Bystanders: If a Tree Falls …

Picket fence casting shadow on sidewalkLet’s say there are three kinds of people: abuser, victim, and bystander. Let’s say there are three kinds of bystanders: those who join the fray, those who watch and do nothing, and those who try to help. They are all connected.

There was a family I knew once, grandmother, mother, father and two kids, let’s call them the Cronin family. The father was an alcoholic, the mother had serious emotional problems; they, their two kids, Alan and Josie, and the grandmother too, all tried to survive as best as they could.

Both parents were abusive. The mother was scheming, accusing, and often out of contact with reality. At such times she would scream and attack Josie, whom she saw as a threat, and try to get the father angry with Josie, too. Alan always joined the mother against Josie. The father was brutal and dangerous physically and verbally, but generally did not hurt Josie directly. But Josie watched him assault her brother many times; she was too scared to do much about it, although when she found her father in a rare good mood she did sometimes ask him to be nicer to Alan. The grandmother saw and knew everything but just watched and cried as the mayhem continued. So here we have three kinds of bystanders: joiners, helpers and watchers, and three kinds of people, abuser, victim, and bystander.

The Cronin family made a lot of noise. Eventually their next door neighbor grew tired of hearing the screams, and he threatened to report the family to child welfare if the abuse didn’t stop. His threats had an effect; although the abuse did not stop altogether, it did diminish, which was of some benefit. The neighbor, who was a teacher, told Josie that if there were any more problems, she could tell him and he would help. Josie was too scared to ever speak to anyone about anything, although it did help her to know there was a witness who heard what was happening, knew it was wrong, and would come to her assistance if necessary. This bystander became a helper.

“If you see something, say something,” says the sign about terrorism in the NYC metro system, like if you see an abandoned suitcase or backpack, notify the police, because it might contain explosives. Bystanders can also prevent wickedness of a more personal sort, like stopping gang behavior by calling the police, for example. The bystander has a choice to egg the bully on, ignore the bully, which tacitly gives permission for the behavior to continue, or stand up and say stop. If everyone stands up and says stop, the bully will stop, at least while people are watching.

Why does anyone act like a bully? Some bullies are so terrified inside the only way they can find relief is by terrifying someone else, making themselves feel big and strong in comparison. They try to pass their horror on to the next person, but they never get rid of it; instead they create an endless cycle of pain, fear, and rage, a poison that grows inside them and infects everyone around them. They get pleasure from causing pain. They may be wired wrong at birth, or they may have had seriously damaging experiences, or both.

What happens to the victims? They are stuck with the problem of how to find an antidote to the poison that infected them, the contact they experienced with the bully. I see the remedy to having been bullied as being like the cure to lead poisoning—careful slow processing gradually helps the body cleanse itself of the lead. Therapy can be like that. Careful and slow processing releases the venom and develops ease and health.

What happens to the bystander? The bystander takes in a portion of this poison too, whether or not he chooses to help, and if he hasn’t helped he has to bear the added guilt of not having come to someone’s aid. A lot of times people justify their inaction by telling themselves that they can’t do much, but most of the time they can do something, even if it’s just a little. All the people involved, abuser, victim, bystander, are swept up in a tornado of violence and endless consequences.

Even a relatively physically weak bystander has power, though. I remember when I was a caseworker in very dangerous areas of the city, and how the grandmothers in the neighborhoods looked out their windows, and told me, “I’m watching out for you. I’m watching your every move, so don’t be scared. My phone is in my hand. I’ll call the police if I have to.” Knowing they had my back – I’m still grateful.

We are all connected. The Dalai Lama said, “We live very close together. So, our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

Suddenly, as I’m writing, this blog takes a funny, personal and immediate turn. I’m in the country, my desk against the window where I can watch the light move across the trees and shrubs and once in a while see a wild turkey family strolling by. Turkeys are good mothers, by the way.

Today there’s a big storm in the area, high winds and occasional heavy rains, but at this moment the sun is glinting on the wet leaves. The rain starts up again, and I glance out the window and see that a tree has fallen down and landed on Sunny’s roof. Sunny is my nearest neighbor.

I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I go outside and look more closely and see the tree has pulled out of the earth, its grasp weakened by heavy rains. The tree fell gently, and there is no apparent damage. Even trees can lose their grip.




© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, RYT, Object Relations Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ireland

    September 12th, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    I would like to be that person who knows she would get involved if I saw an abusive situation, but I am not sure that I would. I think that I would be far more likely to get involved if it was happening to a family member that I would be if it was happening to a stranger. I don’t know, there is just something very intrusive to me about getting involved in someone else’s troubles. I know that this could be a very damgerous situation and I wish that I could honestly say that I would be that person who totally ignored the fact that something dangerous could happen to me, but I think that that will always be in the back of my mind, wondering what the consequences will be for me if I did step up and try to do something.

  • Chuck

    September 12th, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    Being a bystander who was unable to effect any lasting positive change was not good enough. It was my mother whose life was at stake. Perhaps it taught me my current habit of reacting to the wrong degree and/or in the wrong way altogether or to the wrong things.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 12th, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    Hi Ireland-
    Of course, you need to take care of yourself and know your capabilities. If the situation is dangerous, you can always go somewhere safe and call 911. Thanks for your good sense and honesty.
    Take care,

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 12th, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    Chuck, you sound like you have a strong history and may benefit from talking things out so that you can change your current reaction habit.
    Take care and good luck,

  • Ireland

    September 13th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    Thanks Lynn for not making me feel like a complete heel. But you are right that one thing I could do instead of totally stepping out of the situation would be to call 911 from a distance and at least report the abuse that is going on. That way I am keeping myself and possibly my family safe from harm while doing something to also help someone else who needs it.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 13th, 2012 at 6:22 AM

    Exactly, Ireland- take care of ourselves and the other person too- that’s the ideal.
    Take care,

  • BradleY

    September 13th, 2012 at 2:50 PM

    In my belief there is no way one should be a mute spectator to abuse or violence of any kind.If there is a victim,then that person needs help,no excuses.Yes,you may not be in a position to help him/her,may fear for your own safety,whatever it is there is always something you can do.So please do that.

