I Spoke Up: An Un-Famous Woman’s Tale of Sexual Harassment & The Backlash

Am I really looking at Bill Cosby in chains headed to prison? I am, and I can’t stop crying. Bill Cosby’s sentencing has stirred up so many feelings in me about the bravery of “speaking up.”  I’m going to share my dark, shameful secret with you. I was sexually harassed by my former boss 15 years ago.  I spoke up, he was fired, and I was forever ostracized and blackballed in my industry. The scars have yet to heal.

All these years I’ve lamented over my choice to speak up, thinking, I was stupid to say anything. “Why did I ruin my career?” The last year has been a surreal time for me as I’ve witnessed the birth of #MeToo and have watched major power players like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and so many more men get exposed and brought down by brave women who finally felt it was safe to talk.

At first, the media’s constant coverage of sexual harassment was hard for me to stomach.  There were days my body viscerally reacted because each story had some element of mine to it.

My harasser was not a mogul, but was successful in his own right and held a power position over me. My story does not include getting denied a movie role but instead being forced to leave a $35,000 a year job, which was just as sacred to me as a starring role in a film.  I have silently struggled in job interviews hoping I wouldn’t be probed about why I left the job where my harassment occurred.  I avoided telling my story to lovers, as men are not always fond of women who get men fired. Once, I was out on a date with a man who nonchalantly told me he felt sexual harassment was an illusion created by angry feminists.  Five minutes later, I was speeding out of the restaurant parking lot.

To understand the magnitude of my harassment, you have to know more about me. I had a miserable childhood.  A good Catholic schoolgirl, I grew up a lonely outcast. I had no friends and spent all of the seventh-grade eating lunch alone in a restroom stall. However, I wasn’t completely alone as I had my Sony Walkman in the bathroom with me.  I escaped through the radio; I felt the DJ’s were my friends. Radio took me to another world. My childhood fantasies were never about getting married or having a family; I dreamt of becoming a radio power-player who created content for generations of lonely kids in bathroom stalls like myself.  During and after college I worked at a number of stations taking early morning, weekend, and holiday shifts, paying my dues while climbing up the ladder.

Seven years later I finally landed that ladder-climbing job at a top market radio station. I had a title and my very own office!  “Dave,” who would eventually be known as my harasser, conducted seven in-person interviews with me.  Some of these interviews consisted of us doing nothing more than talking about why I was single over deli sandwiches. I should have known this non-traditional behavior was off. But radio is a non-conventional industry, so it was hard to decipher if my uneasy feelings during these “interviews” were just nerves or something deeper.

The job started out fine. Dave saw that I was hungry and driven. Soon I was taking on bigger projects and running a lot of the station on my own: choosing the music we played, managing concert events, meeting with artists – everything I dreamt of in my youth. My growing workload allowed Dave to leave early for company softball games, take three-hour lunches and go on mystery business trips.

Dave masked himself as my mentor.  His style of mentoring included getting me to disclose my fears, insecurities and personal life to him. He fed into my weak spots by telling me negative things he heard people around the office saying about me. He even showed me resumes of colleagues in the building who had interviewed for my job but got turned down. This type of “mentoring” made me feel paranoid and created an “us vs. them” situation. Dave was my only ally.

Dave also felt after hour socializing was an essential part of my job. Once he invited me to a birthday party where the only guests, unbeknownst to me, were he and his male best friend. Another time he had my friend and me over to his house for dinner where he proceeded to get falling down drunk, slobbering the words “Forgive me, I’m inebriated.”

One night, about a year into my job, a male colleague, whom I had a great professional relationship with, had a party.  When I was getting ready to catch a ride with a fellow partygoer, Dave aggressively demanded to drive me home, even though he lived 50 miles in the opposite direction. Throughout the party, I felt weird energy from him.  He touched the heel of my boot saying, “Why haven’t I seen you in these before, you should wear sexy shoes more often.”

I noticed him staring at me different times during the party.  Despite the weirdness, I felt all night, I found myself walking to Dave’s car so he could drive me home.  I didn’t want to go, but more importantly, I didn’t want to jeopardize my job by making him angry.  This walk seemed to take hours.  At one point he stopped, looked me in the eye, and said, “I love walking with you in the moonlight, you are so beautiful.”  At that moment I knew my job would never be the same.  The energy changed and the first thing I thought was, Fuck, all I worked for is going to be gone.

