By Mary Ann Swissler
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand wasn’t the only target of sexism by her supposed allies in Congress. So was I.
Her insults were done to her face and took place at work. Mine were behind my back and took place in various and sundry locations and mediums. I was gifted with a smear campaign by celebrity Senator Al Franken (D-MN), calling me a prostitute and a serial complainer of bogus sexual harassment claims.
No surprise that neither of us have gotten an “I’m sorry.” Neither could we lean on an inept Senate’s ability to get its members to act like big boys, and at least apologize for an obvious smear campaign against a private citizen—me. No, members are so cocooned in their individual fiefdoms, that treatment of us mere serfs is nary a blip on their radar. I know the Democrats have come to rely on his vote, except for approving the Bush tax cuts extension, and food stamp cuts. But no one’s above the law, except for celebrities it seems.
With Franken on the brink of a probable second term this November, I wonder who he’ll target beyond the 2014 election. No remorse means a smearing encore, after all, and if not against me then someone else too intimidated by his powerful position to fight back by speaking up.
In the meantime, it’s come to this – journalism. It’s come down to exercising my free speech rights on abuse by Franken—a complete stranger to me—smearing me as a lying, gold digging prostitute.
Not true, but that didn’t stop the freshman pol from contacting some men I’ve managed to piss off over the past 28 years, including sexual harassers from old jobs, a journalism grad school professor, and a crack-smoking junior high school teacher. Franken used his show biz and media contacts to give these men, and one woman, soap boxes in which to smear me.
It makes no sense. After fighting tooth and nail to legally prove he won the 2008 election for U.S. Senator to Minnesota, celebrity Al Franken decided to turn me into an Enemy of the State, from early ’09 to early ’11. Me, a political nobody and a very, very minor journalist.
I wouldn’t exactly care about the rantings of an obvious buffoon but Franken’s star power wooed people to his side. People believed him.
All I’ve asked for is an apology. That’s not going to happen. So here I am hoping that the pen is mightier than the sword.
I could’ve prevented the prostitution accusation, I admit. I should have kept Franken up to date over the past quarter-century of every job, grant, loan, published article or gift I received. Then, he could’ve judged if I had visible means of support and not been forced to call me a whore.
With the election so close, don’t conclude that this article is a right-wing hit piece, or a mere rant against his abuse; I’m a lifelong Democrat. As an incumbent he’ll most likely get re-elected this November. Besides, he’s in a safe district, according to the Huffington Post. At worst, he’ll squeak through.
This episode deserves review because nothing starts an argument faster than sexual harassment complaints and this lack of understanding is getting us nowhere in our workplaces. Franken merely tapped into existing rage and cynicism, among both women and men.
Common stereotypes abound. First, you’re not supposed to open your mouth and object more than once. Anything more is construed as a pattern, maybe of lawsuit chasing, or worse.
I spoke up four times, three for work and one for a teacher. But statistically, I’ve kept quiet. I was harassed by 15 different men and 1 female grad school teacher, over 39 years of work beginning at age 14. I just turned 53. I’m talking about: a boss rubbing his erect penis against my back while I typed, calls at home for a tryst, being asked when I’m going to visit a supervisor at home for a tryst, and the ever-popular unwanted shoulder and back rubs. Those come with or without being told, “We’re two ships passing in the night.” In 2008, a bank supervisor responded when I spoke up about a drunk customer who demanded repeatedly that I give him my phone number and go out with him, “I know you don’t like men.” He added “You were nice to him,” and suggested “Tell him you have a boyfriend.”
These 16 times don’t include being asked in Waikiki at age 20, during an interview for a supposed sales hostess, if I’d like to work as a call girl. Or in Los Angeles at age 23 at an interview for movie extras, if I’d mind performing the part of a topless soccer player. Tastefully done, of course. I said no both times and left.
At least both men took no for an answer and didn’t persist or retaliate. No deranged U.S. Senator stalked me, with help from his media and show biz contacts. This is more than I can say for many “legitimately” employed men and the grad school teacher who, with the positioning of her body, let me know she wanted more from me than my thesis project. In 1997, we were meeting to discuss my final grade and my overall academic program. I didn’t react to her overture or tell anyone. But getting no for an answer was enough for her to retaliate against me. She derailed my graduation date, stopped returning my phone calls about new classes she assigned, and moved to L.A. from San Francisco without telling me how I should handle my program paperwork. It was a mess.
This and more compelled Franken to invade my life. And it’s not as if he doesn’t understand what he did was wrong. In his own words from an August 2014 fundraising email: “Karl Rove and the Koch brothers are paying a lot of attention to Democratic senators like me….(A)ll this attention doesn’t feel like a compliment—it feels like a really scary threat.” (Italics mine).
Worst of all, instead of giving 100% to the people of Minnesota, Franken used his celebrity contacts to smear most of my past. He ridiculed me for being molested at 15. He didn’t like my parents’ religious beliefs, my work history, or my current life. Then there was the former friend he commiserated with, someone who I was once closer to than my own brother. He was my “date” to the high school prom. I know his family. In 1994 he had (and still has?) quite the active crack and drinking habit while holding down a junior high school teaching job. It was tragic to watch and dangerous for people around him: He brought two boHys home twice, once saying he brought them to meet me. He stole from a neighbor and blamed me. He told me he’d been staying out all night getting high and drinking, and blacked out the events of the evenings. I’m convinced that during this time he set two middle-of-the-night fires in the classroom of a female teacher he loathed with a passion. As his roommate I listened to his incessant complaining about her, especially her arched eyebrows. He sounded almost pleased while describing the fires to me.
