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I want to trust this bold new #MeToo climate but don’t quite, because I have a secret so tough to tell, a secret that still, for me, carries shame.
Part of me is scared to tell, but the better part of me wants to trust we’re finally here, in the Brave New World, where women (yes, men, too, and not just movie stars) can break their silence about sexual assault, even decades old, without fear of being shamed or, worse, not being believed. I want to trust this bold new #MeToo climate but don’t quite, because I have a secret so tough to tell, a secret that still, for me, carries shame. As a former journalist, I was great at telling other people’s stories, just never my own.
Recently, at my friend’s dinner party, a woman asked, incredulous, how anyone could have had sex with a disgusting creep like Harvey Weinstein for years, repeatedly, and never tell? She didn’t get it. Not me. I totally got it, and I’ll tell you why.
The Casting Couch–Even Outside Hollywood
What we civilians once jokingly referred to as “the casting couch,” isn’t a joke, not even close. It was a reality for many of us—even outside Hollywood—as we navigated our lives as career women. We had our own Weinsteins to deal with, men who held power and sway over us, who dangled figurative carrots—okay, jobs—and abused their positions for sexual pleasure with impunity.
These men never seemed to give a remorseful damn about the women (let’s say women, for the sake of this story) they pawed, coerced, raped, violated, verbally shamed, or taunted with loss of livelihood or opportunity, women too shy or polite or terrified or smart to tell.
I kept silent because the only person I wanted to tell was my therapist and that wasn’t possible.
There’s a reason many of the stories coming out today are from years ago. Until Clinton and the blue dress, abusers were safe. No victim in her right mind would put herself through the hell and humiliation of speaking out, and who would believe her anyway?
In 2017 as the Cosbys, Weinsteins, Spaceys, and CKs fall from their pedestals and pay a price for their sexual crimes, I’m optimistic that a climate now exists in which real social change is possible. That this is not just a protracted media storm that will blow over before things return to the old normal.
In my case, I kept silent because the only person I wanted to tell was my therapist. And, guess what? My therapist was the one abusing me. When his whistle blew, I discovered I was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Secret-Keeping Type
His chosen ones were not all beauties. They came in various sizes and intensities. Most were single, a few were married. Why these particular women and what criteria Dr. Barnes (call me “Marc”) used to select them would become a subject of much speculation. The common denominator was every one of them could keep a secret. For three years no one breathed a word. Each believed herself to be “the one and only.”
I certainly did.
What was it—our availability, our vulnerability, our youthful, romantic longings and unzipped secrets—that led him to cross the line? I still don’t know.
The common denominator was every one of them could keep a secret. For three years no one breathed a word.
I do know that when I first sought him out, Dr. Barnes was the “it” therapist in a city where he had a private practice. He was a clinical psychologist in his late forties, tall and bearded. A Harvard education gave him cachet. His wait list was long, even though he wasn’t covered by health insurance and patients had to pay out of pocket. No matter that I couldn’t afford him—I waited eagerly for his call.
I was in my twenties when I began to experience the crippling panic attacks that made me think I was dying. There was no rhyme or reason as to when these would occur; they were so sudden and so ferocious that my fear of them compounded until there was no time or place where I felt safe. I was desperate, barely managing to hide my illness from colleagues at work.
Panic Attacks Were Only The Beginning
Marc—I will call him by his first name because he eschewed titles—was so unlike my previous shrink, who had retired. Dr. S. was an old-school psychiatrist, with a furrowed brow, a compulsive note taker. He never looked you in the eye but gazed into some middle distance while you grew sick to death of your own stories.
Once close, but not too close, he would lock eyes and give you his full attention. You felt special, not the freak you feared yourself to be.
Marc was the opposite: warm, reassuring, quick to laugh. He didn’t believe in desks, or, it later turned out, boundaries of any kind. He liked to wheel his chair over to where you sat, over the all-purpose industrial carpet, propelled by his daddy long legs. Once close, but not too close, he would lock eyes and give you his full attention. He wasn’t put off by your darkest fears.
Being heard is a critical part of therapy, and Marc was a brilliant listener. You felt special, not the freak you feared yourself to be. Those crazy symptoms you were experiencing were simply a bit of youthful turbulence he would pilot you through.
