In 1997 I was enrolled as a theater student in a small college’s somewhat prestigious program. The buildings were from the ’40s and so all had wonderful booming acoustics and peeling linoleum, and a slightly geriatric smell that lent our studies a proper academic gravity. It is this smell I recall now when I think back on this moment, a moment that has burned me up for close to 15 years. My anger—at the creep, at myself for not confronting him, at Teeth for allowing it to happen—double, double toils and troubles inside of me, bubbling over two more times in my life. I’ll get to them in a moment.
In the morning’s movement class, we learned stage combat from an accomplished pro, a guy with a square jaw and comically perfect teeth (Teeth) who worked weekends at Knott’s Berry Farm doing the stunt show, and still shows up every now and then in the fight scene of a movie I’m watching. But movement is about so much more than visual tricks—it’s about inhabiting a character, bringing it to life through skillful manipulation of your posture, your walk, your center of gravity. Richard III, of course, is crippled and perpetually in pain, his arm pulled in and a spine curved into a protective hump, giving him a cowardice and cruelty that will impart itself also in his voice. The class exercises looked like great fun to an outsider, but they were constructed to train us to view body and voice as one instrument—push one button and the noise is different.
We were in the smaller of two theaters, a homey structure across the street from the main campus. The exercise that day was “Sculpture,” where half the small class was cast as sculptors and the other half as silent, malleable clay. My partner was a fellow who’d joined the theater program just that semester, a mousy, slightly older guy whom we all thought of as creepy for the way he squinted from behind his glasses and had the rigid movements and speech of a scientist. We placed bets on why he was roving around a theater department full of 19-year-olds: pedophile trying to do better, idiot, bucket-lister with a terminal illness. He bragged about completing the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in L.A., which is like bragging that you went to Starbucks U. And given his skills, we mused that old Stella must be auditioning students solely on ability to pay.
That’s the other thing: this guy had money—compared with us young struggling actors, anyway. He was rumored to have been paid pretty handsomely to do some kind of consulting for TV shows like “ER.” He promised us all he’d arrange a trip to a real set, crow about how he knew Ron Howard, and would wear the ball cap from a movie he was supposedly involved with (“Bruce Willis is starring”). Even though he was creepy, he was assigned to be my sculptor for this exercise, and I was a Serious Actress. Wiping my mind clean, I let this man put his hands on me, trusting in the spirit of theater to bring nobility and decency to the world.
Seven of us were being formed by another seven sculptor classmates, under the watchful eye of Teeth, who crossed his arms and strolled between our pairs. At first, everything was fine: the creep gently pushed on my shoulders, indicating I should go down on my knees. I kept my face blank and my eyes closed, as ordered. Then he pushed on my back, pulling my arms out to support me so I was on all fours. I was concerned about where this was heading, but still trusting in the exercise, when he bent my elbows so I was now crouched on the stage floor with my ass high up in the air, my right cheek resting on the floor. The stance was active, not passive, meaning I was still supporting myself with my forearms. As everyone finished positioning their partners, Teeth said, “Sculptures, when you open your eyes, I want you to make a face that matches the position of your body.”
I was bamboozled! I’d been had! There was only one face I could make in this pose, and that asshole knew it. Both those assholes knew it. The only reasonable face to match this pose—this active, ass-in-air-face-on-ground pose—was to look like I was in the throes of sexual ecstasy, a humiliating cherry on an insulting cake. I didn’t see the theatrical merit in this position at all. In what play would you be seeing the actress’s rump thrust into the air like this, Uncle Bleeding Vanya? Does Lady MacBeth seduce her husband into committing murder most foul by jutting her arse to the rafters and commanding him wordlessly to have a go?
That’s not even the most outrageous part. This is: right before I was to open my eyes and freeze in my chosen face, with half the class watching (including my then-boyfriend), the creep—not the teacher, the creep!—made a big blowsy point of lecturing me, “Now remember, you’re acting, so you have to commit to this.”
I wanted to leap up and rip his throat out. You? Mr. Stella Fucking Adler, are going to lecture me about acting, you creepy slime, you name-dropper with halitosis and flat, embarrassing line deliveries? I was Nina in “The Seagull” on this very stage! I cried real tears during my final monologue!
The fact is, I would have done anything for theater. It was my Destiny. I wanted to be an actress since I was five. I clung to the dream through a tough childhood. I was showing a talent for it too, which committed me even further to the humble study of it—as humble as any 21-year-old actress can be. I obeyed every order from directors, executed each command with as much dedication and integrity as was possible. I wanted more than anything in the world to go from here to Yale, USD, Louisville, Juilliard. But it wasn’t even that the creep questioned my devotion to acting that enraged me most; it was the taunting way he acknowledged that he had put me in a sexually degrading position, and that I couldn’t do anything about it.
