Two stories bookend my professional life. A life constantly buffeted by men in positions of power. The two stories I’ll tell are detailed exquisitely in emails — but emails from the first bookend are no longer retrievable. They might be stored somewhere on Juno Online Services’ servers, but I have no way of accessing them.
In 1999, I delighted in this concept of electronic letters. I communicated with a family friend who later became my boss through this newfangled method. The dial-up server connection, that eardrum-scratching shriek of static, precluded the shivering joy of new e-mail.
He had many nicknames for me: Kath-mofeen-leen was one. He would add adjectives and modifications as events warranted it. My memory is muddy now — I was 16 at the time. But suppose I’d recently won a foot race in a track meet. He might change his email greeting to “Dear Miss Kath-a-fast-running-leen.” What a writer he was. We exchanged witty remarks in long email strings. I shared my innermost thoughts.
His cologne smelled of the pine tree woods I sought refuge in often as a somewhat lonely child. I would lose myself in reveries thinking about all of the compliments he gave me. He kept a photocopied photo of me taped above his computer in the office. Often, when I rounded the corner in the newspaper office where I was an intern to ask a question about an assignment, he would grab his crotch. Once, he drove up to the back entrance of our school’s track-and-field area. I’d just finished cross-country practice. “Sorry I’m so sweaty!” I blurted, embarrassed by frizzy hair and my flushed face. “It’s OK,” he told me. “I like it.”
The things we remember.
Another time, I sat with him, my legs spread across the van’s hood to distribute my weight evenly as I balanced the long camera lens, aimed at pitchers and shortstops. “You missed a spot,” he said, pointing to a patch of hair near my ankle I’d missed with my razor. Mortified, I covered up my legs. Waves of guilt washed over me as the ballgame wore on.
Later, when I was in college, I confronted this man. I requested we meet for coffee. He agreed. With my knees knocking together uncontrollably, I interviewed him. “Do you remember kissing me on the forehead in the dark room?” I asked. He slowly shook his head no. “Do you remember asking me to sit in your lap at your desk?” He stared ahead, blinking. “Do you remember telling me that you loved me?” I cannot recall his exact words, but he may have conveyed to me that, if anything, he considered me his daughter. “Do you remember stroking my calves while I stood next to your desk?” He may have shrugged or sighed. “Do you remember taking me out to dinner?” I asked. At this point, perhaps, he reminded me of the heart-wrenching divorce he’d gone through that awful summer in 1999. “Do you remember inviting me to your house in the mountains?” I asked, finally. I’m not sure how we ended the conversation. I stood up. Sweat poured from my armpits. I walked out of the café. I walked away.
The irony of my very first assignment as a Georgia Press Association intern in summer 1999 was not lost on me. Anthony S. Elder, my former health teacher at Oglethorpe County High School, appeared in our local courthouse for three counts of statutory rape and child molestation. Elder had ruined the life of my classmate: a smart, beautiful, blonde, long-legged runner.
My second bookend is quite fresh.
I shoved this bookend forcefully, angrily, in place, at 11:44 a.m. on Tuesday, October 15, 2013. The first to blaze a trail gets the deepest scratches. That morning, Monica Byrne bravely named Bora Zivkovic in her post about sexual harassment. With untold courage, Hannah Waters shared her story about the insidious power of not-quite-harassment she experienced with Bora.
Bora commended their audacity.
But online, men, women and myself felt shocked. How could someone who had given so generously, commanded his rare talents so well, done so much for women and science writing online—how could he?
He could, he did. And the point that seems to be missing so far in coverage surrounding this controversy at Scientific American is: He could do it again.
At age 18, after hearing from a psychologist at my university that what happened to me at age 16 was wrong, I screwed up my courage and said: “Never again!” But this was about as effective as sending a young soldier into No Man’s Land sans weapons with the sole order: “Survive!” How can one survive, much less thrive, if the situation keeps recreating itself and the sufferer has no weapons at hand?
If you have read the pieces by Monica and Hannah, then you have read what Bora did to me. But I have more to add.
