The Time of Complaint

Two years ago today I shared my reasons for resigning from my post. I resigned in protest at the failure of my college to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem. I resigned because the costs of doing that work were too high. And I have been thinking as I have been listening to those who have been involved in the time-consuming, life-consuming, process of making complaints about time; about the time of complaint. It takes so much time to get a complaint through the system, which is why so many complaints end up being about the system. And it takes so much time to recover from making a complaint, especially when, and when “when” is often it does not seem special, you encounter those walls; you do not get through.

It has been two years since I made the reasons for my resignation public. And I still have a sense of rage and injustice, also tiredness and sadness, from doing that work with others and from knowing what was left undismantled despite that work. It might be receding – I don’t wake up every morning writing furious letters in my head. But I still have those letters handy: it is almost as if they are there waiting in the background, ready to come out. I just have to read something, notice something, perhaps a passing reference to what happened, or yet another appropriation of the work we did, and those letters start writing themselves again.

And: you can find it upsetting that you still find it upsetting.

If the work of complaint takes time, it takes time to recover from the work of complaint.

A willfulness maxim: don’t get over it when it is not over.

It is not over.

And what makes it “not over” is not just about how you feel; it is not just about how a complaint has etched its way into your consciousness like wrinkles; time given form as expression. It is not over because what you complained about is not over.

If you complain about harassment you are harassed. Harassment is a means by which a complaint about harassment is stopped. Those who are not stopped from complaining are often harassed all the more.

It is thus hard to untangle the slow time of complaint from the slow time of harassment.  So many of the accusations that have been hurled against me in public as well as in private have been hurled against many other feminists. We can share accusations: you are a bully, the real harasser, a feminazi; you are punishing and puritanical. You are accused of wanting their jobs for yourself. You are called neoliberal feminists if you use internal disciplinary procedures, as colluding with management; you are accused of conducting a vigilante campaign or a witch hunt when you have exhausted those internal procedures.

If you try to stop harassment you come up against what enables that harassment. The accusations that are thrown out; they might seem pointless and careless but they are pointed and careful. They are part of a system; a system works by making it costly to expose how a system works.

I think it is important for us to share this: that the harassment does not end just because a complaint has ended, however a complaint has ended. I still receive hate mail because of my involvement in a complaint about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. You can refuse to open letters, you can discard comments posted to your blog, you can ignore messages received, but that work of refusal is still work. You can even be affected by the work you do in trying not to be affected. It has taken me a long time to be less affected by doing this work. Even if you understand and can explain where these communications come from, they can be wearing. You can feel worn. When I left my post I did experience a loss of confidence, a sense of no longer being sure of myself or others. If confidence can be taken in time, restoring confidence takes time.

The time it takes to recover from a complaint; the time it takes to make a complaint; so much time taken. But remember the time of not complaining about harassment is the slow time of harassment; the time it takes to complain is time worth taking.

About time: so many of my interviews with those who have made complaints have been about time. I have learnt that the time taken to make a complaint can be used to disqualify a complaint. One member of staff made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. The experience of bullying had been devastating, and she suffered from depression as a result. It took her a long time to get to the point where she could write a complaint. She describes what happened once she was able to put her complaint in, “I basically did it when I was able to, because I was just really unwell for a significant period of time. And I put in the complaint and the response that I got was from the deputy VC. He said that he couldn’t process my complaint because I had taken too long to lodge it.” A complaint: it can take too long.

And we know this: some experiences are so devastating that it takes a long time to process them. Which might mean that: the more devastated you are the less likely you are to get through.

The experiences that lead you to make a complaint can stop a complaint from being recognised as a complaint.

Time can be used as a tool: if organizations can disqualify complaints because they take too long to make, organizations can also take too long to respond to complaints. One student described how the university took seven months to respond to her complaints, and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint: “it is my theory they been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.”  Exhaustion can be not just the effect but the point of a complaint process.

Exhaustion as a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.

