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.
image credit: shahidam