Keep up with all the chapters at the book page of Facing Hate: Overcoming Social Smearing, Recovering Relationships, and Rebuilding Your Reputation.
I’ve thought many times recently about my own adolescent hatred toward my father. “I hate you, Dad!” was my none-too-subtle truth, shouted to his face in my time of immaturity. I knew he loved me, but I routinely returned his love with hatred. I walled him off, pushing him from my life. I rejected any attempt he made to connect or reconnect. Today teens flip on their cell phone and text their friends. In the 1980s we ran to the second telephone in the house. At risk of being heard through the walls or my dad picking up the main line, I would call my friend across my little town and complain of the injustices I suffered in my home. He’d do the same, and our social network of two would have it out.
The phone on the wall. This simple networking limitation calmed countless family turmoils, no doubt. To my dad’s credit, he and I would often follow up with a less tense conversation, as I hope happens in most families. Fights flare up and are then doused between siblings and spouses in just the same way. I can’t say that the phone line to my friend helped any, other than perhaps allowing both of us the time to process the fights we were having with our parents. My dad didn’t forbid me to call my friend. In retrospect, I realize that he let the “I hate you” moment hang in the air, allowed me the time to vent in the other room, and he probably spent time venting himself. We were free to let time and further conversation heal our wounds.
Today the phone no longer sits locked to a wall. It lives, everpresent, in our pocket. Not one line to one friend, but the internet to the world. We have social media, blogs and even the mainstream media hungry for a juicy story to share with everyone. How could my dad and I ever have come back to a wholesome conversation if my social network extended beyond the phone on my wall, to a world of haters who would have banded with me to support and solidify my hatred toward my dad at that moment?
Social smearing is a Pandora’s box of our modern times. I’ll bet you could share some stories, couldn’t you? Bitter spouses now use social smearing as their weapon of choice before divorcing. A surefire way to stay separated from a sibling is to post defaming truths online. Schools typically have shared Facebook groups that are supposed to be a community of parents, but they’re often hijacked by those who use it to criticize every move made by the school board or any teacher or administrator. Coworkers, neighbors, churches — a smartphone and social media can ruin a reputation, a relationship or a livelihood in one viral post. Your story may have unique aspects to it, but social smearing is a most common dilemma of the modern world.
Escape is a natural reaction to a social smear. “Get me outta here!” follows a swarm of haters coming at you to shame you. We did this in the first six months of our day-by-day smearing. We traveled to Oklahoma, Minnesota and even Australia. But these trips weren’t merely about hiding from our problems. All three helped solve familial issues that we were having extreme trouble sorting out. Sorting out truth from fiction. And learning how to “lean in” to the hate. Turns out the mountain-like problems that seemed impossible to move did have embedded answers that helped us plot a plan of eventual escape.
Before our social smear went viral, Wendy and I had scheduled speaking engagements at four conferences in America and one in Canada. All five terminated in uncomfortable conversations with the hosts asking to drop us from their program. We were so emotionally exhausted, we meekly accepted being let go from their schedules.
But we still traveled. First, off to Oklahoma we went. I had a deal with another publisher that was interested in acquiring my smaller publishing company at the time. I had already planned a trip to visit them and take care of business. Wendy was home with the kids, afraid that any day a social worker or police officer would visit. As I already explained, that day never came, but my beloved wife’s fear of facing it without me brought tremendous anxiety. So we loaded the kids in the van and took off to Oklahoma together.
This telling centers on the social smearing of my family, of course, but something should be noted about friendships. My family was walking through a devastating trauma of horrendous magnitude, and I do not believe many other families could have withstood it. I’m not saying we’re special in some mystically supersonic way, but we do have an unusually enormous number of friends and caring families who surround us. This short sojourn was a business trip, but it afforded us time to visit friends whose children grew up with mine, a family that had just recently moved to Oklahoma. I cannot tell you how therapeutic it is to stay up late with dear friends and talk through the pains of family drama.
That’s not to say all of our friends knew what to say. We had close friends who attempted to sympathize, but didn’t have it within their social abilities to help. I remember one friend asking what I did wrong to get my daughters to slander us so much. “You must have done something!” he insisted. Another kept reminding me that I had “plenty of other blessings” around the house, meaning my other children. This comment was intended to comfort me, but it tore at my bleeding heart. A third insisted that I should just call up my daughters and express my love for them, then everything would be okay. As if I hadn’t already tried.
