He's Coming

"He's Coming"

Female Voice

Female wants to leave first male voice for another man.

How could he

Could he be the same man?

How could he

Could he come to hate me?

How could he

Could he be so angry?

He's coming

coming

coming

How could I

Could I ever hold him?

How could I

Could I ever trust him?

How could I

Could I ever love him?

I'm running

running

running

There's a man

I know will love me.

There's a man

I know will trust me.

There's a man

Who shows me kindness.

I'm coming

coming

coming

Chapter 12
February 28, 2017

         I guess you know what has happened, the broad strokes of it, the brutal facts. I guess you have already read about it, seen stories on the local news. Read the emails. Seen the interviews with grad students. This might even go to a national level, not as “national” as showing up on cable news shows. At least, I don’t think it will get that big, but it will show up in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed, and on professional listservs, as documents and comments are forwarded here and there, with feigned professionalism and concern for the victims, but it will be voyeurism, an electronic version of hiding behind bushes and peering into bedroom windows. It has already spread across two or three listsevs, and those are just the ones I know about. Friends across the country, conference friends, those people I speak to once or twice a year, are sending me emails asking for the true story. I’m not even responding to them. I feel no need to feed them. I have nothing to offer. As close as I look like I’ve been to the whole mess, I have no idea what really happened.

            I am sure you were wondering if Charles is behind the stories in the press. I am pretty sure he is. I am pretty sure he spoke to reporters. He must be one of the anonymous sources. Just one of them. Maybe the first one. I’m sure he knew I was trying to contact him. I’m sure he was avoiding talking to me, or anyone else. I later found out that he went to Tom Wilson’s cabin on the lake. Tom was one of Charles’ students, maybe twenty years ago. They became friends. They have dinner often. Tom started some kind of Internet business and made a lot of money. So he has a nice place on the lake. Charles turned off his phone and hid out in Tom’s cabin. He canceled his classes for a few days, almost a week, without even letting me know. Half his students never looked at their emails, so they showed up for class. When he didn’t appear, they came to my office. Not in a group. They just straggled in a few at a time. A few were angry, but most of them claimed they were concerned about Charles. I had to tell them that I didn’t know where he was, but I would try to find him, make sure he was okay, find out why he wasn’t in class. I told them to check their emails for possible assignments. All of the normal things I say, as if this were a normal situation.

            Then the Globe article—the first one—started to break online. Susan Gutman told me about it first. She saw a reference to the story on Facebook. One of her students had posted a comment about it. I stopped subscribing to the newspaper about a year ago. It was making me too depressed, too many stories about the election, about the elevation of Donald Trump. So, I couldn’t look at the story online, you know, without a subscription. I looked for a paper in the machine on campus, but we don’t even have newspaper machines anymore. It’s like the news, hard news, news you can feel in your hands, has ceased to exist. I had no way of accessing the story. I was hearing about it and saw references to it, but I couldn’t get to it.

            This huge shit storm was unfolding. I was right in the middle of it. Or, at least, I knew that I would be perceived as being in the middle of it, and I couldn’t find out what was happening.

            I was almost becoming disoriented. I had a vague sense of panic. I was thinking, What do I do now? How do I act? What are people going to expect of me? I felt the way I did when my wife died. That’s an odd association, I know, but it’s accurate. I felt panic and rage and I didn’t know what I was expected to do and how to fix it or how to direct my anger or how control it. All I could figure out, the only action I thought I could take, was to keep trying to contact Charles. I kept calling. This is probably what triggered that association, that feeling, those feelings, like my wife had just died. I called her, too, even though I knew she would not answer. It tried to call. I left her messages. It was anger and confusion and helplessness.

            Lincoln. It was Lincoln who eventually asked if I had seen the story. I told him I couldn’t access it. He went to his office, accessed his online subscription, printed off a copy, brought it to me. “Charles has done it now,” he said. “I’ll be in my office.” He left me alone so I could read it. I appreciated that. I can’t imagine trying to wade through all of that with him watching my face, waiting for reactions.

            It probably took me over a half hour to read it. I kept having to start over. I kept losing focus. Maybe it was longer than a half hour. I know you’ve read it. You know what’s there. I couldn’t believe it was true, that it was happening here, even though I had been prepared for it, eased into it, even though I knew there was something that could explode. I would have had trouble taking it in even if I were reading a story about another university, a thousand miles away, in some other state. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen. Not to this degree. Not this overtly. It’s always , , , murky.

