GRETCHEN HERRMANN: Hi, there. Can you hear? I'm Gretchen Herrmann, Cornell class of 1970. You know how old I am now. Today it is my pleasure to introduce the main speaker, Sue Mann.
I first met Sue through ice climbing. Not me, I would be too scared of heights and hate the cold. Rather, it was through my housemate, Walter, who was leading a group of Cornellians to the Adirondacks to ice climb. Sue happened to be one of the climbers.
Somehow Sue and Walt maneuvered to ride back together in the same car. A romance ignited. And I was fortunate to have the front row seat to an unfolding love that has blossomed into a marriage of over 15 years, with a lovely 9-year-old son, Luke.
In conversations over the dinner table, I quickly learned what a fascinating and accomplished woman Sue is. I was deeply impressed with her lively intellect, keen perceptions, sharp wit, and buoyant humor. She forwards fresh, but considered opinions that often beckon you to think about things in a different way.
It became clear that Sue is something of a Renaissance woman, with her wide-ranging endeavors in diplomacy, business, finance, sewing, gardening, mothering, winter sports, energy saving-- the list goes on. She also has a gifted way with words, which you will soon experience.
Over the years, Sue and Walt moved a bit. She worked different jobs and tried big-city Boston, but returned to Ithaca as a place to regenerate, and to have a baby. Yet, as a hallmark of lasting friendship, we could always pick up where we left off, despite the passage of time.
Sue has had many fruitful years here, and some that were more difficult-- involving loss of her mother, work struggles, and physical mishaps. Through her struggles, though, she has deepened and grown, developing into even more kind, loving, and compassionate person than she already was. Perhaps it is more than mere coincidence that she shares the same birthday as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, beloved advocate of compassion and kindness for all. Please join me in welcoming Sue Mann.
SUE MANN: Hello, everybody. Thanks, Gretchen. Before I start, I just need to thank a few people. Tracy-- Tracy Brant-- she's been my mentor through this process. Thank you. Thank you so much. I couldn't be here today without you.
And to my husband and son, Walt and Luke, who were serving soup at the back, you've been my anchor when I've been tossed in stormy seas. You've been my northern light guiding me home when I've been lost and despairing. Thank you so much for your love.
Falling apart-- what do those words invoke for you? For me, they invoke feelings of pain, loss, and failure. Three years ago, if you told me falling apart was the best thing that could happen to me, I'd have laughed at you.
Don't be ridiculous. Risk losing my job, my income, our house? Whatever the cost of holding it together, the cost of falling apart was still higher, and so something to be feared and avoided at all costs-- right? That's certainly what I thought before I fell apart.
Yes, there was pain-- tremendous pain, pain that drove me to the edge of giving up. But I also discovered that there was great beauty, and immense hope in the midst of that pain, and that's the story I want to tell today. I'll start with two moments in time, separated by a span of 30 years, and then trace the stepping stones that lead from one to the other.
It's 1988. I'm 17. It's our winter school holidays. I am allowed to ride the bus into town by myself, instead of being driven by my mother. So here I am-- tall, skinny, geeky, on the corner of Pretorius and Van Der Walt streets, the heart of the shopping district in Pretoria, the capital of Apartheid at South Africa.
I'm here to do what many a teenage girl wants to do-- shop-- without my mother's hovering presence and disapproving voice in my ear. This is Apartheid South Africa. It's the only country I know.
My family is no supporter of Apartheid, but living in the white suburbs and going to my nice, mostly white school, I'm very sheltered from its brutal reality. But as I stand on the corner-- the equivalent of 5th Avenue in New York, or the Commons right here in Ithaca, I'm suddenly rooted to the spot in terror-- absolute, gut-wrenching terror.
There could be a bomb literally anywhere. It could be there, in that bus shelter, or there in that trash can, or there in that parked car, or there in that bag that the person is carrying, or there in that shop. It isn't an irrational fear.
