A Likely Story

Artemisia Gentileschli’s “Susanna and the Elders” (1610–1)

The actor Stephen Collins once fondled me at an awards ceremony. It’s true. Almost thirty years ago, when I was a theater critic at The New Yorker magazine, I had my butt fondled by Stephen Collins at the Drama Desk Awards. Is “fondle” the right word? It was really more of a caress, I suppose, or it would have been if we had known each other at all. I mean, if we had known each other at all well. And liked each other. It was very much the sort of thing I do to my husband when he’s wearing his shiny black gym shorts. Sometimes when we pass each other on the stairway or in the kitchen I reach out and give his butt a little caress because I know it will make him laugh or smile — after all, we’re getting on in years.

That’s pretty much what Stephen Collins did to me up on the podium at the Drama Desk ceremony. On the podium. While we were presenting an award. Can you imagine? He swept his hand along the lower part of my bottom, and then he did it again as I was walking away. The first time, I couldn’t believe it had happened. The second time, I turned back to look at him, and he smiled and winked at me before going back to smiling and winking at people in the audience. I’d never been to an awards ceremony before, and I remember I was wearing a shiny black dress that I was very proud of because I’d bought it for a song at Fowad’s on Broadway and thought I looked great in it. Maybe I looked as good in my shiny black dress as my husband does in his shiny black gym shorts and Stephen Collins just couldn’t resist.

I hadn’t thought about Stephen Collins for years until I ran across his name in an article I was reading about the Weinstein scandal. Apparently, some years ago, Collins confessed to having sexually abused several underage girls. This was mentioned in the article, and I saw his name and thought, “Stephen Collins, isn’t that the guy who — ” and then I Googled him and saw that it was. There was the face that had smiled back at me so smugly. I saw it and I burst out laughing. How funny, I thought now thirty years later. How funny to have been “fondled” at an awards ceremony by a serial sex offender. I guess I got off easy!

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the Weinstein scandal. Like most women, I imagine, I’m fascinated by it and by everything that seems to be happening — and not happening — as a result of it. My interest probably derives from the two years I spent being sexually harassed by a married writer at The New Yorker. There’ve been some wonderful things written on the subject, not only the original exposés by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in The New York Times, and by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, but also “think” pieces, mostly by women, that have made my heart soar: Rebecca Traister in The Cut (and again here), Jia Tolentino again in The New Yorker (and later here), Amanda Marcotte in Salon (and again here), and Megan Garber, in The Atlantic, who used the history of the phrase “open secret” to craft the most elegant and purely literary treatment of the subject I’ve come across.

I’m not sure, though, that anyone had really put their finger on what this kind of behavior is all about and what makes it possible — until yesterday morning, when news broke that Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic and one of our premier moral intellectuals, had been harassing female colleagues for decades. More than once in Wednesday’s coverage, a statement Wieseltier made in a 1994 essay (“Against Identity”) was cited, albeit out of context, and quoted as well on Twitter: “I hear it said of somebody that he is leading a double life. I think to myself: Just two?”

That, right there — I’d argue — is the impulse behind sexual harassment. It’s about getting away with something. It’s about seeming to be one sort of person, a “pillar of the community” — responsible, dignified, respectable, a family man, a liberal, a progressive, Presidential, whatever — while really being A Very Bad Boy. That’s exciting for some men. Not the being bad part. The getting-away-with-it part. It isn’t just about power over individuals, the women you victimize. It’s about power over society and the court of public opinion, the thrill of risking everything on one roll of the dice, knowing that it isn’t really all that much of a risk — because nobody will believe her.

That’s what the story of Susanna and the Elders is about. And Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. (“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” and “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, Who would believe me?”) Perhaps not all sexual harassment or abuse is about this. But the kind routinely practiced (on a spectrum of degrees of awfulness) by men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and Leon Wieseltier is. In most cases their brand of sexual harassment is about the hypocrisy itself, the “leading a double-life.” That’s where the real sense of power comes in. Which is why all this guff about “therapy” and “trying to do better” and “wake-up calls” and the half-baked, half-hearted, “shaken” apologias are all just more masking. Deep down these guys know they can get away with what they do, and that’s what thrills them: it’s what gets them off.

What made the Weinstein case important and historic was, first, that it revealed the crucial hypocrisy underpinning most sexual harassment. The man of stature who is also a serial sexual predator is almost always too powerful, too girded round by society to be held to account — and he knows that. That’s why he does it, that’s how he does it. The community is invested in him — morally, financially, politically, even culturally. We as a body cannot afford to condemn him or allow him to be exposed. We would have too much to lose. So when some nobody comes forward with a nightmarish tale, we find another way of dealing with the situation — any other way than to credit her story.