            Even now, even after I have read the stories several times, over the last couple days, I’m not sure I can remember it all. I wasn’t so surprised by the subtle things. Even Barnes was implicated in some of this. As I was reading, I was wondering who would be pulled in, who else would be dragged in, harmed. I was thinking, I had this image, from Poe, from so many of Poe’s stories, this mental image of a vortex, that force that sucks in everything, indiscriminately, completely, inescapably.

            Anyone who has taught for a while, even if you’re trying to do the right thing, will regret comments or looks or whatever, think back on things and say, I shouldn’t have said that. That could be misread. That could come back and cause problems. The looks. The comments, maybe a slip, out of character, or maybe said in all innocence, or said to provoke discussion, but that statement, that gesture, if viewed from a certain angle, a certain perspective, could be made significant, a sign of some corruption, some character flaw, something consistent and persistent. Some of what was in the story could be nothing more than this. Insignificant details. The most common kind of events, now transformed by the behavior of maybe only a few individuals. Everything on the surface sucked into the force of a single narrative.

            Maybe that was even the bulk of it. It might not even have been a story if not for some clearly sick behavior. It was early in the story, I think, those emails from Cramer to some grad student, the ones where he asks, it seems like it was once a week or so, what color panties she had on in class last night. It was like, “I am imaging they were black last night. I like black. I am going to think about you all night, wearing black panties, sitting in front of me, hiking your skirt up.” This just seemed unreal, not of this place, not of this time. I would have trouble believing even a stupid male in a macho business setting would speak to a woman like this, much less send it in an email, now, in this time, with so much attention given to sexual harassment and Title IX issues. In emails. Multiple emails. Over and over. This, from a professor. Someone who probably smugly taught ethics every semester. Even if this had happened forty years ago, I would have had trouble believing it. And that interview with Bennett’s student, the one who was working on her dissertation. The way he always scheduled meetings with her at his house. The way she described him sitting so close and they went over her drafts, breathing on her, stroking her here and there as they talked, even though she kept pushing his hand away.

            I kept trying to think it away, you know, make sense of it, shape it into something that I could understand. Maybe some of it wasn’t true, or accurate, I was thinking. Some of it, at least some of it, had to be true. But all of it? Anyone who teaches for a few years will have rumors flying around from time to time. Early in my career, before I was married, I heard students assumed I was having an affair with this woman or that woman. Of course, I was younger then. More attractive. Thinner. Not bald. But not attractive enough to warrant this kind of curiosity. But it was there. I remember one student, when I was still a GA, she always came into my office for conferences and closed the door. She flirted with me. I realized that. I ignored it. But I didn’t think to keep the door open. That was all it took for a rumor to start. I was thinking, maybe something like this was behind it, a bad decision maybe, an action that could be misinterpreted, but not an overt act. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as what was reported.

            I started to think about my department. Could reporters talk to students, maybe ones who felt that they were not graded fairly, or felt ignored—ignored by me, ignored by some professor—when they complained about a grade, or had a bad experience in class, if reporters approached them, looking for a certain kind of story, would students say things like this? Would they tell the reporter what he or she wanted to know? If you want to find a certain kind of story and you look for it, will you find it? And, if a reporter constructed a story like this, might some simple mistakes, some student decisions, some momentary lapses from otherwise good teachers, people who tried to do the right thing, people who are just human, be pulled into the bigger story as examples of the pattern?

            Some of it did seem to be open to interpretation. That part of the story about Cramer using some of his favorite male students to bully female students in class. The story said that a female student would make a comment, then Cramer would look at one of the male students, raise an eyebrow, a signal to attack, the story said, and then the male student would dismantle everything the female student said. This, I thought could have been true, or it could have been an interpretation. It could have clearly been bullying, or it could have just been bad teaching or a disgruntled student. Some of the story seemed open to interpretation, like it was not so clear.

            I was thinking as I was reading the article, Could there be some explanation? Could some of this be students misinterpreting the situation? Could it be actions in some grey area that was maybe indicative of poor judgment but did not rise to the level of an abuse of power or sexual harassment? I was searching for a counter-narrative, but there was too much there, at least, if what was reported was accurate, even close to being accurate.