In 1983, a bomb outside the South African Air Force headquarters in Pretoria killed 19, and blinded a family friend. That was just a few blocks away from where I now stand. In April, just three months prior, a bomb exploded outside of the main movie theater in Pretoria.
I go there often with friends. It's also just a few blocks away. Even halfway into 1988, it's turning out to be one of the deadliest years of the anti-Apartheid struggle. Bomb targets are mostly what are called soft targets-- banks, shopping malls, restaurants, fast food outlets.
So here I am, riveted in place by terror. There really could be a bomb anywhere. It really could go off at any time. And I say to myself, you have a choice, Sue.
You can stay home, and afraid. You can succumb to the fear that both the Apartheid regime and the anti-Apartheid activists are unleashing to bring an end to each other. Or you can say, screw it. This is my country. If it's my time to die, it's my time to die.
You can live your life on your terms, or on theirs. What's it to be? And so, hardly even aware of the choice I'm making, I choose life. I choose not to be afraid, not to live in fear to get on with the business of living.
I shrug off the fear and go about my shopping. It's that easy-- then. It's September 2017. I'm home alone, here in Ithaca. My husband and son are back at school.
I'm curled up in a ball of misery on the couch. I'm in crisis, shaking and in tears. I call the Tompkins County Crisis Line. I'm quickly connected to someone, who just stays with me.
I don't know how to do this anymore. I just want the pain to stop. I can't live like this, I sobbed. She listens to me. I let it all pour out-- the grief, the loss, the agony, the shame.
Gently-- oh, so gently-- she asks, do you have a plan? I don't. We even laugh that women in our 40s-- it seems that we can't leave the Earth, our families, if the laundry isn't done, the meals aren't stocked in the freezer, the house is a mess, and the bills aren't paid. She's oh, so gentle, and oh, so kind as she guides me to some choices.
So how could the me who chose life so fearlessly, so bravely, in the face of horrific violence in South Africa in 1988, be the me in 2017 who didn't know if she could carry on living? I have a loving husband, an adorable son, an Ivy League MBA. I had everything going for me, didn't I?
I come from a loving and supportive family. Other than having a disabled younger brother, I come from a quintessentially normal family-- no skeletons, no abuse-- a great, great grandfather famously eaten by cannibals in the South Pacific, but really, that was about it.
One part of the answer happened before I was even born. My father, along with my mother and older brother, came to Berkeley, California in 1970 for his master's degree. Berkeley-- the first US city to voluntarily desegregate its schools. Berkeley, with its first African-American mayor.
Coming from Apartheid South Africa, it was my parents' first experience of what living in an integrated society was like, and they loved it. So I grew up with a fierce abhorrence of the Apartheid regime. As South Africa became a police state, I learned from an early age that all forms of power and authority were inherently suspect, never to be trusted, always to be questioned. That's stepping stone number 1.
Stepping stone number 2-- sorry, didn't bring tissues with me. In September 2000, I was here in Ithaca visiting Cornell prior to applying to the MBA program. I was working, then, as a diplomat for the New South African-- new democratic South African government. I was going to be finishing up my current posting in Palestine in six months' time, and I had decided I was going to move on and do something different after that.
I found Ithaca-- beautiful, green, peaceful Ithaca. It was everything I was looking for. And in the midst of soaking it all up, the news hit-- the second Palestinian Intifada had started.
I returned from the serenity that was Ithaca to the chaos of a violent and bloody uprising, where, in 1988, I stood on that street corner in Pretoria, rooted to the spot in a moment of overwhelming fear that I could die. Now, returning home to my apartment in East Jerusalem, I stood rooted at the windows, looking north towards the West Bank, tears pouring down my face as I listened to the helicopters, and moments later saw the plumes of smoke rising from another building bomb.
The next day, as we drove into Ramallah, we wove around the rubble and debris and found out if anyone we knew had died. I held it together, because there was work to be done-- so much work to be done-- to keep our embassy staff safe, to report back to Pretoria-- work, work, work.
