NAOMI WOLF's small war
The Silent Treatment
She was a Yale senior. He was the superstar professor she’d hoped to impress—until he put his hand on her thigh. Two decades later, she’s speaking out. But her alma mater still isn’t listening. A story of sex, secrets, and Ivy League denial.
By Naomi Wolf
Twenty years on, I am handing over a secret to its rightful owner. I can’t bear to carry it around anymore.
In the late fall of 1983, professor Harold Bloom did something banal, human, and destructive: He put his hand on a student’s inner thigh—a student whom he was tasked with teaching and grading. The student was me, a 20-year-old senior at Yale. Here is why I am telling this story now: I began, nearly a year ago, to try—privately—to start a conversation with my alma mater that would reassure me that steps had been taken in the ensuing years to ensure that unwanted sexual advances of this sort weren’t still occurring. I expected Yale to be responsive. After nine months and many calls and e-mails, I was shocked to conclude that the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intact—as secretive as a Masonic lodge.
How did this all begin? For years now, Yale has been contacting me: Would I come speak at a celebration of women at Yale? Would I be in a film about Jewish graduates? Would I be interviewed for the alumni magazine?
I have usually declined, for a reason that I explain to my (mostly female) college audiences: The institution is not accountable when it comes to the equality of women. I explain that I was the object of an unwanted sexual advance from a professor at Yale—and that his advances seemed to be part of an open secret. I tell them that I had believed that many Yale decision-makers had known about his relations with students, and nothing I was aware of had happened to stop it.
Where is the professor now? they ask. He is still there, I explain: famous, productive, revered. I describe what the transgression did to me—devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men.
Then, heartbreakingly, a young woman will ask: “Did you tell?”
I answer her honestly: “No. I did nothing.”
“Have you never named the guy, all these years on?”
“No,” I answer. “Never.”
“But,” she will ask hesitantly, “don’t you have an obligation to protect other women students who might be targets now?”
“Yes,” I answer. “I do have that obligation. I have not lived up to it. I have not been brave enough.” And then there is always, among those young, hopeful women, a long, sad silence.
After such speeches, a young woman will come up to me—in Texas, in Indiana, in Chicago—in tears: My music professor is harassing me, she’ll say. I tried to tell the grievance board, but they told me it is my word against his, and that there is no point in pursuing it. I know I won’t get a job if I do anything about it. My lit professor made a pass at me; he is grading my senior thesis. My female adviser basically told me to drop it if I want to graduate; to switch classes; to start all over with another subject. My lab instructor keeps putting his hands on my body, and his mentor is on the grievance committee. I can’t sleep. What should I do?
I am ashamed of what I tell them: that they should indeed worry about making an accusation because what they fear is likely to come true. Not one of the women I have heard from had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence. One, I recall, was drummed out of the school by peer pressure. Many faced bureaucratic stonewalling. Some women said they lost their academic status as golden girls overnight; grants dried up, letters of recommendation were no longer forthcoming. No one was met with a coherent process that was not weighted against them. Usually, the key decision-makers in the college or university—especially if it was a private university—joined forces to, in effect, collude with the faculty member accused; to protect not him necessarily but the reputation of the university, and to keep information from surfacing in a way that could protect other women. The goal seemed to be not to provide a balanced forum, but damage control.
Finally, last summer, I could no longer bear my own collusive silence. Yale had reached out to me once again. The Office of Development had assigned an alumna to cultivate me: She sent a flattering letter inviting me to join a group of women to raise money for Yale.
I wrote my own letter back to Charles Pagnam, vice-president of development. I could not join such an effort because I had been sexually encroached upon at Yale twenty years ago, I explained. The professor involved was still a very visible presence on campus. I wrote that I did not know what steps Yale had taken to protect students, and I wanted to know about the effectiveness of the grievance procedures now. I asked for a private meeting. I heard nothing.
Weeks later, I called Pagnam, told my story to his staff, and re-sent the letter. Again, no response. More waiting. I called the dean of Yale College, Richard Brodhead. He took my call right away. I told him I was calling because I was sexually encroached upon twenty years ago by someone on his faculty, and I wanted to set up a confidential meeting to address it. I wanted to be sure, I said, that Yale’s grievance procedures are now strong.
Brodhead seemed to know who I was talking about. He implied the man in question was not well. “I don’t think you understand why I am calling,” I said. “I don’t want to bring a lawsuit against Yale or Harold Bloom. I don’t want the meeting, or this experience, to be public. I simply need to know that the institution is accountable.”
“I’ll get back to you,” he said. He didn’t.
After months of silence, I called Pagnam again, determined to reach him. I was starting to feel like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. One assistant responded brightly: “You should try the Women’s Studies Program!”
It was now about six months since I had first sought a response from Yale. To my amazement, I was facing a blank wall.
I was also in a state of spiritual discomfort. Keeping bad secrets hurts. Is a one-time sexual encroachment by Harold Bloom, two decades ago, a major secret or a minor one? Minor, when it comes to a practical effect on my life; I have obviously survived. This is the argument often made against accusers in sexual-harassment cases: Look, no big deal, you’re fine. My career was fine; my soul was not fine. I had an obligation to protect others from which I had run away.
Every Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition requires a strict spiritual inventory. You aren’t supposed to just sit around feeling guilty, but to take action in the real world to set things right. We pray, “Ashamnu. Bagadnu. We have acted shamefully . . . behaved wickedly.” The sin of omission is as serious as the sin of commission.
Every year, I wonder about the young women who might have suffered because I was too scared to tell the truth to the people whose job it is to make sure the institution is clean. I am not at peace when the sun sets and the Book of Life is sealed: I always see that soft spot of complicity.
My next calls were to President Richard Levin’s office. I left a very long message with details. No answer. Finally I left another message saying I had been trying for months to get an off-the-record meeting on this issue. I was getting no response. And if I kept getting no answer, I would have no compunction about raising this issue in the Yale Daily News.
I was promptly called back, by Nina Glickson, assistant to the president. I explained once again why I was calling. “Unfortunately for you, Naomi, the statute of limitations has passed” was the first thing she said.
“I know that. I don’t want money or a lawsuit or to make this public . . . ” I began again, going through my litany: I wanted to be sure the grievance process was effective. Her empathetic cooing suggested that Yale might have finally sensed something potentially awkward taking shape.
“I’ll get back to you,” she promised. She did not do so. Five months later, having called again and yet again, she informed me that President Levin still hoped to speak to me. In fact, he had referred the matter to Brodhead.
What decade do they think they are living in? I wondered. Surely you did not dismiss angry alumnae, let alone journalists calling to follow up on sexual misconduct, in the post-Clinton, post-Tailhook, post–Air Force Academy world of 2004.
Then, Pagnam called. I explained what had happened to me. I offered to meet, look at the grievance procedures, and, if I felt they were adequate, help, as Yale had requested, with fund-raising. “What outcome do you want?” he asked.
I explained that in a transparent, accountable institution, it is Yale’s job to have crafted a standard response to complaints of this kind, not mine.
“I’ll get back to you,” said Pagnam. It was the last I heard from him.
What actually happened in late fall, 1983? I was a senior, majoring in English. Harold Bloom was one of Yale’s most illustrious professors. Most of my friends in the Literature department were his acolytes, clustering around him at office hours for his bon mots about Pater and Wilde. He called students, male and female both, “my dear” and “my child.” Beautiful, brilliant students surrounded him. He was a vortex of power and intellectual charisma.
