Was It Worth It? - Is It Still? Will It Ever Be?

New York magazine|September 30–October 13, 2019

Was It Worth It? - Is It Still? Will It Ever Be?
Those who came forward about sexual assault and harassment tell about everything that followed.
Rebecca Traister

These questions hover over a conversation about gender and power abuse one year after Christine Blasey Ford testified that she had been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in high school; two years after investigative journalists published the accounts of women who’d been harassed and assaulted by Harvey Weinstein; three years after Roger Ailes stepped down as head of Fox News after being accused of harassment and coercion by women on his network; 28 years after Anita Hill testified about what she experienced working alongside Clarence Thomas.

What has happened to the people who told their stories has been intense and strange and often difficult. It has included some celebration and relief, sure, but also unwelcome exposure, threats, and thrown drinks and epithets; the undermining of their characters, the misconstruing of their intentions; a realignment of their identities; familial and romantic rifts; money and jobs lost. And through it all, an indifference to these effects from the same public that has used their stories as the raw material of a headline-grabbing, ground- shifting national argument.

WHAT IS THE WORTH, exactly, of stories that are told mostly by women? To judge the worth, we have to be clear about the cost.

This fall has offered space for some assessment of all that happened so rapidly. New books have been published, including Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said and, soon, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, which promises further revelations about the well-oiled systems of protection and complicity. Then there have been warier recapitulations, like a 12,000-word, largely sympathetic profile of Al Franken, who resigned from the Senate after having been accused by eight women of impropriety (a ninth explains here why she didn’t come forward; see p. 43). Aziz Ansari, alleged to have been disrespectful and demeaning during a consensual romantic encounter, has starred in his own Netflix special in which he talks about his experience of being called out. And, of course, there has been plenty of backlash-fueled writing and talking on the radio about the overreach of Me Too, the worry that men were targeted willy-nilly and treated shabbily by a feminist mob.

But I am interested—concerned, as the Me Too agonistes might say—in what has happened to the women and men who offered up their stories (both since the Weinstein revelations and long before). In doing so, they created the building blocks of a social movement with legal and political implications. We know that some provided literal testimony in front of committees, some spoke on witness stands, some wrote blog posts or gave interviews to reporters or made calls for help—to friends and HR departments and sometimes the police. For some, attempts to testify were ignored, their stories regarded as small or ordinary. For others, more recently, the willingness to speak out about the very same behaviors was heralded as epic, an act of extraordinary courage.

But even as the press pored over the gruesome details of their accounts, there has been a lack of curiosity about why and how they first stepped forward, what made them open their mouths to speak the unspeakable, and what happened to them after they did: What were the tolls and rewards of having made the choice they did in a world that does not typically reward women for opening their mouths in challenge to power?

THE IDEA FOR THIS PROJECT began with one woman’s testimony not about a man but about herself, her life, her experiences in the wake of having spoken up. It was a conversation with Lauren O’Connor, whose own words—in the form of an internal memo she wrote while working at the Weinstein Company about its “toxic environment for women”—were made public not through her own volition but because the document became part of the New York Times’ blockbuster reporting on Weinstein. Nearly two years later, in a casual phone conversation, she spoke quickly, in tumbling sentences, about how changed and chaotic her life had been since; about the literal economic costs of having become a public catalyst for social progress; about her altered professional life, her loss of anonymity and the assaults on her character; and about how, ironically, in the two years since her words had been presented as nationally important, her lived experience of having spoken up and what happened after had remained wholly invisible and unexplored.

O’Connor’s was the first story. And of course, that’s how everything about the revelations of sexual harassment began: one woman’s story, flowering into a few other women’s (and also men’s) stories, eventually creating a super-bloom of horror.

By and large, those tales of harassment and assault told mostly by women were heard (and are still understood) as stories about men, stories about what powerful (and middling) men had done with their hands or their words or their workplace authority or their penises. We have spent far less time considering those who told the stories that purportedly ruined the lives of these men. How did the storytellers themselves fare?

What we found out, I should warn you, is not uplifting. The women who came forward were most often not received as heroic actors who had already suffered real losses and were chancing further degradation and penalty. There has been very little acknowledgment that the risks of speaking up in many ways replicate the risks of harassment itself: the pressures, the humiliations, the possibility of having one’s professional record obscured by smears. Of course, the scale of the harm done to the storytellers differs, as does so much else, depending on their class and race, the stability of their points of entry into a public and perilous conversation.

Those who have spoken up about harassment are often referred to by critics and the men they accused as being part of a mob and even by their admirers as members of a kind of thrilling sisterhood. And some testifiers certainly did speak of the comforts (and obligations) of solidarity as well as how the choice of others to come forward compelled them to do the same.