My story begins in November 2010 at the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conference in New Haven, Conn. As a graduate student in the Health and Medical Journalism master’s program at the University of Georgia, I was eager to get my name out to potential employers. On that Saturday evening, with conversations ricocheting off the walls of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, I felt overwhelmed. I drank two glasses of wine. A group of us stood outside later, waiting for cabs to take us to the restaurants. I ended up in a cab with Bora. On an empty stomach, and with the alcohol slowing down my cognition, I remember acting fascinated by Bora’s story of how he arrived in America. I asked question after question, as journalists do. We arrived at the restaurant. We all ate. The restaurant check arrived. Bora pointed to me and another girl. “I’ll pay for theirs,” he told the waiter. If I recall, there were about six other women—and perhaps one other guy—sitting at our table. After dinner, I made my way to the hotel lobby, anxious to get away from Bora because I knew I was putting myself in a risky situation. But somehow we ended up standing together in front of the elevators. “Let’s go up to the bar at the top,” he suggested to me. I nodded. Once there, I ordered a plain Coke. He talked and talked. I don’t remember much. I do remember, as we later both stood waiting for the bell to signal my floor, that he leaned over and kissed me on top of my head. I mumbled a farewell as the doors opened and walked away.
Fast-forward to May 2012. I’d been recently hired by Nature Publishing Group to complete a graduate-level news writing internship in New York City. During his near-monthly visits to the same building for Scientific American, he visited me at my desk. After he finished talking to me once, my co-worker leaned over to me. “Was that your husband?” she asked me. “Oh, god, no!” I said.
I agreed to meet Bora for dinner in New York at some point in July 2012. While we sat in the restaurant, Bora looked around anxiously, as if NSA itself might be watching. I ordered one glass of wine. During conversation, I said: “You know, you stole that kiss from me at Yale in 2010. I did not ask you to kiss me.” Then, kicking myself for not saying that I felt also violated, I sat silently while he talked and we finished dinner. We walked outside. It was a balmy evening in the city. With the wine or with that city’s energy, I suddenly thought: Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe Bora does want to be my friend and I can learn, with him, to stand up to men in positions of power.
After a few moments of walking, Bora said to me, apropos of nothing: “I have not had sex with my wife for seven years.” Speechless, I walked on in silence. He described his frustration about this situation. After he stopped talking I said: “Are you suggesting that you’d like to have sex with me?!” He confirmed my worst fear. “Well, I’m sorry, but I am not interested in that. I’m happily married,” I said. He apologized and brushed it off.
We met several more times that summer. With each visit, my confidence and willingness to speak up withered. I left our meetings feeling crushed, confused, cowardly. He joked that he wished he could sneak into my apartment on the Upper West Side.
This past June, at the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists meeting in Helsinki, I participated on a panel with my incredibly talented fellow science journalists. Bora recruited all of us and organized the panel. On the night before the meeting began, he arrived to the official conference hotel late at night. “Which room are you in?” Bora texted before or soon after he entered the hotel. I sent him the room number where my husband and I stayed. “Can I come by and see you now?” he texted. “No, I’m afraid we have to wait until tomorrow morning. My husband is already in bed, sorry,” I texted back. A few moments later, I heard a knock at our door. I opened it expecting to see housekeeping staff. Bora stood there. He said, “Hi!!” and walked past me into our room. My husband sat shocked in our hotel bed. Bora grabbed me in an embrace, picked me up, swirled me around, and kissed me on the cheek. After a few minutes of small talk, he left.
This past August, I excitedly participated in a climate conference in Washington, D.C. Bora was also there. He stuck to my side like glue, or so it felt. Paranoid that people were glaring at me and wondering why he hung out with me, I tried to distance myself from him. One night after the conference we walked to a café to buy gelato. While sitting on steps in front of a building, Bora brought up the topic of sex with his wife again. I pleaded with him. “Actually, could you please not tell me any more about your wife without her permission?” And I added: “I do not want to hear about you and she having sex anymore.” He backed off, as he had done in past instances. “I’m sorry—I keep thinking that talking about it might help you,” he replied. “I don’t think it does,” I said.
There are many other examples, instances, encounters. And then there are the emails.
But it’s time that you see this side of Bora that I have seen. I want you to understand. This must stop.
For brevity and ease of reading, I have copied and pasted below a selection from numerous emails between Bora and I.
August 2, 2012: KATHLEEN WROTE: That you respect my limits and boundaries will make me all the more aware of yours. Now I have begun to relax and know that things are off to a fine start!
