I just wrote this indignant letter to the editors of New Republic. We’ll see if they publish it:
Dear Editors of New Republic,
Thank you for drawing attention to the pervasive sexism and abuse of power at universities and colleges in the article, “A Professor is Kind of Like a Priest.” I applaud Irene Hsu and Rachel Stone for noting that Seo-Young Chu’s, Jane Penner’s and my stories are neither “single instances of faculty sexual abuse,” but rather part of a “larger culture of silence and complicity, which has made for a dangerous, destructive, and exclusionary educational environment.” I have a few complaints about the way the article was edited.
First, a correction. The copy reads, “After the two went out to dinner one night, Moretti returned with Latta to her apartment.” This is inaccurate. I have no memory of having dinner with Franco Moretti, and cannot remember why he came to my Oakland apartment.
Second, your article omits one of the most egregious elements of my story, which I told to Hsu and Stone. This is the university’s utter indifference and cover-up of my complaint at the hands of Frances Ferguson, then the Title IX officer at Berkeley. Ferguson covered up for Moretti by actively discouraging me from making a formal complaint, which she described as a harrowing experience likely to induce as much trauma as I had already suffered. Ferguson was a member of the same department and knew Moretti well enough to recognize whom I was describing when I went to speak to her, yet she commanded, “Don’t tell his name.” Ferguson’s icy demeanor and departmental association with the man who raped me twice, plus the fact that she was then the only university officer to whom I could go with my complaint at the time, made it clear to me that I would receive neither sympathy nor support from the UC Berkeley. She was the cold and indifferent face of the institution. Ferguson’s cover-up and Moretti’s threat that, if I were to file formal charges against him, the wife of another colleague in the English department, a powerful lawyer, would defend him and that he would ruin my career, silenced me for many years.
Third, your article fails to indicate that this same Frances Ferguson, Walter Benn Michael’s wife, actively sought to recruit Moretti for a position at Johns Hopkins University, where she was also teaching in the 1990s. It was only graduate student outcry after Moretti molested a female graduate student during his interview that foiled Ferguson’s wish to bring him to campus.
Finally, the editor of the article insisted that its authors insult me by asking whether I believed that Franco Moretti raped me both times that I remember having unwanted sexual contact with him. I emphatically responded, “yes.” The article fails to mention this second rape, and therefore also neglects to tell the whole story.
I will publish this letter publicly on Facebook, just in case you are too timid to publish it as an editorial in New Republic, where it belongs.
During the first semester of my first year as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, in 1985, I took a class with Franco Moretti, who was then a visiting professor from Italy. He was considered one of the up-and-coming literary critics at the time and there was much excitement about his work. He was cool. He was hip. He hung out with the New Historicist and critical theory professors in the departments of English, German, French, and Hispanic literatures. I was particularly interested in studying with him because I had been told that he had particular expertise in the Frankfurt School of social theory and philosophy. I was 25 and very naïve. I had spent the previous year in Northern Germany as a Fulbright Scholar and was still coping with the shock of beginning graduate school in a country that felt strange even though it was “home.” Franco demonstrated a great deal of interest in me, and I foolishly believed it was because he found me intelligent. The quotidian details of our relationship—how it began, how many times we saw each other, and where—are difficult for me to recall, but I know that the relationship lasted for the entire semester, about 3 or 4 months. It seemed romantic at first. Quickly it became traumatic.
People want me to spin the narrative, run the film, so they can see it, comprehend it, fashion it into a chronology that makes sense to them. But traumatic memory does not work that way. Traumatic memory is fragmentary because trauma –the word derives from the Greek word for wound—injures the body and brain. As trauma experts Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk assert, traumatized people commonly report memory loss and dissociation because experiences of helplessness and terror cannot be integrated into normal autobiographical memory. Traumatic memories are jumpy, disjointed, incoherent, indigestible, cut off, separated, split away, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be put together.
