Report from the Field: The Permission to Reveal
This July 11 Report from the Field is a post by a Addie Tsai regarding their personal experiences concerning a noted literary figure.
I have been avoiding this essay.
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A few months before accusations regarding Sherman Alexie’s behavior lit up my Twitter feed, a feed I infrequently and sporadically browse, I have periodically searched #[his first last name] + #metoo. When I say “his,” I do not mean Sherman Alexie.
Almost two months before the story hit that not only had Alexie harassed many women of color (among others), but that he had also threatened to ruin their careers (and, in some cases, did) if they went public with statements of this behavior, I submitted two erasures of the white male poet I refer to in the previous confession, in response to a call for submissions asking for erasures of the words of those who have committed an abuse of power.
I have not yet received word whether the erasures I submitted have been accepted for inclusion in this project. I am unsure whether it was the act of the erasures themselves, the bringing to the forefront through this poet’s work the man I felt I had finally uncovered through time and mind, or whether it was the two men of color whose behaviors were brought to the public within the writing community (and yet, the behavior of prominent white men remained hidden and discussed only in whispers), but nonetheless, a pricking like an insect on the ear kept biting me to tell this story I was waiting to be initiated by someone else.
I’m not the right person to bring this up the first time, I told my therapist.
I’m waiting for someone to reveal the story involving this person who had true powerlessness in the situation, a student, a minor. It won’t land the right way, I told my partner.
If someone calls him out first, then I’ll chime in, I said to no one in particular.
And, then, I went to AWP.
I met this poet in Houston in 2004, when we became neighbors. He had been accepted as graduate faculty in the creative writing program for the local university. He taught in the spring, and so was able to share an apartment with the faculty who lived two doors down from me, who taught in the fall.
I was 24 and attending a low-residency MFA program.
He was 44, although I wouldn’t realize this (I was quite the naïve 24-year-old) until I was too far in.
For years, I told this story in a particular way, as though we were in a traditional consensual sexual (and at times, I thought, romantic) relationship. For years, I told this story as one in a thread of stories connecting my relationships with men to my history as a child of pathological narcissists, as the twin of a teen victim of sexual molestation that occurred with a friend of my mother’s and a friend of my father’s, as a young woman who enmeshed herself in romantic relationships with much older men to understand her own relationship with her physically abusive single father, and as a child of a mother who used her victimhood to avoid her responsibility to me as her child.
But, ten years of therapy have nicked away at this.
Recently, many, many articles and narratives regarding male abusers of power have chipped away at how I used to make sense of this story.
I lost my virginity to the teaching assistant for a hotel and restaurant management class I took as a freshman in college. I was 18. He was 28. Shortly thereafter, I left my abusive father’s home to move into this man’s apartment. He imagined it temporary. I lived with him for a year and a half. I lost my virginity while pretending not to be a virgin, of course, for an hour in the middle of a school day, before my twin drove us back home (I didn’t yet have a driver’s license as I had failed my first test). Later, the teaching assistant would say it was obvious I was a virgin, an admission that made clear he didn’t care. Not a single person questioned this relationship at the time, including my professor he worked for, my parents, my siblings, my college friends (many of whom were also enrolled in this class), or his friends who teased me about how I was too young to get into bars.
I left him to rekindle a love affair with the first boy I kissed at 16 when he was 19, who first broke up with me after three weeks because I was too young for him. He was in college and I was in high school. By the second time I was a college sophomore at 19 and he was a grad student at 22.
I was with three other men in between the 22-year-old and the poet, two of whom I worked with while I was still tolerating corporate positions. One was an alcoholic 15 years older than me and the other was a graduate student who beat me down with his insistence when I said I had been too damaged by the alcoholic to be ready for a relationship. After weeks of enduring his guilting me and refusing to take no for an answer when I ran into him at grad student parties, he and I had a strained but short relationship.
I met this older white male poet for the first time after a reading. A group of graduate students and writers had come up to the stage where the reading had taken place to give their affections to the readers. I don’t recall who read. A friend and graduate student of the program asked if I had met my new neighbor yet. When I shyly said no, she immediately took the opportunity to walk me across the length of a stage to make his acquaintance. He would later tell me his impression was that I acted “gracious” when I met him, with apparent disinterest. My memory of the meeting was that I was attempting to keep my distance because many grad students who learned that he would soon be living next to me had warned me about getting too close. He’s a womanizer, I was told. A sex addict, another joked. He’ll go crazy when he realizes he’s living next door to you, said another.
After we made our introductions, he offered to buy me a larger mailbox. He hated how tiny the rectangles attached to the brick wall between our apartments. Although I don’t think he was exactly asking, I accepted the offer, assuming I’d rarely see him in person. He did offer to give me feedback on my poems.
