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.