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How to deal with someone unhinged who has threatened our reputation?
January 18, 2010 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Need some advice on dealing with a mentally ill person over whom I have no control. Several months ago, I along with other people that I know, agreed to help someone put on a show. We run our own community theater company, and we have a lot of contacts – volunteers of all stripes, a couple of professional people, etc. Without detailing everything to the point of giving myself away, there were points along the way where we really thought we should quit, but this person was a friend, and we thought it would work itself out. Long story short, it has not.

The person is clearly mentally ill, and he's burning bridges right and left. We have the following concerns:

1. He's threatened to “harm us” and I can only surmise that means slander or libel. I would like to know how to recognize this when it happens, as opposed to stuff we just need to respond to by saying, well, we're sorry he feels that way.
2. We are working at an actual theater space in our city that employs actual professional people, rented out by the person in question. I do not, under any circumstances, want any contacts that we've drawn into this to be hurt in a professional capacity because this guy has just come totally unglued. I also do not want to hurt the unglued person in question any more than he is already hurting himself, I just want to protect the people that I stupidly asked to get involved. I would love ideas on how to proceed. He's already “notified” one professional person of someone's “problem behavior,” the problem being that it's not his own, and what he's mad about is totally imaginary.

For the purposes of the question, I'll stipulate the following:

1. We've all comported ourselves in the best way possible given the situation we're in. It's not always meant that we behaved perfectly or admirably, but
2. We've been working in good faith and what we're collectively being accused of is completely bunk.
3. Yes, I do mean actually mentally ill. This person has a disorder, one we've been aware of, but one that it's become clear is not being treated. The behavior is irrational.
4. Assume that while we don't want to further harm this person, we are also only interested in circling our wagons and protecting our people. He is not our responsibility.

Throwaway email: cthespian145@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
1. He's threatened to “harm us” and I can only surmise that means slander or libel

Why would you "only surmise" this? When mentally unstable people threaten to harm a group of their colleagues, my first thought turns to people who go postal with guns. Is there some reason you have NO concern this might be possible? Because if you have ANY such concern, the threat should be taken to law enforcement and steps should be taken to keep him away from your group.

After every one of these mass shootings, someone is quoted saying "he said he was going to get revenge (or whatever) but I didn't think he meant killing everyone."

Just be completely sure.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:07 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have been in your shoes, and the worst mistake I made was trying to engage with the person to try and "sort everything out", in the vain hopes that logical discussion would show that everything would be ok. It did not help. My efforts to help this person simply made the situation worse. My best/only advice for you is to completely cut all contact -- do not respond to emails, phone calls, anything. Keep a record of everything he sends to you so if he does misguidedly threaten to sue you or something (which is what happened to me -- the threat), you will have everything you need to have the case thrown out. If the threats escalate to any threat of physical violence, that's where you go to the police.
posted by modernnomad at 2:09 PM on January 18, 2010


This is one of those posts where I *really* wish I could hear the other person's side. You're asking us to accept your characterization of this person as mentally ill, totally unglued, etc. and yet you haven't given us any specifics about the behavior that might demonstrate such... Or really give us any idea at all of what he has done, other than become mad in a way that you personally find unreasonable. I suppose I can understand the lack of detail if you are trying to keep things anonymous, but it really does take away from our getting a full picture of what is going on.

You are likely to inflame him less if you are able to honestly look at things from his perspective. You say that the things he is angry about are "totally imaginary". Is he an actively hallucinating psychophrenic who is angry about things that factually did not happen? Or are these simply things that you personally wouldn't be mad about based on your own value system? In either case, he is more likely to back down if he feels you *genuinely* hear him. Emphasis on genuinely. "Sorry you feel that way" is not going to cut it. If you do indeed care about him, both stating such and demonstrating such through your willingness to truly hear his side of things will likely go a long way.
posted by parrot_person at 2:14 PM on January 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is one of those posts where I *really* wish I could hear the other person's side. You're asking us to accept your characterization of this person as mentally ill, totally unglued, etc. and yet you haven't given us any specifics about the behavior that might demonstrate such... Or really give us any idea at all of what he has done, other than become mad in a way that you personally find unreasonable.

