My mistake of silence

In 2008, I made a mistake.

Actually, I made a lot of mistakes, but only one of them has haunted me.

On Wednesday, I learned that there are at least two audio recordings of a meeting at a non-profit. In this meeting my mistake was discussed and now there is the chance that audio could go public.

And at this point, if it did, I’d support it because it would mean I could speak the truth frankly without fear of being sued for libel or slander by people with more resources than I have. It might mean that every few months, I wouldn’t have to deal with someone going, “there is this rumor” or getting out of the blue emails saying, “you know…”.

My mistake was not reporting that a drunken man in a prominent role tried to grab my breasts.

I’m writing this blog post to try and get out the truth, to get my story out before the internet gets ahold of this truth and of me, and before I am judged by the court of the blogosphere.

This is what happened that night:

Dear friend X went to introduce me to famous person A in a bar at a science fiction convention. Famous Person A was quite intoxicated. Instead of shaking my hand, Famous Person A tried to grab my breasts. Another person I had just met, person B, intervened physically. My friend made excuses for the famous person. Person B became a new friend. There was at least one other witness. I moved on with my con.

There are many reasons I didn’t report it. First off, someone physically intervened – B physically placed himself between me and the famous person who aimed his hands at my breasts. Second, the famous person was, um, famous, and I was an adjunct professor at a small university who podcasts; I didn’t want to have to deal with drama that could lead to no future work because a drunk guy acted inappropriately.  Finally, on that particular night I had consumed alcohol. There are pictures in which it is clear I have either just gotten off a trans-Pacific flight, or I was tipsy. Sadly, that was not one of the years I went straight from Asia to a science fiction convention. I know enough about slut shaming to know that if I’ve drunk any alcohol I am (according to society & often the authorities) to blame for what happens.

In talking with other women, I’ve been assured I did nothing wrong. I protected myself, and moved on. The thing is, in all the years since 2008, I’ve had a stream of women coming to me saying, “Me too,” and sometimes they say, “Me too, only it was worse and no one intervened.” I have lived with that guilt – lived with knowing that I did nothing but maybe if I had done something …

But it’s actually worse than that. A couple years later, I was asked, “would you be part of this big project we’re trying to get funded.” It was a large group of people, most of whom I have the greatest respect for. It was a tremendous opportunity. But… there is always a but, isn’t there? But Famous Person A was part of the group, and I still said yes. I talked to several of the other men involved and said, “Look, you need to know about this thing,” and they said, “Yeah, we’ve heard about stuff like that before,” or they said, “Yeah, we’ll take care of you,” or they said both. I worked to make that project a success, but when the funding never materialized, I mourned the lost opportunity, but I was grateful to not have to deal with Famous Person A.

The only way I thought I could survive was to chew off my dignity. In order to succeed, I thought I had to make no waves and miss no opportunity. I don’t know if I was right or wrong about what would have happened to my career. I know that I am now a woman with a secure enough position to say, “No more.”

I don’t write this lightly. This is a post that has been maturing inside me for 5 years as I worked to secure my future.

I touched on what happened during my 2012 TAM talk, in which I said: “Here in the skeptics community, we, like every other segment of society, have our share of individuals who, given the right combination of alcohol and proximity will grab tits and ass. I’ve had both body parts randomly and unexpectedly grabbed at in public places by people who attend this conference – not at this conference, but by people at this conference. Just like in astronomy, it’s a combination of the inebriated guys going too far – guys I can handle –  and of men in power being asses.” [link] While there were people in that audience who had successfully touched me without invitation or my desire, because someone intervened in 2008, at least Famous Guy A had only grabbed at me. But he could have done more – I was lucky. And, for the women who have said, “It was more with me,” I have mourned and regretted I didn’t do more. It was in part for them that I gave that talk.

I touched on it again in this blog post when in October, Famous Person A emailed me out of the blue. He wrote, “This is a private email for you only. … I hate to disturb your day, but you should know that there are rumors flying about today generated by a woman named Y accusing me of groping a woman (specifically touching her breast) in public at either 1 or 2, and the rumor is that it is you. Y is posting on [social media] that she was specifically told this by B, who of course did no such thing since it isn’t true. … Thank you for keeping this email private.”

He has shared around my response.

