Author’s Note: The night before writing this I sat up well past midnight, scrolling through every interview with every woman who had, in those recent days, come out publicly bearing a personal account of sexual abuse by Bill Cosby. My heart rate increased; my chest ached. Then, I felt the energy churning. I was emboldened.
At that point, I posted this account – here, on my blog; a few days later, feeling nervous about repercussions, I pulled it.
But, now, the time is right.
Herewith, another woman’s story. [PG-13].
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I think it was the winter of 1999. I was, essentially, at work. Having become increasingly overwrought by the personnel actions toward me of a professional colleague (whom I’d also thought a friend), I was found to be disclosing my frustrations following one of our evening group sessions together. In fact, I was openly crying.
A certain coworker listened, and quietly suggested I come over to his in-town apartment to discuss it. He said he had a fine musical instrument he wanted me to check out, as well, an instrument which I played professionally. Having professionally collaborated with this coworker in the past, I’d been to that in-town apartment before – both during the day, and in the evening. In fact, the building being one of our town’s historical treasures, I’d even been there to take several photographs of its interior. So, I was well-acquainted with its owner, and accepted the invitation without any hesitation.
When I arrived, I entered the kitchen of the apartment, located at the back of the building, fully familiar with my surroundings. As I sat at the small table in the corner with my back to the wall, he removed a bottle of wine from a cupboard on the other side of the kitchen and began to pour me a glass. He said it was a Merlot, given to him by a mutual acquaintance, a close friend of his. Although we’d shared pierogis once before at that table, we’d never had wine.
I began the long saga of my alleged friendship with the colleague in question. Tears poured forth as I expressed feelings of fear, suspicion of professional manipulation, and an encroaching anxiety. I also sipped the wine at frequent intervals, probably due to both thirst and its tempting quality. Historically, I drank rarely and, on that particular evening – my stomach being empty – I would later realize the wine had gone straight to my head.
Reaching full-on sobs, I was nevertheless able to note that he kept refilling my glass. Then, at a certain point, and without any warning he half-stood, leaned across the table, and kissed my mouth. It was the kind of kiss that pressed against my face. I remember thinking in my fog that I did not want to kiss him, so I did not respond/did not kiss him back. We had never before had any form of a physical relationship, and I had zero interest in starting one. I began to stand up; it was, in my mind, time to leave.
As my body reached a fully standing position, I noted that I was very dizzy. Though returning home was a straight shot south, it was dark outside and I could not seem to control the dizziness. Since this was a weekend evening and I was an employee of the public school system, my mind at that moment prioritized avoiding a DUI and I determined that I needed to wait a bit, to let the most immediate alcohol effect wear off.
My choices, however, were limited. Since he was quiet by nature, and not behaving overtly aggressively, I felt momentarily safe enough to walk through the next room into the much larger room where the instrument was located. My initial acceptance of the invitation having included the option of checking out the instrument, I concluded in my stupor that following through on that part of the invitation would further legitimize my presence there, and give me the extra time to wear down the alcohol effect before returning home. I also knew that being seen at the instrument through any front-facing window would, at the very least, appear honorable. I was also, strangely, aware of being seen by God.
I sat at the instrument and began to play it, as he spoke about practicing scales, and such. He’d followed me into the room. Then, from behind, he began to kiss the nape of my neck. He did so, repeatedly. I recall feeling completely submissive to this, unable to resist the arousal. I recall reaching back behind me, and momentarily placing my hands between his legs. Then, he said something, and walked away from me into the adjoining room through which I had passed to reach the instrument.
That room was a bedroom. He lay on his back on the bed; I stood in the doorway of the room. I remember a child’s tricycle to the near left of me, close to the exit leading into the kitchen. I stood facing him, across the room from the bed, and told him that I was leaving. I remember reminding him that he was married, that his wife had just had a baby, and that what was happening in this place was wrong.
He asked me whether or not there were times when I might just want to have sex. I said “No.” And, then, I turned, and walked out of the room, through the kitchen, and outside to my car.
Driving south toward home, trying to process what had just happened, I felt very, very tired. It wasn’t until the next day that, awakening, I fully realized what had taken place the night before. I remember being struck by how quietly the whole thing had transpired.
