Powerful Plays

If you haven’t watched the most recent episode of Girls then you should. This show, through all its series, and for all its flaws, has created moments of utter brilliance and this week’s episode is one of those moments. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that American Bitch is one of the most important things I’ve seen on TV. Ever.

In this episode Dunham fearlessly tackles topical, tricky subject matter and, like taffy in your teeth, it will probably stick with you for awhile. It certainly did me and now,  nearly 7 days later, I’m still thinking about it. Its scenes as familiar as the scent of my mother’s perfume and as nauseating as the sight of a family pet killed on the road. Flesh and fur pulverised deep into the concrete; the soft, familiar pelt punctuated with tire marks, its beloved face a pulpy mess.

I use this blog primarily for social commentary and rarely speak of my own life here except occasionally to use it as a prism through which to see others. However, after watching Girls this week  I feel compelled to tell this story, but please know that I don’t take any pleasure in it and that I do so with some hesitation. Because I know that the person with whom these interactions took place shares friends with me. I also know that I was able to move on in a way that others could not and for this I am truly sorry. I should have spoken up then and known, somehow, that it wasn’t just me.

When I was 20 I was in my second year of community college in Rockford, Illinois. I went to school during the day and worked in a restaurant in the evening. There I wore very little and served overpriced steaks and criminally strong drinks to handsy couples stealing kisses in shadowy booths and businessmen who watched, unblinkingly, as myself and the other girls danced around each other and across the floor, precariously balancing heavy trays above our heads, their eyes following us relentlessly as they tried to glimpse any extra flesh that might be exposed if we bent down to pick something up or reached for a bottle of vodka on the top shelf of the bar.

I was at work when I first met him. He was a cool, young teacher at the college I attended, but at that time he wasn’t my teacher. He was frequently out with his students in the evenings drinking with them and holding court. A chorus of laughter would often erupt from his table accompanied by percussive slaps to the tabletop. Sometimes, if I wasn’t too busy, he would invite me to sit with them. I never had much to add to the conversation, as the topic was always some obscure film I hadn’t seen, but it was fascinating to listen to them talk round in circles until I was dizzy and they were too drunk to remember what they were debating.

I enrolled in his class the following semester. At the time I was looking to add extra electives to my schedule to boost my GPA, but if I’m honest with myself, I also really wanted to sit at the table contribute to the dialog. When I walked into the classroom on that first day I saw his eyes become saucers, but then he smiled slightly and gave me a nod of recognition. I sat in the front row and took notes diligently. I wanted to impress him and I wanted to earn his respect.

I loved that class. I began to look at cinema differently and more critically. I analysed directors and picked at a film’s subtext like lint off a sweater. I wrote excellent essays, which I was asked to read to the class on more than one occasion and I was living for Wednesdays where I could voice my opinions and engage in meaningful debate about auteurs, editing and how a camera angle or exceptional costume design could tell a story of its own.

After a few months I was invited to his house, with some other students, to watch a favourite film of his. I tried to play it cool, but inside I was squealing with delight to have been chosen. When I arrived I was late, but was the only one there. He explained that the others had cancelled and that it would be just us. I didn’t mind in the slightest and was very comfortable with him, so I plopped myself down on his couch and together we watched the film he’d been saying for weeks would “change my life”. By the time the credits rolled, my nerves were splintered driftwood and my mouth was full of sand. It was the first time I’d been so enthralled or affected by a movie and he was right. Things were different after that.

I needed to calm down after the screening, so we hung out and talked and he revealed that his hobby was photography. After some expert badgering he showed me some of his portraits and they were exquisite. Black and white and colour bleeds, women with sullen faces looking for a friend in the lense, women with their backs turned, pretending to be shy.  The images were dreamy and subtly smudged with longing and I thought they were beautiful. I gushed about his incredible talent, but he hastily waved my words out of the air like a foul stench. I told him I had a friend who ran a gallery and tried to convince him to consider doing a show. He said he’d think about it if he could photograph me.

A few more weeks went by until we set a date for the shoot. We agreed on a Saturday and to do it at the college. When I arrived I was met outside by two of his other students who were not in my class, but who I recognised from the restaurant. They showed me to a locked area in the bowels of the college where he was waiting; his lopsideid, impish smile fixed firmly to his face, his camera hanging from his neck like an ornate piece of futuristic costume jewellery. He asked me to get changed, so I did and when I returned we were alone. The other students had scarpered like rats into the aphotic corners of the basement.