My business partner had to eventually pull out of the publishing acquisition, but that decision didn’t reflect his genuine understanding of what my family and I were going through. He related, having a daughter who likewise had done some social smearing of her own. She and her stepmom — my friend’s wife — do not get along. And the daughter doesn’t keep her opinion to herself, to say the least. She would gossip about her stepmom, ridicule her in front of other relatives, and attempt to shame her through their social media channels. It was hardly to the magnitude of my social smearing, but my friend was still able to sincerely empathize with my trials. I very much appreciated his friendship.
Parents who have lost their children to death will often tell of the need to leave the premises, sometimes selling their home and moving out of town. I get it. Everything around the house reminded us of our older children. It wasn’t just the house; it was our small town, too. Wendy and I even felt embarrassed to make simple errands, fearing someone would see us, knowing that we were accused abusers. Our white van proudly displayed 18 stick figure silhouettes, and we now wanted to scrape them from our window. Going to the grocery store took emotional focus, so you can see why taking off to Oklahoma was a nice escape.
The trip helped, but it didn’t solve everything. My daughters continued to rage against Wendy and me, also turning on their siblings and extended relatives. Those siblings and relatives would try to reach out to them, but they would return their love with biting hatred, sometimes making them the subjects of their blogging fabrications. They had blocked my emails and phone calls, so I was tempted to engage them online. I didn’t. I had learned that I couldn’t. And slowly our network of friends and family began abandoning them. (My daughters replaced them with people who knew little of our family or had never met us personally.) We don’t know for sure, but I suspect most people — even some of our friends — initially believed the accusation of abuse, but eventually subsided when there was no other testimony other than that of this small band of sisters. A whistleblower typically empowers others to come forward, but no one did. You’d think that a “mastermind abuser” like me would have a history of abuse witnessed by relatives, friends and neighbors throughout the years. Yet no one — not one person — validated any of my daughters’ claims.
If you think this made me feel any better, think again. I was suffering such severe depression by this point that I was physically immobile at times. I’d never felt this down-and-out before, my knees aching when I managed to get out of bed in the morning, hesitating to carry out the simplest of tasks. Wendy pulled most of the weight around the home, and our children pitched in, seeming to be much more resilient than me. They seemed to somehow be acclimated to resisting the online smear. I would peek and read the latest post or jump on Facebook hoping to see a friendly comment, only to be utterly let down and depressed. It was an ugly cycle that I found very difficult to break.
Our second trip was at the end of November. The prospect of a CPS visit was becoming more and more distant, but the house still haunted us. So we loaded up the 15-passenger van again and took off to Minnesota for Thanksgiving. My parents own a home that they built over a decade before, largely with my family in mind. The upstairs was where they lived, but the basement — fully furnished with bathroom, two bedrooms and a living room — was perfect for our large family to sprawl out. Cousins would join my children downstairs, while my sisters and Wendy’s, too, would visit upstairs. It made for a wonderful vacation.
Extended relatives handled our situation differently. I got tremendous support from my oldest sister, a school counselor with a masters in psychology. The parent of one child, she had always found my family rather fascinating, and she loved to psychoanalyze our family drama, spending hours talking through the dynamics of our large family. My youngest sister at first seemed to sympathize with my daughters, but she eventually dropped her support. I most feared I was going to lose my third sister over all of this. She was the same sister who introduced me to Wendy, but we had had a shaky relationship ever since my marriage. She and I seldom agreed on anything, and I knew her to be quick to judge any situation that I was in. I assumed she would not be supportive of me, perhaps even encouraging the online attacks against my family.
I slowly learned from her to not make assumptions on who knows what, how much they may judge my situation, or that they wouldn’t be able to identify with my pain. This is an important perspective to have when facing hate. You don’t know what you don’t know — or, rather, what other people know or don’t know — and you need to develop an attitude of “ignorance” as you face new and old acquaintances in day-to-day life. I wish I would have figured this out sooner in processing my social smear. It has robbed me of much joy as I assumed others’ judgment of me and my situation. The fact was, I didn’t know. Sometimes I would be surprised at how understanding, sympathetic and caring other people were to my unique situation.
Such was the case with my sister, who, I learned, had experienced a social smear of her own. Years earlier, she had divorced and remarried a man with grown children. One of his adult children smeared my sister to the rest of her family, making her out to be the “wicked stepmother” of their blended family. This was an unfair humiliation of my sister, but one that gave her a fair amount of empathy toward my situation. I had anticipated her blaming my large family, my Christian faith, or even my wife for my daughters’ rebellion. She didn’t, staunchly expressing her understanding and support. She reminded me that she had grown up with me and knew I was not the abuser my daughters claimed me to be. She was a strong encouragement to me in the first months following our smear.
