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Documentary Asks Troubling Questions About Bullying

Filmmaker Beverly Peterson explores bullying, suicide and scapegoats.

In her award-winning documentary, What Killed Kevin? filmmaker Beverly Peterson set out to tell a story—and ended up asking how the story got told in the first place. I’ve previously written about her film which explores the suicide of Kevin Morrisey. Morrisey was a managing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review when he died from suicide on July 30, 2010, a death that was promptly attributed to workplace bullying. Peterson, a former target of workplace bullying herself who has a popular blog, Our Bully Pulpit, was drawn to the story of how a man could be driven to suicide by the abusive behavior of his boss. But in short order, she found a far more complex story, one that reveals the many layers of human aggression, workplace gossip, and the inexplicable but multi-faceted factors that contribute to any suicide. Perhaps even more revelatory was the manner in which the story became spun as caused by a “bully boss” in the first place.

Peterson’s film is now available on the internet as an interactive feature that allows the viewer to explore the puzzling pieces of the story one clip at a time. With alternative views playing side by side, the viewer can reach their own conclusions aided in part by reading the memos, emails and news reports as they are referenced. It is a brilliant use of technology for which Peterson was awarded Best TransMedia Website at the 2013 UFVA “Story First Conference,” and has been praised by The Washington Post for showing how complicated human relationships can be when explored in depth.

What the viewer learns in following the trail of tears that Morrisey’s suicide brought to those who knew and loved him, is that the story was rapidly framed as “caused by a bully boss” when outside interests stepped in to claim the story as their own and used it to advance pending workplace bullying legislation. Peterson demonstrates how Gary Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, contacted administrators at the University of Virginia in the wake of Morrisey’s suicide, suggesting that had the university hired him (instead of Val Cade, a respected author and expert on workplace bullying) for a prior workshop on bullying, that Morrisey might still be alive. More alarming, Namie rapidly led the call to demonize Morrisey’s supervisor and friend, Ted Genoways, as “a bully” without speaking to him or his staff, and based on little information of the history of Morrisey’s mental health issues, Genoway’s long-standing friendship with Morrisey, or material facts related to the events leading up to Morrisey’s death.

Once Morrisey’s tragic death had been framed by a single narrative of “workplace bullying,” and Genoways was made the scapegoat in the effort to attribute blame, a biased media quickly fixed the narrative in place with false claims that Morrisey had left a suicide note blaming Genoways for his death (he did no such thing, and the viewer can read the suicide note on the interactive site). The documentary shows how reporters with the local paper, The Hook, as well as The Today Show and The Chronicle of Higher Education, not only had personal relationships with the subjects of their stories, but consistently failed to conduct any objective reporting before branding Genoways a “bully,” and uncritically accepting Namie’s interpretation as fact. As journalist Elliott Wood notes in the documentary, with news outlets slashing their funding for investigating their stories, they increasingly rely on “experts” to provide and interpret “the facts” –just as they did by turning to Namie not for perspective, but for answers, rather than seeking them out on their own.

But this is not a documentary about what a bad guy Gary Namie is or what a good guy Ted Genoways is. Indeed, what Peterson’s film illuminates is that the good guy/bad guy approach to understanding social conflict, however inviting it might be, is fundamentally flawed. Peterson leaves no doubt that Morrisey felt abandoned by his institution when he sought help for workplace conflicts; that Genoways was making managerial decisions that were not popular with staff; and that Genoways might well have been flawed in his interactions with his subordinates. But at the same time, she clearly shows that as the story shifted from shock and sadness at a coworker’s suicide to finger pointing and gossip about whether or not Genoways was to blame, the aggression that became turned toward Genoways was itself a form of bullying run amuck. From hate mail to death threats to public denunciation (for quite some time Namie himself had a blog posting urging potential employers to never hire Genoways, a post he has since removed), the treatment Genoways received was in every sense an egregious mobbing based on gossip and aimed at destroying the man cast as the “bad guy.”

Which brings us to another fundamental flaw, this one in the anti-bullying rhetoric—a flaw which characterizes any aggressive workplace campaign against a worker. And that is that while most workers would agree that it is wrong to mistreat their coworkers and subordinates, when they view that very same behavior as “deserved,” those who engage in it no longer view it as mistreatment. (And on that point, too, Peterson’s interactive documentation reveals a provocative memo authored by Namie, who concedes that his infamous Zogby poll found that only 3% of workers reported being bullied at work. Because such a low figure failed to support his campaign of a “silent epidemic,” he altered the question to ask workers if they were “mistreated,” resulting in a higher statistic that he has since reported as workers reporting being “bullied.”)

In a workplace mobbing, when a group of workers shun, attack, mistreat, gossip about and make false accusations against a coworker, they do not perceive their behavior as wrong—because they convince themselves it is deserved. For that reason, collective aggression in the workplace always escalates until the worker is driven out or so disempowered that they are rendered effectively invisible. The more shamed the workers are by their bad behavior, the more they will collectively attribute the behavior to the target of their aggression—“they brought it on themselves,” “they have nobody to blame but themselves,” “I had no choice in doing what I did.”

Similarly, while those who adamantly oppose bullying rightly condemn exclusion, dehumanization, name-calling, torment, false accusations, denial of due process, public ridicule and other acts of aggression as “bullying,” once convinced that a person is “a bully,” those same behaviors are viewed as “deserved.” The acts themselves are not considered bullying if the collective verdict is that the accused is a bully, and hence deserving of any and all forms of aggression. And that's mobbing.

There is no more telling example of this double-standard than in the manner in which What Killed Kevin? presents the moral mosaic of Kevin Morrisey’s suicide alongside the zealotry with which outsiders and the media vilified Ted Genoways, a gifted writer and editor who left his beloved and well-paying position at VQR in response to the public lynch mob that hurled the bully label at him. As he says in the film, “Anybody who decides they don’t like me, all they have to say is they feel bullied by me.”

And in the words of Elliott Wood, referencing how quickly the VQR office turned poisonous once the finger was pointed at Ted, “People talk about a side of Ted that I don’t know, but there was also a side to these people in the office that I didn’t know at all.”

It’s an ugly side inside us all, one which is revealed in times of conflict when confusion reigns and we seek understandable answers and someone we can point to as the cause of all the trouble. But as What Killed Kevin? implores the viewer to consider, sometimes the truth really is confusing, sometimes people are flawed and yet not evil, and sometimes the failure to look at our own behaviors, no matter who we are, can lead to tragedy. Kevin Morrisey’s death was indeed a tragedy that may or may not have been preventable. And the scapegoating and vilifying of Ted Genoways is no less a tragedy, just because it is deliberate.

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