2017: Year of the Storytellers
As book people shall we recognise that last year was an important year for storytelling? For personal storytelling, because 2017 was a year in which many people’s stories were spoken out loud or written down for the first time. I am referring of course to the accounts given by those who have suffered sexual harassment or assault. The first storytellers offered a context for the thousands of stories which followed: in the news pages, in legal papers, on social media, at every social and professional gathering. When we got together, we talked of this. Me too, we said: me too.
And when we talked, what we found was that we had plenty of experiences in common and that’s a comfort in itself: to know that your quiet rage has been the rage of others; or that your incapacity to speak up has made you not unusually cowardly but perfectly usually incapacitated by your vulnerability in the face of an abuse of power; or that your horror at being manipulated was quickly reflected in the horror of others as you told your story.
Each story perhaps had the same essential offence at its core: Someone took advantage of my vulnerability, the storyteller said. They took something sexual from me that was mine and not theirs. It was a theft and I accordingly suffered a loss. Multiple losses.
In My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, a creative writing tutor tells aspiring writer Lucy: “You will only have one story. You’ll write your one story many ways.”
When I had read these lines a few months before the sexual harassment story broke, I had known immediately what my story was, and I saw that I had been circling it for years in my writing. But on reading the Strout, courage warmed my bones. I perceived that my story was worth telling, to myself and maybe even to others. I decided to try to put words to it at last. I started with a title. I realised the title had been waiting to be spoken for a long time.
Of course my story also started to take shape in my imagination as an investigation into storytelling - both fact and fiction. My story is about some of the things that have happened to me, but it is also about some of the things that did not. It is about how we experience the events of our lives not as fixed memories but fluidly. When you stand in a river, the river flows over your feet and past you, so that you are always immersed in water, always wet, and yet paradoxically the river is ever-changing: the water at your feet is never the same water. And so it is that I have found that my past experiences are what they are, they are mine to stand in always, and yet they are ever-changing in my memory and imagination, altered by me in intentional and unintentional ways as I have grown older and more experienced in the world. As I have become different in the world.
But as the #metoo campaign gathered steam a few months later, my story seemed to lose stability altogether. That’s the thing about sharing stories: each person’s story carries its own weight and power, and when you layer them one on the other that weight doesn’t accumulate in ordered ways. Sometimes, as the #metoo campaign was excitingly demonstrating, ten stories could represent the power of a hundred, because once ten stories are told it’s clear there are many more as yet unspoken. But I was experiencing the opposite: as the weight of stories accumulated around me, I lost my way to my own version of this story and my voice with it.
Aside from the awful and striking similarities in stories about the same sex attackers - Weinstein clearly has an MO, as many criminals do - I had quickly began to register the differences between victims’ stories. Different people, different situations, different tolerance levels, different abusers.
I had plenty of source material to draw on. But although each of my experiences had marked me, the spectrum of my experience had also made me keenly aware that there is a difference between the scars that are left by serious sex offenders and the bruises on one’s sense of safety and intactness that are meted out by sex pests.
We had only one set of words - sexual harrassment, sexual assault - but we had to use it to cover all bases, even though storytellers had very different accounts of what those words meant to her or him.
As #metoo stories proliferated online, I sometimes thought: Me different. And that made me feel ashamed. Some days it felt as though every woman was speaking with one voice, and only I had lost faith in our language and remained silent. I became alarmed and confused and went under, offline, trying to stay well.
Around the same time, with stories buzzing around us of sexual offences that had occurred in the literary world in London and New York, I was asked by colleagues to contribute to their thinking about what an industry behavioural code might look like. “It’s so unbelievably complex,” someone said to me. “Or maybe it's simple,” I replied, depressed and incapable of clever ideas: “Be a decent fucking human being.”
I knew that wasn't good enough. And being forced to slowly start thinking about how to express these problems in our industry in a language we could share was helpful to me. I went back to reading other victims' accounts and started to get angry, aware that it was about a month later than everyone else I knew. Most importantly for me, I started talking. I intervened on behalf of an author who felt their publisher had behaved inappropriately. I met a younger woman for lunch and listened to her account of several small yet frightening liberties that men in publishing had taken with her body at parties and in offices over the years. I was appalled, and upset by her horror too.
“He read the situation totally wrong,” she said, of one of the incidents. He was a bookseller, she was a bookseller too at the time. My god, we readers should learn to read one another, I thought.
