NAOMI WOLF's small war
previous page, here
Enough of this whingeing Wolf
The other night, I came across the writer Naomi Wolf participating in a TV panel discussion about the Patriot Act. When one of her fellow guests, David Horowitz, turned in his chair to look at her, Wolf angrily broke off from the point she was making, to upbraid him.
"Don't try to shut me up!" she shouted. Horowitz looked at her, mystified. "What did I do?" he asked. "It's all in your body language!" Wolf said, indicating the movement he had just made in his chair.
"But Naomi," Horowitz replied in some confusion, "you told me during the last commercial break that I should turn and face you the next time you spoke. I was trying to do just that."
Before turning over, I remember thinking what a daft old brush Wolf was and how unfortunate it was that a humourless silly like her has come to be so widely regarded as the authentic voice of American feminism.
These sentiments cross my mind every couple of years or so, whenever Wolf comes out with another one of her pious blockbusters about the international conspiracy to stop women feeling good about themselves.
Experience has taught me that allowing myself to dwell on the subject of Wolf for too long is bad for my spirits. Usually, if I hum loudly to myself, I can make the wearying thought of her go away.
This week, however, after reading the New York magazine article in which Wolf accuses the eminent literary scholar Harold Bloom of having "sexually encroached" on her 20 years ago at Yale University, no amount of humming would do the trick.
Her maddening, apple-cheeked face kept dancing before my eyes; her drama-queen prose style kept haunting me like a bad smell.
In the article, Wolf describes how, as a 20-year-old undergraduate, she invited Prof Bloom to a candlelit dinner at her place. She thought she was inviting him in his capacity as her independent study adviser. (She was hoping to get his thoughts on her poetry.)
But after dinner, she claims, he ignored her portfolio of poems and placed his hand on the inside of her thigh. This gesture was so shocking and repulsive to her that she leapt up and vomited in the kitchen sink, whereupon Prof Bloom - who knew a brush-off when he saw one - hastily departed, but not before pronouncing Wolf a "deeply troubled girl".
Wolf goes on to describe the grave ramifications of this incident. She did not, she admits, experience a full-blown emotional crisis. But her brief run-in with Bloom had, she writes, "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student rather than as a pawn of powerful men".
And as a result, her grades spiralled downwards. "I had gotten a C-, a D and an F. I was put on academic probation."
She could of course, have gone to the college grievance board but she didn't feel "safe" doing so. The procedures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints were insufficiently "transparent", you see. She had heard rumours that Bloom's dalliances with his students were known about and tolerated by the school administration.
She feared that if she made a stink, she might be denied scholarship money. (And, as she explains in a tremulous, sotto voce aside, she was not rich; her father only earned $35,000 a year.)
Now, let us not dally over the fact that if you ask a professor round for a candlelit dinner to discuss your poetry, there is, at the very least, an area of ambiguity in the invitation.
Let us take Wolf's word for it that she was absolutely gobsmacked when old man Bloom put the moves on her. (That Wolf was naïve does not necessarily nullify her complaint: Bloom, as her instructor, ought not to have placed his hand on her thigh.)
Let us even accept her rather flimsy justification for not reporting the terrible wrong done to her at the time. Let us ponder instead, why she has chosen to dredge up this anecdote now.
Clearly Bloom and his wandering hands have had no lasting effect on her career. On the contrary, life has been very good to Wolf - as it generally is to bright, attractive, white women with Ivy League educations.
Her books have been bestsellers. She has a happy marriage and two children. She is well-off, healthy and gainfully employed. Even so, the episode at Yale has left a mark on her, she believes - a spiritual bruise.
Every year, at Yom Kippur, when Jews are required to atone for their sins, she feels sick at heart, she claims, thinking 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."
With its eyelid-batting religiosity and its more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sanctimony, this is classic Wolf. (Imagine: the only blemish she finds when she looks into her soul is her failure to out an old man who once made a pass at her.) But to claim altruism as the pretext for her overwrought "confession" won't wash.
If she has any legitimate point to make about the current procedures for dealing with sexual harassment at Yale - and it is not at all clear that she does - it has been entirely overshadowed by the gossip value of her personal recollection. (When reporting this story, CNN's first impulse was not to interview the deans at Yale, but to doorstep the 73-year-old Bloom at his home in New Haven.)
There is no shortage of cause for righteous feminist outrage in the world: child prostitution in South Asia, women being stoned to death under sharia law in Africa.
Were Wolf to bother looking, she would no doubt find a fair portion of genuine female oppression in her own home town of Washington DC. Instead, she has chosen to expend her considerable clout detailing the terror she suffered two decades ago, when a man touched her thigh.
Perhaps the professor had it right, after all: that Wolf is "deeply troubled" may be the kindest conclusion one can draw from her freakish self-absorption.
|T H E|
And now a word from The Observer culture reporter. Naomi Wolf is back in the news. Nearly two decades after graduating from Yale, Ms. Wolf is taking on her alma mater and the patriarchy, in the form of eminent literary scholar Harold Bloom. According to sources at New York magazine and Yale University, in the course of reporting an article slated to run in next week’s issue, Ms. Wolf has been claiming that Mr. Bloom sexually harassed her while she was an undergraduate 20 years ago.
Mr. Bloom didn’t agree to be interviewed for the New York magazine story, and he declined an interview with The Observer. Sources close to Mr. Bloom, however, told The Observer that the 73-year old Shakespeare scholar has called Ms. Wolf’s claims a "vicious lie." These same sources also note that Mr. Bloom wrote Ms. Wolf a recommendation for a Rhodes scholarship when she was a Yale undergraduate, a scholarship which she subsequently won. When asked about the Rhodes recommendation letter and how it might bear on Ms. Wolf’s accusations against Mr. Bloom, a spokeswoman for New York magazine, Serena Torrey, said, "I can’t comment on the content of a story that’s not closed." She described the story as "a broader examination of the way that Yale and institutions of higher learning handle incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment." After being contacted about the controversy, Ms. Torrey called back to say that the article may not appear in next week’s issue: "It’s subject to a number of reviews. We can’t be sure when it’s running."
