Harvey, #MeToo, and Me

Even before the #MeToo moment arrived on social media yesterday I was reading Marie Howe’s poem “Sixth Grade” a few times per week. It starts with her telling the story of a day when a gang of boys tied her and her friend to a garage door with a clothesline and mock-raped them both with the dried leg of a deer. It ends when she finally gets through to a boy she knew, her brother’s friend, who happens to be named Charlie:

“…And then more softly, and looking directly at him, I said, Charlie.

“And he said Stop. And they said What? And he said Stop it.
And they did, quickly untying the ropes, weirdly quiet,
Mary Lou still weeping. And Charlie? Already gone.”

So little effort on men’s part makes such a big difference in stopping sexual harassment, and yet we feel somehow like it’s a grand sacrifice worthy of hand-wringing. We can forgive Charlie from Howe’s poem for slinking away, since the repercussions among sixth-graders in the 1960s may have been real, but among adults 50 years later, what are we really sacrificing?

I speak with some authority on the subject, since I’ve been a sexual harasser myself. I hesitate to say so this week, since #MeToo has been lumping all kinds of sexual harassment together, and the differences do matter, but that’s the nature of moments like this. We didn’t speak up when it was easy to; now we’re going to be embarrassed into it when it’s hard.

Over the years female coworkers have had to remind me when my sexual jokes have gone too far, something I can own up to. Now that I’m a supervisor, and older, I try to make up for it by being a good mentor to the younger women, taking complaints seriously, and proactively establishing a workplace vocabulary that’s  all good vibes and yet manages to feel more free-spirit than apparatchik-speak. One detail from the Weinstein scandal that spoke to me was Gwyneth Paltrow saying she recalled thinking, “I thought you were my Uncle Harvey.” Once you say anything about how you want to create “a family,” and once they call you uncle, abusing that trust in any way, big or small, makes you a real asshole.

I have a harder time forgiving myself for how mean I was as a sixth- and seventh-grader. One girl in particular, I used to intimidate, to the great amusement of my male friends. Like Groucho and Harpo, I had a chaotic sense of humor that was marred by spasms of outright cruelty. In retrospect we were intimidated by her, whose only crime was being the prettiest, most mature-looking girl in a room full of horny 12- and 13-year-olds. It’s all fun and games till you consider that she’s a human also.

I remember seeing her again a few years later. We must have been around 16, at an adult party I was attending with my parents, she with her 18-year-old boyfriend, smoking cigarettes around the pool table (the good old days!). I tried to be friendly and got completely frosted out, as in, it wasn’t yet time to forgive and forget.

I should add that I was on the receiving end of a serious bout of harassment when I was in college, and I try being philosophical about that too. I have zero interest in bringing it up and bothering some old closet case about it. On the other hand, I haven’t exactly checked on his well-being lately either.

It hurt yesterday, reading accounts of harassment my friends went through as kids. I would just add that many of the “perps” were kids too. I was by any other measure a “good kid,” but somewhere there’s a story in which I am that scumbag who harasses. I wasn’t as good at algebra as Harvey Weinstein was at producing films, but I could do the simple math: I read my history book cover to cover by October, and wrote book reports that would have passed in high school, and I wasn’t about to get into any serious trouble.

harvey-weinstein-meryl-streepMy only other word of caution is about the Puritan impulse that’s always close at hand on the American Left. “There was a type of man whom the Puritans never tired of denouncing,” as Edmund Morgan wrote in The Puritan Family: an upstanding family man, a successful farmer and conscientious citizen, who was nonetheless on his way to Hell. As if the purity of one’s heart is the true measure of a person, not the net sum of one’s actions.

Harvey Weinstein’s accomplishments, like Elliot Spitzer’s, make his fall all the more spectacular, but I see them as mitigating, evidence for the defense. Rutgers, my alma mater, should absolutely keep the money Weinstein gave to establish a chair in honor of Gloria Steinem. If the Devil dropped a solar-powered water purifier in Puerto Rico this week, I’d say “Hook that thing up.” Weinstein’s done, he’s not going to corrupt an academic department from his house in East Hampton, but I digress.