I have PTSD. It’s origins are complex and old. I had put it behind me completely for years and forgot about this demon. But, after my TAM talk in 2012, I went thru a very special form of hell that brought it back. I got help, and it’s under control, but… there are days, and this email created a week of those days. I responded that it happened (including with the description above), ending it with this, “I appreciate you reaching out to me, and understand that you may have been drunk enough to have no memory of this event. If this is the case, I would strongly urge you to consider seeking help.“ He wrote back to me two more times, asking why I had never confronted him, urging me to talk with him on the phone, talking about how this could devastate his family, urging me to remain silent. I wrote back saying I didn’t want to talk.

The truth is, as I said in my final correspondence, “There is absolutely no way for a woman to walk up to any man, let alone a prominent man they don’t really know, and say, ‘Pardon me, while you seemed to be drunk, you did this inappropriate thing.’ Inappropriate physical contact is so common at these events as to be just part of being a woman in science and skepticism. People drink. Inappropriate things happen, remembered or not, and for the most part we just move on as though it had never happened because otherwise we could never work. In this instance, B perceived the same thing I did and intervened, and, unfortunately for you and I, he is now speaking about it.”

I’ve since learned that Famous Person A has told people I contacted him out of the blue, saying I wanted to make it clear nothing happened. In other cases, he either forwarded my message or an edited version. I’ve seen parts of my message parroted back at me by people I never sent it too. I kept the bastard’s secret for fear of my career, and now I don’t use his name for fear of his attorneys… but my name?  That is something people are trying to harm.

I’ve also heard numerous stories about B speaking about what happened. That’s cool as long as it’s among friends and he tells the truth. He was there. He intervened. I’m grateful. Maybe he can convince other men to intervene as needed too.

The thing is, B keeps opening doors for Famous Person A, and providing him new opportunities, and women keep coming forward, not just to me but also to person B, and saying, “This horrible thing happened to me.”

I get it – opening doors for Famous Person A probably helps Person B. I did that too once. But we’re older now, and we don’t need Famous Person A anymore. We’re strong enough to say, “No. This is where it stops.”

On Wednesday, I got an email indicating that there are recordings of B discussing what happened in his non-profit work place. I was cc’d on a chain of emails that resulted in person B denying my experience. I responded with the same “this is what happened” as above. I’ve gotten pages and pages back. And, person B started cc’ing Famous Person A,a man who is known to be litigious. It was clear these emails wanted me to retract my very simple account of what happened in 2008. I eventually wrote to the board of the non-profit because they need to know. If the audio of the recordings go public they’re going to have one hell of a mess, and … I’ve served on the board of enough non-profits to know that if there is even a perceived possibility of inappropriate behavior by organization members, that member needs dealt with before it effects the membership or organizational mission.

Today I received the following threat from the person I thought was my friend, the person who intervened for me, person B. It was in the context of trying to get me to say nothing ever happened. He wrote, “I will also publicly speak about this as necessary, providing all documentation as necessary, including photos, emails, etc., and contact all relevant employers, as well.” He cc’d Famous Person A.

Let me put that more clearly: someone who once prevented something that has been characterized as a potential sexual assault (that is what grabbing breasts is) threatened me while cc’ing the famous person he once protected me from.

(I’ve notified my center director of what’s going on).

The photos – they’re the ones on social media that show all of us tipsy; they are the photos we let people take when they said, “Hey, can I get a picture…” The emails… no idea, and more to the point, I have no idea if they are real or among the “Pamela said in email” messages I keep hearing about that I didn’t write.

I made a mistake in 2008: I went out with friends, I got a few drinks, I didn’t freak out when a famous guy tried to grab at me, and I went on to pretend it had never happened except when asked or when I had to potentially work with the guy.

My mistake was being silent and pretending nothing ever happened. My mistake is not earning enough money to not be afraid of going head-to-head with a famous person who I know can afford lawyers.

To every woman who has spoken to me since then … I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I didn’t do something because – like you are now – I was young and just wanted a career. I’m sorry I let you down, and that you became another, “Me too.”

To my friend B – to B who I thought was a friend – you have power now. You can do so much more good than you did for me that night in a bar. Use your strength to try and make the world better.

We are all, so much bigger on the inside. … Trying is the point of life.

image credit: shahidam

74 Comments

  1. skeptifem June 1, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    You should get in contact with ken white of popehat, you may be able to get pro-bono representation and be able to tell your story. If that does not work please start a kick starter/gofundme/whatever for your legal fees. I would donate for sure. A lot of people would.

  2. Sophie June 1, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    I had a non-famous Person A/ Person B experience at a science thing earlier this year. I was entirely sober, he wasn’t. Besides a Person B that stepped in physically there was someone else at my side.