The camera’s shutter clicked and snapped like it was chewing gum as I did what any other girl would in my situation – I pouted, smiled and poorly imitated what I’d seen a million times on America’s Top Model. But I was no top model. I was clumsy and awkward and my limbs were limp and leaden in their sockets. His attempts to relax me only made me more anxious and my mouth became a hard line, thin with concentration. The suggestion was made, half-jokingly, that I take off some clothes.

Anyone who has met me knows that I am not, nor have I ever been, shy. I had seen his work and I wanted the photos we took to be a success. I had spoken to the gallery owner and she was interested in promoting an exhibit for him and I didn’t want to fuck it up. I made him promise that if I could keep the negatives and get first refusal of any of the images of me he wanted to show I’d remove some layers. We shook hands and moments later I was in my underwear and combat boots laughing and completely at ease. I donned giant angel wings, pranced round in nothing but a belt and when we found some strips of black fabric on the floor, he wrapped around my naked body as I stared at the ceiling. He took hundreds of photos and by the time we were done the whole parking lot was empty and the sky was a pot of spilled ink.

It was shortly after he took the photos that he stopped returning my calls or even making eye contact with me in class. He looked through me or over me, but he never again asked me to share my work with the other students. He no-showed the meeting I set up with the gallery owner and I’d seen nothing of the pictures he took. After a couple of weeks of this increasingly odd behaviour, I got drunk with one of his other students and a confession tumbled out of my mouth, which was trembling and stained dark from wine. She listened intently, nodding slowly as I told my story and when I had finished, feeling terribly sorry for myself, she detailed how one night at his house, after they’d watched a film together, he had assaulted her. She cried, I cried and we discussed if we should say something and to whom, but both of us knew that we were unlikely to be taken seriously and as unbelievably as seems to 36-year-old me,  at the time we both shared the concern that he Could lose his job. Seriously, WTF?

I persevered through the remainder of the semester. I continued to work hard, but I didn’t look forward to Wednesdays anymore, I dreaded them. Then one night I was sitting at the bar after my shift had finished with the woman from the gallery. A boy I recognised from class walked through the door and straight to me. He presented me with a heavily pregnant envelope, paper stretched tightly over its contents, taught as burned flesh. He lingered a little too long before he grinned at me and walked out the door.

I handled that envelope as tentatively as a bomb and unstuck the glue at its opening with a trembling hand before peering inside to discover a dense stack of photos, thick as a brick. Me in jeans and a t-shirt, me in my underwear, me totally nude. Some photos I am posing for and others are candid. There are no negatives. Some are stuck together. The woman next to me wrestled some of the photos out of my grasp and declared how stunning they were, how wonderful I looked and how much she wanted to meet the photographer. I felt sick as I fingered each image. My friend couldn’t understand why I was crying and I couldn’t articulate it. The grief and relief I felt in that moment was as palpable as the smoke that hung in the air all around us.

Some weeks later I received my grades, and though I had earned an A in his class it was tainted and I was disgusted. I found out at about the same time that he had filmed me while he was photographing me without my permission and people I knew had seen it. Strangers had seen it. For years, whenever someone said they recognised me from somewhere I held my breath and quickly responded, “I just have one of those faces,” before they could think any harder about it and potentially place me in the basement of my college, perched naked on a rafter.

I later found out that, of course, I was not his only muse. There were multiple models; all sweet, trusting students and acquaintances who fell for his “humble artist” act. And as frustrating as this is, I know that we were the lucky ones who were only emotionally manipulated by this man and not abused physically.

There are shitty people who use their positions of power to do terrible things. These are people that we admire and trust who then completely fuck us over and sadly we accept it because we think that somehow, it’s our fault or it’s what we deserve. Even now when I think about this incredibly fucked up incident I feel guilt and shame even though I know that I shouldn’t.

Watch the American Bitch episode of Girls. If you have daughters watch it with them and talk about it. Thank you, Lena Dunham, for writing this episode and empowering American Bitches like me to speak up.

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