Earlier this week I was reading a report about a man in a position of power at a large media organization and the litany of accounts from the women working there detailing his horrible treatment of them. Their stories range from “I always suspected something bad was going on” to years of abuse and manipulation.
While I was reading one article in particular, my mind was suddenly flooded with the recollection of something I hadn’t thought much about in a long time. I spent the next few hours after that thinking about every detail I could recall and then I spent a few more hours thinking about what it meant to me now.
Before I tell you the story, let me just say that I am keenly aware of my experience being nothing compared to the women I was reading about. I’m not trying to suggest otherwise and I’m certainly not telling this story so anyone will feel badly for me.
I’m telling this story because many times when people hear the accounts like those of the women in the news now, they have trouble processing the reality of these situations even if they believe the women. It all seems like someone else’s reality or the reality of some part of society they have never seen or touched or heard about outside of a movie theater.
I struggled with whether to write this and struggled even more with whether to post it for several reasons, not the least of which is that I despise appearing vulnerable in any way. To be honest, if I hadn’t looked up the person involved in this and discovered he died two years ago, I would not have shared this.
All that being said, even if no one else reads this, I can read it and appreciate how much I’ve grown as a person since then. I can read it and appreciate how good my imperfect life is right now. I can read it and appreciate that despite my many mistakes, I ended up none the worse for it.
Looking back on what happened fifteen years ago, knowing what I know now, it’s hard for me to believe how foolish, naive, unwise, etc… I was at that time. But then again, that’s exactly the point…
In 2001, I was 24 years old, finishing up my final year of law school and getting ready to study for the bar exam. I was an intern at a prosecutor’s office and also worked as a waitress in a bar. I had been sending out resumes in the hopes of finding a good job to start my career. One of those potential jobs was a few hours north in a midsize firm in Michigan. I got a call from one of the partners asking me to come up there to an interview.
On the day of my interview, I left really early because I was so excited and I didn’t want to be late. I wore my best “interview suit” and rehearsed all of the great answers I was going to give to every question I anticipated would come my way. I was ready.
When I got to the city where my interview would take place, I got a little turned around by the directions I had been given. I went to a gas station and asked the attendant for help, because this was 2001 and much like almost every other student I knew, I didn’t have a cell phone. The attendant told me the directions were to a restaurant nearby not a law firm. Confused, I asked if he could give me directions to the law firm.
I went to the law firm and spoke to the receptionist. She said she didn’t have me down on the schedule and the partner I supposed to meet with was out of the office. She called him and reported that I was to go to the restaurant for my interview.
Feeling a bit embarrassed that I had already messed up the instructions I had been given, I went to the restaurant. The partner, a man in his mid-fifties, was waiting near the front for me. Despite the fact that most of the people there were in suits, he immediately knew I was there to meet with him. I asked how he knew it was me. He told me he always got a copy of what was essentially a trimmed down version of a yearbook that the law schools put together, what we law students always called “the meat book”, so he’d seen my picture.
He apologized for the confusion about where the interview would take place. He explained that he had arranged for us to meet there because he knew he would be in depositions for most of the day and would need to have a late lunch. It seemed a perfectly reasonable explanation to me.
He then said that he needed to take a phone call in a little bit from an attorney on the case he’d been working on that day and instead of interrupting our lunch for it, perhaps I wouldn’t mind waiting to eat until after that. I said that was no problem. He then said we would need to go upstairs so he could take the call in his private office. I agreed and we went up the elevator. When the elevator doors opened, I was expecting to see placards on the doors in the hallway listing the names of the businesses operating inside, but there weren’t any. When we got to our destination and he opened the door, I stepped inside and realized this wasn’t an office tower. It was condominium tower.
“Is this… where you live?” I asked. He explained that it was, but that he kept his private office here and worked here when he wasn’t at the firm’s main office. He offered me a seat on the couch, took a seat on the couch opposite from me and started right in with interview questions. After ten minutes or so, he excused himself to his office to take the call he was expecting. While he was out of the room, I was thinking about how I was a little uncomfortable with my interview taking place at this man’s condo. I knew the explanation made sense, but it just felt wrong.
