We are exposed to the sting of betrayal by other human beings way before we really should be: for example, when two toddlers are peaceably playing and one steals the other’s favorite toy. Or when the third-grade classmate who sat with you at lunch yesterday is now laughing at you from across the playground with a group of students you don’t know.

High school is rife with betrayal, especially that of the boy-girl kind. Case in point: when you see your boyfriend with his arms wrapped around his old girlfriend in front of her locker, staring into her bright blue eyes. You were just on the phone last night and he’d said nothing.

Or the boyfriend who tells you he’s going out of town, but then you hear that he’s holed up at a poker game at a friend’s across town. You show up at the door and there he is.

There are the family members who betray, on all sorts of levels you don’t really understand and can never understand.

There are the betrayals that are perpetrated in the workplace, by both colleagues and bosses, and sometimes—although God knows why—by the people who are under you. The closest I came to having a colleague steal an idea of mine is a producer to whom I pitched a video concept to render an animated train that traveled through all the countries they did business in, to the tune of The O’Jays’ “Love Train.” She shot it down, saying it was preposterous, they didn’t have the budget to film a real train. She ended the conversation before I could correct her.

She left the company—and town—and all of a sudden a major beverage company is using “Love Train” and an animated train. You have to wonder.

I once had a boss—two bosses, as a matter of fact, in the same office at the same institution—who betrayed me. They were notorious throughout the organization for throwing their employees under the bus, and we all watched in fear as people in our office were betrayed, one by one. One day it was my turn. I was assigned a project that was not within my purview—I was a writer, not a traffic manager—and because one of the sheets of paper on which the project was printed was not folded the right way, I was ousted.

Betrayal stings no matter where it comes from, but it stings the hardest when it comes from friends—especially those you thought were good friends.

There’s the friend who drinks too much one night and turns mean. The friend who borrows money from you, who, when you ask for it back, says, “I didn’t borrow any money from you.” The friend who likes to control everything and when you finally call her on it, she wigs out on you and all of a sudden, you’re the bad person.

There’s the friend who sends you a long, scathing email after you’ve informed her that a friend you have in common keeps making unwanted contact with you. She sends you another long, scathing email a week after your mother dies.

The friend who is making unwanted contact is an ex-boyfriend you reunited with on Facebook. He reminds you about the time you caught him with his arms around his old girlfriend; that he followed her to another state after graduation; that she broke up with him; that he called you and said, “I’ll move back if you take me back”; and that my 18-year-old self said, “Hell to the no.”

(I am very proud of my 18-year-old self for that. In honor of her, I’d like to get all Mary Karr circa The Liars’ Club for a sec: Dude. Remember when you asked if I ever thought about you all these years, and I said “yes”? I was trying to be nice—a habit you helped break me of. I hadn’t thought about you at all. Thanks, though, for reminding me what a creep you were back then. Sorry that you’re still a creep.)


The most recent betrayal I’ve witnessed cut real deep.

For the sake of illustration, consider the case of what we’ll call a small, progressive start-up company. When the founder started the company, he asked his wife and three long-time friends to be a part of it.

Turns out that one of those long-time friends was a misogynist and didn’t want to work with a woman. Instead of saying, “I don’t like women,” he unleashed a torrent of old hurts on the founder on his way out the door. Both the business arrangement and their friendship ended.

New candidates were interviewed for various positions throughout the company. A few of them didn’t stick: the one who wanted to be part of a less risky operation; the one who said he had won a major award in his field yet couldn’t perform in that field; the one who already had four part-time jobs but said he’d squeeze you in when he could.

There was the associate who was tapped to be the star of the company, but who didn’t want to be the star. The one who checked his watch every ten minutes. The one who was always “too busy” and kept the rest of the company waiting as he finally condescended to show up for meetings. The one who showed up to work late and drank on the job.

There are the associates who are Zen, the level-headed ones who try to keep everyone, including the founder and his top leadership, grounded, but their efforts are more than off-set by the company’s two latest new hires. One you are not one-hundred-percent sold on, but decide to try anyway. She thinks she’s better than everyone else, and then you know you were right not to be one-hundred-percent sold. The other newbie wants to take over everything and has the temerity to continually challenge the founder of the company.

Both latecomers have been in the organization one hot minute—five months and two months, respectively. Together, they become the driving force behind breaking up the organization. Off company property, they tell the reluctant star what she wants to hear. The one that was “too busy” now all of a sudden has a spark in his eye and all kinds of time.

They call a meeting with the founder. They want a change.

The founder says, “Hey. This is my company. You’re either with me or you’re not.”

Things are quiet for a few weeks then out of the blue the founder receives an email the night before Thanksgiving that says, “We’re out. And we want the company name.”

A great deal of respect was lost and friendships destroyed, including one that went back years. In the aftermath of the company folding, pieces of it were pilfered and made off with in briefcases. The associates who created the schism are trying to build a new company that gloms off of the good reputation of the old company.

After the mutiny, the reluctant star emphatically stated in social media, “I one-hundred-percent believe in karma. If you’re not careful, it will bite you in the butt.”

To which I reply, “The great thing about karma is that it works both ways, boo.”

My friend Kathleen says that karma is best when you can witness it, and that it is possible to ask the universe for that opportunity.

In the case of the start-up, I don’t think I’ll ask to see it, but I know I’ll eventually at least hear something. When betrayal is the centerpiece of what goes down, you always do in one way, shape, or form. I still hear things about certain double-crossers that let me know karma is very much alive and kicking. That’s good enough for me.

In Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, M’am,” Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones tells Roger, “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if He didn’t already know.” I betrayed once—somebody I loved. It happened almost twenty years ago and I paid for it dearly. I have since apologized for what I did, and he and I are friends today, which means the world to me. The situation pretty much cured me of messing with another human being’s heart. 

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