Do you see a thread woven through my trips? It was becoming clear that many of our friends and family identified with the trial we were going through, much more than I would have guessed. Those of us who face online ridicule and shaming seem to believe we are alone in our problems. We aren’t as alone as we think. Even back then there were others already dealing with online smearing.
We usually visit just family in our trips to Minnesota, but this time an old friend made a concerted effort to connect with me during our stay, bringing her children and husband on a two-hour drive to eat leftover turkey with us on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. Normally, reconnecting with such an old friend would have been joyous, but my worry over whether she knew that I was accused of abuse haunted me. She was, after all, a social worker and former Child Protective Services agent, and though we had been friends since high school, I was afraid our friendship would be compromised if she knew. I must admit that I stewed over this dilemma long enough to let paranoia set in.
It turned out that she knew everything, and had been reading the online accusations. After dinner I asked her straight up, “Do you know what I’m going through right now?” “Of course,” she said. It was all over social media. In fact, she had been approached by friends not as close to me as she was, inquiring about it all. This is what caused her to contact me and want to get together with my family during our visit to Minnesota. Perhaps it was her own little private investigation, but it turned out to be a tremendous encouragement. As a former CPS agent she had dealt with the worst of the worst of families, severe abuse victims of unimaginable proportions. “Chris, you and Wendy are not abusers,” she affirmed, “and any CPS worker with half a brain would see right through this.”
It also became clear that my friend was quite familiar with stories like mine. As social media become more and more of a central force in family dynamics, stories like mine — and my Oklahoma friends’, my business partner’s and my sister’s — were no longer as uncommon as I had thought. “Adult children grow up and lash out at their parents, always have. Today they use social media to do their damage,” my friend told me. “Most real abuse victims are embarrassed by the abuse, or they are at least smart enough to know that going public on social media will do nothing to help their situation.” Good point, I thought. She then closed the case: “You and Wendy are obviously not abusers, Chris. Sitting here in your parents’ home, my kids playing with your kids, and seeing the love abound in you and your family is something the families I see can only dream of. We social workers are much too busy helping genuinely abusive families.”
What an affirming visit this was. Connecting with my sisters and my old friend went a long way toward soothing my aching soul, pummeled as it was from the social smearing that I was experiencing. And I fervently hope it encourages you to also connect with your loved ones whenever you find yourself being raked over online coals. Don’t assume everyone is against you, because chances are that they are, actually, for you. Perhaps, like me, you will find some of the most empathetic people to be those you mistakenly judged to be your adversaries. It is very sweet to find close friends and family on your side.
I was accused of felony-level abuse, which was untrue. Stunned and shocked, I was not flatly denying it at the time, but I do so today with confident affirmation. What about social smearing that is true, though? What about claims that aren’t felony-level? What if, let’s say, my daughters had chosen to blog about how I have lost my temper at times, raised my voice at the dinner table, or some other irritating-yet-legal behavior? In fact, my daughters did start blogging about such things as spankings, as well as vague accusations of “spiritual” and “emotional” abuse. Their online narrative moved away from allegations of illegal beatings to the more mundane private family interactions and altercations that are routine and obviously legal, yet still embarrassing when bantered about in public.
In the social media world, such smears are much more common. Not many of us are accused of patently illegal behavior, but you may have been smeared for past moral failures. Someone somewhere witnessed you acting out, getting drunk, being ornery, untempered, angry, whatever. All of us fail morally in some capacity, and if those around us who were offended or hurt from the situation chose ill will as their response, they can do great damage to you by going on an online rampage. I sometimes think my daughters would have done greater damage to me and my reputation if they blogged about how much of a jerk I can be sometimes. Because the truth is, I can be a jerk! I wouldn’t have been able to defend myself.
Shame on those who turn to online smearing to dig into others’ weaknesses and shortcomings! Even true whistleblowers suffering from illegal abuse or corruption should studiously avoid the online arena when airing their cases, but at least one can understand why they might be tempted to take that route. There is no excuse for disgruntled people digging into others for all-too-human failures. This is a common tide now that is swelling to tsunami proportions, and for the sake of our civilization we need to reverse it. I’ll get into how to do this later in the book, but I want to tell you how my story surfaced a solution for those of us accused of secret sins:
Granted, it is unfair that you are being smeared online for your past behavior, but still lean in and receive the “shaming” as diplomatically as you can. This takes delicate maneuvering if you’re being attacked by a loved one, but it’s the best way to address any embarrassing-but-true smear. This is different than slander, which are falsities and fabrications being told about you with the purpose to do harm. I’m talking here of gossip, still used to do you harm, but stemming from truths about you. I encourage you to lean in on the truth of the matter by accepting the critique and humbly seeking the truth in it as you learn from it. Your adversary is publicly exposing a weakness in you, and that’s painfully wrong. But when you lean in, rejecting the method of smearing while owning up to what you did, you end up overcoming the intent of the hatred. Such a maneuver will at the very least make you a better person. At most, it will also win back the heart of your accuser.
