I once interviewed the Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis in anticipation of a new movie. At the end of the allotted hour we’d gotten through only half my questions, so I was thrilled when he invited me to come back to his hotel later to finish up — celebrity profiles are usually a root canal.
That evening we talked for several more hours at the hotel bar. He offered drinks, which I declined, and asked if I wanted to stay longer, which I declined, and I left thinking he was the nicest famous person I’d ever interviewed, and then earlier this year four women accused him of sexual misconduct. Two of them said it was rape. Haggis denied the charges.
But as the news circulated, I spent a few weeks repeating my anecdote to friends — benevolent mogul helps young reporter — before I realized I didn’t know what the point of telling it was. Was I just trying to convey shock? Or convey that, in three to four hours of conversation, he seemed like a really kind guy?
The women who accused him were roughly the age I’d been for the interview, and eventually I realized what I’d been doing was making sense of the fact that I’d (allegedly) dodged a land mine.
In the current harassment minefield, as brave women come forward with tales of being wounded, it’s also become common for unharmed women to have parallel discussions about the fact that they’ve got all their limbs intact.
“I’m left thinking: what kind of duplicity was he engaged in?” emailed one friend, upon learning her longtime mentor had just resigned after accusations of misconduct. “Did he just change dramatically over the years? Did he say inappropriate things that I was too dense to even recognize? Did I send out ‘be respectful of me’ signals?”
I asked myself the same questions a few months ago, when an author I’d met at a book festival was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Not long before that, he’d emailed to say he’d be near my office to record a podcast; I said to let me know if he wanted to grab coffee. But he never did, and after three more friendly email exchanges, according to my Gmail folder, we never spoke again.
I’m not sure whether telling these anecdotes is useful.
I’m not sure whether they provide context or misdirection.
Sexual harassment seems to be one of the few misdeeds for which we accept testimonies from non-victims as evidence of innocence. Serial killers manage to not murder everyone they meet. Burglars don’t rob every house they pass. We don’t call the owners of un-robbed houses to the witness stand and ask them to add their statements to the public record: He couldn’t be a thief, your honor — he once visited my home, and yet I still have my flat-screen.
But when authority figures are accused of sexual harassment, we often look to the land mine dodgers. We ask them to testify. We ask, did he ever try to lift up your skirt? Steal your television? “Tom treated each of us with fairness and respect,” wrote 65 women in the media industry, in defense of Tom Brokaw.
Earlier this week, following a rash of accusations against CBS chief Les Moonves, the Atlantic writer Megan Garber called this the Familiarity Fallacy. “There’s saying ‘I know him,’ and then there’s assuming that the knowing itself is an exoneration,” Garber wrote. “People are complex and variable and, as a rule, containing of multitudes.”
She cited the litany of women who have come forward on Moonves’s behalf, who stated that he’d been good to them and was therefore good in general. Garber pointed out how absurd this was. Serial harassers victimize some women and not others. They’re kind to some women and not others.
“One of the hardest parts has been picking over everything,” an acquaintance told me a couple months ago, after her friend — the author I’d met — was accused of harassment. “He made a point of talking about feminism. It’s clear now that was overcompensation.”
“I don’t know if it’s clear,” I told her. Maybe he had multiple facets to his personality.
“Maybe,” she said.
And then we went back to the beginning. Rehashed the whole story again. What should we have seen, or noticed, or intuited?
Questioned ourselves some more. Re-rehashed the story. Talked about how weird it was that we were currently engaged in more reflection and self-doubt than some of the men who did the bad things.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.