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640: Five Women

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. A quick warning to everybody who's listening to this podcast version of our show. There are some words that we have unbeeped. If you don't want to hear that, maybe you're listening with kids, you can get a beeped version at our website, ThisAmericanLife.org.

So Chana Joffe-Walt, one of our producers, has been reporting this story. It's going be the whole hour today. It's a really good one. Here she is.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When Vivian started reading about the men in Hollywood, and the media, and their sexual transgressions, she thought of the men in her past who had behaved poorly, the man who assaulted her in her 20s, and the others--

Vivian

A few unwanted kisses over the years-- I mean, truly unwanted, drunken guys just sort of pushing themselves on me, and, you know, the usual array of jokes and comments, and this and that.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She thought of them, and she thought of Don, her partner of 23 years. And Vivian wondered. Don was a boss to dozens of women. He ran AlterNet, a progressive news website, and he was a flirt.

Vivian

It was easy for me to imagine that Don had missed unspoken signals-- being a little too present, a little too close, a little too eager, a little too-- you know, those kinds of things.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She'd seen it. She'd seen Don's attention make women uncomfortable at parties, in restaurants.

Vivian

And what would end up happening is I would catch her eye, and we would roll our eyes together-- like oh, God, men --there would be a sort of a bond there, and things would go on.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And this is like Don flirting with some woman in front of you.

Vivian

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He was a flirt?

Vivian

Yes, I knew he was a flirt. I also really knew that that didn't have anything to do with us. That had to do with a need for attention.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you feel embarrassed by it?

Of course, of course. But it pass quickly. It was usually very easy to move things along.

Vivian

Then I could step in. I could step between. I could engage her in conversation, whatever, right.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Would you talk to Don about it?

Vivian

Rarely, because I didn't think I'd be believed.

Chana Joffe-Walt

By him.

Vivian

By him. I think he'd sort of laugh it off, and say, oh, you just don't get it. It's all in fun-- which I do think was his attitude-- which I know was his attitude.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So a couple of months ago, when Don told Vivian that BuzzFeed News was writing a story about him, Vivian was not surprised. People who used to work for Don at AlterNet were accusing Don of sexually harassing them.

Vivian read the article. A number of women detailed encounters with Don-- unwanted advances, inappropriate touching, sending them explicit e-mails. Vivian recognized Don in some parts; others felt like they were describing a person she'd never met. Mostly, she had a particular experience reading that story that actually had nothing to do with Don.

Vivian

A memory came back to me from when I was 28 that I'm sure I hadn't thought about since it happened.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She was training to be a psychologist with a bunch of young trainees at a clinic. She was in the back room where the staff took breaks and wrote notes.

Vivian

The supervisor was a man, as virtually all the supervisors at the time were, in his 40s, maybe even early 50s.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Vivian was on the couch with a friend, a woman in her 40s, and the two of them watched as many of the young psychology interns, women Vivian's age, in their 20s, crowded around the supervisor.

Vivian

They're surrounding him, and sort of hanging on his words, and leaning in, and it's just got that-- no offense, his words weren't that interesting, you know. It's like, they were fine. But, oh my God, and he was eating it up. You could just see he loved this. And then I'm sitting in the back of the room, on the couch with this other woman, Lynn, and she looks up and she goes, hm, the cupcakes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Vivian lost it. She loved this word. It was perfect.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And you understood immediately that that was meant to refer to the women who were surrounding the supervisor.

Vivian

Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, and I was really proud that she was basically saying, you're not one of them. You know, I did not want to be one of them.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She was basically saying that you're cool and they're not.

Vivian

Exactly, exactly. Like we're grown up women, and they're not. Oh, God, yeah. That's who I want to be.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That is where her mind when reading about her partner of two decades in the news-- the cupcakes. Vivian felt full of regret. She regretted her contempt for the cupcakes. She regretted her acceptance that this was the way it would always be between men and women. Men would have power, and women would have to deal with that.

What I found so interesting about this was, for Vivian, learning the news about Don sparked this memory that was not about Don, but in some ways it felt like it had everything to do with Don. It explained something to her about who she is, and how she is, and choices and assumptions she's made in her life.

Now I want to tell you about another group of people I've been talking to, the women who worked for Don, including women who say they were harassed by him. I talked with them, and they each told me their Don stories, but they also did the same thing Vivian did. They brought up specific experiences from their past, things that happened years ago. Because, for them, that stuff in the past feels related to their experiences with Don.

Over the last few months of Me Too stories, I keep wanting to hear more from the women who were in the news reports, their broader history, not just the bad experience they had with one man at an office or on a movie set, but the other moments before the harassment, because there is no Me Too moment that is actually separate from the rest of our lives.

So today's show, we're going to do that. Five women tell their stories, Vivian and four women who worked for her partner, Don Hazen, over the course of many years, at different times, with a wide range of experiences. We're going to hear from each of them one at a time about their experiences with Don, and their experiences before Don.

Don resigned from his job a few months ago, and told me the board that oversees AlterNet insisted he couldn't talk on the record. I can tell you some about his version of events, but you won't be hearing from him. It's not a story about him, it's about them, these five women.

What these women are doing is what I think so many of us have been doing lately. They're doing it in ways I found brave and vulnerable. They're re-evaluating who they are, how they've related to men, how they came to think of certain things as normal. It's a reckoning, not just for men, for women.

It's This American Life. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Stay with us.

Act One: Deanna

Chana Joffe-Walt

This is probably evident by now, but just to say, we will talk about sex in this show, not just its existence, but some of the specifics. And there are some moments of abuse, so take this as a heads up. OK.

The women who worked for Don at AlterNet, beginning with Act 1, "Deanna."

The list started when Deanna was eight years old. The first time it was Face from the A-Team. Deanna got a postcard of him that year when her family went to Universal Studios. She put a puffy red heart sticker on it, took it with her during the day--

Deanna

--slept with it at night, and I actually-- and I'm eight. And I felt like I was going to die if I never met him. I actually thought I would die. I was like, I will cease to exist if I don't get to meet this person.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The next one made her cry. He was 12, so was she. Deanna called her Aunt Rose from the basement, distressed. She'd written him letters, dedicated a song to him on the radio, and nothing, no response. Aunt Rose was quick to deliver advice.

Deanna

This is the way boys are. They don't understand you. They are dumb. They do not get you. You're strong and smart and independent, and that just is never going to make sense to men.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Aunt Rose explained it would be Deanna's job to make sense of things to men. If she was going to have relationships with them, it would never be easy, and it would be on her to figure it out. Boys were too dumb to do it for themselves.

Jay's dad was a minister. Jay liked Monty Python, and had a car, and very few opinions.

Deanna

He was incredibly sweet, and he was very much whatever you want to do. Well, what do you want to do? You know, not super-motivated on his own. I was like, come along with me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When Deanna went away to college, Jay said, I'll come, too. When she broke up with him, his mom called her mom to ask if there was any way they could get back together.

Chris worked at the dollar store in the mall. Chris wanted more from his life. Deanna was 19, and got him a job on the other side of the mall at a Sam Goody she used to work at. She wanted more for him, too. He was funny, and moody, and he was the first person Deanna had sex with.