I remember images, sensations, words, events, but could not say exactly in what order they took place. I remember meeting with him during office hours—his light coming in from the window behind him on the other side of his desk. He commented on my indigo-stained fingers. I apologized (!) and said I used a fountain pen. I remember him telling me, later, that he wasn’t attracted to me at first because he thought I had fat legs. Why? Because he had only seen me wearing those loose boots from the 1980s, the ones I got from my mother. They were real leather and I thought they were cool. The weather must have warmed up because, he said, he later saw me in shorts. It was then, when he pruriently gazed at me as though I were some Suzanna in the garden, that he decided to come after me.
He told me I was beautiful like Mathilde in The Red and the Black—not exactly a compliment. He said he had told “everyone” in the English department that he was in love with me. I remember feeling vulnerable, exposed, ashamed. I remember him inviting me to dinner in his apartment with other faculty friends. I remember being excited about the opportunity to socialize with the women and men I admired so much. I remember the dingy white walls in my apartment in Oakland. I remember him pushing me down onto my futon, going too fast, too far. I remember I said, “No.” I remember I said, “I’m not comfortable with this.” “I don’t want to.” I remember him saying, “O, you American women, when you say no you mean yes.” I remember leaving my body and hovering somewhere around the ceiling, looking down and telling myself, “This is not happening to me. It is happening to her, to that body, not to me, not to me, not to me.” I will never forget the bleak, blank despair of that moment, the collapse of consciousness , the escape into nothingness, the fall into disgust and shame.
I remember him telling me that professors in Italy routinely slept with their graduate students, so why was I being such a prude? I remember the yellowish late afternoon light in his office, the window just opposite to the windows in the library. I remember panicking and feeling paralyzed, terrified that someone would witness my defilement, would see him pushing me against the wall, unbuttoning my blouse, putting his hands on my breasts, his tongue in my mouth. I remember the cold against my back, my clenched and churning gut. I remember being stricken, immobilized, and ashamed. Ashamed of my degradation, my helplessness, my passivity. I remember feeling dirty.
I remember another time when he pushed me against the wall in his apartment. It was dark in there; the sunlight was outside. I didn’t protest when he undressed me. I stood there, allowed it to happen, and what came next. I was a doll, a puppet, a thing. “This isn’t happening to me,” I told myself. I absented my flesh, myself. My mind seemed to disintegrate, to become turgid and stupid. And for days and weeks and months it was impossible to think. I felt dead, utterly alone, separated, alienated, cast adrift, cut off from care, from concern, from love, from life. In class I felt such a sordid lurching in my belly and dizziness that I had to leave the room. Finally I stopped going. I took an incomplete.
I read in the news that Moretti said we remained on good terms. Maybe he meant that he gave me an A for the final paper I struggled to birth, that document of wretchedness. We did not remain on good terms. I saw him once, on an airplane on the way to the MLA. I think it was 1998. He came over with a big smile on his face and said, “Hello, hello! Do you remember me?” I was sitting with a friend, a tremendous supporter, and we were both on our way to our first interviews. My friend’s presence gave me courage. “Of course I remember you,” I said, “and I will never forgive you for what you did to me.” He turned away, ran back to his seat and never contacted me again.
Towards the end of the semester in 1985 I was unable to focus on my studies. I was constantly ill and nervous and frazzled, distressed, and ashamed. I didn’t know what to do. One of my friends must have suggested I go to the Title IX officer. I don’t remember. I have forgotten—repressed?—so many things about that period in my life. The difference between ordinary forgetfulness and traumatic amnesia is that, in the latter case, although many moments are gone, the particularly grisly scenes remain permanently burned in. As van der Kolk puts it, “traumatized people simultaneously remember too little and too much.” Some memories are too much to bear.