I, personally, was at once drawn to him intellectually and slightly scared of him. I had audited a famous course he taught, and he had reached out to me then and invited me to talk with him. Since he was so intellectually selective, I was “sick with excitement” at the prospect, as I wrote in an account—details changed to disguise his identity—in one of my books, Promiscuities.
His aura was compelling—and intimidating. Lit majors who surrounded him were also chatting with Jacques Derrida and throwing around words like jouissance; English majors like me were poring over Beowulf and using words like index. But my trusted senior adviser, the poet John Hollander, liked my poetry; and based on that work, he urged me to take an independent study in the fall with professor Bloom, who was a friend.
Bloom agreed to meet with me weekly. At my adviser’s suggestion, he wrote me a letter of reference for my Rhodes Scholarship application. Then I could not get a meeting with him. The semester was slipping away. When I saw him on campus, he would promise to go over my poetry manuscript “over a glass of Amontillado.” I’d heard that some faculty met with students at Mory’s, and that Bloom drank often with his male students there. I also knew that there was an atmosphere at Yale in which female students were expected to be sociable with male professors. I had discussed with my friends the pressure to be charming but still seen as serious.
Finally, Bloom suggested that he come to the house I shared with one of his editorial assistants and her boyfriend. At dinnertime. I agreed.
The four of us ate a meal. He had, as promised, brought a bottle of Amontillado, which he drank continually. I also drank. We had set out candles—a grown-up occasion. The others eventually left and—finally!—I thought we could discuss my poetry manuscript. I set it between us. He did not open it. He did not look at it. He leaned toward me and put his face inches from mine. “You have the aura of election upon you,” he breathed.
I hoped he was talking about my poetry. I moved back and took the manuscript and turned it around so he could read.
The next thing I knew, his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh.
I lurched away. “This is not what I meant,” I stammered. The whole thing had suddenly taken on the quality of a bad horror film. The floor spun. By now my back was against the sink, which was as far away as I could get. He moved toward me. I turned away from him toward the sink and found myself vomiting. Bloom disappeared.
When he reemerged—from the bedroom with his coat—a moment later, I was still frozen, my back against the sink. He said: “You are a deeply troubled girl.” Then he went to the table, took the rest of his sherry, corked the bottle, and left.
Is that all? yes—that’s all. But the encroachment, the transgression—those words are so much more accurate, emotionally as well as legally, than “harassment”—had effects that went deep. What Harold Bloom’s hand on his student’s thigh set off was not a sexual crisis. I was sexually active—and not even especially modest. An unwanted hand on a thigh from a date was nothing. Nor was it an emotional crisis. I wasn’t that vulnerable. What it set off was a moral crisis, shaking my confidence in the institution I was in.
I wanted to go to the Grievance Board. The semester was passing, but I was terrified of being in a room alone again with Bloom. Still, I needed to know what to do about the rest of the term. Some women friends, however, persuaded me not to speak to anyone official about what had happened. It was one of those perfect blue days in autumn; the sun was still strong; we were with our books on the Cross Campus grass. I told my story. Someone said she had heard things about Bloom and other students, and that administrators had heard about it as well. But the university saw him as untouchable, my friends warned. Don’t do it.
Were these rumors accurate? It matters. A professor of mine at the time told me last month that “professors and graduate students within the department gossiped that Bloom was romantically and sexually involved with one or more of his graduate students. The irony is that whether or not that was true, in a specific case, it affected how professors viewed female graduate students’ work.” Another woman, who was then a graduate student and is now a tenured professor of literature, confirmed, “It was known; it was in the air.”
What did we have to go on in 1983 but rumor? In the absence of transparent procedures, decoding the right rumors was how you survived. One friend reminded me of a young woman who had been assaulted by a graduate student and, she said, had gone to the grievance committee. The grad student’s male mentors, my friend said, defended the man, explaining that he was under pressure and just stealing a kiss. The woman’s complaint would jeopardize a young man’s entire future career, they had protested. The woman had had a breakdown and left campus, we’d heard.
If I had come from wealth, perhaps I would have had the confidence to speak out. But my father at that time made $35,000 a year; Yale cost $13,000. My mother had lost her job. My parents were going deeply into debt. If I was going to grad school, it would have to be on a scholarship; even to finish college, I needed to be in the good graces of the faculty and the financial-aid office.
I wanted to tell Patricia Pierce, my residential college dean. She had called me in because I was spiraling downward; I had gotten a C-, a D, and an F, and was put on academic probation. My confidence shaken, I failed in my effort to win the Rhodes Scholarship at the end of the term. When Pierce asked me what was wrong, I felt it was not safe to tell. I had also heard that a secretary in the Women’s & Gender Studies Program, worried about the safety of female students, had posted on her door a handmade sign about a “guilty” ruling from the Grievance Board in a case of a professor harassing a student. Pierce, I’d heard, had run down the hall and torn it off, saying “You can’t do that!” Pierce, now dean of the School of Management, e-mailed me to say, “I have no recollection of the incident.”
When I described to my parents what had happened, they had gone to a friend of theirs, a scholar of Middle Eastern literature, who was close to Bloom. “You were outraged; you felt violated,” my mother, Deborah Wolf, recalled recently. They begged him to speak with Bloom and ask him to leave me alone. “He refused,” my mother said. “He said it would be awkward. We felt so helpless. We had no power to protect you.” (My roommate, now an editor, who asked not to be named—“I’m still terrified,” she confessed—said: "We knew something had happened that night. You were really nervous; you were anxious for the rest of the semester.”) I longed to go to my thesis adviser. But John Hollander was Bloom’s close friend.
Harold Bloom never met with me again that semester. Not knowing what to do about my grade, I went to his department mailbox and dropped off the collection of poems I had tried to show him at our dinner. I never heard back from him. When I got my grades for a class he had never taught me, he had given me a B.
Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes. If the administration knew and did nothing—because the teacher was valuable to them—they had made a conscious calculation about his and our respective futures: It was okay to do nothing because I—and other young women who could be expected to remain silent—would never be worth what someone like Bloom was worth.
After months of futile calls to Yale, I began to understand why there had been so much silence on their end of the phone: Even though I wasn’t asking for legal redress, what I was reporting to Yale raised major legal issues. According to equal-opportunity law, if administrators know of a faculty member’s tendency to approach students sexually, and do not take sufficient action, the university may then be responsible for condoning a hostile environment. If a member of faculty does reward a student who agreed to sleep with him or her with a plum job, or downgrade students who reject advances, that can be considered “quid pro quo,” one of the definitions of actionable sexual harassment. If there is a pattern of concealing and covering up instances of sexual harassment and even sexual assault, or acts of retaliation against students who complain, then a university can be charged with having failed to take corrective action.
Still getting nowhere with Yale authorities, I called around to see if someone else could reassure me so I could drop the matter. Linda Anderson, a brave senior administrative assistant in the Women’s & Gender Studies Program (the one who had posted the sign two decades ago), told me that the issue was far from settled. As I started to investigate further, several women willing to tell me their stories came forward.
They were a distinguished group, including a lawyer, a college dean, and a chaplain. What made their stories even more disturbing was that as early as 1980 Yale had already assured a court in Alexander v. Yale that it had adopted effective procedures for managing harassment complaints. The case had been brought by five Yale women, alleging sexual harassment. All their claims were dismissed. But the court took “important . . . note” of these measures.
Then, more women began to call me, several of whom had followed the university’s grievance procedures and were dismayed with what they felt to be bureaucratic stonewalling, and even the use of the procedures to protect faculty and the university at the student’s expense.