But many others described isolation and loneliness. The treatment they’ve received—further abuse, insult, blame, guilt—has made some of them leery of human connection. Despite the fevered view of women jumping hastily onto some party bandwagon, few say they were actually eager to talk about harassment or assault and sometimes delayed saying anything for months or years.

With the exception of those who were already famous movie stars and the few whose testimony riveted a nation, many who told stories, even on the record, remain largely anonymous, their names quickly forgotten—until a prospective employer Googles them, at least. This stands in contrast to the view expressed by many in a critical press, and by many accused men, that women come forward for personal gain. While the question of whether accused men will get their jobs back has been treated in certain quarters as a moral quandary—a test of our society’s capacity for forgiveness and the possibility of redemption—few have noticed that getting hired again after having gone public about being harassed can prove to be a significant hurdle.

The idea that the storytellers were all out for some kind of gleeful and vindictive revenge also falls apart as soon as you talk to them at length. Lindsay Meyer, who told of how she was groped and kissed by tech venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck, described her acute awareness of how her testimony “impacted him, his career, his coinvestors, the people that had put money into his funds, the other entrepreneurs that he invested in, his family,” and how she’s spent time “crying and feeling some guilt, maybe some pain, maybe some sadness, rooted in empathy for Justin. Which is just fucking twisted, right?”

It may be fucking twisted, but it’s what we do: We crane our necks to see the wreckage of powerful male careers without even bothering to wonder about the women whose lives and careers those men damaged. Because it was the men who were powerful, some of them already familiar to us, and because they were men whom we have been encouraged to view as fully human, we are led, often unconsciously, to be more fascinated by their stories, to understand them as complex and nuanced and interesting characters, even in their villainy. A scrap of ambiguity entrances us in powerful men, while we find less dramatic or interesting the complexities and internal contradictions of those who stepped forward against them.

As readers, we have gobbled up every detail in the Chronicles of Chastened Men: Charlie Rose dines alone at his favorite restaurants, and Franken keeps his shades down on sunny days, unable to put out anything more elegant than a tub of hummus and some carrots for a visiting reporter. Ansari’s television special, directed by Spike Jonze, presents him as a flawed and intrinsically interesting anti-hero. Meanwhile, Bill O’Reilly may not be a Fox host anymore, but his books still make the bestseller lists; Mark Halperin isn’t on Morning Joe, but he also has a book coming out. And of course, some men never lost their jobs at all but got promotions: to president and Supreme Court justice.

“I would never do it again, and I would never recommend another woman do it,” says Christie Van, who complained of harassment at the Ford Motor Company and has since been homeless and separated from her son. “Why would I tell someone to go up against a billionaire company like this and destroy their life?”

A COLLEAGUE RECENTLY OBSERVED to me that those willing to offer testimony wind up playing the role—and, grimly, understanding the role—of front-line soldiers, pretty surely destined to get sacrificed as part of a larger war in the service of a greater cause.

But no one treats them as war heroes. No wonder there is the sense from some that none of this was worth it or will ever be worth it. That was, indeed, something I thought about as I watched a recent interview with Ted Cruz on This Week, in which he told host George Stephanopoulos that the Senate Judiciary Committee had “invited” Blasey Ford to testify, making it sound as if the chance to speak about trauma in front of a stone-cold congressional committee and an expectant nation was the extension of some kind of courtesy. In fact, Blasey Ford had had no desire to tell a bunch of senators, let alone the whole country, about the time Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her as a teenager. Since she did so, her life has been upended; she had to move out of her house because of death threats.

But then Cruz went on, with malignant dishonesty, to suggest that “the American people heard [Blasey Ford’s testimony], and at the end of the day, the American people made a judgment that the evidence wasn’t there, the corroboration wasn’t there.” I waited for Stephanopoulos to interrupt and correct Cruz, to remind viewers that the American people had made no such judgment, that the Republicans in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee had voted to put Kavanaugh on the Court, and that in fact more Americans had believed Blasey Ford than had believed Kavanaugh, but Stephanopoulos did not.

I thought about what it must be like for Blasey Ford to listen to Cruz rewrite history, to have the story she’d told, practically against her will, be transmuted from what it was (persuasive, powerful, opinion shifting) to something it was not (unpersuasive, not enough) by a sitting senator, uncorrected by a network news anchor, and I thought, Maybe it wasn’t worth it.

But then again … Cruz was wrong, not just morally but factually. Perhaps he doesn’t remember, understand, or care about what really happened; that the American people believed the woman who testified and not the powerful man who got the job anyway. But that’s his error; it was important, and their testimony may be changing the way Americans think about power.

