Time’s Up for “Silencing” Tactics

By Neşe Devenot|November 20, 2018

A few years ago, I witnessed the systematic silencing and shaming of Lily Kay Ross for having dared to call attention to severe abuses of power in the psychedelic space. Her extraordinary bravery in sharing her own experience with abuse was met with victim blaming and accusations of selfishness. Key members of the psychedelic research community turned on her for “jeopardizing” the entire field of psychedelic science with her “negativity” and “theatrics.”

Psychedelic Sisters In Arms is inspired by women who have come forward to speak their truths about the sexual violence they’ve experienced in psychedelic communities, and is indebted to the whisper network that continues to ensure the safety of the outspoken survivors to this day. Read the Series.

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Afew years ago, I witnessed the systematic silencing and shaming of Lily Kay Ross for having dared to call attention to severe abuses of power in the psychedelic space. Her extraordinary bravery in sharing her own experience with abuse was met with victim blaming and accusations of selfishness. Key members of the psychedelic research community turned on her for “jeopardizing” the entire field of psychedelic science with her “negativity” and “theatrics.” Her warnings about the potential for manipulation and sexual abuse in the context of the psychedelic community went largely unheeded. Lily left the field and the country, and the discipline lost a formidable intellect with tremendous talent.

Lily was told that her message was—at best—unwanted and unnecessary, but my later life experience showed just how important her work actually was. A few years later, I was sexually assaulted in a ceremonial context with a trusted elder in his 70s. This man had been a longtime mentor and nearly a father figure to me, and I trusted him. He prepared a tea for me to drink, which ultimately left me unresponsive and hence unable to provide any kind of consent. While I was unresponsive, he helped himself to my body, reaching under my clothes and penetrating me with his fingers.

Once I was able to register what had just happened, I was devastated. I was in an abusive marriage at the time, and I knew that my partner would use this against me, as he did for months – constantly mocking me about how much I enjoyed being touched by wrinkly old fingers, about how much I wanted it. But I knew I didn’t want it. In that very dark place, I remembered Lily’s talks and writings, which helped me realize what had just happened—that I had been taken advantage of, and that it wasn’t my fault. Prior to hearing Lily’s message, I would have blamed myself and thought I had somehow given the wrong message. Now I could see clearly that this man was a predator—that his grooming had been intentional and practiced, and that I wasn’t the only one he had done this to.

Seeing how much Lily helped me through this very dark and turbulent time, I knew my experience was irrefutable proof of how important her message actually was. I knew her treatment by the community was reprehensible, and I’ve had less and less tolerance for these silencing tactics as time has gone on.

Sexism and abusive behavior continues to inflict harm and to limit the field’s potential, even when it shows up in subtler forms than outright assault. Some time ago, I was invited to speak at a psychedelic conference at the 11th hour, since the organizer was desperate to fill in for some last-minute cancellations. Despite the obvious desperation (I was bombarded within the span of an hour via text message, voicemail, email and Messenger), this organizer framed the situation as a favor to me, even though I would actually be doing a favor to him.

I already had a speaking engagement scheduled for that day, which I would need to cancel. Since I wouldn’t have much time to prepare, I mentioned that I would need to model content from a previous talk, which contained the core insights from nearly a decade of work.

The organizer’s response was positively dripping with disdain: “Nese, that talk is an introductory talk and none of it will be new to our attendees. Timothy Leary, the NYU psilocybin project, all that stuff is old news to our audience.”

I was furious. Why would a conference organizer tell a young but decorated female scholar that her most consequential insights were merely “old news”? To make matters worse, it was clear that he hadn’t actually read what I’d sent him, since he followed by requesting what I had specifically addressed in that talk: “I’d love to hear you talk about psycholinguistics and Psychedelics and your scholarly research and the broadening of the definition of Psychedelic research out of medical and into literary.” I had done that specifically by referencing Timothy Leary and my experience working with the NYU psilocybin project.

Having experience with abusive people and extensive training in close reading, I could easily see the power games at play in these messages. I was upset at the thought that some other young woman might not have this same background, and might not be able to see through the manipulative tactics. She might internalize what she read, and think her own ideas weren’t really worth sharing after all. And she might reorient her work as a performance, thinking she would do better to please an older man who was ultimately only concerned about his own reputation. So I decided it was my duty to do something, since I could.

I decided to do the talk that I was told I couldn’t do, since it would be such a clear example of the hypocrisy underlying these exchanges. I could see how the whole thing would play out: it would be good, so he would take credit for it. “That was a necessary talk,” he spoke into the microphone as I exited the stage to thunderous applause. He literally said my talk was “necessary,” when he had previously told me it was actually meaningless and unnecessary, because the audience responded well. He never acknowledged the about-face, let alone apologized.

And while this is just a small thing, there are much darker allegations from credible sources surrounding this figure, and the casual misogyny that was so apparent in my exchanges often goes hand in hand with more serious violations. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. After all, even the people who didn’t know Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator knew he was a bully. Bullying shouldn’t be tolerated either, and the same attitude and willingness to cross others’ boundaries ultimately fueled both tendencies.

We absolutely need to do better. We need to clean our own house and step up to the table on justice and equality. We need to support marginalized voices and take survivors seriously. As Carl Jung has said, whatever remains unconscious will play out in your life as “fate.” If we don’t bring light and acknowledgement to these pervasive dynamics, they will eventually make themselves seen and felt in other ways. We have an opportunity now to right our wrongs, to make amends with those we have injured, and to chart a path for a more welcoming and inclusive future. I hope we do the right thing.

Psychedelic Sisters In Arms was produced in collaboration with Oriana Mayorga.

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Neşe Devenot

@ NeseLSD

Neşe Devenot is the Medicine, Society and Culture Postdoctoral Scholar in Bioethics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Previously, she was a founder of the Psychedemia interdisciplinary psychedelics conference, a Research Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Timothy Leary Papers, and a Research Fellow with the New York University Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study. She was awarded Best Humanities Publication in Psychedelic Studies from Breaking Convention and received a Women of the Psychedelic Renaissance grant from Cosmic Sister. Her research explores the function of metaphor and other creative uses of language in descriptions of psychedelic experiences, as well as abuses of power and hegemonic social forces within the psychedelic community.