“The only one.”


English: Consequences of whistleblowing, from ...

Update:  NPR just published a compelling story about Mr. Boisjoly, and it includes two audio interviews- one about his whistleblowing and one with his perspective after the fact. Listening to NPR’s Howard Berkes talking With Roger Boisjoly In 1987 is incredibly heartbreaking.

I am ashamed that I have not always intervened to stand with those who stand alone.  Now I am a liability to others.  A pariah is not a help, but just more weight dragging the person farther down the rabbit hole.

Read the NYTimes’ activist obituary, if there is such a thing, and feel just a bit of what this man experienced.

Six months before the space shuttle Challenger exploded over Florida on Jan. 28, 1986, Roger Boisjoly wrote a portentous   memo. He warned that if the weather was too cold, seals connecting sections of the shuttle’s huge rocket boosters could fail. “The result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life,” he wrote.

Mr. Boisjoly’s memo was soon made public. He became widely known as a whistle-blower in a federal investigation of the disaster. And though he was hailed for his action by many, he was also made to suffer for it.

Mr. Boisjoly … died in Nephi, Utah, near Provo, on Jan. 6. He was 73. His death was reported only locally at the time. He lived in southwest Utah, in St. George. His wife, Roberta, said he recently learned he had cancer in his colon, kidneys and liver.

But before then he had paid the stiff price often exacted of whistle-blowers. Thiokol cut him off from space work, and he was shunned by colleagues and managers. A former friend warned him, “If you wreck this company, I’m going to put my kids on your doorstep,” Mr. Boisjoly told The Los Angeles Times in 1987.

He had headaches, double-vision and depression, he said. He yelled at his dog and his daughters and skipped church to avoid people. He filed two suits against Thiokol; both were dismissed.

He later said he was sustained by a single gesture of support. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, hugged him after his appearance before the commission.

“She was the only one,” he said in a whisper to a Newsday reporter in 1988. “The only one.”

His obituary lists family.  I hope they brought him solace and comfort.  Families mostly don’t survive intact. He was only 73.

The sole study (small, Australian) that looked at the health effects of whistle blowing listed 17 of 35 people admitting to suicidality.  The suicide rate couldn’t be ascertained because the study was done in questionnaire format and only used a single sampling. But adverse significant health effects were 100%.

100%

I know – you don’t believe me because you are a GOOD person, and you live in a society with safety nets for this type of thing. But here’s the gist of it:

OBJECTIVE–To examine the response of organizations to “whistleblowing” and the effects on individual whistleblowers. DESIGN–Questionnaire survey of whistleblowers who contacted Whistleblowers Australia after its publicity campaign. SETTING–Australia. SUBJECTS–25 men and 10 women from various occupations who had exposed corruption or danger to the public, or both, from a few months to over 20 years before. RESULTS–All subjects in this non-random sample had suffered adverse consequences. For 29 victimization had started immediately after their first, internal, complaint. Only 17 approached the media. Victimization at work was extensive: dismissal (eight subjects), demotion (10), and resignation or early retirement because of ill health related to victimization (10) were common. Only 10 had a full time job. Long term relationships broke up in seven cases, and 60 of the 77 children of 30 subjects were adversely affected. Twenty nine subjects had a mean of 5.3 stress related symptoms initially, with a mean of 3.6 still present. Fifteen were prescribed long term treatment with drugs which they had not been prescribed before. Seventeen had considered suicide. Income had been reduced by three quarters or more for 14 subjects. Total financial loss was estimated in hundreds of thousands of Australian dollars in 17. Whistleblowers received little or no help from statutory authorities and only a modest amount from workmates. In most cases the corruption and malpractice continued unchanged. CONCLUSION–Although whistleblowing is important in protecting society, the typical organisational response causes severe and longlasting health, financial, and personal problems for whistleblowers and their families. (emphasis throughout is mine)

I know how difficult it is to stand alone and support a person who has been ostracized.  There is real risk to do that.  So like other whistle-blowers, I don’t ask, and I never expect it. Moreover, people will not TOUCH whistle-blowers.  Whistle-blowers are literally toxic. That is why Mr. Boisjoly was so profoundly TOUCHED by Dr. Ride’s gesture.

But, hot damn, Sally Ride stood there and HUGGED him.  In public. If that isn’t a meeting of heroes, I don’t know what is. Funny thing is that she retired from NASA later that year, and in 2002, she was appointed to the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Accidents still happened.  Same old boring story – multiple Swiss cheese systems failures because the people advocating for time out and caution were over-ridden by those who gun always for the shareholders’ (lobbyists/politicians and their corporate overlord shareholders) bottom lines.  Sacrifices always have to be made by those who will never come into contact with the bottom feeders liners.

Professor Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer for England’s National Health System, wrote,

We should “applaud heroes, and hope they are among us, but to base our hope of remedy in ordinary systems on the existence of extraordinary courage is insufficient.”

I’ve pretty much scoured the literature, and no one addresses whistle-blowing, ostracism and suicide.  No one addresses the life ruination, the total and complete losses, and the resultant world goes on while leaving the whistle-blower (and surviving family, if any) in literal limbo.

And really, it’s the perfect crime.  Because it’s like Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark.  No one notices the absence of whistle-blowers.  No one sees them missing in group photos, nor misses their names in employee recognition events, nor has any notion at all about their well-being. Much better than Jimmy Hoffa’s demise with that pesky media and all keeping his name alive and the issues addressed.

Whistle-blowers are disappeared much more cleanly and completely than any CIA black site prison. The torture leaves no mark.

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2 thoughts on ““The only one.”

  1. SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES
    By Siegfried Sassoon [1918]

    I knew a simple soldier boy
    Who grinned at life in empty joy,
    Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
    And whistled early with the lark.

    In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
    With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
    He put a bullet through his brain.
    No one spoke of him again.

    You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
    Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
    Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
    The hell where youth and laughter go.

  2. I learned early in my geology career that pointing out issues that could cause major repercussions for my employer was not rewarded in a positive way. Eventually, I left the mining industry because insular protectionism trumped worker health and safety. Now I can’t speak about the entire industry, but this condition was prevalent in every one of the handful of companies for which I worked.

    I appreciate your post. Hit home with me.

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