This has been a significant discussion in my family, and our visit to Minnesota unearthed a lot of reflection on how we were raised, how we previously raised our older children, and how we were currently raising the brood still in our home. Both Wendy and I were children of the 1970s and ‘80s, and the dispensement of parental discipline was handled much differently in our homes than it generally is now. As adults, my dad and I have had deep discussions of his harsher use of corporal punishment, and it helped mold my milder use of the same. And I must say here that through the course of my 30 years of parenting, I have changed my methods of child rearing and have become what I believe to be a stable, even-keeled dad who disciplines with a “rod of correction” that doesn’t always include physical spankings.
Early in my parenting venture I was a student of Dr. James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline, as well as other authors who articulated how to lovingly and properly exercise corporal punishment. As time went on, I’ve come to believe (and Wendy agrees) that the key principle in all psychological use of negative reinforcement is practice. Whenever a child “acts up,” Wendy and I began striving to, first, keep our tempers, and then craft a “practice session” designed to teach proper behavior through repetition. Most traditional forms of corrective discipline — yelling, time-outs, spankings, taking away toys, and even shaming — do little to actually teach new behavior. They must be combined — or even replaced at times — with this idea of “practice.”
It was a liberating revelation for Wendy and me early in our family life together. Like many parents, especially parents of multiple children, we were overwhelmed with the nearly constant need to discipline our kids. “Practicing” proper behavior was a saving grace for our family — right about the time we were contemplating serious birth control to stop the madness! — that encouraged us to continue having more children. The idea of spending the rest of our lives running after a gaggle of little hellions to give them a good lickin’ for each of their bad actions would have driven me to a vasectomy long ago. Instead of a large happy family, we would have had a small, miserable one!
I don’t bring this up to preach to you about how to discipline your children, nor to give some political statement on corporal punishment. My point is simply that families need to talk about these things, not to tear each other down but to build each other up. I don’t talk with my dad about his harsher mid-‘80s disciplinary techniques to shame him for not parenting like a dad might four decades later. If I went online and shamed my dad for that which he did 40 years ago — things that were widely considered to be perfectly appropriate, mind you — the shame should be on me. (Even to talk about him in this book, I asked his permission.) I prefer an atmosphere of love and acceptance, which allows us to grow from our past experiences, becoming better people and parents. We all need to be allowed the grace to lean in on those places where we are weak, learn from them, and become better for it.
Why, then, would my daughter fabricate a narrative that wasn’t hers? At the time this didn’t make any sense to me. Why would any of my children, raised in a functional, loving home by parents who worked hard at breaking dysfunctional chains, invent stories of abuse merely to smear their parents?
The answer was revealed in our third trip.
There is a profound connection between my daughter who started the online smear and her sister who moved to Australia three years prior. She met a young Muslim man from Syria and had gone on to marry him. Included in the online smear was the notion that we “kicked her out” and ostracized her from the family for their Muslim faith, but none of it was remotely true. She was being solicited by her sisters to join in on the online social smear, but, like her brother, she refused. So the apparent bond of five siblings at the beginning of our drama was actually just three. And even that trio’s pact, thankfully, eventually began to wither.
Nearly two months into our social smear that continued online, we felt the overwhelming conviction to connect with our Aussie-residing daughter. She had gone through a time of angry rebellion against us — particularly against her mother — that left her reeling in her early adulthood. She, like her sisters, wandered restlessly, looking for purpose elsewhere, even to another faith and another country on the other side of the planet. She, too, shared a story of abuse as a child, but she didn’t post it online as a social smear. Instead, she shared it with her sisters with the assumption that they would keep it private among themselves. So in a way, her sisters were publicly retelling the stories that she told in private, and this left her feeling betrayed and embarrassed.
Remember, Wendy and I have 16 children. We’ve parented them differently through the years, and we confess (as virtually all parents of multiple children confess), that we were the hardest on the oldest. Early in our parenting we treated spanking like a science, studying the technique and applying it judiciously. We never spanked in anger, using it as simple correction for misbehavior. Our daughter was most certainly what Dr. Dobson would have called a “strong-willed child” (of which he so eloquently wrote in his bestseller The Strong-Willed Child). As such, I regret to say now, she faced more spankings than she truly deserved.
