Friday, November 20, 2015
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Saturday, November 5, 2011
I’ve heard a few journalists make reference to Anita Hill lately, drawing a parallel between the Clarence Thomas hearings and what’s going on now with Herman Caine. This brings up some very personal feelings for me-- because I was actually being sexually harassed during the Anita Hill trial.
I was in my early 20s, living in Los Angeles, and working as a traveling executive assistant to the senior vice president of a small, privately-owned, health-related, consulting firm. The company was founded and run by my boss Vernon, and his friend Mitchell (not their real names), a couple of good ol’ boys from a small town in west Texas and their mutual ex-girlfriend, Jane (another fake name). Ironically, the remaining majority of employees which comprised the administrative and management staff, were a group of Mormon friends, totally unrelated to the owners by blood or background. I was one of only two sort of token outsiders, if you will, without ties to either group. I discovered later that it was Mitchell’s idea to hire the Mormons because he felt they would be easily manipulated but still honest. I won’t even begin to dissect that.
I had originally been hired as an administrative assistant to one of the Mormon managers—a very nice, honest, respectful, bright and funny guy. I made a good salary and was relatively happy being part of an upbeat, hardworking team that all pitched together when it was crunch time to deliver our “product” to the customer.
Vernon and Mitchell (his BFF and the company’s owner) were only in our south bay office about two-three times per month, so they were known but not terribly familiar and I’d met both of them briefly. Vernon had made it a point to introduce himself one day and spend some time at my desk to chat, ask a few questions about my background and tell me about himself, like the fact that he was married with no less than five children. I, not incidentally, was recently engaged to my ex-husband.
Not long after that meeting, I was called into Amy, the office administrator’s office (team Mormon) to say that Vernon’s assistant had been let go and he had personally requested that I fill her position. My first reaction was to be extremely flattered and taken aback. I hadn’t been with the company very long at all and to already be receiving a promotion was great but a little weird. I knew there were at least two other assistants who might be in line for that job before me. But I let my ego take the boost and considered that maybe my work and positive, can-do attitude somehow was that impressive.
The job came with a significant increase in pay, and meant I’d be traveling, literally Monday through Friday, around the country with Vernon, flying first class everywhere and staying at the best hotels in every city. It also meant I would be spending a lot of time away from my then fiancé. I asked to have some time to talk it over with him, went home, had the discussion and we both agreed it was a great opportunity and would bring in much needed income—worst case scenario, I’d give it a year and we’d re-evaluate. I went to work the next day and accepted the position. I would pack my bags and be ready to leave on my first trip Monday morning.
Down the Rabbit Hole I Go
Oddly enough, before I began to work for Vernon, Mitchell’s assistant got sick and I was sent with him for a two-day trip instead. This meant flying on the corporate Learjet and meeting our company’s pilots on my first trip. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. After all, I was still just a girl from an upper middle class Jersey suburb. The closest I’d come to wealth by that point in my life was visiting my uncle who had a three-car garage and a summer house at the shore. Of course, Mitchell hadn’t come from money either—in fact, he’d had a much more humble beginning than I had. But what he lacked in upbringing, he more than made up for with extravagance, eccentricity, and sheer boastfulness about his nouveau riche status. With all the subtlety of a baboon (and I apologize profusely to the baboon community), Mitchell spent the entire flight telling me his rags to riches story-- how he mercilessly squashed anyone in his path to the top and the joy he took in now periodically returning to his home town to rub all their faces in his extreme and awesome wealth. As he explained, there wasn’t much he couldn’t buy—most anything, or anyone could be his if he really wanted it because, after all, he had A LOT of money. He told me all this while drinking a bottle of Dom Perignon at 40,000 feet. I politely declined his multiple offers of champagne, wine, beer, and later to join him in his room. He flat out propositioned me and when I turned him down, laughed and said that I might be a young idealist in love but I too could eventually be “cracked” in time. I literally had to push him away from my hotel room door later that evening.
To say that I was freaked out was an understatement. What the hell had I gotten myself into? I wanted to call my boyfriend but knew, of course, that he would flip out and demand I come home on the next flight—something I wasn’t even sure I could accomplish without spending a couple thousand dollars out of pocket. But money wasn't the only reason why I stayed. I stayed because I was just young enough and just stupid enough to reason away this red flag by saying to myself that this was Mitchell, not Vernon, and that I might never actually BE in this position again anyway, so why throw away the chance at this exciting job with a huge paycheck over one crazy stupid flight on a Learjet with a nut job--even if the nut job was the president? The next evening we were due to meet up with Vernon and I would be whisked away from this creepy scene anyway. So I went to bed and told no one.
When we finally did meet up with Vernon and the three of us had dinner together, he was surprisingly and noticeably protective of me and seemed to settle Mitchell back into his place with a simple “whoa now, Mitchell, go easy on Susan, she’s a good girl” style. And so I began to think that this first incident was just a blip on the radar and I'd been right to keep it all to myself.
