I was 22.
It was my first job out of college, as a journalist and PR person in Washington, DC. I made more money and had more perks in this job than I do now, decades later as a humble social worker and novelist. And this Washington job was elusive; I had to compete to win it. When I did win it, I was triumphant, at least at first.
Then it tortured me in ways I have never written about until today.
My first Big Girl job gave me an expense account, plush office, my own secretary (I had no idea what to ask a secretary to do, since I typed plenty fast on my own), first-class air travel, rides in stretch limousines with darkened windows, and stays in various Park Hyatt hotels, with chocolate on my pillow and cold champagne that I had no capacity to drink.
I was unusually naïve and inexperienced in the world as I wielded my nice Liberal Arts degree (with an internship in journalism). At 22, I had written for the Stony Brook newspaper in college and interned at a newsmagazine in Washington. I’d also shared a cockroach-infested apartment with a woman who hated New Yorkers. I was tough and knew I could wrestle with sharks.
Or so I thought.
Today I tend to avoid trends. I did not write “Me Too” before now because no one but family and close friends has ever heard my story. It is so weirdly dramatic…and so long ago. What happened to me in that job is surreal, as if in a bad fever dream. Like, for example, when I was eight years old the yearly flu was particularly bad, spiking my fever to 106 degrees. “Am I going to die?” I had asked my mother in the midst of the hallucinations. Because my illness was that scary.
Like my job.
I had been a sheltered, much loved child. This is a gift, yes. But then that sheltered, much-loved child wandered into a work situation WAY out of her league. At the time I never thought I should do something about it. At the time I didn’t know what I thought, except that this adult-ing stuff was way, way overrated. I wanted to save a lot of money and quit and travel instead of working. Which I did, but that’s another story.
First I had to go through the competition to get the job.
At my interview with a guy we will call Henry, age 35, I learned that I would “win” the job by competing with about 100 other candidates. He gave me a half day to research a story regarding something on Capitol Hill and then land that story on Henry’s desk. I dove into the challenge and met the deadline. And got the job. “That’s because I am a good writer,” I told myself.
Huh. First silly assumption.
I walked into my thickly carpeted (royal blue) office on that first day and felt thrilled. So what if all of the executives were middle-aged men and all the secretaries were women who pointedly ignored me? I had arrived. I was covering congressional news for a living, putting out three newsletters a month by myself—and I had earned it. Woot!
I stayed at the job for two years. During those two years I spent much of the time sick to my stomach, dry-heaving in the restroom. Sometimes I would lock my office and lie down on the carpet. I fantasized about escape. I lived in a group house in a dinky town without a post office, called Cabin John, which allowed me to save my pennies. And in between all that I schlepped to Congress; learned how to shake hands with politicians; wrote and produced newsletters; and traveled to Miami and Maui and San Francisco.
It still embarrasses me that it took me months to realize I was trapped in my own little Truman Show. The backdrop looked professional and serious enough. My job seemed important and challenging in all the expected ways. The women who ignored me probably did not like New Yorkers, and the guy who hired me (good ‘ol Henry) probably meant well when he said how nice I looked.
Then the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan.
Henry tried to kiss me. He actually did come around the desk as I retreated—just like the cliché!
I told him NO in the impolitic words and dulcet tones of my native Long Island. And he said, “So you think you’re too good for me, huh? Now that I hired you and gave you this great job?”
I thought I could fight off Henry.
When he called me to a meeting in Miami and opened the door while wrapped in a towel, I told him I’d come back later. When he played with my hair, I squirmed away. When he commented on my blouse, I wore higher necklines. There’s an asshole in every crowd, I told myself. Price of the job.
Then it got worse. And worser still.
My boss—a pudgy man in his fifties with a young girlfriend and expensive eating habits—began to corner me in late night meals on business trips. “This is nice spending all this time together, but it can be difficult you know, since I am a man and you are a woman…”
Uh-oh. I clearly remember freezing, the fork halfway to my mouth, as realization sunk in. Oh noooo! Two of them?
