#metoo THIS

October 11, 2018 at 9:29 pm (By Amba)

A Brief for the Complexity of Experience

Reading this psychoanalytic article on how an ambiguous past experience can be retrospectively recognized or reevaluated as a trauma (such a revelatory change is an emotional reality, the author claims, not some opportunistic rebranding to jump on an angry-victim bandwagon), I started thinking again about the time my boss made a pass at me.

That scene sprang to mind immediately when #metoo arose, of course, and I have thought of it often since. I cannot honestly say it was traumatic at the time, though it was disturbing, and I cannot call it traumatic even now, though it remains vivid in my memory, which tells you something. I want to tell you about it because I think it exemplifies the one thing that gets lost in a zero-tolerance, all-or-nothing cultural climate, and that is what actually happened. And the context: what happened before, and after. The ambiguity and weirdness that is the power of narrative can be too quickly stamped flat by interpretation and judgment. I don’t want to lose the details of the experience by classifying it and filing it.

I have the luxury of remembering this way because I was lucky. The man in the story was not a misogynist, he had already demonstrated that beyond a doubt. At no time did he belittle me or relate to me primarily as a body, much less one he had rights to. He did not punish me professionally in any way for my infinitesimal rebuff. I do not intend to generalize from this story. I am not suggesting that other such stories may or may not resemble it in any way. I don’t want to make this particular story out to have been either worse or better than it was. I’m not drawing conclusions. I’m trying to preserve particularity.

*   *   *

I was twenty-two. He must have been in his mid- to late forties, a heavy-bodied, intellectual man with a sensual, fleshy face. Married. He was a senior editor in the publishing house where I had been hired right out of college. I was an editorial assistant. Or maybe I had been promoted to assistant editor, because I was no longer reading the slush pile (the unsolicited manuscripts that came in the mail—we actually read them) in a windowless office with three other Ivy League “girls.” I had my own little windowless office.

He came into my office on some business or other and closed the door behind him, which I thought was odd. We exchanged a bit of professional small talk and then he stepped forward, bent over my desk and kissed me on the mouth. In his loose business pants a dolphin rolled.

I simply didn’t respond. I didn’t move. I must have given him an uncomprehending, wary, enigmatic look. He stepped back. The dolphin vanished into the depths. He left my office and closed the door behind him.

And that was the end of it. Things went on as before, as if it had never happened. Almost. There was a little dent in my childlike trust in him, like the first scratch on a new car.

*   *   *

The context.

He had been a mentor to me, someone who reveled in and egged on my mind and talent, unlike the boyfriend I’d recently dumped whose motto was, “I like airline stewardesses because they don’t think.” Scalded by prefeminist Harvard, which had dripped condescension toward all things female, especially those with pretensions to intelligence, I had thrived on the heady banter and exchange of ideas with this authority figure who treated me like a fledgling colleague. If there was a flirtatious, male-female subtext, I was obtuse to it. I played in my boss’s indulgence as freely as a child in a play therapist’s sandbox, safely trying things out.

I wasn’t a virgin, but I was pretty innocent. About my own powers, and even my own motives, as well as others’. So when I showed my boss some poems I had written, I didn’t think anything of including this one:

Spring Song 2

Had he, I wondered, wondered whether my showing him that poem had been meant as an invitation? Or did it just turn him on?

Oh, and then there was the other one, I’d forgotten about the one about the visit to the gynecologist—I won’t inflict the whole thing on you, but it was 1968, full flood sexual revolution, not only in what you did, but what you could say, and it ended with these lines:

Sanger Clinic 2

He might have been . . . forgiven (I use the word with all due irony) . . . for wondering if I was dropping an invitation in his inbox, because—the plot thickens—another young woman working in the office, a few years ahead of me, had already had an affair with him (I don’t remember when or how I learned this; probably she told me, we were friends), and it is quite possible that she had initiated it. She had had a previous relationship with a much older literary mentor. You can hear the Starr Report chorus of prurient patriarchal scorn warming up, but it wasn’t a happy story, a case of the mythical wild free spirit; she had been sexually abused as a child, was possibly bipolar (she later had a psychotic episode), and possibly hypersexual at times. How could our boss have taken advantage of someone so vulnerable? Did he even know? Or did he just think, “Oh boy, wow, why not?”

In any case, this married man had learned that bright young women in the office might be available and willing, so his kiss was investigative, to find out if I might be another one of those. To his credit (more irony), he was keenly attuned to the finding that I was not. I didn’t have to do anything but nothing, and he backed off like he’d touched a hot plate.

Remember that in 1968 there were no rules yet governing this type of relationship (aside from the stuffy old ones about marital fidelity, of course). It was a time when graduate students routinely married their professors. Was ours a relationship of unequal power? Of course. Did my boss abuse his power? Barely. For the most part he used it sincerely to nurture and foster me, a kindly professional father figure.

But as such, he did violate my naïve trust.

Compare the president of the company, a devastatingly charismatic man who doodled sharp, dashing strokes with a fountain pen while he talked to you, like Stalin doodled wolves. He took great pleasure in summoning awestruck young editors-in-training up to his eyrie on “the Ninth Floor,” alone, and entrusting us with challenging assignments. And he was impeccable. If he knew the thrill his power and presence elicited, he never took an iota of advantage of it. He used it to supercharge us with endeavor.

(I did date his son a couple of times . . .)

The ultimate irony, if I am completely truthful, is that the “bundled bear” of my poem could only have been my boss. I didn’t know any other men that shape.

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