Ms. Wolf declined an interview and issued a statement through Ms. Torrey: "My story will speak for itself."
According to Yale University, Ms. Wolf approached the university last month with various requests. For one thing, she wished to explore filing a complaint of sexual harassment against Mr. Bloom. Helaine Klasky, a spokeswoman for Yale, said Ms. Wolf was told that "you are not permitted under Yale statutes to file sexual-harassment complaints 20 years after an alleged event occurred. There were policies and procedures in place when Ms. Wolf attended Yale and the alleged harassment took place, yet she did not avail herself of them." (Yale has a two-year statute of limitations on such complaints.) Ms. Klasky said that last month Ms. Wolf also contacted the offices of Yale president Richard Levin and the dean of Yale College, Richard Brodhead, as well as the public-relations office, in the context of writing her article. Furthermore, according to Ms. Klasky, Ms. Wolf "requested an apology from the university, and was told that an apology could only be issued if wrongdoing was found—and unless one’s filed a formal complaint, there cannot be any apology."
Ms. Wolf made her name as the author of the 1991 best-seller The Beauty Myth, and more recently has written books on motherhood and adolescent sexuality. Her notoriety seemed to have peaked when she famously advised Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, suggesting that he wear more "earth tones" in order to appeal to the women’s vote, and reportedly collected a monthly fee of $15,000 for her advice.
Sources close to Mr. Bloom said that Ms. Wolf never tried reaching the professor at home—his number is listed—but rather left specific, and potentially incendiary, phone messages with administrative assistants at his two Yale offices.
In her 1997 book Promiscuities, Ms. Wolf wrote about an unnamed college professor who placed his hand between her legs after showing up at her apartment to discuss her poetry. Other classmates, she claimed, had had similar experiences, but she thought she could resist. "My whole body, my whole self-image, once again, again, burned with culpability," she wrote. "It felt so familiar: this sense of being exposed as if in a slow-moving dream of shame. I could practically hear my own pulse: What had I done, done, done?"
Ms. Wolf’s editor at New York, Joanna Coles, a former reporter for the Times of London, denied that Ms. Wolf had contacted Yale about a sexual-harassment claim. Ms. Wolf had been "working with a lawyer on this story," Ms. Coles said. "She is fully aware of what is on the statute, and she had no intention at all of bringing a claim against Harold Bloom."
Ms. Coles told The Observer that Yale had been uncooperative with Ms. Wolf in her efforts to report on its sexual-harassment policies. "She’s been back and forth trying to talk to people at the university for months and months," Ms. Coles said. "She succeeded in talking to some of them, but she didn’t get the information that she was looking for."
Ms. Wolf’s article landed during a particularly turbulent few weeks at New York magazine, with editor in chief Caroline Miller departing as former New York Times Magazine editor Adam Moss prepares to take over the reins.
Camille Paglia, who traded blows with Ms. Wolf in the early 1990’s over their radically different views on female sexual power, said she was no longer at war with Ms. Wolf, but was "shocked" to learn of Ms. Wolf’s accusations against Mr. Bloom, who is a long-time mentor of Ms. Paglia’s.
"I just feel it’s indecent that if Naomi Wolf did not have the courage to pursue the matter at the time, or in the 1990’s, and put her own reputation on the line, then to bring all of this down on a man who is in his 70’s and has health problems—who has become a culture hero to readers in the humanities around the world—to drag him into a ‘he said/she said’ scenario so late in the game, to me demonstrates a lack of proportion and a basic sense of fair play," said Ms. Paglia, who is professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she said she helped institute that university’s sexual-harassment policies in the 1980s.
"At the beginning of the 90’s, people said, ‘Oh, Naomi Wolf, this great thinker,’" said Ms. Paglia. "But what she’s managed to do in 10 years is marginalize herself as a chronicler of teenage angst. She doesn’t want to leave that magic island when she was the ripening teenager. 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!"
Since Ms. Wolf’s days at Yale—she graduated in 1986—the university has, like many of its counterparts, strengthened its sexual-harassment grievance procedures. In the late 1990’s, the university instituted a strict policy forbidding student-teacher relationships.
Sources at New York said that Ms. Wolf’s article was being fact-checked, and may change significantly in the next few days.
This column ran on page 6 in the 2/23/2004 edition of The New York Observer.
YALE DAILY NEWS
Published Thursday, February 19, 2004
Alum alleges harassment
Wolf '84 accuses Bloom of sexual misconduct
BY STEPHEN BUTLER
Feminist activist and Rhodes Scholar
Naomi Wolf '84 recently accused Humanities and English Professor Harold Bloom of
sexually harassing her while she was an undergraduate at Yale, the New York
Observer reported this week.
Wolf's accusations will appear in an article she is writing for next week's New York Magazine, the Observer reported.
Bloom is well known at Yale and worldwide for his scholarship on Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, as well for writing over 20 books including "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" and "How to Read and Why." Bloom -- who, according to unidentified sources in the Observer article, wrote a recommendation for Wolf when she was applying for the Rhodes Scholarship -- declined to comment on the accusation.
New York Magazine spokeswoman Serena Torrey said she could not comment on the specific content of an article that had not yet been published but said Wolf's story will appear next Monday.
