Sexual Harassment, Apologies, and Forgiveness

[If you lack context on this post, you might check out Anna Ursu’s article on Medium about sexual harassment in publishing, and then the SLJ article (and, more importantly, the comments) on the same subject.  Also Myke Cole’s response to having been named in those comments, and his apology.  If you only read one, read the apology.]

I want to share a story in light of the recent sexual harassment accusations in publishing. I—like many women—have been a victim of harassment, and stayed silent about it. But over the last few days I’ve had the most remarkable experience. I’ve seen a person who did this to me publicly apologize. I’ve personally accepted that apology, and felt tremendous relief, forgiveness, and compassion. I’ve hesitated to post this because of the sensitive nature of the subject and circumstances, but there are some things I’d like to add to the conversation.

I need to tell you my story.

I am one of the people who was harassed by Myke Cole. It happened at an agency dinner at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose in 2009. I have social anxiety, and at the time I was extremely uncomfortable talking to people I didn’t know. I made a rule for myself, in fact, that I had to talk to five people every day at the convention that I didn’t know, and it was extremely difficult for me to follow through.

Because of this I was nervous about the agency dinner. I wanted to make friends with people, to be part of the group, but I was scared. So I was overjoyed when Myke befriended me. We chatted on the way to dinner, we sat near each other. We were both agented but unpublished, and commiserated about the details of that. Myke was one of the cool kids at the agency, meaning that he lived in New York and hung out with agents and authors from the agency on a regular basis. I wanted to be part of the in crowd. I wanted to feel comfortable talking to people. I wanted to feel accepted, and to belong. And on top of that, the people I met that night (including Myke) were legitimately awesome. In all those ways it was a good experience.

Except that as Myke sat across from me at dinner, he made some advances that were unwelcome. I’m not going to try to recreate exactly what was said, but I do want to tell you how I felt. I was (and am) married and monogamous. I didn’t want to end the conversation with Myke, because I wanted to be friends. But I also didn’t want to encourage the trajectory of the conversation. I remember a lot of uncomfortable pauses where I tried to figure out how to respond based on what he’d said, how to keep the conversation friendly without encouraging him. I didn’t feel like I could walk away. I didn’t want to sever relationships. I didn’t want to be the girl who can’t handle this. I wanted to make connections with people, including Myke, but not like that. I felt like I couldn’t say anything, stand up for myself, shut him down, or walk away without damaging my brand new agency relationships and souring my reputation with my agent, other agents at the agency, and the other authors around us.

As I write this, I am alarmed by my own desire to minimize it. Everything that happened was in front of other people. I was not assaulted. There was no quid pro quo harassment happening. I never felt like I was in physical danger. I want to say that it wasn’t a big deal. Either Myke’s comments or my discomfort were obvious enough that at least one other author from the dinner approached me afterward and said, “I’m sorry about that asshole at dinner,” and I’ve been grateful for that comment over the years, because it helps me to remember that I didn’t make it up. That it was a real thing that happened. But it’s still hard for me to admit that it was a big deal.

But it was. I know it was a big deal because over the years many of my friends became mutual friends of Myke’s, and I squirmed every time his name was mentioned. I know it was a big deal because over the years as I read Myke talk very publicly about being a feminist and an ally to women, I did so with a pit in my stomach. I told my husband I didn’t know what to do with this. Was all male feminism inherently hypocritical bullshit? I didn’t want that to be true. I believed that Myke was unaware of the impact he’d had on me. I believed that he meant what he said when he talked publicly about feminism. I also believed that his actions didn’t always reflect his beliefs.

I know it was a big deal because I never told anyone. Until this week, the only people who knew the particulars were my husband and my best friend. I even told her with trepidation. I have friends who are close to Myke, and I listened to their stories without comment. I said, yeah, I’ve met Myke. Yeah, he’s a nice guy. I laughed at stories. I went along.

I did so while feeling sick. I was lying. I was hiding. I had a secret even though I had done nothing wrong. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone because these people—my friends and Myke’s—were going to minimize my experience. They were going to tell me Myke was awesome and he didn’t mean it. They were going to say that like it was supposed to relieve my anger, my discomfort, my not knowing what to do with this.