Deborah Amory was the first to talk. In 1985, when she was 23, Amory, now a dean at a suny campus, was a senior in the Scholar of the House Program. She was at a program dinner at Mory’s, seated next to a faculty member. He got drunk and put his hand on her leg. She was startled—another student asked her later if she was okay. She excused herself to get away from him. When she returned, he leered at her and said, “It’s okay. I talked to your family, and they say it’s fine.”
Amory immediately told the head of the program what had happened; he said he was shocked, but did nothing further. Amory filed a grievance. She, too, like me, went into an academic tailspin. “It is a miracle that I finished my thesis,” she said. When the grievance committee made its judgment, she was told that “I had been right in considering his behavior inappropriate.”
When she asked what the sanctions were, she was told no one would tell her. She was also forbidden to see a copy of the report. “The secrecy around the sanctions was more traumatic than the original event,” she told me. “I just understood that students were not safe and the university was not accountable.”
Another gutsy secretary mailed Amory a copy of the committee’s findings; Amory recalls that the document suggested the faculty member get alcohol counseling, and to stay away from students when he was drinking. There was no mention of professional consequences.
I had assumed that such cases were all in the distant past, but then I received a call from a lawyer called Cynthia Powell. In 1992, she was an American Studies graduate student and a law student. Powell says that one of her tenured professors assaulted her sexually. The professor asked her to dinner, she said, with himself and a dean. At the last minute, she was told the dean could not come. After dinner, he insisted they have a drink at his pied-à-terre nearby, and she had one glass of wine. He started making advances; she resisted, saying “No, no” several times, but then started experiencing blackouts. When she regained intermittent consciousness, she says, he had removed her clothes and penetrated her.
Deeply traumatized, Powell had her bruises documented at the hospital. She also called the police, but was made to feel there would be no point in bringing a criminal charge against someone she knew. “But I filed a grievance at Yale. Immediately, they brought in the university’s counsel. I was not allowed to have a lawyer there. Because I am an attorney, I understand that their principal concern was litigation. Their attorney said to me several times: ‘We are really glad you are not going to make a crusade about this.’
“The committee said he was tenured, so they couldn’t just terminate him. Off the record, the university’s attorney told me they wanted quietly to push him out. I didn’t know why it had to be ‘quietly.’
“They said he’d been ‘careless,’ ‘reckless.’ They didn’t want to use the word rape.”
Powell says she was never given a copy of the report and was able to read it only by going to a specified room where it was kept in a drawer. A few months later, the professor resigned and was promptly hired by another university. According to Powell, Yale offered her $30,000, which she rejected.
In 1996, the Yale Daily News reported that the Grievance Board had found that assistant math professor Jay Jorgenson had consensual sex with a freshman whom he was grading. The board recommended that Jorgenson not teach undergraduates that term. But Dean Brodhead allowed him to continue teaching because, as he told the Yale Daily News, he “didn’t think it would be possible to find a replacement that quickly.” (The paper also reported that the head of the math department said no one had ever called to ask if there was someone else to teach the course.)
Until this point, Yale had informally discouraged sexual relationships between faculty and students, but after the Jorgenson case, which generated a lot of publicity, the university deemed such relationships a conflict of interest and decided to take a firmer stand: The Guide for Faculty, Students and Staff states clearly: “No teacher shall have a sexual relationship with a student over whom he or she has direct supervisory responsibilities.”
Another Yale alumna alerted me to the Kelly case, which was more serious. In 1999, Kathryn Kelly brought a civil action under Title IX against Yale, accusing it of “inadequately responding to her complaints regarding an incident of alleged sexual assault” by another student, Robert Nolan, who lived in the same dormitory.
After the assault, Kelly immediately filed a grievance, which eventually resulted in Nolan’s being required to take a leave of absence until Kelly’s expected graduation. But Kelly claimed that in the aftermath of the assault, the college was too slow to respond to her concerns—not least that she was living in the same place as, and attending a class with, her attacker. She also alleged that, in an open forum to discuss the attack with students, Dean Richard Wood defamed her by telling those gathered that what Nolan had done was “not legal rape.” Kelly was so distraught that she dropped out of her courses and eventually finished her studies late.
In March 2003, Judge Janet Hall permitted the matter to proceed to a trial, stating that a jury could find that “Yale’s failure to provide Kelly with accommodations, either academic, or residential, immediately following Nolan’s assault of her, was clearly unreasonable given all the circumstances of which it was aware.” Six months later, Yale settled for an undisclosed sum.
Stephanie Urie, a former graduate student at the Divinity School and now a hospice chaplain, filed her lawsuit against Yale just last month. Her most alarming allegation was that from 1997 onward, the Divinity School faculty had knowledge that the Reverend Gilbert Bond, an associate professor at the Divinity School and Urie’s mentor, “had engaged in gender discrimination and sexual harassment towards female students” but that they had failed to take “reasonable action to prevent the recurrence of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.” She also claimed Yale failed to protect her from Bond after she filed a grievance.
Bond denied the allegations to the Yale Daily News and also stated he was not her mentor, and a spokesman for Yale, Tom Conroy, said: “We don’t believe the allegations against Yale are supported by the facts and we trust that will be the judgment.”
According to Urie’s complaint, Bond took “advantage of the trust he had gained from her as her YDS mentor . . . and engaged in coercive sexual relations” with her and then “repeatedly engaged in intimidating behavior.”
When Urie filed her grievance, she claims, the academic dean of the Divinity School, David Bartlett, requested she write a statement that she learned was later shown to Bond. But Bond’s own statement, in contrast, was never disclosed to Urie.
She explained to Bartlett that, as cited in the complaint, she had a “justifiable fear” of Bond when she used the library or went to Divinity School events. The dean recommended she get police protection. The Yale police did offer to escort her to one destination, but suggested she stay off campus at night and, if she was still frightened, that she “run between buildings.”
Bond, when I called asking him earlier this month for his response to Urie’s story, said that he was still an associate professor at Yale. Not named as a defendant in Urie’s case, he denied her claims, saying, “we shared consensual, physical intimacies.”
“I exhausted every internal means for resolution,” says Urie, who is now also an affiliate of one of Yale’s residential colleges. “But not achieving that, I am taking this step in the hope that no one else will have the same array of problems and vulnerabilities. In spite of many people’s support, as it stands, the process adds insult to injury.” The case is pending; Yale’s response has not yet been filed.
Yale’s public face is not what it seems. Though the college Website now has a seemingly exemplary description of its grievance procedures, students reading the fine print will discover that a “full description of the way in which a specific complaint would be treated by the Board” is only “obtained from the Yale College Dean’s Office.” A trip that, for many, could be intimidating. A member of the grievance committee claims that information about the procedures is placed on dining tables annually. More than a month ago, I asked Brodhead to send me a copy, and he agreed. I have never received it.
I called the Yale Office of Public Affairs: I was writing a story about this issue, I said. “Harold Bloom?” asked press officer Gila Reinstein. “He hits on everybody!” She backpedaled: “ . . . in a bizarre way, I mean: ‘My child,’ ‘my dear’ . . . ” “This wasn’t that,” I said. “This was a hand on my thigh.” “I am sorry,” she said.
I called the Yale English Department to get Harold Bloom’s response. A tense secretary said she could not take my message. She claimed that he had changed his number and that even they did not have his number. “He is barely a member of the English faculty,” she said. I explained why I was calling—surely she would want to pass on my request to the department head. “She won’t care,” she said, repeating that he was barely on faculty. Then she hung up on me.
I called back to get Bloom’s fax number. Someone who sounded like a student answered. Was Bloom a member of the faculty. “Yes,” she said. Teaching? “Yes.” She read me his course number. She gave me his phone number. I called the number repeatedly; no answer, no machine.
