Case 059 - Law Firm

I am an experienced legal secretary. I was targeted, groomed and subjected to verbal, emotional, psychological abuse/violence and harassment (some sexualized) for 3.5 years by attorneys and staff at a small law firm in Seattle, Washington. I have nothing but a mental breakdown to show for trying, unsuccessfully, to work through and "fix" what couldn't be fixed--and what I now understand was a long-term mobbing--an unacknowledged conspiracy of abuse. I was recently diagnosed with PTSD.

I never, ever had so many problems getting along in a workplace before. With very few exceptions, I have always been a well thought of co-worker and model employee. I didn't understand that my bosses were vested in abuse, and that who I am, (a gentle, courageous co-operator), the workplace culture (entrenched bullying) and the people I worked with (cowardly competitors) created an environment of escalating abuse directed at me. I never thought I would EVER be one of THOSE women who "allowed" abuse. I never though I would EVER be a "victim". I now understand how it happens, and why it's hard to get out.

I didn’t understand that I was selected as the sacrifice on the altar of their unacknowledged violence, shame, ugliness, silence and denial. Unbeknownst to me, my fate was sealed when I set foot in that office. My resistance was ultimately futile.

They had me believing that they had the right to abuse me, that everything was my fault, that my feelings and my needs weren't important but everybody else’s were, that I was mentally imbalanced, that I wasn’t quite "good enough", that if I just ignored or tolerated abusive behavior that it would stop, that if I just changed myself and had "more" or "less" of various attributes, took certain actions or inactions, or said or didn’t say certain things, or met unmeetable expectations, that things would change.

You name it, I experienced it. I believe that if I hadn't left that I would have shortly been subjected to open physical assault (I had already experienced covert assaults and threats of assault, i.e., chicken games and shoulder bumping in the halls, being growled at from close range, bellering with fists up and balled, small items thrown at me, etc.)

I couldn't understand why I kept being treated so poorly, why people were so aggressive, rude and uncooperative (covert and overt) towards me, why all my attempts at courteous and direct address were stymied, ridiculed and sabotaged, and why, when I finally complained after tolerating such for far too long, I was ignored (literally like I hadn’t spoken), nothing was done, I was labeled as the "cause", as "oversensitive" or "exaggerating". I was subjected to shunning, innuendo, sniggering gossip, dirty looks or browbeatings (public and private). I wasn't allowed to defend myself, and was often never told what it was that I had supposedly done. My requests for specifics were ignored. If I pressed, I was labeled as "defensive", "opinionated" "argumentative", "in denial", "irritable" and "overemotional". I was told, "Everybody thinks this about you."

Within a short period of being hired, new staff would be "signaled" to join in and be abusive. For example, on the first day of a new secretary’s employment (ML), one of my bosses was extremely disrespectful to me right in front of her. SDL marched up, stood right over me, slapped a binder down, implied incompetence, and barked at me to "fix this right now". "This" referred to some work I had done for him awhile ago. (We had been short-staffed for several months and I had borne the brunt.)

ML was hired as his secretary. She was unoccupied, and SDL knew that I was under a deadline for a trial preparation. In law offices, everybody knows that "trial preparation" means do not disturb. SDL then engaged ML in a very friendly chat. I politely asked a question. He kept his back to me and spoke over his shoulder. He was making faces and mock-mouthing my words. SDL was signaling that: 1) he liked her, but didn’t like me; and 2) I was the office dog. ML then began ordering me to get her supplies, find files, help her (get her water), do this and that--on her first day--knowing full well that I was in trial preparation.

When I went to "fix it", I discovered that there was absolutely nothing to fix. I had done nothing wrong. I politely and privately told SDL this in his office. He deliberately avoided eye contact, and said, "Thank you" in a very annoyed, mocking and condescending tone. This episode was typical of boss behavior towards me--attack and embarass, but don't acknowledge or apologize.