I knew Myke was in many ways an excellent person. I knew that he hadn’t meant it. Never did I think that Myke was a predator. But he did a thing that was wrong to me, and I was the one who suffered for it. I was angry about that. I was afraid, and I was alone. Much of this was not about Myke particularly, because I never imagined that Myke himself would come after me, or that I was in any danger from him. Now I was being victimized by the culture, which frightens women into silence, so much so that I couldn’t even name his name to my close friends. They would have still been my friends. They would have tried to make me feel better. But before #metoo, we were none of us equipped to have that conversation in an appropriate and helpful way, because of the toxic sexism in our culture.

This is what it was like to be a woman and to be harassed, even in a relatively minor way, in professional setting, in our current cultural environment.

Then there was the SLJ thread. Myke’s name was mentioned, not by me. Then it was mentioned again. I looked at those anonymous comments. I watched as all around me people rationalized them. It could be an anonymous troll. It could all be just one person. It could be false.

What the other accusers were saying about Myke matched exactly with my experience. I knew it wasn’t one random troll. I knew it was true, because it happened to me.   I felt an obligation to the women who were speaking up, because I saw that the names that were coming up again and again were the ones people were (rightly) taking seriously.

I sat in front of my computer and I agonized. People in the thread were saying they’d seen the site code, and that it wasn’t tracking IP addresses. They said it was safe to speak, because we couldn’t be tracked. I never even considered making a comment that was not anonymous. I would never have made a post, even anonymously, if I knew it could be tracked. My default is to assume that everything on the internet is tracked.   I sat and I thought—what will happen to me if they are wrong? Will I be attacked? Will I be doxxed? Will I be found and crucified in a public forum? Will I be made to explain, to tell the story in public to prove that I wasn’t a random troll when I wasn’t even comfortable doing so with my close friends? Would I otherwise be accused by people who are my professional peers and superiors of trying to malign Myke unfairly?

In the end, I decided that posting was the right thing, so I did. Mine is the +1 comment far down the thread. But even believing this was the right and honorable thing to do, I very nearly didn’t.

That is what it was like being a woman in publishing who had been harassed.   I watched people discrediting the women who spoke up on the basis of their comments being anonymous. If it was true, why would they need anonymity?

I knew why. After Zoe Quinn, women in my position all know. We are all one internet post away from being Zoe Quinn.

And then Myke apologized. If you haven’t yet, take a minute and read what he wrote. What he says describes my experience exactly. It’s a damn good apology. He admits to what he did, in specific terms. He expresses that he was unaware that he did it, but he doesn’t treat that as an excuse. He addresses his victims directly and says he’s sorry. He expresses additional sorrow. He talks about both what he’s going to do to make reparations and also how he’s going to address his behavior going forward.

Reading that changed the whole world for me. I had been watching the cultural shifts in our post-#metoo, post-Weinstein-scandal world, but for me, this was the final piece. In that moment, I went from a scared woman with a difficult secret to a woman who could speak authentically. Who could tell the truth. No one could jump on me in any kind of credible way anymore. It was true. It happened. Myke admitted it was true. He saw the hypocrisy in his feminism. He owned it.

He set me free.

I never imagined that I could live in a world where I could go to my friends and tell them what happened. Now I have. I never imagined I could live in a world where I could talk to Myke on the phone, tell him what he did in simple terms, receive a sincere and heartfelt personal apology, and then talk about the events of recent days as friends. But that’s exactly what happened. Days ago I agonized over an anonymous forum post that I thought probably wouldn’t be tracked. Today I can write the whole story on the internet.

I cannot overstate how much this changes for me. I’ve accepted Myke’s apology completely. I bear him no ill will. I have nothing but compassion for the situation he finds himself in, even though it is his responsibility to own.

I can’t speak for what kind of person Myke is. I’m not defending him against any other accusation that has or might come out. I’m not speaking for any other victim of him or anyone else.

But speaking for myself, I’m so grateful. I’m grateful for the apology. I’m grateful for the experience. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak—not without fear, because it’s the internet, but with so much less.