Yeah, there's no real detail here; this question can't really be answered.
posted by dfriedman at 2:24 PM on January 18, 2010


(Um, that'd be schizophrenic.)
posted by parrot_person at 2:35 PM on January 18, 2010


Yeah, not really clear on what you're afraid he'll do. Are you worried for your person? Then call the police. Are you worried for someone else's person, or for someone else's being alienated? Chances are everyone has figured out that this guy's a nut case, and won't hold you responsible or take him seriously. Apologize on behalf of your staff if that's appropriate, alert a friend if you are worried, but if the project is ending that's all you can do. Not sure if you're still working for him, or not, or how much contact you still have with him.
posted by Melismata at 2:37 PM on January 18, 2010


If you do indeed care about him, both stating such and demonstrating such through your willingness to truly hear his side of things will likely go a long way.

No, no it won't. This is clearly not just a matter of different "value systems," unless you're assuming that the OP and everyone around him is too stupid or insensitive to be able to distinguish between mental illness and someone who's touchy. This person is not an immigrant from a different culture; that's not the question. It seems pretty clear that not just the OP, but the entire theatre group that's involved here, has concluded that they're dealing with an unbalanced individual. Anon has been totally, 100% explicit about that: "Yes, I do mean actually mentally ill. This person has a disorder, one we've been aware of." It's totally unhelpful to suggest talking through differences; the question is not, "is this person mentally ill," it's, "How do I deal with a mentally ill person?"

I agree, however, that more detail is needed. Generally speaking, you are not going to be able to make this person better, and you are not going to make them manegeable. You need to cut off contact, get this person out of whatever group you're in. If they've threatened you, you also need to alert the police, ensure that this person does not own any firearms, etc. You may just have to get everyone on this project together, explain the situation, apologize for getting them into it, and walk away. Drop the whole endeavour. It's not worth the risk that someone who really is mentally ill will decide to walk in one day and shoot the place up.
posted by Dasein at 2:41 PM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't have advice about the particulars of your situation but I've been dealing with a lot of crazy people lately and wanted to mention to go low drama at every opportunity. Avoid dialogue, avoid defensiveness, whatever you decide to do say as little as possible.

Well -- I guess I do have something to say about the particulars -- if you have any evidence of this can you go to the landlord who is renting you the theater? Insurance companies really frown on "crazy," and this might be an avenue to pursue where you could close the door on this particular catastrophe.

Other than that -- some people feed on drama. Every bit of attention you give them will be returned to you tenfold. Be very careful, be measured in what you say, no accusations (no matter how mad you are), don't try to win any arguments. Offer no opinions beyond platitudes.

Bore him.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:15 PM on January 18, 2010


Actually, Dasein, believe it or not, even mentally ill people have valid perceptions and perspectives on things, and enjoy being heard, just like everyone else.
posted by parrot_person at 3:32 PM on January 18, 2010


Might be worth mentioning that I have credentials in the field of Psychology. My BA is in psych, I worked as a residential counselor for a couple of years, and volunteered on a suicide hotline. I've dealt with mentally ill people in my personal life as well. They are still people, and have much the same motivations as other people, in general. Also, just as "physically ill" wouldn't be much of a descriptor, mentally ill covers a pretty broad range of things. It would be tremendously helpful to know what specific diagnosed mental illness we are talking about.
posted by parrot_person at 3:40 PM on January 18, 2010


follow-up from the OP
We omitted some detail because I just don't want it to get back to us. Specifically my concerns are these:

1) How does one recognize actionable statements (actual libel or slander) versus just stuff we should not respond to;
2) What should we do to prevent harm to the reputations of people that are working on this project, as we suspect that when it's over, there will be things that ARE libel or slander happening, or else it will be just really nasty badmouthing.

Thing to keep in mind is that up until now, we were aware that this person had an issue, but we were not aware of its severity, nor of how fast we would be turned upon. I don't think this person owns a gun or is even the kind of person, politically speaking, to own one. I'm not afraid of physical violence. It's mainly mitigating professional fall out for people that could actually be harmed, and making sure that we're not harmed in our community because this person is just not right . .. but we also don't wish any further harm on this person, and just mainly want to be free of all of this.

and, since this just came up in thread, what we know about is severe depression that has been diagnosed, but is not, according to the actual person's statements in the past, not under treatment. we are not licensed psychologists, and we're trying to let the guy be heard, but his behavior is unacceptably aggressive wrt the verbal threats he's made, slamming around like a kid throwing a tantrum, etc. We are really trying to continue to act in good faith. It's just really, really hard. And I'm NOT going to allow him to professionally harm people who stepped up to help without knowing that this is what it would come to.