I would never have gone to the Title IX office had I known who held it. It took all my courage to get myself there. With dismay and the familiar sensations of despairing helplessness, I discovered that the person responsible for protecting me was a not a neutral party, but rather, one of his colleagues, someone I was pretty sure he knew well. She was on his side. Or so I thought, reading her dispassionate expression and body language. She was not warm. She did not want to hear about it. I was so ragged that I blurted out my story anyways. I told her that I was being harassed, sexually pursued. It’s possible I didn’t tell her that he had already raped me. I was so ashamed, ashamed of having been violated, of being unable to protect myself. I remember her adamantly commanding me, “Don’t tell me his name.” This confused me. I had already told her enough about him—he was Italian, a visiting professor, in the English department—for her to know who he was. Of course she knew who he was. She discouraged me from filing a formal report, by describing the process as involving a scrutiny that sounded more traumatizing than what I was already undergoing. I remember insisting that she at least write down his initials, in case he did this to anyone else. She said she would. She also said there was nothing she could or would do for me unless I was willing to file formal charges. I do not remember her offering me the option to have the university administration write something like a cease and desist letter. Perhaps she did. I doubt I would have agreed to take such a path—it would only have led to retaliation and further abuse.
When I told Franco Moretti I had told Frances Ferguson that he was sexually harassing me, he said that if I pressed charges he would ruin my career. He said he would hire the powerful attorney-wife of a colleague in the English department (whose name I have forgotten, of course) and shred me. No one would believe me, he said. I believed him. The relationship ended there. I left the course, avoided him and his cronies, and did my best to carry on.
After he left Berkeley, Franco sent me two chatty letters, which I have not saved. I remember feeling flabbergasted by them. Why would he write to me? Did he think we were friends? Was he so narcissistically deranged that he actually believed that he hadn’t hurt me? After I had told him how devastated I felt? How I couldn’t even sit in his class any more, could not be around him or his faculty friends? I destroyed them. I didn’t want anything around me that was linked to him. My interest the Frankfurt school evaporated, and I turned to Simone de Beauvoir and other French feminists. It was difficult to go on, but I resolved not to let him destroy me completely. I avoided courses with people who I believed where close to him, but never really knew whom I could trust. A few good guys, especially Jeffrey Knapp in English and Michael Rogin in Political Science, were tremendous teachers and mentors for me at Berkeley. But I didn’t tell them. I wanted to, but couldn’t. As soon as I passed the qualifying exams for the Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature—then a grueling four hours a day for five days in a row answering written and oral questions in three languages—I fled.
Writing about this takes a toll. Speaking about it, telling the story over and over again, has been far more stressful than I could have imagined. My throat constricts; my heart, thudding furiously, jumps into my mouth; my stomach aches; my forehead throbs. It hurts, physically, to remember and to tell the truth. My body knows what my consciousness refuses to acknowledge. I don’t go here often. I had buried all this deep down in the darkness, and now that I am bringing it back to the surface I am flooded with unbearable discomfort. I had not expected this.
Folks want to know what prompted me to speak out now. Because it is the right thing to do. Because I wanted to speak out long ago, but was afraid. He threatened me, after all. Now, thirty-odd years later, I know he can’t hurt me. Too many people can corroborate my story. As I have told my story to various friends in the academy of the years, many told me that they had heard that he had abused and harassed other graduate students. I was not the only one. Of course he denies it. Of course he is lying. Would you expect otherwise?
The hundreds of brave women who have spoken out—including Anita Hill, and all the women who exposed Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others—inspired me to tell my story. Women writing about what feminine beings endure, such as Rebecca Solnit and Laurie Penny, give me courage. We are warriors. I speak because I respect myself and because silence almost always helps the oppressors, rarely the oppressed.
This story is not just about Moretti and Ferguson. It is also about the unacknowledged power to intimidate and abuse that professors wield over students. It is about the men who harass female graduate students and the women who cover up for them or look the other way. Ever since patriarchy became the dominant mode of reproduction—Gerda Lerner traces its origins in emergence of Mesopotamian temple-towns 3,000 years before the current era—women have cooperated with misogynist power structures to advance their own social and political capital. I think most academics start out with good intentions but too many are perverted by the institutions in which they achieve fame and fortune. I can forgive but not excuse their corruption.
