another sexual harassment story

I’m a Coward

Photo: Arthur Fellig/ICP/Getty Images

The Cut continues to receive stories of abuse. We believe there is power in the specificity of each woman’s account as well as in acknowledging just how commonplace these experiences are. You can read them all here.

I’m a coward.

Years ago, I went to a meeting in a hotel room with a powerful man. We started talking. He asked me about my sexual past, and I laughed and told some funny stories. I expect to talk about relationships and love and sex in meetings, since that’s what I write about. It was just the way he was asking me — he was pushing for details. I was suddenly aware of how alone I was in that room. Then he pointed to the bed next to us and said, “You know there’s a bed in here.” Like a young Dorothy Parker, with eloquence and wit beyond my years, I responded: “Yeah. I see that! Cool bed, man!”

Eventually the meeting was over, and he walked me to the door of the suite. I was starting to feel relieved it was over, when he suddenly grabbed my shoulders and held me in front of the gilded hallway mirror. I couldn’t move. He was watching me through the mirror. I could barely bring my head up. He said, “Look. Look at yourself. Do you see how beautiful you are?”

It was at that moment that I did something insane. I started laughing. Like, uproariously laughing. It was not a fun laugh. It was one of those crazy, terrifying laughs. Suddenly, I was Laura Linney in an Oscar clip. I turned my head and looked at him, still laughing, and said, “This is my worst nightmare!” That must have surprised him or offended him, because then he let me go. I headed for the door, walked through the lobby of the hotel, and didn’t stop walking until I was back inside my apartment downtown. I walked the way I walk in dreams, without feeling my feet on the ground. I was buzzing. I didn’t feel real.

It must have been my fault. It must have been something I said. Was I flirting with him? I shouldn’t have told that story. I shouldn’t have gone to his hotel room. What can I do about it? Who do I tell? I don’t have enough money for a lawyer. I don’t want to suddenly become unemployable because of something he chose to do to me. Was it that big of a deal? Did I make it up? It wasn’t an assault — it was just, like, an aggressive mirror hold. There are no laws against forcing people to look at themselves in the mirror. I’m fine. I’m tough. I’m one of the guys. It was just a weird thing that happened, and now it’s over, and I’m fine. What if I said something and he stopped me from getting another job? So I made a decision: I chose to stay quiet. I kept working with him. As I said, I’m a coward.

I know. It was a selfish choice. I was leaving him free to act this way again with someone else. My career was just starting, and I was ambitious and self-serving, and I made excuses for myself. Why was it my responsibility to change the world? I had just never imagined myself as the kind of woman who stayed quiet in those situations. I thought I was like the characters I wrote about — I thought I was a plucky young girl who fought back against injustice. A rebel. A feminist. An avenger. It turned out that I was none of those things. He held me for a few moments in front of a mirror, and what I saw was a coward. I just wanted to keep doing the thing I loved. I wanted to keep writing. The price I had to pay was my sense of self. But, as one anonymous male filmmaker was quoted saying in Vulture last week: “Waaaaah, Welcome to Hollywood.”

Just FYI, if you’re ever working in the movie business, and someone says “welcome to Hollywood” to you, that person is truly the worst. It’s bad Entourage nonsense. Hollywood isn’t a magical place that exists in a dreamscape. Hollywood is made up of the people who work here, and we are all (for the most part) human beings capable of making choices. Men who witness other men doing these things to women also have to make difficult choices. They are cowards too. I don’t know, maybe some of them feel guilty too. This guilt is how the system works. This is how the powerful stay powerful. It reminds me of the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, where everyone in the town has to throw a stone so everyone is to blame. Silence is as destructive as it is contagious. If we tell ourselves that no one and everyone is to blame — if we shrug our shoulders and say “welcome to Hollywood” — nothing will ever change. All of us cowards need to take this moment to think about our choices and speak out in whatever way we can. The women who are standing up and actually pointing fingers are unimaginably brave.

And yet, when something like Harvey Weinstein’s behavior comes to light, the same arguments are repeated over and over again: Why did the women wait so long to report it? Why did they take money and sign nondisclosure agreements? Why did they keep working at the company? Why did they accept roles? Why did they stay friends with him? Why didn’t they kidnap Harvey and lock him in an S&M harness like the ladies in 9 to 5? I don’t know. Maybe they decided they wanted to keep working, keep supporting themselves, keep doing the thing they loved. Maybe they were ambitious and angry, and, yeah, maybe they wanted some money for having to deal with all of it. This kind of thing doesn’t only happen to heroes. It happens to normal women — women who are cowards, ambitious jerks, talented artists, lonely girls, girls who put out, girls who don’t, girls who don’t like being called “girls,” wonderful and complicated and still-forming creatures who are forced to make impossible choices that follow them forever. Life isn’t a Miramax movie. Life is a mess. Yes, I am a coward, but let’s be clear: The man in the hotel room is to blame.

I’m a Coward