I gave myself quite a stern talking to in my head, telling myself: You are just a farm girl and if you want to be an attorney, you need to toughen up and stop being nervous. Professional women have meetings like this all the time. Do you think he’s going to give you a job if you show him you can’t handle being in grown up, professional situations? You’re not slinging beer at the bar here, sweetheart, you’re trying to get a job as a professional so you better start acting like you are comfortable and that you belong here.
When he came back to the room, I was confident and professional. I felt much better after the little pep talk I’d given myself. He kept going with the interview questions and I felt like I was really nailing it.
“Where are my manners? Can I get you something to drink?” he said. “Here, come look at this amazing wine collection I’ve got.” Professional people have wine at meetings all the time. This is completely normal. I got up to go look at his wine collection. He chose a bottle of some red on the rack and opened it. He poured two glasses and offered one to me. “I really shouldn’t. I’ve got a long drive back home.” I said.
He gave me a playfully reproachful look and said that it would be rude of me not to drink the wine. After all, it was very expensive. “It probably cost more than that suit you’re wearing” he added smiling. He knows you’re a fraud. He knows you’re just some farm kid playing dress up. He knows you don’t belong here. Drink the damn wine and show him you are more than that. I began to drink the wine.
As we stood there in the kitchen sipping our wine, he asked me how I would handle specific legal situations and I gave what I thought were good answers. He told me all about the job that I was interviewing for. I would be a law clerk until I passed the bar exam and got sworn in. I would then be an associate attorney working on his cases with him. This was all very normal procedure for firms like this and I was already imagining myself impressing him with my work.
He had several associates who worked with him on his cases, he explained. All of those associates were women he had hand picked because they had great potential and, being a father of daughters, he felt an obligation to help young women succeed in a male dominated profession. It was all very impressive.
“I think you have great potential” he said. “Thank you.” I blushed. See? You can be more than just some farm girl. You showed him you’re smart and that you can handle yourself.
Then he put his hand on my arm and kissed me.
I was so surprised that I jerked back and knocked over my now empty wine glass and it shattered on the floor. I said something like “I’m so sorry! I’ll clean it up!” and started picking up the pieces of broken glass. I was so embarrassed. My thoughts were racing at a million miles per hour and in a million different directions as he just stood there drinking his second glass of wine and I crawled around on the floor picking up glass in my best suit.
You idiot! Look at what you’ve done! You’ll never get this job now! You’re just going to throw everything away because you couldn’t handle one little kiss? I screamed at myself in my head. I don’t think he spoke a word while I cleaned up my mess and if he did, I didn’t hear anything he said. I asked if I could use the restroom after I finished picking up and without even shifting his weight from the counter he was leaning on, he pointed me in the right direction.
I stood in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. My hands started to tremble. I was thinking: AM I GOING TO DO THIS? Is this normal? Is this just how it is? If I’m not going to do this, how am I supposed to say that? How am I going to get out of this situation? What will he think? What will he tell other people about me?
Finally, I came out of the bathroom and there he was, still standing in the kitchen, smiling at me. “All better?” he asked. “Yes” I said, forcing a smile. And then he said all the things that I had been thinking earlier. It was like he had heard my pep talk to myself. If I was going to be a professional, I had to learn to act like it. If I wanted to be more than what I was, I would have to grow up. I would have to learn what it takes for a woman to make it in this world. I would have to learn how to handle myself and not act like a little kiss was a big deal, because “this is how the world works” and if I couldn’t do that, I didn’t belong here.
There was just silence for several seconds while the scolding he’d just given me hung in the air.
I had no idea what to do. If I’d been working at the bar and something like this happened, I would have handled it just fine, because I knew who I was there. I was the smart girl who was in law school and was a lot of fun, but did a pretty good job of keeping herself out of bad situations.
Working at the bar was not the end of the road to my career, it was just a stop along the way. This was different. This was my destination. This is what I had been working toward for years. This was supposed to be my great achievement. Only one other person in my huge extended family had gone to graduate school. Only a handful of them had even gone to college. They were proud of me and now I was going to let them all down because of a kiss.
He broke the silence by suggesting we go back downstairs to the restaurant and eat. I was so relieved that he was giving me a way out of this situation that I actually felt grateful.