I’m not surprised that so few men spoke up with much more than a polite “like” button yesterday. To say “I support you” is to risk seeming like you’re glossing over your own complicity with sexual harassment, but to say “I’m guilty” requires a story, and, like I did, reminding friends that the differences of degree matter:

Weinstein’s asking an actress to sleep with him or else lose her job is harassment, and so is telling a blow job joke at the wrong table at a holiday party. One of them should get you run out of town. One should get you a “What the hell were you thinking?” talking-to. And those of us who rely on, or have relied on, that wiggle room owe it to our communities to take the lead when serious harassment happens. We should, like Scott Rosenberg, speak up when the time is right. There is no jury with the power to say we’re good or bad people. There’s just, always, the question of what to do now. Speaking up last year would have been more courageous than this year, but this year is better than next.

Years ago Kevin Smith described Harvey Weinstein as a “true vulgarian,” as is Kevin Smith, one reason I’ve never been a fan. While writing an arts feature about a film exhibitor in Minneapolis around 2000, my subject told me, “The Weinstein brothers are less ethical than Bob Guccione,” and I thought it was hyperbole. I can’t say I’m surprised now, but the big story here isn’t the “monster” or “ogre” – a word I’ve seen more in the past week than I had in the past decade.

The big story is the list of debonair guys and civilized ladies, all the aesthetes who went along because they were too protective of their own good fortune to ask any uncomfortable questions. The more of us that speak plainly about everyday harassment, and get in the habit of calling each other out and accepting guilt and moving on, the more we’ll see that it’s all kinds of decent, upstanding people who commit the petty offenses that create a sexual hierarchy. And the more likely we’ll get around to saying, “What about the boss?” And like Charlie from the poem, a single word from our mouths can stop it. Let’s just try not wait to be embarrassed into it.

 

Marie Howe

Marie Howe was the find of the summer for me. Just when I think I know most contemporary American poets I come across a new one, new to me, whose voice speaks to me.

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In this case my wife gave me Howe’s 1997 book What the Living Do. It has lots of poems about surviving the death of a loved one, but also tons of poems about growing up an American girl that warrant re-reading many times.

Many are deceptively simple in that they read like a story. She describes what happened straightforwardly, with an odd eye for detail, and you wonder, “Is this a poem or not?” By the ned you realize the economy of words was part of her poetic method, and you’ve just been treated to a spare collection of images that describe a happening, and hint at something universal, in the space of a minute.

Take “The Copper Beech.” As a writer who often says too much and needs an aggressive editor, I’d give my right hand to be able to write a poem so simple with my left.

The Copper Beech

          By Marie Howe
Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,
with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where
I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.
One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.
Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,
watching it happen without it happening to me.

The Keepers

I was as riveted as just about everyone else was by The Keepers on Netflix this month, but I also couldn’t help feeling like I was being manipulated, double-crossed even. It’s being compared to Making a Murderer and Serial, often favorably, since it courageously disperses the guilt as it goes along instead of pinning it on any one villain – though he gets pinned too.

After three episodes (out of seven) I was overwhelmed by the bald-facedness and frequency of the sexual abuse going on at the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, and wondering if it could get any worse. Spoiler Alert: Yes it does, and weirder! And the level of shittiness somebody inside the Baltimore legal system stooped to to save this priest from jail, or the Catholic Diocese of Baltimore in general from all that embarrassment, is rotten.

The Keepers

R.I.P. Sister Cathy Cesnik.

I’ve always felt that Bowling for Columbine ended on a dreadful note, when Michael Moore wiggled his way into an interview with Charlton Heston. It felt like he took what was a well-developed and powerful broadside against a business complex and a culture of guns, and grafted a finale onto it by pulling a college prank on the elder chieftain of the gun believers. As if from his lips you will hear the kernel of truth, the damning admission, or whatnot.