"In next week's New York Magazine, Naomi Wolf will have a story outlining 20 years of incidents of sexual misconduct at Yale and her search and hope for an appropriate response from the administration to these situations," Torrey said.
Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said Wolf contacted Yale with her accusations, but she explained that Wolf had not acted within the two-year statute of limitations for such complaints.
"As we explained to Ms. Wolf, Yale has very clear guidelines and policies for any sexual harassment claims," Klasky said. "Any claims must be brought in two years after the alleged incident. At the time when she was a student, she did not avail herself."
Klasky said Wolf asked for an apology but was told that Yale can't issue an apology "when there's no finding of wrong-doing."
"Yale takes any claim of sexual harassment very seriously," Klasky said. "That is why we have such stringent policies and procedures in place and why we encourage students when appropriate to avail themselves."
Klasky said Wolf does not intend to take legal action against Yale.
Wolf, author of "The Beauty Myth," and "Fire With Fire," gained notoriety in 2000 as an advisor to Al Gore's Presidential Campaign, during which she suggested that Gore become an Alpha male and discard what she referred to as his Beta male tendencies.
|T H E|
Naomi Wolf Makes Much Ado About Nuzzling At Yale
by Rachel Donadio
Naomi Wolf was on the phone on Feb. 24 speaking about her cover story in this week’s New York, in which she accuses literary scholar Harold Bloom of having placed his "heavy, boneless hand" on her inner thigh when she was an undergraduate student in 1983. In it, she also depicted Yale University as an environment where sexual "encroachment" is tolerated, and where, to this day, students are afraid to come forward about their troubling experiences.
Would she pursue things further?
"Not with Professor Bloom, God bless him," Ms. Wolf said tremulously. "I’ve done what I need to do for my own conscience’s sake …. The larger issue is the ongoing corruption of the grievance procedures and the silencing of women who have been harassed or assaulted at Yale University. That is what matters."
But in opening up a 20-year-old case of sexual harassment at Yale, Ms. Wolf had also opened up any number of questions: about the university, about Professor Bloom, about her own journalistic techniques, and about the reliability of using older anecdotal memories brought to bear on long-buried circumstances.
The night before, Ms. Wolf had appeared on CNN. So, involuntarily, had Harold Bloom, as CNN cameras had zoomed in on the professor on Friday looking upset as he closed the door of his New Haven home, hunted down in the TV-newsmagazine manner. Mr. Bloom has declined all comment on the matter, but sources close to Mr. Bloom say that Ms. Wolf’s charges have upset him and his family.
Ms. Wolf was being interviewed from her home in Manhattan, having expertly microwaved an instant drama, attempting to be a simultaneously avenging and sympathetic angel.
She rationalized the story as a blow on behalf of other sexually encroached Yale women. "This is not fun," she said. "The only reason to go through something like this is my duty to the young women," she continued, adding that young women frequently approach her with stories about being sexually harassed, that she had received an upsetting e-mail that very morning from a Yale student who claimed that her freshman counselor had drugged and raped her, and that the nameless student knew of another young woman who had been raped by a student, who "was let off with a reprimand" and went on to rape again.
Apparently banking on the fact that Ms. Wolf ‘s celebrity—as well as that of her accused sexual "encroacher," literary scholar and Yale professor Harold Bloom—would blind readers to the fact that neither Ms. Wolf nor New York magazine made any attempt to find any other accounts of Mr. Bloom behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner toward a student, the piece converted Mr. Bloom instantly from best-selling Shakespeare authority to sexual predator. New York didn’t offer Mr. Bloom a conventional journalistic forum in which to respond, such as by having a disinterested reporter report and write the piece; instead, Ms. Wolf acted as a combination memoirist and reporter.
"This is not about my feelings, not about Professor Bloom’s feelings, not about President Levin," she said, referring to Yale president Richard Levin.
"She’s what counts," Ms. Wolf added, speaking about the alleged rape victim.
But the opening of the 20-year-old allegation, and a day-long series of conversations with The Observer, seemed to bring up a much more gnarled relationship between professor and student than Ms. Wolf’s piece. And in her 1997 memoir Promiscuities, Ms. Wolf published another account of that evening that differs in several key points from the New York account.
In it, she calls Mr. Bloom "Dr. Johnson," and identifies him as "a visiting philologist from New Zealand who taught Colonial and Post-Colonial literature." In Promiscuities, Ms. Wolf writes that he came over for dinner "after he had established that her two roommates were out." In the New York account, she writes that the four of them had dinner, and then the roommates left. She then presented him with her poetry manuscript. "The account in New York magazine is correct in all its details, because I was not having to protect the identities of anyone," Ms. Wolf said. "Whereas when you write a memoir, the lawyers ask you to change enough detail so that no one will be identified, and that’s what was happening in Promiscuities."
In Promiscuities, she writes that after her professor put his hand on her leg, she went to the sink and vomited out of "disgust and drunkenness." In the New York magazine article, she simply "found myself vomiting."
"I am sure that drunkenness and shock were both equally part of it," Ms. Wolf said. "One thing I tried to do was to be completely honest about my own responsibility for the situation"—a somewhat puzzling statement, since she left the drunkenness out of the more factually accurate New York piece.
In an earlier draft of the New York article, provided to The Observer by the magazine on Friday, Ms. Wolf also writes that at that dinner, after Mr. Bloom had put his hand on her thigh, she backed up against the sink, and he "came at me." In the version published on Monday, Ms. Wolf said that Mr. Bloom "moved toward me." Why the change? "I thought it was fairer to Professor Bloom to put it in a more neutral way," Ms. Wolf said. She rebuffed the suggestion that he may have been trying to help her, since she was physically unstable. "I don’t know what his intentions were, but I was frightened and I was upset and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone," she said.