As of this September, almost 60 percent of registered voters thought it likely that Kavanaugh lied under oath, according to the pollster Tresa Undem of Perry Undem, who also found in 2018 that 50 percent of respondents—not just Democrats—said that the Kavanaugh-Ford standoff made them think more broadly about men having more power in government than women, something that Undem has argued “likely had an independent effect on voting for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, above and beyond typical factors such as party affiliation.” Her hunch, she says, is that “power imbalance is not something people ‘unsee.’ ” Undem has just completed new polling that backs up that hunch, finding that half (49 percent) of registered voters still say Kavanaugh’s confirmation led them to want to elect more women—a factor that just might be relevant moving into 2020.

These stories may be shaking the ground beneath our feet. Whether the powerful remember them or the details, lots of us have heard, read, and absorbed this particular body of civic literature.

Women’s speech has often been forwardlooking, offered up to others who will come after, who will inhabit a world in which we hope women’s experiences, and women themselves, will be worth more. Margaret Atwood, whose new novel, The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is constructed from the fictional testimony of women from inside and outside an oppressive patriarchal and white-supremacist regime, has spoken of the act of storytelling as an act of hope. To write, Atwood has said, is to imagine a future reader, and therefore to imagine a future.

The women and men who have told their stories are betting on that future and, in speaking up, have left a trace—of themselves, of their lived experience of a world in which power was distributed unequally, in which abuse and harassment were rampant and unchecked. Individually, they have almost uniformly been punished for it, have paid for it to one degree or another. But with their testimony, they have left their mark, an individual sacrifice offered up to a collective future, one in which we should all be worth more.

LINDSAY MEYER

“Guess Who Has More Money to Hire Better Lawyers and to Make a Stronger Case?”

Lindsay Meyer says that after VC funder Justin Caldbeck invested $25,000 in her start-up, he began to proposition her by text message, grope her, and kiss her. She spoke about the harassment to the New York Times in 2017. Following allegations from Meyer and five other women, Caldbeck resigned from the venture-capital firm he co-founded.

What happened with Justin was partially my choice, but also my lack of choice. I was reliant on venture capitalists to bankroll our future advancement. By the time I met Justin, I had probably talked to or pitched 100 people. When someone, anyone, shows a spark of interest in what you’re working on, it’s exactly what you need to keep your dream alive. And I think Justin sensed that.

I’m not proud of myself for any of this, but I think the world would have needed to change pretty dramatically in the past couple of years for me to be in a position to do anything different today. If somebody has something I need to advance my cause, especially a professional cause, I’m willing to deal with a certain amount of discomfort to lock that in. But at the time, it more or less felt like the cost of doing business. I had all of these labels that I still have zero ability to change: my age, my race, and my gender.

When an outlet started investigating him, I was launching my next start-up. I decided it wasn’t worth actually what I assumed would be tarnishing my professional reputation by going public with this.

The day I read a story about him and sexual harassment in The Information, and the days after, were some of the most gut-wrenching days of my life. I felt like I had some sort of duty to corroborate and elevate the issue. I don’t think I took a shower for two and a half days. I completely lost my appetite. I was obsessed with checking the news and Twitter, and I had all these Google alerts going. I kept feeling like there was a nonzero chance that somehow, because I’d shared snippets of what had happened with my mom and two friends and one coworker, the story was actually going to get out without my telling it or was going to be told in a way that wasn’t accurate or that wasn’t 100 percent my own. That also helped to push me over the line a little bit. If you want to control the narrative around your part of this, you’ve got to be the person to take ownership of that.

You could distill the risk down into two key things: personal and professional. It’s already so difficult for women to get venture-capital funding for their businesses—why on earth would I do anything, especially given that VCs are mostly men, to make that more difficult for myself?

The personal side was more like, Well, I’m definitely going to get sued if I talk about this. My partner and I had just moved into a new home in San Francisco, and our lives were pretty good and coming together in a nice way. I saw it as, Well, it’s going to be his lawyers against ours, and guess who has more money to hire better lawyers and to make a stronger case? A couple months ago, I was watching an episode of Million Dollar Listings L.A., the TV show. The agent was selling Rose McGowan’s home because, at least as it was positioned in the episode, she needed cash to pay her legal bills, which were mounting in the post–Me Too period. That was devastating for me because that was like watching what was my biggest fear play out on TV.

That Saturday after the story broke, we celebrated my partner’s 30th birthday. It was just very difficult to be in birthday-celebration mode when I was sitting with so much internal conflict. So Sunday morning, I woke up and I went to breakfast with a friend and I said to her, “I’m really wrestling with something major, huge. I don’t want to talk about it, but I think it’s going to be a big story.” I came home, and I sent an email to Katie Benner at the New York Times and gave her my phone number.

I had text-message screenshots, I had voice-message audio, I had emails, and I had all sorts of documentation that could really back me up. That was part of why I also felt a bit more protected. I had a treasure trove of supporting evidence. In those days after I contacted Katie, I was writing things down fast and furious. I had this notebook, and I was both recalling and replaying and trying to dig out specific snippets.

