***Update 6/21: THIS IS A POST ABOUT THE BIOGRAPHER CHARLES J. SHIELDS***
on the occasion of my 33rd birthday, an older man i considered a professional mentor sent me a facebook message asking if i wanted children and whether i might help him continue his line.
i was in paris. alone, in polka dot pajamas, eating all of the pasta and all of the cake, drinking champagne, taking baths, reading ali smith’s there but for the… and watching the group. and then, amid the standard slew of birthday texts from beloved friends, i received a message from this man.
i remember very clearly that it was 10:30, and that i set the phone down on the bed next to me, face down, and cried.
this man is an expert on an author. we’d only met twice in real life but i considered him a mentor. he’d put me in touch with the people who gave me my first podcasting gig. he’d written me recommendation letters for fellowships. i thought he respected my work.
now, he asked if i wanted to have children. he asked, he told me, because one of his kids had died and he was estranged from the other and, he wrote, “i do not want my line to die with me.”
this made me want to take a hundred thousand baths plus a hundred thousand more.
because he was married.
because he was in his sixties.
because he was someone i considered a mentor.
because, for all of those reasons and common decency, i should never have been compelled to think about continuing his line. much less in terms of my self.
it was a message to which i did not reply because i could find no way to frame a reply without apologizing.
i am sorry about your son.
i am sorry about your daughter.
i am sorry about your life.
i am sorry but please do not imply that you want my womb.
i refused to apologize and so sent no reply.
a year passed.
it seemed obvious enough what he was asking, but it was hard not to give him the benefit of the doubt. because it seemed a horrible thing to get wrong and because i so seldom trust myself as a narrator.
i imagined i might have misunderstood.
imagining this didn’t make it better. it maybe made it just slightly more bearable.
when the author on whom this man was the expert published a somewhat controversial book a year later, suddenly, there he was. on CNN, in the New York Times, talking about the author, hawking his own book on the author, vindicated by the existence of an unpublished manuscript whose existence he’d discovered years before.
in literary circles, it was a big deal. it was something a colleague of mine desperately wanted to discuss.
and i would brush her off and say i didn’t have time to read all the articles about it, didn’t have time to think about it, didn’t particularly find it interesting.
this was a close friend, and yet i did not tell her.
because it seemed such a small thing, really. and it felt like, in feeling violated by it, i was making it bigger than it was. (still, it feels i am making it bigger than it is.)
it was harassment, not assault. and the possibility always existed that i had misunderstood.
finally, worn down by her insistence that i read an article in the times, i told her.
she said, holy shit.
he was the expert. he was everywhere.
this is, i would argue, a reason for not befriending experts, particularly experts whose subjects are still alive. when things go awry, when it devolves into sexual harassment, they’ll be all over creation talking about their subject and be totally unavoidable, try as you might.
my mother would see him on tv. she wouldn’t tell me she saw him.
for all my efforts of avoidance, i’d see him mentioned in some article (people pop up in so many unlikely places when you’re trying to avoid them), and i’d tell her.
i’d say i was trying to avoid all the controversy around the book because he was all over it and i’d rather not think about him because it made me think of that one time he asked to borrow my body. i’d say that and only then would my mother tell me she saw him on tv.
my mother doesn’t get angry. but when she said his name, there was a knife-sharp edge to her voice.
maybe it was his vindication, his televised glory, his return to media prominence, maybe he was drunk on his newfound renown, i don’t know.
but, for some reason, he realized he’d never heard back from me.
and he felt he owed me an explanation.
and so he wrote me again.
abandoning facebook, he chose to explain himself in an email, through what i would characterize as a “celebrity apology.” meaning it wasn’t so much an “i’m sorry” as an “i’m sorry if you were…”
which really isn’t an apology at all.
he worried i was confused or upset.
he was sorry if i felt surprised or frightened.
he was sorry if i had misunderstood.
in this email, entitled “an explanation,” he explained.
“I was thinking about giving a child to someone who might let it carry on my name— or at least the memory of me.”
because this is a memory i would want?
there had been a part of me that truly did believe i had misunderstood. that i had read his initial message wrong. that i had jumped to conclusions and assumed i’d been propositioned when really he’d been saying something altogether else, something more nuanced, and just communicated it very badly.
why i would make so many excuses of poor communication for a writer, i have no idea. but i did.
but it seems i was wrong to do so. it seems i had not misunderstood. at all. his explanation made that clear.
again, i did not reply.
later that year, the author on whom he is an expert died and, again, there was media coverage galore.
again, my mother saw him on tv.
again, my colleague saw him in articles and the pair of us sat together at lunch shaking our heads, trying to fathom the disconnect.
i told another friend this story at the time and she said, my god, oline, but he’s fucking everywhere!
but time rolls on, the story passes, and he recedes again. and, even though he has “explained”, still i wonder if i made it bigger than it was, because the possibility always exists that maybe it was nothing, maybe i was wrong. it is always possible- even though he has explained himself quite clearly- that, somehow, the responsibility lies with me.
i am sorry if you…
a few months after that, after a glorious dinner party, i was walking home in sequins and turned on my phone, only to discover a facebook message from- you guessed it!- this man. because i had, still, at this point, not unfriended him. (i know, i know. come the fuck on, oline.)
it was a message with a link to a jackie article and no other comment.
no apology for his repeated entreaties regarding my reproductive system.
no further explanations.
no i’m sorry for having sexually harassed you.
just a link to an article on jackie’s style.
just under the last facebook message he sent me: the one where he suggested he might like to borrow my uterus.
immediately, i replied, told him to never contact me again, unfriended him and blocked him from contacting me on the internet in every possible way i could find.
and i thought, there. now we’re done here.
except not really, because the internet and the media and life don’t work that way.
this man’s updated book on the famous author was released later that month.
i’ve thought about this a lot in the last few weeks. every time someone has said of christine blasey ford i don’t see why she couldn’t just let it go.
thought about this man, who is- in the scheme of things- profoundly unimportant in our culture and yet whom, you will note, i have nonetheless not named here.
thought about how many people have stories like this.
and about how many names in print and faces on the screen prompt this ripple effect through the everyday lives of the other people whom they have hurt.
in between that message and the i’m sorry if you were… email, i contacted the organization through which i met this man. this prompted a flurry of internal oh my god, i can’t even imagine such a thing would be true IN OUR ORGANIZATION emails, followed by brief discussion and implementation of an anti-harassment policy.
(this was a few years ago. i would very much hope that conversation would look different now.)
i no longer attend this group’s conferences because the possibility of being in a room with this man makes me want to throw up.
he is the one who did a shitty, stupid, dehumanizing thing.
naturally, mine is the career that has impacted.
sidenote: alexandra petrie has been writing some amazing columns. this one, in particular, is worth a read.