In a letter to her sister Cassandra dated January 25, 1801, when Jane Austen was twenty-six years old, she describes holding one Mr. Holder at bay.
“Your unfortunate sister was betrayed last Thursday into a situation of the utmost cruelty. I arrived at Ashe Park before the Party from Deane, and was shut up in the drawing-room with Mr. Holder alone for ten minutes. I had some thoughts of insisting on the housekeeper or Mary Corbett being sent for, and nothing could prevail on me to move two steps from the door, on the lock of which I kept one hand constantly fixed.”
Sexual predation isn’t new; reporting it to the world is.
Below is a scene from a novel I’m working on, about Ellen, a young woman teaching at a boy’s boarding school in 1986, just as it’s about to go co-ed. She’s talking with Jack, who is both the Dean of Students and her lover.
“Do you know the Academy doesn’t have a Sexual Harassment Policy?” Ellen blurted when Jack showed up at her place that night.
“Did someone harass you?” Jack asked in a voice Ellen recognized as the one he used with boys who made trouble.
Ellen swiveled in her chair to face him, and pretzeled her hands into her armpits. “Michael Devlin, as a matter of fact.”
Jack pushed his pursed lips to one side and rubbed his chin. “What happened?”
Ellen told him about Devlin cornering her after hours in the Writing Center. “It’s not the first time,” she added, “and this isn’t just about me.” She paused. “It’s also about the girls starting next year.”
“Aren’t you over-reacting?’
“Tell me this isn’t happening.”
Jack held his empty hands up and shrugged. “I don’t get it Ellen. Explain it to me.”
Ellen let out a long, noisy, breath. “Men prey upon girls and women. It’s what they do to fill us with fear – and it’s how we learn to behave.”
“Can you be more specific?” Jack crossed his arms against his chest. “Can you give me an example of something that happened to you?
Ellen nodded, both to indicate yes and to invite him to sit down.
Jack sat on the edge of the armchair and leaned in.
“Okay.” Ellen untwisted herself and spoke to her folded hands. “When I was about five my parents went to Europe for three weeks, leaving me with my Aunt Gladys. The boys got to stay home, because they were in school. I think my parents hired someone to care for them.” She waved that information away. “Anyway, I stayed with Aunt Gladys, and I developed a tooth abscess, so Gladys took me to her dentist, who gave me nitrous oxide and pulled the tooth. I woke up in another room with my mouth filled with bloody gauze. Gladys took me home, put me in her giant bed and played Shoots and Ladders and Go Fish with me, and made me rinse with warm salt water, and fed me ice cream and Jell-O. It was kind of nice.”
Jack nodded by raised his eyebrows as if to ask, “So?”
“A few days later, Gladys took me back to the dentist. He wore one of those smock-like jackets that button up off-center, and he wore strong cologne. I don’t remember if he removed stiches or examined my mouth at all. All I remember is that he pointed to the flat plane of his cheek.” Ellen demonstrated. “He said, Kiss me. Aunt Gladys gave me a little shove forward, so I did. But I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the stink of his aftershave or the bristle of his whiskers, or that I had no say in the matter – though I couldn’t articulate any of that just then.”
“This is your example of sexual harassment?” Jack asked, his voice rising.
Ellen regarded him. “No, this is my example of how we teach girls to give sexual favors on demand.”
Jack shook his head.
“Another time, I locked myself in the bathroom by accident, and Norma had to call the fire department to get me out. The fireman who came was a giant – at least to me. After I was liberated I ran into Norma’s arms. She lifted me up and handed me over to this white haired, red-faced man, who turned his cheek and said, Give us a kiss. What choice did I have? So I kissed. It seemed like the most effective way to be released.”
“I thought you were going to tell me about some really horrible violation,” Jack said.
Ellen frowned. “It was a really horrible violation, Jack. You might not think so because there was no penetration, but that’s the male point-of-view. These incidents taught me to please older, powerful, men, and that I had no say in the matter. So when I was about nine, and Bobby Van Buren from the next block came to babysit, I didn’t object to sitting in his lap, and I knew better than to stop him from sticking his hand down my pajamas while we watched Bonanza. Besides, if I were being brutally honest – it felt good: warm and reassuring.”
Jack made a face of disgust.
“Now do you get it?” Ellen asked. “Sexual harassment teaches girls about power dynamics. It’s how girls learn to use sex to negotiate with men.”
Jack let out a long sigh and nodded his head. “I get it.”
After a short silence he looked up at the papers scattered across the table. “You’ve been working on your dissertation?”
“I bet Jane Austen didn’t have any problems like this.”
Very quietly, Ellen said, “How much?”
Ellen shook her head.
“Jack, sexual harassment isn’t new; standing up to it is.”
If you can walk to your car or write a grocery list, you have the skills we’ll help you turn into tools to hear and heed your inner voice with clarity and confidence in Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom, a one-day WALKshop led by Kate Lampel Link and me on November 4th in Newfane, Vermont. Learn more here. Questions? Contact Me.
christina isobel says
Excellent. Thank you. And a reminder this has been going on for a long time.
Deborah Lee Luskin says
Hi Christina. Yes, a very long time. Long enough to have been treated by Mozart in Don Giovanni, for instance. If you missed it, you might be enraged by an earlier post of mine, Operatic Politics
All best, D.
Thank you so much for the Austen quote and for the section from your book. You’ve expressed it more succinctly than anyone else I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot). I’m not convinced Jack really gets it, just that he’s ready to move on. (That my be your intention.) There’s SUCH reluctance on the part of men to really understand because they are all culpable in some way – personally, as witness, and culturally. You can almost hear the concentric ripples of PTSD as one woman after another listens to the Weinstein tape (and, by news default, the #45 tape all over again). I think we all need to tell our stories, even if it’s only to ourselves. That is my commitment, and my gift (difficult though it will be) to myself. Keeping it in is devastating. Thank you for sharing this.
Deborah Lee Luskin says
Melinda, Thank you for your comment and affirming that it was a good decision to share both Jane Austen’s letter and the section of my work-in-progress. Yes, this has been going on a long time (see comment & reply below) and in so many subtle and nefarious ways. I’m glad that we are living in a time where women are risking (yes, risking) speaking up. It helps us all.
And thanks also for your reaction to Jack, which is very helpful, and something I will keep in mind as I work on this story.