I honestly think that, at the time, 20 percent of me hoped I’d somehow, someday, be able to use what was a great professional risk for meaningful professional gain. Like, Hey, big national press, now that you exposed some of the most humiliating things I’ve endured, maybe I can get a little recognition that I’m a person and a professional that’s working on other amazing things. Two years later, that hasn’t happened yet.

He never got in touch with me. I think that he and his family probably suffered a lot. Enough, even. I am 500 percent cognizant that my experiences and the way I presented them to reporters who shared them with the world profoundly impacted him, his career, his co-investors, the people who had put money into his funds, the other entrepreneurs that he invested in. In my most exhausted, worn-down, worn-out moment, I actually spent a portion of a flight crying and feeling some guilt, maybe some pain, maybe some sadness—it was really rooted in empathy for Justin. Which is just fucking twisted, right?

CHANEL MILLER

“You Can Never Say Don’t Put Up Naked Photos of My Body”

Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner in 2015, when she was 23. Turner faced up to 14 years in prison but was sentenced to six months in county jail. In 2016, the victim impact statement written by Miller, then known as Emily Doe, was published on BuzzFeed and went viral. Miller came out publicly in September of this year and has written a book about her experiences.

When you’re on the stand, you feel totally stripped and exposed. It didn’t feel like we were working to get closer to the truth. It felt like a game of how quickly I could answer questions, if I could untangle the sentences the defense attorney was asking. He had really odd syntax sometimes. And by the end, I would feel completely picked apart and exhausted. Even when I would completely dissociate and begin crying on the stand, everyone would just sit in silence and watch and wait for me to gather and collect myself. It’s terrible to feel that and to have it answered by nothing, to just be asked more and more questions until you’re completely hollowed out. You can never say stop, you can never say enough, you can never say don’t put up naked photos of my body.

My advocate said, “If you get the verdict, you will get to read a victim impact statement.” And so anytime I had a thought related to the case, or remembered a very specific detail, I would jot it down in my phone and label it with Brock’s initials. The first drafts of my statement were almost too sarcastic and scathing and bitter. I had this fear that people would think I was crazy or out of line or aggressive. As I was rewriting, I worked really hard to go beneath the anger and get down to the core of it, which was hurt. On the car ride there, I was still crossing out paragraphs, trying to make it shorter. I really didn’t want to be cut off during it.

I thought I would be at the front of the courtroom, so I could address the whole room like a presentation, but I was facing the judge. Brock and his attorneys’ backs were to me. I remember staring at him as I read it, but I could only see the side of his face. He sat in a stoic manner and never turned to look at me. But as I was reading, I felt immense power, like everyone was trapped inside the sound of my voice and we were not going to go anywhere until I decided we were done. It was the only time I felt like I had any ounce of control.

They didn’t allow me to read the whole thing. Brock read his statement, and I thought, Wow, that was excruciating to sit through, but it’s okay. Then the judge announced the sentence, and I was in shock. It had not even crossed my mind that it could be less than a year. We had spent 18 months just to get to that moment. So when he said six months, I wasn’t processing it, but then I saw my DA’s face and she was shaken.

I just felt humiliated. I wondered why I had poured my guts out. It was like they were saying, “Why did you just read this melodramatic diary entry in this serious and formal space?,” like I had completely misread the room and it was inappropriate of me to have done something like that. It just felt almost comical how anticlimactic the whole thing was. There’s other people in the room who are waiting to get their sentence for a DUI. I’m just one person who’s been assaulted out of thousands of people. I felt so small.

My family and my friends were livid. They said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to figure out a way to tell your story.” Someone put us in touch with BuzzFeed. When the story went up, I was staying at my parents’ house. I was in my pajamas, just reading, looking at the BuzzFeed article and watching the count go up.

I almost became addicted to these streams of comments and just was filling myself up with them, like drinking them in for hours and hours and hours. There were positive ways of describing me that I’d never heard before. At least for the first four days, I didn’t change my clothes. My parents would say, “You need to go outside,” and I would sit in the backyard. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening. I was so hungry for any type of validation or humanness.

LINDA VESTER

“One of Them Asked, ‘Are You Going to Tell About Brokaw?’ ”

Former NBC correspondent Linda Vester told the Washington Post that in the mid-’90s, anchor Tom Brokaw twice propositioned her and gripped her neck in an attempt to kiss her. Brokaw denied her characterizations, but in a 4 a.m. email to various media figures, he admitted to “a perfunctory goodnight kiss” and wrote, “Hard to believe it wasn’t much more Look At Me than Me: Too.” More than 100 women at NBC, including Maria Shriver, Rachel Maddow, and Mika Brzezinski, signed a letter in support of Brokaw. Vester said she would participate in an investigation on the condition that NBC hire an outside investigator, which it did not do.

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September 30–October 13, 2019