Trauma and Whistleblowing

Q&A with Jennifer Fraser


Jennifer Fraser is consultant, speaker, teacher and writer of a blog about bullying and the brain and neuroscience.

Her PhD in Comparative Literature and her experiences as a whistleblower herself motivated her to help others to understand how bullying, gaslighting, mobbing, harassment and exclusion are connected to psychology, neurobiology, medicine and neuroscience. She's also on the board of directors of Whistleblowing Canada Research Society.





Question: How is your work about whistleblowing related to your work about brain science?

Fraser: I'm very engaged in the work that Pamela Forward has launched with Whistleblowing Canada Research Society. The keyword is "Research." The more we keep a sense of facts and figures, and the more we really take a look at the laws related to whistleblowing, the more valuable our work is. It's deeply concerning to us that Canada has some of the weakest whistleblowing laws in the world. That has to change. 

In our society, whistleblowing is still treated as a dangerous, destructive and self-sacrificing act, but it shouldn't be. Blowing the whistle on the harm or abuse being done to others is one of the healthiest, most self-determining acts you can do in your life. And yes, there are trauma and risk that come with it, but the focus of my book, The Bullied Brain, is that the brain is innately wired to repair and recover. If you suffer a trauma, if you are gaslit, if you are manipulated, lied to, or cast out of your workplace unfairly, you can get yourself back on track — you can make your brain, healthier, stronger, and more high-performing after that traumatic event.

What I find empowering and inspiring — something that could change the narrative about traumatic events — is 20 years of research into brain science. The research tells us if we learned more about our brains and how they work — and how they connect with others and the world – we could see how we could bring these learnings into schools, sports, workplaces, international affairs and elsewhere. We'd live in a completely different world.

Q: What are you working on now related to whistleblowing?

Fraser: I'm researching what gaslighting does to the brain (defined as the manipulation of a person so that they question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions or memories). As most people know, we have a stress response during traumas or threatening situations: fight, flight or freeze. We fight like animals, or we run from danger (including absenteeism at work or school, or procrastination), and we freeze like a rabbit or deer (we go still or become indecisive in the face of a threat). With gaslighting, as during whistleblowing, the brain fragments, the brain divides, and a person becomes two people, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a victim and a perpetrator, and both are entwined. This fragmenting leads a stressed individual to act with care and respect in the outside world, but harm and disrespect others behind closed doors. The division may lead someone to act healthy and happy in public, but self-sabotage, self-harm in private.

My upcoming book about gaslighting has three parts. Part one presents examples of cultural moments of gaslighting happening around us — in the financial industry, sports, the media and in politics — to show how common it's become. It's not like gaslighting is new, but in 2022, a year of misinformation and conspiracy theories, the Merriam-Webster dictionary declared 'gaslighting' the word of the year.

Part two looks at contemporary case studies of gaslighting where the targets have different responses ranging from tragic to fragmenting to fighting back. An in-depth treatment of three individuals manipulated in destructive ways – all three examples of the betrayal that occurs during institutional complicity – examines the traumatic impact on the brain. When one assumes safety is the institution’s priority, only to discover covering up a variety of abuses is in fact the modus operandi, this puts the brain and self at risk.

Part three circles back to parts one and two with a focus on five brain mechanisms that we unconsciously or consciously use to create our sense of reality. Our massively sophisticated brains are designed to simultaneously process vast amounts of data from the outer world, inner-bodily world, spatial-physical bearing, safety or threat assessment, and interpersonal navigation. Understanding these mechanisms, learning strategies to strengthen them, assists us in identifying and resisting the lure of gaslighting.


Q: Can you explain more about the brain science related to whistleblowing and trauma?

Watch the video

Fraser: Gaslighting is on the mind of everybody. But what I like to look at, ever since I started studying what the neuroscientists know, is what do they know about what gaslighting does to the brain -- and what can we do about it? My big question, my pressing question, and this is very much a whistleblowing question, is: why are we so susceptible to manipulation and lies? Why, in the 21st-century, when we have fact-checking, do we still choose to believe the lie of the cult leader, or the politician, or the boss, even after whistleblowers point to their wrongdoing? Why do we do that?

It's fascinating to me. It's important, because, think about it, our lungs are to breathe air. It's our survival. That's what lungs do. You can't mess with that. If you do, our survival is at risk. Our heart, its role in our lives, is to pump blood through our body. If that's jeopardized, we're at risk. The brain's job is to make sense of massive amounts of data, 24-7. We get data from the outside world coming into our senses. We get data from our body at the same time, telling us what's going on with temperature, or whether we're hungry or sleepy — or if we're under threat. It's incredible how much data the brain is expected to absorb. It takes all that data and creates reality. When the brain can't create reality, as when a whistleblower gets gaslit, the brain starts to degrade all internal systems; it's a survival issue. This abuse is destructive to the brain and can be seen on brain scans. Scientists have extensive, peer-reviewed, replicated research that shows ALL forms of abuse, including verbal abuse and yelling in the face, can cause physical damage to the brain that is visible on brain scans. 

We've seen people become extremely unhealthy in ways that we haven't seen for a long time. Mental illness: we've never seen such high levels. And we have to ask ourselves, we have to try and say, "What could we do differently, so that we're not so vulnerable, so that our brains aren't so vulnerable to gaslighting, because it disrupts our ability to create an authentic reality.


Q: A lot of coaching and teaching normalizes bullying and abuse -- and punishes whistleblowers. What’s going on here?