“Promise?” I’d ask.
“Yes,” he’d promise, giving a bear hug at the door.
Then Came the Sex
The sex began sometime during the second year of my therapy. We were dealing with trust issues, and Marc had taken to sitting beside me on the sofa, occasionally placing a protective arm around me as I aired my fears and dredged up the past. He was so supportive, and I berated myself for feeling uncomfortable with his nearness, which was never unpleasant, only slightly disturbing. Here he was, trying his best to get me to accept that I deserved to be valued just for me, and there was me, reverting to my untrusting, juvenile self. How could someone so attractive not believe that she could be loved simply for being? In my despair, I admitted, yes, I did put up barriers to loving. Marc was right.
One day, in the middle of a conversation like this, he took my face in his hands and looked at me differently. He said, “Come here.”
His fingers began to insist, and I realized there was intent. I felt pure terror, although I couldn’t articulate it, especially not to him, because he appeared so confident and pleased.
I was so startled when the avuncular hug and brush of his beard against my cheek at his office door turned into overt sexual touching, his lips on my lips, his hand on my breast. I thought he had made a mistake, like he’d been driving at night, somehow gotten lost in the dark, taken a wrong turn, it could happen to anyone, but then, his fingers began to insist, and I realized there was intent. I felt pure terror, although I couldn’t articulate it, especially not to him, because he appeared so confident and pleased. How to stop his wandering hands? When I cried, he mistook my sudden tears for those of joy, assuring me he loved me, no longer just as my doctor, but as a man, completely. He’d waited months to tell me he loved me loved me. I was finally ready to hear, he said.
Funny, I didn’t feel ready. I felt trapped. A voice inside was wailing, Oh. God. No! How had I not seen this coming and yet….
I hadn’t, not for a moment, and these new feelings were so complex and forcing me to be dishonest. I lived daily with crippling anxiety, nervous in my job, looking forward to the refuge of his office, which was now unsafe and complicated with sex. I realized I had come to believe that without Marc I could not function in the world. I was completely dependent on him.
No More Refuge
Part of me was flattered that I had been chosen above all others. But I had craved his reassurance, never his undressed self, which I found repugnant. I didn’t need to feel his skin next to mine nor did I want to smell him naked on the red and navy blanket which he produced like Kreskin from a desk drawer and unfurled with a flourish. It was as if we had just arrived at a picnic on his office rug. Except I was the picnic. In my mind’s eye, I would envision French paintings of naked ladies on the grass, distancing myself with my imaginings. So this was the price I had to pay, I thought. Not so different from sex in my mother’s day: close your eyes and think of England.
It was as if we had just arrived at a picnic on his office rug. Except I was the picnic.
My alternative, as I saw it, and he understood, was emotional exile and death.
Marc’s office was housed in an industrial building, a cinder block with a drab interior made homey with lamps. There were two doors leading to his inner room: one through a corridor leading from the parking lot out back and past a small bathroom; the other from the waiting room out front. Shortly after our first sexual encounter, he produced a rope from his filing cabinet.
“For our protection,” he said.
It looked rough and ready enough to lasso a calf. While he looped one end to a door handle and knotted it with a skill I had never acquired in Guides, he calmly explained the logic behind this purchase, how he felt we needed privacy and this would ensure no one could burst in on us. The length of the rope was perfect, extending to the second door handle, the exact width of the room.
From my new vantage point on the floor, I saw an indoor clothesline without clothes. I, too, was without clothes. Being roped in was scary. If I hadn’t been with my shrink, I’d have been overwhelmed with claustrophobia.
My alternative, as I saw it, and he understood, was emotional exile and death.
We began having regular sex. While I knew I didn’t “love” him in that way, I loved him enough to go along. I couldn’t risk hurting his feelings. He told me about the glow in my cheeks, how I was gaining confidence. That confused me; I felt miserable. I knew only that I believed Marc could save me from the panic attacks. I needed him.