    When I tried to bring it up the next day, to say hey, this was not cool I got an earful and told I was lying and trying to make him look back. Person A was not nice. But we all, the sober ones, know what happened.

  3. Andy Lawrence June 1, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Triple gobsmacked. I started reading warily, thinking it would be one of those complicated context-is-all kind of things. Sexual politics is a complicated minefield these days, and many average women and men are confused and vaguely frightened. But for goodness sake, this sort of thing is horrific and quite depressing. If I understood right, there was no preliminary social interaction. Just out of the blue breast grabbing? Jeez. How can someone do that? So later when things come out, why not apologise? That only makes sense if there is a cold calculation that bluffing can win, at the expense of someone who has done no wrong. This is far far awful than the breast grabbing. The betrayal by B is confusing and depressing, because it also seems to speak of power winning over human decency. You might just expect that in corporate corridors, but outside that macho jungle? That is depressing.

    OK, so I have just re-stated everything again. But I just wanted to add myself to the list of well wishers. I have no idea what I would have done in your position Pamela. Probably the same. But its not easy.

  4. Donnie June 1, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    And this is why I stopped financially supporting the non – profit Person B works for today. The non – profit, the name sake, and the conference is what started me down skepticism. Luckily, I learned enough skepticism and logic to stop supporting an unethical organisation (continually inviting a known predator is unethical).

    You did what you thought was right for you at the time. Remember, we where there for Dr. Stollznow. More of us will be there for you….

  5. Laura June 1, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    Pamela,

    Thank you for sharing now. I hope it will give you some peace to know you are supported so much. You can add me to your list of supporters. I am ready to take on Famous Person A with you and all the rest. How about at AGU? We can compassionately let this person know that they cannot continue in this way, that we are watching and sharing. It is time for him to get help for his behavior and stop harassing women. We will not tolerate it and we will warn younger women in kind and careful ways, in women ways.

    I hope that all our voices of support also allows you to continue to heal and to keep speaking out and being strong. You have nothing to apologize for and everything to celebrate with this post. Protect yourself with good friends and a safe place where you can retreat. We have to support one another. There is safety in numbers and for some reason our system got set up last century to keep us women apart. But social media allows us to protect and support each other again! Together, one man cannot take any one of us down.

    Thank you for breaking the silence.

    Laura

  6. Amy June 1, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    Any woman with a career has or will have this experience. Especially from men who are in higher office who have been getting away with it. You are the one who has to decide how much you will put up with. Everyone can look back and say what they should have done. However when it happens when you are young, naive, and maybe a little ambitious(yes I did say that, ambitious women are great!) you have to weigh your options.

  7. Alice June 2, 2014 at 3:33 am #

    Pamela,

    Be strong and care for yourself first.

    We can go found a women’s-only skeptics & astronomy university together and discover more than the rest of the county put together if you want. I’m sure my daughter and Phil Plait’s daughter (both still too young to decide) will attend. We will be awesome… and when presenting at conferences will wear 1/4-inch steel breast-and-ass plate armor.

    -Alice of Alice’s Astro Info

  8. Phil June 2, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    Hi Ms Gay,

    I hope you do whatever you deem healthiest for yourself. If you end up needing a kickstarter or other to help cover legal fees… I’m just a grad student, but I’m happy to throw my meagre wallet into the pot :)

    Whatever you do, we’re rooting for you.

  9. Phil June 2, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    I’m sorry- Dr. Gay.

    Didn’t do my research before posting (blush).

  10. cook June 2, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    Pamela,

    After reading this, I was deeply saddened that you had to go through this experience, for what it appears, single handedly. Unfortunately, Person B doesnt have the intestinal fortitude to step forward and state what actually happened.

    I have know you for a few years now the SLAS and you have always had my utmost respect and admiration. That respect and admiration has increase by at least an order of magnitude.

    Cook

  11. Jenny Wadley June 3, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said, and I am no expert or experienced player in this community.

    However, I couldn’t refrain from commenting just to let you know that you have my support, respect, and admiration. You always have, and this acknowledgement has only made it stronger. You are remarkable. Stay strong and know that so many others are by your side.

  12. Damien June 4, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    Dear Pamela,

    Although I may not be in your circle of work, the same sex or even in the same country, I think there is no mistake that you have made, and no apologies that you need to give for your actions or inaction! You had a choice of crap options in which I believe you have made the best possible choice at the time.
    This is now the time when your voice will carry the most weight, and with the support which seems to be behind you, you will be able to have your side heard loud and clear. Whether that bastard gets what he deserves or not, the truth will be there for all to see, and I think that flood gate will open, and when it does, there will be no-where he can hide. After doing a little ‘googling’ I found that this guy is a habitual offender who seems to get away with this sort of thing because of who he is (or who people think he is). That’s crap!

