Keeping my mouth shut
October 17, 2017
(I don’t write about this topic often, so forgive me for any awkwardness.)
When the harassment stories about venture capitalists started coming out, I sort of rolled my eyes. Yes, of course, we all go through these things. Some of us just don’t talk about it. There was an odd level to which I prided myself on NOT talking about the things that I’ve experienced. On keeping my mouth shut and being professional in the face of the many unprofessional things that have happened.
When the VC stories came out, a friend asked over dinner whether I’d had similar experiences in tech. I said yes, and I described several. I refused to provide identifying details. After all, it was so long ago.
A month or so later, another incident happened, this time in my current field of work. The next evening, I met up with the same friend, who asked how I was doing, and I mentioned that I was a bit rattled due to something that had happened the day before. He asked me to elaborate. I would not. I refused to even share the details of what had happened.
I realized that I felt embarrassed about it. I worried that perhaps I had caused it somehow, and if I told him the details, he might agree. I was worried that I might appear to be the crazy one. I did cautiously relay that thought aloud: “I do start to wonder…is it me?”, and as I did, I felt fear seize my heart. I fully expected him to say yes. Instead, his face softened and he told me that I sounded like every other victim in this situation who blames themselves instead of the other person.
My first thought was, “But I’m not a victim”. And my second thought was that he was right.
When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, I read two accounts of the situation and had two very different reactions.
The first was from the New York Times. A fairly straightforward piece that cast Harvey as a perpetrator and listed, rather dispassionately, the types of things he had done to women. It felt like a story we all knew, and as a result, I felt sort of unimpressed, the same way I’d felt when I read the story about VCs harassing women.
The second piece I read was Ronan Farrow’s, published in The New Yorker. Ronan had spent hours interviewing thirteen of the women that Harvey assaulted, and his retelling mirrored all the complexities that come with it.
These stories weren’t easy. They didn’t paint Harvey as an unequivocal demon, calling for bloodthirsty retribution. Indeed, one woman noted that she respected Harvey as an artist. Several maintained a relationship with Harvey afterwards, including sexual relations. Others wondered if it was their fault for not stopping him. Many spoke of a fear of retaliation if they did anything. And one woman said she left the entertainment industry as a result.
Whenever I see media reporting on sexual misconduct, I tend to roll my eyes. I cannot convey the level of internal fuckery that I feel over my own reaction, despite having been in these women’s shoes.
As more and more of these stories come out, I’ve tried to understand why I respond this way. And when I read Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece, I finally realized why.
The binary media portrayal is written by people looking for a story, one that requires flattening its characters into a paper battle of good vs. evil. When I read them, I feel a level of disgust for their reductiveness, and the uncontrollable wildfire of public outrage that tends to come along. The public denouncement and shaming of the men. The declarations of “we have to do better” (sexual misconduct’s version of “thoughts and prayers”). Sometimes, I see men making those statements who I know have done very bad things themselves, and it messes with my head. It’s the same circus, every time.
As a result, the transgressions that tend to be widely reported are often, paradoxically, the least vicious. The off-color comment or the wink that gets blown up into a witch trial. These things are easy to denounce, because they’re clearly inappropriate. They fit neatly into the public outrage machine. Meanwhile, a tangle of horrors hang silently in the shadows, looming, and waiting.
When bad things happen to you, you do all the things that these women described in the New Yorker piece. You tell yourself it wasn’t so bad, or maybe it was your fault, or you’re blowing things out of proportion. You might maintain a relationship with that person after, either because you want to normalize what happened, or because you’re afraid, or simply because you can’t avoid them everywhere in your life.
And then you don’t talk about it. Because the people who read and write about Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby imagine it must go like this: Bad person does something obviously bad to you. You freak out. You tell someone.
My experience goes something like this: Person does something to you. You tell yourself it was actually no big deal. You shut it up in your brain and go on with your life. The thought continues to nag you. You read about other people’s stories and you go nahhh…that wasn’t me. You and this person are FRIENDS, after all! If something bad had happened, you wouldn’t still be friends, would you? You read more stories. You roll your eyes. These women just need to learn to deal with the realities of this industry (which industry? every industry?). You read more stories. You read more stories. You read more stories.
