Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What Happened

"...the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action..." (Hemingway)

According to Monica Byrne, Bora Zivkovic friended her on Facebook sometime in the fall of 2012. She was "delighted". Zivkovic was a well known blogger and editor at Scientific American and Byrne was an aspiring writer. She assumed that he was making contact because of her writing. She sent him a link to a recent piece she had done and invited him for coffee. He accepted.

But he did not seem to be interested in her writing after all. He wanted to tell her about himself and his marital problems. Apparently, he thought she had invited him on a date. From the start, she struggled to maintain the illusion that this was a "business meeting", that he might take her on as a writer for Scientific American or in some other way help her career. He, by contrast, seemed to be trying to situate the date in his own midlife crisis. He talked about sexual frustrations at home and a near-affair he once had. She was uncomfortable with these topics, but she listened and nodded politely.

A strange thought now occurred to her. "In my head, I told myself that I could still write for him, as long as I didn’t meet with him in person ever again." He had told her he was a "huggy person", and she considers herself to be one too, so she hugged him when they parted. He continued the flirtation with a Facebook message saying that he had enjoyed the sexual turn the conversation had taken. He was apparently reinforcing the idea that the relationship was, if anything, a personal one, perhaps even a romantic one.

Upon seeing this message, she still believed she could "salvage the working relationship." But she soon thought better of it and finally sent him a message explaining how she really felt. She made it clear that she was not comfortable with the conversation and admitted to him that she had concealed this at the time in the hopes that he might help her with her writing career. She also suggested that their coffee meeting constituted an act of sexual harassment. He was traveling at the time and didn't respond immediately. When he did, he offered her an apology, explaining that he was going through a difficult time but that he was past that now. The story tells of no further communication between them.

According to Byrne, the strange notion that she might "salvage" a professional connection to Zivkovic and yet never meet with him in person again was a result of "trauma", as was her politeness throughout the meeting. Even when they hugged, she was "still in shock". She reported "the incident" to Scientific American and she wrote her blog post, "This Happened", about it. She "thought it was important to speak up for [aspiring science writers]. And for all women who might have been put in this position by this guy—or ever are, by any guy. This is what sexual harassment looks like."

The problem with this claim is that her story lacks adequate imagery. If this is what sexual harassment looks like then sexual harassment is virtually invisible even when it's happening right in front of your eyes. The relevant action and the resulting "trauma" occurs inside Byrne's mind. From a narrative point of view, this could easily be fixed by introducing some important elements.

First, Byrne could have specified that she approached Zivkovic to talk about her writing. In her account, she is needlessly vague about this. She says she sent him a link to a piece she had written and invited him for coffee. This could mean many things. It could mean that she wrote him a professional email, explaining who she is and that she would like to talk about possible opportunities. Under those circumstances, it would indeed be inappropriate for Zivkovic to push a romantic, or even just "friendly", agenda at the meeting. He would effectively be wasting her professional time for his personal pleasure. And he would be exploiting his position of power to that end, even if, and actually especially, if he also gave her a writing gig to keep her attention.

Clarifying such initial correspondence is important especially since the contact was made through Facebook. While it's not purely a dating site, it's also not a purely professional networking tool. Given the facts as stated by Byrne, we can imagine an invitation from which it would have been reasonable for him to draw the conclusion that she was contacting him for pleasure not profit. Indeed, it's even possible that she was intentionally vague about her intentions in order to maximize her chances of meeting him. That sort of thing does happen. So it's important to tell the story in way that rules it out. This could have been easily done by posting the exact wording of the invitation.

Byrne says she was "furious" when Zivkovic implied that their conversation just sort of ended up being about sex. He was pretending, she believed, that he didn't intentionally make that happen. "The conversation had gone that way," she suggests, "because he’d very deliberately led it there, and kept it there, despite my non-response." Notice that she doesn't say, "despite my objections". This is how she had described the situation in her narrative:

None of these topics were invited by me. I tried to listen politely and nod when he paused, but otherwise not engage or encourage him. He seemed not to notice how uncomfortable I was. I was trying to mitigate the situation as it was unfolding—which I later read is a common immediate response to trauma, trying to minimize it or pretend it didn’t happen.

In other words, she may very well have been successfully concealing her discomfort from Zivkovic. She says he "seemed not to notice" but her account is also consistent with his actually not having noticed. She was trying to land a writing gig; she even freely admitted this to him later. She was making an effort to keep things cordial. And it was under these circumstances that he intimated more and more details about his private life. This, remember, is simply her account of the events.

My point here is not that she wasn't harassed. Perhaps she was. My point is that she is writing about it in a way that doesn't establish an objective correlative for the emotion. Her discomfort and "trauma" is "in excess of the facts" as Eliot puts it. It's possible that this is because it's all in her mind. But that's not the claim I'm making. I'm saying there's nothing here to see that looks (to me) like harassment. I'm asking Byrne, as a writer, to be more detailed.

Please believe that I thought long and hard about the ethics of criticizing a self-described harassment victim's abilities to describe her own harassment. It's not clear to me whether the criticism is made crueler or more fitting (or both) by the fact that she is a writer, a published novelist. In this series of posts, in any case, I'm deliberately concentrating on professional writers and critiquing, not their experiences, but their writing about them. I think it's important that we become good at writing about these things, about what actually happened to make us feel certain things, rather than what we've been conditioned to feel and conditioned to say.

But there's an important thing to consider here: in a court of law (or some other "due process") the facts would be determined by the collective efforts of the accuser, the accused, and an authority. It is precisely because we are relying on first-person accounts that have to stand entirely alone that this literary problem arises.

In fact, the literary demand for an "objective correlative" is like the "reasonable person" test in legal proceedings. You can't just say, "He looked at me and it made be feel bad," and expect an authority to punish him for sexual harassment. You have to describe something that a reasonable person would interpret as harassment, i.e., you have to say "what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced" and do so in such a way that a reasonable would experience the same emotion when faced with the same "sequence of motion and fact". That's the sense in which your description will fit "the formula of a particular emotion." And, if the facts can be determined to be as you say, if the motions are found to have happened as you describe them, then he will indeed be dealt with with all due severity.


Jonathan said...

This is interesting. You are applying a literary convention of narrative verisimilitude to these accounts, based on modernist conventions (Hemingway, Eliot.). You are assuming a standard of writing and story telling that maybe people are not even capable of any more. I agree with you in identifying these narratives as lacking.

Remember that that was Hamlet's problem: the flaw of Shakespeare's play was the lack of an objective correlative, according to Eliot. He could never find the objective proof that corresponded to his problem (neither the author nor the character could).

Thomas said...

Right, exactly. Norman Mailer applied this to the problems of New York City in his 1968 mayoralty campaign. He said everyone was going crazy in NYC because they didn't have an objective correlative. I would argue that Hamlet's tragedy was that he found his objective correlative in the end. But it came at the cost of his own life and the downfall of the Danish state. There's a moral in that.

Thomas said...

(It was 1969!)