When the organisation takes a long time, you are left waiting. One member of staff who complained about bullying used this analogy: waiting for the next response to her complaint was like waiting for a bill to come through the door. You do not know whether the next bill will be the one that breaks you. You don’t know, so waiting can feel like breaking. The longer it takes to receive a response, the longer you are on high alert; anxiety about what might happen can be enough to make a complaint impossible to sustain.

At other times, everything might seem to speed up: you are behind; you can’t catch up. I spoke to two students who made a complaint about sexual harassment. They talked of how slow the organisation was to respond to their communications at every step of the process but how they themselves were still expected to be quick: “they gave us a tiny time-scale” and “short-deadlines.” They described how: “that’s not part of the procedure they are just making it up as they go along.” Deadlines, however made up, can be how you are stopped: if you do not make it in time you do not make it.

The slow time of waiting; the fast time of deadlines: too slow, too fast. Other times you have a sense of coming up against the same thing; the time of repetition, round and round. Sometimes also: up and down.  At times you might feel like you are getting somewhere, you might feel encouraged, but then, something happens or nothing happens; nothing is something.

Round and round, up and down.

I think back to the time it took for me to realise that I had to leave. I have called that realization snap: the moment you realise what you cannot do, that something has broken, a bond to an institution, or a belief that you can make an institution more accommodating. If snap can be experienced as a moment, the moment you do not take it anymore, that moment has a history. It was quite a long time after the enquiries took place that I realised I had to leave. What I found most difficult was the silence, the very loud silence that felt rather like calm waters over a sunken ship. As the ripples lessened, as if nothing had happened, as if the enquiries had not even taken place, as if not talking about it meant it was gone, I knew my days were numbered.

You can realise you have to leave. But it can still take time to leave.

I first asked for unpaid leave. I wrote to my head of department in March 2016: “It is my preference to make it under the category of ‘special leave’ and to put on the form that the reasons for taking the leave are to help me deal with the corrosive effects of working for three years on sexual harassment cases at the college. I know the form goes nowhere but in a file but it strikes me that everywhere we are asked not to name the problem, so at least on my own form I can name the problem. And it is true: it is the reason.” I put the reason on the form. What happens: it is not that nothing happens.  I get leave. But the form is filed away.

My leave is agreed but there is no mention of the reasons.

No mention of the reasons for leave are the reasons for leaving.

Leaving: maybe that too was something that took time before it could took place, something that happened, gradually, slowly.

We can exit a situation as we begin to realise that our efforts to transform a situation are not getting anywhere.

The time it takes to make a complaint; the time it takes to leave.

I think back now to those three years, draining, how they were draining. I think of myself as breaking a little each day, each day in my own way.

Mostly when you are involved in a complaint you are still doing your other work, as a student, as a teacher, an administrator. You are doing the work of complaint alongside doing your work.

Alongside, side-by-side.

One time just after I testified in one of the enquiries I had to go and give a lecture on the idea of race. It is always emotional to give this lecture; an idea is not abstraction; you can embody an idea. This time I am shaking. Everything pours out.

Words: they can spill out, shattering.

Another time just before I testified at another enquiry, I saw someone who I had heard stuff about; I knew his role in what happened. I feel physically sick. Another time I see him at an event. A colleague told me I turned white. It takes a lot to turn a brown girl white.

I feel sick.

In my last proper day at work we had a departmental meeting. A caring and well-meaning colleague got my resignation on the agenda – he got sexual harassment on the agenda. It is mentioned along with another item. The other item is picked up. I hear it being passed over. I hear sexual harassment being passed over. I rush out the room and I am sick in the toilets.

I now think of that vomiting as a feminist act: all that came up, all that I refused to digest.

Guts can be feminist friends.

We are supposed to cope, and if we don’t cope, we are not supposed to admit to not coping, because that would be a sign of weakness; being unprofessional.

I can tell you this now, with confidence: I did not cope. I could not cope. I would not cope.