Mark wanted a job in film or TV, but nobody wanted to give him film or TV jobs. It was his idea to move to New York, and once they were there, Deanna got a job first as a bookkeeper. Mark got no job. She called his friends, his friends' friends, and found Mark an IT job, which he hated, so she found him another job at a magazine, and he worked there for the next 10 years. Deanna moved out three weeks before 9/11.

There was the German, the Israeli with the burger joint, men seemed to want wives, and Deanna didn't want to be a wife. Men also seemed to want her, but had no thoughts about what else that might look like. They don't get you, her mom would say on the phone. You have to show them how to be with you.

The Iraq War was starting, and so was the presidential race. Deanna volunteered for the Howard Dean campaign. He had a rally in New York before her 28th birthday. And while she was at the rally--

Deanna

This guy comes up to me, and he's got a reporter's pad, and he said, hey, after he's done talking, you know, can I talk to you? And I said, sure. And he said, you're a volunteer? An I said, yeah. And we talked for a really long time, and I actually got into an argument with him about Dennis Kucinich.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He was pro. She understood, but come on, that guy could never win.

Deanna

And then he said, well, you know, can I have your email address? I'll send you the article when it's done. And I was like, sure, you know, what are you writing for, or whatever. And he was like, oh, I'm the Executive Editor of AlterNet.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Don Hazen. AlterNet was not a major publication, but Deanna knew it. She read it all the time. The next day, Don sent her his article, very pro-Dean, and a personal note to her.

Deanna

See how much you influenced me already. And I was like, well, that's cool. I just convinced this, like, editor guy. That's awesome. I was like, that's really cool. Like, what made you change your mind? It started up this email conversation.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He asked about her. Was she hoping to get into politics? What was her job? Did she like it? What else did she want to do?

Deanna

It seemed really kind, and a little bit flirtatious, but I was fine with that. Like, I liked having this super-interesting, compelling man interested in me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Don lived in California, but had an apartment in New York for work. Deanna couldn't quite guess his age. She thought maybe mid-40s. He was 56. He'd be coming out to New York again. Did she want to get dinner?

Deanna

I kind of figured it was a date, and I did feel flirtatious with him. I did feel like, ooh, this is fun.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was fun. He walked her home. They talked about the party she was planning for her 28th birthday, where she should have it. They made out outside her apartment, and the next day, Don asked her out again, dinner, and this time, back to his apartment. They were making out, got naked, and when she felt him push inside her, Deanna was startled. It was abrupt, and he wasn't wearing a condom.

In Deanna's experience, someone always went and got the condom. That had never happened before. She felt slow, like she was floating in a silent conversation with herself.

Deanna

Uh-- should I say something? Uh-- I think it's OK. I mean, I don't really want to stop things.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He's older, she thought. Guys like that aren't getting around. Be nice to him. You're on birth control.

Deanna

You're not getting axe murdered right now. You're having a good time. You're fine. All right, let's just do this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was new and adventurous, and that's who Deanna wanted to be. Plus, she felt powerful in that moment.

Deanna

This is something that I am bestowing upon him, this youthful gift, this youthful body or something. Like, I did feel that way, and kind of like I was doing him a favor. And he seemed very, like, grateful, and I had not had that experience before.

Chana Joffe-Walt

With 25-year-old boys.

Deanna

No, as it turns out, different-- real different. So, yeah, I definitely felt like this was a rare thing for him.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Uh huh.

She thought about the condom thing again on the way home. Deanna's story about Don, that he was a good guy, a grown-up, self-actualized man who was taken by her was also a story about herself. She was powerful, interesting, could change his mind on important issues. The fact that he never even thought to ask about protection--

Deanna

It just didn't make sense. And so my default was to trust that it was going to be OK. It did not make sense to me, and I made sense of it, and that carried through the entire relationship.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Don started giving her work. He wanted her to help manage a big project for AlterNet. Deanna said yes. Don thought she was a poor fit for her corporate job. She agreed. When he was in town, they'd get dinner, spend the night or a weekend, which she loved, and then he'd leave, which she also loved.

Don does not need things from her as her other boyfriends had. It was the opposite. He set things up for her. He had an apartment for her to crash in, he had contacts she should meet, he bought her first Mac laptop, he helped her quit smoking, dinner was on him, and he did it all without demanding she be a wife.

It was seven months later that Deanna learned Don had a wife, a partner, actually, a distinction without a difference as far as Deanna was concerned, since Don explained that this was the woman he'd been with for years, Vivian, who you heard from earlier. They owned a house together, and she didn't know about Deanna. She says it was one of their first fights.

Deanna

I can't believe you lied to me. And he was like, I didn't lie to you. I never lied to you. And I was like, lying by omission is still lying. And he was like, you knew. And I'll never forget this word, he said, you've been colluding with me all along. And I was like, I don't think so.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But she went back to old emails to references Don would make to his domestic situation. Maybe she hadn't wanted to know. She stopped sleeping with him. She kept working for him. By now, they were working on a book together. That meant seeing him, and when she saw him, she'd inevitably sleep with him again. She liked him-- their conversations, their connection.

Deanna

He wasn't thrown by me in a way that felt like other men had been. He wasn't-- he just wasn't afraid of me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He saw her as she wanted to be seen. She stayed in the secret affair, ignored his daily phone calls home to Vivian. Deanna wanted more time with Don, more contact, as he did with her. He could be annoying about it. She started a folder called his, where are you emails. He didn't like lack of contact, or the wrong kind of contact.

Deanna

He would say, why did you email me about personal stuff, and there's no work info in here? Like, I need to know what's happening. I need to know where things are. I need to know what we're working on. And I'm like, OK, so I'd send him the work email. Why isn't there anything emotional here? Don't you love me? I guess you don't care about me. Like, he would send these, like, super-victimy emails.

That was also the point where he started talking to me more about the staff, and his frustrations at work, and his, I don't want to do all this anymore, but everyone that works for me is so incompetent that I have to be in there all the time doing all these things for them.

Chana Joffe-Walt

By now, Deanna had met a lot of Don's staff. He'd started flying her out to California as a consultant for AlterNet. So she'd see him in his office.

Deanna

He was just a very demanding boss, just yelling at people, like, why can't you get this right, and what's wrong with you?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna tried to make sense of this behavior. He was angry and insecure. This was not the easy-going, confident man she'd signed up for. She wanted to be supportive, the way he'd been supportive of her, but this felt all new to her.

Deanna

If we had been to an event together, he would watch how much I was drinking, and would accuse me later of drinking too much and being too tired to want to have sex with him, and starting a fight about that. What do you mean? Why not? Why are you tired? Like, I had a really long day. And he was like, well, you knew you were seeing me tonight. Like, why did you have a long day, like, why did you do so much? And I'm like, well, one, I was working for you. And two-- you know, and I would defend myself. And then he would get really assertive, and red-faced, eyes bulging, you know, veins popping, and he was scary as shit when he was angry.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna started giving in to sex. Not I don't feel like it, but I love you sex. This was sex to end a fight. Having sex could shut down the behavior that was not making sense, the parts that did not fit into Deanna's story of a powerful woman who was having adventures with a man who was not challenged by her power.

