The trauma of whistleblowers: stuck in static time

DSC00212slim“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” The story reveals the meaning of what otherwise would remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings. –Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen”

If psychic trauma is understood as an inability to stop reliving the same set of experiences, that is, an inability to leave the past behind, then whistleblowers are among the most traumatized people I have ever met. Most don’t experience flashbacks, and other dramatic symptoms. Instead, they remain stuck in static time, “the turbulence of stagnant motion,” as one whistleblower put it.

I was introduced to whistleblowing through my observation of a whistleblowers support group organized by the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D. C. Over a period just short of a year I spent almost one hundred hours with the support group. At first I assumed that the whistleblowers, mostly middle-aged men and women, were talking about recent experiences: blowing the whistle, experiencing retaliation, getting fired. Only after a couple of months did I realize that most were talking about events five, ten, fifteen, or even twenty years ago. Their narratives seemed so fresh, their pain still so sharp, it was hard to believe they were talking about ancient history, or at least so it seemed to me.

I conducted my original research, including spending a long weekend at a retreat for stressed-out whistleblowers, almost fifteen years ago. I wrote a book about my experience, and it was only in writing the book that I came to realize that there is no ancient history as far as trauma is concerned, only an endless past that is always displacing the present. It was through this experience that I first came to understand trauma. Since that time I have published various articles about whistleblowing, and I still get several dozen emails, phone calls, and letters from whistleblowers every year. Most don’t ask for help. They just want someone to listen and understand.

The whistleblower

Whistleblowers are almost as likely to be fired if they go to the boss’ boss about an illegal, immoral, or unethical act than if they go directly to the media (Miethe, 1999). You’d think it would make a difference: one stays in-house, the other defects. The retaliation rate is similar, and the reason given by one whistleblower seems right. They have shown themselves to be someone who might “commit the truth.”

All social organization consists therefore in neutralizing the disruptive and deregulating impact of moral behavior. (Bauman, p. 215)

Whistleblowers are a disruption.

About half of all whistleblowers lose their jobs. Of these, most will lose their house, their spouse, and suffer a period of drug or alcohol abuse. Most of these will never work in their profession again, though it depends on the profession. Nurses, a group overrepresented among whistleblowers, find it easier to get another job in their field than an FDA inspector, or a nuclear engineer, in which an informal blacklist is easier to maintain. Nurses are not necessarily less traumatized, however. One nurse I interviewed had recently quit her new job. Did you quit because you couldn’t face of prospect of being a whistleblower again, I asked. No, she said, “That’s not it. I could do that. What I can’t stand is thinking that everybody cheats.”

Whistleblower narratives: stuck in static time

The odd thing about whistleblower narratives, beyond their aura of timelessness, twenty years ago as recent as today, is that they never stop. A little narrative theory is helpful here. Stories are defined by their end. Everything that happens before is reinterpreted in terms of how it all turns out in the end. Without an ending, there can be no plot and hence no satisfactory meaning—which is precisely why whistleblowers cannot bear to end their stories. In the absence of plot, the whistleblower substitutes chronology. Chronology is meaning, albeit an unsatisfactory one, the meaning that remains when the narrator is absent from the telling.

One might respond that whistleblowers don’t know the end of the story, so they can’t tell a finished narrative. This would be wrong. A story can be meaningful if we don’t know the ending if there is a sense that the story is leading somewhere. Whistleblower stories lack this sense of movement. Instead, their story is an endless sequence of events.

I went to my congressman, they found out and moved my office to a broom closet and told me not to come out until 5pm, when I came out they wrote me up, after awhile I couldn’t take it, they fired me for my so-called outbursts, I appealed to the MSRP (Merit Systems Protection Board), they told me my case was not grievable, I talked to a lawyer, she said it would cost me $25,000 to appeal to the Federal Court, I said I’m delivering pizza, she said . . . .

I have condensed a couple of whistleblower narratives into this single quote in order to convey something of the endless sequence of events. When the whistleblower said his case was not “grievable,” I was so caught up in the monotony of his story, conveyed as much by his lack of affect as the unending succession of events, that I only heard the first meaning: that is was not subject to Merit Systems grievance procedures.

For most whistleblowers I listened to and spoke with the story was already over, they just didn’t know it yet. This is a harsh judgment, but many had been out of work (or work for which they were professionally trained and suited) for years, having exhausted the various legal remedies available. And like Scheherazade they couldn’t stop telling their story, lest they be left with nothing left to say. That is, left with nothing.

How much you can learn depends on how much you can give up

“Our ability to gain access to these narratives depends on what we are prepared to forsake to listen to them,” says Lawrence Langer about Holocaust testimony (p. 195).

Whistleblowers have suffered far less than survivors, orders of magnitude less, and yet the same principle applies. Not only does it apply to those who listen to whistleblowers. It applies to whistleblowers themselves. Following is a list of some of the things that whistleblowers have to give up in order to hear their own story, achieve a sense of an ending, and move on. Though the list is unique to whistleblowers, the principle is the same for all trauma. The ability to move on depends on the ability to forsake most of what one holds dear.

That the individual matters.

That law and justice can be relied on.

That the purpose of law is to remove the caprice of powerful individuals.

That the individual will not be sacrificed for the sake of the group.

That loyalty isn’t equivalent to the herd instinct.

That one’s friends will remain loyal even if one’s colleagues do not.

That the organization is not fundamentally immoral.

That it makes sense to stand up and do the right thing. (Take this literally; that it makes sense means that it is a comprehensible activity.)

That someone, somewhere, who is in charge knows, cares, and will do the right thing.

That the truth matters, and someone will want to know it.

That if one is right and persistent, things will turn out all right in the end.

That even if they do not, other people will know and understand.

That the family is a haven in a heartless world. Spouses and children will not abandon you in your hour of need.

That the individual can know that all these statements are false and not become cynical unto death.

Every traumatized person will have his own list of “truths” he or she has to give up in order to move beyond his endless tale. “Knowledge as disaster” is how Maurice Blanchot puts it, when what one learns in order to move on makes the desirability of living in that new world questionable. Yet there is really no other choice.


C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power. Cornell University Press, 2001.

C. Fred Alford, “Whistleblowers,” in Encyclopedia of American Governance. Macmillan, forthcoming.

Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen,” in Men in Dark Times. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.

Bauman, Zygmunt, Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, 1989.

Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster. University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. Yale University Press, 1991.

Terance Miethe, Whistleblowing at Work. Westview Press, 1999.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *