Firsthand

By

It is exhausting to be a woman. It is also, by turns, terrifying, humiliating, infuriating, and impossibly difficult.

I already know I’ll receive nasty replies to this letter. Whenever I write about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a mother, why we need to acknowledge that America is built around a hatred and fear of women, notes come in letting me know I’m crazy/damaged/histrionic. These notes always come from white men, and I never reply.

I don’t reply because “never feed the trolls” is the first rule of existing on the Internet. The men who send me these messages aren’t trying to have a conversation; engaging with these men only validates that they matter at all—and I don’t want to contribute to that validation.

And this is partly why, when I learned that Stephen Elliott had penned a piece on how #MeToo has destroyed his career, my first instinct was to say nothing. I’ve already written about why I took over The Rumpus and my desire to restore it for the women who did the real work in building it but were rarely given due credit. I’ve spoken publicly about what it means to run a literary magazine founded by a man accused of harassment and assault. What is to be gained by shining a light on someone who so clearly wants our attention and so clearly doesn’t deserve it?

But that’s not the only reason I thought it best not to acknowledge the article. While I’ve spoken and written publicly about The Rumpus’s history, I haven’t ever shared my own experiences with its founder. Why? Because I feel afraid, even now—for my career, for my physical safety, and for the safety of those around me.

Is Stephen Elliott a rapist? I don’t know. That isn’t an allegation that’s ever been shared with me firsthand. I was not a part of creating the Shitty Media Men list (or even aware of it until after it was taken down). But is he a man who puts women in compromising situations, has no understanding of boundaries, treats female employees badly, and believes it’s okay to target young and less-known women in the literary community for his own benefit? Yes, I do know all of this to be true, firsthand from my own experiences and directly from other women.

At AWP Minneapolis, just a few months into my tenure as Managing Editor of The Rumpus, Stephen asked to borrow my hotel key. He needed to shave before a panel. I felt uncomfortable but said yes. He was my boss, and a famous writer. It was my first time attending AWP; I was overwhelmed and unsure of myself. And, I was probably just being paranoid. The next night, I was wrapped in a towel after taking a shower when I heard my hotel room door banging against the padlock (which I always lock). My boss thought it was appropriate to enter my room without warning. I called out that I needed to get dressed. I threw on pajamas and opened the door partially, explaining that it was late and I had to call home to check on the baby. Stephen barged in and made himself comfortable on one of the two beds in the room, explaining that it would be good for us to spend some time hanging out. I repeated many times that I needed to call home and that I was tired, but it was at least a half-hour before I was alone in my room again. I was shaken. To be clear: I did not feel threatened by physical violence in any way. But I did wake up several times that night to check that the padlock was on my door. Years later, I still check that the padlock is locked on a hotel room door three or four times before going to sleep each night.

When Claire Vaye Watkins published “On Pandering,” I asked Stephen if I could respond to it in the newsletter, which I’d already taken over at that time. He said absolutely, that it was a good article and I could discuss it. I wrote my letter, and asked more than once if he wanted to read it before it went out. He did not. I believed then and now that my response was fair and that I went out of my way to speak kindly about Stephen. Later that evening, Stephen called me on the phone. He berated me for nearly an hour. I couldn’t get a word in. When I finally insisted on being allowed to defend myself, he said it was time to meet a friend and hung up the phone. I sent an email the next morning explaining that this was unacceptable, and that I couldn’t continue doing my job if it happened again. It didn’t.

There is, of course, a difference between rape and harassment. There is a difference between physical assault and emotional harm. And it might be unfair that Stephen’s career was derailed by allegations of rape—if that were what happened. As I lived it, that was not what happened. What happened is that years of behaving badly (not criminally) caught up to him.

It is often better to take the high road, to remain “professional.” This is especially true for women. But sometimes it’s more important to be honest. To call out bad behavior, even—especially—when that behavior lives in the gray areas of right and wrong. It’s important to talk about the times we’ve been made to feel violated and frightened. I am a woman with privilege. I have a platform. And so I will continue to speak out about my lived experiences of sexism, misogyny, and abuse. I will continue to write about being a woman and mother. I am often afraid, and I am always exhausted. I am angry all the time at the ways our country is moving backward. But if I remain silent when I could speak a truth that someone else might not be able to speak, I am complicit.

Love,
Marisa

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Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.

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Marisa Siegel currently lives, writes, and edits near NYC but thinks twenty times a day about heading back west. She is Editor-in-Chief and owner of The Rumpus. Find her on Twitter at @marisasaystweet. More from this author →