Act Two: The Dinner

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act 2, "The Dinner." Onnesha had just started at AlterNet. She was still getting a lay of the land. She was bright, ambitious, ready for her chance, and here it was. The staff was friendly. The boss, Don, was too sometimes.

Onnesha

Don was very mercurial, very, very moody. Sometimes it would be, like, compliments and praise; other times it would just-- he would be, like, furious about the pettiest thing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But she generally escaped his anger. Onnesha learned early how to anticipate his moods, keep it professional. She kept her distance. A couple months in, the whole AlterNet staff got together for some meetings. Everyone came. Don flew a couple of people out from New York, including a consultant for AlterNet named Deanna.

Onnesha didn't know Deanna really. She seemed nice. After the meetings, they all went out to dinner, and Onnesha saw that Deanna was sitting next to Don, but made nothing of that. It was Onnesha's colleague, Laura, who noticed it first. Here's Laura.

Laura

During that dinner, I glanced over and noticed that she was cutting up the meat on Don's plate, like his steak or something, and I was just like what-- I was just like, what is happening? This is so strange to me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Cutting his meat, like she was leaning over his plate?

Laura

Yeah. Yeah, they were sitting right next to each other in a tight-- you know, it was a big table, but a crowded restaurant. So they were sitting very close together, and she was just, like, leaning over, like it was her plate.

But I mean, it's not normal. It's just not normal. It's just like, why would he need that? Why would she need to do that? Why was he letting her do that? Did he ask her to do it? I don't know. I mean, there was something about it that was just very profoundly disturbing.

Onnesha

Oh, it was so weird. Oh, she's, like, cutting his meat for him.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Onnesha eventually noticed it, too, and she could not figure out what is up with this woman.

Onnesha

I just don't understand this dynamic. Like, the manual I had constructed on how to navigate and deal with Don, I was just like flipping through all the pages, I was like, nope, nope, nope, what, no. I have no guide for this, where to place this behavior.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Laura couldn't place it either.

Laura

There's really no rationalization. I could think of no possible reason for that to be a thing happening right at that moment that made sense beyond, they're sleeping together. But it still didn't make sense.

Chana Joffe-Walt

After that dinner, Laura and Onnesha left, and never mentioned it. They didn't talk to each other about it, or anyone else in the office.

Onnesha says it just didn't feel like fun office gossip. It felt like something she didn't want anything to do with. She didn't know anything about the woman sitting in that chair next to Don, but Onnesha had always known she did not want to be in that chair.

Act Three: Onnesha

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act 3, "Onnesha."

Most other girls quit being friends with boys earlier, but Onnesha was 13, and she still liked her friends. That summer, she hung out with the same boys she always had, in the same places-- the kitchen, her friend's basement playroom, or--

Onnesha

We would all go to the pool together, and I had this tie dyed bathing suit, this one-piece. And you know, like, most of my other friends were, like, wearing bikinis. But you know, it was like, no, I'm good.

Chana Joffe-Walt

At the snack bar, they would get popsicles.

Onnesha

You know, there would always be, like, talk about the scene at the pool, you know, like, talking about different girls, that would occasionally be part of a conversation. I think they probably reined it in when I was around, but there would occasionally be comments. And so they were, like, they had named someone The Hypnotizer. Like, there was this title for some woman.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It would have been nothing if it was like the other girls they talked about, a passing thing. But this one persisted for weeks.

Onnesha

It got to a point, I recall, where they talked about it enough that I was like, oh, who is she? You know, I wanted to be in on it. I was, like, show her to me, you know. And they were all cryptic about it. They were like, oh The Hypnotizer, The Hypnotizer. Oh, she's here. Or, like, did you see The Hypnotizer. And I can't remember how I found out, but eventually I found out it was me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was the first time Onnesha had the feeling. There was her, and there was someone else she hadn't known was there, a person who looked good to these boys, her friends.

Onnesha

I guess a part of me was pleased by that, but the more prevalent feeling was like whiplash. They were talking about me in front of me. It's like there was the me that was present and there and interacting with them, and then there was this other separate, objectified body. It just feels like this whole other person enters the room.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Another person who is you?

Onnesha

Yeah. Well, or I guess, fundamentally, I felt the same. But suddenly, I had to reckon with the fact that I did not look the same to other people.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was obvious to Onnesha how to reckon with that. She needed to crush that other person. She did not want to wear the tie dye bathing suit ever again. She slouched. She wore baggy clothes. It wasn't like a decision or anything, it was just instinct. She watched the girls in bikinis that summer, and considered if they somehow had the opposite instinct, or maybe they had made a decision to actively try to merge the two girls, the one with breasts and the one from before. It really seemed easy for some of them, like they welcomed it.

Onnesha

And a part of me wishes that I could do that, sort of own it, you know, and, like, use it like a power. And it's just never struck me as a power. It feels like a false power. It feels like if that is somehow getting me attention, like it could turn. Like, that's not a safe kind of power to traffic in.

Chana Joffe-Walt

By the time Onnesha met Don, she wouldn't have been able to say if wearing loose clothing was her fashion sense or strategy. She was 23 years old. She'd been guarding against that separate person, The Hypnotizer, for a decade by that point. AlterNet was Onnesha's first real job, the first time she had a desk that was hers, the first time she learned a male colleague was getting paid more than her for the same work, the first time she asked for a raise from her boss, Don, which did not go how Onnesha expected.

Onnesha

Yeah, so I, like, build this whole case, and I get in there, and I'm nervous. I have my opening foray where I'm just like, you know, I've been doing x and y, and the quality of the work I've been doing, how I've been working really hard, and I'm like, you know, and it's hard to survive in this city on such a low salary.

He just, like, latched onto that. And he kind of leaned in, and was like, oh, are you having trouble paying rent? And I remember that so specifically, because it was like, my rent. It was so oddly personal, and unnecessary, and out of left field, and I was completely disarmed. And I didn't know how to respond. And I think I just sort of stuttered, and was like, no, it's not that.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He wasn't offering to pay her rent directly, just did she need a salary increase to help pay her rent, which Onnesha did not want to talk about.

Onnesha

I don't remember whether I said no, I'm not having trouble paying rent. I think I'd tried to avoid answering that, because I didn't want-- I felt like that was none of his business. But when I tried to shift the conversation back to this is about being compensated, I don't remember if he got angry angry, but he was definitely visibly displeased. And he did not want to give me a raise.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Instead, he offered her a title change.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, but had you-- what would have happened had you said, yeah, I am having trouble paying my rent.

Onnesha

He would have won.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What do you mean, he would have won?

Onnesha

He would have won a little corner of more power over me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, but would he have paid it? Would you have--

Onnesha

Probably.

Chana Joffe-Walt

--gotten money.

Onnesha

He probably would have.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh, so you would have won. You would have gotten more money.

Onnesha

No, I would have lost.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Onnesha felt like Don was not talking to her, but to The Hypnotizer, that he did not want to engage her as a professional discussing her compensation, but as an attractive young woman struggling with her rent. He didn't want to be a boss paying for her work, but a savior paying for her life. Onnesha didn't want that kind of help.