Watch the video 

Fraser: For me, sports is where I learned a very difficult lesson, and that is that it’s a taboo in our society: we are very comfortable talking about children who bully other children. We don’t think that it’s something outrageous or negative or unfair to say – we don’t paint all children, tar and feather all children, when we say that some children use bullying behaviours to harm other children, but if we say – and this is where sports is so important in this arena — if you say, which is what I did, that adults are actually the ones who are bullying children, then people become very uncomfortable. Adults teach children how to bully, why to bully, what benefits you get from bullying, and then they tell them not to do it. This hypocritical behaviour that we see, this pontificating in an adult world about how we have zero tolerance for bullying, and then, in actual fact, all of us have witnessed it.

We've witnessed a parent bullying a child in ways where we felt sick about it and we wanted to intervene — perhaps we wanted to comfort or protect that child. We know enough not to do it. We all know that if you do that, you actually will probably make it worse for the child, who will suffer retaliation for the fact that the parent got exposed publicly. It's the same thing with coaches, same thing with teachers. I was a teacher for 20 years. Never once did I attend some kind of a faculty meeting or professional development workshop -- I taught at the University of Toronto, I taught at Humber College, I taught at private schools in Canada. Not once did we have a discussion around what do you do if you see a colleague bullying children, bullying students. It’s just taboo. It’s not to be spoken of.

What I look at is the science. I look at big structures, and tell myself, “How does somebody get to that place?” We now know that verbal abuse is as destructive to the brain as sexual and physical abuse is; that's not common knowledge, but it's what they're starting to see on brain scans. And when you look at the brain science, it's really interesting. It's empowering and inspiring, because what we have to remember every single time we talk about the brain is that, while we feel that the broken system of injustice, and economic disparity, and toxic masculinity, and these structures that we can never seem to get away from, the brain can heal from it. The brain has neuroplasticity, and most people don't know that.


Q: How is your whistleblowing research related to your whistleblowing experiences?

Fraser: Many whistleblowers have a strong sense of justice. I call myself an unlikely whistleblower, because I'm not somebody who has a clear sense of justice. I'm more academic and psychological, and have an exploring mind — and think that there's a huge grey area between right and wrong. I'm a whistleblower who acted more on empathy.

When I found out about abuse at a school, I was targeted by the administration. Kids would come to me, parents would come to me, and it got to the point where I said, "There's nothing I can do. I've tried. Telling me is going to get you nowhere. You have to go to the administration and tell them." I didn't have a strong sense of justice that many whistleblowers have. But in 2012, when I found out about the abuse in my son's basketball program, my empathy for my son is so great that I somehow manifested the courage to take the whistleblower path, which is a really awful one. (In 2015, she published a book about the crisis, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom.)

Empathy is important in whistleblowing. You can see it in the brain. When a normal person sees something horrible, they feel empathy, and scientists can see the empathy neural networks and the emotional centres of the brain completely light up when that person is in an MRI machine. Neuroscientists have learned that the brains of narcissists and psychopaths don't light up in those parts.

Whistleblowing research shows a pattern with a typical whistleblower. First, you try to solve the problem internally. So, you go to the authorities. In my case, I went to the school headmaster, the chaplain, the school board. I did all of the things that you're supposed to do when there's a serious problem. I think people should be cautious about that pattern. We're all told that in the workplace you report to the leader or the manager, and that HR will support you every step of the way – and we all know that's not true.

Whistleblowers have to be really careful and very strategic about how we whistleblow. The pattern involves realizing that, internally, people are going to target and gaslight you. That's a really shocking thing to the brain, because, from day one, the brain has been told to do the right thing, or as whistleblowing experts, say, "Commit the crime of telling the truth." But, all of a sudden, you become the problem. The authorities are usually negligent — that's what I found out in the case of my son's school. A year earlier, a lawyer had clearly informed them that abuse was occurring, and they hadn't protected students, and they hadn't informed parents, so they were at risk. The school authorities did everything in their power to make it seem like I was the problem and that nothing was going on.

At that point, the pattern is that the whistleblower seeks a higher authority. I gave an interview to The Toronto Star, and my son and another student were interviewed as well. I also spoke to CTV's W5, even though I am a private person and I didn't want my colleagues to suffer. I'd worked with my colleagues for eight years!


Q: Should whistleblowers always turn to the authorities?

Fraser: In my book, The Bullied Brain, I don't say, "Don't go to an authority." What I do say is, "Develop the capacity to disobey." From a very young age, our brains are conditioned to obey; this has been shown in history and through scientific studies. You need to learn when authorities are untrustworthy. You need to be thoughtful and skeptical. Your health and well-being, and the safety and health of others, hinges on this.

In the book, I have sections and steps in every chapter that present practical, evidence-based, scientific knowledge about what you can do when your brain is being abused or bullied, including case studies of adults and children who have undergone focused training to heal their neurological scars and restore their health from the abuse that’s rampant in our society. We know that our brains are remarkably adept at repairing all kinds of neurological scars. How do you get better?

I want whistleblowers — and all people — to know that Whistleblowing Canada Research Society is fighting to change laws and practices. We want to make whistleblowing a part of every school, organization, sports program and workplace. We should be blowing the whistle all the time, and sharing with each other the difficult truths, because they'll make us safer and healthier and increase fairness in our world.

Jennifer Fraser explains more during a panel discussion, “Whistleblowers, Trauma and Reprisals,” at 8:41 of She also wrote and directed a play and now writes a regular column for Psychology Today called "The Bullied Brain."

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  • Stephanie MacGregor
    published this page in Experts Speak 2024-02-19 16:32:20 -0500
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    published this page in Experts Speak 2024-02-16 15:43:43 -0500

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