According to sources close to Mr. Bloom, on at least one occasion Ms. Wolf came to Mr. Bloom’s home and left an erotic poem there for him to read. Questioned about that, Ms. Wolf said, "For God’s sake. Some of my poetry was racy and erotic. Some was about the Bible and Greek myths. I’m sure that I dropped off manuscripts of my poetry with all the people who were mentoring me with my poetry at the time. I dropped off the same manuscript with John Hollander," another professor and her adviser at the time. (Reached by The Observer, Mr. Hollander would say only that "I had remembered her as a talented and interesting student. But I have not read any of her subsequent work.")
"I certainly hadn’t been there several times," Ms. Wolf said of Mr. Bloom’s house. "I didn’t know Professor Bloom well. I admired him."
"I was well known with my poetry at Yale; it was what I took most seriously," Ms. Wolf said. But did she drop off the poetry at Mr. Bloom’s house? "My memory is, I dropped off a manuscript of poetry at the English department office," Ms. Wolf said. After the encroachment evening? "Yes," she said. "That is my best memory. I can’t imagine that I dropped it off at his house. I have to say it was 20 years ago. My memory isn’t perfect, but I can’t imagine that this is the case."
Sources who knew Ms. Wolf and Mr. Bloom in the early 80’s said that Ms. Wolf enjoyed her rapport with the eminent professor.
"I believe we were very cordial," Ms. Wolf said. "I’m sure that I was delighted that he was taking an interest in my work. I was absolutely thrilled. I was a young poet, and he was the most brilliant man at Yale, and I was delighted. I can’t stress that enough. No question. I was delighted as a student. I’m sure I told people how happy I was."
And this may just be the crux of the matter. In Promiscuities, Ms. Wolf writes that when she gave Mr. Bloom her manuscript of poems, it was "the most important gift I had ever given any man." Between the lines of Ms. Wolf’s New York article, another picture begins to emerge of an aspiring young poet who now believes that an unfortunate encounter with a professor she revered blocked her path toward a bright future as a writer.
"It’s interesting that you mention that," Ms. Wolf said. "I know I never wrote a poem again after that."
Before she could explain why, Ms. Wolf burst into tears and wept for several minutes. "I’m sorry I’m having difficulty with that question," she said, adding that she had to hang up and compose herself. When she called back a few minutes later, she was still weeping.
"Professor Bloom is not a bad guy! He’s a good guy in many ways! That’s something I tried to make clear in this piece," Ms. Wolf said. "One stupid action shouldn’t demonize someone or victimize someone. I’m trying to reframe the debate. I’ve talked to many people who have glowing things to say about him and whom he’d mentored. I wish I could have been mentored by him."
Throughout the day, Ms. Wolf also called to say that she would have victimized women who had come forward after the article was published contact The Observer to tell their stories. One woman, a post-doc, had called to share a story—which it was not possible to corroborate by press time—about a consensual relationship with a lab adviser who, she said, tried to get her fired after she broke up with him.
Despite its headline, "Sex and Silence at Yale," Ms. Wolf’s New York piece was not about rape, not even about sex: It was a dramatic reenactment of Ms. Wolf’s traumatized memory of an encounter she had with Mr. Bloom, whose name will now carry at least a partial smudge from the blood-red background of the New York cover line: "She was a Yale senior. He was a star professor … his unwanted seduction attempt—along with her failure to report it—prompted a crisis of conscience that simmered for 20 years. NAOMI WOLF on HAROLD BLOOM, sexual misconduct on campus, and why universities like Yale still don’t get it."
Ms. Wolf’s recollection of the night in 1983 when she and Mr. Bloom allegedly got drunk on Amontillado and he made an invasive pass at her was the first part of the story. She also included five examples of sexual misconduct at Yale in the past 20 years, and she recounted the strange dance between herself and Richard Brodhead, the dean of Yale College, in which Ms. Wolf made various demands while Mr. Brodhead kept "stonewalling" her. She had not wanted to file a lawsuit against Mr. Bloom, she wrote, but just wanted a "confidential meeting" to "make sure that Yale’s grievance procedures are now strong."
But according to records that Yale has provided, the dance was even stranger than Ms. Wolf indicated.
On Feb. 10, 10 days before Ms. Wolf accused him of "stonewalling" her, Mr. Brodhead sent Ms. Wolf an e-mail apologizing for not getting back to her sooner: He was about to leave Yale to become president of Duke and had been, he said, "back and forth." Mr. Brodhead explained that it was "simply not possible" for Ms. Wolf "to enter a formal complaint about an allegation of sexual harassment from so many years ago."
In her article, Ms. Wolf quotes a flustered Mr. Brodhead as saying that he cannot reveal how many complaints had been brought to the sexual-harassment grievance committee. Yale, through a spokeswoman, Helaine Klasky, said that conversation took place before the e-mail of Feb. 10. In his e-mail, Mr. Brodhead said that in his 11 years as dean, the grievance committee had heard four cases, which varied in "nature," "gravity" and "the nature of appointment of the instructor the complaint was lodged against." He said that "since unsubstantiated complaints can be regarded as libel and since the complainants typically wish their privacy to be protected, we do not publicize complaints." Students themselves, he said, are free to make the information public.
"I took it that another of your concerns was to learn how robust and accessible our grievance process is, and here I’m happy to supply details," Mr. Brodhead wrote. He described how sexual harassment is discussed at "mandatory meetings during freshman orientation," and that freshman counselors and residential college deans are "well briefed on the issue." He said Yale occasionally distributed leaflets on dining-hall tables "to remind students of the issue and of the available recourse if they seek one," while "peer counselors trained by the Health Service give presentations in the colleges, athletics departments, fraternities and sororities, and they staff confidential hot lines that students are free to call."