At first, Vernon was nothing but polite, opening doors and looking out for me in that sweet, polite, Texas/southern-raised boy sort of way. But very early on he did begin complimenting me a bit too much, in a way that made me uneasy. Of course my Jersey girl way of handling uneasy, was to sort of push back and use humor—for example, Vernon would say something about me being beautiful and I would roll my eyes and say something like “OK Vernon, now would you please made a decision about what we should tell Client X about the heart center opening next month?”
It went on like this for a while and truthfully, if being told I was beautiful a bit too often was all there was to it, despite the fact that it was entirely inappropriate, I could have probably handled it. But it got worse. Vernon began to tell me that he had feelings for me, then that he was in love with me, and THEN that if only I would realize that this young boy I was engaged to could never give me what I deserved and let HIM make my dreams come true, buy me a house, give me everything, etc., I would see how happy we would be. And then he started trying to touch me. And my sassy little Jersey girl attitude didn’t dissuade him any more. He also became insanely jealous and possessive of me in the most embarrassing ways—even clients were noticing. We’d be out to dinner with a local heart surgeon and instead of discussing business, Vernon would be devoting his attention to me, clearly behaving as if I was his girlfriend.
Enter Anita Hill. As all this was coming to a head and I was trying to reason with Vernon, reminding him of his wife and kids, the fact that I loved my boyfriend, the age difference, and the fact that I did not love him back, hoping that he would sort of wake up and get over it, and I would be able to keep my job and this would all go away, Anita Hill was testifying about the harassment she’d suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. No matter where we went those few months, you couldn’t escape the hearings and neither Vernon nor I could escape the comparison. In every VIP lounge, in every newspaper, over every client dinner discussion, the topic of sexual harassment was suddenly there, in a way it had never been before. And Vernon’s reaction to Anita Hill's testimony was what finally began to change my perspective on everything.
We began to argue about the hearings in a way that was only thinly disguising that we were really arguing about OUR situation. Vernon was of the opinion that Anita Hill was making a big deal out of literally nothing and should shut her mouth. He simply could not see how Thomas’ position of power over her was what made his behavior wrong. As far as Vernon was concerned, Anita Hill was just a whiny, feminist bitch and he as much as said so.
Meanwhile, back around the time things had gone from Vernon complimenting me to him propositioning me, I DID start confiding in our office administrator Amy (remember, team Mormon), whom I’d become friends with and trusted very much. I would call Amy from my five-star hotel room, which oddly came to feel like a series of high-priced prison cells, every night and give her the day’s litany of offenses.
Early on in these discussions, Amy confessed that Vernon’s request for me to be his executive assistant had consisted of a phone call to her stating “I want that cute little new girl.”
Of course, this put Amy in a horrible position and she felt terrible for not warning me at the outset. As administrator she was, I suppose, legally bound to do something about this—remove me from this situation at least. But, as I said, we were friends by then, we were both young, both in positions somewhat beyond what we’d been trained or prepared for, and we both knew that this could very well be the end of HER job as well as mine. Still, we knew that at some point, one of us was going to have to do something and it wasn’t going to be pretty or fun. It was me who kept stalling for time to think of a way out. Meanwhile, I was feeling worse and worse about the fact that I hadn’t shared any of this with my boyfriend.
And then, one day in Mel’s diner, not far from the entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge, as Vernon was trying to feel me up under the table with his foot, I realized that despite my attempts at “humorously” shutting him down, I’d actually been implicitly agreeing with Vernon’s point of view about Anita Hill. My trying to hide the situation, reason away the situation, use humor to deflect the situation and piling the stress of it all upon myself to come up with a solution that still left everyone’s feelings and jobs in tact was my way of saying that to do otherwise would make me one of those whiny feminist bitches who had to go run and tell instead of just handling it herself. And then, finally, I began to be angry with Vernon for putting me in this ridiculous position to begin with.
Of course, anger is often the motivating force behind courage and that is what I found from watching Anita Hill. As I sat in my last airport VIP lounge, watching that brave, intelligent, and courageous woman speak out I knew what I had to do.
That Monday, instead of getting on a plane, I showed up at the office with a written statement. I took the company’s accountant (team Mormon) in with me to the company CFO (the ex-girlfriend you may recall of both Vernon and Mitchell) and gave her the letter, outlining the harassment I’d been undergoing and requesting a transfer back to the main office with no change in salary. Intuitively, I felt the need to have a witness to the discussion in case things didn't go down in my favor. I had her sign the letter and kept a copy for myself. Then I took the rest of the day off and returned the following morning to hear their decision.
I arrived to find that a new position of "Manager of Executive Offices" had been created especially for me and I would now be reporting directly to Mitchell. That did not exactly inspire confidence but I had already come this far. I just needed to be brave a while longer and hopefully the weirdness would all blow over. [insert laughter here]
Immediately however, it was clear that Mitchell wasn’t interested in having anything “blow over.” In the few phone calls I had with him the next week, the formerly flirty Mitchell was decidedly cold and downright rude. In fact, you could feel the tension in the air all around the firm. Team Mormon was noticeably on my “side” if you will—offering whispered “hang in there’s” and knowing, sympathetic smiles. Team Vernon, of which only Linda was actually present, avoided me like the plague. Of course Vernon and I did not speak at all.
