The Wisdom Tree

A year ago, you said you’d take me on a hike up that mountain with the one lone tree at the summit. 

You told me I smelled good. You liked how I dressed. I was a wonderful actress and a great mother. You could tell I was processing what you were saying during our lessons by looking into my beautiful blue eyes. I told you that they were green, but you said I had no perspective on myself. When we started being friends outside of tennis, you never asked me any questions but you were so perceptive I thought maybe you didn’t have to because you already knew the answers. You remembered every conversation we had. 

Six months ago, you told me you’d bring me home with you sometime. You asked me if I’d like to meet your dad when he came to visit. I did and we’d all do things when he’d come to town. You took my kids to the movies because my little one asked you. You carried my popcorn and drinks and sat next to me so we could talk. 

I didn’t know if you liked me the way I liked you, although maybe you did. You told me it was hard for you to let people into your personal life. But we’d spend hour upon hour with each other. You said you could talk to me all night. You’d say, “I don’t want a girlfriend. I’ve been by myself for over a year and I’m happy. I’ve made my life as simple as possible and I want to keep it that way.”

But then immediately afterward, you’d tell me how beautiful my smile was, how everything about me was so innocent and sweet. How nice I was. “You don’t have to even try. You just are.” I never knew how to react since I didn’t want to assume anything when maybe you were just being friendly. So i just said thank you and basked in your compliments when I’d go back home and try to fall asleep.

But that’s not entirely the truth. My timidity also stemmed from me not feeling worthy of you. Or really anybody. I didn’t think I’d be enough. Or I thought I’d be too much. So I never told you the truth for fear you’d laugh in my face: “You? Really?? You think I’d ever pick you?” 

I never pressed even though I wanted to be with you so badly I’d feel a twisting in my throat. Sometimes I’d be driving and I’d start to think of you and I’d have to pull over to the side of the road so I could cry. 

“Ma’am, do you realize you went through a stop sign and then swerved over to the side of the road. Are you driving under the influence?”

“.Kind of, officer.”

Over Christmas you texted, “Meeting you and your family was without a doubt one of the best parts of his year.” I said I felt the same way about you. 

On January first you texted me, “Happy New Year! I want to see more of you in 2019 than I did in 2018, and I don’t say that to everyone! You spectacular woman!” You sent me a video of you snowboarding and doing push-up handstands. Like you were a peacock fanning your iridescent feathers to impress me. I was already impressed. I had to go into another room so my sons wouldn’t see me shaking. 

My god, you really did like me. I finally had freedom to express how I felt about you without doubt and fear of rejection. I was proud of myself for letting you come to me instead of overwhelming you with what I needed. I had held out my open palm, allowing you to feel safe enough to eat out of my hand. Soon I’d be able to stroke your head. I couldn’t wait to see you in the New Year. I’d hug you, kiss you on the cheek and whisper in your ear, “I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you.”

But when I saw you, you were aloof. So cool, I thought maybe somebody else wrote your sweet, encouraging words to me. I went back to look at the texts to make sure I hadn’t imagined them.  

I knew you had been hurt by people who should have loved, nurtured and protected you when you were young. You would cry telling me about what had been done to you. I didn’t want you to think I was going to be another person who was going to take advantage of you. I expected a long friendship. You wanted to work together on many projects. We had all the time in the world. So I gave you whatever privacy you needed but also tried to be there to soothe you when you needed it too, and to show you your trauma wasn’t what made you special. 

You told me, “I just want to be with a girl who lets me be myself.” 

And I looked at you across the room and tried to will you to hear what I was screaming inside my head: 

You fucking idiot! Can’t you see how beautiful I think you are? How smart, how funny and special? How many hours have we sat across from each other in this your apartment this year and last? That girl you’re talking about is me!

Words seemed to trip us up. Sometimes I’d say something I thought was innocuous and you’d snarl. I’d see a shadow pass over the perfect, sharp angles of your face and I’d know I was in for a night of avoiding land mines.

Please just Let me be with you in a way that doesn’t depend on words. If I could kiss you, I know I could do better than I’m doing right now.

If I could just be more patient, calmer and not react when you lashed out at me—because I know beaten animals bite when they feel threatened—you’d see you could depend on me. And that I would never abandon you. 

But that was the height of arrogance. And also the depth of my self-abnegation. Because I don’t have the power to change anybody, especially somebody who’s convinced he’s right and doesn’t want to change. You didn’t want to compromise yourself adjusting to me and what I might have needed. We always met at your house, not mine. We were on your territory where you could strategize and feel safe.

The compliments you gave me at first virtually disappeared. Even when they did come, they would be diluted with insults. I thought if I didn’t put any pressure on you, if I let you call the shots and not challenge you, you’d relax into me.

But I did all the work. How nice that I made it so easy for you. Because you knew I’d never leave, you could do anything and there’d be no consequences. If I ever tried to tell you I didn’t like the way you had said something to me, you’d tell me “Don’t let me affect you.” But if I asked what you considered to be the wrong question, you’d clench your teeth and hiss at me. And then you‘d tell me I was misinterpreting you; you weren’t angry, you were being “precise.”

And the truth is, this was familiar to me. As hurt as I’d be after your “precision,” it felt like home. Because it literally had been. I told a trusted friend about you and she looked me in the eye and said, “You like mean men.” She said it without judgement and so I heard it clearly. And it was simple and it brought me up short. She was right. I was primed for you, your hot and cold nature, your edge that could challenge me but could also slice me open at a certain angle and make me bleed. The insecurity of feeling that I could say one wrong thing and you’d disappear without explanation. Just like I’d told you my father had done. 

And one day you said in front of me and my friend that her legs were better than mine. You knocked the wind out of me. You’d told me in the past that I made myself an easy target. You’d also told me, “I can be a real dick sometimes.” You were right on both counts. You looked at me and smiled after you said it, and I saw you had hurt me on purpose. To test your powers. 

My friend encouraged me to tell you how I felt. She said it was unhealthy for me to keep it inside. And if I didn’t tell you, you’d do it again.

So I made my voice as calm as possible and told you. I’ve known since I was twelve how to manage difficult men. You said nothing. You were so angry you looked like you wanted to hit me, although you never would. I asked you what your thoughts were. You paused for what seemed like an hour. 