Onnesha

Maybe it's kind of petty, but I was like, you are not going to win.

[CHUCKLING]

Like, you don't get to have this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So she won, but she didn't get a raise.

Act Four: The Cliff

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act 4, "The Cliff."

The summer of Onnesha's first year at AlterNet, Don left for several weeks of sabbatical. A friend had offered Don the use of his vacation house in Big Sur, California. He headed out, and wrote Deanna, asking her to join him. It's the cliff of the universe, he wrote, what someone calls the greatest meeting of land and sea. Deanna wrote back, bring me soon, please. Don flew her out, picked her up from the airport, and they drove to the house together.

Deanna

We went to bed and started fooling around, and he stops, and he says, we probably shouldn't have sex. And I said, how come?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Don said he had an STI, a sexually transmitted infection. He'd had it for a long time, hadn't had symptoms in years.

Deanna

And I was just started, like, I actually got dizzy. I'm like, hold up, what? Wait. We have been having sex without condoms for two years, and now you're telling me that you-- and he was like, it's not a big deal. I've had it since I was 16. And I was like, it's definitely a big fucking deal. And I got really angry, like, I cannot believe you would risk my health this way, and like da da da, this is really fucked up. And he was like, why are you getting so upset about this? This is not a big deal. I was like, yes, it most certain-- this is an STI, like-- and he cannot understand why I am upset at all.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Eventually, Don did seem to get that Deanna was upset, and began to comfort her. She calmed down, wanted to go to sleep.

Deanna

He started wanting to fool around again. You're kind of not up for this right now, like, this all feels-- and he was like, well, we don't have to have sex, and whatever. And then he was like, we can have anal sex. And I was like, blink, blink, no.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She did not want to do that.

Deanna

And we were naked in bed. He was spooning me, and he made a move like he was going to penetrate me. And I jumped up and yelped, what the fuck? And I was like, what are you doing? And he was like, what do you mean, what am I doing? I'm just, you know, like I want to be with you. I want to, like, you know--

And I was like, you're starting to pressure me, and it's starting to make me really uncomfortable. This is messed up. And he flipped out. He stood up, and he just started screaming at me. He was like, how can you say that? How can you say that I'm pressuring you? I am the most feminist man you know, and you know it. And that's fucked up. So he starts screaming at me, like, the eyes bulging, the red--

Chana Joffe-Walt

He's screaming, I am the most feminist man--

Deanna

Yes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

--at you?

Deanna

And then he-- the bedroom was sort of right on the other side of the kitchen, and he goes into the kitchen and just starts slamming stuff, and throwing stuff, and I'm just hearing shit smashing in the other room, and I am naked in some dude's bed in fucking Big Sur. I don't know how to get out. (VOICE BREAKING) I'm sorry. And eventually, it just stopped. I just sat there the whole time, like I didn't know.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You were in the bed?

Deanna

Yeah, I just stayed in the bed. He came back eventually and slept with his back to me, which was like his cold shoulder move. And I just laid there thinking like, I don't know what's going to happen next. Because I really didn't want to challenge him. I just had to start making sense of everything around me, and being OK with everything.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So if you're not going to challenge him or talk to him about it, then how are you going to make sense of it?

Deanna

[SOFT CHUCKLE] Shut this out, don't think about this again, and do whatever you can to not make it happen again.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna would manage, manage her feelings, his temper, manage them away from explosive moments. This is what it meant to be close to someone. Managing a relationship was a role Deanna had practice in. It made sense to her.

Deanna

I have been told my whole life that I was going to have difficult relationships with men, that nothing, none of this was going to be easy. They warned me that this was how my relationships were going to be. They were going to be very difficult and challenging, and so this was like, OK. That was how it was going to be for me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It took three years for Deana to break up with Don after that. She wasn't angry when she did, just tired and sad. She told him she loved him, but she couldn't keep doing this. He wasn't angry either. She thought he would be, but he was gentle. He said he knew the day would come. They both cried.

After that, she'd still run into him at professional or social events. They were friendly. A few years after they broke up, Deanna went to a protest uptown.

Deanna

And my friends were staging part of the protest, so I went to be supportive. And I ran into Don there. And he was like, well, this is something. You know, we were just kind of, like, chit-chatting. I hadn't seen him in a while. And you know, whatever, whatever. And we're kind of walking along with the protest, and talking to different people.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There was a young woman walking nearby with a reporter's notepad. She was looking around and quickly scribbling notes.

Deanna

And I've actually watched, like, it felt like watching the Terminator a little bit, he just looked and zeroed in on her, and just bee lined over to her and said, who are you writing for? And she's like, oh, you know, I'm a student. And he's like, you don't have a place for this article yet? I'll give you a place for-- you know, do you want to pitch me? And she was like, who are you you? And he introduces himself, and says AlterNet. She was like, oh, it would be great to write for AlterNet.

Kristen

He really just came out of nowhere.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This is Kristen. Kristen was a determined 21-year-old who bought the same breakfast sandwich from the same cafe everyday, because she knew what she liked and she had no need for wasting time.

Kristen had never actually heard of AlterNet, but she knew she wanted to be a reporter, and this guy had a business card and she didn't.

Kristen

I was a journalism student undergrad at NYU.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Don told her to send him her article, and if it was good, he'd publish it. Kristen said she definitely would. Deanna was off to the side, watching.

Deanna

And I got so mad, because it just seemed so gross. And I heard that tone of voice. And I had to remembered how he had said things like that to me, like, I'll give you a job, you know, like, I'll help you. I'll support you. And I got so angry, I just looked at him, I was like, I can't fucking believe you. And he was like, what? And I was like, I'm out of here. I'm done.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The story they had created together had just been obliterated. They weren't co-creators. This was his story. Deanna was a set piece.

Deanna

It made me so sick to my stomach. I wasn't that special. And seeing her kind of brightness and enthusiasm, like, wow, someone wants to give me an opportunity, cool. I was so angry. I was so angry. Oh, God.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna left, went home. Kristen went home, too. She wrote and rewrote her article until it was 2:00 in the morning and she knew she had to get it off to Don.

Kristen

And I was excited. Yeah, I thought, wow, this is a crazy chance incident, and maybe this will be good, and turn into something, and it did turn into something.

[SAD LAUGH]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Coming up, the story starts over, but it's going to go so differently next time. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Today's show, "Five Women." We wanted to take one of the Me Too stories, where you hear about encounters women have with men who abuse their power in the workplace, and expand that to look at the lives of the women before that encounter.

And we're telling the story of several women who worked for the same person, Don Hazen, at AlterNet over the course of 13 years. So we met Deanna and Onnesha, and we just met Kristen, the student at NYU. Kristen is going to come back. You need to meet someone else first.

Act Five: Tana

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act 5, "Tana.".

Tana was asked to have an opinion about Anita Hill. It was 1991, and she was in the third grade. Her opinion was that it was wrong, because she knew that was the opinion she was supposed to have. The opinion Tana actually had was not one she imagined the adults were asking for.

Tana

I remember thinking that it wasn't that big of a deal, but I think that my natural instinct-- and I mean, again, I was a child --was maybe people were freaking out a little bit too much. Maybe everyone should be a little bit more chill.

