If you are new to my blog, I will bring you up to speed.
In January 2017 I enrolled in 4-year graduate degree program in order to specialize in Traditional Chinese Medicine and integrative medicine. A month after I began my program, a man in my program began harassing me. At first, I brushed it off as obnoxious behavior, but I started changing how I dressed in case it was more; I was anxious. I stopped wearing make-up and started wearing hoodies, ponytails, jeans, and Converse sneakers. In other words, I dressed like my 14 year-old. Alas, he continued to target me including unwanted sexual touching and battery. This continued intermittently for a year.
I documented every encounter in detail. I reported it to my college’s administration, thusly, beginning what has come to feel like the Battle Royale. The college administration would not implement Title IX procedure or policy due to cronyism. I had to attend classes with him, tolerate continued nonverbal harassment, and then finally another confrontation. Finally, I petitioned the court for an Harassment Restraining Order (HRO), and it was granted although temporarily because the Respondent (the harasser) contested it meaning I have to appear in court for a hearing.
This brings me to the present. His family asked to meet with me in order to reach a settlement agreement to avoid the hearing. Initially, I thought, “Why would I do that? I’m going to do my best to keep that HRO.” Then, I spoke to another woman at my school who has endured the same process. I’m incredulous. What are the odds? Two women in four months filing for HROs from two male students in the same graduate program? I then opted to file an official complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and, after a telephonic interview and review of my complaint, they will be officially investigating my college for discrimination.
So, yesterday, I met with the Respondent’s family for three hours at a local restaurant. It was surreal. They don’t want a hearing. They want to reach a settlement agreement. It was long and exhausting, and, to be honest, I truly empathized with them. I’m a mother. I understand their point of view. They were honest with me. They recognized their son’s deficits and his wrongdoing. It must be noted that his family is from another country and culture. Their culture’s family norms differ from popular American family norms. If an eldest son commits acts like he has towards me, then it brings shame to the family as a whole; and, the family as a unit takes on the debt–not just the individual. I understood this, and this is largely why I agreed to share a meal with them. I am not litigious by nature and prefer negotiations when at all possible. As a lawyer who is near and dear to me said, “If you are litigating, then both sides have lost.” The pending hearing would require litigation.
They did not bring their attorney with them. I mirrored that as a sign of cooperation. And, what I can say with complete confidence is that you should never attempt to do anything like this without an attorney. They wanted me to sign a contract agreeing to drop the HRO. They were very concerned that their son’s life would be ruined with the label of “harasser” or “sexual harasser”. As concerned as they were for me and my sense of safety, their concern was always first and foremost for the future of their son. I expected that. Parents are the best advocates for their kids–even when their kids behave very badly.
I had to push quite hard for strong contractual stipulations and be able to defend my position in a persuasive way in order to convince them. I succeeded on the points that mattered the most, but the experience did not feel empowering. I felt blamed somehow. They blamed me because I sought out the legal system for help because their son would not respond to “Stop,” and “Leave me alone.” This morning as I negotiated on the phone, his father asked me, “Are you trying to ruin his life and future?” I paused, took a breath, and answered, “No, we are in a settlement agreement because your son refused to comply with the school’s code of conduct and violated his second warning. He is now suspended for a third violation and restricted by an HRO granted by a judge. He is ruining his own life. I’m merely insisting that the document I sign is enforceable in a court and protects me and your son. Isn’t that what you want, too? Legal protection for his interests?”
After that, the negotiations went smoothly. I am not thrilled with any of this. In the end, the Respondent will continue on with his life and educational privileges, and I will have absorbed the wrongful acts. It doesn’t feel just enough.
I have been sitting around in my pajamas all day today. I have midterm exams next week, and I just don’t care. That will pass. I will rebound, but what I can say is that this is the “real” reality of sexual harassment. The other woman at my school who was forced to file for an HRO? Her harasser will return to complete his education after she graduates. My harasser will continue his medical education as well. What are the truly meaningful consequences for these men for harassing two women for over a year? What kind of medical practitioners will these men become?
I am profoundly troubled by the unknowns, but this is what I do know:
Never sign anything without consulting your attorney.
Also, attorneys cost not a little money which is likely why victims of harassment probably don’t receive the advocacy they deserve nor report the harassment. It has been a pain in the ass the whole time complete with insomnia, panic, anxiety, and crying jags. And, it’s not over. The OCR investigation is only just beginning, but I’m ready for it. Appropriate changes will be made and enforced–by the Feds!