“You really want to know my thoughts?” 

“Yes.”

“After all I’ve told you about myself, I am beyond disappointed that you think so little of me. It shows me you have no respect for me and you don’t understand me. At all” 

And:

“You should apologize to me, but you know what? I don’t even want you to. I’m not interested in what you’re thinking.” 

And:

“These are your issues, not mine.” 

And the kicker:

“To be honest, I’m not attracted to her legs or your legs.”

When I get scared, I look calm. I go still. My self-esteem evaporated, but you couldn’t tell the damage you did. 

That’s a lie: of course you could. You can be cruel and strategic. You teach strategy for a living. And you’ve learned strategy in life so your relatives wouldn’t beat the shit out of you. The dark side of your intuition and intelligence is knowing how to hurt people in the most efficient manner. Even though I never said out loud how I felt about you, you knew the power you held over me. 

And you didn’t talk to me. For three months. You looked right through me when I brought my kids to lessons with you.

Then last week, all of a sudden, you did. I had been taking lessons with your brother instead because you just stopped teaching me. I showed up for a lesson and there you were. No explanation,. You hugged me. You even said nice things to me. You told me when your brother had texted you the other day about scheduling this lesson, it had really been you texting on your brother’s phone. Your softening came out of the blue but I was overjoyed. Afterward, again, I sat in my car and cried. 

I thought, “Maybe it just took him some time and space. Maybe he won’t apologize, but wanting to talk to me is an admission of sorts. Maybe he actually missed me. Maybe slowly, slowly, slowly we can be friends again. I can’t hope for more at this point because that’s dangerous.” But of course I did

But the next lesson, I walked onto your court and you were stormy again. No hug. You complimented my strokes, but otherwise you looked like you didn’t want to be there. Then you told me that you had dropped a bag off at my house. I said, “Oh. I didn’t see it,” and you replied, “When you’re not expecting or looking for something, you don’t see it.” 

And when I went to give you a hug and a kiss on the cheek goodbye as I used to do, you jerked your head away. “No kisses anymore. That’s over.” I tried not to look shocked. “But we hugged yesterday so I thought it was ok.” “Hugging and kissing are two completely different things. Completely.” So I played it off and told you goodbye and see you soon. I walked to my car quickly and tried not to fall down. I had to wait a few minutes until it felt safe to drive home as the sky lost it’s light.

I came home and saw the shopping bag filled with my stuff on the back porch. You had driven to my house, opened my gate and left it beside the kitchen door. Inside the bag: the calamine lotion I bought you when you were being eaten up by mosquitoes in the fall. The play I wrote that we had rehearsed for months and had planned on performing together. And the birthday card I gave you right after you stopped talking to me with a small present inside. I had written “I know you and I are different people, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, being different can be helpful. I can’t predict the future, but I can’t imagine a time when I don’t have warm feelings for you. Take care.” 

You could have thrown everything out and I would never have known. Then it hit me: the reason You acted friendly again that first lesson was to make the moment I saw the bag of my things at my house, the objects I had given you that you could no longer tolerate, that much more murderous. You had saved my script and my birthday card and gift for three months for the sole purpose of flinging them into my face one day when I least suspected it. You might as well have tossed a grenade into my lap.

I had a sick feeling. I opened Instagram, and thanks to its algorithm, there you were with your brand new girlfriend you apparently met five days ago. You are draped over each other, faces pressed together. In the post, you called her Mrs. Right. 

And I don’t know what to do. My kids still take classes with you. I don’t want to explain to them why I don’t want to see you. Why I’m always so sad. I can’t tell them my feelings for you. I don’t want them to know how cruel you were to me and disillusion them, because they adore you. And I don’t want them to take care of me until I’m ready for a nursing home.They don’t understand heartbreak. One day they will, but they don’t need to be burdened by mine right now. They are miraculously happy and well-adjusted.. virtually unaffected by their dad’s and my divorce. Why would I ruin that for them with a man I never even kissed the way I was hoping.

But I can’t see you again. I can’t play a sport I love because I can’t disassociate it from you. I’m too despondent to be angry, but I hope one day soon I can work up to it. And then maybe soon after that I can make my way to not caring about you at all

But right now I look up at that mountain you told me you’d help me climb so you could show me that brave little tree, and I start to cry.

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E. Jean Carroll: An Unreliable Narrator of Her Own Life


E. Jean Carroll in 1996 and inow

E. Jean Carroll in 1996 and inow

This past week I have been reading and listening to whatever I could find about E. Jean Carroll’s nightmare encounter with Donald Trump in 1996. An excerpt from her memoir, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, was published in last week’s New York Magazine. I searched myself for why I was obsessed. One reason: I’m dumbfounded a serious, credible allegation of rape committed by the President of the United States has not received as much coverage as it deserves. Barack Obama wearing a tan suit received more time on the news. Another reason: Trump’s only real skill is to make each week he’s President worse than the last. It defies imagination, and I have an overactive imagination. 

But the third reason is my uncomfortably complicated feelings about E. Jean Carrol herself. Not because I don’t believe her—I am absolutely certain she is telling the truth—but because of her unwillingness to classify what Trump did to her as rape.

I have always liked E. Jean Carroll. She is a wonderfully enjoyable writer. Unsentimental, brisk, funny, unsparing and honest. I found her advice column to be solid and perceptive. I admired her compassion, her interest in people and her desire to help them. The pictures I’ve seen (up until this past week) are of her smiling with infectious joie de vivre. She’s strong and smart and full of moxie. She seems like an ambitious, feisty former cheerleader who fled the Midwest for New York City in order to seek out adventure and to become a big fish in a big pond. It seems that way, because it’s true.

In case you’re not familiar with Carroll’s story, here is a synopsis: in 1996, sometime between 6:30 and 7pm, she is leaving Bergdorf Goodman, a tony department store in New York City, and runs into Donald Trump coming in. He recognizes her as “that advice lady.” They banter. He says hi to the sales manager on the floor. They treat him like he’s a regular, and royalty. He says he’s buying a present for a girl (he is married to Marla Maples at this time), and asks “the advice lady” for advice. E. Jean suggests a bag or a hat for the mystery woman. He says “lingerie,” or “underwear.” The lingerie section is on an upper floor of the department store.