On Friday, I was informed that my salary would be cut by $1,300 month, since, they argued, that portion was really considered a per diem for traveling assistants (no such documentation of that existed). When I informed Mitchell via phone that this was a violation of the agreement Linda had signed, whereby I would not be financially penalized for bringing forward the complaint, I was fired and told to leave the building immediately. One of the other assistants was ordered to see me out and make sure I didn’t talk to anyone else on the way. Of course she was team Mormon too and made it plain that she would do no such thing, so she was fired on the spot, as well.
Before I left, I found an employment lawyer in the yellow pages (remember those?), and drove directly to his office, where we filed a wrongful termination suit based on sexual harassment.
If I thought the nightmare was over, it was only just beginning. Anita, hang in there!
Try to Avoid Court if You Are Not Wealthy
My attorney, who took my case on contingency, was a very sweet guy who I think actually went into law for noble reasons, rather than a quest for easy money. He wasn’t much older than me really and I don’t think either one of us knew what we were getting in to, but I’ll only speak for myself on that. I DEFINITELY did not know what I was getting in to. Mitchell and Vernon hired the priciest downtown Los Angeles firm they could find, who then assigned their most aggressive, cut-throat female attorney to the case. Think L.A. Law vs. first year lawyer from the public defender's office. To make matters worse, I suppose because my guy's office was so shabby, despite being much closer, all meetings and depositions were done at their attorney's shiny office in a downtown high-rise with paid parking.
Of course, I had imagined Vernon and Mitchell would lie, but only in the sense that they would simply deny the allegations really. It didn’t occur to me that they would actually fabricate stories or take actual incidents that we were planning to present as evidence and completely turn them around to where I looked like a salivating, man-hungry whore. Oh, how I laugh at my naivete. For example, there had been an incident at a client’s office in Alabama where a young man who worked at the building we were having our meeting at, offered to help carry my things to the car, which I thankfully let him do. Of course as soon as we were out of earshot, Vernon became ridiculously jealous and angry, saying, amongst other bizarro things, that when I was on the road with him, I was “his girl.” It was really insane and I clearly told him as much at the time. Yet, he went on about it for at least two hours, how much it bothered him to see me walking beside “that boy.” It was a good example of just how obsessed he'd become and how powerful he imagined he was over me.
Well, during the deposition process, his lawyer (Miss Friendly) brought the incident up before we ever got to—only in their version of events, instead of Vernon being jealous, I was gushing about the young guy and saying I wanted a “piece of his fine ass!” (A phrase I’ve never used in my life, thank you very much.)
And when they didn’t have real stories to twist, they just made stuff up—like saying that I’d been twice warned by Mitchell to dress more conservatively. As if!! Mitchell would have preferred I wore fishnets and a g-string in his presence!
Long story short, it was horrible. I remember glaring down the long conference table at Vernon during one of the deposition days but he wouldn’t look at me. I felt like maybe if I could just get him to make eye contact, he’d feel so guilty about what he was doing that he’d confess and tell the truth. I wondered if his wife knew or if they’d managed to keep it all from her.
I went home crying every day and finally called my lawyer and told him to go ahead and settle for whatever, I didn’t care anymore, I just wanted to make it stop. We took a five- figure settlement, the lawyer took his fee and it was done. But everywhere I went after that, I was afraid people would find out what had happened and suspect I was really to blame after all. In that way, I carried the shame for a long time. I didn't feel courageous then, just embarrassed and stupid. In other words, I missed the point entirely at the time.
It was a humiliating experience that I have often said I would never subject myself to again. Of course, years of distance and the wisdom of age has a way of putting things into perspective. There are definitely ways in which I could have handled things differently, knowing what I know now, but which I simply wasn't capable of at the time. For example, rather than merely using humor to try and deflect Vernon's advances, when he persisted, I might have been much firmer, if not downright mean. But knowing what I know now, includes being older, wiser, more secure, and living in a culture that now recognizes the validity of sexual harassment and punishes those who abuse their power over others in this way. Still, even if I were in that position today, knowing all I do, with a son to care for in a bad economy, might I be even more likely to avoid the confrontation and try to deal with it myself? Thankfully, I’m not and thankfully for so many women, Anita Hill opened up a dialogue in this country about an issue that almost every woman who works with men has had to deal with on some level. Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that not long after our settlement I was contacted by Vernon’s former assistant--turned out I wasn't the first--total shocker.
The fact is Anita Hill stood up there in front of all those men and bravely, calmly, and intelligently spoke the truth. She stood up to a very powerful and popular man who just happened to be a misogynistic asshole and a disgrace to his position and she might not have had him unseated, but she paved the way for the rest of us to speak out and stand up for ourselves and our right to be safe from sexual harassment in the workplace. And thanks to Anita Hill, sexual harassment policies are now standard at even small companies and many women no longer have to feel trapped in a Mad Men world. We still have a way to go, but we are light years from where we were before on this issue, thanks to her. Because it’s not a joke when your boss is putting you in a position where you feel you have to basically choose between unemployment and self respect.
So yeah, I was sexually harassed during the Anita Hill trial and I’m not embarrassed to admit it any more. Thank you, Ms. Hill.