Not contributing to abuse is difficult these days. Not only does one have to be slightly more nuanced when interpreting others, but must actually do something constructive occasionally. Gone are the days when one could just sit back, relax and let group think do the difficult work whether it be finding witches, evaluating sexual harassment claims or reminding victims of crimes that we have all moved on—without them.
Jokes aside, most of us are not the kind of people who would knowingly help someone abuse another person. And yet, enough of us are used to do just this by predators whether we play a large or small part in the abuser’s demented symphony. Using others to help abuse another person or do one’s dirty work is a common strategy for predators, narcissists or other abusive individuals. It keeps them from being accountable, or getting caught and it allows them to continue their abuse as long as possible.
A “flying monkey” is a person who is used as a tool, extension or resource of the types of people mentioned above to optimize the level of abuse, control and protection of the abuser at the expense of the target. Most flying monkeys do not even realize they are being used this way. They think they are just being a “supportive friend,” “good Christian,” following orders, or bending rules to return a favor. And, predators manipulate. They will take one’s morals, values and intuitions about people and hijack them. They love “nice” people. They will attempt to make you believe you are doing the right thing, helping them defeat evil, helping them punish someone who has wronged them, helping them mend a relationship, or helping a sinner find grace and forgiveness. When the predator gets in trouble, they will lead you to vouch for them while believing you are just being there for a friend, or they will play the sympathy card to have you spy on, humiliate, ostracize or force a target to return to the abuser over and over again. You will intimidate and pressure the target into not resisting further abuse.
And yet, we ask ourselves, why do predators get away with severely injuring so many people for so long? Ex) Men who molest boys average 150 victims before they are caught (Ken Wooden, 2014). In the end, the answer is two-fold: 1) Because a predatory individual knows how to manipulate the target and those around them, and 2) because the rest of us let them continue their abuse unchecked. A predator is able to thrive in contexts where they have minimal or any consequences for their behavior (which usually starts out minor) and are able to successfully isolate the targets they select. If you, your family, church or organization knows they have an individual facing extended abuse still, then you have not sufficiently communicated to the predator that you will not stand for their behavior or made them sufficiently accountable.
In sum, predators may not have empathy, but they understand it and will use it. They will make you think they have empathy for you, their precious monkey, and their beloved, even if unwilling, target and then get you to turn on others for them. While they tell you what an amazing person you are, they will also bombard you with messages direct and indirect about a certain person they are after and make it sound like they are concerned, worried, or confused as to why the person wants to stay the hell away from them. They will portray themselves as well-meaning, jilted or wronged in some way. You will feel so sorry for them and wonder why their beloved target wants nothing to do with them. They will try and get you to see their behavior towards this person as innocent, generous, non-creepy or non-obsessive…etc. I don’t know why she overreacted that way to me. I am just a friendly inclusive person/like to give hugs/have that personality. And of course, they kept trying to give the “hugs” to the target even though they were unwanted. But you need not worry, the predator is “long suffering” and will not give up on their target.
Of course, most normal people do not go through excessive lengths to build network connections and friendships around targets just so that they can abuse, destroy or pick off a particular individual, but predators do. Know their behavior. And do not be their flying monkey at church, work, home, online...anywhere where you and people exist.
What Predators Do
Put simply, a predator will: 1) select a target, 2) groom them &/or their environment to accept the abuse, 3) isolate or entrap their target so they can’t escape, 4) then change the relationship with their target to be more overtly cruel and 5) maintain control as long as possible or until they get bored and reset the process with a new target. For a recent example involving a prominent pastor of a church, check out my paper on theology and abuse here.
A target is typically selected because: 1) They have something the predator wants (they may be attractive in some way, their “type,” highly skilled, a social obstacle or any number of things. Usually whatever it is it comes down to the predator’s need for a power trip whether it is a small, vulnerable child or an adult who is unprotected and down on their luck. 2) The predator believes s/he may get away with exploiting them either because the target looks like they will not put up a fight &/or the context won’t. Does this person have high self-esteem? Do they look like they will have adults, supervisors, peers, coworkers, other church members who will defend them or who they could go to if something goes wrong? If they like the target, can the predator cut them off from support channels long enough? Time to see.
Next, the predator will test the waters. They will have already extensively ingratiated themselves to the target and community through favors, flattery, or becoming some sort of pillar of the community. They will have peppered the target with compliments, appear to help them, try and fill a void in their life all while sneaking in some not so nice things just to see what they will do. It might be a slightly off comment or it might be some slightly inappropriate touching (i.e. brushing up against a knee). If they are not confronted on these little power plays by either the target, the group, adults or leadership, but get away with them, they will proceed and escalate. Depending on the target’s context, it may not matter if the target resisted if the adults in charge give them unlimited access regardless of protestations. The key is: will they be stopped? No? Perfect.