Ryan White, director of The Keepers, brings you to that precipice a few times: “Oh, here we’re going to meet the person who committed the crime.” Only by the time you’ve arrived there you’re wise enough to see that the guilt, like the crime, is a diffuse business. You can only penetrate those dark corners up to the points where well-established lies, decades in the making, put up barriers.

The Hollywood Reporter felt that White was being “coy” with some important facts, like whether the main abuser was still alive – and that’s an understatement. I’d call it the glaring flaw. I was deeply annoyed, halfway through, with wondering, “Where is Maskell?” and “What about that other girl who got killed?” and “What is the connection between the two?”

The questions all get answered, but it feels both more sprawling and, in the seventh hour, more rushed, than it had to be. When it came to light that another minor had been abused prior to Maskell’s tenure at Archbishop Keough – and we hadn’t heard about it till this late in the series – I was turning numb.

In literary terms, the series has a problem with voice. White has found two extraordinary characters in the self-taught investigators Gemma and Abbie, alumnae of Archbishop Keough who are close to retirement and have made the murder of their beloved teacher, Sister Cathy, their private passion. When they uncover the sexual abuse – and even that unpleasant a phrase is euphemistic, so call it the systematic rapes – you only figure out after the fact that Gemma and Abbie had to have known lots about the rapes before they even started.

As a story-teller you have to either pick a protagonist who’s the eyes of your story, and the viewer knows only what they know, or you juggle all the elements that the omniscient narrative eye can see and give the viewer access to them in a reasonable amount of time, or else those viewers are going to feel a bit played with. It’s a shame to have such a flaw in a series as rich as this one, since I for one rarely got tired of being there in Baltimore with them.

Partly, let’s be honest, it’s the accent! The Baltimore accent is like the Philadelphian, only more so. It’s where the South begins and yet it’s strangely Yankee. Like the musical Wisconsin accent in Making a Murderer, or the deep south of S-Town, the series satisfies the craving to really be someplace. Surrounded by the regional accent, you feel submerged.

Most reviewers point out the novelty of The Keepers‘ having so many great female characters – since Keough was an all girl’s school, and most of the surviving key players are women, it means more time with women on camera than just about any mystery or crime story – but it’s deeper than that. It’s a collage of late middle-aged womanhood. Gemma Hoskins the amateur sleuth interviews hard-boiled, former Baltimore detectives like a pro, presenting as motherly sweetness but discreetly talking circles around them.

In some parts around the second episode we see shots of Jean Hardagon Wehner, the survivor of perhaps the worst of the rapes and the motor behind much of the plot, stretching and meditating. At first you get the idea that this daughter of the Church, a loyal Catholic well into her adulthood, has finally looked beyond the Western traditions for her spiritual well-being. Once you’ve really taken in the enormity of the weight she has carried, and how her 60-some-year-old body is still agile, you realize that one of the themes this series captures is the resilience of the human body and spirit.

Steven Thrasher in Esquire, of all places, takes issue with what he sees as the series’ racial myopia, since racism and racial segregation were such hot buttons in cities like Baltimore at the time. I guess you could argue that racial integration of public schools made lots of Catholic parents value their parochial schools more highly all of a sudden, and made them more prone to trust a counselor like Father Maskell. But was there something toxic about Catholic middle class whiteness around 1969 that made its men more prone to sexual violence? That sounds like sociology too deep for a documentary.

I saw it more as a bunch of families and a community of faith struggling to cope with the changing landscape brought on by the sexual revolution and the counterculture. “Come Together” was a Top Ten hit the week Sister Cathy got murdered, but so was “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies (in its tenth week!). These were the “Sugar Sugar” teens who valued innocence, and whose families trusted priests and policemen, and didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss sexual abuse if they ever had to.

Sister Cathy the acoustic-guitar-playing nun was the best possible ambassador of the counterculture the Catholic families of Baltimore could have hoped for, but she found herself behind enemy lines.