Four weeks ago, I woke up to discover that a well-regarded New York government official, Bob Freeman, had been fired for being inappropriately physical with a young female reporter.
I’d had my own experience with Freeman in 2013, and that morning I passed a message to the woman whose account led to his ouster, and finally reported a teacher who had abused his power over me many years ago.
After Freeman, I knew: There’s never just one. I knew it because suddenly everyone was saying his actions were “an open secret.” Apparently it wasn’t that open, because I hadn’t been in on it. If I had, I wouldn’t have thought I was the only one.
Intellectually, rationally, I knew it wasn’t my fault that he molested that young reporter. But in a very visceral way, I felt guilty and responsible, and I know for a fact that feeling will never go away. I will never stop wishing that I had done something, said something after Freeman tried to make me kiss him on the mouth years ago, instead of swallowing my discomfort and assuming, once again, that I had done something to make a Good Man behave inappropriately.
After his ouster, eight women, including me, spoke by name about our experiences with him (he declined to comment), and it came out that he’d been disciplined the year before he’d tried to kiss me for "inappropriate workplace behavior” with women, according to the state Inspector General report that found he’d engaged in “inappropriate sexual behavior” and led to his termination.
Something shatters when you read something that changes your perspective on your own life. And then everything is refracted through that shattered lens, and it all looks and feels different. I’ve listened to dozens of women recount stories of abuse and mistreatment, and explain why they came forward. And I always thought I understood. But I didn’t.
Maybe that’s the problem with Jane Mayer’s new reporting on Al Franken, which is basically a belated case for the defense. Reading her piece was puzzling and disappointing. It seemed like she didn’t understand why women come forward; why they still want anonymity after doing so; why they may not want to rehash every detail months later with someone who has, at best, an impersonal interest in their experience.
Much of her New Yorker piece is devoted to taking down Franken’s first accuser, Leeann Tweeden, even though calls for his resignation only occurred after eight more women had come forward. Mayer shoehorns in quotes from friends of Franken, senators with regrets about backing his ouster, and an array of feminists, like an attorney calling a list of expert witnesses.
When I started reading, I had no particular feelings about Franken; he seemed like a nice-enough egoist, the sort of person I imagine is considered basically a saint in politics or comedy. After finishing, I found a sniveling, self-pitying overgrown child. I’d gone from being generally neutral on the man to finding him utterly loathsome.
Jane Mayer is a titan among reporters. There are few people in the field who come close to inspiring the level of respect and admiration—even reverence—that she does, specially in the arena of accountability for sexual harassment. It’s in large part because of her that the truth about Anita Hill can be found among the lies and rumors that were spread. As a reporter who cares deeply about that kind of reporting, criticizing Mayer feels akin to what I imagine it’s like for a clergy member to pick apart God.
But I’m Jewish and our whole thing is being critical and questioning and I strongly believe that the more you love something, the more important it is to be clear-eyed about it. And I don’t believe Mayer’s Franken piece would pass muster if it wasn’t about Franken or by Mayer. Few others could get away with giving or getting this kind of coverage.
If there was any ambiguity about the argument Mayer—whom I emailed Monday morning before writing this response, but didn’t hear back from—is making, her tweets about the story make her view crystal-clear: “How @alfranken got railroaded” and “Almost NOTHING His Main Accuser Said checks out.”
The story itself hits notes that should raise alarm bells about bias and cliché. There’s an emotional element to the note about Al Franken wearing socks in his own house when Mayer goes to meet him. He is painted as the perfect victim: putting his head in his hands, being near tears—with each of these moments at the exact place you’d expect Mayer to hold him to some kind of account. When the young congressional staffer, whom Mayer clearly blames for Franken’s resignation, refuses to accept that undue burden—telling Mayer, “I didn’t end his Senate career—he did”—Franken cries and condemns the young woman for being “callous.” His is the last word in that exchange.
It is a near constant refrain by men who feel, as Franken put it, that they’ve been “MeToo’d,” that their lives have been destroyed. Mayer’s piece keeps returning to that construction, even as it downplays the criticisms of him it presents. His resignation is likened to “capital punishment,” and Franken describes his post-resignation thinking as “I’m going to die alone in the jungle.”
In fact, Franken’s life is not over. He has a podcast and sells many books. It is very clear that the world of American politics still includes many people who like him and want to work with him. The work he was so proud of can still be done, by him. He can form a nonprofit, or a lobbying firm that works on behalf of legislation like the forced arbitration bill he wrote and passed along to Kirsten Gillibrand to carry. He is still a very powerful man with a lot of options. Not being a senator is very, very far from a death sentence.
Mayer herself wrote that whenever he goes out, people are constantly telling him how wonderful he is. To sit at home in his socks and feel sorry for himself is a choice he is making.
While Mayer’s piece focuses on Tweeden, she was not the cause of Franken’s resignation. It was the eight other women who came out after she did, with allegations of being groped during photo ops or at work events. Mayer belittles these women, dismissing those too fearful to go on the record—a perfectly rational inclination toward self-protection—and saying that “only” two of the incidents occurred after he became a senator. She doesn’t specify how many women a senator needs to grope in order for it to matter.
The article is packed with friends of Franken insisting on what a good guy he is, which is wholly irrelevant. Anyone—and especially someone with money and power—can be a good guy to their friends, and shitty to others.
