My Me Too moment happened a while ago, before a movement existed to crown me a designated survivor. After all these years I had almost forgotten about it. Christine Blasey Ford’s tremulous deposition at the Kavanaugh confirmation circus revived my memory.
After three decades, much goes missing. No matter. The Blasey Ford performance showed it is never too late for a woman to declare herself the victim of a man, however dubious the charge.
On the day of this old encounter, I did not give it a name. Yes, the term sexual harassment was in the air. It had been making its way through academic and legal circles through the 1970s and ‘80s. Catherine MacKinnon and the improbable Andrea Dworkin were, at that moment, alerting women to the magnitude of their abuse.
At the same time, notions of toxic masculinity had not yet seeped into popular culture. Distinctions in gravity between boorishness and sexual assault still held in ordinary life. There was no sisterly hashtag to goad aggrieved women to indict male perfidy, real or imagined, decades past its sell-by date.
Besides, I was not aggrieved. Let me explain.
How It All Happened One Day
While my children were still young enough to need a parent in the house, I worked at home. I took on design projects for a textile house, plus the occasional commissioned essay. Paying gigs were catch-as-catch-can and my ambition went no further than helping to make our mortgage payments to Williamsburg Savings Bank. Those were lean years. The tempo of life was slow, the days unglamorous.
One afternoon, while I was in the laundry nook sorting socks and folding sheets, the phone rang. A resonant male voice at the other end introduced the caller as an editor at the venerable Alfred A. Knopf. I liked the timbre of the voice, authoritative and courtly. But why was it calling me?
It seems the editor, a prominent name in book circles, had read essays of mine in The Nation. He was anxious to tell me that he would very much like to be the first to read whatever manuscript I was working on.
But what manuscript was that? So sorry, I had none. I was not even a real writer. Just a woman making ends meet and producing an occasional essay on cultural stuffs when asked. Would essays be okay?
No, that wouldn’t do. No one reads an essay collection by an unknown writer, he told me. Anyway, he found it hard to believe that someone who writes so well was not incubating a manuscript. I must let him see it when it is ready, whenever that might be. Manuscript or no, he thought it a good idea we meet to discuss possibilities. As a chaser, he tossed in Mallarmé’s quip: “Everything in the cosmos exists in order to emerge as a book.”
Initially, an Offer I Could Not Refuse
Imagine the effect of that on a woman submerged in fabric softener, cookie dough, and grade school homework. My heart leaped. It rocketed out of range of that still, small voice whispering, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” So, after a brief flurry of correspondence (due diligence demanded a letterhead) I agreed to meet him one evening at a bar somewhere between Columbus Circle and Knopf headquarters on Broadway at 55th Street.
My husband’s reaction was mixed. Yes, the recognition was terrific. No doubt about that. But, he wondered, why meet after hours at a bar? Why not at his office during the work day? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate? You really don’t know this man. Anyway, hon, you do not even want to write a book.
I insisted there was nothing to frown about. A bar was perfectly suitable. After all, I was not some young hopeful looking for a publisher, not at all an aspiring author. This would just be polite reconnaissance, a curtain warmer to—who knows?—more substantial preliminaries later. He might have some suggestions, give me some ideas. And he did.
It was a very nice bar, high end. Quite proper. The stranger waiting for me was a very nice man. Quite proper himself in a beautifully tailored grey pinstripe suit, double vented. Also quite good looking. A silver-haired older man, he carried himself with the je ne sais quoi of those iconic male avatars of brands I had grown up with.
Tall and fit, he had the Schweppervescence of Commander Whitehead without the beard; the striking sophistication—arresting and debonair—of the Man in the Hathaway Shirt. An eye patch, though, would have ruined the effect. His eyes were an astonishing electric blue. Cold as tundra.
He ordered white wine for me, a gimlet for himself. Raymond Chandler came straight to mind, the vodka and lime a credential of sorts. We chatted at the bar. Naturally enough, he opened with questions about me, my schooling, my family, my curiosities. He worked his way through some essays, with pointed attention to my distaste for the radical feminist duo MacKinnon and Dworkin.
It was exhilarating to be thought interesting to an influential man of letters. And those eyes!
Then an Odd Turn
By degrees, the subject turned to him, his editorial prowess, his nose for talent. He catalogued the names of writers he had guided at Knopf. I remember only one—Cynthia Ozick. “The Pagan Rabbi” was a great love of mine then. Mention of her name was enough. It was the most seductive thing he could have said.
Warming to the topic of himself, he moved onto discussing his own writing. In addition to commentaries on serious literature in the culture pages of the serious press, he produced pulp fiction under a pseudonym. It was a lucrative sideline. He needed it to blunt the expense of the two California divorces saddling his current marriage.
My antenna shot up. Why was he telling me this? It was an intrusive intimacy, none of my business. Worse, it spoiled that aura of urbane refinement. Light began to dim on Commander Whitehead. Coming into focus, blurry but discernible, was some David Mamet character. Which? Maybe one of the real estate salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” anxious to close a deal.
That image proved not to be far off. Sensing a change in the weather, the editor decided to get straight to the point. It had nothing to do with arts and letters. He and his third wife were looking for a partner to form a threesome for group play.
Oh! I do not remember what I said, if anything at all. I just know that I fished in my purse for a bill to cover my sauvignon blanc, dropped it on the bar, and made for the door. Rattled, I could not wait to catch the next “F” train back to Brooklyn. All the way home I seesawed between relief at having a home waiting for me, and worry over how my husband would react. I prayed the kids would be in bed when he asked how it had gone.
I had ignored his caution. Would he scold me for having been susceptible to flattery from a stranger? Would he get his Irish up and make a visit to Knopf offices? Knock on the editor’s door, or look up the head honcho at Knopf Publishing Group? Would he muscle the incident into a cause célèbre by calling the news desk at The Village Voice? A spirited man with a gladiatorial bent, my husband was capable of any requital a literary mind could invent.
What a Husband
He came to the front door when he heard my key in the lock and greeted me with the inevitable: “How did it go?” I gave him a full report, braced for a cool I-told-you-so. It never came. Instead, he took me by the shoulders, gave me a careful look, and burst out laughing.
He said only: “Well, Maureen, I am glad you decided to come home!” Then he added: “The boys are probably still awake. It’s not too late to go up and say goodnight if you want to.” I did.
I never heard from the editor again and did not want to. Still, I was not angry. I did not nurse any urge to stymie him and his current wife in their dodgy quest. The Snark snares its hunter in the end. I did not have to hurry the denouement.
True sexual harassment is consequential. I do not minimize the danger or malice of it. But my go-round with a libertine editor seemed not to fit the charge. The man had made a straightforward proposition. He made it in a public place, minus intimidation. There was no strong-arming, not even a cajoling effort at persuasion. However dicey the specifics, it really was no more than a proposal. I was free to accept or reject it. No need to tell the bartender, call a cop, a lawyer, or a therapist.
All that while, women’s liberation had been running full throttle, speeding to crush oppressive sexual stereotypes. “No More Nice Girls” was the going mantra. Everything between the sexes was up for grabs, not least of them the manners and conventions of traditional femininity. The word ladylike drew sneers; transgressive was a compliment. Promiscuity signaled something called empowerment.
What had this editor done but take women’s lib at its own word? Now comes Me Too to put men in the dock for having believed that women really meant it when they disdained the old proprieties. Something is out of kilter in collective rage against a disorder that women themselves did much to advance.
Looking back on that day, all that matters to me—all that has ever mattered—was my husband’s laughter. And the beauty of the sound.