A Red-Blooded American Introduction to Journalism
A true story about mentorship and manipulation
He was the reason I came to New York City in the first place and my introduction to journalism: Tom Random*, a man I once referred to as my mentor. Some might consider him something of a monster, but I’ll always just think of him as T.
When I sent that first innocent email, he was over twice my age and at the height of his career at the publication where I aspired to work when I grew up. Our online paths crossed by way of a mutual acquaintance who thought my journalistic aspirations could benefit from knowing him, so I wrote to him and told him I was a fan of his work—that I was going to be a journalist too someday, and might he like to get coffee when I inevitably made it to New York? I expected him to discard it. Instead, he wrote me back almost instantly, flattered. He said he’d love to have coffee with me, but unfortunately he was leaving for Iraq in three days, and did I use AIM?
I was elated! I couldn’t believe an important war correspondent was willing to talk with me, an awkward teenager who had barely published a dozen articles in her student newspaper. Reflecting on the situation at 27—now inside of the industry I once stared at from across the moat—I know why he took me under his wing.
“Baghdad, Baghdad… It's so rough on red-blooded American boys,” he once said. “Nothing is happy here, really. Nothing happens the way it's supposed to.”
I would IM him after dinner from my college dorm room and ask him questions about journalism while he slipped into an Ambien haze, trying to keep the bodies on the streets and the explosions from being burned into his mind. He would send me pictures of the Bureau cat and tell me about his day, sparing me most of the bloody details. But when it came to his personal life, he spared none. He told me about his loveless marriage, his discontent girlfriend, and about his thoughts of me.
The first time the conversation turned sexual, I abruptly signed offline. I had always made so sure to never say anything that could be perceived as the least bit flirtatious. I may have been 19, but I wasn’t stupid. Even though I knew he was married, the thought persisted in the back of my mind that T’s intentions in carrying on with me went beyond the pure-hearted desire to impart knowledge on a thirsty young pupil. I re-read our chat logs trying to figure out where I fucked up, where I said anything that could have been interpreted as sexual. But I didn’t.
But it didn’t matter. When he laid out his fantasies so boldly in that chat box, my new-found world of opportunity regarding a career in journalism was reduced down to two choices: shut it down and risk losing his companionship, or “grow up, sweetheart,” as he put it. All of the opportunities he could have given me had exploded in an instant like one of the roadside bombs he drove past on his morning commute.
I told him I wanted to keep things professional, hoping it was a fluke and that we could just forget it ever happened. But the can of worms was open and T wouldn’t let me forget that he wanted me as more than a mentee. A conversation that started about beheadings and murdered stringers would end with thoughts of some Midwestern college student in a bikini giving him a massage. Everything was layered with hypotheticals and innuendos that made conversing with him a complex and intriguing game of reading between the lines. I could only play dumb for so long.
Me: How old do you think I am?
T: I would be pretty shocked if you were, say, 29 or 30... Because you're still really a girl. Which is a lovely thing, but also complicated.
Me: True enough. I'd be shocked if you said you were 25, which is how old I feel like you are when I talk to you. But I know better than that.
T: Be careful with my heart, baby.
T: Oh thanks.
Me: I’m just kidding.
T: You are such a kid.
Me: I am not.
T: R 2. It’s kind of painful that we can't get really fucking drunk right now. Or drive 500 miles to Canada for fun.
Me: Hey, yeah! I can legally drink there.
T: I don't know why, it just seems like we need to get wasted on whatever is available.
Me: Wouldn't your wife care that you were out drinking with your mentee?
T: You’re too cute. Yes, my girlfriend would too. And I feel guilty about all of that, but we haven't done anything but chat, okay?
Me: Thanks for the reminder, I am well aware. We're strictly professional. All the time. Right?
T: Um, right. I think it's possible to worry too much about such things.
Me: Is there something to worry about?
T: Forget about it, just don't.
Me: Don't what?
T: I'm saying I wouldn't worry about what exactly our deal is yet. We don't know what it is. So why worry?
T: You make me hot though. I kind of have to tell you that in case you are shocked.
Me: I'm not that naïve. I was feigning it for your benefit, but I guess that backfired.
T: This is a no feign zone. You're fun and I like you. But the last time I said that...
Me: Shit happens! I had to go.
T: It makes me worry about letting you see my bad boy side.
Me: My hopes of ever having an educational journalism experience in NYC worry about your bad boy side too. The fun is guaranteed, I’m sure.