When I read the New Yorker piece, something inside me broke. Because unlike nearly every other story I’d read, it wasn’t a fairy tale of bad man vs. helpless women. It was a ragged, misshapen account of the stories women tell themselves to get past this stuff and move on. Of the assistants and employees who were complicit. Of people wrestling with guilt and self-doubt.
That’s a story I know. I know that one. I have that one every day.
I used to think that not feeling black-and-white about my experiences meant that it must have been my fault, too. Or that maybe what happened really wasn’t that bad.
Now I understand that no matter how extreme the event, I’ll always feel fuzzy about the role I played. And that fuzziness is not because it’s unclear whether “something really did happen” or not, but rather an expected reaction to trauma, in which you try to normalize the behavior and empathize with the other person in order to make sense of the very nonsensical, out-of-control things that have happened to you.
This passage from Sarah Polley sums it up:
Several years ago, I approached a couple of successful female actors in Hollywood about an idea I had for a comedy project: We would write, direct and star in a short film about the craziest, worst experience we’d ever had on a set. We told our stories to one another, thinking they would be hysterically funny. We were full of zeal for this project. But the stories, when we told them, left us in tears and bewildered at how casually we had taken these horror stories and tried to make them into comedy. They were stories of assault. When they were spoken out loud, it was impossible to reframe them any other way. This is how we’d normalized the trauma, tried to integrate it, by making comedy out of it. We abandoned the film, but not the project of unearthing the weight of these stories, which we’d previously hidden from ourselves.
I’ve spent my whole life trying to normalize trauma. And part of that process meant staying silent. Of protecting these dark stories with a fierce intensity, to keep them away from the public eye so that nobody could ever paint me as anything less than who I wanted to be, a narrative that doesn’t include being victimized by anything or anyone. I didn’t ask for this. Maintaining that narrative means maintaining my silence.
But there comes a point where maintaining that silence becomes so ludicrous, when you’re jumping through hoops to avoid sharing identifying details, or smiling and nodding when someone tells you how great that person is, that you wonder, who am I protecting? Myself, or the people who did these things to me?
And what I really want, when I sat down and wrestled with this…what I really want, is to not care anymore. To not have a relationship to these people at all. To feel inertia.
I don’t want a big media blowout over my experiences, because I’d rather define myself by what I do than what’s been done to me. I think that’s why women increasingly report these stories as a group. It’s not just because it makes the evidence more damning. It’s because when it’s one person vs. another, your identity is just as much on the chopping block as theirs, ready to be rewritten. When it’s a group of women against one person, the spotlight shines on that person alone. It’s their character that needs defending. Victims don’t have to be protagonists in a class-action story, and that’s a relief.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum.
I want to believe that by keeping silent, I’m making the stories go away and living my life as I want. But silence is an active choice, too. Being this quiet, and working this hard to make sure the stories don’t get out, means I am only bonding myself even more irrevocably to these people. Love and hate are equal and opposing forces.
Everybody has a different way of dealing with these incidents. For me, when I’ve truly found my power again, it will be when I don’t care anymore. When seeing their name on social media, or in the news, doesn’t make me flinch. When I don’t walk down the street, or go to an event, with fear of running into them. When seeing their face doesn’t make my heart clench. When I don’t leave an entire industry to get away from those faces.
This isn’t a confessional story. If you read this far expecting me to tell you some juicy lurid tale, it’s not here. This is the story I want to tell. A story about me, not them, and the things people like me tell ourselves in order to protect people like them, and all the shame and embarrassment and hardening of selves that comes with keeping these private stories so close to your heart.
This isn’t a story about sex, assault, or even harassment. It’s the story that accompanies every abuse of power. It’s about anybody who’s used their position to frighten, manipulate or minimize another, and what it’s like to grapple with when you’re on the receiving end.
I may not have shared everything I’ve experienced here, but I’m not keeping it a secret anymore.