Mr. Brodhead said that Yale’s Undergraduate Regulations contained materials on the grievance procedure, as did the university’s Web site.
Ms. Wolf had been in contact with Yale about its sexual-harassment procedures for months, mainly with the development office, which had asked her to raise money for them. Only in September did she make it clear that she was writing an article on the issue. Over the Jewish High Holy Days, she said, her conscience told her that "for 20 years, I had unethically turned away from my responsibility to younger women at Yale."
In reporting her story, Ms. Wolf didn’t attempt to contact other students who might have had similar experiences with Mr. Bloom. In fact, Ms. Wolf said she had planned to use only two examples in her story—hers and one other—until the senior administrative assistant to the Women’s and Gender Studies Department put her in touch with a handful of other women with grievances against other professors.
The Yale spokeswoman, Ms. Klasky, said that the university didn’t plan to seek legal recourse over Ms. Wolf’s story, nor would it reprimand Mr. Bloom after the 21 years in which Ms. Wolf didn’t open her old cask of Amontillado.
Which brings us back to the fateful night. Ms. Wolf’s reasons for not filing a formal grievance against Mr. Bloom at the time are understandable: She feared filing a complaint would jeopardize her academic career, and her grades were already slipping; she was afraid to tell her residential dean because she had heard "a rumor" that the dean had torn down a handmade sign that the assistant in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department had placed on her office door, alerting passersby "to a ‘guilty’ ruling from the Grievance Board in the case of a professor harassing a student."
Ms. Wolf also said that she didn’t file a complaint because she was "terrified of being in a room alone with Bloom." Yet according to Ms. Klasky, under the grievance procedures in place at Yale since 1979, an accuser would never have to be in the same room as the person she was accusing.
Ms. Wolf told The Observer that she couldn’t recall whether or not she had ever been alone in the same room with Mr. Bloom again. "I don’t remember that," she said.
New York’s spokeswoman, Serena Torrey, said via e-mail on Tuesday, "We stand 100% by the story."
This column ran on page 1 in the 3/1/2004 edition of The New York Observer
The hand that
rocked the critics
February 28, 2004
The feminist and the dirty old man, or the princess and the pea? Caroline Overington reports on Naomi Wolf's "outing" of an academic for alleged harassment.
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, the 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 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 departed.
Wolf, now 42 and a mother of two, did not file a complaint 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" she experienced. "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 over-reacting to something that many women would, today, regard as nothing more than a pass by an old drunk. Why didn't she just slap Bloom's hand away? Why didn't she complain much earlier? And anyway, even by her account, when he was rebuffed, he left.
If there is a victim in this drama, many believe it is Bloom, who is something of an academic giant. In pictures, he looks a bit like Australia's Bob Ellis: dishevelled and overweight. By most accounts, he is a genuine genius.
Bloom was born in the East Bronx in 1930, the youngest child of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia, neither of whom ever learned to read English. His first books were volumes of Yiddish verse but, from the age of seven, he read the likes of Somerset Maugham. He went to Cornell University and then, after an adviser at Cornell, H.M. Abrams, insisted 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 blisters on his fingers from reading up to 1000 pages a day.
Outside academic circles, Bloom is most famous for savaging the author of the Harry Potter books. It happened last year, when The Wall Street Journal asked him to review one of J.K. Rowling's novels. Bloom shuffled over to the Yale University bookstore where he read a copy of The Sorcerer's Stone. "I suffered a great deal in the process," he wrote. "The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible." He noted horror writer Stephen King had penned a "lavish, loving review of the same book, saying something to the effect of: 'If these kids are reading Harry Potter at 11 or 12, then when they get older they will go on to read Stephen King.' And he was quite right. He was not being ironic."
There are some who say that to meet Bloom is to fall violently in love with him - or at least violently in awe him. 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 of the type Wolf has made.
It must be said, Bloom has what might delicately be called a reputation. In 1994, New York Times writer Adam Begley said "rumours of his (Bloom's) affairs with Yale graduate students are legion". A friend of Bloom, unnamed, was quoted in the article, saying: "I hate to say it but he rather bragged about it."
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, whose name was Jenny, sat just metres from Bloom throughout the interview. Kihn did not say there 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?
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. Wolf says she decided to reveal her secret because she "can't bear to carry it around any more", and because she has an obligation to protect others. Wolf says the incident "had effects that went deep. Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes".
Wolf was not one of Bloom's students. Moreover, if a pass was made, even Wolf's own account acknowledges that the rejection was accepted; he took no for an answer.
In The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, writer Margaret Wente said Wolf's version of feminism was out of date and noted that when she herself 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 unforgivable 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 that 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. Indeed, she says she would have let the whole 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 that 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 that "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. Feminist author 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. Wolf is about as successful as a woman can be: she's rich, she's famous, she's well-educated and well-travelled. It is hard to believe that her "soul" was damaged when Bloom ignored her poetry, reached under the table and touched her thigh. More likely, it was her ego, and this is her revenge.
Monday, February 23, 2004
By SCOTT SMALLWOOD
In a magazine article scheduled to be published today, Naomi Wolf, the noted feminist and author of The Beauty Myth, accuses Harold Bloom, a Yale University literary scholar, of "sexually encroaching" on her two decades ago when she was a student at the university.
The article, in New York magazine, contends that Yale suffers from a systemic problem of sexual misconduct. Ms. Wolf says Mr. Bloom approached her when she was an undergraduate at Yale, in 1983, and also includes accounts from other female students who experienced harassment there over the past 20 years. She argues that the university's grievance system is ineffectual and fails to curb such behavior.