T: Ok ok. Look, I can mentor and love it, and I can take your clothes off one article at a time while drinking scotch and talk reporting, too. You don't have anything to worry about.
Me: Don't I?
T: Not yet. I don't want to feel bad about liking you.
Me: You can't even say that you do though, you've never met me
T: I like you. And I’d like to meet you.
This weird pseudo-affair was weighing on my conscience in ways I’d never experienced. I had a serious boyfriend at the time whom I adored, and he knew about my “mentor.” Even in the beginning when I gave T the benefit of doubt, my boyfriend didn’t. One night when we were watching a documentary in bed together, T emerged on the screen with his expert opinion on the subject, disrupting our peace like a wrecking ball. My boyfriend got mad and stormed out.
I told him that nothing was going on, but the lack of trust splintered our happy college romance and we broke up soon after. It was messy, and violent. I was 20 at this point, and more lost and insecure than ever. So when T called me on the phone one cold winter night, and told me he was separating from his wife and invited me to fly out to New York on his dime, I decided it was time to step into his world. Somehow, something about him felt safer than anything else in my life at the time—which wasn’t saying much. Looking back, it was about as safe as Lolita’s road trip with Humbert Humbert.
I wanted to be an adult though. I wanted to prove to him—and myself—that I could exist in his world. And more than anything else, I wanted to be in New York—not as a tourist, but as a guest. I told him not to expect anything, even though I knew he would. I swore to myself I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, even though I could barely draw boundaries with the boys I’d messed around with, let alone a full-on man.
“Do you like bohemian or luxury?” he asked me when the topic of hotels came up. I didn’t know what “bohemian” meant, but like the good standardized test taker I was, I picked it because it was probably the less expensive option. I wanted to minimize the chances he would develop a sense of sexual entitlement, which money seemed to exacerbate even in exchanges as trivial as buying a movie ticket.
He told me to book a suite at the Chelsea Hotel and gave me his credit card information. When I spoke with the man at the reservations desk, I used my most casual and professional phone voice and placed the reservation under Mr. Thomas Random as if it was the 100th time.
“Will that be all, Mrs. Random?” he asked, catching me off-guard and filling me with guilt on behalf of the real Mrs. Random. I awkwardly affirmed and hung up the phone. No backing down now.
The night before my flight, T called me, berating his stupidity for thinking that I actually wanted to see him. He told me to just take the flight and the hotel and enjoy the trip. I was offended by the implication in all its absurdity given the power dynamic. But I figured he was scared: scared of crossing the threshold between fantasy and reality, scared of losing the young, fuckable college student he could do whatever he wanted to in his mind, and scared that the real version of me might tell him to stop. I interrupted his hysterics and told him to shut up. “Just be there.”
The first time I saw the lights of Times Square at night was from the back of a limo with T. That night we went out to eat at his favorite Italian restaurant where I was acutely aware I was being used as a type of trophy, as he clearly had a familiarity with the wait staff. He sat next to me instead of across from me and was too grabby. At one point he tried to feed me. I didn’t try to hide how much it bothered me. I told him that I wasn’t some plaything, and that I would leave and find my own way in the city if he couldn’t deal with it. But he apologized. We went back to the hotel and he told me I could kick him out whenever I wanted to, but I never did.
That night, we got drunk. He’d brought me a handle of Tanqueray and some Scotch for himself in the backpack he packed when he said goodbye to his wife and left for the weekend. He played a playlist of music he’d somehow found that I’d uploaded to my school’s server, and showed me naked photos of his ex girlfriend. We stayed up late bantering about war and journalism and topics far too sophisticated for the boys back in Michigan. It was validating to be part of T’s world, and to know that I could hold my own in conversation because we were two adults. It never felt exhausting; I wanted more stories, more analysis, more explanations of the way the world really worked.
We passed out drunk in bed together that night but he let me sleep in peace. In the morning, before he woke up, I crawled out the window onto the ledge above the Chelsea Hotel sign and smoked a cigarette overlooking the city I knew I would one day call home.
That weekend I tried so hard to prove to him that even though there was this snowballing secret tainting our mentorship, he didn’t have to worry that helping me get a job might jeopardize his own. He used to joke that there was an empty desk between him and my favorite columnist in that skyscraper filled with so much prestige, and I would fantasize about walking over from my post as science intern to say hi and work next to him for a while. This was the height of my naïveté—thinking that he had ever intended to help me at all.