Even some of what’s presented in Mayer’s case for Franken in fact seems to bolster the allegations against him. A Saturday Night Live writer who said he’s known Franken for 47 years and claims Franken is “the very last person” to harass women also provided a list of Franken’s shortcomings that describe, to a T, a person with boundary issues who could very believably violate the space of women in his orbit:
“He can be very aggressive interpersonally. He can say mean things, or use other people as props. He can seem more confident that the audience will find him adorable than he ought to. His estimate of his charm can be overconfident.”
The fact that an overconfident, interpersonally aggressive man who incorrectly thinks he’s adorable and likes to “use other people as props” is the “last person on earth” this SNL writer thinks would physically violate a woman makes me very curious to know who else this person is hanging out with, so that I can avoid them.
There are no perfect victims, though all victims struggle mightily to make themselves into one, in the hopes that they might avoid the derision and scorn those who went before them received.
While Mayer’s fact-checking of the claims made by Leeann Tweeden contain some interesting revelations, she strongly suggests Tweeden had a deceitfulness that the piece doesn’t manage to prove. Yes, many of the claims made by Tweeden proved mistaken or untrue, but it’s not clear that Tweeden was aware that she was wrong—in many instances, it’s quite possible she was just ill-informed. At one point, Mayer quotes Lauren Sivan, a witness against Harvey Weinstein, saying of Tweeden coming forward, “It was absolutely something she wanted to do—I think she hated Franken.”
The implication is that this somehow biases her, as though in order to be reliable reporters of our own mistreatment, we must maintain beatific neutrality about those who harmed us.
There are also things that simply don’t make sense, and are difficult to read as anything other than Mayer vouching for Franken. Mayer quotes an unnamed adviser calling Franken’s penchant for trying to kiss people on the mouth a “New York kiss,” which it absolutely is not. As a born and raised New Yorker, I can assure you that “a New York kiss” is much more likely to mean getting punched in the mouth for trying to needlessly put your lips on those of someone with whom you have no intimate relationship.
Bob Freeman tried to make me give him “a New York kiss.” We’d met for lunch; he was a source for a story I was writing, and I was trying to get some facetime with him while he happened to be in the city. I walked him to Penn Station and he told me to give him a kiss. I kissed the air near his face, and he told me to kiss him on the mouth. We were in public. Broad daylight. No one noticed. I laughed it off, and got myself out of arm’s reach, waving goodbye gaily. Anyone who saw us would’ve thought everything was fine, unless they were still watching me when I turned a corner, the smile slid from my face, and I cried about the story I was about to throw out, so that I would never have to see or speak with him again.
Over time, I told a few people what happened. It was usually a test balloon, usually floated with male reporters, often to illustrate a point about how much more fraught source-making and -keeping was for me than for them. Reading Mayer’s defense of Franken, I thought about how she could have taken apart my story if I had come out, since Freeman never actually kissed me. I never told him it upset me. And yet, I will always feel responsible for all the women who came after me, especially that young reporter he lost his job for allegedly molesting.
After learning about Freeman’s pattern of abuse, I finally understood that there is never just one victim. For years, I had hesitated to report what had happened to me, because the men who had behaved badly with me—that former teacher, Freeman—were Good Men. They talked to me about their wives, whom they loved very much. (This is also behavior exhibited by Franken that Mayer and his friends see as exculpatory; in my experience, it is manipulative and works to confuse the victim.) They were respected; they were good at what they did; they had good reputations. So I assumed that it was my fault that they had behaved badly with me. I made them behave badly.
The belief that I was the only one wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t reported the teacher. I thought about his family, and I also dreaded having to answer any questions about what happened, having to relieve any of it. But all I could think was that I had already allowed years to go by in which that teacher could have been inappropriate to countless girls. I was done bending over backwards to protect men who didn’t care enough about their own families to avoid jeopardizing them. I had already spent years prioritizing the comfort of someone who hadn’t given a damn about my comfort, and who I had no reason to believe would care about the comfort of other girls.
So I sent a letter, explaining what happened. And I ended it with a paragraph warning that if anyone—the teacher himself or someone on his behalf—were to contact me, I would make the communication public immediately, with no identities redacted. I had never thought to do that before. There were many things I had never thought of before.
My decision not to report Freeman wasn’t only, or even mostly, motivated by fear about ruining my professional reputation, or the fact that I’d thought I was the only one this had happened to. The truth was, I simply didn’t believe I had anything to report—until I read what he’d done to someone else, and what the consequences were. (I finally spoke about my experience, as other women eventually did, for a follow-up story on the “open secret” to which I was never privy).
I really believe it is thanks to the #MeToo movement that Freeman’s harassment was finally reported, and then taken seriously. Mayer, though, seems to see a cautionary tale here, one in which “After years of belittlement and dismissal, some see it as offensive to subject accusers to scrutiny. ‘Believe Women’ has become a credo of the #MeToo movement.”
But the idea that the pendulum has swung so far now that women are blindly believed is absurd. Every woman I’ve ever interviewed has paused repeatedly, to look up an email or a text message that would provide me with an exact date, or corroboration of something that happened. It’s not a matter of accepting without scrutiny a woman’s narrative over any other.
It’s a matter of giving the woman a chance to have her narrative considered—something that is, indeed, quite a new development, and one that many of us are clearly struggling to come to terms with.