That’s the second thing that made the Weinstein case a turning-point: suddenly women have been granted the license to speak up with a chance of being believed.

Power, prestige and plausibility can derive from various sources, and in our society one of those is marriage — at least it was thirty years ago. It was and may still be the case that even where a man doesn’t appear to have direct control over a woman’s professional fate, the mere fact that he is married and she isn’t can be a powerful weapon against her.

A man who is merely unhappily married or who wants to stray from his wife generally finds a social peer, a similarly unhappily-married or perhaps divorced woman, or a single woman who works in some other professional context. The sexual predator seeks out a single woman in his own sphere, knowing that his prestige and plausibility as a “family man” make him untouchable. The single or man-less woman is always vulnerable to whispers and innuendoes of instability and/or predatory motives. The assumption is that she wants a man or that the fact that she hasn’t got one is somehow suspect.

Those are two things that make sexual assault and harassment so difficult to litigate and combat: the hypocrisy factor and the assumption that it is all single women, rather than certain married men, who are inherently predatory. A third aspect that complicates the sexual harassment scenario is, typically, crudity: the sexual predator tends to enact deeds that have no real place in a romantic or sexual context, things so extreme or disgusting that they are simply not credible. Why — we’ve all asked ourselves recently, as the stories about Weinstein, about Hefner, and now about Wieseltier have come out — is there always such a strong ick-factor? Is it because the man really has a penchant for ejaculating into a potted plant? No, it’s because no one would believe that anyone would do such a thing.

A scathing piece by Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard analyzed the repulsive nature of the acts that populate stories about Weinstein, connecting it with Weinstein’s own self-loathing and his intuitive grasp of how to project that onto others.

That was [his] essential insight, and how he managed to combine the worlds of politics, entertainment, and media. They’re all repulsive — and I know they’re disgusting or else they wouldn’t be courting, of all people, me.

This never would have occurred to me and may be spot-on. But if so, those disgusting acts are also valuable to the predator for their very implausibility. They are the pubic-hair on the coke can, the grope carried out before hundreds of people in the middle of an awards ceremony. “Why,” people are forced to ask, “would someone do such a thing?” — because it doesn’t make any sense. Well, that’s why.

There’s a line in Hamilton that my husband finds very moving. It’s the tagline, in fact: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In the play, George Washington is telling Hamilton about the greatest regret of his life, a disastrous battle.

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory.
You have no control:
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

I once asked my husband what men think about when they hear that line: Do they think about fate? About the mistakes they’ve made? The latter, he said.

Everyone who hears that line relates it to themselves, and because we live in the modern world, we transpose it to the context of the workplace. We’re supposed to. Hip-hop is a hugely metaphorical form, in addition to being a hugely theatrical one. (One of the things that made Hamilton revolutionary was the way it established the importance of metaphor on the American stage; for historical reasons, our theater had always been predominantly realistic.) But I think men and women listening to that line may experience it differently. Women probably feel a slight frisson, because for women in the workplace “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” is largely up to men.

What goes through the mind of every woman who has ever been sexually harassed in the workplace — and what working woman has not? — is, “Who will survive this? And who will control the narrative?” It’s largely men who control the fate and the perception of women in the workplace. And when it isn’t men, it’s the powerful women who enable them. Women like Tina Brown, who co-founded Talk magazine with Weinstein and with great alacrity, when the scandal broke, went on the talk show circuit trying to distance herself from him.

This is, as Smith pointed out in the same Weekly Standard piece, a bit of a farce. Brown did more than anyone else in America to blur the lines between print journalism and Hollywood, creating the very climate that made someone like Weinstein untouchable. “The catchword,” Smith writes, “was ‘synergy’ — magazine articles, turned into books, turned into movies, a supply chain of entertainment and information that was going to put these media titans in the middle of everything and make them all richer.”

It’s actually even more of a farce for Brown to hold herself out as a champion of women. (“This is a purifying moment.”) Brown fired more women staffers at The New Yorker than Elvis fires up engines in Viva Las Vegas, and when you pointed this out to men on the staff, the response tended to be something along the lines of, “Well, she wants to be the only chicken in the henhouse.” I remember one editor using exactly those words not long before I was fired, after Brown had fired Veronica Geng, a celebrated New Yorker writer and editor who, oddly, had had an affair with the same married writer who targeted me.