August 3, 2012: BORA’S REPLY: I likewise feel that the ‘dangerous’ moments have passed, and that we have a beginning of a wonderful friendship, having each other as confidants, enjoying each others company, enjoying intellectual discussions, sharing deepest secrets with complete trust, and yes, feeling safe to do flirty things with each other fully knowing it does not mean a breach of trust — just our little shared secret, little “speaking in code” that only you and I understand. So happy we resolved this like smart, civilized, mature people.
May 20, 2013: BORA’S REPLY: [an excerpt from a much longer email] …There’s no way in hell I can or could do anything like that with you. Not now. Not last year. You are a very different person. Catholic guilt, Southern childhood, personal history — for you probably everything physical is sexual and in a negative way. Both last year and before/after, if I kissed your lips or grabbed your ass, you’d have freaked out! I’d mean it in a totally friendly nonchalant kind of way — as a non-sexual act even at the time when I wanted you — but you’d understand it very differently. So I am glad that on the very first night (and then clarified once more later), our agreement also included these kinds of rules, where can lips and hands go or not go when we hug. Much better that way than me making a mistake at some point, losing your trust that way…
[from the same email; for context, in the following text, Bora is referring to an acquaintance from his adolescent years] …Over those eight years, I learned that if she kissed my lips, that did not mean she wanted me to have sex with her. If I grabbed her ass, she did not see that as a warning that she’s about to get fucked. We got used to that, as a normal part of life. In all those changing rooms at the stables, hotels, horse shows, all sorts of things happened, and none of it led to sex. Just because I caught a glimpse of her naked ass, or stared at her boobs, did not mean we’d end up in bed. Just because she smiled while staring at my erection, did not mean she wanted it inside of her. There were times when we traveled to horse shows and were given a tiny little hotel room with a tiny narrow bed, in which the only way we could sleep was in each others arms. And too hot to sleep in anything but the tiniest underpants, too small to really contain my hard-on, and yet we laughed and never thought that this would lead to sex. Those were just body parts — tits, asses, cocks — natural (and beautiful) parts of human bodies. Thus she never thought of a penis as a weapon, but only as a cute and exciting appendage that, one day in the future perhaps, may be (together with several other body parts) an instrument of her pleasure. This way we learned from each other trust, and we learned respect, and how to find and never cross the boundaries, and how to be comfortable with our own and each others bodies without confusion or fear…
[from the same email] …OK, here I go again, all about sex…. sorry! But kinda had to respond to this, and in this way, to make sure you understand me and where I come from (especially as I never sent that long thing I wrote last month). I felt that your experience with other men may still color your experience of me and understanding of me (in a slightly negative way that somewhat surprised and dismayed me), and I wanted to clarify that…
July 29, 2013 BORA WROTE: [For context: Earlier in this email, he explained to me a game that he and his wife play, modeled after the popular game show Jeopardy] Another interesting one was “Sex for $100, Alex”. [She] instantly yelled “Penis!”. Me: “What about penis?”. She: “Your penis.” “Why?” “Because I like it”.
October 15, 2013 KATHLEEN WROTE [this has been edited for brevity]: Bora, This is too much. I’ve been taken advantage of too many times. Reading Monica’s story was like reading the story of our interactions. We can no longer be friends. With other women’s stories coming to light, I can no longer trust you as I have tried to do — and have defended you to other women again and again. I am tired, tired, tired of fighting.
BORA REPLIED: [this is an excerpt from a longer email] I am not a suicidal type, but I see no reason to live any more…..
[later the same day, Bora sent another email, and this is again, an excerpt] Your secrets are safe with me, no matter how much lawyers are poking me now. Or muzzling me from saying anything more in public. I promised, and the promise remains.
Bora has apologized to everyone, including myself, but this is not enough.
As I tell my shrinks, my girlfriends, my older sisters: I’ve never been taken advantage of by a male off the street. All of the men who have sexually harassed me in professional settings have been smart, accomplished, eloquent, driven. But ultimately, and this is key, they have been and are predators.
I want these stories to be bookends, to seal off this sexual harassment part in my professional life and in the lives of other women. But I fear that if I don’t say something now, I won’t be able to, and neither will any other woman.