This post upholds and validates (but is not limited to) the experiences of 3 femmes of the herbal community, Deer Prunus, Gwynnie Brân Hale, and another woman I have requested consent from to name here, who have come forward about sexual abuse at the hands of someone who was supposed to be their teacher and healer, Sean Donohue. I’ll refrain from rehashing the events in my own words, but instead direct you to read their full experiences via the public letter of support linked below. Instead of centering my own experiences, I wanted to start by stating that survivors deserve the basic humanity of our attention and compassion. For each person who has stepped forward, there are most likely many more who haven’t. For each teacher/healer who crossed major lines of trust and violence, there are many more who will go to their graves with the satisfaction that no one ever spoke up about them. I write what I write here for all of them.
Please consider adding your name to the public letter of support that emerged from this.
What’s your favourite formulation for protecting and cradling your heart during times of hopelessness? You know, that lovely tea that reminds you of a beautiful day spent connecting in the forest, or a tincture of concentrated joy?
What’s your go-to medicine for breathing life onto the embers of your rage? That fortifying catalyst of pure liquid courage that helps you draw back the arrow with clear intention, releasing it on your breath towards the transformation of a new world?
What’s your most dependable energetic shield? That balm of protection and courage that creates an invisible strength that guards your spirit?
What do you use to balance your mix? That sure-fire equalizer that engages your critical mind amidst a surge of status quo mundanity?
You might want to grab those medicines. Keep them handy. They’re strong accomplixes.
This post is also about us. It’s about #metoo becoming a collective snowball that is finally finding a way out of the redactions and deleted-comment-selective-reality known as social media. It’s about the protection of the status quo colonial violence that created divisive and reductive terminology like “call-out culture.” It’s about silencing, erasure, powerlessness, celebrity, and the curated reality of the western world. This post could just as easily be about any number of other teachers-turned-abusers and healers-turned-boundary violators in our small community who have achieved celebrity status without displaying much more than a knack for charisma and a penchant for the commodification of appropriated knowledge. This post is also about the “herb scene” which is a microcosmic expression of the macrocosm of power and control currently threatening us- a threat that has real-as-fuck consequences and effects on actual people, communities, and cultures.
I know what it feels like to pedestalize someone, wanting deeply to be accepted and loved and held by them. Do you? I know what it feels like to say no, and to have that NO thrown back in my face violently, my sacred boundaries disrupted and my trust in humanity crumbled to the ground. Do you?
I’ve been assaulted multiple times by multiple predators, men and women alike. Each time I was absolutely silent, compliant, and secretive about it, because of similar threats, erasures, and coercions. The violence I initially experienced was no match for what came in the months and years after my initial encounter with terror and shame. They never once struck me with their hands, held a blade to my throat, or threatened me physically in any way. Instead, the violence I experienced was delivered as a blow to my very foundation, through a complete erasure of the reality of my experience. It came as a singular voice of coercion that telling my truth would fall on deaf ears of disbelief and mockery. That voice whispered “slut” in my ear, before the word was ever reclaimed by us. It came as a seed of shame and confusion that slow-released the death of my self-worth, leaving me convinced that everyone would believe my predators, that my voice had no weight, and that I was the one at fault.
I share this with you, the first time I’ve ever shared this publicly, to illustrate not only how deeply traumatizing it is to be violated, shamed, erased, and left without justice, but also just how common it is. The violence is compounded now that we have three worlds within which to curate our stories- the physical, the spiritual, and now, the virtual. That violence led us to this moment. I may not have been believed all those years ago, but I’ll be damned if that violence is perpetuated in our community one moment longer.
It’s taken me awhile to write this because I’m not part of this community, really. I’m on the margins, a biracial, pansexual, white-passing, cis, Indigenous femme who wanted nothing more than to deepen my knowledge of plant medicine to help my community heal. I’ve peeked in from time to time but after bringing up the “C” word (Cultural Appropriation) I was descended upon by a throng of rabid wannabes. Because of this, I have nothing to lose. Out of respect for the survivors, I have held my critique, choosing instead to hold space with and for them as they collectivize and speak their truth. That network of amazing people has given me the space and time to draw back my own arrow, in my own time, to speak to this more deeply. I’m releasing that arrow here, now. The bullseye: YOU. Those who have stood beside womxn and femmes as our voices have been consistently marginalized. Those of you who ranted and raged when pussies were being grabbed and Kavanaughs were being confirmed. The ones who were marching in 2017 and again in 2018 and shared #metoo on their timelines in solidarity. The ones who read the predator’s initial admittance to his transgressions and boundary violations, then subsequent (many-versioned) retractions, and coddled him out of celebrity and a deeply embedded misogyny that never once gave an inkling of credibility or compassion to his survivors. And this is ESPECIALLY for those who perpetuated the survivors’ erasure while stroking the ego of their predator, and then deleted your complicity LIKE SCREENSHOTS DON’T EXIST. There are so many that it would take an entire website to post them.
Sometimes I want to go back to a time when I was still on the periphery of the herbal community, peeking in and feeling mystified by all the amazing healing that plant medicine carries. That time in my life before I realized that the moorings of western knowledge were based on the same colonial violence that makes it ok to stay silent and keep white men at the centre of power. Has no one recognized this pattern until recently? Or has it somehow served everyone to maintain a status quo where anyone on the margins is either stolen from and silenced; or tokenized, fetishized, and made into an object for consumption? (Check: ALL OF THE ABOVE.)
