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Soon after the 2016 US election I spoke with a celebrated writer and dear friend who expressed being “exceedingly triggered” by the 45th president’s apparent victory. “I knew he would somehow win,” she said, “because my life has been continually shaped and distorted by the greed and ignorance of men like him, in positions of power, taking everything they can get, whatever they want, whenever they want. What am I, what is my very life, if not a projection of and product of the desires of such sick men?”
If I am to be part of a solution to the crisis in which all Americans are now and have perhaps long been mired—a legitimate political, personal, psychological and spiritual emergency—I know that I must, wherever possible, fend off madness and abuse with dialogue that is true, empathetic and open-handed. Indeed, I believe it is urgent that we all try our utmost to do so. And I understand that doing so will not always feel righteous or comfortable. In fact, this essay opens up a dialogue that I have been avoiding for years, and my silence, rooted in shame, as it so often is, has probably cast a shadow wide enough and dark enough to hide new hurt to others, caused by the same madness and abuse I could have called out years ago. I failed to do so. There is a kind of clarity of purpose, however, that comes alongside the horrible irony of seeing a former abuser, a narcissist and a self-proclaimed “expert” in all he does, a charismatic leader who often told me he was “the kind of guy who gets elected for things,” celebrated for his involvement in a “Writers Resist” event. Over and over again he made me promise not to write about him. It’s a promise I’ve broken many times—most explicitly now. What is perhaps most breathtaking about the myriad supportive responses I usually hear, not only about him but also about the second writer and teacher I will describe, below, is how many responses I get go exactly like this: “I’m sorry. Me, too.” It’s no wonder such men would rather I say nothing, write nothing. In tentatively reaching out, I’ve learned I’m not alone. But there may be some of you out there who still think you are.
When I was working on an MFA I had a predatory, exploitative teacher who, over the course of a year of email and coffee meetings and a few beers, convinced me he loved me; who told me we were going to move to Europe together and write letters home to friends, casually mentioning each other until everyone understood we were together, whereupon we’d marry; who eventually called me names, hit me; who locked me in a closet; who cut me with glass. I was 22 when I met him. He was older than my parents. He is a much beloved and celebrated storyteller. A teacher, a mentor, a master of the craft. He humiliated me so thoroughly in every imaginable way that memories of the time, over a decade later, still stop me in my tracks.
He introduced me to whiskey, to his wife, to his children. The more despicable behavior I was talked into committing, the more certain he could be of my silence, both then and forever afterward. He made fun of me and called me piggy whenever I ate—anything—no matter how small the bite, until I started calling myself piggy, too (slowly but surely, over the course of two years, I adopted all of his language until even everything I wrote sounded like him). Over a decade later, I still cannot trust my body. Sometimes, he wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom by myself. Sometimes, he made me go with him to the bathroom. This man repeatedly told me that whenever in my life I’d hear the sound of my own breath, that would be him whispering to me. Can you imagine? When I’m walking, running, cooking, kissing my children, in bed next to my husband, meditating alone in an empty room.
When I finally broke free and, a year afterward, went on to get a PhD, one of my new teachers asked me to attend a prestigious writing conference with him. He asked me to come not as a fellow or scholar, or colleague or even student of any kind, though I’d already completed two Masters degrees and published half a dozen stories by this time. Instead I was to be the nanny to his children. I declined; he responded that he’d find some undergraduate who would be thrilled for the opportunity. In class a couple weeks later, he explained the fairly mundane and easy-to-grasp concept of subtext by asking everyone to imagine that I was getting married, but that ______, a fellow student in our class, was at the ceremony, and that I was sleeping with him, too. After class I burst into tears and went straight to student counseling. Talk about being “exceedingly triggered.” I started keeping records, and sharing them with everyone I trusted. Was I crazy? Was this crazy? Was I wrong to feel so continually threatened and unsafe? How convenient for teacher #2 that teacher #1 had destroyed my ability to trust my intuition.