At least when I leave this school, I’ll have left a mark on it–for the better– even if my harasser still gets to attend classes there.
Amidst the #Metoo movement and Harvey Weinstein perp walk, one might begin to believe that dealing with the nuts and bolts of reporting sexual harassment would suddenly get easier. It really hasn’t, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. You totally should.
Realistically, it might cost you something. Why? Well, reporting it doesn’t mean that it will stop. You might actually experience retaliation. You could get fired if you’re being harassed in the workplace and report it. Teachers could treat you differently if you’re being harassed at school. You could become a pariah if the person harassing you is well-liked.
In the past month, I’ve witnessed all of this, and I am trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it. I was never naive about what could happen when I decided to report my harasser to my college’s administration. The last time I reported sexual harassment I was fired. I actually lost my job! The company was in the middle of an IPO, and they didn’t want any trouble. Rather than fire the harasser, they fired me–the woman who talked.
The best part of this story, however, is that, during that time, I was having coffee once a week with a man who was a former FBI special agent. We originally met at Starbucks where I often studied. He was a regular. I was a regular. Somehow, his regular coffee visits turned into coffee with me. We discussed politics and current events, and he liked French literature which is what I was studying. He always wore a seersucker suit with a bowtie. His name was Charlie. He retired from the FBI and became a foremost expert in administering polygraph tests. Think Robert DeNiro’s character in “Meet the Parents”. He traveled all over the world administering polygraph tests. I would try so hard to tempt him into telling me stories about his latest trips, but the man was a vault. He would just smirk and redirect the conversation.
On the day I was fired from my job for reporting sexual harassment, I went to Starbucks seeking sugary consolation and ordered the most fattening drink they had. I found a hidden corner table, licked whipped cream off a spoon, and cried. Charlie came in for his regular black coffee and saw me. He was always very affable and gentle, but, when he saw me crying, he wasn’t affable at all. He became the FBI agent. The interrogation began. Why was I crying? Who did it? What happened? I told him the whole story complete with the disgusting details of the harassment and the humiliating firing while stuffing a peanut butter cookie in my mouth. He nodded. He pulled out his business card, wrote a number on it, and said, “Call this number and tell them I sent you.”
It was a lawyer. I groaned and told him that I didn’t want a lawyer. I just wanted to put the situation behind me. He insisted. I reluctantly called the number the next day. The woman on the other end of the line curtly told me that everyone was busy until I said, “Charlie told me to call.” Suddenly, she said, “One moment please.”
In a matter of seconds, a male voice was on the line. He arranged an appointment the next day, and I met with him. As it turns out, the lawyer I met that day was former White House counsel, and he was exceedingly polite and accommodating. He listened to my entire story. Had “The West Wing” been a TV show at that time, I would have felt like I was in an episode. In the end, it was decided that there was nothing I could do. I was wrongfully fired, but some injustices you just have to swallow. That never felt right to me. I think men and women are just plain tired of swallowing against their will.
Ten years later, a class action lawsuit was filed by a class of women in that company that fired me, and they won. And, I received a check in the mail for a few thousand dollars. As it turns out, that company made a habit of firing women who reported sexual harassment. My reporting the harassment–and being fired–established a record. There is no legal record if you don’t report the harassment. That is one reason why you must report harassment. It is vital to establish a record. In this way, if someone is harassed after you and they report it, the record shows that others have made reports as well. And, this is how you build a case.
Why is building a case important? Well, in the case of institutions, it becomes vital because an individual case of harassment can rarely take down an institution or, at a minimum, bring disciplinary measures. Institutions have far more resources in terms of money and legal representation than any one person; but if a group of people (like a class) can show a pattern relating to an institution (like a group of women and my former company), then traction can be made in terms of legitimizing complaints.
In my current situation, I reported to my school’s administration that I had been harassed. They failed to implement Title IX policy. I documented that. My harasser harassed me again. I documented that and reported it. The school failed to implement Title IX policy again. I filed for an HRO and a judge granted it. My harasser is contesting the HRO, and I have to attend a hearing. I also reported the Title IX implementation failure to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR has contacted me, and I speak to them this week via a phone interview. If the OCR decides that my case is not severe enough to pursue, then at least there will be a record. If anyone else reports anything to the OCR in the future, then my case will be on record and will also establish a pattern.