But I did learn a few things from my dear mentor that week. I learned that he was a broken man, something he hid so well on the Internet. He’d spent the past decade of his life crawling through the scariest places on Earth to report on the ugliest side of humanity, and then he went home to a wife who was as jaded as him. I knew even before I met him that I was an escape from the horrors of war, but in the flesh, I was a total reprieve from everything. He didn’t need sex from me; just being around me was like a dissociative drug for him. He consumed my life force, and I let him. I had enough of it to spare back then, and he was clearly drained.
He took me to do touristy New York things and allowed himself to disconnect from everything in his regular life while I was there—everything external. Over brunch I told him I liked parrots. He told me about one in a hotel he was in while it was being bombed.
We went to see an off-Broadway show and he held my hand all through the subway on the way home, as if it was some dangerous place and that gesture was the only thing keeping me safe. Standing there on the platform, he told me about the girl he fell in love with when he was my age who hurt him so bad he put a shotgun in his mouth and contemplated blowing his brains out.
When we got back to the hotel, I was so overwhelmed with pity for T that I decided my resolve to not get physical was really kind of pointless. I pulled the neck of my dress down and reached out to feel his lust for me. I stared down at him intently, pinning him to the bed with my gaze so he was unable to move or do anything to disrupt this one very deliberate and undeniable act of my consent. He stared back at me with the wide-eyed caution one has when they wish to not to scare away a wild bunny that’s wandered near. I observed his every reaction and explored my new-found power, reading him like a newspaper.
Suddenly he jolted upright and all the color drained from his face. I jumped back, startled. I asked him if he was OK but he couldn’t respond. For what felt like an eternity (but was probably actually about five minutes), he sat there in a wild-eyed trance, gasping for air. Oh fuck. I killed him, I thought to myself with horror. I had never witnessed someone having a stroke before, but that was the only way I could explain what was happening. In my mind I saw the next day’s headline sprawled out across the front page of his precious publication: Michigan Girl Kills Iraq Correspondent With Hand Job. I went into full crisis mode and started shouting questions at him. “Are you OK? Do you want me to call an ambulance? Do you need anything?”
“Drink,” he croaked out in between gasps. I ran to the bathroom and filled up a glass of water and brought it to him. “No,” he said, gasping some more, “Scotch.” I handed him the bottle and he swigged it right out of there. A minute later, the color began to return to his face and he began laughing hysterically.
It was in those five minutes of his uncertain mortality that the situation finally snapped into focus for me. I became cognizant of the reality T and I had constructed from our loneliness and traumas, and the reality that anyone on the outside looking in would raise an eyebrow at, if not contact some sort of authority about. I had only been an adult for a month, legally, but he had been an adult longer than I had been alive. He fed on my belief that he could help me when all he really wanted to do was help himself. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but he knew exactly what he was doing by dragging me into his fucked up fantasy world.
The next day, T left me in our suite with the rest of the gin and returned back to his life. I went back to Michigan and finished college. Later that year, he told me he wanted to run away with me, that he would divorce his wife and quit his job and we would start over in Tahiti, or wherever I wanted. But I didn’t want anything from him anymore. I wanted to live out my youth and figure out journalism on my own. I brought the internship up once just to see what he would say, and he accused me of using him.
I guess I did use him in a way. I got what I wanted most after all—not an internship, but an expedited adulthood. There was nothing in me that was a child after that, and I have carried the experience with me everywhere since. Maybe he destroyed that child, or maybe a child just can’t be a child anymore when she finds herself having to be the mature one in situations with real, societally-acknowledged adults. At 21, I accepted my responsibility to behave as an adult in my interactions with other human beings—especially with the ones younger and weaker than me, but also with the overgrown man-children society allows to remain frozen in a state of perpetual teen lust and angst.
One day when T sent me a message and told me I caused him to jeopardize his marriage, I finally did what I should have done two years before and cut him out of my life. It was a slow process though. He persisted in messaging me throughout the years, desperately at first, but more sporadically as time passed. I’ve learned along the way that there were others, some major media starlets I now call colleagues, some teen nobodies even younger than I was when I first sent that innocent, treacherous email. I hope they are coping with their loss of innocence as productively as me.
I wish I’d known then what I know now, and that I’d had enough confidence in my abilities such that I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I was interesting enough or smart enough or good enough for the New York media world—or that I’d had someone like the amazing mentors I have now, who actually do want to help me succeed. In retrospect, I’m glad T never helped me get a foot in the door. It wouldn’t have meant as much as it did when I finally walked up to that door myself and simply knocked.
*Names have been changed. Image bears no relation to the subject.