Chana Joffe-Walt

By 10th grade, she was stronger in her conviction. She knew about sex, and she knew about feminism, and she believed that if Monica Lewinsky wanted to have sex with someone, or blow them, or whatever actually happened in the Oval Office, that was her choice. Men had been allowed to follow their bliss forever. They went a little too far, but that had been corrected, and now Tana could see things had swung too far in the other direction.

Tana

Oh, nobody can have sex anymore. That's terrible. That was the impression I got. Like, I just envisioned the US workplace as a bunch of bureaucratic, fun-hating HR people taking you to jail if you said someone looked nice.

Chana Joffe-Walt

One of her first bosses was Jeff. He ran a shop in town. Tana had just started college, but it was summer, so she spent most of her days at the shop.

Tana

And he would always tell me these awful things about his wife, where he'd say, you know, she's so beautiful, when she walks down a restaurant, all men, you know, whiplash to check her out, but I'm just sick of her. Want to go out to dinner, can I get you a sandwich? You know, like, you're so tiny. Can I grab your waist? He definitely tried to physically grab me a lot.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was irritating, but Tana tried really hard not to show it because Jeff was middle-aged, miserable, she'd heard his wife kicked him out. A coworker said he found Jeff in the shop one morning, waking up surrounded by beer bottles. He made Tana uncomfortable, but he was so pitiful that it felt unreasonable to attach any value to her discomfort. Like when her friend at work, a guy her age, told her, Jeff always talks about you. It's really creepy.

Tana

And he goes, [SIGHING] Jeff always talks to me about how he just wants to put his head between your breasts, and just go

[EXHALING AIR THROUGH CLOSED LIPS]

Like the motorboating sound, and this guy said that. And I was like, are you kidding me? That's the saddest thing. That's what a 12-year-old would say. This is a grown-ass man. How could he say that? I just remember being, like, so grossed out.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Jeff denies all of this, by the way. Tana did tell her parents, though it took her a while. They were protective. She was worried they would make her quit.

And then, they were driving one day, her mom, her dad, Tana in the backseat.

Tana

Then I was like, mom and dad, I have something to tell you. And I was very dramatic about it. And they're like what? What happened? And I remember, like, taking a deep breath and saying--

[SIGHING]

--I've been sexually harassed.

And they kind of laughed in my face, and they're like, what the hell do you expect, you're a 19-year-old woman. Of course you're being sexually harassed. I thought, oh, that's just a thing that happens that I can accept everywhere I'm going to work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Tana worked a lot of different jobs and got a lot of education-- college, graduate school, which did not open a path to a graduate school job, but a job at a Whole Foods. That's when her roommate told her she knew an editor of a political news website. Would Tana be interested?

Tana

I can't even imagine a world in which I would go from working at Whole Foods to working in journalism. And she was like, well, just have an interview with this guy.

Chana Joffe-Walt

On her way out the door to meet Don, her roommate said, if you get that job, you'll definitely be sexually harassed.

Tana

I just kind of thought, well, that's just the way it is.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The Interview went well, which felt great to Tana, because she was used to bombing interviews. She was so shy. It was raining when she and Don walked out of the building. He offered her a ride. She said no, I'll take the train.

Tana

He said no, no, I'll give you a ride. I'll give you a ride. And he kind of insisted on it. And I remember I got in his car, and I-- and this is so silly, and he even made fun of me about this years later, where I said, I really want the job, I would even do it for free until I prove myself that I can do it. In hindsight, I want to slap my dumb 25-year-old self. Fortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to screw myself over that way.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Because Don brushed that idea off as ridiculous.

In the interview, Don suggested Tana might start editing a section at AlterNet they recently created about sex.

Tana

So it didn't seem totally out of nowhere that, toward the end of the ride, he has sort of like casually put his hand on my knee, and said something like, so I hear you and your roommates have pretty wild and crazy sex lives. I think I said something like, oh, haha, yeah. Life's pretty crazy, or something like that. I just-- on some level, I very passively did nothing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And did you feel bad, neutral, just like, whatever?

Tana

It felt bad. But also, I was ecstatic, because I felt like I had a real shot at the job.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She called her friend to thank her. She said, as you warned me, he got a little sexually harrassy, but I'm so excited. I think I got it. She did.

And from the beginning, Tana understood that her attractiveness to Don meant she'd be seen rather than ignored. Tana was seen by Don all the time. He'd take pictures of her sometimes when she wasn't looking, and send them to her. He was generous with his attention, and controlling, usually at the same time. There is no way to tease the two apart, and she accepted them both. He appreciated her legs, which he told her. He did not seem to love her personality.

Tana

So I remember once we were at lunch, he was like Tana, what do you have to say? You can't even talk. And I was really sick, so I kind of, like, coughed a little bit because I had the flu or something. And I remember he-- in front of everyone-- fake coughed. He was like,

[FAKE COUGHING]

All you do is ever cough. That's all you ever do. Is that the only thing you can ever even say?

Chana Joffe-Walt

At a party, Don rubbed Tana's shoulders and asked if she wanted another drink. When she said no, he grabbed Tana's wrist, twisted her arm, and pushed her into a table. He had to be physically separated from her. He apologized later, and she forgave him easily. Don was old to her, pervy, but again, sort of pathetic. It felt inappropriate to read him as anything else.

Tana

I remember there was one woman in the office who started freaking out and crying because Don told her that the color of her shirt looked nice on her. And my reaction was like, all right, everyone, everyone's being hysterical here. It's a nice colored shirt, chill the fuck out, was my inner thought.

There was another woman who was really funny, actually, when she found the porn printed out in the printer, she-- you know, we were all giggling about it, because we all knew who it was. It was so obvious. And she sent this hilarious email to all of editorial that was something to the effect of, whoever decided to print out porn in the office, please abstain from--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, who did print out the porn?

Tana

It was Don, obviously.

Chana Joffe-Walt

One of Tana's coworkers, another young woman, quit because of Don's bullying.

Tana

It's like survival of the fittest, like, I can handle the bullying and the sexual harassment. She couldn't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you feel kind of proud of that?

Tana

Yes. I did. Like, I can take it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Tana was the cool girl who could take it. She was comfortable in that role. It gave her more power professionally to have the attention of the most powerful person in the office, even if it meant accepting the attention that was not professional, like when Don kept telling her he wanted to buy her a black cocktail dress he thought would look great on her body.

Tana

So I just thought it was really kind of sad, or bittersweet, or semi-pathetic. He thought I needed for him to buy me this dress, when I could have just bought it myself.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And midway through that indignant thought, Tana felt guilty. Don wanted to be generous, to be a wealthy, charming man who could give her beautiful things. This was not the way she saw him, which made her feel bad for him.

Tana

And then I actually did end up buying it. And you know, this is where I wonder, was I not clear enough about setting boundaries. So I bought the dress. I told him, oh yeah, guess what, I bought this dress, because I have $90.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Don seemed pleased. But then she didn't like the dress. She didn't like the way it fit her, which she told him.

Tana

And he was like, oh, give it to me. I'm going to give it to my girlfriend. It will look better on her, because due to years of yoga, she has curves and muscles that are in separate places than you do.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Whoa.

