Years ago a close friend, Rachel, told me that she had been raped by her next-door neighbor. She was fourteen years old when the crime occurred, and the neighbor was in his 30s. She told me two years after the fact. To my knowledge, I was the first and only person she told. I was seventeen.
Unfortunately, my reaction did not help her. I was immediately filled with anger. Her abuser was a man I knew and who still lived just one door away from her. She immediately regretted telling me, “I shouldn't have told you about this." she said. "Please just forget it. And, please, please, don't tell anyone else." She was ashamed and afraid.
In the weeks that followed I wanted to speak with my parents about the revelation, or her parents, but Rachel asked me repeatedly not to. So instead of helping her in a constructive manner, I fretted about getting even with the man who assaulted her. Rachel trusted me with her most horrific personal experience and I reacted with anger and hostility which only reinforced her desire to hide.
Decades later, I do not know the full impact of the assault on Rachel's life. She eventually married and had a family. I hope her life has been happy and complete. I do not know. What I do know, however, is that the experience racked her for years with shame and embarrassment. I also know that upon learning about her assault I was personally paralyzed with indecision, rage, and helplessness.
We are now witnessing, on a near daily basis, the disclosure of famous and powerful people who are sexual predators. The scope of abuse and manipulation allegedly perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein and others is astonishing. Weinstein has been charged with sexually assaulting over a dozen women. The fact that men have maintained positions of industry leadership for decades, while systematically abusing many people, speaks to the depravity of the perpetrators and the degeneracy of the people who facilitate these crimes.
In the wake of these ongoing revelations, all experts should take special note. It is not just Hollywood movie producers who are inclined to exercise dominance, control, or manipulation. It is not just the politicians, journalists, or comedians who sexually assault their victims. Unfortunately, it is the nature and disposition of many people, regardless of industry or background, that as soon as they have assembled any degree of power or influence they will immediately begin to exercise that power for self-gratification.
Of course, sexual assault is horrific. No person should experience it. Perpetrators should be punished harshly and the victims deserve our utmost love, compassion, and support. But there is another dimension to sexual assault which is rarely discussed, but which is particularly important to experts.
Sexual assault destroys trust, and trust is the expert's most valuable asset. Trust is more important to experts than technical prowess or industry changing ideas. The most important advantage experts can attain is the faith, confidence, and admiration of others. When people trust experts, they seek the experts' advice, they value their opinion, and they do what the experts recommend. When people don't trust experts, they discount their opinions, close communications, avoid contact, and reject what the experts say.
So, it befits every expert to recognize that many people are viewing you through the lenses of distrust because they have been abused. They do not trust you, not because you are not trustworthy, but because they have been robbed of the ability to do so. They do not trust because they have been cheated of the enduring comfort of trusting relationships.
It was not Rachel's fault, decades ago, when she was raped as a fourteen-year-old child. And it is not her fault today if, as a lasting consequence, she has difficulty trusting the people who live next door to her. As an expert, if you treat everyone you meet as if they will have difficulty trusting you, you will be right most of the time. People in your audience may want to trust you, you may be completely trustworthy, but for them trust is an anemic concept that has been wrung out by abuse, trauma, illness, or neglect.
When I was seventeen and learned that one of my best friends was the victim of sexual assault and I reacted poorly. I assumed that her experience was rare. I was wrong. Great experts know better. Great experts lift and inspire and motivate and encourage. Great experts provide peace where there is fear, understanding where there is confusion, confidence where there is doubt, beauty where there is ugliness and despair. Great experts give people a reason to trust, even when trust is difficult to find.