    It saddens me to see just so many people being so cold and not wanting to even react after having seen something that definitely needs attention.I just wish people just become more human.A candle does not lose anything by passing on the flame to another.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 13th, 2012 at 5:43 PM

    It’s true, BradleY, you don’t have to be a superhero to help. There are many ways to make a difference.
    Take care, and thanks for writing,

  • sharon

    September 13th, 2012 at 11:07 PM

    how a person reacts to being a witness to a crime or abuse depends on everything he has believed and is taught all his is not a momentary decision as all his mental chemistry is involved in making the decision.and if you are not someone who will not take things lying down,chances are you will be just that-a bystander!


    September 14th, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    I think a person who is witness to any outward incident has far more significance than they think they have! Not only is that person a witness (I prefer to use witness because bystander, at least to me, sounds like someone who does nothing to help and just watches) but also his or her actions can make or break things for the victim. If the perpetrator sees that people around the victim are ready to help him or her and that they will stand up against the perpetrator then the perpetrator is less likely to cause harm to the victim!

    If you witness something then please make it clear by your actions that you will not remain a bystander but will do something to help the victim and that will definitely scare away the perpetrator on most occasions.

  • Chuck

    September 14th, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    Good point, the response or lack thereof definitely has an impact. As a childhood victim of domestic abuse, it really hurts to know that people had to have heard the screams and did nothing. It sent me the message that our pain meant virtually nothing.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    September 14th, 2012 at 6:00 PM

    Hi Sharon-
    As you say, in an emergency everything and all that you are, all your history and your mental chemistry come into play and you make your move. Or not. Which is also a decision.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    September 14th, 2012 at 6:10 PM

    Hi Rachel- how well said, witness, not bystander- that means someone who will help. The act of witnessing can help.
    And as an example- a woman in my yoga class was sexually attacked in a local park. Another yoga student witnessed the crime and as he neared the scene the perpetrator ran away. Meanwhile someone else called the police and the man was caught.
    He was identified in a line up by everyone who had been at the scene; they all testified when the perpetrator was eventually tried. He was found guilty, and sent to jail.
    The woman was injured physically and emotionally, but knowing that people came to her aid made it easier for her to recover.
    This morning I met the first man who came to her aid. I heard about this adventure some time ago, and always imagined that the hero was a strong young guy. No so. He is easily in his 60’s, in great shape because he does yoga, but by no means the strong young guy I had imagined. But of course, he and all the people who stepped up in one way or another were super heroes.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    September 14th, 2012 at 6:14 PM

    Chuck,experiences of helplessness, especially in childhood, are very hard to digest. Knowing that you were ignored is horribly painful, and I am deeply sorry that you have this history to bear and repair. I wish you every good feeling, and I hope that you will find a way to emerge from this lonely vacuum.

  • Chuck

    September 14th, 2012 at 10:37 PM

    Thanks Lynn, your descriptive term, lonely vacuum, was perfect! I didn’t think of their behaviour as horrible until I started attending ACoA meetings and came out about what my family had experienced, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the silent response of people who knew, I doubt if I would have known what to say in their place. Put simply, that’s “the way it was” for many families and striking a spouse was only declared to be a crime in Canada during my parents’ lifetime. It did (and still does at 50) however make openness, trust and a sense of one’s value as a human being feel unnatural.

    Thankfully, speaking up against domestic abuse is no longer taboo and domestic terrorism is no longer widely held to be a private matter. I am grateful that society has made great strides in this area.

    P.S. Thanks Lynn for creating this space, allowing me to share and hearing what I had to say, this is for me absolutely invaluable. I hope you too have much support available.

  • Georgina

    September 15th, 2012 at 3:53 AM

    I kind of think that we have a moral responsibility to help others, even when we know that it will be difficult. That’s not to say that you have to openly invite danger upon yourself, you can do this in a way that you stay safe, but this is kind of the way I think the universe should just natuarlly work. You see others in harm’s way, it is our responsibility to our fellow human beings to help them aout- wouldn’t you wat someone to do the same thing for you?

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    September 15th, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    Chuck, thank you so much for writing about your experiences and your feelings. I know the territory you’re talking about, and it’s hard to get away from it.

    It’s ironic, but common, that children who grow up in abusive families develop intense feelings of shame, when really it’s the abuser who should have to deal with those feelings, not the innocent kids.

    Reading your words and thoughts makes this journey easier for everyone.

  • Chuck Sleep

    September 16th, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    If there’s a takeaway for bystanders from my story, it is that your action, even in calling 911, will have an impact far into the future for people you don’t even realise are involved.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    September 15th, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    Thanks, Georgina, for seeing things clearly and with heart.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 17th, 2012 at 5:07 AM

    Chuck, that’s an excellent point, to realize the far reaching and unknown consequences of our actions. Thank you for this and for all of your comments.
    Take care,

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