Mr. Bloom declined to comment about the allegation. The 73-year-old professor has written more than 20 books and has taught at Yale since 1955. He is also a professor at New York University.
A Yale official said Ms. Wolf had talked to university administrators recently about filing a sexual-harassment complaint against Mr. Bloom, but was told that the university has a two-year statute of limitations on such allegations.
In the article, however, Ms. Wolf says she was not seeking to sue the university or file any complaint. Instead, she was hoping to have a conversation with top administrators about the issue, but was repeatedly rebuffed.
In a statement released last week, Ms. Wolf said that she had begun talking to Yale about her experience after the university asked her to help raise money. "I felt I had to tell them why I was reluctant to do so," she said. "I then had many conversations with Yale authorities over a period of recent months, telling my story, hoping for an off-the-record meeting to address my concerns about the school's grievance procedures. I got nowhere."
Ms. Wolf did not respond to telephone calls on Friday seeking further comment. Details about the article were first reported last week by the New York Observer.
According to a pre-publication version of the article obtained by The Chronicle, Ms. Wolf recounts the incident with Mr. Bloom in detail. As an undergraduate and an aspiring poet, she was pursuing independent study with Mr. Bloom in the fall of 1983. But the professor did not meet with her. Eventually, according to Ms. Wolf, he suggested that he come for dinner to a house she shared with two others.
Mr. Bloom brought a bottle of sherry, according to the article, and both he and Ms. Wolf drank. After the other dinner guests left, she thought he would discuss a manuscript of her poetry.
"I set it between us," she wrote. "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."
Then the "encroachment" occurred. "The next thing I knew, his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh," she wrote. "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 came at me. I turned away from him toward the sink and found myself vomiting, in shock. Bloom disappeared. When he re-emerged -- from the bedroom with his coat -- a moment later, I was still frozen against the sink. He said: 'You are a deeply troubled girl.'"
Camille Paglia, a feminist scholar who has criticized Ms. Wolf in the past and was also a student of Mr. Bloom's, said she was outraged by the accusations.
"What Naomi Wolf is doing is damaging the cause rather than advancing it," said Ms. Paglia, who is a professor of humanities at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. "It makes it seem like a personal vendetta. I fail to see what the rationale could be at this late date of making this allegation. I find it grossly unethical."
She said Ms. Wolf and other feminists should take responsibility for their own behavior rather than level charges about decades-old incidents. "Feminists like her are trying to somehow reshape institutions so they are like nurseries, a comfy zone for white, middle-class girls," she said.
Ms. Paglia added that she would be interested in seeing evidence of a widespread sexual-misconduct problem at Yale. When she was a graduate student there more than three decades ago, she said, her fellow female graduate students "were having affairs right and left with faculty members."
"I never did," she said. "It wasn't my style, but women freely chose. No one felt that they were abused."
In the article, Ms. Wolf acknowledges that the incident with Mr. Bloom was minor. "I have obviously survived," she wrote. "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."
Saturday March 06, 2004
Hand-on-thigh horror recalled
Naomi Wolf. Is she the most irritating professional feminist this side of Germaine Greer? She takes that old feminist mantra - the personal is political - way too, well, personally.
And she has no sense of irony. She started out by lecturing us in The Beauty Myth about how images of beauty are used to manipulate and sell things to women while her own beautiful image was used to push the book.
I gave up on her book on motherhood, Misconceptions, in which she finds that having a baby is tough. And even husbands married to glamorous feminists don't clean the toilet.
"Yet here we were, to my horror and complicity, shaping our new family structure along class and gender lines - daddy at work, mommy and caregiver from two different economic classes sharing the baby work during the day - just as our peers had done." Dear, oh dear.
There was that weird business during the last US elections, when Wolf advised Al Gore on what suits to wear and how to come across more like an Alpha male. Where was Queer Eye's Carson when we needed him?
In her latest attempt to get our attention she reveals, in New York magazine, that 20 years ago noted literary scholar Harold Bloom placed a hand on her thigh.
She has referred to this event before, in her memoir Promiscuities, disguising Bloom as "Dr Johnson", a lecherous philologist from, of all places, New Zealand.
Why name names now? "Twenty years on, I am handing over a secret to its rightful owner," she declaims. "I can't bear to carry it around any more."
There was a crisis of conscience during the Jewish holiday of atonement, Yom Kippur: "I am not at peace when the sun sets and the Book of Life is sealed. My career was fine; my soul was not fine". Crikey. Whatever would she be like if he'd pinched her bottom?
It seems her old alma mater, Yale, kept asking her to lend her profile. She finally told them why she wouldn't, wanting assurances that the university's "grievance procedures are now strong", though she never tested them by making a complaint 20 years ago. She claims to have been fobbed off, so decided to tell all, packaged with some other more serious cases of sexual misconduct.
Naturally, any loftier aims in the article have been lost in the uproar. She must have known that would be the case, which makes her revelations seem less about keeping women safe in institutions than about utu.
And what for, really? She invited Bloom and his trusty bottle of Amontillado for a candlelit dinner with two others to show him her poetry. The others, says Wolf , "eventually left" and she presented her manuscript. He leaned in. "You have the aura of election about you," he breathed, which, it has to be said, was a pretty original pick-up line. "The next thing I knew, his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh."
She vomited in the sink ("I'm sure drunkenness and shock were both equally part of it," she has since told an interviewer, though the drunkenness part isn't mentioned in the New York magazine article). Bloom grabbed his sherry and took to his heels, saying "You are a deeply troubled girl". She never, to the relief of some commentators, wrote poetry again.