Still, intermixed with the beginning abuse or slight off or inappropriate behavior will be little “niceties” to confuse the target and those watching. I.e. the stranger does not just tell the kid to get into the car, but offers the child candy. Gifts and compliments may be given publicly to communicate how nice the predator is. The gifts can also function to gaslight the target or individuals who might be on to them or showing visible resistance to recent abusive activity. Doing these things publicaly also helps ensure compliance and communicates to the target that everyone else already knows how wonderful the predator is. Key here is that gifts function to deceive and control.
Problem: To continue the metaphor of strangers bearing gifts: Essentially we tell the target “Why didn’t you go in the car with him when offered you candy!!?” Or, “Yeah, that person keeps following you with his car and telling you to get in, but he must be nice because he offered you a candy.” We the community point to the gifts and tell the target how nice the predator is being and that they should really give them a chance never mind the gifts are unwanted and given in the context of creepy or abusive behavior. In the end, the gifts are not so nice when they function to deceive/cloud their unsavery behavior to the wider community, there are strings attached or they are used as instruments of control.
Problem: Further, many of us in the church are conflict avoidant, heap blame on victims telling or treating them like they are making a big deal out of nothing, have problems with “forgiveness,” “grace,” just have an “interpersonal conflict,” or ourselves ignore these little power plays as insignificant or easily explained away thus giving the predator the green light. They will not be challenged any time soon.
Problem: Already and possibly before overt abuse occurs, the context will often not have basic accountability structures in place, will likely have conflict avoidant or enabling types in gate-keeping positions, or may have a top down authority structure. The basic principle is: Can someone easily move into the context as it is, do something horrible and get away with it if they are well positioned in the community? Ex) Someone in a position of authority who does not have to answer as much to outside forces can easily exploit those below him or her.
Next, the predator will ensure all escape routes for the target are cut off. In the wild, the animal that is not with the pack gets eaten and predatory animals will strategically try and isolate one animal from the pack so they can be eaten. The same holds true here. They will have created networks of trust in themselves (usually built off of flattery, lies and easy favors) around the target and will start to ensure that these same people will not help or believe the target or anyone who defends them. They may lie about the target so that others have an unfavorable opinion of them, use theology, the Bible or leadership to ensure compliance if they show signs of trying to escape, or may get the target to feel guilty for X so that they do not go for help.
Problem: At this stage many of us have accepted the predator as trustworthy and the target as “the problem.” We have already come to believe that the predator likes/understands us, has our best interest in mind and really, many of us have already displayed tendencies of avoiding conflict. It is unlikely we will help someone in distress. Instead, we will tell them to forgive or that it is all in their head. Maybe we perceive the target as evil because they say negative things about our “friend” or “pastor.”
Progressively, the predator will become worse and worse with their abuse whether physical, psychological or using the group to punish the individual. The lies will get worse. The physical activity will escalate. The group itself will get more hostile towards “the known problem.” Escape routes have been managed and they can keep up the abuse for a while since no one will do anything substantial enough to end the behavior.
Problem: The group has by now accepted new norms towards the target. Anything goes. The target will also by now have long been exhibiting signs of trauma which may further confirm the predator’s narrative that they are unstable, unkind, someone to avoid/not listen to or take seriously…etc. Leadership that is not doing the predatory (many predators are in positions of power) activity may have already taken several disciplinary actions towards the target, endorsed/supported the minor or major power moves of the abusive individual or firmly established in their behavior that they will not be helping the person targeted in any significant way.
The predator will keep going until checks and balances start to appear and until those around them stop overtly tolerating their behavior or giving them slaps on the wrist instead. Eventually people may start to realize that their treatment of person X is a bit excessive and perhaps some of the predators hidden face behind the mask will start to appear or maybe they go too far one time? Once they think they will be found out or get bored they will move on to another target or another context to start everything all over again.
Unfortunately, the sick part of this entire situation is that it is not just about what predators do but how the rest of us often maintain the control of the predator and ourselves create an abusive environment. It is bad enough for the target to have a creepy person after them, but worse when everyone lets it happen, supports their efforts or exhibits marginalizing behavior towards the target. While processing abuse they may be told by the rest of us that abuse is not occurring because the idea of it makes us uncomfortable. Implication being: the rest of us were fooled, we are not the church/organization/people we thought we were, or we may have to do something uncomfortable for us.
