Stories Like Passwords

by Emma Healey


This past spring I attended a writing residency at an artists’ centre in Banff, Alberta. For seven weeks I lived in a dream. My studio was a refurbished boat in the middle of a small forest on top of a mountain; I spent my days floating inside, working on my terrible novel, and my evenings walking into town to buy overpriced wine. There was a large writing program already in progress when I arrived at the centre, and though there were men there, the people I’d connected to almost instantly were a group of women; all different kinds of writers, all different ages, all at different points in their careers. At night, we’d hang out together in the boat or in somebody’s room, and drink, and talk.

About a week in, I showed a few of my new friends some emails I’d been getting from an older male writer many of us knew. The messages weren’t explicit or threatening, but something about their tone had made me distinctly uncomfortable. It was hard to put my finger on. I passed my phone around, trying to explain why I’d felt so creeped out, repeating every few minutes that I knew there was nothing tangible, that I was probably just making it up. “Am I crazy?” I asked, over and over again. Everyone kept shaking their heads.

A story like this is a password. Once you say it out loud, doors start to open. For the rest of that night, and the rest of my time at that residency, the women who’d seen those emails would tell me stories. One talked about how in graduate school, a professor she admired and looked up to set up a meeting outside of class to talk about her work. She showed up to his home nervous and eager to discuss her poems and found him lying half-naked on his bed. He asked her for a massage. She made polite conversation for ten minutes before figuring out a way to make an exit that wouldn’t offend him.

Other stories were less definite, edged in doubt: An editor who had tried to turn a professional relationship into a personal one, a writer who had sent a few too many weird emails. A coworker who couldn’t quite take no for an answer in person, but who never stopped retweeting and reposting articles about feminist issues online.

If you listen to enough stories like this, you’ll start to hear a few themes. These men are not ever that big of a deal. What they do to us is never really that bad in the grand scheme of things, no matter how big it feels at the time. It could always have been much worse. We might just have been misreading the situation. They might not have meant anything by it. They’ve never apologized — but then again, we’ve never asked them to.

The men in stories like this always have just enough power, in their little worlds and in ours, that to confront them would be to court an ordeal, to invite others to question our own memories and motives. It’s always more trouble than it’s worth. If you don’t have hard proof, if you don’t have a police report, then what do you have? Only what you remember. Only what you felt.

* * *

In the summer between my first and second years of university, I started corresponding with a writer whose work I liked. He was a prominent figure in the city’s literary community and a professor at my school. He had read my poems, admired them, and wanted to work on some projects together. I was thrilled. I had only started writing poetry that year, and the idea that this man considered me a peer was beyond exciting. We talked on and off through the summer; I sent him some new poems. He was teaching a class that semester, and I tried to sign up, but it was full. He said he’d see what he could do.

The night before school started, around 10pm, he sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to come and meet him and his friends at a bar down the street. I remember my roommate, who was also my best friend, coming into my room while I was getting dressed and narrowing her eyes. “What kind of professor asks his students out for drinks?” she asked.

I remember shrugging. “I don’t know. He wants to be my friend. He doesn’t think of me as a student.” I was 19. He was 34.

There are a few more things I remember about that evening. I remember how nervous I was, how he laughed and joked with me to put me at ease. I remember his friends rolling their eyes at each other as he bought me another beer. I remember him saying, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to drink that, I’m not trying to get you drunk,” as the waitress put a shot down in front of me. I remember closing that bar, and then the bar upstairs. At some point his friends disappeared. At some point we were on the sidewalk. At some point we were back in my apartment. I remember him saying, “you can’t be in my class, you can’t be in my class,” over and over again.

When we woke up a few hours later, I felt like I’d swallowed a bag of fine gravel. I watched him put his clothes back on. I asked if he could stay. I was still drunk. “This is so fucked up,” he said, laughing. “I have to go teach.” He left. I told my roommate what had happened and she asked if we’d had sex. “I don’t think so?” I said. She shook her head, slowly.

I decided I was going to make a point. I put clothes and makeup on, and I went to school.

He blanched when I walked into the classroom. He was wearing the same outfit he’d left my house in; he looked as shitty as I felt. Class began and we went around the room, introducing ourselves and talking about our favorite writers. When my turn came, he couldn’t look at me. I felt a flush of something like pride.

We dated through the school year — though if you count the time after our breakup that we spent in close contact, talking and arguing and occasionally hooking up, the whole thing lasted much longer. While the relationship itself was consensual, much of what happened within its borders was not.

A running theme was how he wanted to tell people we were together, to make me his “real girlfriend.” I resisted, even though we weren’t doing the best job of keeping it a secret in the first place. I already knew what my friends thought of my decision to be with him; I already saw the knowing looks people gave each other when we left the bar together at the end of the night. I had heard rumors about his other relationships and I didn’t want to be another one; I didn’t want to be marked forever as the naïve young student who had dated a professor, this professor. So I didn’t talk to anyone about it. Except for him.

The shame and isolation I felt grew proportionally with my investment in our relationship; the deeper things got, the more sure I was that everyone thought I was making a bad choice. When his friends or my friends or his students or my professors looked at me, I imagined their judgment moving through me like an x-ray. I felt sure they knew that a large portion of our sex happened when I was blackout drunk, that I followed him to the bar almost every night even though I rarely wanted to be there, that I thought I was in love, that I was. I felt gullible and stubborn and self-sure and shaky and guilty all at once, but above all, I knew that I had made the choices that got me here. If anything bad happened to me, I told myself over and over, I had no one to blame but myself.