I called Dean Brodhead again and asked him if anyone had known about Bloom’s approaches to students. He said that in his tenure as dean, “no one came to me” with a formal complaint. I said that was not what I was asking. We went back and forth. Finally, he said in exasperation: “Am I saying that no one ever went to anyone in the whole of history? I am not in a position to answer it.” I asked again. Eventually he exclaimed, “Naomi, please understand I am not in a position to say. I am not telling you there might not be students who share your thoughts or even your experience about this. I am saying they did not come to me.”
I asked Dean Brodhead how often the committee met last year. “It met more than no times and not many times.”
“What’s ‘not many’?”
“This isn’t a court.”
“Are these matters of public record?”
“No, they are not. To open the matter to public record is to expose the person who made the charge.” Not true; many universities make statistics about sexual-misconduct complaints available without naming people. “How do I know as a concerned alum, since these proceedings are confidential, that there are actual penalties?”
“I am an honorable and truthful person. These things are dealt with.”
“But how many complaints are brought?”
“I can’t answer that . . . I’m not in a position to give you the statistical information. I have no . . . the number of cases . . . I have not gathered a statistical abstract.”
“Can the student’s attorney be present?”
“The process is not designed as a judicial one . . . We do not have attorneys present.” I told him my story—again—and asked what he would do.
“Harold Bloom is someone I almost never see,” he said.
“Are you not concerned about other young women?” I asked.
“Do you want me to call him?”
“I am asking what you think is appropriate,” I said.
Because of the time lapse, he said, he would not have even an informal conversation with Bloom on behalf of students today. Then, as if he had never heard of the letter that had begun my first conversation with him months before, Brodhead noted that I could send him a letter.
“I’m going to have a successor,” he said with relief. “You can send a letter to my successor.”
Is Harold Bloom a bad man? No. Harold Bloom’s demons are no more demonic than those of any other complex human being’s. Does this complex, brilliant man’s one bad choice make him a monster? No, of course not; nor does this one experience make me a “victim.” But the current discourse of accused and accuser, aggressor and victim is more damaging than constructive.
Here is a more helpful reading: This man did something, at least once, that was self-centered and harmful. But his harmful impulse would not have entered his or my real life—then or now—if Yale made the consequences of such behavior both clear and real.
All the women who have come forward want only to fix what is broken. Critics of sexual-harassment standards argue that you can’t legislate passions; true enough. But you can legislate what to do about people who act on them improperly. Powerful men and woman who belittle and humiliate their subordinates manage not to belittle or humiliate their supervisors. Neither men nor women tend to harass upward in a hierarchy.
There is something terribly wrong with the way the current sexual-harassment discussion is framed. Since damages for sexual misconduct are decided under tort law—tort means harm or wrong—those bringing complaints have had to prove that they have been harmed emotionally. Their lawyers must bring out any distress they may have suffered, such as nightmares, sexual dysfunction, trauma, and so on. Thus, it is the woman and her “frailties” under scrutiny, instead of the institution and its frailties. This victim construct in the law is one reason that women are often reluctant to go public.
But sexual encroachment in an educational context or a workplace is, most seriously, a corruption of meritocracy; it is in this sense parallel to bribery. I was not traumatized personally, but my educational experience was corrupted. If we rephrase sexual transgression in school and work as a civil-rights and civil-society issue, everything becomes less emotional, less personal. If we see this as a systemic-corruption issue, then when people bring allegations, the focus will be on whether the institution has been damaged in its larger mission. The Catholic Church is a good example: The public understood that church leaders’ maintaining silence about systemic sexual transgressions corrupted the mission of an organization that had a great responsibility to society as a whole. Even the military is starting to understand that systemic sexual harassment of cadets corrupts its social mission.
If we change the framework to this kind of transparency and accountability question, then instead of asking, “What were you wearing?” or “Why disrupt this man’s life?” we would ask: “What are we—together—going to do about it?”
The saddest part? If a Yale undergraduate came to me today with a bad secret to tell, I still could not urge her to speak up confidently to those tasked with educating, supporting, and mentoring her. I would not direct her to her faculty adviser, the grievance committee, or her dean. Wishing that Bart Giamatti’s beautiful welcoming speech to my class about Yale’s meritocracy were really true, I would, with a heavy heart, advise that young woman, for her own protection, to get a good lawyer.
20/02/04 - News and city section
Yale of sexism
By Chris Millar, Evening Standard
A furious row has erupted among some of America's most eminent academics after a feminist writer claimed she was one of many women sexually abused at Yale University.
Naomi Wolf, 42, high-profile author of The Beauty Myth, has named her former professor Harold Bloom as the man who harassed her when she was a student there.
The claims, which it is said will be published in next week's New York magazine, have sparked controversy among the country's academic elite.
Bloom, one of the world's leading Shakespearean scholars has found an unlikely ally in feminist philosopher and writer Camille Paglia.
Paglia, 56, also one of Bloom's former students, said: "It really smacks of the Salem witch-hunt and all the accompanying hysteria. It really grates on me that Naomi Wolf for her entire life has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men and made a profession out of courting male attention by flirting and offering her sexual allure."
She said it was "indecent" of Wolf to wait for 20 years to "bring all of this down on an elderly man who has health problems, to drag him into a 'he said/she said' scenario so late in the game". Bloom, now 73, has remained silent on the matter.
Wolf first claimed she had been abused in a passage in her book Promiscuities, in which a professor visits her at home allegedly to discuss her poetry, but then gropes her between the legs.
Naomi Wolf sets back the fight against sexual harassment.
Posted Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004, at 5:07 PM PT
In the cover story in New York this week, Naomi Wolf reveals that Harold Bloom, a famous humanities professor at Yale, "sexually encroached" upon her when she was a student. The transgression, she tells us, "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student." Wolf insists that her true target isn't Bloom, whose behavior she calls all too "human." Rather, it's Yale, she claims, that continues to have a systemic problem with preventing and prosecuting harassment.
The piece makes a serious charge about the failure of higher education anti-harassment measures: Wolf claims that Yale—like other institutions she breezily alludes to without naming—still has no truly "transparent" procedure for students to lodge grievances against professors. She concludes this based on her own experience with Yale following her recent disclosure of her two-decade-old encounter with Bloom.
Both her evidence and her reasoning are deeply flawed. Yale's Grievance Board statement is posted here—and is easily available as the kind of standard response she allows us to believe, for much of the piece, that the college doesn't have. What it seems she really wants from Yale is for its administration to bend over backward for her now that she's come forward, and thus prove that it really, really cares about its students. When it doesn't, she says that Yale must not be truly "accountable to the equality of women." This is a kind of bait and switch. Yale's response to her disclosure of a 1983 offense is not necessarily predictive of its response to a present-day offense—not just because the statute of limitations for what Bloom did to Wolf expired 18 years ago, but also because what Bloom did may not have been explicitly wrong by Yale's standards at the time and by law (though from our vantage point it looks sleazy). We don't know, since Wolf never tried to find out how Yale would have handled the charge. This is typical of the way in which Wolf's article is disingenuous. She makes a dangerous extrapolation from the personal to the political—but the personal undermines the cause that is the pretext for writing the piece in the first place.
Wolf's allegation against Bloom
is this: During her senior year, in 1983, she took an independent study with
him. Somehow much of the semester "slipped away" without a meeting. Finally
Bloom invited himself over for dinner at her house—Wolf lived with one of his
graduate editorial assistants and her boyfriend—during which he drank several
Amontillado. Afterward, he
cornered her and breathed, "You have the aura of election upon you." "The next
thing I knew his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh," she tells us. Wolf
says she fended him off and vomited in the sink and that Bloom packed up the
sherry and snapped, "You are a deeply troubled girl."