The lobby of Bergdorf Goodman, where E. Jean Carroll ran into Donald Trump

The lobby of Bergdorf Goodman, where E. Jean Carroll ran into Donald Trump

E. Jean said she saw no salespeople or managers in that department. It was deserted. I looked up Bergdorf Goodman’s hours. They close at 8pm. Maybe back in 1996 they closed earlier. My theory—which might sound like conspiracy if we weren’t talking about Donald Trump—is that his MO was stalking Bergdorf Goodman at a time when employees were busy with closing. Perhaps they even had a deal with Trump (a/k/a a payoff) to make sure their salesforce was mysteriously absent from the lingerie department when he needed advice from female customers he happened to meet on the first floor.

The lingerie department at Bergdorf’s

The lingerie department at Bergdorf’s

Trump tells her to try on a flimsy, see-through, lavender bodysuit. They banter flirtatiously again and E. Jean says that he should try on the bodysuit because it matches his eyes. Understandably, she thinks it’s hilarious and is looking forward to recounting this experience at her next dinner party. She has no idea that Trump is a sexual predator. She knows him only as a New York City fixture. The rouè on Page Six.

what I imagine the bodysuit looked like

what I imagine the bodysuit looked like

She has no plan to try on the lingerie herself. The fun is turning the tables on him. They go into a dressing room. That’s when he tries to kiss her. She rebuffs him but is still laughing. Then he pushes her up against a wall. She starts to feel pain. She’s tall and strong, but Trump is taller and stronger. He holds her arms in one hand and undoes his belt buckle and fly with the other. He takes out his penis and shoves it inside her. His black coat is still on. 

Trump in 1996. Married to Marla Maples holding their daughter, Tiffany, but his hand on teenage Ivanka’s waist

Trump in 1996. Married to Marla Maples holding their daughter, Tiffany, but his hand on teenage Ivanka’s waist

He always wears that coat, even now. Maybe it’s to hide how paunchy he’s grown. But to add to my conspiracy theory, maybe it’s to literally hide what he’s doing by covering himself so passers by can’t see as he assaults the many women he’s come in contact with over many years. The thrill, to Trump, is always conquest and what he can get away with.

Carroll slams her foot onto his and manages to escape, thank god. She doesn’t remember how she fled Bergdorf Goodman, but she did. No one in the store saw her leave. All the surveillance video from that evening is no longer available. Maybe Trump paid off the department store and they destroyed the tapes. Who knows?

Bergdorf Goodman

Bergdorf Goodman

I listened to Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey on Barbaro’s podcast, “The Daily,” discuss her interview with E. Jean Carroll and her friends, Lisa Birnbach and Carol Martin. E. Jean told them about her confrontation with Trump right after it happened. Birnbach begged her to go straight to the police to report her rape. An argument ensued because Carroll refused to call her experience rape. Martin, conversely, advised her not to say anything to the police because Trump was (is) a powerful man, and she was worried her friend would be dragged through the mud and blamed instead of Trump because that’s the way the world worked (works). I think you can guess whose advice I value more. And I think you can also guess whose advice Carroll valued more. One hint: Carroll’s opinion and mine vastly differ.

These were Carroll’s arguments against not naming what Trump did to her as “rape’ and not reporting it at the time: “ I don’t think [his penis went in] all the way, and it was not long.” “It was horrible. I fought it. But it was fifteen minutes of my life. It’s over.” “Shocking as it sounds, I thought [reporting it sand going public with her assault] would help him.” In response to Lisa Birnbach saying, “You thought you encouraged it,” Carroll responds, “Oh I did. I know I did...one hundred percent.”

And the statement that is most upsetting to me:

“Every woman gets to choose how she describes it. This is my way of saying it. This is my word. My word is ‘fight.’ My word is not ‘the victim word.’ I have not been raped. Something has not been done to me. I fought. That’s the thing.”

On the surface, E. Jean Carroll’s version of events sounds like “I am Woman! Hear me roar!” It’s bold. It’s grabbing agency over her own body and feelings. It makes her the self-deprecating, funny heroine of her story and life.

The only thing is it’s a lie. To us, and to her. She sees this story as if it just relates to herself personally and not as how much she could help others if she reframed it accurately and pressed charges against Trump

I am quite aware that reporting a rape right after it happens is a terrifying prospect. The public generally blames the victim and presumes the woman (or whomever) guilty right off the bat. The assaulted isn’t believed until multiple accounts of other victims come forward, and quite often not even then. How many accusers did it take for retribution to come to Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein (payouts, at this point)?

But the statute of limitations for rape in New York State now has no expiration date. If she went to trial now Trump might possibly be prosecuted and—granted I am not a lawyer—she would have a chance of prevailing.* She has two corroborating witnesses. She still has the dress hanging in her closet. Trump’s claim that he had never seen Carroll in his life is belied by a photo of she, Trump and their spouses at the time (Ivana and John Johnson) in 1987. Both Johnson and Carroll were New York celebrities, as were the Trumps. In the photo Trump’s back is to the camera, but he is obviously telling a joke and E. Jean Carroll, Johnson and Ivana are all smiling.

*(correction, from my friend, Hella Winston, who is an authority on the law as it pertains to child sexual abuse:

“In 2006, New York State passed a law abolishing the statute of limitations on rape. Until then, unless charges of rape were brought within five years, there couldn’t be a prosecution. Now charges can be brought at any time. However, any cases that were time barred before the law changed cannot be prosecuted now.”

Trump, Carroll, her husband, John Johnson and Ivana Trump at a party in 1987

Trump, Carroll, her husband, John Johnson and Ivana Trump at a party in 1987

The definition of rape, according to the Department of Justice: 

“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without consent of the victim.” 

The other word about which E. Jean Carroll is confused is  “victim.” Carroll refuses to see herself as a victim because she thinks the word “victim” sounds weak. This strikes me as strange. It’s akin to when people who aren’t in therapy—you know, the ones who actually need therapy most of all— say going to therapy is an admission that you’re crazy. It’s an antiquated notion. And unhealthy. And millions of woman do fight back, like Carroll did, and still get raped. Is that their fault too? The other woman Donald Trump raped was his ex-wife, Ivana Trump, but after being threatened and then after accepting an enormous divorce settlement, she recanted and said what happened to her wasn’t rape either. 