How Not to be a Flying Monkey
So, above is what predators do. We know its bad. I don’t think I need to bore you with tons of Scripture telling you abuse, lies, deception and not caring for people exploited by others is wrong. But where does that leave you when you are in the middle of everything? When you have already been excessively flattered, given gifts and are not sure what to believe when an accusation is brought against someone you just know is an amazing person? After all, they were there for you at X time, talk about the Bible a lot, say they are _____ kind of person and ______ kind of person wouldn’t intentionally harm another person…etc.
A flying monkey is someone who does the villain’s bidding. Another reason the predator has built up extensive network connections of people who will love them is that they want you to 1) Keep the target under control (ex: the Pastor who tries to convince the battered wife to return home from the shelter), 2) Marginalize or ostracize the target so that the predator can get X—marginalization takes a community, 3) Attack the target for them so that they do not get caught as easily, and finally 4) so that you will defend the predator should any evidence come to light. You will jump in with character references, declarations to the target that the predator has been nothing but kind to them so they should shut up or will bend the rules to ensure they do not get held accountable.
You might be a flying monkey and do not know it if: you are constantly taking the path of least resistance in “interpersonal conflicts,” are insecure, you are distancing yourself or helping to ice out someone in your community you were warned about or “who deserves it,” get irritated with someone insisting on consequences or who is always complaining about stuff happening to them, are spreading gossip or rumors, you are in charge & someone under you is still being harassed months or years after making you aware of the problem, you are a human, your boss keeps calling you “my pretty” and sending you out on air raids.
In that vein, here are just some suggestions on how not to be or become their flying monkey!
Do a background check before you become their monkey. Mark Driscoll has started a new church….guess what isn’t on his CV. Another way to look at it: Does the person you are hiring or a volunteer working with certain populations (i.e. children) have a history? Does the person accused of bullying have a history of demonizing others at his or her other jobs/departments? Were you 100% convinced X was evil the last time they had you turn on X person and now they want you to turn on person Y.
Do not further marginalize the target. It takes a villaige to marginalize. People excuse themselves very readily by saying they do not have to be the target’s “best friend” while they at varying levels ice them out and are buddy buddy with the predator further isolating the target. Worse, all too often when targets come forward about what happened to them the community is too quick to try and silence them and pile on guilt and gas-lighting in order to restore the “peace.”
A community marginalizes the target further when they retain the predator as the pillar of the community whether it be by keeping him or her in leadership/positions of power over the target (formal or informal), as gatekeepers or orchestrators of community events. It is also done by failing to actively reintegrate and support the target after public damage was done to their reputations. These are instances of the community reinforcing the predator’s narrative and maintaining their power. It functionally cuts off the target from community involvement even as predators or well wishers maintain they are “always welcome.” It also functions to shift responsibility from the community to the target.
Don’t spy for the predator. Do not share person information about others even out of “concern” or listen to others who excessively bad mouth others or particular individuals. Other people’s business is other people’s business. If your new “friend” who just so happened to attach themselves to you after you interacted with the target wants to know this or that about them, or appears a bit preoccupied with what they are doing, don’t tell them anything. It is none of their business. Do not help the predator keep tabs on this or that person because the target is “up to no good.” You are helping them control and intimidate and creating an additional hostile environment for the target.
Respect boundaries. Do not guilt trip targets who are uncomfortable about body contact, gifts, or other unwanted displays of affection. Do not try and convince the wife to return home to her abusive husband from the shelter because he had a conversation or is really really sorry and means it this time and we should forgive…etc. Note too that the predator (or narcissist) will become enraged if they cannot control their target physically or mentally and will very quickly enlist you to keep them in line or punish them for attempting to escape.
Be very wary of public displays of affection from former predators towards targets. They are usually unwanted, but not easily turned down. After all, you will remind the target directly or indirectly that the predator has been so very nice and that they are being rude or ungrateful. Worse yet, maybe the predator made it a community affair—of course channeled through them—and you even signed the card or pitched in to remind the target that you and the predator have their best interest at heart.
Take reports seriously. Most reports of sexual abuse do not happen. That is, the reports themselves are never made. When reports are made, most of the time they are real and come after the abuse has become unbearable and the person is at their breaking point. If you are in leadership investigate that matter and do not stack the deck with “friends” of the predator even if you “know” so and so would never do such a thing. Is there evidence to take action against a predator? In the mean time, protect the target! Keep them away from the predator. Do not give the predator access to the target even if they are playing nice for a while (hint: they know what you want to see and may act accordingly for a while). And, just because there is not enough evidence to convict or punish a person, this does not mean there is not enough evidence to keep someone being harmed away from danger. Do not give them access even if they are pretending to be best buds with their target. Patterned behavior does not disappear over night and even if the target seems to be ok with it, they often have to be to keep themselves safe from you.