Proper documentation and reporting are vital even if you are afraid. In fact, I can guarantee that if you are experiencing harassment, you will be anxious. I am, but fear of intimidation and retaliation is exactly why harassment in various settings has been allowed to persist. Yes, this is exhausting. Yes, I don’t even want to go to school. I’m weary of looking at the administrators. Had they done their jobs in the first place, I wouldn’t be in this position. I can state with certainty that I don’t want to go to court. Alas, the rest of society is in a position to put a stop to a culture that condones harassment because large numbers of people standing together with a unified voice are far harder to intimidate and retaliate against than a select few. Maintaining that unity over the longterm is how we will change this culture.
I encourage you to initiate change by educating yourself and those around you. We can potentially build a world where #Metoo won’t even be a thing anymore.
Resisting Rulemaking: Challenging the Montana Settlement’s Title IX Sexual Harassment Blueprint (this is published in Notre Dame Law Review and provides an excellent “blueprint” for what schools, colleges, and universities should do under Title IX policies and procedures in the context of harassment. It is also excellent in terms of educating oneself in the language of Title IX and what one’s rights are as well as what one should expect in terms of what Title IX provides. It is a must read if you attend a school that receives federal funding aka FAFSA funding.)
In a state of anxious frustration, I wrote about sexual harassment a few month’s ago. Another student was sexually harassing me, and my school’s administration was less than stellar in their handling of the situation. Well, they really didn’t handle it. The situation is still “pending” in that other women have come forward with similar complaints about the same student. I have learned that this student is a known offender, and the administration had known about his propensity to harass women for at least a year if not longer prior to my complaint. And, they did nothing. What’s more, he is studying to be a healthcare practitioner! Do you want to spend time alone in a room with a guy like this? I do not. Alas, my school seems oblivious to the implications of graduating a predator, and I’m personally very alarmed by this.
I’m profoundly troubled not to mention I have two classes with this person. He sits directly behind me in one them and mouth breaths the entire time.
Or, he turns around and stares directly at me glaring in a menacing way. Either way, it is uncomfortable and disconcerting. Knowing now that the school administration lied to me about his history of harassment fires me up. I am taking action, but, at the same time, I feel tremendous anxiety about doing so. And this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of how both men and women must deal with social injustice in institutions.
Why is it so difficult and fear provoking? When faced with taking on an institution like a corporation or a college, why do so many people weight the costs and decide to absorb the inequity of the injustice?
The first reason is because institutions tend to exist well after complaints are made against them largely because they have almost infinite resources compared to complainants. They often have a fleet of lawyers on retainer compared to the sole advocate that a complainant brings to the table. This alone is often enough to deter a person from pursuing a complaint. Institutions have financial resources that dwarf an individual’s bank account, and they have the will to go the distance in terms of the legal process. Most individuals don’t have the time, energy, or money to devote to that process.
The second reason many people don’t pursue complaints against institutions is fear of retaliation. People need their jobs, and students need to finish their degrees with the favor they’ve earned from their teachers. Filing complaints can often obliterate favor, provoke bullying, and get you fired. I was once fired from a job after I lodged a complaint of sexual harassment in my workplace. The harassment was prolonged and severe. A man in my office actually locked himself in the women’s bathroom with me and forced himself on me and engaged in forced sexual touching. The company was in the middle of an IPO. Rather than fire the man for harassment, the company fired me for saying anything. This culture of gender discrimination is common, and it has become evident the world over what with the cascade of revelations following the Weinstein Effect and the #metoo movement. So many men and women tolerated the intolerable for fear of retaliation.
I filed an official complaint with a governmental body that oversees colleges and universities, and I’m very fearful. My fear is based in past experience with sexual trauma, and this is the third reason people often don’t report sexual harassment. It provokes latent feelings of fear associated with past trauma that were never fully resolved. In my case, it is so difficult to resolve the original trauma. It is known on my blog that I survived human trafficking. I was abducted when I was 18 years-old by a neighbor who masqueraded as a real estate agent. In reality, he was a participant in an international human trafficking ring. He was wanted by Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies. I was taken across the country to a port city to be sold at auction. Yes, there are super-wealthy men in the world who actually get together and bid on women in order to buy sex slaves. If you’ve seen the movie “Taken”, it was startlingly similar to that except Liam Neeson didn’t rescue me. I ran for my life and succeeded against all odds. It was by far the weirdest and worst experience I’ve ever had.