And, I kept all of this equally quietly to myself, a reaction uncommon to my transparent, disclosing nature. My mother had died four years prior, and my husband had left soon after her death. Some might have argued that I was in an extended, emotionally vulnerable state, perhaps residual grief. ( I would contend that, while emotionally expressive by nature, I am a woman of tremendous inner resolve. What I determine to do, once I have determined to do it, I do with my might; conversely, what I determine I will not do will quite literally never happen.) Such was the case that evening. I knew when I entered that place that I was neither expecting nor hoping for a sexual encounter; as such, I left that place before any such thing occurred. No amount of wine, or other un-inhibiting substance, would have altered that outcome, as far as I was concerned.
But, the effect of that encounter stayed with me. What became clear (to me) as nefarious intent would prove out over time. It would lead to its own not-so-quiet horror, carrying the potential for bringing down not only me and my professional life in the community, but my entire family name. I would live out actions and reactions that would follow both a predictable and completely shocking path of emotional assault. I would witness and endure my own actions of that evening being turned on me, reconstituted, and transformed into accusation, accusation coming to me in the form of a letter drafted by an attorney and signed by important members of the community. How so? The coworker in question, who’d listened that evening to my entire backstory, would take the information I had provided that night and use it against me, after securing the very position later vacated by my alleged friend and then hiring others in my place. I would ultimately need to consult my father, my brother (who, as a toxicologist with a PhD, had already served many times in court as expert witness), and an attorney, to determine whether I had a legal case – only to be told I did not, lest I be willing to take on the entire organization alone. In the end, I would be legally advised by the other side to drop any and all allegations against said coworker, in exchange for continuing hire by the organization.
In short, I had been turned into an accuser – perhaps, even been unfairly characterized as some kind of perpetrator.
This I will never know with certainty, unless I seek out those who were consulted against me. Nobody associated with the organization for which both of us had worked, he by contract and myself by hire, ever either suggested or asked that I meet with them face to face. All communications regarding the entire sordid episode took place via email, with my initial inquiry the catalyst; I had approached the employee committee in place to address all concerns with questions about my hire, and referenced the encounter as a possible corollary. This, apparently, was all it took for the case to be made a major point of repeated discussion by the committee – all taking place outside of my presence – discussions, fatefully, which reached the eyes and ears of the coworker I’d cited, when one member of the committee gave him copies of my correspondence. Once these reached his eyes, he’d consulted with the management of the organization, members of which were, apparently, quite willing to meet with him, whereupon they jointly drafted, signed, and sent me the letter.
I remember finding out about that letter before it reached me; the phone rang on Hallowe’en night, while I was passing out candy to the children at the door. A colleague, from the committee, was calling to warn me that both myself and the organization were about to be sued. I fell to the floor, completely hysterical.
The anxiety which followed that near-disaster would stick to me like a fly to the paper for years thereafter. The most damaging fall-out of the episode, in my case, was the development of performance anxiety. As a publicly performing musician my entire life up until that point, I had always been able to approach any stage and my presence upon it with the utmost confidence, a gift borne in me by my spectacularly talented father and nurtured by my completely devoted, diligent mother. Now, I would get cold and clammy, and paranoid; how many in the audience knew who I was? Who knew what had happened? How many colleagues from any number of work sites knew? I would consult therapists to overcome it. I would grapple ever after to regain my self. And, to this day, fifteen years hence, I still fight its residual effects to save my own emotional soul.
My late mother would have offered clarity. Never in a million years, she would have sternly intoned, should I have agreed to enter the dwelling of a married man alone after dark. What on earth was I thinking?!
And, she would have been right. There was simply no.excuse.
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I can’t know the mind of an ingenue, in the presence of a very powerful celebrity who is both beloved and strong. But, I would suggest that, in our time, every effort be made to protect young women from any situation which leaves them physically subject to the slightest possibility of being overpowered. Agents and other representatives should be sure that all encounters with alleged mentors take place in mixed company, or in public, and be monitored. How difficult is that to arrange? Being left alone, or choosing to be alone, with any one person – I now know – always carries its own warnings. Maybe it’s time to simply heed them. Fallout from even a brief, badly-timed encounter can be both dark, and lifelong.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 12/6/14 All rights completely, and utterly, reserved by the author. Please, respect this. Thank you.