If either women were honest with themselves, they would see what Donald Trump did to them was rape. Going to trial would have been a future a beacon of light not only to Trump’s victims, but to everyone suffering under his administration now. 

Although she tries to frame it with great humor, her idea of feminism is deeply flawed. She was prepped for this horrendous experience by her history with other “horrible men.” Other than posing in the dress she wore that evening in Bergdorf for New York magazine, it has stayed untouched in her closet since 1996. She couldn’t bear to look at it. God I hope the stylists didn’t dry clean it. If Clinton can be impeached over an untouched blue dress, Trump could be impeached over a black one.

The black dress she wore that evening she was raped by Trump in 1996

The black dress she wore that evening she was raped by Trump in 1996

In interview after interview I’ve listened to, E. Jean Carroll insists what Trump did to her wasn’t rape because she a fighter. Yesterday, I listened to her on KCRW’s “Press Play,” say to Madeleine Brand that her ex-husband, John Johnson roughed her up and tried strangling her, but she wrote it off as “a passionate marriage.” She said women should get rid of all the men in the world, take them to Montana for ten years, and teach them to be better human beings and partners. She also said, “If I had to think about all of the things men have done to me over my lifetime for more than thirty minutes, I’d lock myself in my house and never leave.” 

Listening in my car, I felt Madeleine Brand becoming as irritated as I was. In order to write a book about her life with men, of course she has to think about all the men in her life for far longer than thirty minutes.

And she has locked locked herself in her house except to promote her memoir. In Jessica Bennett, Megan Twohey and Alexandra Alter’s New York Times piece on E. Jean Carroll, they describe her house in upstate New York, “on what she calls ‘an island’ of secluded forest near the Appalachian Trail. Her home…she shares with a cat named Vagina T. Fireball.” Lisa Chase, her longtime editor calls her house, “part refuge, part fortress, part headquarters,” At one point in the article, the writers note that Carroll wears jumpsuits as a sort of uniform. Carroll says, “Try to get this unzipped...Go ahead! Good luck.” 

She fears rape is something that happens to a passive person, and she keeps saying that she’s “a fighter.” But in her own words in New York Magazine, she says she hadn’t come forward with her encounter with Trump before now because, “I am a coward.” 

As often happens when one is bright and chatty and funny and highly verbal, E. Jean Carroll tricks herself into thinking she’s got it all figured out. She keeps her chin up, doesn’t dwell on the past and gets on with her life. But since that violation in Bergdorf Goodman twenty-three years ago, she tells Madeleine Brand, “The desire for desire is over.” The last sentence in her New York Magazine piece is, “I have never had sex with anybody ever again.”

This is the way people who have been raped often feel, especially if they go untreated. How can someone who built her career on giving women advice about men expect people to heed her advice when she won’t accept her own reality? Her good friend, Lisa Birnbach gave her great advice to report her rape and Carroll fought with her. And How can she possibly start a matchmaking company—Tawkify—in good faith if she truly believes men aren’t necessary, and yet has let them rule her life? 

Perhaps E. Jean Carroll should reframe the word “victim,” and call herself a “survivor.” She thinks she is partially to blame because she showed bad judgement going into that dressing room alone with Donald Trump. I’ve heard the “Men just do these things and it’s naïve for women to think they won’t” excuse before. But he raped her. Can she possibly be saying that she deserved it because she didn’t think things through before telling him to try on lingerie? I can’t believe such a smart woman can be so casual and simplistic about her trauma. No. Men should never assault a woman, in any situation. Ever. And saying that she herself is partly to blame for Trump attacking her, is doing what she dreads the most: making herself a victim, not a heroine. 

Sadly, the more I hear E. Jean Carroll talk, the pluckiness I once admired now sounds immeasurably sad. There is a difference between cheer and false cheer. The tone she tries mimic is a bright, clear chime, but to me it sounds more like church bells tolling mournfully as a funeral procession passes by. E. Jean Carroll thinks she is refusing to disappear under her covers, but she is sticking her head in the sand instead.


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I'm Sorry

It’s hard to say I’m sorry. It’s hard for everyone, but especially for men like me because we have been taught to think saying “I’m sorry” means we’re weak.

It’s even harder to say “I’m sorry” without adding “but.” Minus the qualification, that short sentence means I have to own my shame, to shoulder the apology all by myself. Why should you bear even the partial weight of my offense?

You were the wronged person, not me. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing or how late it was or how drunk we both were or how you initially seemed interested. The fact is I did something that you didn’t want to do. And now you are suffering and it’s awful and I’m ashamed.

So you’re not going to hear me say “I was brought up in a different era where this was acceptable,” because most men from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s didn’t insult, scream, grope and hit women.

You’re not going to hear me say, “I’m just a romantic. Men are scared to even flirt with a woman anymore!” Forcing myself on someone is the polar opposite of romance and flirting, and if I don’t know the difference, then I should be in solitary confinement.

You’re not going to hear me say, “I’ve always been a champion of women and women’s causes.” Throwing money at charities to assuage my guilty conscience isn’t the same as being nice to women on a daily basis.

You’re not going to hear me say, “What I did was bad, but I did ask if I could do it beforehand.’ I knew damn well women low on the totem pole would be too scared to say no.

You’re not going to hear me say, “Yeah, what I did was wrong, but I’m not as bad as Harvey Weinstein.” I should have higher standards for myself than being a rapist.

And you’re certainly not going to hear me say “The pendulum in the #MeToo movement has now swung too far in the opposite direction. How long am I supposed to wait before I can do what I love again? Six months, nine months, one year? It’s so unfair!” Well, I guess I should have thought about this before I abused you. I am not the victim. Before I felt my pain, I inflicted pain on you. My current exile is the repercussion. And It’s not for me to decide when the right time is to reappear. Before I think of my comeback, the first thing I have to do is to be sincerely sorry and express it to you in public and in private. If I’m saying any or all the excuses I listed above, I can assure you I’m not.

Our President stated, “I never apologize because I’ve never been wrong.” I don’t want to be like Trump. He’s a parody of a man. Despite his power and influence, he is a damaged, ignorant, angry and sad little boy. A bully, a coward, a tyrant, an abuser, a liar, and a fraud. I want to be better than that.