The car ride to my house was long, filled with a number of U-turns and missed exits. A trip that should have taken 15 minutes took an hour.  Dave did everything to prolong the drive.  I made small talk to cover my anxiety and fear.  When we arrived at my house, I rushed to open the passenger door, which he’d locked.  Dave grabbed my hand looked me in the eyes and asked; “What do you think of me?”  I said, “I think you are my boss.”  Then he asked, “What do you think of me as a man?” I repeated, “I think you are my boss.” He continued, “Am I the type of man you’d go out with?” “Do you find me sexy, someone you could fall in love with?”

At this point, I was simultaneously experiencing fear, anger, and disgust. I kept thinking, why is my boss doing this to me?  Why now? I politely asked him about his girlfriend, whom I had met on several occasions, including at his home when he asked forgiveness for his inebriation.  He told me his girlfriend was uncultured, not his intellectual equal, and that he was bored with her.  Then he told me, “You and I are simpatico.”  I demurred, “You don’t want to be involved with me. You know I have problems” — anything to scare him off.  He would not open the door until I allowed him to come in and use the restroom. Feeling trapped, I agreed to this in a bid to get out of the car.  Plus, I still wanted to keep my dream job.

He came inside my home but never went to the restroom. He snooped around at my personal photos incessantly complimenting my looks. He insisted I get him a glass of water. Reluctantly I did, hoping my hospitality might diffuse any danger that might come my way. He sat down, water in hand, and divulged personal information about his sex life.  He said, “Did you know my ex-wife used to be a hooker, you know, sell her pussy?” I didn’t respond. Terrified, I sat across the living room in a chair next to the front door. I kept praying to God; please make him leave without any violence.  Eventually, he did.

The rest of the night I felt dirty and sleazy. I couldn’t sleep.  In the middle of the night, Dave called and left a message on my answering machine saying “I had a great time with you tonight, your water was so delicious and you are such a beautiful girl.”  I vomited after hearing it.  The next day was Sunday, and I was zombie-like, nervous about the upcoming work- week.  I prayed his advances would be a thing of the past.

That didn’t happen. The following weeks at work, Dave was relentless with his pursuit of me sexually. He touched me, flirted with me, and called me at all hours of the night.  When I had food at my desk, he’d stick his fingers in it and grab a bite for himself.  He asked me if I had told my therapist about “our special relationship.” His pursuit was so unbearable I resorted to sending myself a $75 bouquet of flowers from a fictional new beau with a romantic note (that I wrote myself) attached. Dave saw the bouquet, grabbed the note and read it; yet made no mention of it, instead asking me if I wanted to go out for drinks that night. I declined, telling him I had a date with my new flower sending man. After the flowers didn’t work, I started to dress shabbily, not comb my hair and burp aloud to gross him out and turn him off to me. None of these actions worked.

During Dave’s pursuit, our station had a major concert event.  I showed up, did my required tasks, and as soon as I saw his eyes off of me, I darted through a crowd of concertgoers to the nearest rail station. My run was fueled with fear, hoping Dave had not followed me.  Fear of Dave took up most of my brain space during this time.  Later that night he called me infuriated because I left the event early without attending the optional after-party.  He told me he felt I didn’t take my job seriously and he was “rethinking my role.”

That Monday, I came to work anxiety-ridden knowing I had to confront him about the weeks of inappropriate behavior.  At the end of the day, I did.  I told him I wasn’t interested in him romantically and that I wanted all of the flirting, calling and creepy behavior to stop.  His reaction surprised me.  He didn’t flinch and told me I created all of the incidents in my head and that he was not attracted to me, was merely trying to make me comfortable and was deeply in love with his girlfriend.  I said, “Great, then will you will stop calling me in the middle of the night”? He didn’t respond.

The next day, I came in, and Dave wouldn’t look me in the eyes. He began to hide work and not include me in our daily briefings, giving me the wrong start times to meetings and assigning me low-level tasks usually done by interns.  He bad-mouthed me to staff and rescinded his offer to give me the raise he’d promised me the preceding week.

One day his retaliatory behavior escalated to the point where he came into my office, slammed the door and shoved his closed fist up to my face threatening to punch me if I questioned him about his actions anymore.  I went to a high-end attorney for a consultation, and they told me to resign, but to call them back if Dave went through with physically assaulting me. I felt I had no other choice but to leave the job I once thought of like a dream come true.