Bloom's neglect of his academic duties (he failed to meet with her for the rest of the semester and then gave her a B) is itself troubling, and his come-on isn't pretty. But Wolf acknowledges that what transpired was not, strictly speaking, sexual harassment. Meanwhile, we still don't know whether, according to Yale's policy at the time—a "discouragement policy"—Bloom could have been fired or censured for his action had she brought a grievance.
This may sound like splitting hairs, but it's not. Naomi Wolf extrapolates broadly from her experience with Yale today to suggest that "the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intact—as secretive as a Masonic lodge." Let's stipulate for the sake of argument that Yale has not dealt well with Naomi Wolf in the months since she excavated the Bloom incident. This doesn't mean that Yale's current policies aren't sound. Today, according to its rules Yale would unequivocally say that Bloom's behavior was wrong and that he would be subject to discipline.
Most of Wolf's broader case against Bloom—and the oppressive atmosphere at Yale in 1983—rests on hearsay: "Some women friends, however, persuaded me not to speak to anyone official … the university saw him [Bloom] as untouchable, my friends warned." An old professor of hers recently told her that professors and students "gossiped" about Bloom's affairs, and a woman who had been a graduate student at the time (and is now a tenured professor) recently "confirmed" to Wolf that "it was known; it was in the air." Was it known, or was it in the air? In an American court of law, a man is innocent until proven guilty. Here, Wolf invites us to be scandalized by an accretion of rumor and personal recollection. Think about what happens when a man makes damning public charges about a woman's sexuality based on "gossip" and things that were "in the air." (Full disclosure: I was a student at Yale in the 1990s and studied with Bloom. He never hit on me, or anyone who told me about an incident directly, though I did hear the kind of vague rumors that Wolf cites as evidence.)
Then there's Wolf's hyperbolic rhetoric. She calls Bloom's hand "boneless" (meant to conjure another appendage, perhaps). She casually describes "an atmosphere at Yale in which female students were expected to be sociable with male professors." The passive construction makes it sound as though Yale's co-eds were little more than privileged New England geishas—as though Wolf had to play along with Bloom's flirtatious games to have a shot at being a Rhodes scholar. What Wolf leaves out is that she chose to buy into these outdated expectations. In Promiscuities, her memoir of teenage sexuality, she writes about the calculations women make about their (admittedly limited) erotic power over professors on the same page that she discusses, with pseudonyms, inviting Bloom over to dinner. (It's worth noting that Promiscuities has a different account of the details leading up to the Bloom incident. See this New York Observer article, which explains the differences. When I asked Wolf about this by phone, she contended that these weren't inconsistencies in her story, but changes made by legal necessity.)
In marshalling evidence that Yale handles sexual harassment badly, Wolf recounts four stories of sexual harassment at Yale, taking place between 1985 and 1999. The incidents are troubling but too muddy to evaluate for several reasons. She makes no distinctions between events that happened in the 1980s and those that took place just five years ago. This lapse is crucial; it's not news that schools handled harassment badly in '80s, and the thrust of her piece purports to concern universities today. Moreover, she makes no distinctions among the gravity of the charges, which range from rape to a professor putting his hand on the knee of a student not enrolled in any of his courses—the kind of thing Jeffrey Rosen argues might better be called "privacy invasion."
Wolf argues, convincingly, that we need to move away from the discourse of victim/victimizer. But she undermines this move within her own piece. She jumps through verbal hoops to make it clear she was not "personally traumatized," yet she spends paragraphs describing the incident in precisely those terms, telling us that she spiraled into a "moral" crisis after Bloom's come-on—that her grades slipped; that she didn't get her coveted Rhodes Scholarship because her "confidence" was "shaken." She neglects to mention that she later was awarded a Rhodes; that might dam our sympathy.
Is there a problem with sexual harassment at Yale? It's entirely possible, but the piece isn't persuasive on this front. The strangest thing about it may be that Wolf failed to talk to any contemporary Yale undergraduates, so there's no sense what any of them think. Wolf says that Dean Brodhead told her that the number of meetings held by Yale's Grievance Board's weren't for public release. (Wolf says "committee," but I think she means "Grievance Board.") Helaine Klasky, a spokeswoman for Yale, told me when I asked that the Grievance Board had brought four formal complaints of sexual harassment against faculty over the course of the last decade. Of course, those numbers could mean anything—that women at Yale are relatively safe and well-off, or that they're afraid to come forward. (This piece from the Yale Herald in 1996—when I was at the university—says that an ACLU study of sexual harassment there found that 17 students felt that they had been "made to feel uncomfortable" by professors and teaching assistants at some point, and that 70 percent of students would have gone to a Grievance Board had they been harassed; only 8 percent knew exactly how to proceed.)
What's particularly frustrating about Wolf's piece is that it is raising an important question irresponsibly. Sexual harassment continues to occur on campuses. On the day her article came out, Slate had an editorial meeting, over the course of which it became apparent that the female editors took it for granted—in some cases because of personal experience—that campus sexual harassment was a live issue. The male editors, on the other hand, were shocked to hear that harassment continued to take place and go unreported. Is it possible that, unreported in a post-Clarence Thomas, post-Clinton, post-Tailhook era, universities are still not behaving responsibly toward women? Wolf's article confuses the issue rather than clarifies it. Her gaps and imprecision give fodder to skeptics who think sexual harassment charges are often just a form of hysteria.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's
Naomi Wolf's belated charges about being sexually harassed as a student don't do feminism any favours
Tuesday February 24, 2004
Whatever the truth of Naomi Wolf's sex-pest accusations against Harold Bloom, nobody, so far, is coming out of the business very well. Wolf picked a funny old time to come out with this charge - not within the two years that charges can be investigated by the authorities; some considerable time after she had made suggestions of harassment on a public forum, though refused to name names (owing to the "soft spot of complicity" in her soul); two full decades after the event itself.
Bloom has declined to comment, using instead the "a friend says..." avenue (the friend, incidentally, has denounced this as a vicious lie), which I always find a bit lame. Sundry other commentators have unleashed a weird level of spite, specifi cally Camille Paglia, who raged: "It really grates on me that Naomi Wolf for her entire life has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men and made a profession out of courting male attention."
An assessment of that kind has to be based upon pretty close personal intimacy - in other words, Paglia needs to have observed Wolf exhibiting that behaviour, at close range and over a period of years. Otherwise, all she's saying is: "This woman is pretty, and that disqualifies her from reasoned thought."
I'd also, in the interests of perfect clarity, conduct some research into how transfixed men really are by boobs that bob, but never mind that for the time being. This vitriol is, without question, disproportionate. Had Wolf written an essay claiming that, while at Yale, a professor or student stole from her, hit her over the head with a chair, involved her in a pyramid scheme that was really a scam, or perpetrated any crime at all against her that didn't involve sex, the response would have been different. There might have been some puzzlement that she'd left it so long. There would have been people who questioned her veracity or, at the very least, were prepared to withhold judgment until greater evidence could be provided than the word of the accuser. But there wouldn't be anything like this fury that gushes out like a geyser whenever a woman, especially so tardily, makes a charge of sexual assault, be she an academic or 'er off Shooting Stars (Ulrika Jonsson, I mean). And it almost always comes from other women, handily, if bizarrely uniting feminists, post-feminists, non-feminists and the undecided, in a single voice of unsisterly incandescence. Why should the response be so vehement? What is it about sex crimes, or charges thereof, which riles not men, defending each other in an old-boy stylie, but other women?