So please allow me to say I’m sorry. And then you can decide where I can take it from there.


The Pickup Artist

James Toback stopped me on Broadway right in front of Ernie’s Restaurant where I worked at the time. I was wearing shorts and remembered I felt fat. My hair was dirty. He was wearing a big black shirt and was sweating profusely. “Can I talk to you for a second. I had to stop you because you have something really special. An energy or whatever you’d like to call it. I’ve been following you for a couple of blocks. I’m a director and I have a new movie I’m casting. You’d be perfect for a role. It’s for a tennis player and you’re perfect physically for that.” He was talking fast and I was tired and I listened.

***

I am an actress. A good one. But I was new to it at the time and I had a hit or miss success in auditions. I love acting, but I’m not competitive. Or maybe I’m very competitive and I feel guilty about it so I opt out so I don’t have to feel as bad about losing. I don’t know. I do know I had been accused of not being ambitious enough for my talents and shy about promoting myself. So his interest intrigued me.

I can’t write many more direct quotes because I was in my late twenties and I’m now in my late forties and any dialogue we had would be paraphrasing. But with the help of recollections from both my ex-boyfriend at the time and other women who had encounters with Toback, I remember much more than I thought I did. I certainly remember the feelings.

He kept on talking, not really letting me get a word in. He was imposing physically and above-average in repulsiveness. The speed of his patter, in retrospect, seemed like he wanted to get it over with to get to the meat of the matter, but at the time I interpreted it as excitement about me. I’m smart, but considering I grew up in New York City, I’m incredibly naïve.  And I trust my intellect will save me from bad decisions and bad people and that has proven not always to be the case.  

Hearing him say how compelling I was, was exactly what I wanted and needed, especially since I felt unattractive. From other women’s accounts, Toback also stopped them when they weren’t feeling at their best. Maybe he sensed their vulnerability and mine. Maybe he knew he’d have a better shot at making his mark when we at our most insecure. All of us were young and hungry and wanting to be special.

He dropped some names, told me the films he had done. I’d heard of some. He showed me a dogeared, yellowed paperback—Jim Brown’s autobiography (I knew next-to-nothing about football)—and said he was in it. That he used to go to wild parties with him where there were orgies. He wrote down his number for me and told me to call him after I had watched all his movies so I could get a sense of what he did. He begged me to get in contact.

So I watched his movies—Fingers, Black and White and Two Girls and A Guy—and they were very good. In fact excellent.  I was impressed. They were compelling and thought-provoking and disturbing. And well-acted. He was a legitimate talent. I weighed his creepiness against his technical skill and decided I would call him. My boyfriend gave me the go-ahead because he wanted me to have the chance to be in something great. I believe my mom gave me her blessings too.

Toback told me to meet him at the Harvard Club. Sophisticated me let him know I had many friends who went to Harvard. So suave. As I matured, I came to realize that many dumb and horrible people went/go to Harvard but at that point I was still unreasonably impressed. 

We met and talked some more. I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it was more name-dropping and compliments, and it started to go into a sexual direction. Vaguely. He made himself out to be a libertine. I was not, but I didn't want to betray my innocence so I just tried to look mature and worldly-wise.  

He asked me to come visit him at his editing studio on Leroy Street and see the movie he was cutting. And then I would audition for him. It sounded professional, but when I called my ex-boyfriend the other day to check with him about whether I had my facts straight, he told me that I left the apartment at around midnight, which is definitely a strange time to have an audition. I lived a short distance away, and as I walked over, I said under my breath, “Please let this be real. Please tell me I’m not being stupid.”

I went, I saw him editing the movie. He explained what he was doing at each step. It was interesting, he was good at it. We stayed there for about 10 minutes and then he said we should go to his office and see what I had.

We went upstairs. He told me he had done the most LSD anybody had ever consumed. I don’t know how to check the records on that but I’m sure Timothy Leary would disagree. He said it gave him insight into orgasms. He said he could just go back into his experiences and have an orgasm with his mind. He said I had to get in touch with my sexuality, I had to go to dangerous places in myself and scare myself in order to access what he was looking for in an actress. He saw it in me, but I had to be prepared and committed to doing this if he were to give me a role in one of his movies. Then he gossiped about actors. Really nasty things he shouldn’t have told a stranger. I won’t say what they were, but they weren’t nice and I doubt they were even true. I do know that he said he admired Mike Tyson because he was an animal, barely in control. That’s what he wanted to see from me.

I was fairly innocent. I hadn’t been with many men. And I’d only had long-term relationships. I didn’t know myself well in that way at all. I was shy and modest and I still don’t lead with my sexuality. Being ladylike was something that was drilled into me by school and my family and it was hard to abandon. I hardly talk about sex with anyone, even now. What he was asking me to do was something I struggled with in every acting class I’d ever had. It scared me. And so that stupid phrase “Do something every day that terrifies you” popped into me head. “Maybe this is exactly what I need to do. Force yourself.”

He asked me to sit on the couch and be sexual. Thank god I kind of froze. I just closed my eyes and tried to think sexy thoughts but it was impossible because Toback was sitting right in front of me and I found him to be disgusting. 

He told me it wasn’t working so we’d have to try something else. He said he was going to look into my eyes and try to see if I had something inside me that could make him orgasm. He said to watch his eyes and see if they dilate and then I’d know he was cumming. I couldn't move. He knelt down on one knee in between my own and pressed his erection into my thigh. He stared into my eyes and I saw them move back and forth rapidly as if he had R.E.M., but awake. He told me to pinch his nipples. I thought, "If this is all I have to do to end this, I'll do it." Then I heard him grunt loudly and it was over. It was probably a minute but it felt like forever. He told me his wife was very powerful and if I mentioned this experience to anyone, he’d ruin me. And then he said “I saw what I wanted to see. Thanks. I’ll let you know.” And I was dismissed.

