I was Weinsteined and it took me three years to realize it.
This unsavory fact finally dawned on me after reading The New Yorker’s coverage of Harvey Weinstein. The parallels to my own experience were too obvious to ignore. Nauseated and numb, I read the article, and its constantly unfurling list of details, with increasing rage. In that article and others that have popped up this week, there’s been an astonishing amount of blow-back against some of the women who took “so long” to speak out against Harvey Weinstein. The pure disbelief that these women, and other powerful women in entertainment, didn’t do more seems to baffle people. I can’t imagine why.
You see, it takes at least two sides for there to be a power dynamic. The women who have come forward were as immersed in the culture of “this is how the industry works” as the men, even though it’s been to their disadvantage. It takes a lot to buck a system under best circumstances. Entertainment is such big business and so pervasive that it can go by one name, “The Industry”. Taking Harvey Weinstein on, a man whose tentacles have such broad and strong reach, isn’t about outing one man. It’s about outing everyone who enabled him, which is clearly dozens of people; hundreds if you count those who knew but weren’t directly facilitating his culture of fear, intimidation, and rape. That’s a hell of a lot for a single individual to take on, particularly when the financial requirements of taking any legal action are stratospheric, and the indubitable lack of support from other industry insiders who didn’t want to find themselves on Harvey’s bad side was so obvious.
The existence of the culture of sexual harassment within the workplace isn’t news. For those of us who are old enough to have lived through corporate jobs in the ‘70s or ‘80s, that statement most likely elicits, at minimum, an eye roll. Those of us who are in our twenties or thirties and, due to the glass-ceiling-breaking work of the women who came before us, weren’t exposed to that sordid fact of life quite so blatantly, there is Mad Men.
I’ve dealt with super-creeps of all stripes, some of whom slithered out of the entertainment industry. I’ve experienced the guy who wanted me as a client but also thought it a good idea to arrive at our drinks meeting already drunk, ready to tell me that he’d been waiting for a year to fuck me. There was the investment banker who explained to me that my attire would be more office-appropriate if my skirt was about four inches higher. There was the print-services salesman who grabbed my ass at a company dinner in full view of our colleagues; and then he shook it. Yes, I was unwillingly twerked by middle management.
None of those experiences were lost on me when they happened. Some of those guys got the stink-eye from me and crawled back under their rocks. Others weren’t worth addressing. The hands-on twerking enthusiast was reminded that I’m a lawyer and was presented with a list of charges I’d make if he didn’t remove himself from my office, my sight, earshot, and anything else I could think of. Wisely, he disappeared. Paradoxically, as a lawyer, I detest litigating; the agreed upon arrangement suited me just fine.
These and other soul-crushing, rage-inducing experiences have popped up with some regularity over the course of my life as an employed person. I thought I knew sexual harassment when I saw it. I thought wrong.
Once I hit my forties, I was sure I was out of the woods. I thought I had finally arrived at that state of jaded, blasé, savvy that, while in my twenties, I never thought I’d reach. I certainly was jaded, blasé, and savvy, but I wasn’t wise. I thought my hard-boiled Rosalind Russell-ness was a beautiful bubble I could hang out in, and from which I could watch the young people learn their own lessons. I wasn’t a monster; of course, I’d intervene if I could. But I was smug as a pug in a rug and settled into my bubble with a sense of power and security. That was a mistake.
I was trying to get one of my pet projects off the ground and decided to dabble in the no-man’s-land between film and publishing. I had a book that was perfect for movie adaptation and was hell-bent to get it done. I cold called a studio executive who actually answered his own phone. We chatted. He was astonished that I wasn’t familiar with everything he’d ever written or produced. I was still being astonished that he answered his own phone. Executive Guy suggested we have lunch. We did. It was fun, he was witty and bookish despite his exposure to Hollywood, and we both reveled in eating well. The meet-and-greet was a blast. It was followed by a dinner, then another dinner, then another dinner. Those experiences were consistently entertaining, but nothing was happening with my project. At our next “hang out”, I broached the topic. He was enthusiastic about helping me and was “still considering how to approach it.” In the mean-time, he got wind of my idea for a reality-TV show. He was so excited about it that he asked me to write a proposal and produce a sizzle reel. I did it, knowing that it’s easier to piggy-back a less exciting project onto a thrilling one than just hammer away at getting the less exciting (to the executive in question) made.
Eighteen months later, during which time he embraced the notion of being my mentor (he was roughly twenty years older than I), nothing had happened with my projects. I was annoyed and started bickering with him with the confidence of someone who knows they’re bickering with a friend, or, in this case, a mentor. He apologized and invited me to dinner at some joint that was impossible to get into and was considered foodie heaven.
After dinner, I was finally hit with the sinking feeling that this was a guy who loved being a “mentor” (or the acknowledged smartest and/or more powerful person in the room) and was terrific at bullshitting. But, like most people in the entertainment industry, he either wasn’t really capable of following through on his promises, or, liked the hustle but had little interest in closing the deal. The finality of closing a deal would mean that real work would have to begin. This is a concept that is not relished by studio folk.
Again, I was wrong. This was a deal-closer. For all my jaded, blasé savvy, I had failed to recognize that I was the deal. This guy had played a long game to gain my trust and, consequently, my availability. During the meal, it was evident that I was losing patience with our mentoring relationship. It hadn’t yielded any return on my investment of time nor the work I’d done on spec. When the client/mark/prey is ready to bolt, deal closers spring into action.
He got me a cab, opened the door for me (a true gentleman), and stood in front of the entrance to the cab. I was wedged in the corner where the door was attached to the cab. He was well over a foot taller than I am, and, naturally, used that to his advantage. His physical presence was suddenly menacing, shocking, and terrifying. I knew in that moment that he would be able to do pretty much whatever he wanted to, and, could even spirit me away in that cab if he chose to. He pressed his bulky frame against me, pinning me to the door. He was so close that when I tried to turn my head to get away from him, I only succeeded in rumpling his shirt-front. He vice-gripped my head, insuring I still couldn’t move, then took a step back. From this vantage point he was able to look at me, gauge my fear, and close the deal. He kissed me, forcing my mouth open with his hands, which were still gripping my head. He took a step forward so his body was against mine but he could still lean back for his kiss. He put his knee between my legs and ground himself against me. The only thing I could remember thinking was, “This is not happening.”
It happened. Then I bit him. In his moment of surprised, I shoved him off me and yelled at the driver to get me the fuck out of there. The driver had seen everything and looked like he was going to throw up. By the time I got home, that was precisely what I did.
I never spoke to my mentor again. He never reached out to me and I certainly stayed away from him. I never finished developing the projects I had been so passionate about. I drew a line under those eighteen months and began compartmentalizing the hell out of what had happened. I told a few reliable gossips about what my mentor had done, and soon enough I knew that the story had made the rounds. Could I have done more to bring him down? Maybe. Did I think that whatever fight I started would end in my favor? No. And so I did nothing more. And that was that.