It's partly that the dangerous predator in question is often characterised not as an individual who behaved badly, but as a symptom of the rottenness at the core of all of society. For instance, Bloom's behaviour "devastated" Wolf's sense of "being valuable to Yale as a student rather than as a pawn of powerful men". Wolf depicts Bloom as the personification not just of an intellectual landscape (Yale), but of an entire gender ("powerful men"). In so doing, she styles herself as the binary opposite, the personification of her own gender, the eternal pawn or victim. And this is where, as someone who shares that gender, something rises in my throat (and no doubt in Paglia's) - it really is debateable whether or not some drunk bloke putting his face quite near yours and his hand on your thigh, when you thought he'd come round to read poetry, undermines your value to an entire institution. In the barometer that runs from "misunderstanding" to "act of violence", it leans irrefutably towards the former. So, sure, object to it, at the time or many years afterwards, but not in the name of your gender. Not in the name of people who see no possibility of gender-parity in a world where women achieve victim status simply by being women. Not in my name - object to it in your own name.
Moreover, women making claims of sexual harassment or violation many years after the event often bat off "why now?" critics by saying they're doing it for other women; that, at the time, they were too afraid/ young/ powerless to object. Again, this is a flawed position - as an individual, it's up to you when you make an allegation. But if you're doing it under the guise of being a role model, then frankly, you're making a terrible fist of it. You're basically saying, as much confidence and rage and mettle and verbal aplomb as I had 20 years ago, it was still too daunting and too humiliating to report this crime. It's better to wait till you're famous, which in all probability you won't be, before you let this kind of thing out of the bag.
Ultimately, sexual politics is the one thing that really dates feminism, that makes it "old school" and lets it down. Equal pay for equal work will never go out of fashion. But blanket assumptions of female victimhood and weakness, the inevitability of male exploitation, the drive to politicise every ambiguous physical gesture as if we're all working shoulder to shoulder against malevolent men - this is not feminism. To bundle it all together as such catches a lot of us who cannot agree, like dolphins in a tuna net. No wonder we thrash about so much.
Things have come to a pretty pass when a woman takes a clumsy advance too seriously
Sunday February 29, 2004
The climate seems right for me to make a serious complaint against a man who failed to make a pass at me some years ago. There I was, raving drunk, slopping wine down my dress, giving it my best shot, and all he did was tell me to calm down and offer to buy me a glass of water. The pain was so great, so all encompassing, that I was plunged into an emotional abyss the like of which I had never known before, my entire psychosexual being dismantled by his cruel and arrogant rejection of my chardonnay-fuelled charms. I considered lodging a formal complaint with the wine bar we were in, but I knew that the deep-rooted misogyny of the institution would lead to a cover-up and my own reputation in tatters. The only option open to me was to sublimate my pain and write a book naming and shaming him 20 years later.
Which I intend to do in due course once I've remembered his name or indeed anything else about him other than the fact that there seemed to be about five of him at the time the incident took place.
As you might have gathered, the above is only partly true (it actually happened at a party), but hopefully it will go some way to illustrating how ludicrous it is for anybody, but women in particular, to run around shrieking with their handbags up to their chests should anybody dare to act on the fact that they find them attractive.
Obviously genuine sexual harassment remains a problem, but to my mind a pass, however unwanted, is at worst social harassment. Suddenly, you have to deal with a potentially tricky situation without hurting anyone's feelings and that goes for both sexes. Most women will have had their moments pressed against walls, wondering how to say 'Thanks, but no thanks' to men whose hands suddenly only speak octopus. One friend tried to stop a man leaving a nightclub by clinging on to his calf and refusing to let go. Now that's what I call serious flirting. However, real trauma seems an entire solar system away from these delicate awkward dances of chutzpah and despair.
Tell that to feminist writer Naomi Wolf, who has just named and shamed the now-infirm and elderly Yale professor Harold Bloom who thought it might be fun to put his hand on her leg for 10 seconds 20 years ago. It certainly wasn't fun for poor Naomi. 'I lurched away. The floor spun. I vomited in shock. Bloom disappeared.'
I bet he did. Witnessing such an overreaction, he probably thought she was about to turn into a werewolf. Of course, any normal young woman would have simply slapped his face, run off, hysterical with laughter, phoned all her friends, dined out on it for a couple of weeks and promptly forgotten about it. But this isn't Wolf's style. Her trauma must be recognised; her pain acknowledged; other girls 'saved' from having their knees given a speculative squeeze by randy professors living out their private History Man fantasies. Since Wolf's revelation, Camille Paglia has accused her of 'hysteria' but 'dreariness' seems nearer the mark, for can there be anything more boring than women who see sexual threats everywhere and cannot let any little foible or fumble go? After all these years of sexual enlightenment, could it actually be time for us to lighten up just a little?
This goes across the board. If you ask any man to honestly state what he finds most difficult about relationships most of the time, the answer would not be the acknowledged 'biggies', such as fidelity or commitment, but women's astonishing capacity for documenting inter-relationship grievances with a chilling attention to detail that makes men's habit of alphabeticising their record collections look positively cute. I do it (I call them my 'little chats') and one day women will be doing it to each other because men will simply stop bothering with us altogether. What I would like to know is, when did we all get so droney and boring? When did we stop laughing life off? Why indeed is Wolf furiously polishing a grudge she should have buried without undue fanfare 20 years ago? Just as her breathless relation of a non-event undermines 'date rape', her dreary reluctance to cope with even the most minor of infractions against her youthful person makes a mockery of feminism itself. And the same must go for all right-thinking women everywhere.
A pass is just
a pass after all, to be accepted or rejected as one sees fit, with no great
shame attached to either party. In the great lottery of life and love, you've
got to be in it to win it.
Tuesday, Feb 14, 2003
A prof, a pass and a co-ed
I majored in English during the early dawn of feminism. It was a glorious time on campus. The professors had traded in their ties for love beads. The most popular ones offered courses where you could grade yourself, and fraternized shamelessly with their students. We smoked dope with them. Sometimes we slept with them, or hoped to. Two of my best friends wound up marrying their professors. I spent my last semester futilely trying to seduce my thesis supervisor. In fact, my failure to have a single erotic encounter with a faculty member was a source of great disappointment to me.
By 1983, times had changed. Talk of gender inequity, sexual harassment, and power imbalances filled the air on campus, and sexual relations had become distinctly problematic. That's when Harold Bloom made the mistake of putting his hand on Naomi Wolf's 20-year-old thigh at Yale.
Ms. Wolf, now 41, is a celebrity feminist, best known for a book called The Beauty Myth, and also for telling Al Gore how to dress like an alpha male. Harold Bloom, now 73, is among the most renowned academics in the world, a revered interpreter of Shakespeare, and a man of dazzling intellect. According to Ms. Wolf, he's also a dirty old man, whose habit of hitting on attractive female students has been an open secret at Yale. And now she's getting her revenge.
In a long article this week in New York magazine, she recounts her trauma and accuses Yale of letting sexual harassment run unchecked. At the time, she was a nervous undergraduate who was desperate for him to read her poetry. "He was a vortex of power and intellectual charisma." One night he invited himself to dinner at her apartment and guzzled sherry throughout the meal. "You have the aura of election upon you," he breathed, and put his hand up her skirt. She promptly vomited into the kitchen sink from shock, although it's possible the sherry might also have been a factor. "You are a deeply troubled girl," he told her, then corked up his sherry and left. (For the record, Prof. Bloom denies it all and is contemplating his legal options.)