I held it together as I closed that diplomatic chapter of my life, and transitioned into the intensity of starting my Cornell MBA. I held it together, because I had come to Ithaca determined to leave all that violence and chaos behind me, and finally live in peace. And then I held it together even as, six weeks into my MBA, we huddled around the TV screens in Sage Hall, watching in horror as the Twin Towers collapsed.
I kept on trying to hold it together. I kept on trying, and trying-- until I couldn't. I couldn't sleep anymore. I was exploding irrationally. I was having nightmares and flashbacks. I was no longer functional-- in short, classic PTSD.
But I was here to get an MBA and move on with my life, damn it. I had no time to break down, to fall apart, for therapy, for God's sake. There were papers to write, classes to attend, job searches to be conducted. So I swallowed the meds, refused to talk, raged at the injustice of it all, and graduated with distinction-- twice.
And then I followed the money into corporate America. I was on my way. I was living on my terms. I was following my dreams. And I still questioned all forms of power and authority-- all forms.
And then stepping stone number 3-- the coup de gras. In early 2016, I landed the job of my dreams. I was beyond excited. It was pulling together all my skills and experience. I was on cloud nine.
A year later, that dream was completely in shatters-- shattered by workplace bullying. I didn't see it coming. When that first hurtful and unjust criticism hit, I tried to just swallow my hurt and take it, as I had been taught a seasoned professional should-- on the chin, as feedback to learn from.
When there was that first explosion of rage, I figured I'd done something to provoke it. After all, I am a questioner. And so it kept on going-- my stress and worry and anxiety and panic escalating and escalating as I kept on desperately trying to get it right, to do what I was hired to do, to figure out what I was doing wrong, and to try to correct it.
If I just worked harder, if I just had better communication skills, if I was more of a good girl, if I was less of this, or more of that, then it would stop. Again, and again, and again, the message was delivered-- I was the one who was difficult. I was the one who couldn't take feedback. I was the one who was too sensitive, and thin-skinned-- or too arrogant, and too assertive.
I felt haunted and cursed that I could do nothing right, that I was a complete failure; useless, worthless. And so I couldn't hold it together this time. Apartheid South Africa, the Palestinian Intifada, 9/11-- those weren't personal. This was.
And so I fell apart, completely and utterly. All I could do was move myself from bed to couch, and back again. I spent my days crying, numbing myself mindless on Netflix, or sleeping from the exhaustion of crying, wave after wave of panic attacks, sleepless nights, nightmares, and the endless replaying of awful, awful conversations again, and again, and again in my head.
I felt completely and utterly broken. And so that call to Tompkins County Mental Health-- it was only with the amazing support of my medical team, and the unwavering love and support of my husband and son, who kept me going. Slowly, slowly-- so, so slowly-- I began to inch my way back towards rejoining the world.
I even attempted to try to return to work on a reduced schedule. But nothing had changed there. Why would it have? It took a long time-- nine months-- before I really recovered. Along the way, work-- of course-- fired me, doubling down on the accusations, and indeed, even ratcheting them up to a whole new level of degradation and humiliation.
But in that same nine months, two crucial things happened. First, I stumbled across the research around workplace bullying, and the puzzle pieces fell into place. It all made sense. All the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
As I read and read and read, I saw how my situation followed an almost textbook pattern-- target my sense of self and sense of identity, check. Distort, manipulate, and gaslight-- check. Dismiss and invalidate my experiences and feelings-- check. Inflict swift and harsh retribution for any attempts to stand up for myself, or call it out as bullying and harassment-- check. The behavior and its perpetrators tolerated, even encouraged, by the organization-- check.
As I immersed myself in understanding the phenomenon of workplace bullying, it really helped me to be able to name my experience and have it validated. I could see now that I was not alone in my story. My suffering was the suffering of others too. This wasn't just about me, after all. There is a power and a healing in being able to name something, and this is what I experienced.
