Me Too: My Story of Sexual Harassment in Publishing, Shades of Grey, and Changing My Name

The vitriol has been well and truly flying, both across the country and on my social media personally, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein's accusations of sexual assault and the, oh, ten or twenty other folks accused of--sometimes even with pictorial evidence--sexual misconduct following Weinstein's firing.

But it didn't start with Weinstein.  It started with a man admitting that he kissed women without their consent, "grab 'em by the pussy," who not merely suffered no ill effects--he was elected the President of the United States of America.

Women are sick of it.

The #MeToo meme on Facebook and elsewhere sent a powerful message: you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a woman who's experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Arguably all of us have, in some form or another, once we've reached say twenty years old for example, or maybe fourteen would be a better guess if you ever hung around the Gadsden Mall as a kid.  I participated in #MeToo, on a surface level.  Plenty of things have happened to me that men on my feed considered shocking and caused women to nod grimly.  I've been both grabbed on the streets of San Francisco and kissed on the mouth here in Queens with my hands full of groceries.  I've been briefly kidnapped in cab not once but twice--the first guy insisted on taking me to a club and I talked my way out of it by saying I needed to change into a prettier dress (I gave a fake address and ran to my house after telling him to wait for me), and the second guy only had me for about two minutes before I banged my way out of his car at the airport by punching the window till he unlocked the door.

Those sort of anecdotes aren't actually what's causing all the fuss on my feeds at the moment, although for the women who experience them to varying degrees of severity--aka most of us--they're incredibly important.  It's the ones that include shades of grey that have been causing people to enter serious discussions on my Facebook.  Stories like Senator Al Franken's.  Pantomiming grabbing a woman's breasts while she's asleep is only a tasteless joke, some might argue (that's true, in the same way pulling an underweight boy's pants down and stuffing him in his locker is a joke).  Women who wait for ten years to report such things weren't angry enough in the first place for it to matter to them--it's about taking down powerful men for attention, one female follower suggested.  Franken's victim posed for sexy pictures, so she was asking for it.  Franken does more good than harm.  Franken messed up, but not all men are like that.

All right.  Here we go.  I have a story that isn't about horrible things like getting whisked off in cars or grabbed on the street.  So let's discuss that, and see where it gets us.  Because I haven't talked about it publicly before, and now is the time.

My first novel, Dust and Shadow, sold like turd sandwiches.  It came out in hardcover just after the housing market collapsed in 2008, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing--how to be proactive in promoting it, how to increase sales, how to spell corduroy (I literally learned how to spell corduroy two days ago, by the way, so now admittedly I'm just showing off).  My numbers were dismal, the hardcover was remaindered, and first editions are scarce.  Afterward, as I attempted to write a second novel, I discovered that my previous publisher couldn't buy my next book even if they wanted it in the first place, and that my previous agent (who is nothing short of wonderful) honestly didn't care for the sort of books I was emulating with my own work.

I had two unpublished manuscripts finished (they're still unpublished), and I was ready to throw up my hands and take up longshoring, or possibly professional decoupage.  It was hugely demoralizing.  I felt like the bottom of my own (very cute) shoes.  Perhaps I should become a cobbler.  My husband Gabriel, a sainted human, insisted that I should keep trying, and that I needn't go learn shorthand or buy an apple farm.  So instead, thanks largely to his support, I pulled out most of my hair and wrote the first four chapters of what was then called The God of Gotham.

Now for the next step: I needed an agent, and I solicited several.  But one experience in particular stands out to me.

I sent the first chapters to an agent who will still remain nameless, and after agreeing to read them, he asked me to meet him for dinner.  Sure, I said, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  Dinner sounds great.  I love food--this is known.

We met at a dark, pretty little cafe in the Village--but they're all dark and pretty, so bear in mind this means absolutely nothing.  By having dinner, I don't mean we did the more usual business meeting for lunch or drinks or coffee.  We ordered a real meal, which he paid for entirely.  During the course of that meal, he conveyed to me the following information:

--the first four chapters of The God of Gotham were not a novel at all, but an amateurish historical travelogue (the first four chapters remained essentially identical right up until publication and subsequent nomination for an Edgar Award for Best Novel) 

--my numbers from Dust and Shadow were so embarrassing that I would be very lucky to get another agent at all, and would need to change my name (I'm with William Morris Endeavor; my name has just as many y's as previously) 

--he couldn't in conscience agree to be my agent, but he could agree to "mentor me," which would involve frequent meetings to improve the manuscript (I failed to leap at this generous offer)

--would I like to, since we were done with dinner and wine, now go to a second bar? (of course I would)

By this time, I had a pretty good idea what was going on.  But this guy was well known.  He was connected.  Maybe he was just being friendly.  Maybe he was just being generous.  Maybe I really was a terrible writer--I already thought I was a terrible writer by that time, so it seemed perfectly reasonable.  Maybe I really would have to change my name to Gaye Gyndsay, or Myndsay Maye.