I told her sympathetically that I wouldn't have known how to resist such impositions in my mid-twenties either. “If that happened to me today, at the age of forty-five, I'd tell him to get his hands off my body,” I told her.
You know what happened next. A couple of weeks later I was at a big social event, all dressed up. By the time I noticed a man was intent on taking liberties with me, he had conveyed to the room that he was bigger, stronger, richer and more powerful than we were (he wasn't to know that only a few of those things were true on this occasion) and he had the palm of his left hand flat against the skin between my shoulder blades with no intention of moving it away. I was frozen. Fifteen minutes later he made us all move up the bench so he could caress my knee in poor imitation of a man who unconsciously emphasises the power of his words with hand gestures. On women's bodies. So of course I looked him in the eye and said, just as I had thought I would, not angrily but coolly, in the manner of a forty-five year old woman who knows her place in the world and is willing to fight for exclusive use of it: “Please take your hands off my body.”
Except of course I didn't. I just left the party early. Me too, I thought miserably, afterwards: me too, still.
Compared with some of my previous experiences, what happened to me that night was minor sex pestery. But it didn't feel insignificant to me, or even something I could speak up about. Because behind that idiot in my live and eager imagination stood a neat little queue of all the men who'd taken advantage of me and worse over the previous thirty years: that boy on the train, that other boy at the party, that man outside, that university tutor, the supposed friend, that man in the cab. Many of us have such a list. Most of us, like me, have never spoken it out loud.
That night, my faith in the language of sexual harassment was restored. Actually what does it matter, that the words harassment and assault can mean thousands of different things resulting in every grade of pain and shame to different women and men? Yes, every one of these stories has at its core a sexual theft, but we have it in our power to resist the theft of anything else: our careers, our voices, the power of speaking together with one voice. The same words act as vehicles for multiple experiences but together they speak one phrase: Don’t exert power over others in order to take what isn't yours.
Don’t exert power over others in order to take what isn't yours.
Be a human being.
Learn to read one another.
My industry code was coming together.
I'm not writing my own story right now, I don't feel as ready as I did six months ago. But I'm very engaged in helping to write a good story for us to share as an industry - one we can be proud to tell together. “This is what we believe,” we will say, just as Vicky Featherstone did on behalf of The Royal Court Theatre when she released their uncompromising and insightful new code of behaviour for the theatre industry. They wrote it after their October Day of Action, on which 126 personal stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault were read out loud over a five hour period.
Well, we all know to read. Let's start by reading one another better.
When a woman wears a dress at a book party that reveals part of her body, she doesn't mean: “My body is yours to touch.” She means: “My body is beautiful and it's mine.”
When a junior person asks someone more senior in publishing for professional advice, they don’t mean, “I'd like to socialise with you after work, and maybe even fool around.” They mean: “I respect your experience. Please share some of it with me, so I might learn from you.”
When a woman laughs at a colleague's joke, she doesn't mean: “My god, you're sexy. I'm so vulnerable to your sexiness right now.” She means: “You're a tolerable colleague. Thank goodness you're not someone who likes to corner me in the stationary cupboard.”
When a book publicist expresses infinite kindness and looks after an author’s every need on tour, she doesn't mean: “I sort of see myself as your mother or wife for this week only, at any rate my body is kind of part of the package.” She means: “I get paid to do this job and I like to do it very well. Whether I like you or not is irrelevant.”
When an author shows you her or his memories, or fears, or desire, she or he isn't saying: “I consider us to be intimates. Please enter into an intimate relationship with me.” She or he is saying: “I exposed my private self in order to create something beautiful for you. Please keep it safe for me.”
When a book editor offers to meet you to talk about your work out of hours, or at your home, she isn't saying: “I am available to you as a woman.” She is saying: “I like your writing. I can see ways to contribute to it.”
“I care about this so much,” I told a friend. “I want to get it right.”
“What do you mean by ‘this’,” she asked me. “You're not really expressing yourself yet.”
This is what I care about:
Our right to own our own bodies and sense of ourselves physically and sexually.
The extent of the damage wrought on vulnerable people by sexual aggressors.
The need to speak up about that damage, to write or speak our own stories.
The necessity of healing and preventing such damage whenever possible as individuals and as societies.
The need for book publishing to rout out sexual harassment. Let's be a place where everyone can tell their story.
Illustration: Untitled Film Still #13, Cindy Sherman,1978