But even more amazingly, I experienced something else. I fell apart from the trauma of workplace bullying. And in the trauma field is a concept called post-traumatic growth-- that out of the most horrific personal experiences can come the most amazing flowering of hope; that falling apart, feeling completely broken can actually be a breaking open. And that is what I experienced.
As I broke open, I shared a lifetime of armor and baggage. And what I discovered deep down on the inside was the beautiful, abiding truth-- that I am enough just as I am, with all my imperfections, faults, and insecurities. And from this place of opening, an incredible deepening of compassion for others-- and for myself-- could emerge, as could a renewed, and even stronger commitment to a life of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.
And so from out of a time of pain and brokenness, I came to feel the most profound joy and peace unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I knew unequivocally who I was. I knew I had done nothing to deserve the treatment I had received. No matter what I had or had not done, no person ever deserves to be treated this way. None of us ever go to work wanting to be degraded, humiliated, demeaned, and shamed.
In this period of incredible personal flowering and growth, I came to see that the most subversive and radical act I could engage in was just to be my authentic self. Inside falling apart, there was actually joy and freedom and hope and strength to just be me. And so once again, I chose life.
And this time, I'm choosing to be me-- the real, authentic me-- who still questions all forms of power and authority. The me who is a romantic at heart; the me whose seemingly strong, sometimes even abrasive, exterior hides a heart that is tender, idealistic, and prone to feelings of inadequacy and depression.
And like many who have recovered from traumatic events and experienced post-traumatic growth, I'm now dedicated to talking about and working with professionals on the very thing that brought me so much shame and pain-- workplace bullying. I choose not to remain silent.
I wish I could tell you I was still on that post-traumatic growth high. It was pretty awesome. What I've learned since then is just how much courage it can take to carry on choosing life, to carry on choosing to be me.
It's not an easy choice, because in choosing to be me-- the real me, warts and all-- and in choosing not to remain silent, that means I am also choosing to continue risking getting my ass kicked, to getting it wrong, to upsetting people. So I'm working on my courage skills every day.
It's not been easy, getting over this. Some days it still tugs at me. Some days I still feel broken, and in pieces. And I'm learning to be OK with that, because now I know that even if I fall apart again, I can rise. I still get scared-- shit scared, truth be told-- but I also know, deep down inside, that no matter what, I'll be OK.
My personal mascot now is the phoenix. I had to wait until my mother died to put it on my shoulder as a tattoo. She guards me and protects me. And my own baby phoenix wings are young and tender still, but getting stronger every day, for I know I can rise; that however low and shattered I may feel, I will always be able to rise, and rise again, and again if need be. Thank you.
SPEAKER 3: All right, thank you, Sue, for sharing your story. I'd like to just do a couple of announcements. Please join us on February 13, when our speaker will be Luca Maurer. I also wanted to announce information about this year's Martin Luther King commemorative lecture. This year's speaker will be Yusef Salaam.
Salaam was part of a group of men known as the Central Park Five. All five men were wrongly convicted in the prolific 1989 Central Park jogger case. Since being exonerated, Salaam has committed himself to educating the public on issues of mass incarceration, and the disparities in America's criminal justice system.
The lecture will take place on February 17 at 7:00 PM here in Sage Chapel. For more information, you could check out the CURW website, or we have some fliers over here at our table. Once again, thank you, Sue, for sharing your story, and thank you all for coming out today. Have a great day.
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Sue Mann, MBA ’03, MMH ’04, is the founder of Sansu Rising, an Ithaca company that specializes in helping people recover from workplace bullying. Her 25-year career has spanned continents, roles and industries. She has been a diplomat, a Wall Street Banker, a Top-4 consulting firm consultant, project manager, and an entrepreneur. And, she has experienced the beauty of falling apart. Sue shared her personal story of falling apart ... and putting herself back together again, as part of the 2020 Soup & Hope series.