You know what’s ironic about the #MeToo phenomenon? Though it was launched by the victims of sexual harassment, it’s the perpetrators who get most of the attention. We’re much more absorbed by the strange, outlandish behavior of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and their ilk than the long-term plight of their victims.
While many of us can practically recite what the victims say they endured (Weinstein inviting women to watch him shower during interviews; C.K. masturbating in front of female colleagues, Lauer berating a woman for refusing to service him sexually), do we look beyond those moments and consider how it altered the trajectory of these women’s lives?
I don’t think so, and we should, because the effect on women’s spirit and careers can be profound and life altering.
This hit me when I read Heidi Bond’s #MeToo blog post about her clerkship with Judge Alex Kozinski. (A judge on the Ninth Circuit, Kozinski was recently accused by six former clerks and externs, including Bond, of sexual harassment.)
Bond, in her post, recounts in painful detail but a cool tone the day she started her coveted clerkship with Kozinski up to her current life as a romance novelist. For almost 10 years, she kept what she endured during her clerkship a secret.
What I found remarkable is that she managed keep calm—at least on the surface—while Kozinski, as she describes it, subjected her to a series of indignities. Bond writes about the first time the judge summoned her to view pornographic images:
“Does this kind of thing turn you on?” he asked.
“No.” I remember feeling that I needed to not move, either physically or emotionally, that if I just treated this like this was normal it would stay normal and not get worse.
“They don’t look like they’re having fun.”
That struggle to remain unfazed in the face of heavy-handed sexual remarks undoubtedly strikes a chord for many working women. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to chuckle along to some dirty joke at a meeting or social occasion during my years as a lawyer and journalist.
But what makes Bond’s case worse is that these incidents (she counts at least three) happened when she was alone with Kozinski in his chambers. Plus, he also told her that she was not to tell her co-clerks. Her reaction, despite her composure on the job, was pure fright:
“When this happened, I felt like a prey animal—as if I had to make myself small. If I did, if I never admitted to having any emotions at all, I would get through it.
Despite my best efforts, I continued to have emotions. Why was I alone? What was the purpose of not having the other clerks around? Most prevalent of all was this worry: Was it going to escalate? What could I do if it did?”
The resulting toll, according to Bond, was physical and mental:
I began waking from sleep, heart racing, hearing imaginary double beeps summoning me to his office. I started not being able to sleep at all. By the time I left the clerkship, there were nights I would lie in bed and watch the darkened ceiling until I had to get up and go back to work.
I stopped being able to complete even basic tasks—I left the clerkship as one of the most incompetent clerks ever to grace Kozinski’s chambers, and I’m fairly certain that when I started I was not one of his most incompetent clerks. I gained something like forty pounds over the last six months of the clerkship.
I can understand the physical toll, but what I find astounding is how diminished Bond felt about her abilities. No doubt she was a superstar to get a clerkship with Kozinski in the first place, not to mention that she went on to clerk for Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. (Bond has a degree in theoretical physical chemistry from University of California at Berkeley and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School).
So how is it that someone so brilliant and accomplished can be reduced to a pile of helplessness and self-doubt. Bond asked herself those questions and cannot come up with a satisfactory explanation: “I’m not sure I will ever be satisfied with my own answers, but by the time this happened, I was not in the best place to say no to anything.”
What comes through in Bond’s telling is that Kozinski used charm and power to manipulate. He seemed both playful and monstrous at the same time. On her first day at work, he jokingly called her “my slave,” she writes. But on another occasion, he appeared to insist on the master/slave thing in a more frightening way. According to Bond, the judge told her: “I control what you read, what you write, when you eat. You don’t sleep if I say so. You don’t shit unless I say so. Do you understand?”
He also insisted on absolute secrecy from his clerks—something that he stressed to Bond:
On the last day of my clerkship, he told me that the beauty of judicial confidentiality was that it went two ways. As long as I never, ever told anyone what had happened in chambers with him, he would never tell anyone what had happened with me.
At that point, aware of just how painfully bad I had been at stumbling through the clerkship those last months, I was grateful to think that I could forget the year entirely. It felt like he was telling me that all that incompetence belonged to someone else, not me.
And there’s that word again: incompetence. It’s hard for me to believe that Bond was anything but a super-achiever, but she seemed genuinely convinced that she was a failure.
Which brings us to Bond’s career choices. Her rejection of what might have been—an illustrious future as a law professor, government lawyer, judge, law firm partner—seems to have its roots with her awful experience with Kozinski. And though she writes that she had a positive time clerking for Justices O’Connor and Kennedy, it’s ultimately Kozinski who cast the biggest shadow in her career.
Indeed, she says as much: ”If you did not know about Kozinski, it would be impossible to understand my career choices.” She writes that she applied for various jobs as a law professor, but withdrew. She says she couldn’t bear to teach at her own law school because, “when I did visit the campus, it reminded me too much of who I had been before the clerkship, and I couldn’t handle the memory.”
Though she had other job offers, she felt like a fraud, a conspirator in her own degradation by Kozinski: “I could not escape the notion that my career success was built entirely on my silence.”
Instead, she pursued something that’s almost antithetical to the logical, cerebral world of law: becoming a romance novelist. And her choice seems to have everything to do with how Kozinski abused her:
I wrote books where women won, again and again.
I grappled with my own secret in fictional, changed form. Book after book, I wrote the happy ending I couldn’t quite reach myself. That the stories I wrote resonated with readers, I think, speaks to the fact that #metoo has been building for centuries.
I asked Bond for an interview for this post, and she declined. After reading her post, I can understand why. She’s aired the secret that’s crippled her for almost a decade, so she’s ready to move on. Who can blame her?
She sums up her feelings about Kozinski toward the end of her post:
I do not want to have to think about Judge Kozinski in any public capacity beyond what I have said here. Despite what I have related here, I also believe that the Judge is one of the most brilliant, capable legal minds sitting on the federal bench. I am sure that this revelation will spark a debate about Kozinski’s future; I do not want to have anything to do with it. Please exclude me from these discussions.
It’s powerful stuff. The brilliant judge could have shaped her career, helped chart her future in law. He could have been a powerful role mode and a most valued mentor. Instead, he turned out to be something else, and Bond took a very different path.