Tana

That's crazy, right?

Chana Joffe-Walt

That's pretty crazy.

Tana

OK.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When you say, this is where I feel, like, confused about, what is it that you feel confused about?

Tana

If I didn't set clear enough boundaries to more clearly communicate that this exchange made me uncomfortable. That's what you're supposed to do. You know, you say, no.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That first time Don drove her home and put his hand on her knee, Tana did not say, no. Instead, she entered into an unspoken agreement between a cool girl and a flirty boss. He'd look after her career, and he'd flirt with her while he was doing it.

The rules were clear to Tana. You don't say no. Saying no would destroy the agreement from which both parties have something to gain. You don't ask, why do you want to buy me this dress? You don't say, please don't rub my back, or please stop taking pictures of me. You don't reply when he says by email what he wants for his birthday is sex with a mysterious blonde woman, and then adds, or you could just put on a wig.

When Don asked Tana to his New York apartment for meetings, she followed the agreement. She said nothing. There was no office in New York, so it was easy to pretend this was appropriate. One night, they met. They talked about work, and then Don wanted to keep hanging out.

Tana

It was getting kind of late, and we we're drinking, and he was like, hold on, just one second. I'm like, oh, my God, what's he going to come out with? He comes back out-- runs back out to the table --with a paper bag filled with photographs.

And he says, you know, these are photos from my past. So he starts, like, showing me all of these old photographs from the '70s and '80s, and they're basically almost exclusively of very conventionally beautiful blond women. So he was like, like this was my ex-girlfriend at this point, this was my ex-girlfriend at this point. I was like, all right, cool, a lot of blondes. Like, I don't know why are you showing me this stuff. And then he, like, gets a photo, and then he says, and this is an artistic photograph of my penis. And he hands me this photo, and it's like, a black and white photograph of an erect penis. And he just did it so casually. I just kind of look at it, and hand it back to him. I'm like, my God, did my boss just show me a picture of his dick? And I was like, yeah. Yeah, he did.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This did seem like a violation of the agreement.

Tana

I mean, it was an artistic picture. It was black and white. It was from the '70s. I mean, I definitely didn't say, hey, you know what I'd love to see right now? A picture of your erect penis from the '70s. Like, it was definitely not the most appropriate thing to do to a female subordinate, right?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Right, yes. Right.

[GIGGLING]

That's seems very true.

Are you still doubting if that was appropriate or not?

Tana

It was obviously inappropriate. I definitely didn't enjoy the experience. I told a million people about it contemporaneously like, hey guys, guess who's dick I just saw against my will right now. But also, we were in his apartment, it was late at night, and we were drinking. It just seems like a 60-something-year-old man who's in charge of, you know, 25 different people should just kind of know that you don't show a young female subordinate a picture of your penis even if it is from the '70s, even if it is late at night, and even if she doesn't say, hey, this is wrong. There are certain standards of behavior that seem like they should be obvious to everyone.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But it seemed like they were not obvious to Don. Don seemed to think it was appropriate to show her that picture. So Tana thought, maybe there was no unspoken agreement between them. Maybe the agreement, and the boundaries of that agreement, were something Tana imagined on her own.

In the beginning, as a new employee with no experience, Tana's power was her attractiveness to Don. She had tried to use that to her advantage. It was the same power that Onnesha did not want to use when she asked Don for a raise, the power of The Hypnotizer. Tana engaged, Onnesha did not. It cost them both in different ways.

New people came in to AlterNet, and Tana trained a lot of them. Many of them were young women, and one of them came to Tana and said, we've got to do something about Don's behavior.

Tana

And I said, are you kidding? You're not going to change anything. I don't think it's a good idea. I can't do this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Tana felt for this woman, but she did not understand her, and why she thought anyone would care about this. She said, this isn't news that this happens.

Tana

It was like, yeah, dude, what do you expect?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, you were your parents in the car that day.

Tana

Right.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The young woman was Kristen, the NYU student who Don spotted at the protest, Terminator-like, while Deanna watched. Now, Kristen was full of urgency, and she was ready to fight.

Act Six: Kristen

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act 6, "Kristen."

Kristen was 13 and she got a note. Well, she never actually saw the note, even though it was apparently written to her. It was intercepted by a teacher. But she knew what it said, because everyone in school knew. It was from the boys lacrosse team. Dear Kristen, you have nice boobs. You should use them.

Kristen remembers how absurd it seemed, and laughing with her friends at the note, and the boys.

Kristen

(MOCKING TONE) Use your boobs. We were, like, joking about it. Better put them to use. The boys lacrosse team needs them. Like, ooh, what do they want to do with them? Like, how could-- boys, how could you use my boobs on the lacrosse team? It was just stupid.

Chana Joffe-Walt

One of the boys who signed the note was Kristen's boyfriend, but the two never talked about it, because they never talked, because they we're in seventh grade, and that's what it meant to be boyfriend and girlfriend.

The guidance counselor came for Kristen in the middle of class. They walked to her office, and she asked Kristen what she thought of the note.

Kristen

And I was like, I don't know, I think they're just like being stupid boys. And she was like, you're a victim of sexual harassment. And I just remember being like, feeling really weird that she said that to me, because it sounded so serious. And I just, like-- just like, can we just let it go? You know, one of these guys is your boyfriend. What does he think, that this is cute? And I was like, I don't know. I don't even know him. Like, he's an idiot. Like, he's not going to be my boyfriend anymore. And then I thought she was angry with me, because I wasn't freaking out about this letter. But that's how I felt.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You were not performing victim of sexual harassment correctly.

Kristen

Yeah, I was just performing like child in a room. I'm 12, and you're an adult talking about my body, and boys, and it's so uncomfortable. I remember, I even zipped my hoodie up real, real tight, all the way to the top, because I thought that she would make a comment about my boobs showing or something.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's not like Kristen couldn't imagine some girl being upset by that note. She could. And she could imagine some girl might enjoy that note. But she was the girl. She owned the boobs they we're talking about, that everyone was now talking about.

Kristen

And then there was a thing in the auditorium, and this girl who I didn't know at all sat down next to me and was like, I heard about the note. Are you OK? And all of that kind of shit was just making me so uncomfortable. I was just like, yeah, I'm fine.

I didn't care. What I remember caring about was the guidance counselor for not just letting it be a stupid kid thing, and making it into like an attempted rape or something.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Is that how it felt?

Kristen

It just felt like they wanted me to cry, and act like it was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I was so violated.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When Kristen was raped a few years later, it took her a while to use that word. He took advantage of me is what Kristen said at first. When that didn't feel right, she said, he's an asshole. But that didn't seem right either. She had no word to summarize the experience.

Kristen

Something that I didn't like that was wrong, but it wasn't what I imagined rape would be like, and it wasn't as scary as I thought that it would be.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She was at her friend's house for a party. It was late. People were going to sleep, and she climbed up to the top of a bunk bed to get away from an older guy who was creeping her out.

Kristen was drunk. She remembers her face felt numb. She remembers hearing someone banging on the door, which you later found out he had locked before he climbed up into the bunk bed and took her clothes off. She said no, but he had sex with her anyway. Sex-- that didn't feel like the right word, either.

