By Lisa Barr
It was one of those moments that made me stop in my tracks and remember something I thought I’d successfully forgotten. I picked up the morning newspaper and saw the name of someone prominent who had abused his power and tried to seduce a young twenty-something against her will — because he thought he could.
I was just out of graduate school and was on the job hunt. A former employer arranged for me to meet his colleague, a CEO of a major political public relations company based in Chicago–a man who was behind putting other men and women into top political positions, including the White House. I met the man at his office and had what I thought was an “amazing” interview. I believed he was serious about hiring me, and he said let’s go to lunch and discuss your options further. Lunch went well, and I was already thinking of all the bills I would soon be able to pay off. I just knew this fabulous job was about to become mine.
Until I got into his car.
“Where do you live?” he asked. “I’ll just drop you off.”
Perhaps it was the way he looked at me, out of the corner of his eye as he drove. Something didn’t feel right. Is this normal? I remember thinking to myself. Shouldn’t we be going back to his office, and fill out paperwork? Or at least go back to his office, and I would catch a cab back to my apartment?
Soon after, I felt a hand on my leg, and I began to panic. I quickly understood that I was not being hired for my experience, my master’s degree, or my potential. I was being “hired” for the afternoon. There was no job. I was in his car alone. This married man was trying to get me into bed.
“Please take me home now,” I said firmly, while trying to assess my options — thinking I would just jump out at the first stop light. He pulled the car over and forcibly tried to kiss me and groped me, first my breasts and then between my thighs. I finally managed to push him off of me, and somehow got out of his car, and ran.
That was it. Nothing more. I was shaken. I didn’t know what to do. I was 23 years old, and this was a powerful man in an industry in which I needed a job. So I didn’t tell anybody. And I can’t remember clearly what I told my former boss who had arranged the interview, and asked me about it. I think I said something like the job was not for me.
When you are young, inexperienced, and afraid — the right thing to do is not so clear. If this had happened to one of my daughters, and I knew about it, you can be damned sure I would be at that man’s office with my tape recorder and a baseball bat.
While it was not rape — I felt violated. This man stole my Working World innocence. You can best believe after that, I never went alone in any man’s car with whom I was interviewing — no matter what.
As my sister said to me this morning after I called her in a state of unexpected panic — “What can you really do at this point? At least you somehow knew at a young age to protect yourself. Don’t forget that — you did the right thing. You jumped out of that car.”
But did I do the right thing? Holding this secret for so many years. How many more young women just like me — bright-eyed, ambitious, filled with possibilities — had been groped and fondled by this man under the guise of a potential job? Or who knows what goes on within the confines of his office? This is the stuff we Moms need to teach our daughters BEFORE they go out into the working world — the real deal that they don’t teach you in Intro To Business.
Seeing this man’s name in bright lights this morning brought up a very dim memory, and reminded me that I did nothing except sock this incident away in my Bad Memory Bank. I called my husband and shared what happened, realizing that I had not even told him this story. I don’t have my diaries anymore — otherwise it would all be in there, word for word. Who would believe me now? What proof do I really have?
I have three daughters who will one day be sitting in the interviewee’s chair. Do I take a stand with no evidence except my word? Do I bring down two families in what most likely would be a he says/she says scenario? And yet, given this man is still going strong, and by the looks of the article, stronger than ever — I cannot help but wonder if he is still up to his old tricks? If I do let this out of the closet, could this potentially send a clear message to other men (and women) with power who abuse it to get what they want because they can?
A friend suggested that I write the blog and send it to him with a handwritten note — “At least he will get the message, loud and clear.”
I feel shaky now as I write this piece — because with all of my accumulated knowledge, all my words of advice to others — I’m truly afraid to make a bold move. I know, I’m not alone — too many women have experienced much more and far worse.
What could he possibly do to me now? I’ve had a full career as a journalist, a strong husband and children, a warm home, and a supportive network of family, friends and colleagues. I’m no longer a young woman on my own trying to make it in the Big City.
Right now, 26 years later, that Inner Voice still feels young and scared to do something … AND ashamed to do nothing. What then, is the answer?
Lisa Barr is the editor and creator of GIRLilla Warfare, and the author of the award-winning novel Fugitive Colors.