***

I’ve had much more upsetting and traumatic experiences in my life. I’m not shattered by James Toback’s perversions. However, I remember the feelings right afterward, walking around the neighborhood, unable to go home right away where my boyfriend was probably waiting up, excited to hear about my meeting, hopeful it would lead to something big for me. I felt so stupid, so shaken, so mad at myself. I decided not to tell him about letting that vile, sweaty man have an orgasm by looking into my formerly starry eyes. What was I thinking?? Believing his praises, going up to his office alone. Not leaving when he started talking about my sexuality and asking me what kind of pubic hair I had. And relief that I managed to get out of there without being raped. My biggest fear. Every woman's, I'd wager. I had been molested as a six year old. It could have happened again, but worse. Now I was a grown women who should have been more responsible for my actions. I made a bad, bad decision and it was all my fault for not heading the warning signs.

What I had forgotten is that I didn’t have the uncontrolled impulses to sexually abuse young women. I came in there with good intentions. Toback did not. He targeted girls and plotted how to trap them and make them his victims, like all predators do. He was the bad guy, not me. I was young and inexperienced in the ways of the world and how men sometimes use their stature and physical presence to prey on vulnerable women. It was a sober reminder that most women are targets of abuse. Young, defenseless men too. I thought someone considered me special and it turned out he didn’t, I wasn’t, I was one of many. Hundreds, it seems. I never really trusted myself and and my specialness again. i’m sure I’m not alone.

***

One detail I forgot: when I talked to my ex to corroborate my story, he told me that a few years later as I was walking down the street, James Toback stopped me again and said the same things to me, demanding I meet with him and audition for a role in his movie. He didn't remember one of his victims. He wanted to take advantage of me again. I don’t recall my response. I hope I shut him down in a brutal way. But I don’t think I did. I am still too polite.

Emergency Style Tips for Men If They Ever Want to Have Sex with A Human Being

This is going to be a bullet point presentation because the urgency behind it overshadows my wish for lyrical prose.

GUYS, PLEASE READ THIS CAREFULLY:

  • No sandals or flip flops on city streets. At the beach or pool or lakeside acceptable only if your feet are well groomed. Unless they have a vile form of foot fetish, the thought of a man’s calloused feet rubbing up against them in bed makes most people want to throw up.

  • No Tevas EVER.

  • No cargo shorts, unless you want people to think you're carrying poop in your bulging leg pockets.

  • No tank tops. Maybe at the gym but even that is questionable.

  • Flat front pants rule. 

  • No bow ties unless you're Paul F. Tompkins or if you're Charlie McCarthy of Bergen and McCarthy. Or Pee-wee. Being a member of a Barbershop quartet also is a non-starter because, well, Barbershop quartets.

  • No bracelets unless you're originally from a warm country. Men with brown skin can wear things white boys can't and you know this is the truth. They're exceptional.

  • Sometimes necklaces are ok. You have to run it by me first.

  • Rope bracelets are cool. Especially during hot weather.

  • No school rings. School rings are an indication of assholery. Think Ted Cruz. Is that graphic enough?

  • No American flag pins on lapels.

  • Tattoos are fine as long as they aren't nazi symbols.

  • I used to not like beards but now I love them. See? I'm a very flexible and tolerant person.

  • There is nothing wrong with a suit occasionally. Los Angeles, listen up: don't let the only people who wear suits be agents and lawyers. You're better than that.

  • Jeans are great, But I adhere to the Goldilocks Principle:  not too loose and not too tight, but just right. Tapered skinny jeans generally looks dumb. Very few men can get away with this. Neither can I by the way, so don't feel bad. Plain skinny jeans look good on skinny people, that's why they have the adjective "skinny" in them,  Last night I was told that I was old for not liking tapered skinny jeans on most men. So be it.  If the jeans fit, wear them. Boot cut jeans are really good. EXCEPTION: rock stars. Rock stars can wear tapered, skinny jeans, they can also wear tank tops and jewelry. Whatever they want—they're rock stars. Become a rock star and then we'll talk.

  • For god’s sake NO CAPRI PANTS!!

  • Mullets should be banned. I think you all know this already but it's worth repeating.

  • No cologne unless you know what you're doing and have self-restraint and self-respect.

  • And please god, smell good. Take regular showers and floss. Brush teeth a lot, at least. Try not to have too much garlic before you kiss someone. Think of us as vampires, if that helps remind you.

  • Sorry to be repetitive, but just smell good. This is really so important.

  • Linen and cotton are nice.

  • Cool sneakers are a good thing.

  • This might be just my thing, but Oxford shoes for dressing up are spiffy.

  • Corduroy jackets with jeans look great.

  • Corduroys in fall and winter are comforting too.

  • Try to avoid looking like someone who loves golf.

  • Cummerbunds are stupid.

  • I like button downs.

  • No baseball hats backwards. The kind of people who would be attracted to this are not people you want to sleep with.

  • No fedoras. Or Trilbys. Or Floop-de-doo's or whatever the hell those hats are called. No berets unless you're Sartre.

  • Absolutely NO FLIP FLOPS WITH ATHETIC SOCKS. IT LOOKS DUMB EVEN IF YOU'RE A PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE.

  • Message t-shirts suck unless you know what's funny and what's not. Most people do not.

  • Go to the gym but don't go crazy. You should be able to get your arms to touch your rib cage and walk like you're not wearing a diaper full of pee.

Please, please, please, don't look like this. Or think and act like this. Just avoid this at all costs.

Please, please, please, don't look like this. Or think and act like this. Just avoid this at all costs.

Twitter's own @shanenickerson added this following warning:

shane.PNG

 

This is what I came up with off the top of my head. Please feel free to come up with your own. I'm sure this list is incomplete.

And guys, heed this list if you know what's good for you. God speed, and enjoy your vastly improved sex life.

Here are some helpful tips and comments from respected followers:

hot take.jpg
Yes, I agree with Stretch: I hate this. 

Yes, I agree with Stretch: I hate this. 

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I forgot about square-toed dress shoes. Those are very bad. And white Stan Smiths are cool, but white New Balance are definitely not. I had no idea about statement socks. Good god.

I forgot about square-toed dress shoes. Those are very bad. And white Stan Smiths are cool, but white New Balance are definitely not. I had no idea about statement socks. Good god.

The Wrong Side of 40

Last week, highly-regarded film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote about Renée Zellweger’s appearance, and how he thought she’d lost her essential self through plastic surgery. He hardly mentioned her magnificent range, vulnerability, or the legendary kindness that shines through her acting. Instead he chose to focus on the idea that, “In the case of Renée Zellweger, it may look to a great many people like something more than an elaborate makeup job has taken place, but we can’t say for sure.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be said at all.