            The story, the reporter, I can’t remember the name, talked about contacting the department, the university, the professors for comments. No one wanted to offer a response. What could they say? It was staggering. Anyone can make a mistake. Anyone can have a moment. I know, in my department, Steven has pushed the line a few times, but I don’t think he has done anything like this. I’m not aware of Steven ever actually violating university policy. This, what was going on in that department, seems pervasive, like it was understood this kind of thing was okay.

            After I read the story, I went to Lincoln’s office. We tried to talk about it. Neither one of us knew what to say, so neither of us said much of anything. The one thing I remember saying, which I think is right, was, “The thing people don’t understand is that, as bad as this story sounds, more will come out. It will keep coming. More students will come forward, more will speak to reporters. Students from ten years ago will come forward. It will keep going on until people are worn out with it, or until some bigger, nastier story takes over.” Lincoln just nodded. I told him to tell Charles to call me if he talks to him. “He won’t contact me,” he said. “He’ll contact you.”

 

            In the middle of all this, there was this strange thing, this strange event. I went for a walk to clear my head. I was walking, wandering really, down a sidewalk and someone said, “Hello.” I looked up and saw Robert Simpson, that guy, or at least the guy I think was the guy from the party, even though he never admitted it. He asked, “Are you okay?” I told him, “Yea, just going for a walk, trying to clear my head.” He said, “I guess you need to. I know you must be under pressure right now. You know, Barnes is a real ass. Don’t worry about it.” It shocked me. I didn’t even know how to respond. By the time, I had taken it in, absorbed what he said, begun to formulate a way of asking what the hell he was talking about, he was gone. It was odd. It was too familiar. This was the kind of thing you would say to someone you have know for long time, maybe a lifetime. We hardly knew each other, and he was hinting at some kind of shared knowledge, some sort of intimacy, that I didn’t know we had. This, right in the middle of everything else.

 

            Lincoln was right. Eventually, I heard from Charles. Eventually, he called me. He told me where he was, where he had been, at Tom’s. He said we could meet, but it would have to be at Tom’s, at the cabin. He didn’t want to talk on the phone. I remembered thinking, Really? Now, you want to cautious? Now, you want to think about the repercussions of your actions? Now, that this thing that you have started, the thing you have created, continues to grow, feed on itself, consume us? But I didn’t say anything. I got the address. I had only been to Tom’s cabin once, and that was years ago. All I remember is that it was off the main roads, way off.

            I thought about what I needed to do before I left. The red message light was blinking on my office phone. I accessed my inbox, went through all those steps of talking to some machine, giving my name, password, all that, and the machine said I had forty-two messages. I didn’t even start listening to them. I just hung up. I glanced at my email inbox. I think there were about two hundred emails. I saw a few from the dean with the heading “Call Me.” Nothing from the provost or president, thank God. But they probably wouldn’t contact me directly. They would go through the dean. I thought about calling the dean, but I decided I didn’t want to talk to him until I talked to Charles. He would be pissed. Really pissed. But I could claim that I hadn’t seen them. The emails. The messages. The worse he could do is call me negligent, a pretty minor offense within the broader context of a major cluster-fuck.

 

            It took me forty-five minutes to reach the lake. Even though I had the address plugged into Google maps on my phone, I missed a turn somewhere, so it took another twenty minutes to find Tom’s cabin. Twenty minutes longer. I pulled into the driveway. Angry and frustrated with trying to find the place. Charles had been watching for me, or maybe watching for reporters or anyone who might find him. He met me on the sidewalk between the driveway and the house. He seemed to have a faint smile on his face. I remember thinking, He’s enjoying this. That motherfucker is enjoying this.

            “What the fuck, Charles?” That’s all I could think to say.

            He dropped the smile. A bit of a grimace flashed across his face.

            “I thought you would understand. Once I realized you didn’t want to be a part of it, so I tried to keep you out of it, but I thought you would understand. I thought you would grasp it, how serious this is. I thought you would understand.”

            I was still fuming. It was that kind of anger, I have to admit, that is more about covering up my own panic and fear. I can see that now, but I don’t think I saw that then. I was just thinking, There is this mess out there, I am not even sure what the details are, or what is true, or how many truths there will ultimately be, and I’m going to get sucked into this, and other people are going to get sucked in as well, and it is going to do a lot of damage.

            “This is going to get out of control, Charles. Once it’s in the press, no one can control it. They’re not going to care who gets hurt. We could have gone through channels. We could have followed procedures.”