Kristen noticed her friends doing the same thing, describing their experiences with boys in different tones, in different arrangements. And then there was the friend who wouldn't say anything at all about what happened, except she was upset and didn't want to talk about it. And eventually she did explain. He said, can I just put it in you for a second? Her friend said, no. He did anyway. That's when Kristen said she felt like she had an understanding to share.

Kristen

All those times when we were mad at those boys because of what they did to us. We were mad because they raped us, you know. And there was like, several of my friends where it took us a really long time to put the word to it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When she added them up, all their experiences, Kristen felt like boys we're aiming their behavior so it would come in just under the line of something that had a name.

Kristen

Like they were playing a game to see what they can get away with, that's what I kind of realized from it, the way that a guy is going to screw you over most likely isn't going to be he's going to rape you in an alley. It's going to be something that people might doubt. And it's not going to look like the worst examples of things or the most clear cut. And it's intentional, and that's why it's scary. Like, they toe the-- actually, I think maybe they don't believe that what they did was wrong, because it doesn't look like what they consider rape.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Same as for you.

Kristen

Mm-hmm.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Rape. The word was congruent with the way she felt about it. That, she decided, was what mattered.

Kristen

And I think maybe after that, I was just ready. I don't know. I wasn't waiting anymore to call something what it was.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Four years later, Kristen met Don at a protest, graduated from college, and accepted a job at AlterNet. She was 21, AlterNet's youngest employee. Don loved to tell the story of how they met, how he'd found her on the sidewalk.

Kristen

He liked very much that he had discovered me. I definitely got the sense that he liked feeling like he was doing me this huge favor, and like I was his protege or something. And then it evolved from, oh, I found her on the sidewalk like it was this cute thing, to like, don't you dare publish anywhere else. And the amount of control that I realized he had over me was concerning, early.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When Don invited her to meet at his apartment, Kristen did not think, as Tana had, well, there's no New York office, so that makes a certain amount of sense. Kristen thought, I know what this is. I know why he wants me here. I know why he's ordering sushi, and offering me weed, and repeatedly asking me if I like his music.

Kristen

And he wanted me, too. He liked that I was young, and he thought I was, like, cool. He was hanging out with this young person who was having a good time with him. And I think a lot of the shameless way he would look at or talk about my body was a way for him to kind of force me to see him as a sexual being. Like, I'm not a 60-something-year-old man with no sexuality. And if you think so, I'm going to prove to you that I'm not by forcing you to realize that I do have sexual thoughts and urges, and also, they're about you.

Chana Joffe-Walt

A friend said to me recently, relating a different incident, she said, forcing someone to be part of your boner against their will is just a smarter way of forcing someone. I thought about Kristen when she said that, how alert Kristen was to a violation that was not definitively over the line. Kristen found it alarming how laid back Don was, how he behaved as if their interactions were completely normal. Like one day, she was supposed to meet with him in a coffee shop, Don, and some other colleagues. When Kristen walked in, Don was already there.

Kristen

I think I had pretty much just sat down. And he was like on his computer, you know, just real casual, like, oh, I saw someone on the internet. She looked just like you. Let me show you. And he's like, taking his time, pulling up this picture, and I'm like, oh, God, what is he going to show me? And he pulls up just a picture of a completely naked woman, like a porn star or something, with like, fake breasts and blond hair. And I was like, I can't even imagine what the look on my face must've been like. My response was, she looks nothing like me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Kristen stood up, said, I'm going to go have a cigarette.

Kristen

And I was like oh, yeah, cool. So this-- you see, every blond chick in the porn you watch reminds you of me. Great.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This behavior had a name-- sexual harassment. Kristen did not doubt it.

Kristen

I always knew it was wrong. It wasn't like I ever thought, is this normal? Like, I knew, no, this is not normal, and it's bad.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But having a name for this behavior didn't solve anything for Kristen. It just made her angry, because it seemed like there was nothing she could do about it. She had no previous experience, no connections in the industry, and she needed the job.

Kristen

I used to always-- I don't even know if I should say this --I used to like to talk about fantasies of kidnapping him, and torturing him, and forcing him to transfer money into my bank account. But you know, I would just always joke about the things I would do to that man that would just make him feel uncomfortable and terrified. That's what I wanted to do more than anything.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Kristen's revenge fantasy is very similar to the plot of the movie 9 to 5, which Kristen has never seen, because it came out in 1980, before she was born. All of which is to say this is an old story.

Kristen's anger bled. It bed into her thoughts, her work. She remembers being at a conference and interviewing an older man, a guy in his 70s, about drug policy.

Kristen

And at the end, I said I was going to smoke a cigarette, and he said, you don't want to get cancer in those boobs, do you? And I was just like, ew, and just got up and went outside and smoked a cigarette, and told all the people at the conference, can you believe that this dinosaur man just said that to me?

And it was the same thing I felt with Don, like it was this older man who was just kind of like, I'm going to force the fact that I have a sexuality on you. I'm going to force you to reckon with it by making you the object of my sexual desire.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Later that day, Kristen was walking with her AlterNet colleague, Jan Frel. Not Don, Jan. Jan was, at various points, Don's second-in-command.

Kristen

And we were walking down the sidewalk, and he was on the left of me, and traffic was on the other side of him, and I told him what happened, and he said, oh, well, you must have taken it as a compliment, kind of, though, right? Or something like that. And I just had this image of pushing him into the street that was so vivid, it almost freaked me out. I was like, I came very close to maybe killing this person. But that's how full of rage I was by that point. I was just about to explode.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Jan does remember Kristen telling him about this, but does not recall responding in this way. Kristen started talking. She told a female coworker named Lauren about how Don was treating her. Lauren was a bit older, seemed together, but she didn't know what to do. She did have one idea of someone who could help, a woman Lauren actually had just met at a book party, a woman in her 30s who had worked with Don in the past. Her name was Deanna.

Lauren asked to talk to Deanna, Deanna remembers.

Deanna

She started telling me about the experiences this new staffer was having with him, this young woman.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna hadn't been with Don for years at this point. Lauren didn't know they'd ever been together. But Lauren told Deanna, part of what's so hard about this is the new staffer is so young and inexperienced. Don met her when she was a student on the street at a protest.

Deanna

And I was like, you've got to be fucking kidding me. I was fucking there. I should have taken her by the wrist, pulled her away with me, and said, do not. I will find you another job, you know. And I felt such guilt over that.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna began cycling through the moments, all the choices she had made, that she thought were just hers, choices she assumed would only affect her and her relationship with Don.

She thought specifically about a call she got years ago, just two months after she'd broken up with Don. It was a professional contact who said she wanted to ask Deanna about something serious. And then the woman on the phone said that her organization had put on an event with AlterNet, and a young staffer had just complained that Don sexually harassed her. The woman on the phone said to Deanna, you've worked with Don. Does that sound like him? Deanna paused to consider it before answering.

Deanna

I have a lot of shame, but my greatest shame was-- I can't picture him doing something unwanted, was what I said. And so I kind of-- I defended him. I didn't kind of defend him. Like, I didn't say, I believe this person.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But was true for you at the time that you couldn't imagine him doing that?

