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The Silent Treatment

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I called the Yale English Department to get Harold Bloom’s response. A tense secretary said she could not take my message. She claimed that he had changed his number and that even they did not have his number. “He is barely a member of the English faculty,” she said. I explained why I was calling—surely she would want to pass on my request to the department head. “She won’t care,” she said, repeating that he was barely on faculty. Then she hung up on me.

I called back to get Bloom’s fax number. Someone who sounded like a student answered. Was Bloom a member of the faculty. “Yes,” she said. Teaching? “Yes.” She read me his course number. She gave me his phone number. I called the number repeatedly; no answer, no machine.

I called Dean Brodhead again and asked him if anyone had known about Bloom’s approaches to students. He said that in his tenure as dean, “no one came to me” with a formal complaint. I said that was not what I was asking. We went back and forth. Finally, he said in exasperation: “Am I saying that no one ever went to anyone in the whole of history? I am not in a position to answer it.” I asked again. Eventually he exclaimed, “Naomi, please understand I am not in a position to say. I am not telling you there might not be students who share your thoughts or even your experience about this. I am saying they did not come to me.”

I asked Dean Brodhead how often the committee met last year. “It met more than no times and not many times.”

“What’s ‘not many’?”

“This isn’t a court.”

“Are these matters of public record?”

“No, they are not. To open the matter to public record is to expose the person who made the charge.” Not true; many universities make statistics about sexual-misconduct complaints available without naming people. “How do I know as a concerned alum, since these proceedings are confidential, that there are actual penalties?”

“I am an honorable and truthful person. These things are dealt with.”

“But how many complaints are brought?”

“I can’t answer that . . . I’m not in a position to give you the statistical information. I have no . . . the number of cases . . . I have not gathered a statistical abstract.”

“Can the student’s attorney be present?”

“The process is not designed as a judicial one . . . We do not have attorneys present.” I told him my story—again—and asked what he would do.

“Harold Bloom is someone I almost never see,” he said.

“Are you not concerned about other young women?” I asked.

“Do you want me to call him?”

“I am asking what you think is appropriate,” I said.

Because of the time lapse, he said, he would not have even an informal conversation with Bloom on behalf of students today. Then, as if he had never heard of the letter that had begun my first conversation with him months before, Brodhead noted that I could send him a letter.

“I’m going to have a successor,” he said with relief. “You can send a letter to my successor.”

Is Harold Bloom a bad man? No. Harold Bloom’s demons are no more demonic than those of any other complex human being’s. Does this complex, brilliant man’s one bad choice make him a monster? No, of course not; nor does this one experience make me a “victim.” But the current discourse of accused and accuser, aggressor and victim is more damaging than constructive.

Here is a more helpful reading: This man did something, at least once, that was self-centered and harmful. But his harmful impulse would not have entered his or my real life—then or now—if Yale made the consequences of such behavior both clear and real.

All the women who have come forward want only to fix what is broken. Critics of sexual-harassment standards argue that you can’t legislate passions; true enough. But you can legislate what to do about people who act on them improperly. Powerful men and woman who belittle and humiliate their subordinates manage not to belittle or humiliate their supervisors. Neither men nor women tend to harass upward in a hierarchy.

There is something terribly wrong with the way the current sexual-harassment discussion is framed. Since damages for sexual misconduct are decided under tort law—tort means harm or wrong—those bringing complaints have had to prove that they have been harmed emotionally. Their lawyers must bring out any distress they may have suffered, such as nightmares, sexual dysfunction, trauma, and so on. Thus, it is the woman and her “frailties” under scrutiny, instead of the institution and its frailties. This victim construct in the law is one reason that women are often reluctant to go public.

But sexual encroachment in an educational context or a workplace is, most seriously, a corruption of meritocracy; it is in this sense parallel to bribery. I was not traumatized personally, but my educational experience was corrupted. If we rephrase sexual transgression in school and work as a civil-rights and civil-society issue, everything becomes less emotional, less personal. If we see this as a systemic-corruption issue, then when people bring allegations, the focus will be on whether the institution has been damaged in its larger mission. The Catholic Church is a good example: The public understood that church leaders’ maintaining silence about systemic sexual transgressions corrupted the mission of an organization that had a great responsibility to society as a whole. Even the military is starting to understand that systemic sexual harassment of cadets corrupts its social mission.

If we change the framework to this kind of transparency and accountability question, then instead of asking, “What were you wearing?” or “Why disrupt this man’s life?” we would ask: “What are we—together—going to do about it?”

The saddest part? If a Yale undergraduate came to me today with a bad secret to tell, I still could not urge her to speak up confidently to those tasked with educating, supporting, and mentoring her. I would not direct her to her faculty adviser, the grievance committee, or her dean. Wishing that Bart Giamatti’s beautiful welcoming speech to my class about Yale’s meritocracy were really true, I would, with a heavy heart, advise that young woman, for her own protection, to get a good lawyer.


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