This is the part Franken added to my list of crimes: I called my ex-friend’s school and placed a call to the Oakland police department. The cop who answered the phone accused me of trying to get an ex-lover in trouble. It didn’t help when I said he and I were both gay. “Bill” and I never kissed much less did anything else.
Thanks to the machinations of his law professor sister, “Bill” kept his teaching job. He later left Oakland and teaches in his new town.
Should I have looked the other way and not reported anything? I almost didn’t. Despite dissolving our friendship, it took me months to work through my “he was my best friend” guilt. These common feelings are why underreporting is the real problem, not false accusations. I’ve heard it “explained” on MSNBC, of all networks, that false allegations are rampant.
It’s this hostility that drives women’s silence: Less than one-half of women reported their workplace harassment, according to a survey by The American Association of University Women.
So thank you, Al Franken, for reminding me I’m part of an elite group: the few, the proud, the ones who spoke up at work and school, to say, “This shiat is not in my job description.”
And I also owe a debt of gratitude to the Senate for their outrageous lack of oversight and deafening silence in response to my emails, calls and faxes about Franken. I especially owe this debt to Harry Reid for keeping Franken’s seat on Judiciary, even though he’s against what gender rights laws protect—dignity at work, home and in public. And membership on Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights? What a bad joke.
The lack of humor doesn’t stop there. Franken has now been trying to worm his way into the women’s movement through networking with groups, speaking out and introducing legislation.
But despite the bad jokes, my voice matters, especially since I’m the underdog, not in spite of it. Still, I’m left with questions. Why wouldn’t the Senate just look at my accusations instead of getting some grouchy attorney to send a letter rejecting any investigation? I have two words for them: Bob Packwood (R-OR), the Senator forced from office in 1995 because his women’s rights activism came with an asterisk: he doubled as a letch. Franken may not hit on women indiscriminately like Packwood but his retaliation was equally damaging. The fact that it violates sexual harassment laws to retaliate against a complainant didn’t stop him; who or what will?
Even after I reached out in an August 2009 fax to Franken’s D.C. office, saying “no hard feelings,” but if there’s a next time could he get my input about my own life? I also called both his Minnesota and D.C. to try and solve this. I left a message. I h eard nothing back. Useless, I know, but at least I made an effort. A few months later, the retaliation began about some 15-year-old, unwanted touching and shoulder rubbing by a newsroom colleague in the Bay Area. In 1999, this male coworker had been “going from woman to woman” according to one female editor, and now it was my turn. I emailed the guy to please stop, he got angry so I told my boss. This supervisor did all the right things but then fostered resentment of me by other supervising editors and coworkers. People said I overreacted. I know it upsets the workplace to call someone a pest and a harasser. Bosses have to take time away from their work to deal with a complaint. But I do know that if a woman—or man—doesn’t speak up, nothing will change.
People will say the takeaway message from this is I learned something. I learned that post-traumatic stress disorder is a real thing. I re-lived each detail of the horrors I’d managed to put behind me and which I was being attacked for. Mostly it was the fear in my gut that never leaves, feeling like I was physically back in those situations, with the isolation from coworkers and bosses who may not understand, and frustration that my livelihood was on the line because some jerk feels rejected.
Here’s another version on the journey through periodic PTSD, from Alison Downs on xojane.com: “PTSD is a scratch across the record album that is your brain, forcing your memory to get stuck in a rut and skip. PTSD is a harsh interruption and a reminder of terrible incidents — truly terrible incidents. Incidents that were so disturbing, your brain didn’t know how to process them… so it continues to try.”
She continues, “During a PTSD flashback, your brain rewinds to the worst moment of your entire life. Then that horrible moment is amplified and played over and over again. Every nasty sight, sound, smell, and physical sensation, replayed in your brain in an infinite loop. You hate it. You don’t want to see it, you don’t want to think about it, but you are powerless to stop it.”
Fortunately, later on, I had the privilege of working among consummate professionals at two daily newspapers while living in north New Jersey. I wonder if it’s an East Coast-West Coast thing. I just started as a copy editor at the Jersey Journal when 9/11 hit, located in Jersey City just a short trip over the nearby Hudson river. It was intense to say the least. Then, I worked, again as a part-time copy editor, for the largest paper in the state, the Star-Ledger in Newark.
I learned that fair workplaces like those two papers do exist, and to appreciate them even if that appreciation comes years later.
And now, ultimately, I have to temper my justifiable outrage with wisdom, calm, and forward momentum. But while I’ve worked out my rage at being held up, for no good reason, for public ridicule by a douchey celebrity like Franken, and other doofuses he knows in the media and show biz , I’m still concerned about his future smear campaigns against women, or men. There’s definitely no one stopping him.
I have advice for the Senate’s recruiters: Next time, conduct an IQ test for potential candidates or at least find people who’ve had more therapy than Franken obviously hasn’t had.
ADDENDUM: I’ve thought about this essay. Maybe it’s a little lopsided, excluding my own foibles. On the whole, I don’t think using work as a potential dating pool is a good idea. But, we’re all human and sometimes chemistry speaks louder than reason. I’ve had my share of infatuation at the office and on rare times things clicked. Other times not. In love, I’ve had to hear no for an answer. But I took no for an answer. The first time.
Speaking of chemistry, I’ve put my share of illegal chemicals in my body to get high. Past tense. Way past. But unlike one of the shady characters profiled in my blog post, I never went into blackouts and started revenge fires, as a result of taking drugs or drinking. Or drove school age children around in my car while high as a kite. And probably drunk. While employed as their school teacher.