Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bad Romance: Part One

When my sexual harasser’s mug shot appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, I appreciated more than a twinge of schadenfreude.

In writing this post, I have experimented with several aliases for him. In the first draft, I called him Casanova, but then I decided that was unfair to Casanova. The Marquis de Sade won't do because he's my not-so-secret mentor. Don Juan? No. The only other analogies I could think of were to Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy, but those seemed extreme (though, given the circumstances of his recent arrest, I'm not sure that's such a slippery slope). So I'll refer to him simply as "The Harasser."

I met him in the Summer of 2008. I had applied to participate in a month-long workshop delivered by an organization that used my university's facilities as an operating headquarters. I was accepted, and it was both the most invigorating and most enervating experience in my life: on the one hand, I left feeling like a new person, inspired to go forth; on the other hand, I also felt empty...wondering how to go forth. I had become close with one of the other participants and worried that we would go our separate ways (happily, we see each once every other month or so). I had also become closer to one of the team leaders, Liz, who had been, and still remains, a friend. And, yes, I even felt close to the other team leader, The Harasser. In fact, I believe it was because of that workshop that I "won" NaNoWriMo last November and now have a spiffy new job title in a position that fits better with my degrees and areas of expertise. Before then, I didn't have the confidence that my brain could connect with the fingers I placed on a keyboard to produce any kind of worthy text at all. But after the workshop was over, I worried that, without direction, I would lose that confidence.

So when I was offered a consulting position as the technical support person, I took it immediately. I could relive the workshop each summer, make a little extra pay, and enjoy doing what I love (mostly web development and troubleshooting recalcitrant laptops, networks, and media projectors). All while quietly going about my business with no one checking in on me (the way students did the day after all 50 of them had handed in a six-page assignment: "Ms. Le Nom! Do you have our papers graded yet?"

The next summer, the organization hosted another workshop for about 15 participants. Toward the end, we took everyone on a day-long retreat in the capital city. The Harasser, Liz, and I decided to have lunch separately to hammer out the schedule for the final week. Once that was nailed down and we had paid our bill, we stepped outside so Liz could have a smoke. We found a long, unoccupied bench near the trolley station. Liz sat on one end, near a grate where she could dispose of her ashes, and I sat near the other end...a distance of about three feet between us. What happened next runs like a movie in slow motion in my brain.

The Harasser squeezed into the small space between me and the other end of the bench.

He laid his long arm its entire length behind me (he's six feet, seven inches).

He rested his legs diagonally in front of me on the sidewalk.

He leaned into my face.

And he growled (that's the way it seemed), "If we weren't married, I'd be all over you right now."

My face flushed with embarrassment and pique as I stared down at his shoes, my head bowed, my hands underneath my thighs to protect them from the sun-heated wood of the bench. I remember feeling like a child.

Liz groaned, "Oh, Harasser, really?"

There is a picture on Facebook of all of us, participants and team leaders, in a semi-circle taken after the incident. In that picture, I'm as far away from The Harasser as I could get, and I have the expression of someone who looks stricken as if from a blow. Don't get me wrong, I was trying hard, but I can nearly see his shoes imprinted on my eyeballs in that photo.

Liz drove me home afterward, but neither of us mentioned what had occurred. She talked about typewriters and pens as my mind rewound and played, rewound and played the scene over and over again.

"All over me?" I imagined my knees and elbows scraping the pavement as he tackled me from behind and my cheek abraded by the cement as he forced my face into it.

"If were weren't married? What if we weren't? What difference would that make? I'm not interested in you. Are you telling me that your wedding band is the only thing keeping you from being 'all over me'?"

I told the story to my husband that night when he got home from work. To say that he was livid would be an understatement. He was ready to drive over to The Harasser's house to confront him in front of his wife. I begged him not to, persuading him that it was my battle. I didn't see any reason to use patriarchy to fight patronizing, which seemed a little like fighting a flood with more water.

So here's what I did.

Exactly nothing.

In my defense, I thought I was actually doing something.

A couple weeks later, as I was preparing for the next semester, going back and forth between G-Mail and Google Docs (now Drive), I heard the familiar blip of a chat box opening up. It was The Harasser. Instead of responding, I grabbed my purse and headed out the door, letting my status go from green to orange..."standby"...in hindsight, not the best message. When I got back, he was gone, and I set my status to invisible, blocked him from my personal G-Mail account, and e-mailed my dad to let him know that he should wait for me to contact him for our weekly chat because he wouldn't be able to see if I was online anymore. He wanted to know why. I lied, "Oh, my students have the address, and I don't want them barging in." I hated for my dad to worry about me because it made me worry about him. Besides, I could take care of myself and had my plan of attack ready, "Ignore The Harasser until he gets the message." This was my strategy.

