JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

We are missing the point here.

Posted by on Aug 10, 2019

A fallen hero being taken down.

It has been a very bad week for equestrian sport in the United States. On Monday, George Morris, a former Olympian and Olympic coach, received a lifetime ban from the United States Center for Safe Sport for sexual misconduct with a minor. On Thursday, Michael Barisone, also a former Olympian and Olympic coach, was charged with attempted murder for shooting Lauren Kanarek at the barn he owned, where she boarded her horses and lived with her fiancé. It sounds more like a movie trailer than reality. One massive and one not so massive figure in our sport have fallen and fallen hard. I found out about both of these events the same day and have been surprisingly upset by them. The interesting part is that while sexual misconduct and attempted murder are upsetting enough on their own, what has upset me the most are some of the reactions from the community to these events.

The intention of this article is to stoke curiosity and encourage critical thinking. Curiosity should cause us to look deeper, to ask better questions, to ask more questions, and to keep us from being so “positional.” Critical thinking should cause us to see more than our side of things, allowing us to examine a situation with a combination of information, data, experience, and the ability to put it all together to form a theory not a determination. The main barrier to both of these concepts is…emotion. I’d like to say as soon as we become emotional, our ability to be curious and think critically is drastically reduced, if not eliminated, but it is hard to find a time when a human being is not emotional. So then, what is the solution? For me, it is noticing the emotional reaction and impact, and then striving to recover the critical elements of thought and processing—and keep doing this as emotions keep coming up. Tall order, I know, but worth every minute.

People are reactionary. Once your heart rate gets involved, your brain changes, and blood flow moves out of the frontal lobe, or executive function part of the brain, down to the lower brain where survival reactions occur. Interestingly, heart rate variability is just that, variable, and incredibly variable. A “simple” thought can cause heart rate to spike and because this happens so frequently, most of us don’t even notice it. For example, I went to the doctor a few months ago for a checkup. My father is a doctor, I grew up in a doctor’s office and making rounds with him on the weekends in the hospital, many of his friends were doctors, my wife is a doctor, so suffice it to say, I am comfortable around doctors! My Apple Watch told a different story though. As I sat waiting in the exam room, my heart rate was 65 beats per minute, normal and relaxed. When the doctor walked in, I felt my system change and looked at my watch: 132 beats per minute! My heart rate doubled in a matter of seconds and without a physical threat to my survival. It was completely fabricated in my mind, the worry, the stress, the discomfort, the unknown of what she would say or ask or find. All thoughts, all suppositions on my part, all concocted in my worrying mind with zero connection to my physical safety or even current reality. This amazed me and confirmed all the studies I had read about the sympathetic nervous system and how it decimates the ability of our frontal lobe to keep us “present.”

Okay, so now to the fallen hero’s part of the story. There are a lot of ways to think and talk about both of these situations so in the interest of time, these are what stick out to me. The first and perhaps simpler is the Michael Barisone event. You can find full descriptions of what is being reported online easily so I will save space by allowing you to search for it. The crux of the event is that Barisone shot Kanarek in the chest twice, after shooting at her fiancé and missing, and a scuffle between the two men resulted in injuries to both. Barisone has been arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder and two weapons charges. Kanarek has survived surgery and is in critical condition in the ICU. The story deepens when you add the sketchy details of the troubled relationship between Barisone and Kanarek (not sexual). Kanarek had been vocal on social media about Barisone with a significantly negative tone. I say it this way because I don’t know her, nor was I at the barn to witness any of the problems discussed, and I have only met Barisone a few times, so I don’t claim to know him, either. What has astounded me has been some of the comments on social media. Victim blaming is a major theme: “If she was so afraid of him, why didn’t she leave?” “What did she do to make him shoot her?” “What were the circumstances that led him to shoot her?” And my favorite, “I hope the bitch dies.”

We are missing the point here. What was your emotional reaction when you heard about this event? Did you even notice it as emotional? Did you jump to a conclusion? And when you did (because you did), did it do what it was intended to do and soothe your upset mind? The point isn’t whether your conclusion or what you are so certain is the truth is the truth, it is that we have lost so much control of ourselves and our emotional reactions that someone actually posted, “I hope the bitch dies.” What must it take to feel, not only like that, but that posting it publicly is okay? So, you don’t like her, fine, doesn’t matter if you don’t. So, you had the fleeting thought you hope she dies. Fine, doesn’t matter if you have that thought or even tell your close friend you had that thought. But you put it on social media for the world to see tells me we have deeper problems than we realize. The sadness and devastation I felt when I read that post was nearly inconsolable. As a psychologist, I understand the impetus for that as a reaction. And, as a psychologist, unfortunately, I understand the trouble the act of posting that thought indicates, not only for that person, but for all of us.

