BDSM when she was young and naive. This flat-out didn’t happen; on our second date, she showed me the collection of BDSM gear she’d bought with her husband, before I even met her, and asked me to use it with her.

But that isn’t important. What’s important is the emotional reality: she feels I dragged her into something she wasn’t prepared for, and that hurt her. Eve may be a gifted artist, skilled at weaving narratives from other people’s pain, but if there was no pain to begin with, there’d be nothing to weave.

If I am going to be the person I want to be, I need to listen to the things the people around me say—not for the empirical details, but for the emotional realities they tell.

I still have a long way to go. I still have a lot of unpacking to do, to help me become a better partner. I am grateful that I’ve found a fantastic therapist and that I have the support of friends and lovers who are close to me, who are all helping me to be better today than I was yesterday and better tomorrow than I was today.

I still have a lot of work to do to find my voice as well. My relationship with Eve was extremely toxic, marked by physical violence and verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. I have tried many times to write about it: about the sick dread I felt when she would smash my stuff when she got angry; about the long nights where she would keep me awake yelling at me and hitting the wall next to me, then tell me I was shutting her off; about the bullying, the control that extended even to being told what clothes I could drafts folder is filled with attempts to talk about all of this. I’m shaking, right now, even writing this much about it. I am still not ready to do that.

But I am ready to start unpacking the things I’ve done wrong that have caused harm to people I love.