I’m using “actress” in this piece for gender clarity even though I’m not a big fan of the word. To me, it implies a diminutive, lesser quality to a woman’s abilities compared to ”actor.” “Actress” seems to be more appropriate to an ingenue, which might be a tad insulting to an revered, seasoned woman like Dame Judi Dench.

Most of the time as an actress—especially while I’m working—I feel blessed to be in this profession. But my job is also tough for many reasons, and getting older is one of them. I am on the “wrong” side of forty, actually very close to Zellweger’s age.

Do I have lines around my eyes when I smile? Yes I do. Are my lips as full as they were when I was in high school? No they’re not. Is my body the same since I’ve had two big, healthy, happy boys. It isn’t. I live in Los Angeles where if you haven’t had your face and body “enhanced,” you begin to feel inadequate. I struggle all the time with these kinds of doubts.

I booked a job after I lost the baby weight from my first child. The head of the costume department called me up for my sizes and I proudly gave him my new weight, which was the lowest it had been since high school. I may have even been too thin. He replied, “Oh, so you’re normal sized. Good. That makes things easier for me.”  I had practically starved myself for five weeks, but in film and TV this was considered “normal.”

I was really, really hungry while filming this 

I was really, really hungry while filming this 

And last year my agent submitted me for a pilot in which the lead character was an obese woman. Every scene was her either having a hard time getting a dress over her head, getting winded or talking about how fat she was. I tried to explain to him that even by L.A. standards I wasn’t a good fit for the role. He consoled me by saying that if I did well in the room they might consider altering the character for me.

I laughed this particular incident off because it was absurd, but being scrutinized constantly for my looks takes a toll. It’s hard for me to focus on a job I was hired to do when I’m worrying about how to stand so my tummy won’t bulge and my legs will look slimmer. It can even be self-destructive.

I feel like I look fine, yet I’m still ashamed to say how old I am. I don’t lie, but I avoid the subject because if I reveal my age, I’m worried I’ll be cast as a grandma (and not a young one). I should be proud. I’m comfortable in my skin, but because my profession takes place within an industry where youth is a calling card, it’s a challenge to stay grounded and honest. I’m afraid that if I admit my real age, I‘ll be judged not based on my abilities but by shallow perceptions of what unimaginative people think a forty-odd-year-old person should look and act like.

Maturity should be celebrated. Ideally, aging would benefit an artist professionally and personally. I’ve had more time to read, travel and meet people. I hope I’ve become wiser and more compassionate as a result. I understand human behavior more so that now when I’m playing different characters I don’t have to work as hard in my acting,  like I did when I was younger, covering for my lack of knowledge.

If Renée Zellweger has had work done, it’s her own business. She has the right to do whatever she wants to herself. And perhaps part of the reason she may have wanted to change her appearance is because she’s been under intense scrutiny for her looks since she first appeared on screen.

When Jerry Maguire  came out, I remember reading, ad nauseum, how unlikely a choice Zellweger was to play a Tom Cruise love interest, because of “her fetching ordinariness,” as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. Her performance was breathtakingly sweet and painfully honest. Yet the big story was her “ordinariness.”

She doesn't look "ordinary" to me. Her sweetness and sincerity is luminous.

She doesn't look "ordinary" to me. Her sweetness and sincerity is luminous.

Looks can be an important tool for an actor. It’s undeniable. But it’s also unreasonable and dispiriting how often actresses get slammed (and even blamed) for their looks in a way male actors simply do not. Actresses’ lucky or “unlucky” genetics are tied to their self-worth and many times are prized more than their skill as artists.

Hollywood traffics in youth, so actresses tend to have a shorter shelf-life than their male counterparts. Harrison Ford is seventy-three and he’s still an action hero. I’m convinced Hollywood thinks actresses over fifty shouldn’t even have sex. Our earning potential decreases significantly because this business sees us as less desirable and marketable than men as we age. It’s no wonder some of us feel we have to take subtle or drastic measures to insure working as long and profitably as possible.

Post-Jerry Maguire, Renée Zellweger did something particularly daring for an actress. Something I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do: she gained thirty pounds to make her character believable in Bridget Jones's Diary. It was essential for the part: Bridget’s self-deprecation about her weight, her humor in battling through her awkwardness, her sense of being an outcast, a “singleton” in a sea of “smug marrieds” we're all features of her enormous charm. When she drunkenly lip-synced “All By Myself” after a breakup, alone in her tiny flat, I cried. And when she reunited with Colin Firth, who said he liked her just the way she was, I don’t think I was the only one who wanted to give Zellweger both a standing ovation and a hug.  

Bridget Jones's Diary

Bridget Jones's Diary

Gwen Inhat, of the A.V. Club states it beautifully:

“But this imperfect heroine resonated with readers who also occasionally nestled beneath that low bar, taking two-and-a-half hours to pull together a simple outfit for the office, or frittering away an entire day supposedly spent working at home by looking at vacation brochures (followed by: “1:00 p.m.: Lunchtime! Finally a bit of a break.”) In a world where many chick-lit heroines and rom-com stars were often passed off as some sort of adorable type-A superwomen (like Jennifer Lopez’s super-organized Wedding Planner or Sophie Kinsella’s uber-ambitious Undomestic Goddess), the smoking, drinking, swearing Bridget Jones was funny, likable, and most of all, relatable. Many singletons of a similar ilk chose Bridget (or Fielding, more like) as their own personal heroine.”

It’s sad that I have to say it’s “brave” when an actress gains weight for a role. Did anyone in the Press criticize Robert DeNiro when he put on weight to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull?  The gossip magazines breathlessly tallied every pound Zellweger gained or lost. It was a national fixation. She’s too fat. She’s too skinny. She has chipmunk cheeks! On and on and on. I’ll admit I was complicit in this ugly fascination too, which makes me feel ashamed. But at least I’m not a professional critic.

Google search for "Renée Zellweger weight gain"

Google search for "Renée Zellweger weight gain"

How do you think this scrutiny makes an actress feel? Especially one possessing such openness and sensitivity? How did she block out all this toxicity? I’m guessing that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t. It’s insidious and powerful. An actress can’t help but judge herself, to question her worth and to worry about her professional viability in the future. I have a hard time with my own efforts to be selectively sensitive. If Zellweger did have plastic surgery or fillers, she was probably trying to make herself feel better. To stave off the criticism and make her career last longer. To be proactive.

