This is a ghost story. A story someone dear to me has carried around for years, and it bears telling.
My sister was a young lobbyist in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s, and she was unlucky enough to speak out against sexual harassment before speaking out was permitted. It crushed her, and she’s still paying for it.
She was in her 30s, fiercely intelligent and ambitious—I once heard a man describe her as “a real pistol,” the way bosses in screwball comedies would describe Rosalind Russell or some other brazen woman who had wandered into their line of work.
She had started as an assistant at what people in D.C. call a K Street law firm, and while she never went to law school, she worked her way up, over a decade, to become a successful lobbyist there.
Looking back, she describes a culture in Washington in which sexual harassment was not some occasional offense; it was embedded in the way men spoke to and about women, the right they felt they had to make squirm-inducing sexual overtures in meetings, at drinks, and in the hallways of power.
She recounts getting “the Strom Thurmond Squeeze” one day in the Capitol—the signature sideways hug from the senator from South Carolina, so decrepit by then he appeared to have been disinterred from a Civil War crypt. When he’d meet a woman he liked, she says, he’d mewl, “Aw, you’re such a purrrdy girl! And smart, too!” And then his arm would stretch out like some zombie limb. “He’d grab boob, every time,” she says.
One of her chief clients was the head of a major food group—let’s call him Emboldened Perv. He would routinely fly into town to tell my sister what his organization wanted her to lobby Congress for.
Emboldened Perv: corpulent, loud, heavily aftershave. Mid- to late 60s. An ostentatious flirt. When Emboldened Perv came to town, women in the office put their heads down and declined his boorish invitations to dinner. He said he played a numbers game, romance-wise: The more women you hit on, the better your chances. He told everyone he was in an open marriage, but appeared to have forgotten to inform his wife.
My sister and he worked together productively for years. Then one night, during an out-of-town convention, he informed her that he was not only attracted to her but hopelessly in love with her, so much so that if they couldn’t be together, he couldn’t work with her anymore, couldn’t bear to be near her. He’d have to be “neutered,” he said, which is a strange way of making a man’s desires a woman’s problem. No, he said, if he couldn’t have her, the firm would need to take her off the account. What?! Never had an overture felt so threatening. Her boss had already warned her that if she ever “fucked up” the account, he’d fire her.
Later that night, shaken and upset, she called her boss in D.C. and reported what had happened. The boss aggressively dismissed it, played it down. Oh, let it go, he said. That’s just how he is. He’s just a big ol’ flirt. Flirt back! he told her. Use it to your advantage.
My sister said no, that the whole situation had become untenable. Her boss told her to “fix it,” and made it clear they could not lose the account. She couldn’t believe her ears, or her options. “What was I supposed to do?” she says now. “Become the guy’s concubine? Or walk away from the account and get fired? I was fucked.”
She flew back to D.C., ready to get into it with her boss, but by that point, the mood in the office had already turned against her.
When I think about this cultural reckoning we’ve just begun and I hear the word excess, I think of the opposite—the surely millions of women whose complaints of abuse have never been, will never be, heard or taken seriously.
Almost instantly, her boss began berating her, railing against her to the partners, staffers, and clients, telling them she was an obstinate “bitch.” He’d scream at her in the doorway of her office so that everyone could hear. Co-workers she considered friends started avoiding her. As the mood of retaliation and hostility grew, she consulted with an attorney, who tried to negotiate a peace. That made her boss even angrier.
“Oh, you think you’ve won the lottery, don’t you!” he yelled at her. At one point he said he felt like “killing” her.
It all happened so fast. Before she knew it, she was clearing out her desk. She left devastated, disoriented, and shocked. Soon the firm and her lawyer reached a settlement. My sister received all of $80K and in the duress of the moment signed a sweeping non-disclosure agreement.
She abided by the terms and went looking for a new lobbying job, hoping to put the episode behind her and capitalize on years of experience. Funny, though. No one seemed interested in meeting with her. Or she’d get a promising lead, and it would quickly vanish. She started to hear through ex-colleagues that her firm was bad-mouthing her on Capitol Hill, casting her as a difficult woman. You know, the litigious type, just out for the money.
What I want to tell you is that my sister never recovered, certainly not in the employment arena. She spent years trying to land a good job, worked briefly once or twice, then never again. In effect, she’d been blackballed from the whole K Street scene.
Worse, because she was unable to find gainful employment, her financial situation deteriorated. And for a terrifying time, so did her mental and psychological state. While she had experienced moderate depression before, she suffered a full-on breakdown, and several years later was hospitalized with bipolar disorder.
Today, while she acknowledges the complexities of psychological forces, she recognizes that the harassment and the ensuing collapse of her career led to her breakdown. The latest research backs her up—many people who experience late-onset bipolar disorder (my sister was 42) often endured some shock to the system, some trauma, hardship, or depression where they felt “hopeless,” as my sister did. Or as she says, “You might have a predisposition, but you often have to have extreme stress for it to manifest itself.”
What to do? How to make sense of it all? While I think Emboldened Perv was pathetic and acted horribly, it’s her boss who I really hold in shame. We’ll never solve the massive problem of harassment if the higher-ups, not just the actual sexual harassers, aren’t held accountable. H.R. is another problem. Too often, H.R. serves to protect and defend the company rather than the workers, who need the support so much more. In my sister’s case, there was no one to help.
Then there’s this: Lately I’ve started to hear grumblings from some men about the “excesses” of the #MeToo movement. You’ve probably heard it, too: “It’s getting so you can’t look at a woman these days.” Oh, please. It’s so hard being a man! When I think about this cultural reckoning we’ve just begun and I hear the word excess, I think of the opposite—the surely millions of women whose complaints of abuse have never been, will never be, heard or taken seriously. And I wonder: How many other women were hurt psychologically, fractured, broken apart somehow by the experience of harassment? How many have yet to fully recover from it?
My sister, who is a hero of mine for her resilience and her nerve, is doing well now. She is as articulate about what happened to her and as determined about these issues as ever. She could be a lobbyist for a new movement. One where we finally confront the toxicity and failings of working culture, and what we, as men, have permitted.