When Marc announced, proudly, that I had “come,” I didn’t wish to be impolite and tell him I hadn’t. I became an adept liar. I knew the sooner I faked an orgasm the sooner it would be over and I could put my clothes on and just be held. It irritated me when he expressed how happy I was. Those sessions he couldn’t get it up I was relieved that Marc was old: almost 50.
Later I understood his lack of erection had nothing to do with age. It was his schedule and where I fit into the scheme of things. I was his ten o’clock. The reason was his nine o’clock. A woman called Amy.
The sex part between us lasted seven months. It stopped when I met Philip, a writer, and asked to bring him along to a session. Reluctantly, Marc agreed. He expressed sadness that I wanted to end the physical part of our relationship, but he said that my self-esteem had risen and that I was ready for a real relationship.
Wow. This was a revelation. What had changed?
With Philip’s encouragement, I began looking at alternative therapies. I discovered a book by an Australian doctor on coping with panic disorders and anxiety.
During the time I was seeing Marc, many of his patients worked in a youth facility where therapy sessions were mandatory for staff. They were counsellors, colleagues, and friends. One day, the wife of one told her husband she was sleeping with Marc. Not sleeping, exactly. The husband went ballistic, felt doubly betrayed, because he, too, was seeing Marc, just not in that way.
He alerted the partner of another patient, a co-worker whose wife confessed she, too, had been Marc’s lover. In no time, it was all over town.
My former apartment mate, who had never spared me details of her love life, called to say Marc was finished. “Finished, how?” I asked, my heart racing. “I have a confession,” she said, telling me that she’d had sex with him during the year we’d shared an apartment.
“Me too,” I said.
A Strange Group Therapy
Others came forward. Thirteen in all. Most of us knew each other from group therapy. In the days that followed, I remember gathering at someone’s house, drinking camomile tea, and huddling together like widows or orphans, depending on our status. Those who hadn’t been seduced felt bizarrely snubbed. The collective betrayal was immense, but, in retrospect, it took too long for loss to turn to anger. Who, we wondered, day after day, was the real Marc? For a long time, he was my proof there was no God.
Marc called once to say sorry, in a voice I didn’t recognize. Then he vanished. In a stroke of luck—for him—his colleague, a doctor, arranged to have him checked into an addiction centre in another city. We, his patients, were reeling and so shell-shocked that no one had the strength to mobilize to pursue him for malpractice or what someone later called “sex crimes.” In those days, who would have believed our stories?
Those who hadn’t been seduced felt bizarrely snubbed.
Even friends weren’t able to offer consolation. Especially men. I understood more things then, not pretty things that I wanted to savour or were life-enhancing, but wider truths about human and animal nature. I understood Patty Hearst and her relationship with the Symbionese Army. I understood women who stayed with abusive husbands and hid their bruises with Cover Girl. I understood nature documentaries and the swift betrayals that lead to death and dinner on the Serengeti.
What became of us after Marc’s disappearance? Maddeningly, the sun continued to rise and set. Some of us moved away in order to rebuild our lives. Many of us remained single. I got better, despite him. We heard Marc divorced and lost custody of his children. Rumour had it that after rehab he got a job as a counsellor at a girls’ college. It may have been true. Memory is short.
Karma? Or Not?
He remarried. His new wife died of cancer. He would also die of cancer. But between illness and death, Marc had a renaissance of sorts.
When I look back on those times, given those exact circumstances, I ask myself: Would I change anything I did or didn’t do in the past?
I learned he’d been employed as an escort on a cruise liner, as a dance partner to women of a certain age travelling solo, and why not? He was a presentable bachelor in his seventies, a man who looked handsome in a tux, with lines sweet enough to melt the heart of a girl and moves as polished as the floor he danced on. While the band played and the ship progressed through the liquid night, here was a man so practised in treating women like belles that during the dance, for that moment, nothing mattered but allowing yourself to surrender to his lead, knowing that here, in these arms, you felt safe and confident that you would never sink.
So, that’s my story. I am breaking my silence because of the #MeToo movement, what actress Ellen Page calls “the long-awaited reckoning” and all the brave women who have made it possible to be heard. Would I change anything I did or didn’t do in the past? When I look back on those times, given those exact circumstances, I ask myself: would I have had the guts to speak up?
The answer is no.