At required one-on-one meetings afterward, this new teacher: 1) opened up an otherwise empty desk drawer to reveal a single Hershey’s Kiss, which he gave me ceremoniously as a “reward” for writing a good story; 2) told me an early draft of my first novel was “so good it made [him] want to sleep with me.” Unmistakeably recognizing, at this point, a road I’d already been down, and with the support of another faculty member, I reported him, removed him from my committee, and finished the degree without his assistance. I was sorry to do so. He, unlike the aforementioned, was truly a gifted teacher and writer. And again, a much beloved and celebrated storyteller. The university determined that none of this had been sexual harrassment but rather, as he’d explained to them, and they explained to me in a private conference weeks later, just his way of complimenting and supporting me. “Let’s just forget any of this ever happened,” he suggested.
I continue to witness their success and public adoration and the celebration of not only their work, but also of them personally. I see so many writers—male and female, including many I respect and look up to—pictured with these men on social media, these men who travel around the country—and even the world, now—teaching the rest of us how we should tell our stories. (Think about that for a moment). Indeed, I know they are among many of your favorite authors and teachers. Why would anyone believe me? Who am I? What do I matter, in comparison with them? Isn’t that assumption—about my relative lack of value, as a person, compared with them—what allowed their behavior to begin and persist in the first place?
I’m not sharing this to find my way to forgiveness; I have already forgiven these men and have sought forgiveness, too, where that was appropriate. I could not have gone on with my life, or continued writing or perhaps even reading, had I not done so. And I’m not sharing this to seek revenge. I don’t wish anyone harm—quite the opposite. What I wish is not to be silenced. Because everyone I love—my friends, my family, my wonderful life partner, now my own children—are all victims of these men as long as I remain so. These are men who abused and disrespected me, who took advantage of their positions to exploit me, in institutions of higher learning where their gender and power let them control the narrative of what they were systematically attempting to do, and where they were allowed to respond to my own resistance with dismissiveness—even patronizing and bemused dismissiveness. I wish to feel free to share my experience in the hopes that it will protect someone else from having to be debased through the same exploitative humiliations. And perhaps most of all, I’m sharing because some of you have similar stories eating you alive—some of you with the same men, and this is not beside the point. What it reveals is an insidious pattern of behavior enabled by the entire community, in various ways—yet this isn’t even news, is it? Not even remotely.
In the case of the first teacher described above, after initially insisting he’d never been unfaithful to his wife before but that our love was undeniable, he eventually told me about many of you, by name, until I came to understand I was just the most recent in a long line of “lovers.” What, did you think he would hold himself to the same standard of silence and trust he was requiring of you?
I once had the opportunity to hear several stories about the time many of you spent with this man, even to hear of many of the letters you’ve given him over the decades, letters that were stacked in a box in a closet off his garage—the same closet he shut me in once. Most of you signed your names. Another of you, I was told, always wrote to him in green ink, and never signed your name; that was wise. I wish I’d never signed mine. In that garage closet I sat next to his letters from other students and colleagues for how long—an hour? two?—without knowing they were there, with my arms around my knees, waiting for him to let me out. When he did, I’m sure I did everything he asked me to.
And then there’s the fact that off the page, women do talk. In my experience, in personal conversation and over email, it just takes slowly testing whether a woman is trustworthy, whether she more or less shares the same values and wants healing, friendship. A suggestion here, an eyeroll there, a laugh, a toss of the hand, and you know you can trust her; then you really talk. Who hasn’t felt this? The exquisite relief and joy that come with realizing someone you thought of as an adversary or competitor is an ally? Is not your enemy but your sister, or brother?
A few months ago a friend of mine—for 20 years a counselor of rape and sex abuse victims, mostly women and children—recalled an abusive relationship in high school; she told me the much beloved, celebrated and handsome athlete had locked her in a closet.
“What?” I asked her frankly, in earnest. “You’re not supposed to be locked in a closet? Because I was also locked in a closet.”
“No,” she told me very sadly. “You’re not supposed to be locked in a closet.”
As one woman with whom I’ve shared all of this—perhaps not by coincidence now an attorney—told me: “It’s amazing, isn’t it? Every woman has her story.”
