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Voices / Viewpoint

The space between indifference and #MeToo

‘Maybe I still am working things through. Maybe I am just trying to lay this instance of my life to rest. I suppose I seek to add a strong voice, confused but perhaps useful, to our current discourse about sexuality and power.’

MacLean Gander has taught English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney for 30 years, but the views expressed are entirely his own. He frequently contributes to these pages.

West Brattleboro

I was a shy, lonely boy, and when I was in ninth grade at a small, elite, all-male day school in Manhattan, one of the English teachers there took a liking to me.

His name was Richard, and he had a Ph.D. from New York University. He must have been all of 28. I was 14.

It was a hard year, as ninth grade is for many kids — all those transitions from being oldest in middle school to youngest in high school, the changes in one’s body, the confusion of starting on the road from childhood to adulthood.

Richard invited me down to New York for a weekend that summer, and for some reason my parents thought it would be fine. Those were more innocent days, I guess. It was 1972. I took a bus from Vermont, where my family lived all summer, and when I got to Richard’s East Side apartment, he gave me a glass of wine and showed me nine joints.

We drank wine, we smoked some of the joints, we ate fine pasta, and then he took me to bed.

I didn’t like it — really, it was confusing to me. I didn’t have a clear sense of my sexual identity then, since all of the changes in my body were new to me.

He didn’t hurt me. He was gentle. He just liked having me in his bed, touching me and so on. I was stoned and drunk, and in a way the evening and the day and evening after that were chaste, except for the ways he liked to touch me.

Richard sent me off from Manhattan after that weekend, and then a few weeks later he came up to Vermont for a sort of reciprocal visit. He showed up in Green River driving his father’s Rolls Royce, with a few record albums and a small pharmacopeia in his suitcase.

We stayed together at a cottage on our property — basically, a study and a bedroom, a guest house. There, we listened to the albums he had brought, smoked the weed, and slept together.

I was almost getting used to it, though like any child of that age there was a part of me that just pretended that nothing was happening. It was a little more intense than the visit to his place in Manhattan, but he still was gentle and kind to me.

Before he left that Sunday, he gave me a Quaalude to ease whatever letdown I would have, and I can remember standing before the mirror in the living room of our main house after he was gone, combing out my long, hippie hair in different ways.

I felt dazed. He had made me feel beautiful and desired in a way that never had been in my life before.

A few weeks later, I met my first girlfriend, a sweet local girl. I started dating girls in the city that winter, and my life changed into something social and ordinary.

I saw Richard one more time that fall when I was in 10th grade, and I rejected his advances. I think I was bigger than him by that point. I just pushed him away.

Richard did not come back to the school after my 10th-grade year — he just sort of disappeared.

I never knew whether there were other classmates who had a similar experience to mine. Maybe I was the only one. I don’t know.

* * *

The new surge of #MeToo stories has prompted me to tell my own tale. I wish I had a clear point to make — I really don’t. Maybe that in itself is part of the story. I want to place my experience in the current climate of honesty about wrong uses of power in the terrain of human sexuality.

Maybe I still am working things through. Maybe I am just trying to lay this instance of my life to rest. I suppose I seek to add a strong voice, confused but perhaps useful, to our current discourse about sexuality and power.

Perhaps I am a victim, though I never have felt like it, probably because I am a white male who comes from privilege.

In an odd way, I was never secretive about what happened to me that year, though maybe that’s just my nature. I wonder if I should have felt more like a victim.

It is not the sort of thing men usually talk about, but among the women I have known in my life, most of them have stories that are not that different, and several have stories that are just terrible.

I never felt like it was a big deal. I’ve written a couple of poems about that period of my life, and sometimes I have wondered what my parents thought was going on, but it all was a really long time ago now.

* * *

The rising generation has a new honesty about sexual culture and about sexual and gender orientation — the permission to love and marry whomever you want, to choose whatever orientation fulfills your being, maybe even to embrace the casual college-campus hook-up culture, although I don’t know about that.

But those of us in prior generations really haven’t talked about sex very much, as a culture, even though pornography and prostitution are two of our largest industries. And our current #MeToo and #IAmToo climate seems like an opening of something that had been closed for far too long.