Why don’t more women speak out about their abuse? Rape survivors very often doubt themselves because our point of view differs dramatically from commonly held beliefs about sexual assault. As Herman observes, returning veterans who have been traumatized are at least recognized for having been to war, but the terrorizing violence that rape survivors experience is rarely acknowledged: “Women learn that in rape they are not only violated but dishonored. They are treated with greater contempt than defeated soldiers, for there is no acknowledgement that they have lost an unfair fight.” Sexist viewpoints, shared by women as well as men, too often dismiss what survivors experienced as terrorizing violations. Sometimes even close relations refuse to understand, forcing victims to choose between expressing their point of view and remaining part of the masculinist community, a community that routinely blames the violated for their violation. Masculinism privileges the masculine over the feminine in all aspects of being and in all body-minds and defines the masculine over and against the not-masculine, the not-strong, the weak, the helpless, the shameful. I want people to know what happened to me and to all those who fight for dignity in an academic system riddled with institutionalized masculinism.
In my letter to Stanford, I wrote that I wanted to bring Moretti to justice. I mean that people should know about what he did and decide for themselves what consequences he should suffer. It is not my place to say what would be fair, what would be just. It is my place to demand that all people in the world start paying closer attention to the suffering of graduate students who are tremendously vulnerable to the kind of abuse that I experienced at the hands of men and women. The University of California has had a problem with professors harassing students verbally and physically for a long time, as William Kidder shows in his forthcoming essay. Moreover, as Ali Colleen Neff suggests in her piece about academic precarity, the cut-throat academy enables, even encourages, people to do terrible things to others in order to get a job, tenure, full professorship, endowed chair, distinguished emeritus status. Does the university regard this behavior as distinguished?
As I said, it hurts to talk and write about it. The truth hurts whether we utter it or not, and I feel compassion for and solidarity with those who cannot. Too many still suffer. Too many will continue to suffer until we change. I want our society to transform by rejecting masculinism and embracing the worth and dignity of feminine beings as equal to (not the same as) masculine beings in every way. We start by believing the individuals who have had the courage to speak up, to talk back to the powers that have demeaned and abused them for so long. #Metoo.
Coda: I wish to thank all the wonderful people who read my letter to Stanford University and who have written to express their solidarity with me. You have helped me to heal more than you know.
The university recently decided to keep John C. Calhoun’s name on one of its residential college buildings. Calhoun, a brilliant, devilish orator, claimed that slavery was “a positive good,” tightening the shackles on millions of children, women, and men.
I have just thrown away an entire dumpster full of notes and essays related to the book that I’ve been working on for more than 10 years and that I am having some trouble giving up. I have carted these papers around -from Arlington, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, DC, and then to Los Angeles and London. Many papers came back with me from the British Library, where I spent eight hours a day for three months going quietly mad. These flew home with me to Pittsburgh and some came out to Santa Barbara the summer after my father died and I had to clean up the estate while crawling out of darkness. I tossed whole chapters, whole years, into the bin.
I feel somewhat as though I’ve just had a miscarriage, or as though I’ve just forced myself to accept that the fetus was dead and I no longer even wanted the child. I’ve been carrying it, mostly formed, around inside of me for so long, and I’m finally coming to terms with the truth that it has stunted my intellectual, professional, and emotional growth. It has been a permanent dis-ease, a burden I could not put down, an illness I could not give up.
I put everything else aside–my painting, my political activism, my genealogy hobby, my cooking, my gardening, my social life, my health–in order to “focus on the book.” For years after I stopped believing that anyone would ever read it, I’d say to myself: I will do that when the book is done. But it was never finished! I didn’t particularly burn to write it, either. I’m not sure I ever did, but maybe I have forgotten. It was simply what I had to do, the hoop I had to jump through, in order to get to the next level in my profession.
No book no tenure no job no income no respect no self-esteem no identity no self no thing.
Or so the chain of associations seemed to go. My entire self-image became fixated, frozen, limited, fetishized, like a shrunken head. It hung leadenly around my neck and bent my back. I should be rejoicing, not grieving, for I am like Christian at the gate to the Delectable Mountains.
Writing a book and getting tenure are both very fine goals, especially if one is writing a book that one passionately wants to publish, and if one feels well-supported and nourished, in all possible ways, at the tenure-granting institution. In my experience most people write books because they must, not because they have an important message to share, and spend most of their lives in a state of self-aggrandizement and anxious paranoia.