Context: Smear Campaign. Do not act out against another person when you hear gossip or possible lies. Get to know and talk to the other person before making a decision. Hear both sides of the story. Is one person constantly warning you about person X and person X just tries to stay away from them and doesn’t speak poorly of others? At the very least be a good neighbor and do not spread bad things or reports about others that you do not know are true even if someone you “trust” says it. I had someone recently (about a year or two ago?) pepper me with tons of very weird over the top compliments they thought I wanted to hear over several days. Next moment they wanted to warn me about person X and get me to agree with them! They would also publicaly say nice things about their teaching abilities and then try and turn me against them in private. Yikes and a 1/2!
If you are in leadership investigate claims before talking to person X about bad behavior that may or may not exist. Be suspicious of spurious reports if person X is already known to be targeted by someone. Context matters. Also note that in many cases you will be dealing with a mob of people the predator is using and hiding behind. You will have lots of people convinced person X is evil and after a while person X will start appearing “unhinged” with sleep deprevation and psychological torture if it has been months or years. Look for patterns. Are the accusations starting out ambiguous or over the top? Is the person accused an outsider?
On the flip side, if you hear a report and do your due diligence and find it to be accurate…Surprise! The person we hired has left several other institutions in financial ruin, has a history of making serious accusations against others that turn out untrue, have criminal backgrounds involving rape…etc. Get involved now. Not later.
Hold people accountable for their actions. If a person gets caught in the act do not listen to their sad story about this being their first time, they are so embarrassed, they didn’t know what they were doing/not in control of their faculties, its not what it looks like. Have them answer for it. They will be very persuasive and convincing, this is not their first time & even if it is, it really should be their last! Your tendency will want to project your own sense of empathy and human compassion onto them: You wouldn’t do such and such unless it was an accident…you would want someone to give you the benefit of the doubt…etc. They are not you.
The predator will tell lots of lies. They will say X. X will not be true. Hold them to it. Or maybe they manipulated and got caught: maybe they told one person one thing and another something different in order to play them against each other. Do not try and come up with elaborate reasons for why a boldface lie is not a lie. Do not come up with some crack pot/pop psychological explanation to explain their lie away: i.e. they just tell lots of lies and manipulate people without knowing it! It takes mental energy to say something obviously untrue and to manipulate others. They said they had $100,000 in the bank and they really had $1000. They just forgot a few zeros? Yes, they are doing it on purpose. Do not explain it away, make them answer for it. Put their sin in the light i.e. expose it and be a just person. Expose it so that it can’t keep happening and they can’t keep getting away with it.
Don’t be conflict avoidant. Similar to the above. Predators absolutely love conflict avoidant leadership and people. It is a free pass to do whatever they want. You may have this hope that being quiet, giving into their demands, siding with the predator in conversation against the target even in a small way (to show you are being fair or not taking sides) will make the tension go away. It won’t. They will excellerate their activity and do it again and again. You have just rewarded them and they are pleased with their new pet.
Recognize your own susceptibility to group think. You are a human. You have mirror neurons. We pick up subtle cues from the people around us and make decisions based off of how we see other people acting. We notice that everyone seems to discount person X? Without even thinking about it, we are likely to engage in it to if we do not pay close attention. A predatory individual will utilize non-verbals to convey what they want you to believe about the target sometimes without saying a word. If you do not think you are susceptible to non-verbals then you may be less politically savvy than you think you are. Perfect.
The predator will also try to hijack group think by simultaneously collecting a large number of people who will think they are an incredible human being by being super nice to them so that they can target that one person or group. That way, you and the merry band will quickly inform the target of abuse that X person has been nothing but wonderful to you aka “shut up!” or that they should let the past be the past when they go to you for help or confide their legitimate fears in you. You will feel pretty good about yourself too while you cut off yet another escape hatch for the target.
Be secure in yourself. I.e. build up a strong sense of self so you are not constantly afraid or insecure about your own place in the community that you readily attach yourself to otherwise transparently predatory, abusive or narcissistic characters. It will also mean that you will not be swayed by this next tactic.
Be wary of excessive, unearned flattery. Predatory individuals know you like you and that you like people who see you as the amazing person you know yourself to be. They are also good at picking out insecurities in others and controlling them with flattery. They know just what you want or need to hear. Ever notice your new friend who keeps saying you are AMAZING—keeps repeating the word amazing—over and over again? You handed them a pencil and now you are the savior of the world! A wonderful giving saint!? …should go without saying and so I will end here. ;)