Sure, women got published in Tina Brown’s New Yorker — now and then, from time to time, especially if they were willing to write about sex, particularly their own sex lives. But through 1995 at least, when I stopped taking notice, there were very few women’s bylines in the magazine on a regular basis. And the phenomenon of women writers who were associated with a particular sphere or field of expertise actually publishing on their subject became virtually unheard of. The back of the book, meanwhile — the culture section— which traditionally had been a breeding-ground for critics, some of them women like Pauline Kael and Arlene Croce who had invented new ways of writing about a particular art form, was largely de-feminized, its columns filled by generic male voices that could have been found in any publication, like the very ones some of them had been hired away from.

There are — if I may be permitted to oversimplify wildly for a moment — two kinds of women in the working world who achieve great power. Those who are good at what they do and enjoy working with other smart or talented or thoughtful women. And there’s another kind that isn’t really good at much of anything at all but self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and manipulating other people. That kind of woman will always enable and protect the Weinsteins of the world and encourage men in the demeaning of other women. There may be an element of self-loathing there, like the self-loathing Smith attributes to Weinstein himself; the women enablers may have some unconscious need to diminish and devalue something they lack.

There can be something almost sexy about working with gifted, brilliant people of either gender, whether you’re gay or straight. I remember once being stopped in the hallway by a veteran editor (she wasn’t even my editor) who had seen Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight, which I was writing about, and told me — with great tact and even more passion — that I’d left out the most important point about the show, how it was really all about race in America; and she was right. That was probably the most exciting moment in all my time at The New Yorker.

And I remember a story told me by Veronica, who was in on a few of Brown’s early editorial meetings. The question of how certain managerial roles would be meted out came up and someone brought up the name of the editor who had stopped me in the hall that time. Veronica told me that Brown quipped, “Oh, you mean the fat, homely girl with glasses,” and the men all laughed. Yes, they agreed, that was who was meant. Veronica pointed out that the woman under discussion was an accomplished poet and translator, and the men, chastened, all quickly agreed, “Yes, yes, very accomplished.”

Tina Brown was the enabler-in-chief. It’s absurd for her to carry on as though she didn’t know of Weinstein’s depredations and wasn’t complicit. She’s the woman who put Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress who wouldn’t sleep with Weinstein, on the cover of the premiere issue of Talk dressed in S&M garb, crawling painfully toward the camera on her stomach like a submissive — literally grovelling — and so generically made up as to render her unrecognizable as an individual. What the hell did she think that was saying?

It’s equally hard to stomach Brown on the subject of Weinstein’s grossness and unloveliness. Brown did more to vulgarize and uglify American letters than any other single person in America. She was the queen of the nothing-is-sacred mentality, establishing a redefinition of writing and journalism whereby nothing had any value at all but sex, shock, money, power, or celebrity.

She came to this country and, having failed to revive Vanity Fair, leaving it to a better editor and journalist to shape it into the very thing she’d hoped to achieve, went on to take a great literary institution — historic because it had introduced the vernacular into the American literary landscape, establishing that good writing could sound more like speech than like some gouty old Brit in a smoking jacket — and transformed it into something so crass you scarcely wanted to touch it, let alone look at or read it. (Actually, that last bit’s not me; it’s something I remember Louis Menand saying to me once.) This is a woman who thought declaring that The New Yorker would remain “text-driven” would reassure writers and journalists, who thought that putting topic-sentences at the top of every page of the magazine to make it easier to read was a good idea.

Brown’s performances on Charlie Rose and on BBC Newsnight offer up a demonstration of what she is very good at. She’s good at cant, and she’s good at a certain kind of corporate-political self-protection. It’s cunning, if mistaken, to try to get herself off the hook by blasting Donald Trump in the same breath as Harvey Weinstein. It’s enemy-of-my-enemy logic; she’s banking on the idea that Americans are too stupid to hold more than one idea in their heads at a time, hoping if she goes on record as a non-endorser of Trump, no one but Republicans will call her out on her hypocrisy. For her to get away with that would be more than a farce; it would be an obscenity. Not endorse Trump? She helped create the cesspool that made it possible for someone like Donald Trump to become the President of the United States. She’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in now.

