The Shadow of #MeToo

Yesterday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a harrowing story about Jorge Domínguez, a senior professor in my graduate department. The article documents in careful, nauseating detail his many, many decades of sexual harassment and predation.

Domínguez was my first advisor at Harvard. Indeed, I came to the department specifically to work with him, as a young scholar interested in post-Soviet politics and Cuba in particular. Like many women, I have no shortage of #MeToo stories accumulated over the years. But it is my experience with Domínguez—and the #MeToo that didn’t happen because I removed myself from his influence before it could—that has had the most profound and lasting effects on my life and career.

My story is about what happens when women act on intuition. The potential career, scholarship, and contributions that are forfeited “merely” on account of a strong case of heebie-jeebies. The “hysterical” or “paranoid” woman who changes course to avoid an experience she knows in her marrow has the potential to escalate. And the ways in which that sort of exit conditions what remains possible and what does not in that woman’s life.

My story in no way compares to Terry Karl’s account in the Chronicle piece, or Yoshiko Hererra’s, or any of the other women brave enough to come forward. There is no quid pro quo or smoking gun in my case—just many small incidents. Loaded glances. A hand lingering a little too long on a knee, on the small of a back walking into or out of an elevator, squeezing an arm a little too hard and too long for emphasis. Closed-door meetings after normal hours. Cornering me at receptions and blocking my exits. Inappropriate jokes and comments. It was all very vague, very impressionistic, oh-you-misunderstood-I-didn’t-mean-that kind of stuff. Everything adding up to a very, very bad feeling.

I have not always followed my intuition in this life, which has often been to my detriment. But in this case, I did. Shortly after arriving at Harvard, I began going to great lengths to avoid spending time with Domínguez. I dreaded our advisor meetings, so I limited them or intentionally missed them. I dreaded being stuck in an elevator with him, so I avoided the building entirely. I dreaded my required course with him, so I skipped sessions he led. And as soon as I could, I filed for a new advisor and changed my entire topic of study in order to eliminate any reason to spend time with him at all.

It became a running joke in my cohort how distressed I was by Domínguez, even after I had switched fields. Once, as a joke, a few friends kidnapped a stuffed monkey from my office and created a blog with ransom-style posts of the monkey in compromising situations, including one posing in front of Domínguez’s office door holding a sign that said “Help Me.” When a member of my study group for general exams invited him to one of our sessions to help us prepare, she openly acknowledged I probably wouldn’t want to attend that week. And I didn’t. I didn’t attend any seminars, any receptions, or any events that I knew would involve him. In an extremely competitive and gossip-driven atmosphere like an elite graduate program, that kind of behavior is much more likely to get interpreted as “can’t hack grad school” than what it really is, which is panic, dislocation, and profound self-blame.

Everywhere I looked, Domínguez was promoted and celebrated as a great teacher, researcher, and above all a tremendous advisor and mentor. Everyone said I was lucky to get a chance to work with him. People I thought the absolute world of seemed to think the world of him. The message was clear: he wasn’t the real problem. I must be.

I had arrived at Harvard with a plan. I knew who I was and what I wanted out of grad school. I arrived with an award-winning honors undergraduate thesis about Cuba that I wanted to continue exploring. But by the end of that first year, I didn’t know any of those things anymore—or even if it made sense to continue pursuing my Ph.D. at all.

It’s a particularly damaging type of lie to dramatically adjust course in life while pretending everything is fine and denying the real reason behind it. It requires a mix of mental, emotional, social, and professional gymnastics that are profoundly draining as the gap between the truth and saving face just grows wider and more treacherous. What happens when you try to live like that is you start living into the lie so completely that you utterly lose yourself. Small choices rooted in small lies to protect a certain facade lead to bigger choices rooted in bigger lies and bigger facades. And one day you wake up and you are so far from where you started that all that is left is a profound sense of self-betrayal mingled with crushing obligation to all those lies. To the “self” those lies nourish and sustain.

When people ask me why I still haven’t finished my Ph.D. in over a decade, I can point to a lot of reasons. And many of those reasons are legitimate in their own right. But one reason I never include is that I am haunted by, and have carried around with me all this time, the scholar I did not permit myself to become because I acted on my internal warning system.

I don’t regret the choice I made to change course and pursue a different, uncharted area of study. I don’t even regret the extra time and heartache and confusion and extreme self-doubt that process has caused me, or any of the cascading consequences of a forfeited career that eventually accompanied it. I do regret that I have pretended, for over a decade, that the choice was completely my own. It never really was.