Even she admits it wasn't really sexual harassment: "the encroachment, the transgression - those words are so much more accurate, emotionally as well as legally". Of course, if Bloom did encroach and/or transgress, he shouldn't have. But this was 20 years ago. Many women Wolf's age and older could churn out an article a week about the minor "encroachments" they experienced in those less enlightened days.
It's not the fact that Wolf wrote about the Bloom incident. If he did put his hand on the thigh of a student who turned out to be a successful writer, that's his tough luck. Just as it was J.D. Salinger's tough luck when Joyce Maynard wrote, in her dotty memoir, about her seduction at the age of 18 by the middle-aged literary icon and reclusive control freak. She went to live with him, and endured his bizarre dietary regimes only to be dumped. Okay, maybe she was exploiting his fame but he exploited her first.
Post Wolf's piece, someone called Sam Schulman has written one of his own for the Spectator, entitled "Eat Your Heart Out, Naomi, Harold Bloom Kissed Me". Apparently, as a student and teaching assistant at Yale, he complimented Bloom on a lecture and was rewarded - "My dear!" - with a kiss. On the lips. An experience he seems to have survived, soul intact.
What's disturbing is how Wolf packages her incident, invoking everything up to and including God to get us to see things her way. Then there's the language. She speaks of "corruption" a lot and making sure the institution is "clean". The article implicitly draws parallels between a briefly straying hand and everything from rape to child abuse in the Catholic Church.
Wolf isn't getting much sympathy, probably because readers don't like being manipulated into a position where to reject Wolf's operatic sense of victimhood is to somehow be in favour of sexual predators.
It's like those who align a smack on the bottom with child beating. All Wolf does is trivialise the serious end of the spectrum. And turn a sad, human, regrettable moment into farce.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
'I Am Victim' and the Real Problem at Yale
Saturday, March 6, 2004; Page A17
Anne Applebaum missed the point ["I Am Victim," op-ed, Feb. 25] when she wrote that Naomi Wolf accused Harold Bloom of "having put his hand on her thigh" (emphasis Applebaum's). What Applebaum ignored was Wolf's more important accusation: Yale has created an environment in which female students feel powerless to defend themselves against the unwanted sexual attention of their professors. Wolf recounted in New York magazine the stories of half a dozen other women at Yale who experienced much more serious harassment, including rape, while Yale did little to protect them or punish the perpetrators.
Applebaum also misconstrued Wolf's analogy to the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal. Wolf was not arguing that she was in the same position as children abused by priests. Wolf was asserting that Yale cares as much about protecting female students as the church cares about protecting children. Both Yale and the church are powerful, wealthy institutions with a bureaucracy that seems more intent on protecting that institution than on protecting those in its care.
Wolf deserves credit for raising the issue of Yale's accountability to female students, even if her efforts result in ridicule from columnists.
-- Kathleen Clark
I feel compelled to say that Anne Applebaum was unfair in her characterization of Naomi Wolf's article.
While Wolf talked about her experiences at Yale, the article was not a complaint about her past treatment. It was about her experiences in attempting to find out if, as Applebaum put it, "the long debate about sexual harassment itself . . . has radically changed the atmosphere on campuses and in offices, in both positive and negative ways." What was striking was Wolf's conclusion that nothing has changed despite 20 years of debate and discussion.
Wolf noted that she started this discourse with Yale not because she wanted to tell her story from a victim's perspective but because she wanted to know, before she gave the imprimatur of her success and name to the university, that other students were not left feeling as helpless as she was 20 years ago. What she sought was an assurance that the 20 years of debate had made people more aware, more accountable and more willing to speak about the steps they had taken to improve the situation as she found it. She was, as she indicated, trying to use her status to prevent others from suffering the same harm she did.
And it appears that what she got from Yale was a magnificent stonewall.
To reduce her article, as Applebaum did, to a piece crying "poor me" was to misjudge Wolf's central argument. Wolf was not equating herself to the victims of rape and child abuse -- she was pointing out the ways in which in all the cases institutional silence and denial both demean the victims and undermine the mission of the institutions themselves.
Ultimately Applebaum did Wolf's article a great disservice by reducing it to sound bites. The article Applebaum described and the one I read by Wolf cannot be one and the same.
-- Ruby Afram
January 15, 2006
Memoir: The Treehouse by Naomi Wolf
REVIEWED BY KATE SAUNDERS
THE TREEHOUSE: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love and See
by Naomi Wolf
Virago £12.99 pp310
Thinking females in their forties will be aware of Naomi Wolf. Back in 1986, when shoulders were padded and lipstick was bright red, she produced a very good book called The Beauty Myth, which identified the many ways in which women were crimping, cutting, dyeing and starving themselves to fit a tyrannical notion of beauty. Feminism was in eclipse, according to Wolf, because women were too busy agonising about their big bums to worry about empowerment. Society, as a whole, was using the myth of Beauty to keep the sisters under control.
Twenty years on, The Beauty Myth is still relevant (if you doubt it, look at the depressing numbers of girls who think happiness lies in new breasts). Wolf, however, seems to have run out of meaningful things to say to anyone who is not a monied, middle-class American liberal. Her latest outpouring is a good example of what happens to someone who believes she has a message for the planet, and hasn’t yet twigged that nobody gives a hoot.