The incident, she writes, "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student rather than as a pawn of powerful men." But Ms. Wolf (who, it must be noted, is ravishingly beautiful) is getting precious little sympathy from the sisterhood. "It's a desperate power grab," says Katie Roiphe, a well-known feminist who wrote a book on date rape. "People didn't pay attention to her last book on motherhood. She wants to regain the sense of outrage of the feminism of the early 1990s."
"How many times do we have to relive Naomi Wolf's growing up?" fumes the redoubtable Camille Paglia. "Move on! Move on! Get on to the menopause next!"
Mercifully, Ms. Wolf's version of victim feminism is out of date. Most people would agree that her 20-year-old effort to get even (and her extravagant claims for the trauma she suffered at the time) are a bit bizarre. But they are no more bizarre than campus sexual-harassment policies, where victim feminism still reigns supreme. These policies treat every case of boorish, drunk behaviour as sexual predation, and they define sex between faculty and students as essentially illicit. Consensual sex across the lines is deemed to be impossible because of built-in power imbalances.
It's ironic that not so long ago, female students were objecting that the university administration had no business being sex police. My girlfriends would have been insulted by the notion that they couldn't make such decisions for themselves. And they were well aware of the special power they possessed.
Campus harassment codes have mostly put an end to the days of lecherous professors. But they also perpetuate the myth that sexual advances all go one way. Anyone with any experience of campus life knows otherwise, and any charismatic professor can tell you how often it's his students who do the chasing. Although it's impolite to say so, erotic bonds have sprung up between teachers and pupils since Socrates started giving philosophy lessons in the agora. And they aren't always a bad thing.
Ms. Wolf says she decided to go public after all this time because she owes it to other students, and also because Yale pretty much ignored her phone calls. (Yale argues that if she had a problem, she should have raised it years ago.) But perhaps her real problem with Harold Bloom was that he shattered her illusions. The man she idolized and revered turned out to be a disagreeable pig. That's another lesson young women have been learning since time immemorial. It's a hard one. But you get over it.
Trust Camille. "It really grates on me that Naomi Wolf for her entire life has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men and made a profession out of courting male attention by flirting and offering her sexual allure."
Sunday 22 Feb 2004
Feminists wage war over sex allegation
The most telegenic feminist in the US, Naomi Wolf, has touched off a media storm over a soon-to-be-published condemnation of two decades of alleged sexual harassment against women at Yale, her former university.
According to advance "tasters" of the exposé, she describes herself as a victim of harassment and names Harold Bloom, her former professor, as her tormentor.
Her high-profile denunciation of alleged sexual misconduct at the Ivy League university has already drawn a furious response from one of her feminist sisters, also a former student of the professor.
Camille Paglia accused Wolf of launching a witch-hunt similar to those that swept New England in the 17th century and, in distinctly unfeminist fashion, of exploiting her looks to advance her career.
"It really smacks of the Salem witch-hunts and all the accompanying hysteria," Paglia said. "It really grates on me that Naomi Wolf for her entire life has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men and made a profession out of courting male attention by flirting and offering her sexual allure."
Bloom, 73, one of the world's leading Shakespearean scholars, has maintained a dignified silence during the furore. "He has no comment," his wife said.
Wolf, a former Rhodes Scholar and the author of bestselling books such as The Beauty Myth, is said to be making her allegations in a piece appearing this week in New York magazine.
Yale confirmed that she contacted the university with her claims but was told that the two-year statute of limitations for such offences had already passed.
She studied at Yale in the early 1980s.
Her article is understood to catalogue the experiences of 10 women at Yale. Tolerance of sexual harassment "is much bigger than one person or one incident and it needs to be addressed", a spokesman for the magazine said.
Sharp-eyed readers of Wolf's work have already spotted a passage from her book Promiscuities in which a professor visits her at home, supposedly to discuss her poetry, but then gropes her between her legs.
"It felt so familiar: this sense of being exposed as if in a slow-moving dream of shame," she wrote. "I could practically hear my own pulse: what had I done, done, done?"
The professor, who has been described as Falstaffian and rabbinical in his passion for great authors, inspires fierce loyalty from many of his students and his warmth and charisma have been described as "overwhelmingly, destructively, seductive" for female undergraduates.
After making her name with The Beauty Myth, Wolf won celebrity status and is not averse to appearing on middle-brow television talk shows.
Said Paglia: "This is regressive. It's childish. Move on! Get on to menopause next!" - © The Telegraph, London
'I Am Victim'
Wednesday, February 25, 2004; Page A25
Sometimes in the course of a great American debate there comes a moment when the big battle guns fall silent, the pundits run out of breath, and -- unexpectedly -- the long, bitter argument suddenly turns into farce. In the past two decades, this nation has lived through the spectacle of Anita Hill accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; the destruction of the career of Sen. Bob Packwood; the ugly drama of Paula Jones, her lawyers and the president; and, as a result, the creation of multiple university and workplace "codes of sexual conduct," which no one dares defy. But now it's as if none of that ever happened: In an extraordinary, several-thousand-word article in New York magazine, Naomi Wolf, the celebrated feminist writer, has just accused Harold Bloom, the celebrated literary scholar, of having put his hand on her thigh at Yale University 20 years ago.
But Wolf's article is not merely about that event (a secret that she "can't bear to carry around anymore"). The article is also about the lasting damage that this single experience has wrought on a woman who has since written a number of bestsellers, given hundreds of lectures, been featured on dozens of talk shows and photographed in various glamorous poses, including a smiling, self-confident head shot on New York magazine's Web site this week. Not that she mentions her achievements. On the contrary, she implies that this terrible experience left a lasting mark on her academic and professional career: "I was spiraling downward; I had gotten a C-, a D, and an F. . . . My confidence shaken, I failed in my effort to win the Rhodes Scholarship."
She also implies that she never recovered academically, which isn't quite the case. I was her contemporary, and happen to remember some of her achievements. But although I scoured the article, I could find no reference to the fact that Wolf did eventually win a Rhodes Scholarship, thanks, in part, to a recommendation letter written by Bloom. Or that, while in England, she began writing "The Beauty Myth," the first of those bestsellers.
Indeed, Wolf not only never mentions any of this, she seems to want us to believe that none of it matters -- and that deep down inside she is still a quivering 19-year-old whose single experience with a man she describes as a "vortex of power and intellectual charisma," had "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men." She was not exactly emotionally traumatized, she writes (and seems sorry that this avenue of legal argument isn't open to her) but her "educational experience was corrupted." And, somehow, that allows her to equate her experience with that of children harassed by Catholic priests or female cadets raped by fellow soldiers. She, and they, are all victims of "systemic corruption."
Now, there are a number of surprising elements to Wolf's article, all of which deserve more intense scrutiny. One is her bizarre description of her attempts to get bewildered university bureaucrats to do something -- she doesn't know what -- long after the statute of limitations has run out. Another is her account of the hand-on-thigh event itself, which seems to have taken place late at night in her apartment, where Bloom had come at her invitation. A third is her apparent lack of awareness of the long debate about sexual harassment itself, and of the way it has radically changed the atmosphere on campuses and in offices, in both positive and negative ways.
But in the end, what is most extraordinary about Wolf is the way in which she has voluntarily stripped herself of her achievements and her status, and reduced herself to a victim, nothing more. The implication here is that women are psychologically weak: One hand on the thigh, and they never get over it. The implication is also that women are naive, and powerless as well: Even Yale undergraduates are not savvy enough to avoid late-night encounters with male professors whose romantic intentions don't interest them.
