The Marionette and Mr. Awkward

by Donna Faler

My life didn’t fall apart all at once. Rather, as it often happens, there was a gradual slide down: I’d hit what I thought was rock bottom, and then find out that things could always get worse. Everything started when I was sexually harassed at my job, then stalked, then blamed for it by management, who turned on me with the same techniques. I was never in particular physical danger, but the whole thing felt like a Lifetime Movie of the Week.

I still have a picture of the original harasser buried in my inbox, a picture that a mutual friend emailed me when I was told to go to the police. The photo was taken on the street in the lovely small town in Southeastern Louisiana where this all occurred. Here, downtown is filled with repurposed Art Deco buildings from the ’30s; the outer edges are all fast food joints and big box stores. What the town possesses in physical beauty it lacks in job opportunity.

I had been at my job for about a year and a half, working in the back of a convenience store. Doing accounts, I was rarely seen. Then I lost my office job and began cashiering so I could stay full-time. The store had a gossipy, cliquey atmosphere that fit the insular nature of the town. But I did my job well and felt well-liked.

Mr. Awkward was a regular who came in daily. We chatted for a couple of months, then he began flirting: winking at me and calling me pet names. I ignored my feeling of discomfort when he began being physically demonstrative towards me in front of everyone in the store. Then he started brushing up against me in a sexual manner. I told management of my concerns, but that I didn’t think anything serious needed to be done at the time. I could just avoid him, I told them; it would probably be fine.

Then I saw him near my house. He said he had a reason for being there, but there was something in the way he was staring at me, and the volume of his voice. Soon he was randomly approaching coworkers to talk about me, and word spread around town that he was talking about me at his own job and to his friends. These rumors spread quickly in our small town.

Initially, the owner of the store, the Marionette — a short man with cropped hair and rosy cheeks — was helpful. He told me he would resolve the situation as soon as possible. He sent me to the police and I felt hopeful, my borrowed snapshot in hand. I put my complaints about Mr. Awkward on record and felt more secure.

But when the Marionette spoke to (the all-male) lower management, they told him the entire situation was my fault. I had encouraged my stalker, they said. Less than 48 hours after his offer of support, the Marionette came back to me and told me Mr. Awkward was not to blame. He refused to ban him; he told me that he’d rather fire me than lose a customer, and was concerned about my workplace conduct. Soon the Marionette started following me whenever I left my desk, demanding to know where I was going and what I was doing. As he owned the place and employed me, there was nothing I could do about it besides document what was occurring.

I was fine dealing with this at first. When he started screaming at me in front of co-workers and customers as well as behind closed doors, I tried to write it off; the Marionette had well-known screamer tendencies. Then he told me that, beyond a quick hello, I wasn’t allowed to speak to any customer or coworker. He started chastising other employees for trying to speak to me. He told his subordinate (my manager) that I was talking too much. Later, he added the lie that I had been sleeping on the job. I responded that the security camera footage would prove this was false, but it was a small town and a small store and the rumor was already in place.

Week after week, my hours were getting reduced due to “budget constraints.” I acted as though I didn’t notice that mine were the only hours cut. I asked if I could take on other duties, but was told that wasn’t possible. Within a few weeks, I couldn’t pay my bills. Services began to be cut off; I started looking for another part time job. I had already been looking for nearly a year for another full time position, with no luck in the stagnant market in the area.

I tried not to show any emotion. I knew that everyone already thought I was the “crazy woman,” so I couldn’t risk giving any more credence to that notion by displaying my anger. I could put up with the daily threats of being fired, the sudden and random new job duties. I could ignore coworkers discussing my theoretical sex life, that perhaps I was a blackout drunk, or a drama queen who loved all the talk about me, which I did not. I made certain to follow every rule and stricture to the tee. I stopped talking and stayed at my desk as much as possible.

Then the complaints about my use of the restroom began. It was “stealing time,” I was told, going to the restroom immediately after clocking in and before and after lunch breaks. I asked if I needed to clock out to the go to the restroom and was screamed at for being stupid to ask such a question. The Marionette revealed that he was following me physically to the bathroom and standing outside the door to time my duration. I was told I went to the restroom too much and needed to go less. So I drank less water so I wouldn’t have to go to the restroom as often. I made sure to clock in and go straight to my desk without saying anything to anyone. Even as I limited my bathroom trips, the Marionette insisted that I was still going to the bathroom too often: it was costing him money and stealing his time.

I thought about quitting every day, but I needed the money. Sometimes I would promise myself that, the next time the Marionette screamed at me, I would quit. But I never did. I began drinking heavily at home and having panic attacks. I would cry randomly in my car after leaving work and begin screaming, scared that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I felt like the crazy person they had accused me of being, and this was the worst of all.

When the Marionette told me my hours were being cut to 10–15 hours a week, I realized I would never last long enough to get another job. They were forcing me out and this was the last step. The lack of hours and subsequent lack of money would do what the screaming and following me around at work hadn’t done: get me to leave. I realized I had other options, as much as I hated them too. I could quit that job, quit that town and move back home.

And there was another avenue open to me. I went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, believing that due to having reported sexual harassment, I was in a protected class. The EEOC representative encouraged me not to file my complaint; my former employer could state that I was the one causing trouble, she told me, and things would potentially get worse. You’re required to file 15 days after meeting with a representative: by now, that time’s long gone. I haven’t contacted a lawyer yet, because I’m worried about not having a reference and the fact that the Supreme Court’s 2012 redefinition of supervisors made it much harder to sue for workplace harassment.

As a white woman, I was spared the additional stereotypes that attach themselves to others: the “angry” black woman, the “fiery” Latina, the “submissive” Asian woman. Still, what all women have in common is the narrowness of the field of behavior that is open to us: our friendliness is flirtation, our anger means we’re over-reacting. Sometimes we are able to prove the imbalance; last year, Svetlana Lokhova won a harassment lawsuit after reporting insider trading and immediately being labeled “Crazy Miss Cokehead,” a train wreck that just needed to get laid. More often, as in my case, the blame for harassment falls on the woman who spoke: think of Anita Hill, labeled “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” after she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his tenure as head of the EEOC.

There’s no uplifting ending to this story. I moved home, where it is over-crowded and I don’t have a bed to myself. I’ve lived out of a suitcase for the past five months. I got a job my second week here, but it’s a low-paying manual labor job, and it’s part time. Over the holidays, I earned $75 a week. I look for work every day; I get a lot of interviews, but am often told I’m too introverted, or too extroverted, or overqualified, or under. There are “internal issues” keeping the positions on hold.

I feel a lot of anger still, anger towards the men who ruined my reputation, anger at my current job and the job market. It’s hard not for me to feel anger towards my friends with good jobs who support themselves and still complain that they wish they could travel more. There is an intense shame in no longer being a self-sufficient adult; there is even more shame in not being able to prevent something from happening, no matter how hard you tried.

But I’ll get another job, a good one, and hope to keep the Marionettes at bay.

Donna Faler is a freelance writer from Louisiana. She can be found on Twitter at @TheTinyWonder1.