In the early seventies, I was a victim of sexual harassment not unlike Anita Hill’s. I lost my job after refusing the demands of a man who was not only well-regarded in the industry, but the recipient of numerous manager-of-the-year awards. I didn’t share my story with anyone, barely admitting it to myself. There was no name for these things then. I continued on best I could, largely unaware of the unending ramifications. More to the point, I didn’t fully realize there were ramifications until I was forced to face those times while writing my most recent novel.
In fact, it wasn’t until I’d reached the end of the second or third draft that I realized, had the courage to realize – thanks in part to #metoo – that what had precipitated the novel’s story line wasn’t an unusual experience teaching in South Carolina, but the fact that losing my job for refusing my boss’s advances was the reason I was in South Carolina at all.
All these years later, I could not tell you the color of the carpet in the man’s office, or the names of others involved, or the name of the bar around the corner, or in what hotel one particularly alarming conference was held, but I remember the smell of the man’s cologne, the flash of his rings on his right hand, his wedding ring on his left, his disarming smile.
To survive, I walked away, but I now know that what I also did was assume the blame and shoulder the shame. I’d been fired. I’d failed. I did delicately mention the possibility there was a problem to the head of HR, a woman, but that was folly. I was shown the door.
I can’t recall the immediate aftermath. I do know I had a two-year gap in my resume, since I was forced to leave without a positive recommendation. To what extent losing that job interfered with all future job prospects and altered subsequent events in terms of employment and income and relationships is impossible to calculate. The toll it took on my self-esteem, my sense of self, my value in any circumstance, not only the work place, can only be guessed at.
Cut to today. I had finished the novel. I was finished with all the degradation, all the digging into the past for details, all the parsing of subsequent choices. I was done with the pain of mis-assigned guilt. Or so I thought.
#Metoo revelations are infuriating, but at last the problem is out in the open. At last, progress will be made. Damage can’t be undone, but women my age can come to terms with events, and younger women will be free from the humiliations, dented reputations, and hits to earning potential and career satisfaction.
Or so we thought. Enter Christine Blasey Ford. It’s not over. It’s never over. For victims, it’s never over. Not only does the abuse continue and continue to be dismissed, every time there is a mention of this event or any of those all-too similar events in our newsfeeds, we relive our own experiences, those of our friends, and the aftermaths that pursue us, decade after decade.
And now many of the same men who presided over Anita Hill’s testimony, the same men who went on to say okay to Clarence Thomas, are now poised to say okay to Brett Kavanaugh. This has prompted me to revisit my novel. Have I given my character full expression? Is her pain, her denial, the rocky path forced upon her sufficiently palpable? Or am I still protecting myself? After all, I wasn’t fifteen. I was twenty-two. I must have ‘let’ these things happen. Apparently, I wasn’t strong enough. Smart enough. Savvy enough. After all, not all women are abused – thank goodness. But I was, so it must be my fault.
Intellectually, I know this is wrong. But viscerally, the questions go on. Our story never ends.