They will you give you words to explain the act of not coping. I have been learning from listening to complainers how the term “vicarious trauma” is floated around very quickly when large scale enquiries into problems such as sexual harassment take place. I would not deny that it can be traumatizing to hear about other people’s trauma. But you hear what that diagnosis might be doing in an institutional setting. It can be used to imply a complaint is like an infection, spreading from body to body, organically: how she infects herself, how she infects others; complaining as not only not coping, but as being too easily affected by others. A complaint becoming a complaint in another sense: as a bodily condition, an ailment, an illness.

You can sense the utility of such a frame: it allows the institution to disappear.

Making complaints requires we give other explanations for why we make complaints.

What I found difficult to cope with was not what I learnt from students, however hard it was to hear what happened to many of the students I spoke to, but what I learnt about the institution from its response to the harassment. What was hard was the complicity, the silence. The institutional response to harassment – don’t talk about it, turn away from it, protect our reputation whatever the cost – was how the harassment was enabled in the first place. To be silent was to be part of the institutional silence.

Why should we cope with this? Why would we cope with this?

We are supposed to cope; to hold ourselves together. What if holding ourselves together is how the information is held? What if coping is containing? What if the very techniques for coping with violence are the same techniques for reducing the significance of violence?

A complaint: when we let out, spill out, what we are supposed to contain.

A complaint: when we transform what we do not cope with into a protest at what we are supposed to cope with.

Not coping: it can feel like a failure; you can feel like a failure. It can feel like you have lost the handle. Maybe we need to fly off the handle. And maybe not coping is an action. And maybe not coping is how we create a collective. That collective might be fragile but it is also feminist and furious.


These thoughts are dedicated to my complaint collective. Thank you.

We carry what matters with us.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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20 Responses to The Time of Complaint

  1. Hiba Zafran says:

    Not coping as resistance.
    Not coping with the gaze placed on not coping. Holding. Embodying an alternate reality and narrative. Then holding some more as your very presence becomes a reminder and an eyesore of not playing nice. Breathing through being reduced to the label of “damaged”. And for now. Holding integrity as I become a different kind of wall or dam against which violence is halted on its way to those more vulnerable than me.

    I really appreciate your books and this blog. Thank you.

  2. Jen Saunders says:

    Thank you for the clarity in this writing. So pertinent to the ‘system’ of family too.

  3. Rory Allen says:

    Everyone who has ever been a victim of bullying, or a whistle-blower, will understand this eloquent description. Thank you for expressing it so well on behalf of all of us.

  4. Angelica Maria Barraza says:

    This entry resonates deeply with me. Thank you for putting language to this seemingly impenetrable process — the hurdles, hypocrisies, and invalidating b/s that so often accompanies the act of speaking out against sexual harassment.

  5. senhoritak says:

    Dear Sara, I am a Brazilian feminist professor working with harassment and gender violence in Brazil. Could I translate this text to Portuguese and disseminate this sad and resonating words? Thank you for sharing and letting us read it.

  6. Zahra Khalid says:

    The hope in the last lines in heartening: a collection, a critical mass, a community of complaint = not compliant, not changing form to contain, collectively.

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  8. Alan says:

    Hi Sara. I was holding my breath while reading your post.
    I have never read something that resonated so much with my own experience.
    Complaint procedures are often designed to prevent victims of harassment from accessing justice. And this is the most disgusting thing I have personally been victim of in my entire life.
    I think that, with time, I can get over what has happened to me.
    But what I can never get over is that the people who were supposed to protect me did exactly the opposite. Behind every complaint procedure there are people. We think that harassers and molesters are the real problem. I think the *real* problem is people who have the power to stop them, but decide not to use it. And with their inaction, they promote harassment, bullying and rape culture. And the worst thing is that they always get away with it.
    I have truly seen the darkest side of academia. I am confident that this sharp, bitter, constant sense of injustice that I’ve been feeling for over five years will never leave me.
    Thank you for being so strong to share this.

  9. I am going through something like this. Thank you for writing and posting this.

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