George Morris is considered an icon in the Hunter/Jumper world of equestrian sport. His resume is stellar and unparalleled, and many consider him closer to a deity than a human, quoting him constantly. His word is considered THE word and if he says it, it must be true and you must abide by it. No one is revered more than he is in the English horse world and his status is powerful and permanent. This story is incredibly disruptive and upsetting for scores of equestrians. I have only met Morris once, so I don’t know him personally. Again, you can find details about it easily but basically, Morris has received a lifetime ban from the sport for sexual misconduct with a minor in the period of 1968 – 1972. Since the story broke, everyone I have spoken about it with has had similar comments. The main issues we are struggling with are why did it take so long for these complaints to be made (sounds familiar to just about every victim’s reporting timeline) and well, it was so long ago that things were different so perhaps this shouldn’t be valid. More blaming the victim, and this time, I think it is because the world view of Morris is so big, it causes an immediate processing issue because one just can’t get their head around him as a bad man.

I have a friend who knew Morris “back in the day,” and even had him stay at his house when his children were young. He said Morris was a perfect gentleman and that precluded him from being able to believe any of these charges. Yep, sexual predators typically are very public about their behavior and make it so obvious to the world they are doing something wrong (sarcasm to be noted). I don’t know if Morris is a sexual predator, but the NY Times printed an article claiming the rumors of his relationships with teenage boys were constant “back in the day.” Sadly, stereotypes exist for a reason and I have found over time, that if I hear a rumor repeatedly, some part of it tends to have some validity. When I was talking about this with a good friend who doesn’t know Morris either, her first comment was, “I wonder if there was talk about this for years and it is just now coming to the surface?” Things that make you go, “hmmm.”

The problems surrounding the lifetime ban are many but the main ones I am seeing on social media are that the claims are “unsubstantiated,” that Safe Sport is not transparent enough, and that the era of the complaint gave way to the kind of sexual behavior that is now deemed unacceptable. First of all, it is Morris saying the claims are unsubstantiated so when people jump on that bandwagon, it is inaccurate. Of course he is going to say they are not true, when does anyone ever say, “Okay, you got me. I was sexually inappropriate and should lose something in return for what damage I might have done to those people who I was obviously in a more powerful position than.” No, people fight for their innocence, whether innocent or not. Our culture currently has zero capacity for admitting wrongdoing. This unsubstantiated claim also works hard to reinforce our habit of blaming the victim. Again, the disruption this causes for us mentally and emotionally can be intolerable. People who have looked up to Morris for all of their lives and horse careers are reeling from this. Think Penn State and Joe Paterno—fans couldn’t take it emotionally, so they lashed out verbally and even rioted. Upsetting the view you have had about someone or some institution leaves a huge instability in the foundation of your belief systems and makes you have to adjust. Many people would rather fight than adjust, and that is what we are seeing.

A social media page was put up moments after the ban about standing with George. Two very prominent (male) trainers in the horse world declared their support for Morris’ innocence publicly. Because you know, they know. I say this because it is not only cheeky but true. How could they possibly know? People say Bernie Madoff was the kindest, best, most wonderful man they could ever meet. Do you think he went to parties and talked about how upside down his business was and how he was breaking all kinds of laws and stealing millions of dollars to hide it and recover from it? NO! The world was shocked when his story broke, just like the horse world is shocked today. My problem with this incredible public support for someone found guilty and then denouncing of the accusers is that it is killing victims (emotionally and sometimes physically) and their power to accuse everywhere. If you support Morris, fine. Call him, let him know you are behind him and that you support him, but do we really need a public outcry that is full of misinformation and interpretation? For Safe Sport to have handed down this verdict, don’t you think they had their ducks in a row? Don’t you think they knew what the response would be? Do you really think they would ban George Morris without being sure? Not liking something doesn’t make it not true.