If in the past decade I have seemed cool or distant, like someone who doesn’t need or want the literary community, such as it is, after having declined fellowship offers, invitations to speak or to attend writing conferences or even (in one case) turned down a job, please understand it hasn’t been personal. I haven’t had much interest in attending these conferences, retreats, residencies, readings, or celebrations. Aside from the obvious reasons why, I don’t know what stories—true and untrue—people have heard about me. Something I’ve learned about narcissistic people, through these experiences, is that if they can’t control you, they’ll try to control the way people see you.
While he was courting me, this first teacher above showed me more than one letter he’d written to the then-chair of the English Department—letters in which he carefully explained a current student or colleague’s infatuation with him, and described the steps he’d taken to try to de-escalate the passion. Such a responsible employee. At the time, I thought he was simply being a charming braggart, trying to show me how beloved and wanted he was. Years later, when it was all over, and after talking to some of the very people described in these letters, I considered that there may have been something else going on, too: Wasn’t he covering his tracks? That love poem he asked me to write about him early on (who asks for a love poem)? It was probably stapled to a similar letter about me—poor Bonnie, in love with her writing teacher, just like everyone else—and is even now sitting in the same folder in the English Department office with all those other letters.
For those of you concerned that I have not and do not reflect on my own role in all of the aforementioned, rest assured, this work, too, is ongoing. It has never and will never end. In terms of the first relationship described, my ego was roused and flattered by the attention. Can you imagine? I’d been singled out (or so I thought) by the winning professor and author everyone adored. I took his affections to mean I was a good writer, a good person. Indeed, his affection was approval on every level. When he told me I was “a little pretty,” I believed him. When he told me a better word for “love” was the sound of my first name, I believed him. When he described a future together, a wedding ceremony with crystal glasses, I believed him. When he said this was a love like no other, that impossible love was possible, when he told me what we would name our first child, and that he was as disoriented by the circumstances as I probably was, I believed him. I still have the email in which he apologizes for hitting me so hard he left a bruise in the shape of his hand on me. He never did apologize for grabbing me by the arms and saying “You’re going to get more bruises,” making me use a move I learned in a college course called “Self Defense for Women,” whereupon I suddenly realized I was using a move I’d learned in a class on self defense for women, and ran out of his apartment. He chased me across the parking lot, and I got in my car and locked the door just in time. And then in the morning: I went back. He’d left his door unlocked for me.
What I really want to say is that all of these things happened to me, that none of it was okay, that I didn’t deserve any of it, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of. But the truth is it has all diminished me, silenced me, terrified me, and shamed me. We know, don’t we, that men, especially those in positions of power, try to hurt, tame and control what they fear, and cannot or will not try to understand. And we trust that women, individually and especially together, are tremendously powerful. If ever there was a time to disregard those who won’t believe our stories, now is the time to speak very plainly about the behavior of those men who assume we’ll be swept away by their poetry, or politics, before we understand what’s happened. Says James Baldwin: “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim…she has become a threat.”
It’s not enough for us to try to root out evil and ignorance at the level of any single office or position of power—we must root it out at every level. It may be that we don’t overcome in the way we hope to, but we will be turning on small lights that can never be turned off again. If you have a story, tell it. In particular, all you women? Tell all the other women, everything, now. Because let me tell you: you may think the picture is finally coming into focus, but you don’t know the half of it.
Bonnie Nadzam’s work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Orion Magazine, Granta, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, and many other magazines and journals. Her first novel, LAMB (Other Press), was recipient of the Center for Fiction’s 2011 First Novel Prize and was subsequently made into an award-winning independent film. Her second novel, LIONS, was published by Grove Atlantic in 2016. She is co-author of LOVE IN THE ANTHROPOCENE (O/R Books 2015) with Environmental Ethicist Dale Jamieson, and is at work on a third novel.
Much of this essay was originally shared at The Center for Fiction in October 2016, in a panel with Kavita Das, Amy King, and Porochista Khakpour, moderated by Noreen Tomassi.