            “I tried that.” Now, Charles was becoming as angry as I was. We were in it. Our own little battle within a war. Feeding on each other. His face stiffened and turned red. The volume in his voice kept raising. Soon, he was yelling. Same bits of spit were shooting from his mouth. “I tried that. I spoke to the dean. He did nothing. He never does anything. He just stared at me and talked about getting the facts straight. He said he would speak to the provost. I never heard anything back. I waited for weeks. I’m sure he spoke to the provost, and the provost, the only thing the provost did, was develop a plan, a story, a cover up. The provost goes drinking with Barnes. They’re friends. Do you think he is going to go after him, just because I got access to some emails? Students spoke to the Title IX officer in HR. That Brenda woman. Nothing happened. That Brenda lady, she has lunch everyday with the president. She used to babysit for his family when she was younger, before she went to law school. She’s not going to do anything. I spoke to you. What have you done?”

            He probably wished he hadn’t said that. He said it and stopped talking. He was shifting around, rocking back of forth, the way he does when he has thrown a verbal punch and is waiting for the counter-punch. He might have been thinking, That’s the end of our friendship. I have to admit the same thought crossed my mind.

            I don’t know what I expected to accomplish, but I could see there was nothing left, nothing to do, no way to fix anything. I was not even sure why I drove up there. I wouldn’t be able to change Charles. He was already too far down a path. His only choice was to keep going, to play it out. Even if I could get Charles to admit that going to the press was a bad idea, I wouldn’t know what to do next. It couldn’t be undone. And he was right, in many ways. Nothing was being done to address the problem. Someone needed to stand up for the students. My concern was that there would be a lot of collateral damage. This would probably end the careers of some faculty in Political Science who had nothing to do with it, who might have even tried to stop it. Maybe faculty in other departments as well. Students are going to drop out of the grad program. They won’t return. They’ll be done. It will hurt the reputation of the university. Enrollments will drop even more, maybe only a little, but it will mean more budget cuts. It may take a long time to recover from the bad publicity. Years at least.

            “Is there more coming out? More to the story?” I asked.

            “Isn’t that enough?”

            “I need to know if there is more.”

            “Not that I know. Not that I told to reporters, if that’s what you’re asking.”

            “Thanks,” I said, out of habit, as a reflex, almost as an exhale, a death rattle.

            We stared at each other for a while, maybe just a few seconds, but a long time, long enough to finish off a friendship, before I turned and walked back to my car without saying anything else. No more words. Not between us. The words were all gone.

            As I started to back out of the driveway, I stopped and glanced at Charles. He was standing in the same spot, still rocking back and forth, still waiting for words or a gesture. In the twenty some years we’ve been friends, I never let him get to me. He was always the one who blew up, walked away in silence. I actually thought about whether I should go back and talk to him. Maybe he’s right, I thought. Maybe, I didn’t do enough. Maybe, I’m part of the bureaucracy that let all this happen. I’m sure Charles was expecting me to get out of the car, walk up to him and say, “You’re right. I could have done more.” That’s what I would have done in the past. That’s what I always did. If I admitted I had some failings in the process, we could get past the anger with each other, and we could talk about how to handle the situation. But I was tired of being the adult all the time. I was tired of trying to fix things. And I honestly felt that this was beyond being fixable. I had no idea how it would play out, but I was pretty sure there would be bodies strewn across campus before this was over.

 

            The first time I backpacked into Yellowstone, it was early spring. I remember walking along the trail and seeing white bones everywhere. Animals had been killed and eaten on either side of the trail. Their bones had been picked clean over the long winter, by large animals, bears and wolves, then by smaller animals, weasels and foxes, then by insects, beetles, flies, and ants, then by weather, snow and rain, cold and heat. I remember thinking, I’ve just entered the food chain, and I am not at the top of the chain. That experience, that realization, flashed across my mind as I sat there in my car, for that brief moment, that turning point, in the driveway, my backward motion paused. I had my foot on the brake. I was staring straight ahead of me, thinking, What now? I looked at Charles again. That was the moment that I looked at him. He was already looking at me, waiting to see what I would do. I swung my head around, looked behind me, and backed out of the driveway.

            I drove home. I didn’t want to go back to the office. From time to time, during the thirty or so minutes of driving on two-lane, windy roads, I could feel my cell phone vibrating in my pocket. I didn’t stop. I didn’t look to see who was trying to reach me. I never called the dean. At some point, I will pay for that. When, I couldn’t say. I am sure they will be lining people up against the wall. It will take time to play out. Some of us will have to wait our turns.