When you or I see a picturesque country house, we might think something along the lines of, “Damn, I can’t afford a place like that; I wish my life were nicer.” When Wolf found a tumbledown cottage in upstate New York, she realised her life as a political pundit and sound-bite artist was shallow and superficial. She needed a retreat, where she could get in touch with blah-blah-blah, away from her high-profile existence in Manhattan, so she bought the cottage. Fair enough — I’d do the same, given a few quid. But I like to think I would have the sense not to write a book about it, unless I was prepared to invite comparison with Marie Antoinette. Wolf’s daughter, Rosa, fancied a Petit Trianon — sorry, treehouse — and Wolf enlisted her father, who is good at carpentry. In doing so, she saw she had lost touch with his wonderful, unworldly brand of wisdom. So she asked him to dig out his teaching notes (he is a teacher of poetry and creative writing), and has boiled down his aperçus into 12 “lessons” for the benefit of Wolf in particular, and mankind in general. Each lesson has a snappy heading — Be Still and Listen, Destroy the Box, Your Only Wage Will be Joy.
Leonard Wolf (not to be confused with the solemn praying mantis who married Virginia Woolf) is pictured with Naomi on the book’s cover. She describes him as “a wild old visionary poet. He believes that the heart’s creative wisdom has a more important message than anything else”. While learning the creative joy of building something with her own hands, Naomi ponders the distance she has travelled since first she drank at Leonard’s fountain. “I had turned my face away from the grace of the imagination,” she declares, in the hollow, portentous tone that prevails throughout.
Leonard believes “no amount of money or recognition can compensate you if you are not doing your life’s passionate, creative work”. This is perfectly true. We all need to stay in touch with our dreams. We all need the nourishment of silent contemplation, simply to look at clouds or listen to the birds. But this is about as far as it goes, and it is incredibly tedious to read. A writer has to be very brilliant and very important to get away with such Fotherington-Thomas waffle. The Wolfs are not geniuses, and their musings are most unlikely to change any lives. Just like those old French peasants, I get a little tetchy when advised to eat cake.
Daddy knows best
Naomi Wolf completes her journey from radical feminist to cosy mum with a collection of her father's homilies, The Treehouse, says Rachel Cooke
Sunday January 15, 2006
by Naomi Wolf
Virago £12.99, pp288
In 1990, A young American woman with big hair and a smile straight out of a Colgate ad published a book called The Beauty Myth. It was about the ideology of beauty and the way this credo was operating to 'checkmate the inheritance of feminism on every level in the lives of Western women'. Her thinking went like this: in an effort to survive in a culture that insists a woman be slim, firm and hair-free, Wolf's contemporaries were risking death by starving themselves or submitting to painful surgical procedures. She wanted us to look in the mirror and to cease to care what any man thought. Liberation! The young writer wanted us to embrace our dandelion-clock moustaches and our cottage-cheese thighs. She wanted us to stroke our pot-bellies and smile. She fancied herself a right little revolutionary.
A lot of people had high hopes for Naomi Wolf (including Naomi Wolf). Her book was acclaimed by Germaine Greer and much discussed. I can see its cover still: a naked woman folded into a wooden crate, a bandage covering most of her face. But its author was hard to take. It was difficult being told to let it all hang out, physically speaking, by a creature so obviously ... buffed. At least, however, The Beauty Myth was mostly well-researched.
Since then, Wolf has written several other books, each one more pious and self-obsessed than the last. Her new effort completes this journey. Where once there were facts, now there is intuition; where once she dished up hot anger, now there is cosiness. Its natural shelf-fellow is not a work by Kate Millet or Betty Friedan; rather, it should be filed beside the cloying tracts of M Scott Peck or John Men Are From Mars Gray.
Wolf's new book, The Treehouse, is subtitled 'Eccentric wisdom from my father on how to live, love and see', which pretty much catches it, I'm afraid. Leonard Wolf, Naomi's 80-year-old father, is a poet, teacher and former resident of Haight-Ashbury. They say all girls are a little in love with their daddies; well, Naomi has got it really bad. Feeling that her life has been too frenetic for too long, and having just purchased a darling little wooden house in upstate New York, she invites her father to help her build a treehouse for her young daughter.
The idea is that as they work, they will talk. So Leonard digs out notes from lectures he used to give at San Francisco State University. They have titles such as 'Be still and listen' and 'Your only wage will be joy'. Naomi is breathless with humility and hope: 'I realised - slowly and painfully because I did not want to at first - that everything sensible that had ever guided me rightly was there in them.'
There follows a series of epiphanies for Naomi, the majority of which stem from her sense of achievement at learning the small ceremonies of DIY. She marks her progress from over-busy professional to newly caring and creative mum, wife and daughter by doing such things as laying a patio. But she really knows she's out of the water when she buys a Crock-Pot slow cooker and tries to cook a stew.
Daddy's lessons are good, you see; they get her back on the straight and narrow. I wonder how she was able to get them down on paper without throwing up. His so-called 'wisdom' belongs not in a Virago paperback, but in a Hallmark card. Pay attention to detail. We all make mistakes. No kidding, Lenny. And what a smoothie he is, always chatting to Naomi's miserable friends on the sofa, asking them slyly if they love their neglectful husbands, flirtations from which his daughter seems to get a vicarious thrill.
In The Treehouse, then, not only does Wolf explicitly embrace what she used to refer to as the patriarchy; the single place she can find tranquility lies in the pursuits, chiefly homemaking, that even her mother once rejected. She is certain that her father is right: only creative freedom leads to true happiness. But she will not set this high-mindedness in context. In a world where most people struggle simply to pay their bills, where women still earn far less than men for equivalent work, self-fulfilment may be a bit more elusive than finding a parking space at Waitrose.
Worse, in this upstate idyll, women are once again prizes to be won, like coconuts at a fair. 'Freud asked, "What do women want?"' she writes. 'I think Leonard has it figured out. Women, perhaps, want their marriages not to terminate their status as the prize, but to consecrate it as a continual beginning. To be courted and won and courted anew.' I read this to the man I am soon to marry. 'Oh, shit,' he said. Which pretty much sums it up.