How To Deal When Someone You Trusted Is Accused Of Sexual Misconduct

When Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb announced the firing of Matt Lauer on Today this morning, a result of a detailed complaint of sexual misconduct, they openly grappled with some of the complicated emotions that revelations like this can bring up. "I'm heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and partner," Guthrie said. "And I am heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story." They owned up to these conflicting feelings, then posed this burning question: "We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks — how do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?"
Guthrie put to words a feeling many have experienced in the weeks since the #MeToo movement took hold. Two weeks ago, Sarah Silverman wondered whether you could love someone who did bad things, after accusations against her friend Louis CK surfaced. When a radio host accused Al Franken of sexual misconduct in the past, supporters jumped into the Senator's corner.
While it's easy to paint a menacing character like Harvey Weinstein as a predator — someone who has dozens of sexual assault allegations against him and counting, as well as a reputation for gross abuses of power and threats against women who worked for and around him — things get tricky when the accused is someone you know, admire, and trust. Can you care about them and condemn them at the same time?
In the case of high-profile men who are nothing but media or government talking heads to the average person, we can reflexively write off the accused as flat-out evil — because we don't know them as human beings or have personal relationships with them. But if it were a friend or a colleague who stood accused, your history with them could color your view, especially if you never witnessed or experienced anything yourself that would point to abuse. "A lot of times when we talk about abusers and survivors, we look at the situation in black-and-white," says Brian Pacheco, the director of public relations for SafeHorizon. "But it's so much more complicated than that. And those complicated feelings are validated, because survivors themselves deal with them."
Indeed, even people who've experienced abuse can sometimes have trouble separating their feelings toward their abusers from what has happened. "I work a lot with survivors who are still trying to detach emotionally from the people who have abused them," says Rachel Youree, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in the treatment of sexual trauma. "A lot of the work is about separating the good from the bad, which is very hard, because we're so used to throwing the baby out with the bath water." In highly publicized cases, people will call for an abuser to be punished, fired, or generally ostracized. But it's not quite so simple for people close to an alleged abuser to figure out how to move forward.
"You can have disgust and revulsion, but you can also still have sympathy and admiration [for the abuser]," Youree says. "That's why people close to the abuser tend to be so devastated — because they know these different sides of the person."
And in some situations — like in the case of Franken — survivors themselves may not even want their abuser to face harsh penalties. "[Leean Tweeden] said it was important for her to speak up, but she wasn't looking for [Franken] to be punished," says Rachel Teicher, the director of intimate partner violence intervention for the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College. "She just wanted him to be accountable."

"You have to make room for having both stories in your mind. Otherwise, you'll go crazy."

Rachel Youree, LCSW
It's easy to see how someone who knew an abuser, but was completely separate from them in moments when they perpetrated abuse, would struggle to see things clearly, or feel urged to choose sides. "You have to make room for having both stories in your mind," Youree says. "Otherwise, you'll go crazy." There's also the added mental calculus of sussing out the severity of the crime, and using that to determine how "bad" we think it is. Surely no one imagined they'd be debating how subtle or overt a gender-based assault or abuse of power would have to be in order to warrant firing the accused. But here we are; these are debates we're having internally, among friends, even on dates.
"It's a 'both/and' situation, not an 'either/or,'" Teicher says. "It's not about choosing a side. A lot of times, people can feel for the man in these situations because they want them to get help," Teicher says. "By turning our backs on people who we have labeled as 'good,' because they are being accused of things, we're missing an opportunity to support them while they make a change." It's that desire to support a friend who stands accused that's likely what causes conflicting feelings. "Your affection for some people doesn't always just disappear," Youree says. If you care for someone, you may want to help them seek counseling, or simply hope they'll atone for their actions.
"It's important to let the abuser know that you may love them in other areas of your life, but this thing is wrong," Pacheco says. And it's important to recognize that yourself, too. "You don't have to love an entire person," Pacheco says. "And I was really impressed by the response by Savannah and Hoda, because it showed that duality. They knew Matt in another setting. They knew him as a good person, but they felt for the survivor."
Perhaps as a side effect of the #MeToo movement, we've learned that we can't always tell who a "good" person is, no matter how much we feel we may know them as friends or someone we admire from afar. There's a collective loss of trust going on, and we as a society are struggling to figure out how to deal with that.
"None of us are perfect human beings, and I am in no way defending anyone's actions," Teicher says. "Imperfect people sometimes do bad things. There's always going to be that around, and what we have to decide is whether or not a person's actions impacts my moral compass to the extent that I can't view them in the same way." And as Kotb said on Today this morning, that change isn't always immediate. "We're trying to process it and make sense of it," she said. "It will take time to do that."

More from Body

R29 Original Series