When you pitch this essay, make sure it’s over the phone. You wouldn’t want the defense attorney to have another email in his arsenal. (Usually, when you pitch, you’d demonstrate your credentials; you’d mention the book you wrote that’s coming out next spring. If you mentioned the book, you think, the editor might take you more seriously. But if you emailed, and if you mentioned the book, and your email were eventually discoverable, the defense would have more ammunition for one of their suggestions: that you made this all up to get famous.)
When you do talk to the editor, make sure that you’re not pitching one of those stories. The stories about institutional inaction, or how decades of lax university oversight let a professor — who isolated you from your other mentors, told you he loved you, told you you’d barely passed your qualifying exams and did so only with his protection — stay in a department. The stories that point fingers. You don’t want to write another one of those stories, you think, because even just a year after the Weinstein story broke, and even though we don’t want to admit it, there’s a cultural fatigue around this stuff. We’ve been so outraged for so long that everyone’s just exhausted. Outrage — even if it’s warranted, even if it still consumes you — can’t be your angle anymore.
Make sure the essay that you want to write is, instead, about the thought processes that start becoming almost second nature: making sure your emails stay completely factual; that any time you let down your guard and text your father about how you just want the professor to be gone, that you clarify in a follow-up text, “lawyers: this is me expressing emotion.” Write about wondering if your fifth dissertation reader really does believe your project is uninteresting, about fighting the internal monologue of self-doubt that, even though you know exactly who planted those doubts in your mind, haunts you every time you start writing. Write about still wanting the approval of the faculty even though you’ve lost almost all respect for them; wanting approval in general; feeling the unending void of the need for affirmation; wanting attention; judging yourself for wanting it; feeling jealous of other cases that get more public attention, the heroism others are lauded for; judging yourself for that, too. Write about shame.
You will wonder why you wanted to write something in the first place. The story is now public, which is what you wanted. When you first filed your report, more than two years ago, you thought you were done. You figured the professionals would handle it, that you had done the hardest thing — sitting in your living room, with your husband and your best friend there, breathing for you because you couldn’t, typing in the background. They reminded you that no matter what happened, you are okay as you went through every single email you’d sworn never to read again and strung them together into an escalating narrative of power and its abuses.
“This can take over your life,” you remember her saying. You figured you were stronger than that. Maybe it had taken over hers, but you?
A student who’d reported her professor, in a different department, some time before you reported yours, warned you what would happen when you called her to ask about what you should know ahead of time. “This can take over your life,” you remember her saying. You figured you were stronger than that. Maybe it had taken over hers, but you? You almost died at 30. You spent three months living in a tent in Sedona, trying to recover from an illness no one could explain. You could take on the institution. You’d be fine.
Don’t ever let the thought enter your mind that you might not be fine. Portraying someone who can do this without a visible or even invisible scratch is part of the message you feel is so important to send. You want to show that yes, this is hard, but it’s also possible. Worthwhile, even. You talk about how holding your educational institution accountable is the most important work you’ve ever done, and in moments you believe that. In others, you’re stricken with a profound sorrow that you didn’t get to just do the work you wanted to, that this became your work.
Would you have chosen to do this work — that you feel compelled to say, over and over, is the most valuable work of your life — if your architecture professor hadn’t told you that there were “vultures” in your department who were targeting you? If he hadn’t told you he loved you? If he hadn’t invited you to Vegas, and said he hoped you’d become close friends? As much as you want to say that you have chosen this work, do you really think you wanted to?
Would you have chosen to do this work if it didn’t feel like the only option? What would it be like to admit that you wish you’d never had to do it?
You will be asked, in a hearing, to confirm that you were once a cocaine addict who could not distinguish true from false. You know what the defense attorney is doing; he’s trying to knock you off your balance. “Why is he bringing all this up?” you ask your care advocate, who sits next to you for five hours and writes in her notebook “BREATHE,” and then writes “break,” and then “break,” again, and you keep shaking your head imperceptibly to say no, you don’t need a break, you can finish this, and then she underlines “break,” and then she underlines it again, and then again, and then you take a break and she says that she can see what they’re doing, which is wearing you down, and you push your arms against the wall and you try and make yourself bigger because if you stop, you think, you’ll never get started again.
You will have to not stop. You will have to keep your face expressionless as the defense compares you to Bill Clinton when you ask for the definition of a word; you will have to keep talking about the extraordinary pain of having a piece of your brain removed while the respondent laughs, shuffles, whispers. You will have to remember not to make facial expressions. Expressions are a sign that you’re not credible. You will have to think — very carefully — about what you are wearing. You will have to watch for what your body’s doing; where are your shoulders? Don’t twitch. You have a tendency to twitch, one you’ve tried to get rid of for years. You should have listened to your grandmother, who told you that the way you are — always in motion, always expressing something — will only ever hurt you.
When you receive an anonymous email that says that you will be sued, solely so as to depose the “many men” you have slept with, to point out that you’re somehow deserving of whatever it is that happened, you will briefly think that this could be an amazing opportunity to finally get closure from that dude you had that thing with nine years ago that still haunts you. You’ll remember how he turned to you one night and said, “I think we should be married,” and how you heard later that this is his style, that he comes on strong and then disappears. But you thought you were special; you thought you were different.
You will let yourself think about this theoretical deposition, where he’ll be asked about exactly how forward you were, because the point is to prove that you’re promiscuous, which the defense has some idea might factor into your sexual harassment claim. You wonder if this is a good reason to email this dude, to say, “By the way, you might be deposed to talk about that time we fucked, and also by the way, what happened, and why didn’t you want me?” Shortly after you have this thought, as if you are all-powerful, he will stop watching your Instagram stories. You will judge yourself relentlessly for caring about being ghosted. It’s easier than judging yourself for the rest.
You’ll wonder why you keep thinking about your past, but that’s the thing about expecting someone, somewhere, to come after you, someday.
You will wonder if you have been promiscuous. For years, you’ve kept a running tally in your head. You used to go over it in the shower. You’d forget the one-night stand you had after a meeting in Portland; or the time you were on assignment and the photographer said that he found you very attractive, and what a nice island this was, and perhaps we could sleep together. You think about the photographer and how he told you later that he had a girlfriend, and you were stunned, for a second, until you remembered — you think — that you had a boyfriend.
You will wonder if the defense has found all this; your propensity, back in the day, for stepping out. You’ll wonder why you keep thinking about your past, but that’s the thing about expecting someone, somewhere, to come after you, someday. You think about everything you’ve said and done, when you thought you were just talking to a friend, and you know that you have already sent those emails to lawyers, but what other emails will you be asked to send?
Above all, keep thinking this way. Instead of wishing you could disappear, instead of feeling every moment of publicity as a trade-off between pursuing justice and protecting yourself, think: It sure feels good to be famous! (Lawyers: This is a joke.) Do not let the grief come in. Do not let the pinprick of sorrow rest in your soul for one second, because if you do, you will realize that a part of you was taken from you: the part that wanted to learn, to think, to write.
You will be encouraged, by so many well-meaning friends, to experience the grief of all that you lost, but do not open that door. For if you do, you will recall the phrase “abuse of faculty power,” and the hundreds of emails you wrote to your friends about how scared of failing you were, and the way that you were separated from so many of your colleagues who you would have loved to have learned from, and you will remember the days and nights and months and years that you believed you weren’t good enough to be where you were. You will remember how much this all hurt. ●
Eva Hagberg Fisher is a PhD candidate in visual and narrative culture at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship, out Feb. 5, 2019.