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The Silent Treatment

Academic Superstar: Harold Bloom  

My next calls were to President Richard Levin’s office. I left a very long message with details. No answer. Finally I left another message saying I had been trying for months to get an off-the-record meeting on this issue. I was getting no response. And if I kept getting no answer, I would have no compunction about raising this issue in the Yale Daily News.

I was promptly called back, by Nina Glickson, assistant to the president. I explained once again why I was calling. “Unfortunately for you, Naomi, the statute of limitations has passed” was the first thing she said.

“I know that. I don’t want money or a lawsuit or to make this public . . . ” I began again, going through my litany: I wanted to be sure the grievance process was effective. Her empathetic cooing suggested that Yale might have finally sensed something potentially awkward taking shape.

“I’ll get back to you,” she promised. She did not do so. Five months later, having called again and yet again, she informed me that President Levin still hoped to speak to me. In fact, he had referred the matter to Brodhead.

What decade do they think they are living in? I wondered. Surely you did not dismiss angry alumnae, let alone journalists calling to follow up on sexual misconduct, in the post-Clinton, post-Tailhook, post–Air Force Academy world of 2004.

Then, Pagnam called. I explained what had happened to me. I offered to meet, look at the grievance procedures, and, if I felt they were adequate, help, as Yale had requested, with fund-raising. “What outcome do you want?” he asked.

I explained that in a transparent, accountable institution, it is Yale’s job to have crafted a standard response to complaints of this kind, not mine.

“I’ll get back to you,” said Pagnam. It was the last I heard from him.

What actually happened in late fall, 1983? I was a senior, majoring in English. Harold Bloom was one of Yale’s most illustrious professors. Most of my friends in the Literature department were his acolytes, clustering around him at office hours for his bon mots about Pater and Wilde. He called students, male and female both, “my dear” and “my child.” Beautiful, brilliant students surrounded him. He was a vortex of power and intellectual charisma.

I, personally, was at once drawn to him intellectually and slightly scared of him. I had audited a famous course he taught, and he had reached out to me then and invited me to talk with him. Since he was so intellectually selective, I was “sick with excitement” at the prospect, as I wrote in an account—details changed to disguise his identity—in one of my books, Promiscuities.

His aura was compelling—and intimidating. Lit majors who surrounded him were also chatting with Jacques Derrida and throwing around words like jouissance; English majors like me were poring over Beowulf and using words like index. But my trusted senior adviser, the poet John Hollander, liked my poetry; and based on that work, he urged me to take an independent study in the fall with professor Bloom, who was a friend.

Bloom agreed to meet with me weekly. At my adviser’s suggestion, he wrote me a letter of reference for my Rhodes Scholarship application. Then I could not get a meeting with him. The semester was slipping away. When I saw him on campus, he would promise to go over my poetry manuscript “over a glass of Amontillado.” I’d heard that some faculty met with students at Mory’s, and that Bloom drank often with his male students there. I also knew that there was an atmosphere at Yale in which female students were expected to be sociable with male professors. I had discussed with my friends the pressure to be charming but still seen as serious.

Finally, Bloom suggested that he come to the house I shared with one of his editorial assistants and her boyfriend. At dinnertime. I agreed.

The four of us ate a meal. He had, as promised, brought a bottle of Amontillado, which he drank continually. I also drank. We had set out candles—a grown-up occasion. The others eventually left and—finally!—I thought we could discuss my poetry manuscript. I set it between us. He did not open it. He did not look at it. He leaned toward me and put his face inches from mine. “You have the aura of election upon you,” he breathed.

I hoped he was talking about my poetry. I moved back and took the manuscript and turned it around so he could read.

The next thing I knew, his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh.

I lurched away. “This is not what I meant,” I stammered. The whole thing had suddenly taken on the quality of a bad horror film. The floor spun. By now my back was against the sink, which was as far away as I could get. He moved toward me. I turned away from him toward the sink and found myself vomiting. Bloom disappeared.

When he reemerged—from the bedroom with his coat—a moment later, I was still frozen, my back against the sink. He said: “You are a deeply troubled girl.” Then he went to the table, took the rest of his sherry, corked the bottle, and left.

Is that all? yes—that’s all. But the encroachment, the transgression—those words are so much more accurate, emotionally as well as legally, than “harassment”—had effects that went deep. What Harold Bloom’s hand on his student’s thigh set off was not a sexual crisis. I was sexually active—and not even especially modest. An unwanted hand on a thigh from a date was nothing. Nor was it an emotional crisis. I wasn’t that vulnerable. What it set off was a moral crisis, shaking my confidence in the institution I was in.

I wanted to go to the Grievance Board. The semester was passing, but I was terrified of being in a room alone again with Bloom. Still, I needed to know what to do about the rest of the term. Some women friends, however, persuaded me not to speak to anyone official about what had happened. It was one of those perfect blue days in autumn; the sun was still strong; we were with our books on the Cross Campus grass. I told my story. Someone said she had heard things about Bloom and other students, and that administrators had heard about it as well. But the university saw him as untouchable, my friends warned. Don’t do it.

Were these rumors accurate? It matters. A professor of mine at the time told me last month that “professors and graduate students within the department gossiped that Bloom was romantically and sexually involved with one or more of his graduate students. The irony is that whether or not that was true, in a specific case, it affected how professors viewed female graduate students’ work.” Another woman, who was then a graduate student and is now a tenured professor of literature, confirmed, “It was known; it was in the air.”