Friday, November 17, 2017

Adding Her Voice to An Important Conversation

I have been lucky: No one I've ever worked for has made unwanted sexual overtures in my direction.  

I had a colleague in Hawaii who told me that our boss (moments before) kissed her on the mouth with tongue,  totally without her permission.

Neither of us knew what to do about it.

I expressed empathy... "Ew!"

It happened in the last days of our employment, when our boss had nothing to lose.

It was 1991, and sexual harassment in the workplace had been a violation of the Civil Rights Act since 1964. But, my friend and I were unaware of any law or policy or prescribed recourse that defended our physical sanctity.

Perhaps, if she had gone to H.R., she might have learned that there was a policy and a process in place to support her grievance against him.  She did not report it to HR, and anyway, I doubt there was any such process in place.

Truly unhandsome, our boss bore a striking resemblance to C. Montgomery Burns from "The Simpsons." He was tall, slouched, beaky, and profoundly cynical.

Beyond that, what made his kiss unwelcome was that my friend had been working with him closely and had actually grown to like him better as a person.

She was fragile when she took the job.  She had just moved home to her parents in Hawaii to get away from a high-flying life and relationship in New York that crash-landed.  A man whom she worked with in New York broke her heart, and she came away feeling used and discarded.

With the support of parents and friends in Hawaii, she was trying to make a new start.

She was 29, and half Hawaiian on her mother's side. She was excited about working at the state museum of natural and cultural history, where she was hired as the marketing director of the museum's small press. (I was the assistant editor at the time.)

For months, we were both rudderless, treading water while our boss holed up in his office catching up on personal correspondence.

He had been an editor on the East Coast for twenty-odd years, and seemed to think of this job as his retirement.

For over a year, our jobs seemed practically fraudulent. It was only at the very end that we began to have meaningful work.

What our boss knew, and we didn't, was that we would soon lose our jobs. That iteration of the press was soon to be disbanded.

The director relished his last weeks and days as publisher and indulged us, finally, as we looked to him for leadership.

After he was fired, our ex-boss moved back to the mainland. About a year later, he flew to Maui for a vacation. That was a big mistake.

The islands, you see, well...

I learned a few things about Hawaii, and one of them was that the land--a'ina--was intrinsically connected to the people and spirit of Hawaii. In essence, it was alive.

And so, it surprised neither my hapa-Hawaiian friend nor myself that our ex-boss died while on Maui.

I know! Magical thinking!  Whatever! Judge me harshly. Scorn all religion. That's your prerogative.

I wouldn't say that our ex-boss deserved to die for a stolen kiss, for the promises he failed to keep, or for the cynical eye he cast upon romantics and every form of idealism.

But, consider this: Hawaii, the a'ina, barely tolerated me.  Young, idealistic and compassionate as I was, I remained every inch a haole from Boston.

Think Dole pineapple acid in canneries dissolving Hawaiian fingerprints. Think lacerating sugar cane and the overthrow of peaceful monarchy. Those were my people, the Bostonians.

Think Navy-girlfriend-occupier-parasite. Hello! Here I am.

The more I learned about Hawaii, the more I loved it and understood that I did not belong there.

When my husband's tour of duty was over, we moved back to the mainland.

My friend stayed in Hawaii and continued her struggle to feel whole and strong.

I'm not saying that her mental breakdown was our ex-boss's fault for kissing her, or that it was my fault for leaving.  It wasn't the fault of the man in New York who made her feel loved and used and discarded.

But I can't imagine that any of us helped.

I've wondered what would have happened to her if I had stayed.  I know it sounds  egotistical to even suggest that I might have made a difference...The fact that it does sound like pure hubris assuages my  guilt.

She jumped off a building. She survived, but her foot had to be amputated.

By the time I returned for a visit in 2000, she had recovered her mental health.  She seemed strong and happy. She held a position on Honolulu's Board of Mental Health.

She told me how she lapsed into schizophrenia the first time, and somehow, through intervention and medication, managed to get healthy again.

She expressed compassion, and even admiration, for that schizophrenic version of herself: the feats of travel and deceit (credit card charges, false identities) as she traveled from that South Pacific archipelago all the way to New York and back (and later, again, to Boston).

Mentally ill though she was, she had been resourceful and cunning.

Sometime after my visit, she became ill again and moved to Massachusetts, where I lived.  She called and left strange messages.

I saw her for the last time on Beacon Street in Brookline.  She was angry and sullen.  I tried to move conversation but it wouldn't budge.

We sat across from each other, barely speaking. She threw off hate vibes as I attempted small talk.

We walked in brooding silence to a building where her boyfriend lived. She invited me upstairs. I declined.  She was angry, I didn't know her boyfriend, and it didn't feel particularly safe.

She wanted to return a book I had given her.

I waited outside. It was cold and dark.

She went into the building and retrieved the book, with a card I had written tucked between the pages.

She said she didn't want anything of mine.

I took the book and offered a hug. She scoffed at the suggestion.

I walked back to my car, sad, hollowed out.  I couldn't begin to imagine how she felt.

I know CPR.  I've been instructed to use a defibrillator. I could probably tie off a bleeding artery.  But I don't know the first thing about rescuing a friend in the grip of mental illness.

She seemed to view the world through the prism of metaphor (yes, even more than myself).

In voicemails, she accused me of reaping souls to sculpt heads out of clay.

This was flattering, actually, because I wasn't that good a sculptor. And it was ghastly-funny, because, while in Hawaii, I did sculpt several heads from clay and they all appeared to be stuck on pikes--the metal armature visible beneath the neck.  I had several life-sized heads on pikes in a single studio apartment, unintentionally creating a kind of gallows aesthetic.

Other messages were affectionate. Some were warm and platonically effusive. The messages came at odd hours.  I only spoke to her on the phone twice.

She died in 2010.  I'm sure she committed suicide, but I don't know how.  The obit said nothing about how she died or about mental illness.

I can avoid assigning blame to myself, and admit that I had no idea how to help her, and in that way, and in other respects, too, I may have failed her.

But I can write on her behalf, and add her story to an important conversation.

She experienced sexual harassment at work.  It was damaging, and nothing was done about it.


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