One day soon after we met, I walked to his apartment. His bell was broken, so I knocked on the outer gate. No response. Not thinking much about it, I pushed the unlocked gate aside. Our apartments both had sliding glass front doors. He was clearly shaken by my sudden appearance, a young woman in a tank top and underwear sitting in his lap on the sofa. I’d be shocked if she was past 21, although it’s possible she was older than she seemed. I quickly apologized for intruding, explained about the broken bell. I dropped my handful of poems in front of me and scampered back to my apartment.
As I expected, soon after I received a knock on my door. He made sure to explain how much he loved that I wanted to drop in, how he wanted that to continue, but that it would be great if we could all respect each other’s privacy. I got the message. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t tell the grad students he entertained young women in his apartment.
Not long after that morning, he and I made a date to go to Chinatown, where he drove us to my favorite dumpling house. I’m not sure how he brought this into the conversation, but he told me a story of getting into a fight with his homeless and alcoholic father, prying liquor from his stubborn fingers, and I also admitted that the only person who had ever laid a hand on me was also my father. Now, as I recall this moment of the story, I question whether he took this cue from the poems of mine he had read by then, poems that focused on my violent Chinese father, my abandoning white mother.
No matter how old this story becomes, like a blossom hiding a bee, it keeps opening, revealing stings that hide behind the veneer of beauty.
I remember how moved I was by this conversation, how authentic I felt our connection. This is something I would hold onto for years to convince myself I wasn’t one of them, one of the many young women he hooked up with and then fled, that I was special. After all, this was a truth I needed to feel after having felt demoralized by the fear that surrounded my childhood with my father, the neglect unleashed by my mother’s sporadic absences. It was different with me, I would tell myself, even though, for the most part, he was never able to even admit we were friends in the writing community.
When I think back to this story, I fluctuate between two extremes: I cringe with shame or am struck with immense sympathy for the girl I was then, the girl searching, searching, searching for love via the addictive elixir of power.
The poet’s second hook occurred when we drove back to his apartment in his fancy red sports car. The windows and the top were down, the wind thrashing through our hair, carrying our voices away from one another. A man driving next to him gave him a chin-yank of respect. The poet looked at me with a glint in his glassy blue eyes, a wide grin. “Do you see what he did? He thinks I’m livin’ the dream. Beautiful girl, beautiful car. I’m livin’ the dream!”
We went back to his apartment, where he offered me feedback on my poems. But, by then, I was already hooked on the drugs of status and desire his grooming had sparked within me. Everything after just fed into the seed that had already been planted.
Days after breaking up with the graduate student, I walked the short walkway to this 44-year-old man’s apartment. He told me stories about his life, stories that required he sit next to me, like newspaper clippings readily available in his backpack (I’d find out from others who knew him that these were his seductive tricks he used again and again), stories that gave him the opportunity to place his body next to mine. He told me about his relationship troubles so I would assumedly never expect anything from him resembling commitment. We spent the night together. After that night, we slept together for a month. After that month, our involvement would continue on and off for six years, until I read a line in his second memoir that exposed our relationship. After I read the one line exposing our relationship to those who lived near us at the time, and those thoughtful enough to pay attention, I disconnected from him in every way I could find.
I met him before I began therapy, before I understood boundaries, before I would fully realize the power he held in his hand, and how that power tethered me to him, a tethering that quickly morphed into an obsession that I believed at the time was something resembling love.
It must have been obvious to him I wanted something more serious than a periodic tryst. And what became clear to me, albeit years later, was what he was willing to imply in order to gain the feeling of power and intimacy that would lead to my vulnerability, to my willingness to be whatever he wanted of me.
He confided in me. He told me he loved me, that he was in love with me. He pretended to sympathize with the deepest struggles of my life. He asked me to accompany him on experiences that left him vulnerable for reasons to do with his own childhood.
He had me visit him in various cities and states. He kept objects I had sent him on his mantle, even after he had already started his relationship with his partner. He included quotes I had sent him in notes sections in the back of his books. He had me assist him while he was ill. He wrote me recommendation letters barely three sentences long. He brought me things on trips away, or at least, I assume they were for me, and not merely something he gave me to keep the tether alive, but were really more of an afterthought.
Like a good girl, most of the time, I acted as though he was not as powerful as I knew him to be, as though I could hang with the noncommittal situation he allotted for me. I picked him up from the airport, even when it included his partner. I assisted him, accepting payment for that assistance while being physically entrenched with him in ways that still fill me with shame. I sent him letters with stones and jewelry. He joked that I was a succubus. He compared me to the songs Maggie May and I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You.
