Options in the Face of Abuse

THE lesson is sad and sobering, just like reality. You can't have it both ways: You can't get the goodies and hope to get justice as well.Anita Hill moved with Clarence Thomas from one job to what promised to be a better job. She kept in cordial touch with him to maintain a useful contact. There is nothing wrong with that; it is an understandable, and, sadly, even wise choice. You grit your teeth and take it. And you move ahead and dream of justice someday. But you can't have it both ways. That's the deflating truth of the drama. We sat transfixed and thought "Yes! Once we are secure, we can seek justice!" I understand and believe Professor Hill's accusations and her behavior. I do not find them, as so many do, inconsistent. She acted with a mixture of paralysis, impotence, ambition, and ambivalence. She probably liked Mr. Thomas. That's a dirty little secret we women have: Sometimes our harassers are, otherwise, likable and even admirable men. Otherwise. That's the trick to enduring abuse - to focus on the otherwise, to see the man as others seem to see him, to blame ourselves. Hill is telling the truth, but apparently it was not good enough. That's very sobering. Little children can explain their dependence, their silence, their affection for their molesters 10, 20, 30 years after the fact. But women are not children. We have responsibilities in this tough world. Yes, we are harassed, touched, mauled, raped, but we cannot collude and still hope for justice. Maybe in a perfect world we could. But not today, not here. Here, today, when faced with harassment, we have a few, bad choices. Occasionally it is a clear case: We receive unwelcome attention from a man whom we despise and we are blessed with financial independence and courage. Then we file a complaint or quit. Most situations are murkier. Usually the women being harassed - young and junior - lack financial freedom and, furthermore, their every instinct is to compartmentalize the abuse in their thinking, to not let it color their opinion of the otherwise admirable man. It is not easy to think clearly at the time one is being harassed - not even for Yale Law School graduates. There are several reasons for confusion. First, the man's behavior toward us might not jibe with his reputation. Almost all of us watching the hearings had trouble squaring the image of Thomas with the descriptions of what he said to Hill. Why should it have been easier for Hill? Second, harassment is "unwelcome attention." Yes, it is unwelcome, but it is also attention. And in a frequently anonymous workplace, it takes more self-confidence than many of us have to flatly reject attention from a man whom we have respected, or from a man who has power over us. It is more likely that we will try to somehow take the "unwelcome" out of the "attention." That we will try to change our behavior, and that we will hope, unrealistically, that the harassment will go away. I AM not blaming the victim. I blame the abusive man. But I am saying that a lesson of the grinding agony of the hearings is that if we want our accusations to be believed, we must think clearly and consider our options when we are being harassed. We can suffer in silence and do nothing. We can file a complaint. We can tell friends and credible pillars of the community, we can document the abuse, and we can distance ourselves as much as possible from the abuser. Or we can endure the abuse, hoping to bleach the "unwelcome" from it and perhaps eventually turn it to our advantage in a conspiratorial closeness with a powerful man. What we cannot do is all of the above. We cannot act as though nothing had happened, continue to use the relationship with the man and, at the same time, hope ever to make our accusations stick. I placed hopes I never dreamt I had on this stoic and credible professor from Oklahoma. But as the hearings droned inexorably on, I realized that being the victim does not absolve us from other responsibilities. That feels almost too heavy to bear, but it is the truth. Hill was a credible witness but that did not make her story credible to the majority of Americans. For her accusations to have been credible to more Americans, she would have had to have foregone the goodies and the ambivalence. At least then, she might have had a chance. It is a hard lesson, and a useful one.

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