The next day I went to HR to resign.  The HR rep asked why would I want to leave a job I seemed to enjoy and excel in. I didn’t want to tell her the truth.  The Catholic school- girl in me felt guilty; however she coaxed and coaxed and finally, I burst into tears and told her everything about Dave’s harassment and retaliation. I left her with a detailed journal that documented every inappropriate incident that had taken place since the night he drove me home from the party. She sent me home and directed me to call out sick until she finished an investigation.  I had a paid week off, but I didn’t enjoy it.  I was on edge and nervous the whole time. I couldn’t even distract myself with sex because all I’d envision was Dave watching me and getting off on it.

The HR rep called a week later telling me Dave had gotten fired and I could return to work.  I had surprisingly conflicting feelings: I felt vindicated, but I also felt weirdly guilty and bad for Dave.  The company did not welcome me back with open arms instead telling me of their stipulation that if I were caught saying anything about the harassment I experienced, I would be terminated on the spot.  At the same time, Dave made disparaging my character his life’s mission. He called my co-workers both past and present spreading horrible lies about me, telling them I was in love with him, I was a horrible worker and that I was mentally ill.

Every day I felt eyes on me as I walked down the office hallways.  Every time I walked into the lunchroom I heard snickering, “Do you know what she did?” Male colleagues I had been friendly with (including the host of the party where the incident began), all shunned me.  If I were walking down the hall in their direction, they would do an about-face. Women also participated in my shunning.  I was ignored at meetings and other times mocked in them.  Once during a staff meeting, our FEMALE marketing director announced to me in front of everyone, “Now that Dave is gone, are you going to finally contribute and do some work?”  Staff I managed opted to only communicate with me via email, never addressing me verbally and looking away whenever they saw me.  It got so bad that I barricaded myself in my office and didn’t come out all day, not even to pee.  I did go into the bathroom a few times when I desperately needed to.  When I did, I was greeted with dirty looks and nasty comments. Once while I was washing my hands, a woman whispered “liar” to me under her breath. The fact that females were engaging in this behavior hurt me all the more. At this time the constant retaliation by Dave and my co-workers had me retreat personally – sometimes coming home and sitting in complete silence for hours.

Four months after Dave was fired, I resigned.  The retaliation was too much to take.

Concurrently Dave continued to make my life hell after my exit – continuing to badmouth me to anyone that would listen.  He also continued to call my home and hang up. Eventually, I had to get a restraining order against him.

I wish I could say that after l left my job, my life has been easy and carefree, but it hasn’t. Weeks after leaving, I began suffering from panic attacks.  To try to channel my pain, I volunteered at a rape crisis center, but some fellow volunteers found my experience wasn’t traumatic enough. My new romantic relationship suffered too, as neither myself, or the man I was dating knew how to cope with my deep-seeded pain.

I’ve floundered professionally, dabbling in a number of industries yet lacking the rush that working in radio gave me. For years I applied for numerous radio jobs.  I never got one interview. Finally, after years of feeling defeated, I gave up.  My biggest heartbreak has been the fact that I never lived up to my professional potential. Even today this pain festers inside of me like a pilot light; time passes, but the sadness remains.

A few times over the years, I have run into colleagues from the radio station.  Once while grabbing lettuce at the market, I noticed the man next to me was a former co-worker.  At first, he smiled, not recognizing who I was, and then, when he placed me, he had a terrified look in his eye. I said, “Hi” and he didn’t say anything back.  He looked at me like I was going to eat him alive with my evil vagina – the one that was capable of getting a powerful man fired.

I am sharing my story because I am sick and tired of being scared of it.  Scared of the big bad company that had me sign an NDA to stay silent. Scared of Dave finding out I wrote about him and taking further retaliation against me.  I have spent 15 years fearing people would find out “my secret.” I am OVER my fear.   And I can only thank the #MeToo movement for getting me to this point.

My hope for the future is that companies will thank those who report harassment rather than shame them. I also hope co-workers will understand how hard it is for victims to speak up and endure retaliation.  No one reports incidents for fun. If I could rewrite my story, my co-workers would have realized that Dave was fired for a reason and not have doubted me.

Seeing sexual harassment get its proper due is incredibly vindicating. But within the freedom of this new climate, will I say I was sexually harassed in a future job interview? No; too scary. Will I tell a man I am dating about my incident? Not sure. I didn’t even use my real name on this piece.  And Dave, well his name isn’t really Dave.  I fear the backlash I may receive for telling my story, but I feel compelled to share it to give strength to other women survivors who are just as brave and powerful as anyone else, even if they are not famous.

 

Photo Credit: aqua.mech Flickr via Compfight cc

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