We had our meal and he asked me all of the “get to know you” questions that you sometimes get in interviews. He brought the conversation back around to the job and again told me that I had great potential but that I still had a lot to learn. He told me he might still be willing to teach me what I needed to learn, despite what had happened earlier, but he still had several other candidates to interview.
We finished our meal and he walked me out to my car. On the way, I thanked him for buying what at this point had turned into an early dinner. It was already getting dark out. I put my purse in the front seat and turned around to shake his hand. He was standing only inches away from me with one arm on the roof of my car and one on the open car door.
He leaned in and kissed me again. I didn’t kiss him back, but I didn’t try to get away either. I was thinking about how I would be able to get in my car and drive away in another minute or so. After the kiss, he said I should spend the drive home thinking about what he had said and figuring out whether I had what it took to be successful. I told him I would, thanked him again, got in my car and drove away.
A week or so later, he called me and offered me the job. I told him that I had another interview coming up and after that, I would make a decision. He reminded me of what a great opportunity I had been given. Despite how uncomfortable he’d made me feel, I actually considered taking the job. It was a better offer than I had gotten from any of the other places I had interviewed with. Over the next few weeks, he called several more times but I let the machine get it because I just kept getting a knot in my stomach every time he called. He sent a few letters formally offering the job and asking me to give him a response.
I never did give him a response. I’d like to say that’s because I made some sort of decision to take a stand against such treatment or at least that it was due an active decision I made, but it really wasn’t. I just wanted to avoid feeling that knot in the pit of my stomach. I was embarrassed by the whole thing. When people asked me how the interview went, I told them it was okay, but that I didn’t know if working there would be a good fit for me. I didn’t tell anyone what had actually happened. At some point, he stopped contacting me. I just put it out of my mind and didn’t think about it. If it randomly popped up in my thoughts, I crammed back down and slammed the door on it, at least, that’s what I did until the other day.
Now, at forty years old, looking back on this was hard, but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t particularly hard to go back over the events themselves. It’s something that happened and I got over it pretty quickly. It was uncomfortable and certainly not a situation I would have willing put myself in if I had known to expect it. I’ve picked apart all the decisions I made that day and identified all the ways 40 year old me would have handled it differently than 24 year old me did. I’m much more confident and strong now. I know a lot more than I did then.
No, going back through this wasn’t hard because I’m embarrassed by how I reacted or by the decisions I made despite who wrong they seem now. It was hard because 40 year old me can map out how things would have gone if I had taken that job. I’m sure that at first I would have thought “it will only be like this for a little while and then I’ll be successful” as if somehow finding a bit of success would have made him magically disappear from my life. I would have been wrong though. I would have always been in his control. Even if I had found success, there’s no way he ever would have let me forget who gave it to me.
If I had taken that job, I don’t know how I would have been able to get out of it. He knew exactly how to manipulate me and I’m sure he would have gotten even better at it as he got to know me more. I can see how I would have felt so humiliated when faced with the reality of my situation that I would have thought there was no way I deserved to be in a better one. These are all things 24 year old me never even considered at the time. I just lacked the information necessary to let it play out in my head to see it for what it was.
This is what I think so many people miss when they hear stories like those in the news today. Things are laid out in such a bullet point fashion that it’s easy to look at the decisions these women made and say “there’s no way I would have done that!” or “what did she think was going to happen?!”. The truth is that for many it is pretty easy to end up in a situation like that. The power imbalance in these situations is too immense to really describe in words. I would be willing to bet anything that they didn’t walk into those situations as tough as nails, willing to do anything, ambition-consumed people making well deliberated decisions. I think they probably walked into those situations thinking and feeling many of the same things I did.
I feel lucky not to have ended up in a situation in even the slightest way similar to what these women found themselves living through. I feel lucky that I was in a field where there were far more employment options than these women had and that the person trying to manipulate me wasn’t as powerful as the one manipulating them.
I can’t imagine the toll it has taken on them. I also can’t imagine how hard it was to make all of this public knowing that most people would just call them gold-diggers, or whatever other insult they could think to throw at them, and look at them with cold, uncaring regard because they think these women somehow deserved to be treated that way. No one deserves to be treated that way and I’m just lucky I wasn’t.