I never had a chance to accuse my perpetrator in a court. I did, however, live in fear of his finding me and taking me again for years. He became the amorphous fear that haunted me. He became the ultimate retaliation. My escape and survival represented the complaint. I was convinced that he was going to rain vengeance down upon me for staying alive. Consequently, I learned to stay hidden in my life. Don’t complain. Be quiet. Swallow mistreatment. While my experience is extreme, it’s not difficult to make a comparison to other experiences. When we have experiences in life that cause us to feel fear in terms of speaking up and self-advocating, we may discover that absorbing mistreatment is the better path if only to get us through the moments. This might be adaptive in those moments, but, later on, this can become a habit. This habit can become maladaptive later causing us to become victims of mistreatment and abuse. We lose our ability to self-advocate and even begin to invite mistreatment largely because we lack a standard for how we should be treated. We will tolerate anything because we are too fearful to say ‘no’. And the fear is no longer valid. The original object of our fear is long gone. But, the fear remains, and the fear is no longer purposeful. This purposeless fear is what I feel today. It’s real, but it serves only to limit me. It is purely trauma-based.
This is why I’m such a fierce advocate of healing trauma. Our post-trauma brains served us once. We survived our traumas, and that’s brilliant. We should feel proud that our brains and bodies did that for us. At the same time, post-trauma responses often become self-limiting because they do not serve us once the situations that cause trauma pass. We must learn to deactivate the mechanisms in our bodies that keep us locked into Trauma Brain and Trauma Body so that we can do what must be done like report sexual harassment or advocate for those being victimized and not get triggered while doing so.
I do not know what will happen now that I’ve made an official complaint. I’m not happy about this situation, but I did the right thing. That has to be enough for now.
It might be springtime where you live, but we just got hit with a doozy of a blizzard that dropped over a foot of snow on us. And it’s still snowing. Go home, Mother Nature. You’re clearly drunk.
I thought I would use my time wisely indoors, but I didn’t. After studying like a maniac for my hellish finals I crashed. I decided to watch “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Now, I loved “Seinfeld” the TV show, but Jerry Seinfeld the man doesn’t seem quite so affable playing himself. He’s a bit of a trope really which disappoints me–guy gets rich and famous and doesn’t have to pretend to be a good person anymore because he can buy favor and has more money than he can spend. You can observe this in the episode with Trevor Noah which is worth watching just to listen to what Trevor Noah has to say.
While Noah and Seinfeld are having coffee, Seinfeld does say something rather notable, and it threw me a bit because, to date, I haven’t heard Jerry Seinfeld say anything noteworthy.
He illustrated his point by saying:
“When you stub your toe on the foot of the bed, that was a gap in knowledge. And the pain is a lot of knowledge really quick. That’s what pain is.”
That is an interesting perspective on pain. Very rational. I like it. I tend to be emotionally driven; so, I appreciate a highly rational perspective on pain. It brings balance to my overly internalized process which often becomes dangerously introspective and too contemplative. Perseverative even.
Of course, there is no wisdom here concerning how to deal with whatever new information is causing pain. It is merely another perspective. Void of blame and accusation. I think that’s why it’s appealing.
You may find it to be a useful perspective the next time you stub your toe in real time or metaphorically.
Well, I did it. I saw my mother and stepfather. I wasn’t nervous at all until about an hour before I had to leave, and then it hit me. I was suddenly scared that she was going to be unkind to me. I was also scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to withstand it.
My mother’s unkindnesses usually began as passive aggressive comments about my appearance, and, for some reason, I always experienced that as more painful than most of her other criticisms. It’s so high school, I know, but I think that’s why I found it hard to bear. Growing up, we put up with a lot of social garbage. We don’t expect to come home to it as well, but my mother was the ultimate Mean Girl. I feared that I was about to go out to lunch with that persona again. Frankly, I’m over that, and I’m really over pandering to that to keep the peace.
But, it doesn’t mean that the remarks don’t sting. They do because mothers have a way of making them feel very personal because they know us.
In my previous post, I described my mother like Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest”. That’s accurate. Socially, however, my mother used to be very much like Lucille Bluth, the mother on “Arrested Development”:
Two of my daughters wanted to see my mother as well, and my other daughter decided to externalize her anger towards my mom twenty minutes before we had to leave causing conflict between all of us. I was functioning at capacity at that point. It made the drive to the restaurant a time of “trying to get one’s shit together” rather than a time to just relax. In other words, I was trying really hard not to cry.