My farrier is awesome and smart and thoughtful, and of course, we had to talk about it yesterday. He made the same point we all landed on, why now, over fifty years later? I casually asked him if he was ever sexually abused (he knows I am a psychologist). His shock at the question was deep but his response was even deeper, “No, and you know what, I never even thought of it that way.” I went on to explain what it takes to first experience sexual abuse and then to get the courage to accuse someone of sexual misconduct, let alone a man! The stigma is relentless, think Anita Hill and Christine Blasey-Ford. Lives are never the same once they pull that trigger and the verbal abuse and shaming that follows can be worse than the originating incident. This is THE element that makes approximately 75% of all abuses go unreported. I have worked with many victims of sexual abuse as a psychologist and I can tell you, it never goes away. A patient I had was gang raped when she was young and it took her FORTY years to tell someone, and that someone was me. For forty years (how old are you?) she kept that secret hidden yet was plagued by it every single day. Every. Single. Day. Lives are never the same. Trauma like that never goes away so the fact that it took fifty years to say something does not surprise me one bit. So, if you have never experienced sexual abuse, then be careful to open your mouth here because you cannot possibly know what someone is dealing with. It is estimated that one in three women have been sexually abused. Next time you are sitting at a dinner party, look around and count and then do the math. It is staggering yet everyone hides it. I absolutely hate the fact that in less than one week seven thousand people would rather say they support a man who they do not know and couldn’t possibly know what he did behind closed doors than wonder if our culture needs to be made safer.

Safe Sport was created in response to a federal law written to protect the mental, physical, and psychological safety of athletes (USA Gymnastics as the impetus). I do not know enough about this federally authorized Center but what I do know is that making a claim against someone when you have been bullied, harassed, or abused is one of the most difficult things to do, period. Safe Sport is less than two years old and is trying to figure out how to do the best job it can. Is it perfect? Of course not. Are you perfect? Is your judgement always spot on and do you always deliver the best decision? Of course not. The problem is we have this fantasy that once someone is in a position of power, they are error-free. Well, we are learning the hard way how inaccurate that is! The idea and mission of Safe Sport is important and so with that, I wish we were all wondering how to support the mission instead of condemning tidbits of information that prevent us from confronting our cognitive dissonance.

The last excuse being made is support of Morris is that it was the era back then, the time of sexual freedom, the start of the sexual revolution so his sexual habits are excusable. Since I was only a year old at the time of the accusation, I can’t really speak to the historical relevance there. What I can say is that power is powerful and while it is easy to abuse, rarely (if ever) does someone abuse power without knowing it. Now, fast forward to today. Is it much different? Do people make the same argument? How could he have known she was really saying no? She should have known her dress was too short…

We are missing the point here. A shooting occurred and that is a shame, not only for Kanarek, but also for Barisone. Taking Kanarek completely out of the picture, something really bad had to have been going on for him to resort to attempting murder. For the people who care about him, it is also a devastating loss. Countless warning signs were missed or ignored. Countless gut instincts were also thrown aside, and now, many are lamenting this irreversible hindsight. How do we move forward from this? How do we become more of a community instead of a battle ground? I guess this question applies to just about everything right now.

We are missing the point here. An icon has fallen, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are scrambling and fighting. We can’t go back and simply apply glue, we have to look forward to create safer walls and better nets to catch us when we fall. If only we could develop the ability to tolerate the emotional discomfort this kind of disruption creates. The upset is upsetting, of course, but the knee-jerk reactions are dangerous and prevent healing. Watch yourself and your reactions to these events and all the future events that will press down on you and make you feel upset. Watch your desire to be “right” about it and what you just know must have happened. Being right makes someone else wrong and that ends possibility immediately. There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. It is our nature to take sides but so is being a community and that is the part of our nature we need to tend to more and make more valuable. I am sorry for Morris and Barisone and what ever drove them to those actions, and I am sorry for the accusers and Kanarek. None of these lives will ever be the same again and some will be terrible as a result. Humans are incredibly resilient so the characters will go on. After the news cycle shifts, most of us will go on, too, only thinking about this at a party or when a part of the story re-emerges. My wish for us is to be able to say we are reeling or upset without the need to punish, defend, or condemn. I am upset by all of this, it is making me reconsider things I thought were definite, it makes me feel unsteady and wonder about things I believed in, and I dislike the feeling of the emotional discomfort. It makes me want to lash out, but I won’t, instead I will reach out. Now it’s your turn…