Still, I am melancholy. My book was my art for many years, and I am very fond of it. I think lots of it is very, very good, and innovative, and interesting, and I do burn to share it. But I do not know quite how, just yet. I haven’t thrown out all the notes–I’m far too much of a packrat and a historian and a collector to do that. Perhaps I’ll share it with you here, in pieces, as poems. Or I’ll publish it privately. Or send it down a well, or create a massive collage and hang it in my living room. Or have it compressed and made into a bench. Or shred it with cheese and make omelets. Or beads. Or stepping stones to the next destination.
Some of you have already seen this wonderful piece, which was first published in Paraphernalian, and later in Inside Higher Education, where it received some predictably arrogant and conceited responses from some of the small-minded people who make academia a miserable place. I resonate with everything that this writer states.
So, tonight I woke up at a cocktail party and thought, ‘this is it; you have grown up and this is your life.’ So different from the way I grew up. But which is worse? to grow up again and again in new worlds with their own particular customs and rules, or to grow up in the same place, again and again, with the tiny group of people you have always known.
So many people choose the latter, it seems, for safety. I guess. But I could never make that choice. There is so little time left to me, I fear, and so much more to do, to see, to share. In this brief existence, surely we are meant to learn as much as possible from as many different people and cultures as we can. Surely we are supposed to try to understand and love one another. So we should travel, and converse with, and learn to love, as many different people as we possibly can. We should seek them out, and listen to their stories, and recognize our common divinity. We should learn to experience one another with our hearts open and not closed. I love to be on a bus or boat or train or plane in some place that is not home, and to encounter a person I would never have meant in my tiny little home world. Sometimes I resonate, admire, and even come to adore, as in love, that person, or the person whom that person led me to.
What more matters, after all, than to have a good friend in life, someone you can truly count on. A genuine friend who counts very few people amongst their real friends.
We don’t often meet people who, a) see us and b) respect us and c) call this and nothing other than this “love.” Not that it has to be a sexual love.
But how could you love someone who can’t or won’t really see you, and whom you don’t respect? That person might be in the category of just-met-and-really-fabulous, but you can never really love a person you don’t respect. And you can’t really become available to be loved until you respect yourself.
So you have to do some diving. You have to go down deep into what you call yourself and find out what it is that you really want, and how you really want to go about getting it. You almost always really want peace. But not death. So there is this problem, this paradox, from the very beginning, and you have to sort it through.
The commonplace that men who rape women are misogynists bears repeating. A recent study by psychologist David Lisak shows that college rapists are overwhelmingly repeat offenders (9 out of 10) who deliberately seek out vulnerable women, especially women who have been drinking. “When compared to men who do not rape,” Lisak observes,
these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.
In response to this observation, Jacylyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (authors of the book Yes Means Yes and blog by that name), wisely note
Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.
NPR recently covered the story, and note that David Lisak interviewed more than 2000 college men over 20 years. 1 in 16 of those interviewed men answered yes to both of the following questions:
Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?
Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?
You might think that these schmucks would have been reluctant to admit to these acts. Lisak reports that the men he interviewed were “eager” to talk about them. “They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”
Lisak also found that the men who admit to coercing or forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse do not generally consider what they did rape. These men also typically rely on the fear or shame of young women to prevent them from reporting the rapes. They want the women they have coerced into unwanted sex to believe that they are somehow to blame for what they have done to them. They also know that the culture on college campuses discourages victims from coming forward and shields perpetrators from detection and conviction in the criminal justice system. He reports:
In the course of 20 years of interviewing these undetected rapists, in both research and forensic settings, it has been possible for me to distill some of the common characteristics of the modus operandi of these sex offenders. These undetected rapists:
are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats –backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.
College rapists are criminal sex offenders who are largely undetected, unpunished, and unrepentant.
Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself hanging around with someone who openly or covertly expresses his disrespect and hatred for women. Listen and believe what he is saying.