The thing is, this isn’t new- this colonial violence is the dark secret of the herbal community- a secret that has been maintained by a hierarchical power structure that mirrors the dominant (western) culture. It’s the reason that so many of us (especially BIPOC/LGBTQ2S folx) don’t attend your events, schools, or webinars. It’s coming to light now because our world is on fire and we’ll be damned if the very community that’s supposed to help people heal mirrors the same violence as the brutal world that surrounds us. This violence is being called out because #timesup, we’re exhausted, and we need to heal this gaping wound so that we can collectively join forces for the Faces to Come. These predators are either teaching their students the same power dynamic or their just plain old fucking them up to repeat these cycles of abuse in some other part of their life.
Most of my herbal education addresses infection the same way- you heal from the bottom up. What herbalist worth their salt would use comfrey salve on a deep wound full of infection, leaving it to abscess and eventually cause sepsis? Why, then, would anyone in their right mind think that the experiences of these survivors are isolated incidents, and that Donohue is a singular predator? That is the mark of western thought- individualism at its finest. There is a pattern here, and the herbal community is gangrenous. It manifests itself in microaggressions, appropriation, complicity in violence, and the upholding of pillars of a dying culture when you know better in your heart and soul. How many people in this community cheered when statues of Confederate military in the south were taken down? Well, your old statues are being removed one by one, by their own doing through the voices of the survivors who are collectivizing. The survivors are disrupting this violence with their very bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits. They deserve to be heard, held, honoured, protected, and healed.
“Call-Out Culture” is defined as the public naming, often by “progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers” of oppression (as defined by the values of the community), such as sexism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia, etc. (Ahmad 2015 p. 1.) While “calling out” is a definitive and immediate disruption and recognition of violence and oppression, the issue with reducing justice work to simply “calling out” is that it’s directed from a place of desire for instant gratification without a plan for restorative healing. There is little regard for the root cause/source of the injustice, or a plan to remedy the crumbling foundation upon which our current world is built- mainly because (watch out, I’m gonna use the “P” word) those in power (the privileged) benefit too much from it to destroy it. If you don’t buy into the idea of this, think about how it would benefit a well-known New Age fraud who sells sweat lodge ceremonies and “vision quests” for actual dollar bills (like you can put a price on Indigenous Knowledge and ceremonies) to give up their cash cow/appropriated identity. This is all they know, and they’re not relinquishing that power willingly. When it’s taken away from them, they say we’re not “respecting our elders.” Newsflash: you don’t choose to be an elder- you earn that shit through countless years of reciprocity and Good Mindedness- then, if you’re lucky, you’re community names you as one.
What other options are there for justice in a world where strength for the marginalized comes in making visible the erased and naming oppressions otherwise buried under normalization? I’ve heard of the term “calling in,” defined as “speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself” (Ahmad 2015, p. 1.) I respectfully challenge this concept as it privileges those who hold power and silences survivors who benefit from the strength and protection of a collective voice- all out of the politeness of not “making a spectacle”. Imagine the fear of sitting in private with the person who traumatized you, telling them how their violence damaged you, and having a chat about that- in private- lest I create a spectacle. How is that a safe space? I’m sure “calling in” has its place, but this isn’t one of those times. These are desperate times, and you know what that calls for.
If “call-out culture” is as misguided and bullying as those who named it profess it to be, and “calling in” doesn’t offer realistic safety for survivors, then what’s in between them? We’re left standing on a bridge between predator and survivor, harmer and harmed- this is the liminal space of mediation and conflict resolution. If my time working for the Six Nations Justice Program co-creating an Indigenous Dispute Resolution (IDR) framework taught me anything, it taught me how important restorative justice is. The IDR framework centres around the story of Todadaho, the leader of the Onondaga nation and a sorcerer with a “crooked body and snakes for hair” who terrorized his people with violence and cannibalism. Deganawidah, the Peacemaker, worked with a radical woman named Jigonhasee to transform Tododaho’s violence into peace. They began this process with a song that led to healing, straightening his body and “combing the snakes from his hair” (Walker 2009, Stevens 2002.) The story of Todadaho is central to the dispute resolution process, considering the healing of the wrongdoer just as essential as the survivors. Often times this concept falls on deaf ears or even disgust, as it’s difficult to want anything beneficial to happen for those who cause harm. As Haudenosaunee people, we have had to reconnect with our customary practices that never left anyone behind. As herbalists, we were drawn to herbal medicine because of its holism, its ability to address not just symptoms, but root causes that eventually direct the vital force to achieve balance. Restorative justice work is similar- in order to fully heal, to achieve reduced recidivism rates, to stop the cycle of abuse from being perpetuated, we need to hold those who harm accountable to their healing process. This is what harm reduction looks like in action.
The story of Todadaho is just one example from one culture. I challenge you, when the time is right and when Donohue’s survivors have begun to access healing, after all of the fallout of what’s yet to come, to dig deep into your own cultures to seek out how your ancestors maintained collective balance. And when I say “ancestors” I don’t mean your recent settler ancestors whose lives were already marred by the colonial violence that swept through their people. I mean your Indigenous ancestors, the ones who knew how to walk in balance with each other and the land.
This may be seen as a “call out” post- and maybe it is- but what do we do when violence is all around us? Let’s meet on that bridge and find out.
Ahmad, A. (2015). A note on call-out culture. Briarpatch Magazine, 2.
Nakamura, L. (2015). The unwanted labour of social media: Women of colour call out culture as venture community management. New Formations, 86(86), 106-112.
Walker, P. O. (2009). Singing a new song: The role of music in indigenous strategies of nonviolent social change. Nonviolent Alternatives for Social Change, 130.