I tried different approaches with new "joiners" but nothing worked. For example, I asked HFA (new receptionist) via e-mail if we could do lunch and talk about improving our work relations. A few weeks prior I had suggested this and she was receptive. She then ran to my boss, apparently claiming that I was harassing her and trying to force a social relationship. I approached HFA and asked her why she did this. She sneered at me, saying, "It's over. It’s over. Get over it. Just give it up." To secure her position in the group, HFA manipulated me, falsely accused me, pretended victimization, scorned my friendship and refused to speak to me.

Co-workers were allowed to socialize and develop relationships. I was told to "just work" and "avoid interacting with others". If I spent more than a few minutes talking, one of my bosses would magically appear with some "urgent" work. I couldn't play music without risking censure, but my co-workers could. I couldn't call in sick without getting "attitude". My co-workers were solicitiously coddled. I was rudely interrogated about medical appointments though I had plenty of sick, vacation and comp time.

My co-workers needed my assistance, skills and knowledge to do their jobs, but would not assist me with my workload (which was heavier than theirs). My work had to be perfect. I was publicly chastized for mistakes, but simultaneously mocked as a "neurotic perfectionist". My co-workers were rarely subjected to public shaming for their errors, and were never disciplined for their conduct towards me. They were "too nice" to be baiting me and engaging in covert sabotage--I was "mean" and "paranoid".

The little "discipline" that they were subjected to was often done so as to shift blame and further isolate me--a "bait and switch" abuser technique. For example, MAL, the "obvious bully" in the group, asked me a question. I answered honestly that another co-workers actions had caused the problem. He stormed up to that person, bellering about how I had said such and such. My co-worker, instead of being angry at MAL for this public humiliation, was angry at me instead, and complained to other staff that I had "sicced" MAL on her. MAL also took co-workers for private chats, and they later emerged, glaring dagger-eyes at me. The shame and embarrassment from MAL’s abuse was off-loaded onto me. I was the cause--not them and not MAL

Privately my bosses made very nasty, joking comments about my co-workers. I was told "not to repeat this to anybody" but that they were "incompetent", "retards" and "idiots", "they expected better" from me and to "fuck ‘em." I was "their backbone". When I suggested that they simply require improvement, it was, "We can’t. It wouldn’t do any good." This was grooming--making me believe that their abuse of me wasn’t real, it was because they needed me, liked me and depended on me--not my co-workers--but couldn’t publicly admit it. It was one of our secrets. I am certain that they had their "secrets" with other staff, too.

If I failed to say "I’m sorry" (for using the "wrong" size paperclip, a typo in a draft, not responding quickly enough, trying to explain something when I hadn’t been asked), or if I objected to their conduct, my bosses held stage-whispered meetings about my "completely intolerable" attitude and that they should "seriously consider getting rid of" me. Later they'd walk by me, smirking.

My hair was falling out. I had been menstruating heavily for long periods of time. I slept in my clothes, and what little sleep I got was light and fitful. I couldn't stop thinking about work. I had panic attacks. My smoking doubled. I couldn't concentrate and couldn't remember what had just happened, what I was going to do, or if I had eaten. I wasn’t hungry, anyway. I had acne and bad gas. I sometimes had to take my underwear off and hide it in my purse because I had pissed myself. I wasn't regularly showering. My back was in a near-chronic state of spasm. I’d walk around the office, hunched over. I’d suddenly cry. I was feverish and barely functional in the mornings. My face flushed uncontrollably. I sweated profusely--and my sweat stunk (literally, the stench of fear).

And still--I kept trying, kept smiling, but I was inexorably pushed into acting out. This confused and horrified me. It justified "deserved" escalating abuse. They had succeeded in breaking me down and remaking me into someone I didn’t recognize--but they did--I was the raw and open embodiment of their projected inner ugliness. I was sacrificed and discarded.

It is very painful for me to realize and accept that they didn’t and don’t care about me. I recently wrote to them, telling them this. I also told them that their actions and words weren’t and aren’t those of decent, honorable and good people, but were and are those of abusers, liars, cowards and consummate narcissists. I challenged them to step up, make amends and prove me wrong.

They have not responded.