My friend Rip used to say, “The way to girls’ hearts is to tell the girls who know that they’re smart that they’re pretty and to tell the girls who know that they’re pretty that they’re smart.” In my characteristically cheeky fashion, I once asked, “And what do you tell the girls who know that they’re both smart and pretty?” Rip said, “I tell those girls that I want to marry them.”
Although it was never discussed, I grew up with parents who encouraged me to lead with my brains, not my appearance. At Mom’s, we watched the MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour together every night while cooking dinner. We played checkers and chess and Scrabble. Mom always cobbled together enough for us to pick out a few books at the Scholastic Book Fair. I occasionally chafed at my mother’s seemingly prude rules–wool tights, not bare legs; no jelly shoes; no stirrup pants; and, believe it or not, no prom. The word “hussy” was tossed out when I came home from a ballet recital wearing eye shadow. Summers with Dad and my brother also gave me little space to be girly. We stayed up for meteor showers, visited the Museum of Science and Industry regularly, climbed giant sand dunes, and helped Dad tinker with satellite dishes. I learned very early how to braid my own hair and tie my own pigtails.
Fast forward to my my senior year of college, and I was identified as a top prospect for a Rhodes Scholarship. The professor who led the fellowship program at Georgetown was a beloved government professor. His classes on leadership were impossible to get into, even for seniors. Yet, he took me under his wing, guiding me through the Rhodes application process and preparing me for my interviews. My world opened up. I had tea with Georgetown President Leo O’Donovan in his soaring office in Healy Hall where he encouraged me to read poetry out loud. Daily. I had prep dinners at the Tombs with ambassadors, scholars, and a U.S. senator to coach me on how to present my best self.
I wasn’t ultimately selected for the scholarship, but the professor asked me to become his research assistant. Over the course of my final semester and the following summer, I helped him research military leadership and presidential history. We had countless discussions about graduate school and potential career paths. With his sage counsel, I ultimately decided to join the Foreign Service.
With a State Department hiring freeze in effect, I moved to New York in January 2001. Sometime that spring, the professor was in New York and invited me to join him for dinner at a university club. I was making $22,000 a year, had no health insurance, and was trying to make heads or tails of life after college. A civilized dinner with an kind, old mentor sounded lovely. I don’t recall what we discussed, but I imagine we talked about his new book, what was happening with the Foreign Service, and my plan to go eventually to grad school.
When dinner finished, he mentioned that he had a copy of his new book upstairs for me. Without thinking, I went up to the room where he was staying. The door had barely shut and he started kissing my neck and wrapped his arms around me. I froze and then backed away, shaking my head and softly said, “No.” He started crying. He told me he was in love with me. He said he was very lonely because his wife was sick. He was nearly 50 years my senior. My professor. My mentor. My Rhodes Scholarship coach. I felt so sad. For him. For me. I got a cab back to my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. I remember staring out the window on the way home, thinking in a very matter-of-fact way that my innocence was gone. I was only 22.
This episode resurfaced from my deep memory last fall as women started coming forward with stories about how now President Trump had come on to them, and it has returned to mind again in recent weeks.
I’m sharing my story, partly because it’s cathartic, but also because I want people to understand it’s not just the pretty girls, or the smart girls, but also the girls you want to marry. The ones who know left from right, and right from wrong. The ones who can, and do, stand up for themselves a thousand different ways every day. And yet we bury this. We’re ashamed. We want to protect those who’ve taken something from us.
I still feel deep sympathy for the professor for whatever wires got crossed in his head and in his heart to have such a terrible lapse in judgment. I was only 22, and the gap between us in age, life experience, and power was vast. I hid this for 17 years, and I’m not exactly meek. I worry a lot about the women and men who experience things far darker by someone with a lot more power.
I don’t have good answers. I look at the picture of me above with the messy pigtails and the sweet, innocent smile and wonder what other tools my parents could have possibly given that little girl. In truth, I think they nailed it. I was taught left from right, and right from wrong. I can, and I do, stand up for myself a thousand different ways every day. Rewinding the tape, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I would tell my younger self to find good mentors, to trust that they had my best interests at heart, and when that trust was breached, to learn to sympathize and eventually forgive.
I think the growing discussion of the burden shift away from victims and towards those who are committing the wrongs is an important one. Sure we need to root out the true degenerates and both lock them up and get them help. But we also need to raise our boys, and our girls, to respect and value each other as individuals with rights and dignity, to recognize the enormous power each of us has to harm and to do good, and to make the right choices time and again. As the singer-songwriter Jewel wrote, “I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.”