Thanks, hopefully that helps.
posted by jessamyn at 3:47 PM on January 18, 2010


How does one recognize actionable statements (actual libel or slander) versus just stuff we should not respond to;

This seems to be a key concern. I would turn this around and ask what harm this person is doing to their own reputation by throwing around wild (as you deem them) accusations, and whether they are already known for doing this, in which case most people will heavily discount what they are saying about you.

Low-drama is definitely the way to go, if you've received no actual verbal threats against your person. If anyone asks you about what this person says, a brief eye-roll is probably all the editorializing you need: "Yeah, John gets pretty worked up over that point, doesn't he?"

In the future, lesson learned, and bypass this person whenever possible. But don't feed into his imaginary conflict scenarios.
posted by dhartung at 4:18 PM on January 18, 2010


Jump ship.

I know lots of theater folk/actor folk - both in NYC and LA.

You can not fix this or mitigate the damage except to disengage.

Why?

BECAUSE FUTURE CONTACTS WILL ALWAYS JUDGE YOU BY THIS ASSOCIATION.

Your reputation (for having good judgment) is paramount.


I could go on and on - but I won't. Because I said it.

Really.
posted by jbenben at 7:36 PM on January 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


IANAL but I think the threshold for "actionable" is that has to cause a measurable harm. In other words, in order to do something legal, you would not only have to show that he knowing told lies but that the lie actually caused some harm to the person.

It seems like there are two kinds of harm that could happen here. One is that the production occurs and is a disaster, harming the professional reputation of those considered responsible for the results. You are in the best position to decide to going ahead or dropping out will be best for the reputation of the people involved.

The second is that the person gossips and says nasty things about the others involved. This is likely to happen no matter what you do (drop out or complete the project). With luck, his reputation will proceed him and his statements will be discounted. In some cases, if you are worried about specific third parties, you might want to preempt him. (There is a chapter on how to do this in the book "Stop Walking on Eggshells")
posted by metahawk at 10:08 PM on January 18, 2010


One thing to keep in mind is that an "actionable statement" implies you are going to take some action. What action would you take, and what's the desired result? If you want to bring a legal case against him, as it sounds like you mean, is the desired result to repair any reputations he has damaged? I have never personally handled a case for defamation, but I am not sure that if a reputation is damaged that winning a court case against this guy (likely years down the road and with considerable dollar cost) will undo that. It will also keep you engaged with him and prolong it, including prolonging his opportunity to do damage. It also reflects on you, the choice to keep him engaged and take this action - it is up to you to say how your contacts, present and future, would take that, particularly those with minimal knowledge of the situation.

As to how to recognize libel or slander, you could hire an attorney now and ask him what to look for and run things past him. If you don't want to do that, I would research each term, how it has been interpreted in your state, and get some evidence. If it were me, I'd hire the attorney now rather than later.

If it were me, I would disengage asap - if you have contractual obligations you should consider them carefully. I would also get out in front of this - if you want to talk to a lawyer, do it sooner rather than later. If you need to talk to people he might damage who are unaware of the threat, talk to them sooner rather than later. I wouldn't badmouth him.

Most people tend to consider the source, consciously or subconsciously. If your friend is unbalanced and tends not to act in a sensible manner, people will tend to notice that, and if he is badmouthing a person who has an otherwise excellent reputation, they will probably weigh that appropriately.

As always, I'm not your/anyone's lawyer
posted by KAS at 7:18 AM on January 19, 2010


I've worked with a number of different community theatre companies, all over the scale from "operating out of Mom's basement" to semi-professional. I really can't imagine a situation in which a mentally ill individual badmouths a reputable company and is taken seriously by anyone whose opinion counts.

I recommend cutting your association with this person immediately, making clear that it's because of his unprofessional behavior, and refusing any further contact.
posted by EarBucket at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2010


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