The next three months The Harasser and I exchanged a few e-mail messages, mainly regarding how to contact people in the organization related to a conference we were attending. During that conference, it was announced that our organization would be hosting the next one. Once we returned, the e-mails started coming in earnest. He addressed me as "Wheels" because I beat him home as the driver of my van of conference attenders. But in meetings he started addressing me by the shortest diminutive of my real name. I love my real name though I don't use it here, but I really don't like either one of the diminutives associated with it. And I found it troubling...the familiarity and presumption were out of line.

At first the tone of the e-mails had been neutral, but, as their frequency increased, they changed. Some were pleading, "I hope you'll be at the next meeting because I really miss you." Some were aggressive, "I asked you for that update 20 minutes ago." Some were apologetic, "I'm sorry if I came across as curt in my last e-mail. I'm really stressed about this project." There was something almost bi-polar...or tri-polar...about them, so much so that I stopped responding all together except to provide links to the parts of the website he had asked about.

And, then, whether intentionally or not, he sabotaged a Google form I was working on. I was so infuriated, I wrote an e-mail stating plainly, "Stay out of the damned form. You don't know what the hell you're doing. Let me do my job and back off." Just as I was about to click "Send," a notification pinged the systray, "I see that you were working on the form as I was trying to edit it. Hope I didn't mess anything up." In fact, I had to build the entire thing from scratch, except this time I didn't give him editing privileges because I suspected his efforts to "help" had a darker motivation...a way of creating further association.

In legal terms, he had created a hostile working environment, and it had become obvious to me that my strategy of ignoring him was NOT working. He was looking for any and all excuses to contact me. I unfriended him and blocked him from Facebook and Twitter, and I no longer use Google+ because he somehow managed to plus me, even though I had blocked his e-mail address from G-Mail as previously mentioned. Seeking affirmation that I wasn't making too much over what was happening, I visited his blog posts through links on other friends' blogs. What I found was problematic. One post describes the nubile body of a college swim-team member whose suit had become caught in the cleft between her buttocks; another mentions the seemingly overt sexuality of the young people he worked with on a daily basis. And there were others that would be enough to incite a riot among the parents of the young women he described. (And I've got screen shots, so don't even try to deny it if you read this Harasser.)

I continued my work on the website and form, reporting to the director of the organization with a courtesy copy to him. He switched tactics sometime before the conference we were planning by making comments in front of my colleagues during meetings. The last one was "Gee, you look like a leggy supermodel in that skirt and those shoes." A few weeks after the conference was over, I quit...for reasons more than just the harassment...but that was by and large the bulk of it.

I confided in a wise friend about my reasons for leaving, showing him the posts, and echoing my plight. He sagely advised me that my attempt to ignore the advances was probably taken as giving chase. I had unwittingly egged The Harasser on. My friend taught me that the best thing I could have done that day back in the Summer of 2009 would have been to stand up, put my hand out in the universal sign that means "stop," and say, "No!" I thanked him and promised, “Mark my words, he will soon be caught for something worse.”

And was I right.

The Harasser was arrested and charged at the local Wal-Mart for using an iPod, disguised in one of the personal journals he ubiquitously carried around with him, to take "upskirt videos" of unsuspecting women.

I wish my instincts would fail me occasionally.

I felt vindicated for a time, until I learned of his response to his arrest...or rather his non-response. In an e-mail to a mutual friend he brushed the matter aside as media sensationalism. I'm sorry, but the security surveillance video aired on TV doesn't even need explanation. In fact, I can't stop myself from thinking that videos of my underwear are somewhere on his computer and the Internet.

In the weeks following, I have heard things like "Sure, I asked her to hold my hand and go to my favorite make out spot, and yes, she said she'd rather make out with a dead dog. But that's not harassment," "In cases of legitimate rape, a woman's body has a way to shut that whole [unwanted pregnancy] thing down," and "Why should women have equal pay?"

My Harasser did more to me than create a hostile work environment. Like tectonic plates, he shifted my paradigm, partially destroying the foundation of my home.

In "Bad Romance: Part Two" I will explain exactly all that he took from me and how I'm trying to rebuild the foundation in an effort to keep my house sound.

No comments:

Post a Comment