Lining her and her siblings up along the wall and whipping with belts was never true, but emotionally, in her inner child’s mind’s eye, it was her recollection of her past. She would argue with her younger siblings, saying things like, “Oh, you have no idea how good you have it now …,” followed with sometimes humorously exaggerated tales of the “horrors” she suffered. The conversation ended up being portrayed in a much worse light online later, becoming a core part of the social smearing that we’ve suffered.
By the end of our earlier weekend in Minnesota, we had connected over Skype with our daughter and her husband in Australia. Though we hadn’t yet met him in person, he had already shown a tremendous amount of support for Wendy and me in our situation. But this issue — the idea that we might have “abused” her when she was little — seemed to be a focal point for the larger story. Coupled with the fact that this daughter was extremely close to her older sister who seemed to be clinging to the online narrative of our felony-level abuse, there was something relationally significant that needed to be explored.
I had to lean in on the truth of that accusation, humbly accept the part for which I could accept blame without surrendering to the shame of exaggeration. So while still in Minnesota we secured two plane tickets to Australia and we scheduled a spring break in Melbourne. My parents were huge helps, financing one of the plane tickets and traveling to Colorado to babysit the children. Our trip correlated with our daughter’s golden birthday — 29 years old on March 29th — making this a coincidental blessing in our healing process.
Of our 16 children, she was our strongest-willed. I suppose conflicts between parents and strong-willed children is reason for many estrangements, but for us the pain transformed into a beautiful reconciliation that empowered all of us. In visiting our daughter and son-in-law — staying in their small apartment together for two weeks — many rich conversations explored deep meanings in our adult relationship. Tensions existed in the past, but hatred was not among them, and judgment is stomped out with love anytime its ugliness appears.
We very much enjoyed this time in Australia, the four of us eating, sightseeing and sharing together, without any children to tow around for a change! Blogging about our trip, I focused on my 25-year relationship with our strong-willed daughter, especially how we previously had tried to change her strong will through discipline. I explained one story where she insisted on walking 10 miles to daycare as a five-year-old, one of those “strong-willed moments” that we both recall today with laughter. I ended the post with this:
I guess you can say I’m ashamed of the fact that I made her strong will a shameful thing. If I could rewind time, I would have reacted differently. I would have made a picnic out of her insistence that she could walk 10 miles to daycare. I would have tried to walk to daycare with her, then allowed her to give up when her little legs got the best of her. Who knows, maybe she would have surprised the family after all and made it all the way. I think, at 29 years old, she still believes she could have made it. Still so stubborn!
Today, her insistence on love has been a true blessing for our family. She won’t submit to family turmoil others may try to push on her. She is relentless about love, never betraying a confidence, and stubborn about it. I’ve learned long ago not to try to manipulate her or get her to do something she doesn’t want to do.
In retrospect, her strong will was a gift I should have cultivated more than resisted.
Let me talk directly to those of you who are facing social smearing from family members — or any kind of hateful attack from a loved one — take time to pause and consider what you can learn from the attack. Lean in. Chances are good that there is something you can learn, and if you embrace it, you will become a better person because of it. I believe Wendy and I are much, much better parents today than we were in the 1990s when we were just starting out. And I am incredibly grateful that our daughter, now so far away in Australia, gave us the patience we needed to accept her grievances and allow us to grow.
Three trips brought me these gifts: Empathy from my business partner and sister, justification from my psychologist sister and old friend, humility from my parents and understanding from my adult daughter. All of these connections helped me escape from the emotional trap of my social smear by diving deeper into a human level apart from the court of public opinion and that of the mob. And that act of diving deeper raised me up to a higher realization of my life and the love of those around me. My online experience was truly one of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and I suppose the rest of the watching world thought I was shamed and humiliated and destitute. I wasn’t. In a way, I was being “born again” to a more pure spiritual understanding of the realities of my life and the relationships I hold dear.
But don’t let me overstate. Though these trips were wonderfully liberating to me emotionally, I still was a virtual prisoner to my social smear. Online I was a vicious abuser of little children, as my three daughters locked arms and unified their testimony against me. Though I never had my day in court, I sat confined in my cell of condemnation, and it appeared that I was in this prison for life. I needed to plot my escape, but wasn’t certain how. You will see in the coming chapters that my escape came from the most unusual places.
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