A few days ago, piggish radio clown Rush Limbaugh went down in infamy (again) by calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for testifying before Congress against the Fortenberry, Rubio and Blunt legislation “that would allow even more employers and institutions to refuse contraception coverage, and then respond that the nonprofit clinics should step up to take care of the resulting medical crisis; particularly when so many legislators are attempting to defund those very same clinics.” That’s not all—he demanded she release sex tapes, compared covering women’s contraception to sharia law, and went on to slander her and her fellow female students over 53 times in three days. So here I am, quaking with this old familiar rage again. In November, the New Yorker published a piece about Planned Parenthood’s early plight, about how women associated with it were arrested, humiliated, beaten. About how a woman even daring to talk about contraception was outcast and scandalized. In 1916, people. That we are still having this conversation 100 years later, when 99% of American women are using contraception, is troubling enough, but the tacit complicity of America in the subjugation of women—the derailment by conservatives, both female and male, of any policy that establishes our sovereignty over our own bodies, including coining the term “feminazi” to describe any woman concerned with women’s rights and health matters—is appalling. Never mind that boner-inducing Viagra is defended by these same blokes as a “legitimate medical condition,” whereas the Pill, which can prevent ovarian cysts and treat PMDD, acne, and a slew of other debilitating symptoms of hormone imbalances, is derided as a sex aide. As the bumper sticker goes: If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention.
Exactly ten years after the Sculpture incident, I was studying writing at grad school in North Carolina. It was a low-residency program, meaning you could live anywhere and just needed to show up for one week twice a year. We were all—professors and students—in the hotel bar after a day of seminars, workshops, and readings. We were sharing the bar, it seemed, with a clutch of Midwestern salesmen on some corporate mission to bring stupidity and tackiness to whatever room they inhabited. An important note about my state: my mother had just been murdered about two years before, by her boyfriend. I was the one who found her body. As I sat in the hotel bar on this night, I was waiting to go to trial, which would involve leaving my home and job, boyfriend and dog for a month to go back to California. Each week I was told to pack and give notice at work, only to have it postponed at the last second. This happened off and on for about a year. I was having recurring nightmares about being trapped in that darkened bedroom alone with her blood, her spirit angry and unsettled in there with me. This was my state when a chubby middle-aged man in Dockers grabbed my ass.
He did it in front of his friends, like a show. My people didn’t see it—they were on the other side of the bar. What ensued has been better and more comprehensively discussed in an essay called “We Hit People,” published here by Prime Number Magazine. After the fight was over and he’d been sort of reluctantly ushered out of the bar, I crawled off to cry in the lap of a female novelist I was terribly intimidated by, but who would be fully aware of how terrible the world is for women. I let go. I ranted through my tears that it wasn’t fair that men felt they could put their hands on us, bend us to their will, and kill us if we didn’t submit. I cried that I was taught to be proud of America and its freedom, but that the system is designed to make you feel ashamed if you don’t fall in line, that even my well-intentioned male friends patently accept the paradigm and sneer at me for not being satisfied with my “equality.” These are the same men who have said things like “affirmative action is reverse racism” and “I protect Rush’s right to free speech, no matter what he says.”
The ideology behind both sentiments may be pure (I prefer “precious,” like my college boyfriend’s stoned political posturings), but the sentiments themselves, bereft of context, are as irresponsible as they are useless. Free speech isn’t what’s at stake here—it’s society’s support of, through compensation and consumption, violent and hateful messages about women. About anyone: Jews, African Americans, Muslims, immigrants. As Sir Thomas More suggests in “A Man For All Seasons,” when we remove every barricade from our right to do and say as we please, who can stand upright in the winds that would blow then?
If that troubles you still, you could look to Howard Zinn’s trope that you can’t be neutral on a moving train. As for me, I walk with my keys positioned so I can jab them in the eyes of an attacker. 1 in 3 of us will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. That train’s not just moving; it’s hurtling down a mountain.
The creep on the stage that morning had the right to do as he pleased with me—and he exercised it in a bit of a vicious, unkind way. He did not do it for the theater, or even to test my resolve or ability as an actress; his unnecessary, hectoring lecture made that clear. His intention was to prove he had power over me in that moment, that no matter what my feelings were, I had to obey, even though the only plausible face I could make to go with such a pose was a perverted mask, something beneath any actor, even one from Stella Adler.
My mind raced through the alternatives in the seconds before opening my eyes: I could feign a grotesque death, having dropped from my hanging rope with a broken neck; I could be listening with mild concern for an oncoming train. But his pious little lecture—Now remember—let me know that he fully expected me to endure an uncomfortable moment. Just take it. So when the moment came to freeze in position with our faces, I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue, my mouth open in a cartoonish grin. My classmates giggled and shook their heads. Teeth looked disappointed. Then, to really drive it home, I loudly moaned “Errrrrrr!” like I was severely retarded. He’d made a mockery of the exercise, of my commitment, and so I mocked him right back. “Errrrrr!” I continued, trying to work up some drool.
The creep wrung his hands and slunk back. I can see his distress now, possibly aggrandized by the selectivity of memory. But in my head, that’s how it goes: I refused to be bullied into being a good little girl. You can tell me to shush, to accept things as they are, to not fight back, to love unfettered free speech and to just endure what is being said about me and about women, no matter its effect on society or on the policies that affect women’s lives.
But I will simply reply: Errrrrr.