As to the second bar, I said OH MY GOD I KNOW AN AMAZING SPANISH WINE PLACE WHERE WE CAN DRINK AS MUCH AS WE WANT ON THE CHEAP and he said OH MY GOD FANTASTIC and I marched him straight to Bar Carrera and introduced him to the manager, who happened to be working behind the bar that night: my husband Gabriel.

The agent didn't turn out to be very thirsty after all.  He ordered one glass, visibly uncomfortable.  We drank.  He left as fast as he could.  

The next week, my amazing-beyond-every-hyperbolic-superlative agent, Erin Malone, met me for the first time.  I was in the incredibly terrifying former WME offices, all glass and angles and SCARY NEW YORK BALLER BIG TIMER ROLEX-SCENTED SHIT, and I was offered coffee.  (I was too scared shitless to desire coffee.)  When I was shown into her office, Erin came out from behind her desk to shake my hand and said, "I have one question about the first four chapters."

"Shoot," I said, knowing she was going to suggest changing my name to Klymsey Klaye.

"What happens next?" she asked.  I've been deliriously happy with her ever since.

I'm lucky to be in an industry dominated by smart, ferocious women.  My American and UK editors' names have been Kerri, Amy, Claire, Sarah, and now Sara.  Why are there so many women in publishing?  Well, women read more books, statistically, but it's also true they work comparable hours for lower pay than many other corporate gigs.  Whatever the reason, it's a blessing to be in their company, to have the advantages of their passionate advocacy, their piercing editorial insights, and their sincere emotional support.

You're probably wondering by now whether I'm going to say who this agent fellow was: no, I'm not, because I'm a professional woman, and we are FORCED to compartmentalize in order to streamline our lives. 

The next time I saw the man was at a holiday party.  I was so angry I was literally shaking.  I couldn't hold my glass without looking like an idiot, so I set it down.  I'm not a demonstrably emotional person.  Why was I reacting so strongly to talking to him?  Because I knew full well that he made me feel like nothing on purpose, like my name was actually a stain on any paper it might be printed on, that my work would never achieve any quality without his expert guidance, and that in some way, candlelight and adult beverages needed to enter into the picture.

This guy has a lot of friends, and I know what would happen to me if I accused him of anything:

--it didn't happen that way at all

--you're angry he bought you dinner?

--you're angry he offered to MENTOR you?

--you didn't say anything, so how bad could it have been?

--aren't you the least bit grateful he offered to do so much for you despite genuinely not liking your manuscript?

--what kind of egomaniac are you?

--have you SEEN the way you dress, Lyndsay?

I can't deal with any of that.  So I'll tell the story, and I'll tell the men out there, in every workplace across the world: this is why we shut up sometimes.  This is why we put our heads down and keep trying, keep working.  It's relatively easy for me to tell a story about a pair of grotesquely shitty cab drivers who ought to be shot into the infinite vacuum of space--the experiences were brief and intense and inarguable.  Nobody debated them or called me a liar.  It's very, very different for me to tell a story about someone who is a Known Known, rather than a Known Unknown.  Sometimes, women say nothing not because they are ashamed or even afraid: they say nothing because they know their days would be consumed by the story, to the point of ruining everything else for months at a time, and they bury it in the fucking backyard with the rest of the rotten things, plant a little memorial, dust the dirt off their hands, and live their lives.

Finally, a word on Not All Men.  It's going to be tempting for some gentlemen to indicate in response to this story that Not All Men are like that--it's been happening a lot on my feeds, and there's a reason it makes women crazy.  The reason is that I'm already aware of that, and that is changing the subject.  I have worked with ridiculously courteous gentlemen in publishing.  My husband, brother, father, best friend--they're all male feminists.  If a woman tells you that a man suggested she squeeze his lemon till the juice runs down his leg, in the parlance of the immortal Zeppelin of Led, it doesn't really matter that EVERY man isn't queuing up on the street with his proverbial citrus fruit.  If a woman tells you she was harassed in the workplace, it doesn't really matter that YOU defend women in YOUR workplace.  If a woman mentions that she was locked in a room with a two-way mirror and forced to perform fellatio on a life-size wax model of Kenny Loggins, it doesn't make much of a difference to her that not EVERY man would be into that. Those things still happened to her, and she doesn't care about your own credentials while she's in the middle of telling a painful story.  It's interrupting.  It's changing the subject.  If a man's boat is sinking, he doesn't really care to be told that not ALL lifeboats are leaky.

It's hard for me to tell this story, and it'll probably be hard to endure the commentary on it--that I am overreacting, that I'm attention-seeking, that I'm betraying women by not naming the douche canoe, that I'm deserving of any flirtation I get because of how I style myself.

I'll be OK.  I'm a storyteller, despite what that man said.  And if my story can add to the national conversation on the subject?  So be it.