Whether he meant it or not, Gleiberman’s article was mean-spirited.  He mused her changed appearance would affect his enjoyment of her performance, all from the Bridget Jones's Baby’s trailer. He’s a film critic, not a pageant judge. I hope Renée Zellweger didn’t read his piece, but I’m guessing she’s at least heard the gist of it. When I read it I couldn’t help but think about myself: if I became famous, would I be placed under the same cruel microscope?

When a respected, influential film critic starts reviewing an actress’ looks instead of the movie she's in, he becomes no better than an tabloid gossip columnist. It’s demeaning to his profession. I think Renée Zellweger and his readers both deserve better.

Bridget Jones's Baby

Bridget Jones's Baby

 

 

Amy Pascal and Jezebel

I haven’t been able to let go of my disgust after reading Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s poisonous Jezebel takedown of Amy Pascal.  The continually-unfolding Sony hacking scandal revealed Pascal’s highly intimate Amazon purchases in addition to emails about her diet, all gleefully and ghoulishly recounted in Vargas-Cooper’s piece.  On one hand, I’m angry with myself for consuming that toxicity and directing any more attention to it.  On the other hand, I’m still shaken that a woman could do that kind of hatchet job on another woman.  It seems like a double betrayal; one of privacy and one of humanity. 

We may differ in our opinions about Amy Pascal.  I personally hold no animosity toward her, but then again, I’m white.  By all accounts she was a champion of projects that had artistic merit, was genuinely friendly to actors, creatives and executives and was one of the few women in Hollywood holding a position of prominence and power, which is no small feat.  We need more people like her in this business, I assure you. 

She did say some indelicate things.  That may be too mild a descriptor.  Okay, some of what she expressed in what she thought were private conversations was uncomfortably close to racism.  However, I noticed that Scott Rudin, the person with whom she was communicating, didn’t get half as much flack for his portion of their conversations, which were equally if not more inflammatory.  Maybe it’s because he has a reputation for brashness.  That’s possible.  My hunch, though is that it’s because he is a man, and men who are powerful are kind of expected to talk that way.  Most of us love Glengarry Glen Ross.  I certainly do. 

As progressive as we like to think we are, women who are bold and decisive and strong are still perceived as threats.  Not just in the Entertainment Business.  Everywhere.  Hillary Clinton certainly knows this.  You don’t even have to be in a position of power.  I have less than 2000 followers on Twitter and I’ve been called a cunt for a political opinion I posted.  You probably don’t know me, but I’m one of the least assertive people in the Greater Los Angeles Area.  Despite this, I’d obviously struck a nerve:  How dare she express an opinion?  Don’t women know that they are nothing more than a face, a body and a vagina, preferably hairless?  To be honest, it didn’t shock me as much you’d think.  This was the evaluation of a knuckle-dragger, someone who forgot that he actually came out into the world via the epithet he was using for me.  Blocking people on Twitter is really easy. 

The most shocking aspect of the Jezebel article for me was it was written by a woman.  How could she do this?  I assume Vargas-Cooper intended this to be a humor piece, but it read as if she was the chapter head of the Mean Girls’ Society of America (MGSofA).  I don’t want to go into the specifics of Amy Pascal’s purchases, but I can’t imagine the humiliation of having them displayed in print for anyone and everyone to see.  For me, it would be exactly like a recurring nightmare where you are in a crowd of people, you are suddenly completely naked and you’re desperately trying to cover up.  It's inconceivable a woman wouldn’t know what damage this kind of information could do to the woman she was writing about.

Yesterday, I was searching my mind trying to think what could have motivated Cooper-Vargas to write this trash.  I understand it’s an ugly side of human nature that we love to put certain people up on pedestals only to topple them over when we feel they’ve gotten too high.  But I think there is something else at play that as a woman I find quite disturbing: whether it’s cultural or instinctual, women are taught to distrust and sometimes even despise one another. 

It starts early.  I have seen it in my children’s classrooms.  And I realize I’m speaking in generalities, but when there is conflict between boys, they tend to knock each other down, cry and then get right back up and start to play again.  However, between girls, it’s more complicated.  They exclude and they whisper and they try to hurt.  Unchecked, this kind of behavior can become even more toxic in High School.  I went to an all-girl school.  Believe me, I know.      

I see the same kind of behavior at play in Cooper-Vargas’ post.  It’s as if she is expressing the very feeling that women can’t tolerate when certain men express it:  “Lady, you can’t have it all.  You can be powerful or you can be attractive, but you can’t be both.  If you try, then I will mock you and tear you down until you’re no longer a Superwoman, but a sad, grasping female who’s just longing to be pretty for a man."  It’s not only disgusting, it’s heartbreaking.  And it's sexist.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hack writer, like Vargas-Cooper or one who has more prestige, but who is equally hacky, like Maureen Dowd.  What business do they have knocking a powerful woman’s femininity?  Don’t they see this hurts us all?  I’ve heard way too many women on social media talk a good game about supporting other women (which usually involves a degree of sycophancy), but then tearing down other women they consider beneath them with intensely petty comments usually based on looks.  This really needs to be examined, harshly, if need be. 

Yes, it’s incredibly hard for women to have it all.  Sometimes it seems impossible and many times it is.  We are asked to balance so many vital aspects of our lives and then try to make it look easy and pretty.  What we need to do is to tap into the other profoundly beautiful aspects of our gender, like compassion, humor, intuition, nurturing and understanding.  And strength.  We should support each other, be happy for our successes and be gentler with each others’ flaws and failings.  Why should women make it harder on each other by perpetuating this destructive, and really self-destructive, behavior?  It makes us look bad because it is bad.    

Jezebel is supposed to be a blog directed at women’s interests.  With that in mind, Jezebel, what do you think is in women’s best interests?  There is a great similarity to that despicable guy calling me a what he did because I refused to conform to what he thought was feminine and you publishing a piece mocking a powerful woman for buying products to use on the same anatomical part.  That guy and you are sharing the same epithet.  How sad.