That isn’t what I meant, although the image of those demure apron-and-cap wearing young women makes me wonder how far back in time the current Harvey horror reaches.
Certainly, it reaches a long way.
My story is not that ancient. And it is in different ways horrible from the gross physical attacks perpetrated by men I would not honor with the term, “sick.”
I was seventeen, a Freshman at college, when I encountered my particular horrors. I think Freshman girls at co-ed colleges were and perhaps still are submitted to a gauntlet of challenges, not the greatest of them academic. In my case, as a girl at the Annex—as Harvard boys called Radcliffe College—I was automatically in a one-down position. Traditions that exposed and dishonored us, and which we had not yet learned to fight—such as the semi-nude “posture” photos, part of our graduation requirement, which were sold on the sly to the boys—made it likely that our first year would be a kind of hell.
It was a repressive time, sexually, and so the hell did not take the form of physical abuse. In my case, I was humiliated by a visiting professor who made me take his place at the lectern and teach a required freshman English class because I wasn’t speaking up—I was too shy. I broke down in tears. A second horror occurred when I was offered a role in a play and found out, too late, that I was to portray a half-witted (as it was called then) southern girl who spoke baby talk to a stuffed bear she called Jefferson Davis Bear. With the help of my father’s connections, the playwright went on to a long career on Broadway.
I have made jokes about these incidents for a long time. Now, remembering the pain, I also remember my grim determination to survive—to go back for the rest of the term to that dreadful class (I never did speak up), and to perform for a week in that humiliating role.
We read about the same grim determination to survive abuse every day now as more and more so-called “powerful” men are revealed for the monsters they are. According to the New York Times, Gwyneth Paktrow “put aside qualms” about “the pestilent mogul” to become “the first lady of Miramax.” I imagine the grim jaw, the inner shuddering. “People are complicated,” she told the Times, the same excuse I heard a well-known biographer use about his subject, the murderous Kit Carson.
What about Hitler? Surely he was complicated.
According to the same article, Rose McGowan accepted hush money, then let out her rage about being raped by Weinstein in one of those Tweets we are becoming so used to. In another collusion of moguls, her Twitter account was suddenly—and briefly—terminated.
I can’t find it in my heart to blame or even to claim not to understand any of these women—and there are many of them. During my hell, I was an ambitious young writer from a part of the country then barely represented at Harvard. I could never have found a way to quit the class or the play by reasoning as one actor did that I didn’t care that much about my career anyway. I cared a great deal and I was barely getting started—I’d published one story in a young people’s magazine. I didn’t know what help that class or that play would provide me—in fact neither provided anything—but I was in a place of overwhelming displays of power, from the columns on the Widener Library (where we girls were not allowed to go) to the preoccupied, suited academics hurrying along the Yard’s shaded paths.
In that setting, I was nothing, and I knew it.
We can’t hope to stand up for ourselves as individual women—now, then, or in the future—without the loud (and I mean loud) support of other women. Isolation destroys us; the isolation women writers necessarily inhabit makes us among the most vulnerable to abuse. Perhaps the sole imaginable benefit, for us, from the slow death of publishing is that men like Harvey Weinstein would never dream of stalking those dim and dusty halls.