Deanna

(DRAGGING THE WORD OUT INTO A GROAN) No. Yeah, but I-- there was a tiny part of me that wondered if that could be true, and I just didn't want to deal with it, and nothing was ever done. It never went further.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna and Kristen went out for drinks. Deanna listened, Kristen talked. Deanna said she wanted to help in whatever way she could, and Deanna prayed that Kristen would not ask her, what happened to you?

Deanna

Everything felt like it would blow up. Everyone would know that I was complicit, that I helped him. How could people want to be friends with me after that? How could people trust my professional expertise after knowing that about me? How could-- what would my mom think? They're all going to think I'm a fraud, that I'm not talented, that I'm not-- that these ideas aren't my own or something, and I would just have to shrink away.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Deanna helped connect Kristen with a lawyer. The lawyer told Kristin it would be very hard to win a lawsuit and keep her job. She also said she'd probably need more evidence. And that's when Kristen thought to ask Tana. She knew Don had been harassing her, too. Kristen doesn't remember Tana saying, this isn't news that this happens. She remembers Tana being kind, and saying she didn't want to betray Don. He'd given her a chance and a career when no one else would have.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So she said she didn't want to do it, and then what did you do?

Kristen

I just kind of gave up.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Kristen's apartment flooded, and she got a payout from her landlord. When the money came in, she quit AlterNet without ever using the words she believed to be true.

Kristen

When I left, I didn't say to him, I'm leaving because you sexually harassed me, and I hate you. I was too affected by the idea that he was giving you a chance. And it's true, he did give us a chance that no one else did. So I mean-- but I guess I felt like I had paid my dues, and the payoff was no longer fair.

Act Seven: Vivian

Chana Joffe-Walt

Act 7, "Vivian."

Four years after Tana told Kristen that their experience was not news to anyone, suddenly it was news. A reporter named Cora Lewis at BuzzFeed News reported a story about sexual harassment allegations at AlterNet. She talked to Kristen and Tana and Deanna, and she talked to other women who haven't heard from here.

Don denied most of the allegations in the BuzzFeed story. Some he said were mischaracterized. For instance, he does not remember twisting Tana's arm, but did say he was rubbing her shoulders and stopped when he saw it made her uncomfortable. He does not remember showing Tana a photograph of his penis, but says he does have such a photograph, and some women may have seen it. He said he also took friendly photos in the office, and when he commented on Tana's body, it was out of concern that she was getting too skinny. The photo he showed Kristen, he said, was not a naked porn star, but a clothed movie star.

When I contacted Don, he said he told Deanna about his relationship with Vivian, his partner, on their very first date, and that his memory of their time at Big Sur is different from hers. Beyond that, he did not respond to specific questions, but asked that I include an apology from him, in which he says, along the way, I strove but apparently failed to treat everyone with the respect and consideration they deserved. I regret causing harm, and I'm reckoning with it. Some of the accusations against me are untrue, but I deeply regret those that are. I apologize to anyone I offended and treated badly.

Before the BuzzFeed News story came out, Vivian says Don told her he needed to talk to her about something, to prepare her. Vivian told me she knew what it was, Me Too stories coming for Don. She'd pictured how their conversation would go. When Don sat her down, it was not what she'd imagined. He told her, 10 years ago he'd had an affair with Deanna.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh--

Vivian

And--

Chana Joffe-Walt

--you didn't--

Vivian

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You didn't-- he hadn't told you about it before.

Vivian

He hadn't told-- no, this is all-- I am assimilating all of this in the past month.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wow.

Vivian

Yeah. I went crazy. I mean, I just sort of screamed, you have no idea what you've done.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Immediately, you did?

Vivian

Oh God, yes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She wanted to understand why he did this. She tried to remember what was happening in his life around that time, and there was a lot. Moving his elderly parents, trying to take responsibility for a sister who was ill and suffering a psychotic break, his own health issues.

Vivian is a therapist, and from Don, Vivian solicited details, assembled details, as a therapist does.

Vivian

For myself. I mean, this was not playing therapist for him. This was just like, I have got to make sense of this somehow. I've got to. I'm still working on that. Don't get me wrong. He's got to, too.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why do you have to make sense of it?

Vivian

It's what I do. Its who I am. It feels like the only way to be a person with a history that feels coherent.

Chana Joffe-Walt

A person with a history that feels coherent with him? Like, your history with him?

Vivian

Yes, absolutely. It's so hard to integrate.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Are you going to stay with him?

Vivian

I'm 99.9 certain we will make it through this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Don had just destroyed the story Vivian had about their relationship, a coherent history that for Vivian had included a wonderful partner with whom she shared a joyful life, shared trips and friends and intellectual interests, a partner who took loving care of her last year when Vivian was in chemotherapy for breast cancer. To stay with him and to make her history coherent, Vivian is trying to figure out what she needs to know, and how to resist asking about the things she does not need to know.

Vivian

I want to know about stupid things like, did they share the music that we love? You know, things like that, things that have always felt very special and intimate. I want to know what was shared that's always felt exclusive.

We were watching a movie the other night, and one character was holding another in a certain way. And I just broke down, and just said, did you hold her that way? He said, no, when I saw that, I just thought, that's you and me. And I believe him.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Four days before Christmas, Don's story was added to the news of allegations about sexual harassment and violence that suddenly have a public platform in this stunning period of time that is right now. Don's story came after the one about Harvey Weinstein, and Mario Batali, and Louis CK, and Senator Al Franken, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose, and Russell Simmons, and Dustin Hoffman, and Kevin Spacey, editors at the New Republic, DC Comics, the Paris Review, the head of NPR News, the owner of an NFL team, and the choreographer of a ballet. After Don's story came Congressman Patrick Meehan, Michael Douglas, Rob Porter and the sentencing of Larry Nassar.

The board that oversees AlterNet said they were investigating the allegations in detail. That investigation did not include reaching out to any of the women named in this story or in the BuzzFeed article. I don't know how you can understand what happened without speaking to the people who are saying, something happened to me.

[MUSIC - MERRILL GARBUS, "9 TO 5"]

Today's show was produced by Susan Burton and Robyn Semien. The people who put our show together include Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Emily Condon, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Alvin Melathe, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

Our senior producer is Brian Reed, our managing editor is Susan Burton, editing help today from Julie Snyder, special thanks today to Nava EtShalom, Rebecca Vitale-Decola, Merrill Garbus, Cora Lewis, Rebecca Traister, Lauren Kelley, Rebecca Carroll, Sarah Jaffe, Adele Stein, Heather Geller, Lynn Parramore, Joshua Holland, Liliana Segura, and Myra Smith.

And special thanks to Heidi Baker and Heidi Schreck, who wrote an episode of the TV show I Love Dick that inspired today's show. The episode is called "A Short History of Weird Girls." It is great. It features four women who, one by one, tell the history of their sexual lives.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to my boss Ira Glass. He swears he does not have a problem with a woman taking over the show for an hour. This is the thing he told me over and over this week, doesn't bother him at all. He kept insisting, I am the most feminist man you know, and you know it. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Ira Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - MERRILL GARBUS, "9 TO 5"]