There are men (and women) who are predators, who have committed assault and other things that cannot be made up for by a mere apology. There are those who need to face consequences in their workplaces, who need to lose their jobs, who need to face legal consequences, who need to be ejected from organizations and institutions to keep others safe.

But there are also a lot of men who have absorbed, unintentionally, a culture of misogyny. A culture that not only accepts and encourages but celebrates toxic masculinity and the degradation of women. These men make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones. These mistakes have consequences, sometimes terrible ones.

But we cannot (and, I believe, should not) jail and fire every man who has ever victimized a woman by sexually harassing her. Because it’s nearly all of them. Because what we need is not punishment, but change. What we need is sorrow, and remorse, and acknowledgement, and repentance.

Guys, this is how it’s done. If a woman tells you you have wronged her, admit that you did it, and apologize. If a friend tells you you have wronged another person, admit that you did it, and apologize. Do this even if you think it’s being blown out of proportion. Do this even if you feel defensive. Do this especially when you feel defensive. Do this without qualification. Do it as gently and politely as possible. And above all, do it sincerely.

In the last few days, as I have been sharing this story, I have had multiple male friends ask me, in all sincerity, have I ever done anything like this to you? They have sincerely listened to my answers. They have accepted my feedback. They have made no excuses. It has been one of the most hopeful experiences of my life.

Please. Go to your friends who you trust. Ask them if they have ever seen you act inappropriately. Tell them you won’t be defensive. Be sincere. Do not go in a spirit of wanting them to reinforce your positive self image. Go wanting to know what you’ve done wrong unintentionally, in the spirit of knowledge, to be enabled to stop.

Listen to what they say and believe them. Ask questions and believe the answers. We are not enemies. All the feminists I know want men to partner in the change. They are not the adversary. They are your best source of information.

Don’t stop with one friend and feel good about yourself. Ask as many as you can. If the answers differ, accept that different people may have had different experiences with you, and that all of the experiences are true. Accept that people are complex, and can be more than one thing. Cut yourself some slack on the shame, but none on the responsibility. Own it.

And then apologize with sincerity, and do what you can (if anything) to make amends. *For another example of an appropriate reaction, I recommend Dan Wells’ post on the subject. He also did a fine job of listening and addressing the concerns.

We need to expand our definition of what makes someone a good man. Good men are not perfect because no man is perfect. Good men make mistakes, even terrible ones. But when good men make mistakes, they own them, they admit them, they apologize for them, and they make restitution where possible.

This is the path to healing, for all of us. It’s the way forward. For some the consequences will (and should) be more extreme, but speaking to the smaller offenses that despite their size can have great impact—an apology doesn’t undo it, but it can make the world of difference. I cannot even fully express the difference it has made for me.

One of the victims of the recent harassment allegations made this statement to the New York Times: “‘I would love for us to be able to reach a place of full transparency: where people who harass others can publicly admit to their behavior, publicly seek treatment or rehabilitation, and then—maybe—publicly be welcomed back into the industry. But it takes a very big, very humble person to be able to do that, and I’m afraid that because of ‘rockstar’ culture (and egos), driven both by society at large and by the economics of publishing (in which one blockbuster book often pays the bills for the entire slate of books being published in a given year), that is unlikely to ever happen.'”

I don’t think it has to be unlikely, but I do think it becomes less likely if we stone and flog those who do come forward and appropriately apologize, especially when their actions were the sorts of things that, honestly, most men have perpetrated at one time or another.

My biggest fear coming forward with this is not for me, but that Myke could face punitive consequences professionally. In my case (and I speak for me alone), I find those unnecessary. I don’t want my agency to take action. I don’t want anyone to take punitive action toward Myke as a result of what I’ve written.  Others who have been accused have faced different consequences, and I in no way question the validity of those consequences.

But there’s not just one kind of harassment. Not all perpetrators are rapists. We need to deal with these things in proportion to the crime, and with consideration for the personal response. Opinions on what exactly that looks like will very, and I don’t have all the answers.

Just this one. Let’s all listen and believe and apologize and heal and have compassion for each other. Let’s take appropriate responsibility for our actions—both intentional and not—and hold others to the same standard.

It’s the only way for the culture to change. It’s the only way for us to progress.