When we arrived, I saw my mother and stepfather sitting in the restaurant, and I froze for a second. My stepfather hasn’t changed. He’s hardly aged. It’s the weirdest thing! My mother, on the other hand, has aged a lot. In ten years, she looks to me like she’s aged twenty years. She looked frail and small. The girls went ahead of me, and, as soon as they saw us, they stood up. My stepfather started tearing up right away and hugged them. My mother told them how much they’d grown and how beautiful they looked.
Pause: I have never heard my mother tell anyone that they look beautiful. She never gives compliments. That startled me. I was starting to wonder if she might say something nice to me.
Play: She came over to me and hugged me. She then said, “Oh well…don’t you look…older. And all grown up now. And…older.”
I sat with it for a minute. Older. Of all the things to say that’s what she went with. What makes this funny is that I joked with friends that she was going call me old: “I’ll wager that my mother is going to say I look old or something,” and, sure enough, she did! It could have been so much worse and, in times past, usually was. So, I moved on in the moment.
The lunch lasted a long time. Everyone behaved. I saw my mother as just a woman. She was no longer this powerful perpetrator who had power over me. She was a woman with health problems whose health was declining. She didn’t say anything new or unusual, but she still clung to a certain narrative particularly about me:
“Aren’t you glad I so strongly encouraged you to take Latin now that you’re in medical school?”
She has always taken credit for that and brings it up whenever she can. I just nod my head now. It doesn’t cost me anything at this point to let her have it. She did indeed encourage me to take Latin I. Not four years of it. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s time to let it go.
There was no drama. There was very little jockeying for power. She appeared to really want to try to reconnect without the past bad behavior. We all saw a movie after lunch, and then we parted ways although she was her typical self when she told the guy filling our popcorn order to layer the butter:
“Young man, I want you to layer the butter. Laaaaayer it! Do you understand? Really layer it. I want it layered! Layer the butter!”
Classic mom right there. You know what? I have never had popcorn so perfectly layered with butter. That kid spent so much time trying to layer that popcorn with butter because he could feel my mother’s eyes boring into his back! I just stood back and watched. She has zero assertiveness problems. NONE.
All in all, it was a positive experience, and I didn’t feel triggered. My daughters had positive experiences as well. She didn’t display any past borderline behaviors, and my stepfather was, as always, himself.
I did feel very drained when I got home as did my daughters. It was emotionally exhausting. I have final exams this week, and I couldn’t study at all. I could hardly process a thought. I think the significance of the event didn’t land until yesterday. I woke up feeling completely trashed.
I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but I know that they will want to visit. I feel okay about that at this point. I’ve worked really hard to achieve this state of mind. A few years ago, I would not have imagined ever feeling that a day like that was possible not because of my mother per se but because I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough emotionally. I honestly didn’t feel triggered by her–even by the remnant behaviors that would have triggered me in the past. Calling me “older” would have bothered me simply because it could be perceived as a criticism of my appearance, and I used to be hypervigilant to things like that. My mother’s demands upon the guy at the movie theatre would have triggered me in the past because that’s how she was towards me all the time. I would have identified with him too much. Her mentioning Latin class for the millionth time would have triggered me because my mother overly identified with my accomplishments always taking credit for everything I did. It was as if she were me, and I would have felt diminished and engulfed by her.
But now? It all felt irrelevant. I told my friends that she called me “older”, and we all laughed about it–a lot! My boyfriend didn’t hold back either. People filled in that gap for me so that what she said wouldn’t find a place in me. I don’t need my mother’s approval or emotional support, and most of the trauma associated with her has healed. It is very possible to achieve that given time and effort–as much time as you need. I’ve needed over a decade.
So, if you find yourself estranged from a parent and harbor even a flicker of hope that perhaps you will one day see them again under better emotional circumstances, don’t give up that hope. It’s possible. I don’t say this with a Pollyanna-esque attitude. I am in no way BFFs with my mother. It was one lunch, and it went well. That may be all that we ever achieve. Quarterly lunches if that. I may not see her for another year, but I feel very good that I did see her. It feels like an accomplishment.
I wonder if that’s because I’m older…