* * *

Two years to the day after that first night at the bar, I ran into him on a night out with my friends. This wasn’t unusual; we had friends in common, we frequented the same places. But my life was different now. I had a new boyfriend, a new apartment, a new sense of self-confidence. My friends had all heard me talk about our relationship; they had all told me it wasn’t my fault, that they didn’t blame me, and I believed them. I’d stopped wincing when people talked about him — when they told me what a great teacher he was, or when they joked about his tendency to go out with students. I was over it. I felt safe around him — not because he was safe, but because I knew better now. There was distance between us. I had perspective.

He bought me a beer and we started talking. He apologized for a few things. It got later, and people started leaving. A close friend of mine tapped me on the shoulder on his way out and asked if I was okay. I waved him off. I was fine.

I remember drinking. I remember closing the bar. I remember him saying that I was too drunk to get home by myself. I remember agreeing. When he asked if I wanted to stay at his place, I laughed. I let him walk me home. I remember walking up the stairs to my apartment; I remember him going to the fridge and pulling out a beer. I remember him kissing me. I remember saying, “I have a boyfriend. You should go.” I remember his hands around my wrists. I remember him saying, “You’re not telling me you don’t want to.” I remember being on my bed. His hands. The panic that ran through my body. I remember pushing him away. I remember making him leave, but I don’t remember how.

I fell asleep in my clothes.

It took me weeks to tell anyone what had happened that night. It took me months to tell anyone that the next morning, in a fog, I’d let him pick me up in his car and take me out for lunch. I felt like these were the details that proved what I’d always known — that the whole thing was my fault in the first place. What kind of a victim lets her attacker buy her a veggie burger?

* * *

An abusive relationship is a closed loop. So is a professional network. So is the patriarchy.

The experience I had in Banff — of telling one story and hearing a flood of them in return — was a microcosm of what happened to me after I started opening up to my close friends about what happened that night with the professor.

I heard stories from other students, other friends, people in the same literary community as me. A few of them were about this person, but most were about other men across the country in the same loose network — writers, editors, teachers. I heard about rapes and assaults. I heard about violations of trust and instances of gaslighting. I heard about men who had threatened women with legal action to stop them from talking about what had happened between them.

Without exception, every single one of these men is still working — writing, publishing, editing, teaching — today.

These men do not work, or live, or act in a vacuum. Unless they are masterminds or psychopaths (and they cannot all be), their behavior, or aspects of it, is often visible. These men are everywhere. They write and they edit and they teach. They have small magazines and small presses and small reading series. They have publishers and editors, they have podcasts and publicists sending them books to review. The influence they wield may seem insignificant to those in their community who have moved beyond their reach, but for those who haven’t, it is more than enough to frighten or threaten or silence. Their power comes from institutional support, whether implied or explicit, and it comes from systems that rely on the victims of harassment to be the ones who take down their abusers by speaking out in public.

These men have friends. They have readers. They have peers. They have permission.

Every time we treat issues of abuse as black-and-white — every time we ask a woman why she didn’t just leave the apartment or the relationship, why she didn’t just call the police, how she didn’t see it coming; every time we tell her not to feed the trolls or that she has no real proof or ask why she’d allow herself to be bullied by someone so insignificant in the first place — every time we do these things, no matter what our intentions, we are complicit in the systems that allow predatory individuals to thrive in small communities. Abusers whose power and influence seem relatively minor are often the most dangerous kind, since the people around them who can afford to ignore their behavior will do so until something drastic forces them to act, while those who have something to lose at their hands will continue to stay silent. A man who’s “no big deal” can still ruin your reputation. A man who’s “no threat” can still leave marks. A man who “doesn’t matter” can still set fire to your life and then walk away whistling.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past week, it’s the same thing I learn over and over again every single time I see women speaking out publicly against men who have harmed them. It is exhilarating and terrifying and heartrending to watch people tell their stories, to see the changes that can come from that telling. But victims of harassment, assault, rape and abuse deserve, absolutely and in every case, the dignity of being able to do whatever they want with their stories. Right now it feels as though we rely on them to pursue change by putting themselves and their experiences at the mercy of Twitter, Facebook, Gawker, Salon — of legions of strangers who all know they know better.

We consistently fail young women — all women — by tacitly relying on them to learn from each other, or from their experiences, which of the people in their communities they can and cannot trust. We ask them to police their own peers, but quietly, through back channels, without disturbing the important people while they’re talking. We wait for the victims of abuse to be the ones to take power away from their abusers, instead of working actively to ensure that these motherfuckers never get that far in the first place.

These issues are not simple ones to discuss or to deal with, and they do not develop — or change — overnight. There is a complex and tangled system of habits and behaviors and assumptions that runs underneath our tendency to turn a blind eye to potentially predatory behavior in our communities until it reaches a boiling point. These things are ingrained, and on one hand, it’s difficult to know how we might even begin to change them.

On the other, it’s hard to see how we can keep living with ourselves if we don’t try.

Emma Healey is the author of Begin With the End in Mind.