I n addition to the many articles and opinion pieces about Weinstein, there have been statements from a number of the women he victimized or tried to victimize. Some have sought, as I’ve done here, to articulate the numerous and varied factors that make sexual harassment so difficult — perhaps impossible — to deter. There is the sense of bewilderment and confusion that always attends on the experience. Kate Beckinsale, in an Instagram posting, looked back on her 17-year-old self, remembering how she couldn’t understand how Weinstein — this repulsive old man — could imagine her finding him desirable or attractive. She calls herself naïve. But naïveté can sometimes be a desperate form of wishful thinking. There’s a tremendous impulse to disbelieve that what you think may be happening is actually happening, or to hope that it isn’t. You are, after all, good at what you do. You have value. You are accomplished or talented or smart, and this man has nothing whatever to offer you. How can he possibly not see that?

In fact, I think the most dangerous element for women caught in the morass of the sexual harassment experience is time. You don’t always know what is happening to you until it is too late and there’s no longer anything you can do about it — morally, professionally, legally. Jia Tolentino, in a New Yorker article written in blood, enumerated some of the reasons why women seek to maintain cordial or amicable relations with the men who have harassed them. You can spend months or years coming up with different strategies and methods of deflection and trying them all out in an attempt to protect yourself. But there are statutes of limitation.

When does the clock start ticking? When does it stop? At what point does the harassment occur or a woman become aware of what is happening? When someone touches your body in an inappropriate way at an awards ceremony, you know you’ve been assaulted. But what about women who must deal with months or years of unwanted advances from men who have more power or more prestige than they do or are perceived as being of more value to the franchise? When does the clock start ticking for them?

When does the harassment occur? Does it start when the married colleague with whom a woman has had no more than casual interactions invites himself to her hotel room at a sales conference she’s been required to attend and tells her that he’s obsessed with her? (He has no real power over her, though he may possess more clout or cachet and a more solid place at the magazine, having been there longer.) What constitutes resistance? If she tells him she’s flattered and that he’s attractive but that part of his attraction for her resides in his persona as a family man with a darling wife and three small children? Is that flirting or deflecting?

What if, when he begins talking about how his wife doesn’t understand him, she smiles involuntarily, because that’s such a cliché, and what if he then gets angry and knocks over a lamp — not purposely, of course, just in a wild gesture of generalized rage? Is that harassment?

And what if she finally gets scared or confused or just plain tired and realizes that on some level he has the ability to harm her if he doesn’t get what he wants, and hopes that by sleeping with him, just this once, she might manage to appease him and establish some sort of normalized friend-zone relationship with him? What if she says: Okay, look. This isn’t real. We’re in Florida. At a sales conference. Let’s have a one-night stand. You’ll get me out of your system and then we’ll both move on. It’ll be a one-time thing. Is that consensual?

Of course it is. But what if he never leaves her alone after that?

Sexual assault is easy to pin down in terms of time. It happens when it happens. But sexual harassment only becomes harassment when someone seeks to do someone else professional harm in retaliation for sexual acts or relationships denied or curtailed. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that how it works?

So, at what point do those clocks start and stop? When the sheets go into the wash? When some job or series of projects ends unexpectedly and ambiguously? When a woman begins to suspect that a man who has harassed her means her — or a friend of someone she cares about — harm? A few years later, when a woman approaching middle age realizes that her career has stalled or evaporated completely? Or when an old woman, looking back on her life, realizes how different things might have been if she hadn’t become the target of some guy who wanted something from her she couldn’t or didn’t want to give him?

These are not simple issues, and I don’t mean to suggest that they are. I could probably write a book ironically titled How Not to be Sexually Harassed whose point would be that there’s nothing you can do. And I could probably edit an Oxford Book of Sexual Harassment drawing on centuries of tropes culled from art, literature, and history to show how complicated it all is. Some of the great romances, after all, have sprung from relationships that, technically or on the surface, might have seemed to be problematic. But you can tell when someone doesn’t care about you. The trouble is that you don’t always know whether someone has it in mind to harm you because, when you realized that he or she didn’t have the capacity to care about anyone, you put a stop to something.

Did Stephen Collins sexually harass me? Of course not. How could he? He had no power over me. He was just an actor. I was a critic, a woman of standing, accomplishment and authority. Did I call him out? No, and he knew I wouldn’t. Why not? I’m 60 years old with two graduate degrees, and to this day I couldn’t tell you why. Imagine how bewildering it must be for women or men or children who lack my age and advantages.

So, I sit and read about Harvey Weinstein and Stephen Collins and Leon Wieseltier, and I laugh. Because if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.

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