The larger implications are for the movement that used to be called "feminism." Twenty years of fame, money, success, happy marriage and the children she has described in her books -- and Naomi Wolf, one of my generation's leading feminists, is still obsessed with her own exaggerated victimhood? It's not an ideology I'd want younger women to follow.
February 28, 2004
If Naomi Wolf expected sympathy or sisterly support over her claim of harassment, she had better think again, writes Caroline Overington.
Naomi Wolf has been keeping a secret. For 20 years, she has hidden the fact that an English professor at Yale put his hand on her thigh. Wolf, author of the feminist bestseller The Beauty Myth, says the incident damaged her soul.
Here are the details, as Wolf tells them: in 1983, when she was a 20-year-old English major, she invited Harold Bloom - one of America's leading English scholars - to her house.
Wolf says she wanted Bloom to read some poetry she had written. They had dinner, drank sherry by candlelight and, when the other guests left, she put her manuscript on the table, between them. Bloom did not look at it. Instead, he put his "heavy, boneless hand" on her thigh. Wolf retreated to the kitchen sink and vomited. Bloom left.
Wolf, now 42 and a mother of two, did not complain about Bloom. She kept the incident pretty much to herself until this week, when she told the world about it in a cover story for New York magazine. "I have obviously survived," Wolf wrote of the "one-time sexual encroachment". "My career was fine. My soul was not fine."
If Wolf expected sympathy, she will be disappointed. Her story sparked outrage, but most of it was directed at her. Wolf has been berated for overreacting to something that many women would, today, regard as nothing more than a pass by an old drunk. Why didn't she just slap away Bloom's hand? Why didn't she complain much earlier? After all, Wolf has been rich and powerful and famous since she wrote The Beauty Myth at the age of 30. Does she expect readers to believe she is a victim of male oppression?
If there is a victim in this drama, many believe it to be Bloom, who is something of an academic giant (and a physical one, too).
Born in the East Bronx in 1930, Bloom is the youngest child of orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia, neither of whom ever learnt to read English. His first books were volumes of Yiddish verse but, from the age of seven, he could read Somerset Maugham. He went to Cornell University, and then, after one of his advisers, H.M. Abrams, insisted that he leave "because we couldn't teach him anything more", Bloom went to Yale. "Even as an undergraduate, he was a prodigy, beyond anything I'd ever seen,' said Abrams. "And nothing since has come close."
Bloom is today Sterling professor of humanities at Yale and the Berg professor of English at New York University. He is the author of more than 20 books, including the extraordinary The Western Canon, which The New York Times has described as "essentially a survey of all Western literature, from Dante to Borges, in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Russian". He can - literally - recite Milton and Shakespeare backward, and he has had blisters on his fingers from reading up to 1000 pages a day.
Outside academic circles, Bloom is most famous for savaging J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. It happened last year, when The Wall Street Journal asked him to review The Sorcerer's Stone. "I suffered a great deal in the process," he wrote. "The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible."
There are some who say that to meet Bloom is to fall violently in love - or at least be in awe. Wolf was certainly not immune to his charm. She says in her New York essay that she became "sick with excitement when he agreed to read her poetry".
Others felt the same, which is why Bloom - who is married and the father of two sons - is a sitting duck for allegations. He has what might delicately be called "a reputation".
In 1994 The New York Times writer Adam Begley said rumours of Bloom's affairs with Yale students were legion. A friend of Bloom, unnamed, was quoted as saying: "I hate to say it, but he rather bragged about it, so that wasn't very secret for a number of years."
In 1990 writer Martin Kihn interviewed Bloom for GQ magazine. He reported that a woman opened Bloom's door and she "did not look like his wife of three decades. Jeanne Bloom is silver-haired, slightly overweight, a chain-smoking child psychologist with a cabbie's hard voice. This woman is strawberry blonde, low-fat - she tells me she just dropped by, but I doubt it."
The girl sat just metres from Bloom throughout the interview. Kihn did not say they were lovers, but wrote: "Any honest Yale undergraduate will tell you of Bloom's unusually close friendships with hand-picked proteges."
He asked Bloom about his reputation, but Bloom said: "That's ridiculous - absolutely not true."
But let's assume for a minute that it is true. Let's say Bloom did put his hand on Wolf's thigh. Is that such a big deal? Was Wolf right to complain after all these years?
There was a similar case in Australia in the 1990s, which Helen Garner wrote about in The First Stone. Two young students said they were harassed by a professor; they complained at the time and their complaints were ignored. Wolf's case is slightly different: the professor in the Australian case had some degree of control over the students' academic careers, but Wolf was not in Bloom's class and, although he once agreed to meet her weekly to oversee some "independent study", she never got those meetings. Indeed, she says in her essay that she did not see Bloom again after that disastrous dinner in 1983.
Many of Wolf's peers have savaged her for presenting herself as a victim and complaining about what many see as a drunken pass by an ageing Lothario. In The Globe and Mail, writer Margaret Wente said that Wolf's version of feminism is "out of date" and noted that when she was at university she spent her last semester "futilely trying to seduce my thesis supervisor. In fact, my failure to have a single erotic encounter with a faculty member was a source of great disappointment to me."
Feminist Katie Roiphe said Wolf was making a "desperate power grab. People didn't pay attention to her last book on motherhood." In the New Statesman, Cristina Odone said: "Wolf's most unforgiveable disservice to feminism lies in her constant portrayal of herself as a victim. Thus, we have had Naomi, the victim of her youthful good looks (The Beauty Myth), Naomi, the victim of her sexual allure (Promiscuities), Naomi, the victim of motherhood (Misconceptions). I'm not sure she can bank on our sympathy for much longer."
But, in her New York essay, Wolf is at pains to say that she does not feel like a victim. She says she would have let the matter slide if only Yale had moved, in a series of private conversations over the past year, to reassure her that steps had been taken to ensure that such things weren't still happening.
Yale tells a different story. The university claims Wolf demanded a "public apology for the alleged incident and a private meeting with Bloom". In an open letter on the university's website, provost Susan Hockfield says: "Wolf's article suggests that Yale does not take registered complaints seriously and that there are no consequences. To the contrary [they are handled] with the utmost seriousness." She notes that harassers have in the past been "separated from Yale".
Bloom has been silent. When contacted by one of Yale's newspapers this week, his wife, Jeanne, said he had no comment. Another newspaper said he was "contemplating his legal options". His friends are not so circumspect. Camille Paglia, who also studied with Bloom at Yale, raged against Wolf, saying: "How many times do we have to relive Naomi Wolf's growing up? How many books, how many articles, Naomi, are you going to impose on us so we have to be dragged back to your teenage-heartbreak years? This is regressive! It's childish! Move on! Move on! Get on to menopause next!"
It's probably not bad advice.
Naomi Wolf: feminist, Rhodes scholar, author, mother. Claims that Yale professor Harold Bloom put his hand on her thigh and that this put her in a state of "spiritual discomfort".
Harold Bloom: Sterling professor of humanities at Yale, Berg professor of English at New York University, and the author of more than 20 books, including The Western Canon. Had no comment on Wolf's allegation.
Camille Paglia: feminist writer who also studied under Bloom at Yale: "For her entire life [Wolf] has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men".
Zoe Williams: British feminist: "Equal pay for equal work will never go out of fashion. But the drive to politicise every ambiguous physical gesture as if we're all working shoulder to shoulder against malevolent men - this is not feminism."
Margaret Wente, writer: "Harold Bloom is a man of dazzling intellect. According to Wolf, he's also a dirty old man, whose habit of hitting on attractive female students has been an open secret at Yale. And now she's getting her revenge."