And this man was more important than Henry. This man (we’ll call him Larry) was Chief. I traveled with him all the time. I accompanied him in elevators that were so private and swanky they required passports. Larry tried to buy me expensive clothes in Denver. He asked me to go out with the Senator from Texas to expedite the passing of a certain legislative bill. When I said, “No, I’m not a prostitute, you know; it’s not on my job description,” he looked hurt. I remember how he got food stains on his shirt. How he would gaze at my mouth when I talked. How afraid I was of losing my job and going home a failure, or having to search for a new writing job when the last time took months. I didn’t want to return to temp jobs of licking envelopes for political campaigns. I didn’t want to live in a group house in Cabin John forever. Toughen up, I told myself.
The secretaries were immersed in a sexual harassment lawsuit, I discovered after a while. I didn’t dare think of joining them, though I did understand why they didn’t like me. They thought I was playing along with the Bad Boys. Okay, I’d stay away from everybody and just concentrate on my job.
Then I was sent to Hawaii for the second time.
My suite overlooked the ocean. An enormous basket of fruit awaited me on the wicker furniture. So did an adjoining door with a third man from the office—we’ll call this clown Frank.
Frank was married, also in his fifties, and a tad more subtle than the other two. He didn’t say much to me, just avoided eye contact and ignored me when I did not cooperate.
I ended up having no work during those 10 days in Hawaii. I kept the adjoining door locked. And when I returned to my office in Washington, everything had changed. Without explanation, all my job tasks were suddenly whisked away. I had nothing to do. And then I was accused of not working. It was like falling through a rabbit hole, with everything upside down.
Henry said he did not like my attitude. He waved a threatening finger in my face. “You think you’re so tough, don’t you? Well, one of us is going to lose—and it’s not gonna be me!”
“If I don’t come home from work one day, call the police,” I told one of my roommates. “If they can’t find my body, look in the Potomac.”
“Maybe you should quit your job,” she said in return.
I began collecting travel brochures. I also applied to an elite graduate school for journalism, where only 30 applicants would be accepted.
In the office, I accidently discovered something off about the company’s accounting—and believe me, it was accidental. I had barely passed math in high school and knew nothing of accounting. I still did not get the Big Picture (Mafia? Political corruption?), and opened my big mouth to point out the errors to the Powers-That-Be.
On top of that, someone leaked to the press about a few of the financial shenanigans going on in the office. I wasn’t the leaker, since I had never thought of doing that (good idea though, I realized). But oh, boy, that’s when life really became terrifying.
The three Bad Boys called me into one office and yelled at me for sabotaging them and for not doing my job. They yelled, I cried. “You’re a beautiful woman but you have a big mouth,” they added, basically inviting me to quit.
I nodded and scurried out and called in sick as often as I dared.
The elite graduate program accepted me, but I was turned down for a student loan. So I sold my car, counted all my cash and quit my job and moved to the South of France without knowing anyone or speaking a word of French.
Because after what I’d been through, gallivanting around the world seemed as safe as nursery school.
But this job story does not end there. Ten years later I was in California when a lawyer contacted me. He said that Henry had harmed the woman who took my place by hitting her over the head with a telephone. The lawyer asked me for a character reference. A good character reference. Really. You can’t make these things up.
The final surrealistic detail was that this guy Henry was also being indicted for murder, because the woman’s husband had been found dead, asphyxiated in a garage.
Do I need to mention that I did not give Henry a character reference? I did not return to Washington D.C. for any trials, nor did I keep tabs on anyone. Recently I played with Google and learned that Larry had died a mere eight years after harassing me. Probably a heart attack, I thought.
And that’s my story, in brief. More details do come back to me in patches, like an old case of the hives when you least expect it. If I were in that fancy job today, I would join the sexual harassment lawsuit, of course. The secretaries would be my allies. I would quit a hell of a lot faster. I would read the signs on the wall before the problem, perhaps. I hope.
I never fly first class now. I don’t ride in limousines. No one gives me an expense account, and I never ride elevators that require passports. Half of me still does not believe that I lived like that for two years. Half of me doesn’t believe that I let the bastards get away with it.
But I was so young, and so innocent. My first Big Girl job changed me in ways that help me now, as a social worker.
So what I want to say is this: when a person does not admit to harassment until much later, it may have to do with the times she lives in, or the person she hopes to be. The reasons are as varied as the people with the reasons.
However, the experience marks you. It stays there, like an old piece of toast from a fancy first-class restaurant, until it is dislodged.