I’ve been enjoying a certain satisfaction over these past few months of #metoo mania, knowing that for every masher and molester charged there are thousands squirming in their undies, waiting for the other shoes to drop on them.
But can this go too far? Is it already?
I’m not a harasser apologist by any means…and yet…
I wonder if the woman who, in 2004, charged me with sexual harassment in our workplace, is experiencing false camaraderie with her “sisters” who were actually harassed.
Carina was an assistant in the prep department at the art museum in which I worked. I didn’t hire her. I told the guy who did I was much more impressed with the other applicant who’d interviewed. He had experience, and actually expressed ideas and knowledge. Carina, on the other hand, listened with rapt wanness as John talked. John liked being listened to. So he hired Carina.
I suspect also he liked the way Carina looked. But that’s conjecture, and I’ll leave that alone.
For a few years, things went okay. I wasn’t thrilled with Carina’s work ethic, and thought her a bit of a simpleton, but I didn’t make waves about it. But then, abruptly, John quit, and suddenly I was Carina’s boss. Performance evaluations that with John had been mere formalities became opportunities, I felt, to call out Carina on what I believed was her blasé attitude regarding work. Other people in the department had complained to me about her, and I felt as though I, as boss, should do something about it. I figured she’d be a little hurt by the less-than-stellar eval, sulk a few days, then step things up a bit.
Instead, Carina fired off a countercharge about my “gender-based” travel policy. Let me explain. When we were assigned to travel works of art, two people were supposed to be along for the ride. On overnight trips, that meant a night in a hotel. Repeatedly advised to keep costs down, and because Carina was the only full-time female in the department — museum policy forbade males and females sharing hotel rooms — I routinely assigned overnight trips to pairs of males.
Also, no one wanted to take trips with Carina. Seems she was childishly argumentative and enjoyed picking at people. On long rides in the van, that sort of thing can take its toll.
Carina loved these trips. Free food, lodging and cable TV. Very little work.
So that counter-charge got slipped into my personal file. Careful before, I began giving her an even wider berth.
I knew Carina knew I wasn’t a sexist. I was the one who had first told her about some great female names in art and journalism. Hard to believe, but before me she hadn’t known about Laurie Anderson, Ellen Goodman, Carson McCullers, Alice Neel, Jane Pauley and a host of others.
Yet when I was assigned to quickly put together a show featuring works from the museum’s collection, Carina chided me — in front of a female artist who was slated to show her work there — about the “man show” I was curating. She’d recently come to fancy herself a feminist, and now was jumping at the chance to grandstand.
She’d noticed the exhibition featured about 65% the works of male artists. (It was actually more like 62%; Carina didn’t know Lee Krasner was a woman.) The works of male artists comprised about 95% of our collection.
I pulled her aside and went off on her. Tirades, because of the emotion involved, are hard to reconstruct — but the gist was that she was a fake feminist, I was actually way more a feminist than she was, and people like her do way more harm than good to the cause.
She seemed more amused than contrite. I believe she was pleased she could get such a rise out of me.
The workload always increasing, I was permitted to hire temporary help. A few of those helpers became fixtures there. Also our student helpers, about half of them female, figured big in our meeting our deadlines.
Though I wasn’t an overly officious boss — I enjoy joking and goofing off like most people do — I was fairly clear when it was time to buckle down and get things done. Carina enjoyed defying my exhortations, conspicuously engaging in online museum chat rooms as we unloaded crates off trucks and explaining later it was “work related.” An avoider of conflict by nature, I usually let it go.
When I got word a new position had been created for our department, I accepted applications from about fifty people, many of them people I knew. Looking for a lift out of her admittedly low-paying position, Carina applied as well.
You can probably see where this is going. I didn’t hire Carina — I hired a guy who had proven to me he could and would do the work we so desperately needed him to do — she freaked out and charged the museum with gender discrimination.
One morning I was called up to the director’s office, where five serious looking people were already sitting, clipboards on their laps. One of them informed me I’d been charged with sexual harassment. I was stunned. I really didn’t think Carina would take it that far.
The evidence lay on the coffee table before us: caricatures of female employees I’d drawn during boring staff meetings; a dusty, 1920s-era hardbound journal of black-and-white photographs — some of them of scantily clad women — that had sat in some long-forgotten box in a corner of the woodshop; and a key ring someone had hung on a nail in my office featuring a goofy couple engaged in some sort of hillbilly sex act. That was it.
I stammered my way out of there, and learned later in the day the harassment charges had been dismissed.
Shellshocked nonetheless, I didn’t want to be anywhere near her. I pleaded with the director to have her moved to another department. Because no one else wanted to be saddled with that task, I remained her boss. Through daily emails, Carina made it clear that the assignment of any unreasonable work task could be seen as retaliation.
She knew her rights. In fact, she’d spent many a work hour educating herself on them.
Because of the policy forbidding anyone’s discussing the case with co-workers, I felt like a pariah. After all, the only thing my colleagues knew was that Carina had charged me with sexual harassment. Knowing what conclusions I would have drawn only a few weeks before, I assumed everyone assumed I’d made passes at her, or worse.
Current and former assistants, many of them women, knew better. One of them, Cary, vowed to kill Carina if she saw her out in public. Advising her not to, I was nonetheless grateful.
About ten months later, I printed off my resignation letter to the director. Though I hadn’t been a perfect boss, a few guys from my department tried to block my way as I delivered it. I made a head fake to the right, dodged left and completed my delivery.
Now I paint houses.
I was raised in a household laden with strife, mainly because of a father who didn’t respect women. He abused my mother emotionally and physically both before and after the divorce. Through my life I have strived not to be like my father. In fact, my career probably suffered because of it. I came to conflate ambition with aggression, self-assertion with boasting, and persistence with selfishness. I consider myself a decent man, and I don’t underrate decency.
To carry the memory of being charged, even by someone I consider certifiably insane, as a predator has been difficult. During this transformative time when real predators are getting their comeuppance, we should pause now and then and realize we’re dealing with human behavior. That means sometimes there will be those who are falsely accused.