I do think that there are gradations along the spectrum of these wrongs and that such ambiguous stories require the attention given to those that are really obvious in moral terms.

So we men should reflect on our actions, however innocent or innocuous they may have been intended or seemed at the time. Many of us have been compelled to consider how our past behavior might now be construed.

As I have thought about telling my own #MeToo story, I also have thought about the ways in which I may have been #IAmToo.

I am certain that I never have initiated non-consensual sex with someone. But there is a degree to which sexual relationships are hard to extricate from power and money, and our biological needs are often played out along transactional lines. I can reflect both on ways I may have taken advantage of my circumstances and also on ways in which I was taken advantage of. These are complex waters.

There are strong and healthy ways to be sexual beings, and any educated person knows that this dimension of what it means to be human is grounded in the biology of our bodies.

Human life is very complicated. We all face death. Our sexuality is complex and prone to equations of power and transaction. The question of what love may be — what it means for us to love one another — is a riddle with some strong clues but no answer apart from when it happens and that it is real.

In this current moment, #MeToo and #IAmToo have forced a conversation and also revealed the flaws and evils of many well-known men, which in itself is just an iceberg tip, in the same way that the victims who have bravely come forward are also just a tiny part of the broad terrain of actual victimization.

If we were an honest and genuine society and culture, we would cease the criminalization and the secrecy of those human drives that fuel huge industries of drugs, prostitution, and pornography, and simply acknowledge what Freud called “the universal neurosis of mankind.”

It is fair and good to regulate conduct, but not to make it unlawful when it does no harm. If we are ever able to be enlightened, we might find some capacity to recognize the challenge of being human and the complexity of our beings, and in that fashion, perhaps we might become saner and less sick as a culture.

* * *

I’ve told a true story about events that happened between me and a man named Richard, to whom I wish no harm. Anyone who has known me intimately since I was 16 has heard it, and I don’t even know if he is alive anymore. He would be 75 or so if he is.

In some ways, I made my peace with what happened a long time ago. Certainly, without the #MeToo movement and all these news stories I never would have written this story, which is self-disclosing in ways that I very rarely have attempted in print.

Still, I am not sure I have a right to claim #MeToo, certainly not in the way so many women and men do, women and men who have come forward publicly, at risk to their reputations and to attacks from the powerful males they have outed.

I did not like what happened between us. It was exploitive and also just unpleasant to me. That he made me feel attractive and desirable shaped my sense of self during a time when I was young and malleable, maybe in ways that still have an effect on me, for better or worse.

At the same time, in my life it is just something that happened, in the way that bad things and good things happen in our lives. I always have believed that part of one’s job as an artist is to experience as much reality as one can and to do one’s best to translate it in ways that aspire to be true and beautiful.

I know many people who can tell much worse stories than this one. By comparison, I am not a victim, but I do know people who have been victimized, and I stand with them, as well as I am able to.

I do wonder about the numbness I felt when I was a boy and these events occurred, and I also wonder about the ways that lack of feeling became indifference later in my life. In these 45 years of indifference, I have often thought about the nights that a teacher whom I trusted took me to bed and played around with me.

I don’t know. In some ways we simply are the composite of our lived experience and the stories we tell ourselves about it. I have told my story, in the ways that writers and poets do. Richard and I are even, now, in any case.

I do know, perhaps at long last, that being honest and truthful, to one’s self and to others, is absolutely central to any progress we will make as a species. And I also know that honesty and falsehood are at war in American society today, and perhaps also within each of us in some fashion.

It feels so troubling to me that men like the New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush or the PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose behaved in hurtful ways toward women. I really don’t get the groping and the workplace harassment that are filling our news pages now — why men with that sort of power and money acted the ways in which they did. It seems bewildering to me that someone who fondled a 14-year-old when he was in his thirties while working as a district attorney might become a U.S. senator. And, of course, the president of the United States clearly was a sexual predator at times in his life.

I think of lyrics from that great old Florence Reece labor song, which Pete Seeger popularized: “Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #436 (Wednesday, November 29, 2017). This story appeared on page D1.

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