The Trouble with Al Franken
I’m sad about Al Franken. I’ve been reading some heartfelt responses to the situation, varying in timbre from sad and resolute to forgiving and freshly devoted to the new and improved Al Franken, the one who will likely emerge from a self-imposed ethics investigation much the way he entered it: somewhat marred, but essentially a good man in the eyes of those who always thought he was a good man, and a liberal blowhard to those who always thought he was a liberal blowhard. His reputation in the court of public opinion is bent, but not really broken. He can still look most of America in the eye. Compared to Louis C.K. and the rest of them — Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore — those roiling pots of sexual dysfunction and predation, Franken is a tepid pool.
I’ll be honest — I was sadder and more surprised by the allegations against the men in my own camp: the liberals and artists, the progressive advocates who had been using their bully pulpits and mordant wits to shame and denounce the current administration and all of its gorked trappings as archaic and hateful, relics of a time before we knew that all people are people, and that other religions are equally inexplicable and sacred to the people who they are inexplicable and sacred to. So shame on me for believing that my men would be different.
I had done the math, long before the #MeToo campaign’s explosive and resonant thunderclap revealed, in the hastag, then in the stories, then in ubiquitous social media graphics (culminating in a click-and-download “METOO” frame for your profile picture) that every woman in the world had experienced some form of harassment, abuse, or assault (many of us, the hat trick — all three). I already knew that every woman I’ve ever known indeed had this experience.
Over the years of my adult life, I have traded these stories with hundreds of women. Sometimes we exchanged rueful tales of harassment at work — a boss who gave certain assignments to men versus women, or offered promotions to women he was attracted to, or gah, sleeping with.
I remember one woman telling me, at our kids’ shared sporting event, that she had left her job of 15 years. Without prompting, she detailed the most lurid and disturbing tale of sexual harassment I had ever heard. She described unbidden and unwanted gifts of lingerie, email rundowns of her physical appearance and what it made him want to do, and eventually, disdain and recrimination for her disinterest. This was a routine that cycled over and over again throughout her tenure. She attempted to stand up for herself, to tell him to back off. She tried to inform his superior, as well, but her concerns were dismissed with a more eloquent and lofty version of, “you’re pretty, and boys will be boys.” So she ate it. For fifteen fucking years. And finally, close to a nervous breakdown, she left the job to take a dramatic pay cut and, assumedly, take a minute to examine what that experience had cost her. While she was speaking, I didn’t share with her that I was dealing with a much lesser version — sort of a startup to her full-fledged corporation — of that at my employer.
My supervisor had begun to sit in my cube, on my L-shaped desk while I was at it. He’d sit next to my keyboard, spreading his legs wide to balance. I’d have to roll my chair back as far as I could get in the cube because I was essentially chest-level with his genitals. It was extraordinarily uncomfortable. He emailed me sexual jokes and told me on several occasions that he and his wife were not intimate. If we had been friends, if we were exchanging personal or intimate stories as comrades or companions, this might have made some sense, and I had attempted to frame it that way to myself. But hearing this woman talk about her experience revealed, in crystal clarity, what was actually happening. And I knew what I had to do. The next time he came into my cube, I put my hand on my desk and said, “Hey. I got you this chair.” I pointed to a chair that was wedged in the only remaining floor space in my cube, and locked him in a very hard stare. He sat down.
I had a whole speech prepared, but never gave it. I wish I could say that was the end of it, but it really wasn’t. He continued to tell me tales of his sexual exploits as a younger man, and he started to be sort of bitter and acrimonious about the work we had to do together, making passive-aggressive comments about my interest in working with him, because he was such “an old man.” He frequently commented on my physical appearance, and called me on vacation, just to talk, because he “missed me.” I still considered myself a victor, primarily because I had survived standing up for myself, and also because he never again attempted to physically get close to me. But the truth was that I was never comfortable around him again, and I had no idea how to fix that. Maybe more relevant to today’s situation, I had no idea how he could fix that, either.