And he dumped me a million times. He dumped me in the middle of a café. He dumped me in his hotel room the morning after. He dumped me on the phone. And at times, he dramatized the rejection—always about my age, never his—like the time he stroked my hair while I sat on his lap and he reached behind me to play a gospel album. Or the time he asked me to help him through a hard experience just moments after he rejected me in the café. “I love you, too, but in my heart I feel it’s wrong,” he said, multiple times, in multiple ways.
But, it was impossible to separate my knowledge of what a terribly unhealthy situation this was for me with the promise that someone of his stature desired me.
And, then, the memoir happened.
He wrote a memoir six years ago in which he exposed his history of womanizing, I suppose to prevent someone else from doing it herself. At this point, I was in therapy, and I had healed enough to move out of the apartment next door to his, but not enough that I wasn’t still picking him (and sometimes her) up from the airport, that I was having dinner with him, that I was sharing with him about the romantic relationships with men and women in my life. And his hold on me was significant enough that when my relationships began losing their steam, it was he who would haunt my dreams. I knew I had been cured of the potion he injected into my veins when he no longer crowded my mind in these mythic images that used to flood my brain when I began to lose interest in my current relationship.
During one dinner, I confided in him about a new struggle in my life, where my twin was starting to encroach upon my writing life and subsume the most important piece of my identity I had that was separate from hers. Soon after this evening, she would steal three domain names—two versions of my name, and one of the title of a memoir I was working on at the time—to prevent me from writing stories that involved her, all while she was using my currency to get into the writing community. He tells me after dinner he saw me at a reading the other night. I correct him and say, no, that was my twin sister. He looks in horror. It’s a look I’m quite familiar with by then, the look one gives me when they’ve gotten it wrong, after believing they could never get it wrong.
I would soon see this moment distilled in a single line in his memoir, one I knew to avoid reading until I just couldn’t avoid it anymore.
Yesterday, I ran into another lover from the past, but I confused her with her twin sister.
It wasn’t just that he had outed me to every person in the city where we met and first became “involved” with one another that suspected it. It wasn’t just that he did it without asking or even notifying me of it. It wasn’t that he turned me into just another lover from the past. The line opened my eyes to who he really was, that he would use my “specialness,” my twinning, as currency for a gimmick. Perhaps he wrote it in order to break free, although I doubt he’d willingly leave such a prisoner behind. But the exposure freed me from the bars I previously felt unable to break through.
Three years later, my memoir was under contract with a small press, owned by a well-known prose writer. It was my memoir about my childhood, about what it meant to be the twin of a victim of adolescent sexual abuse by my mother’s friend and my father’s friend. The memoir was divided into two halves—the first half dealt with my childhood and the impact of my twin’s story, and the second half dealt with how my relationships with men and women were formed from that experience, and out of my parents’ willful denials to those abuses. One chapter dealt with the poet.
In that chapter, however, I told the story as though we were two adults, as though it were only his narcissism and exposure of me that were the crimes. As though we were the same, as though he was not the one with power.
Because I quoted passages from the poet’s work in the chapter, the managing editor asked me to send the poet the passage from the book for his approval so as to avoid any legal problems.
He was fine with what I had excerpted, but asked to see the rest of it.
Given he had never even acknowledged what he included about me in his book, I didn’t respond to his request.
But, I heard through the grapevine he was asking about the memoir, asking what I had written about him.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I received a message from the owner of the press I had signed a contract with for the publication of my memoir. The memoir would no longer be published due to the fact that the press was gradually going under for personal reasons I would secretly question based on details I would garner from the Internet but never speak of and never directly communicate to the owner.
I knew that the poet was asking about the memoir, and I also knew that the publisher and the poet would in a few weeks’ time teach at the same workshop together. Over the years I asked myself many paranoid questions about the eerie synchronicity of her message and their workshop. Did he squash the memoir? Did she kill the memoir so as not to be confronted by him? This is something I have never verified. It is also true the press did not remain active. However, it is also true that writers I asked to blurb the book denied my requests solely on the chapter that focused on the poet or questioned my choice to start my book publishing life attaching myself to an older, prominent poet. This is just the way it is, a friend and writer would advise me. I would inevitably be seen as his object. Are you sure that’s what you want?
But it seems to me that the important part of this story is not why that memoir would never see the light of publication, or what role the press did or did not have in persuading me to take my manuscript elsewhere. Rather, that my understanding of his power and prominence in the community made me question my own ability to be in this world with this story for what it would reveal about him. I would never have his power, his fame, his privilege, and so he always already had the permission to reveal whatever he wanted about me in whatever place would have him. And every place would have him. I was relegated to silence, shaming, and paranoia.
