a poem by Yuri Kageyama
Not wanting to say “Me too”
_ An essay by Yuri Kageyama
I have written about sexual abuse many times, as a poet and as a journalist, but I have not talked about my personal experience with sexual harassment.
I was involved in what has been credited as the first sexual harassment case in the U.S. to surface at an academic institution.
That was the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a student.
It was a highly publicized case, but I requested, as did the other victims, to stay anonymous.
I remember I got a call from a fellow student to take part in a campus protest over the case. I told her I was reluctant.
But I had to join forces, she said, breathless over the phone, because what some of the women were saying was amazing.
She read from a letter that was part of the case against the respected professor at the Department of Sociology, a Marxist with a progressive reputation.
The letter went something like this: “We came to the university to get an education, to realize our dreams and to develop as people. The behavior of this professor is unethical, sexist and unprofessional.”
“And so can’t you come to the protest?” she insists.
I keep saying, “No.” But she insists.
And so finally I have to say it.
“I wrote that letter,” I tell her. “And I don’t want to join.”
She falls silent on the other end. It is a painful, sad and numbing moment.
And this is the same way I feel today, decades later.
I respect all those who are saying, “me too.” If there is any redeeming factor to coming out, it is in the knowledge of the systematic pattern of abuse _ that we are not alone, that this is not an extraordinary happening but everyday.
It must be OK to be victims, if it is practically everybody.
But I still don’t feel the trust.
I don’t feel anything good will come of it. And it is not up to the victims to bring justice to an abuser or a harasser. That is not our job.
I did not start the process back then, although I did write that letter when asked, for the investigation.
I had gone earlier to one professor whom I trusted. He shrugged and told me to grow up. He mentioned that he himself had married his student.
But word on the problem professor’s antics gradually got out.
The case initially divided the department _ between those who were stunned someone in their ranks would be preying on students versus those who thought the whole case was a ditched up witch hunt.
And so they did what grown-ups do. They hired an outside objective lawyer and investigator, from Stanford University, I believe, to talk to all the alleged victims.
I remember I was called into her office. Yes, it was a woman.
So I told her what happened, hesitantly, nervously, replying to her questions.
It was another painful, sad and numbing moment.
He had called to say he wanted to discuss one of my papers and told me to come to a downtown Berkeley cafe. But when I showed up, a little flattered a professor would want to talk about my work, he had not even brought my paper.
We sat at a table, dimly lit, in the fancier part of Berkeley that I had never been to before. He told me he was interested in me because I was Asian, and he was not interested in loud American women.
He made a joke, something about: “I’m the man. I like to be on top.”
He complimented me on what I was wearing, a top that appeared to have Asian motifs. It was one of my favorite shirts, and I happened to have it on when I talked to the lawyer.
And so I told her that was what I had on. She asked, apparently a part of an investigator’s modus operandi to see how reliable my memory might be.
As it turns out, at least one woman was physically attacked in his car. There was another student who was happy about becoming his lover, and told everyone he had changed her life, whatever that meant.
This woman’s existence was as alienating and depressing as the existence of the woman who was attacked was alarming and horrifying.
It didn’t help for me to know the one who was attacked was a woman of color.
I was just afraid. I did not want to go into the department halls in case he would be there, and I would have to deal with him.
Maybe I would not be as afraid today. But I was young, and he was an older powerful male, who had my future in his control, and he had specifically said he wanted me to do something that I did not want.
I was already feeling violated, weak and objectified. It was an awkward, sickening feeling.
Unfortunately, he was there once, in the department mailroom. Although I tried to get away, he approached me and asked that I retract the letter I had written in the case against him.
He promised in a pleading tone that I would get an “A” if I would retract the letter.
My case was one of the “more damaging” against him, another professor had explained to me, because I had gotten all A’s in my work in his class, as well as my other classes, but after I refused his advances, he had given a B for my overall grade.
You don’t want to even weep. You just want the world to go away, and you don’t want to think about it. You don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to even remember it.
I never finished my doctorate, settling for my Master’s.
The professor found another job, in a prestigious institution in Europe, and left on his own, still insisting on his innocence.
The lawyer doing the investigation recommended dismissal.
So we were vindicated, of sorts.
Years later, when a woman asked for my advice about a sexual harasser in her office, I told her just to stay away from him, never be alone with him, assuring her that I with my friends would be there for her physically, to protect her, if any situation arose she had to be with him. But I advised against making a public complaint.
So I don’t shout out, “me too.”
At least, I managed to write this today.
It’s strange and it’s not right I remember so much of it, the tiniest details _ the tone of the lawyer’s voice, the look in the professor’s eye, the dark orange glow of that table _ when it happened so many years ago.
People don’t understand you don’t have to be particularly beautiful or outstanding to be a victim.
It’s usually mundane, pathetic and devoid of glamour, neither Hollywood nor the Olympic team.
Some men just look around to what is available, vulnerable, close to them.
And I was there, a student, in that department.
I had a flowery Asian shirt on. That was all.