On the day Louis C.K.’s apology for his actions ran in People magazine, I read the letter he wrote with the mistaken impression that what he had done was send pictures of his junk to subordinate co-workers (“dick pics,” affectionately). I read his letter with a kind of heartfelt sympathy and profound appreciation for the depth of his understanding of the position he put those women in: he clearly elucidated the impossibility of their consent, in that power dynamic. Asking a subordinate if she wants to see a picture of your wiener is not a question. The truth is that any request issued by the person with the power is always much heavier than any response, however vigorous, from the subject person in the discussion. I couldn’t believe, reading his letter, that he both understood and copped to that. While I was in the middle of canonizing him, my husband straightened me out, detailing what C.K. had actually done. For fuck’s sake.
I was less troubled by what he’d done than by how clearly he seems to have known exactly why it was so horrible to do. Maybe this illumination only arrived in latter-day discussion of his impropriety. But it’s hard for me to imagine that he, just a few years ago, wouldn’t have known at least that what he was doing was really, really wrong, even if he wasn’t sure precisely why. For the record, I was initially baffled why I had such a vigorous reaction to the idea of gently-captive masturbation versus the dick pics. It is some order of magnitude worse, obviously, but really, how far apart on the coital-ogre continuum are they? Can I show you my dick, and can I show you my dick, live?
But then I remembered that when I was 24 I was trapped, along with my sleeping son, in my apartment by a very drunk and very mentally ill male friend of mine who had decided we should be lovers. For four hours, I carefully negotiated with him to make him leave without harming me or my son. In order to get him to leave, I had to describe our first date and first intimate interlude in enthusiastic and exacting detail, to satisfy him that I was his, and would be his forever, so he could go home. Four hours. When I finally had convinced him to leave, I called the police and blockaded myself and my son in the bedroom until they arrived. He wasn’t arrested, because he hadn’t done anything illegal. He never laid a hand on me. Almost, but not quite.
In my experience, that’s what power feels like, when it’s abused. It feels like being trapped. Like being forced to smile and worm your conversation around itself to escape a request that you both can’t say yes, and can’t say no to. And underneath all of these stories, in the squirmy darkness that fills each of these women’s tales, is that same horrible truth: they couldn’t choose. That violation — the surreptitious control and elimination of their agency — is horrible.
So, when Al Franken’s picture emerged, that’s the familiar feeling I felt in my gut. The squirm.
I know and am grateful that he’s done so much for women — legislatively, he’s been a champion, helping author or sponsor many an endeavor that directly supports women’s rights and victims of sexual assault. I wonder, with equal parts glibness and sincerity, if he was troubled by his recollections of his indiscretions during those long senatorial discussions. Did he labor or obsess over whether comparable actions had hurt women he knew? Did he feel outrage, or like so many other perpetrators, did he feel or even encourage sympathy and understanding for fellow perpetrators, because he saw himself in them?
As I said earlier, I’ve done the math. If every single woman I have ever known has been harassed, abused, or assaulted (or all three), then many of the men I know have been perpetrators. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate. But it must be true, even with explosively productive predatory behavior by a large number of real monsters (like Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore).
I feel for Franken’s position, and feel heartbroken for all of the terrible lessons our society taught men, at the same time it ruined women with the resulting monstrous creations. But while I mourn his, and other mens’ misfortune in being indoctrinated into such a nightmare circus, I still feel like the curtain has been pulled for long enough that they should know better, and do better. I can forgive and sometimes understand them, but they can’t stay where they are.
Because in order to do that — in order to deny women’s agency, autonomy, and human right to choose whether to say yes or no, each of these men had to believe that, on some level, they were allowed to do so. They had to believe, consciously or unconsciously, they were entitled to more freedom than the women they violated.
At the end of the day, my issue with Al Franken is simple. Because of all of this, if I ever had to work with him, if I ever even met him, I would feel uncomfortable. And I have no idea how to fix that.
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