    You Pamela are truly an inspiration to many many people, inside and outside you field of interest and expertise (myself included), and these events of the last couple of weeks will have your female comrades lining up to stand shoulder to shoulder with you. You have sacrificed so much of your own life to expand the knowledge of so many that it is time for those whom value you (more than you know), to rally with you to win a small (in the grand scheme of things) but crucial victory against the culprits.
    I have watched that talk of yours at TAM2012, and damn, you have some guts, but the fact is that people shouldn’t need ‘guts’ to speak the truth.
    You are amazing.

    Damien

  13. Wordsgood June 9, 2014 at 11:13 am #

    Hi.

    Because of this, I have lost all respect for this famous person. I one greatly admired him, but now…now I’d like to see him outed for the pig he is.

    No, I don’t wish his wife and children to suffer, but if justice is actually done in this case, it will be entirely on his head, NOT yours!

    First he assaults you, then denies it, now he’s out to discredit your character and good name. He’s out to destroy your reputation on a personal and professional level…basically he’s out to destroy your credibility and your career.

    But rest assured that whatever the eventual outcome of this years long nightmare HE started and that HE alone is responsible for, a lot of us know the truth. And we not only believe you, we believe IN you.

    I’m so sorry you have been living for so long, literally years, in this hell not of your own creation. It’s not fair and it’s not right.

    Sadly, it screams just how much of a rape culture and misogynistic society we still live in.

    Again, I am so sorry.

    I’d like to re-blog this on my own site – without revealing any names (unless you want me too) – but will only do so (re-blog) with your express permission.

    Mine is a personal blog, but in addition to my own posts about my life in general, I also do a lot of re-blogs about the continuing fight for equality for the LGBT community, womens rights, the seemingly worldwide rape culture and misogny. If you’d like, please feel free to drop by and check it before making your decision.

    Whether or not you give me permission to re-blog this, I wish you well. (And will respect your decision if the answer is no, with zero hard feelings.

    And finally, I hope you won’t think me crazy or feel this out of line…but I’m sending you a big Cyber Hug now! :-)

    Take care.

  14. tiny June 24, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    Hey Pamela,
    I just want to say, you don’t have to beat yourself up for not speaking out earlier. It’s your right to protect yourself and your career, just like the women before and after you who kept silent. The people who should have done something are A – he should have stopped sexually harrassing women – and all the other men you talked to who were like ‘Yeah, we know he’s a pig, don’t worry’. It’s these men who could have really done something without risk for themselves. It’s them who covered for A, who made it possible to be a known harrasser without suffering any social losses for it. They made him into a Missing Stair (http://pervocracy.blogspot.de/2012/06/missing-stair.html).
    It’s not your fault that A kept harrassing. It’s not your fault none of his guy friends gave him A Talk. You did nothing wrong.
    <3
    Tiny

  15. Wilhelm June 25, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

    Hi Pamela,
    I’ve just today come across the blog posts of your troubles. I’ve been a long time fan of your work. It has been truly inspiring. Thank you so much for all of this. Reading your message made me very sad. I can not pretend to understand what this must have been like for you. It’s not normal and it’s not right. But perhaps the two cents I can add are these: Please, please don’t be sorry. It surely seems like you’ve tried to make the best of a bad situation, and that is all you can ever expect from anyone, including from yourself. Only those people who ignore what they’ve know have something to be sorry for. Surely that is not you. It is amazing you found the courage to share what you have learned. Hopefully if someone is in need of advice they can find some wisdom in your experience.
    If you ever find yourself in need, please reach out. You’ve made a wonderful difference to my own life, and I’m sure to many others. We won’t let you down.

    Will

  16. Laurens Bakker July 4, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    Hi Pamela,
    This is the first time I visit your blog. I started listening to AstronomyCast in early 2013, and have almost caught up. I’m considering building my own desktop computer, and I came here to find a reference to newegg, which you mentioned in episode 329 or 330.
    Instead, this story. I’m apalled. At the same time, I am happy that you are bringing this out into the open. We are with you. I repeat what previous commenters have said: let us know what you need. If I can, I will help. I’m sure others will do so, too.
    Cheers,
    Laurens

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