Some time after the memoir that never saw the light of day, I sent the manuscript to a press he is affiliated with. They gave it a positive rejection. And, just like the press that almost published it, I wondered if they were close enough (and attentive enough) to send the manuscript to him, if he was the reason it never was accepted. Certainly, I’ve received countless rejections from all kinds of presses for all kinds of reasons. But, I think it says something that I believed he had the clout and stature to prevent publication of any work that depicted his narcissism and sexual behavior with a young woman. His memoir itself is evidence of the ways in which powerful men are able to control the narrative, and their image, in ways that most often women never could.
I never intentionally communicated with him again. But, it is revealing to me that I have never felt I could confront him regarding our past and present. I unfriended him on social media and tried not attending any event in the city during his semester-length stay here each calendar year. For years after my series of revelations about what our “relationship” truly was, I would run into him from time to time, and without my willingness, he would bring me into an embrace, a kiss on the cheek, and suddenly there I would be, powerless again, unable to flee his clutches. I lost friends who idolized him to me when I felt they should have been allies to how he had abused and mistreated me. And that twin sister of mine who stole my domain names until they expired and I was able to retrieve them from her thievery, is still connected with him on social media no matter how many times I try to explain how erased I feel by this act. Oh, and you know, used that relationship—“She used to date [First name Last name]” to various writers to legitimize her position in the writing community.
At the yearly AWP conference, I mostly ran the other way when I saw him coming, or avoided his glance while others oohed and aahed at him when they got just a second to inhale his air of white male privilege.
Until AWP 2017. I passed him walking through the conference hotel bar, a young woman cradling each arm, and our eyes met. He looked at me with the gaze of a person who wants to be a victim but had no words to offer me. I looked him dead in the face without affect, walking past him and his entourage. It was a small moment, trivial perhaps, but one that made me feel like a badass.
And then, this year’s AWP came, and I assumed something similar would happen.
But, instead, I ran into him everywhere. It was as if I couldn’t get away from him. To say that I ran into him ten times in one day would not be an exaggeration. Most of the time, as always, I found him with some young woman on his arm. On the final day of the conference, I walked to Whale Prom, a book fair for independent presses who opted out of paying AWP’s extreme prices.
Suddenly, just an hour after seeing him ahead of me on the sidewalk approaching me (after which I crossed the street to avoid passing him), there he was again, standing next to me at a booth. I felt taunted by him, and just as I had felt when confronted with my father’s anger and the fear that it would be accompanied by his striking hand on me, my heart leapt into my throat, my mouth cotton-dry, the blood in my veins bouncing.
I skipped from table to table, which originally riddled me in shame, wishing I could be the kind of person to not allow this man to infect me, again, with his white privilege and power.
Eventually I left the small book fair and returned to the conference hotel. I passed him again, this time too soon to find a new way to avoid him. But I was too exhausted to avoid his glance, and our eyes met. Instead of the sad, weepy blues he threw my way the year before, this time his mouth held a smirk directed my way, a mouth upturned as if to say he won.
I thought of that moment again after the Junot Diaz story of sexual assault and harassment frenzied Twitter, Facebook, and popular media. I thought particularly of the deafening silence surrounding the white men who had committed similar abuses, and the results that filled my Twitter screen when I searched his name and #metoo lionizing him as the greatest American poet.
I suppose, by his definition, he had won. He’d scored me during a time where I thought the best I could be was validated by someone as big as him, inevitably making myself small. He’d convinced me it was possible for a sexual relationship with a woman twenty years younger than him to be one connected by intimacy and love. And, regardless of what actually happened with that memoir, he had exposed me while I felt my silence of him was necessary to stay connected to the writing world, because he was just too damn powerful.
Except now, I no longer see this as a game, and I no longer want part of any world that lifts up an abuser of power while encouraging women to suffer in silence.
I was waiting for another person to come out first, someone else to expose him so I could follow in kind, a student or a person with a more traditional imbalance of power to set his abuse in clear, unequivocal terms.
But, I realized, it was time for a new erasure, one that chiseled away at the powerlessness men had convinced me my words and body had, and to carve out a new one.
“I was a lucky dog to be with you,” he said once in the very beginning, as I was saying goodbye at his front door. “You’re perfect . . . No, you’re better than that because perfect implies something otherworldly, and you’re better than that.”
I never needed to be perfect. Only safe.
ADDIE TSAI teaches courses in literature, creative writing, humanities, and dance at Houston Community College. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and her doctorate in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. Her queer Asian young adult novel, Dear Twin, will be published by NineStar Press in August of 2018. Her writing has been published in Banango Street, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She is the Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, and Senior Associate Editor in Poetry at The Flexible Persona.