Doug Storm, emeritus host and producer of WFHB’s Interchange, points out this piece in Jezebel, about a noted poet, an once-esteemed member of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty, who was accused by numerous women of inappropriate behavior. His name is Thomas Sayers Ellis. He’d taught at Sarah Lawrence College and Case Western Reserve University. The author of the Jezebel piece, Jia Tolentino, called him “brilliant.”
He’s charismatic and surprising, a protest poet, a real intellectual, unafraid to cause alarm. His style is enjambed, urgent, and rhythmically afire; in the late ‘80s, he founded the Dark Room Collective to promote writers of color, and he’s been known as an activist ever since.
In 2016, a number of anonymous women offered chilling testimony about Sayers Ellis’s sexual proclivities. Apparently, acc’d’g to several of these women, he likes to dominate, is into mild S&M, and has engaged in episodes of stalking and harassment.
After the accusations were published in VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Sayers Ellis was bounced from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Oddly, none of the so-called objective sources offering bios of him — Wikipedia, the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the National Book Foundation, and more — raise a peep about the scandal that cost him his job. Only VIDA, The New Republic, and a website called The Rumpus seem to take the scandal seriously. The New Republic mentioned the Sayers Ellis situation in a report on an overall atmosphere of male misbehavior at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, calling it a “tradition [that] goes back a long way….
The New Republic piece even refers to the sainted Kurt Vonnegut telling incoming faculty that undergrads should be off limits but grad students were ripe, as it were, for the picking at Iowa.
Of Iowa, noted author Sandra Cisneros says of her time as a student there in The New Republic article: ““The teachers were completely fucked up.”
Both Tolentino’s and The New Republic’s pieces suggest men in artistic academia long have been grabby and entitled when it comes to trusting, naive young women sitting before them in classes.
The overall idea is writers and other artists who teach in higher education facilities across this holy land often are celebrities in their fields, honored and even adored by youthful, hopeful students who thus are prone to fall for their guy bullshit and get involved sexually or romantically (or both) with them or who find it extremely difficult to cope with the men’s bullying ways and pushy, oafish passes.
Being a guy, I can understand how the daily parade of young, attractive females in a college or university setting can make a middle-aged fellow think certain thoughts. And I’d suppose an honest, symmetrical relationship can indeed develop and even flourish between professor and student, as long as she’s of age. Yet too many of these old goats seem to want to till that fertile soil with their rusty old plows. And maybe they get off on being overbearing, power-wielding boors. Perhaps just getting down with a comely 23-year-old creative writing grad student isn’t enough; it could be that these would-be Cougats need to oppress and/or humiliate their prospective partners.
I mean, why in the hell else would a guy threaten a potential romantic/sexual partner with poor grades or lousy references? The sane among us realize such extortion rarely endears the object of one’s desire to one.
That power dynamic seems all too prevalent in all fields where men and women work together. And, sadly, too many of those fields have evolved a workplace paradigm wherein the only women who can get ahead, as a rule, are subservient, worshipful, and obsequious.
To wit: I’ve recently read a couple of books written by women who worked in anonymous-type jobs at the New Yorker. One, Between You & Me, by Mary Morris, is the author’s tale of working as a copy editor at the magazine. The other, The Receptionist, by Janet Groth, is a memoir covering the author’s stint in the title position there.
Maybe it’s just the New Yorker, but I doubt it. In any case, both authors gush about the males with whom they work to a point where I wanted to cringe. In fact, I wasn’t even able to finish either book because I found myself so put off by the slavish hosannaing of the authors vis-a-vis the deific men for whom they emended copy or took messages. Both women were — are — excellent writers but to hear them tell it, they could never, ever, ever, in this world or the next, begin to dream to approach the lordly men who, in their fetishistically humble opinions, were to the writer’s art as Einstein was to 20th Century physics or Jesus Christ to the Roman Catholic Church.
Before I tossed either book to the side, I continually wondered if any woman with a hair’s-width less idolatry of the strutting, pompous male asses with whom the two shared office air would have lasted a fraction as long as they did at the New Yorker.
Based on what I learned from both Morris and Groth, I’d have to guess the answer is no woman with a sense of self-worth and a full compliment of confidence would have lasted more than an hour and a half there.
Considering the revelations about workplace dynamics the last few years in every walk of life, I’d have to conclude further the average American — both male and female — expect women to dote upon the males with whom they work and to display, properly, a sense of inferiority to them.
Want more proof? In 2016 a woman stood up and said she wanted to be President of the United States. She said it loudly and in a deep, forceful voice. She didn’t ask for it. She said, flat out, I want it. For a nation that only twenty-some years before had seen its most notable woman, one nearest the locus of power, Nancy Reagan, gaze rapturously at her husband, the President, as if there could be no more delicious and achievable aspiration in this existence than to be a First Lady, Hillary Clinton’s ambition and refusal to play second fiddle must have been a kick in the balls.
Yeah, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. And yeah, there were 23 and a half other reasons why she came up short in the Electoral College tally, but surely up to tens of millions of votes against her were driven by the feeling that she didn;t know her damned place.
I’m guessing things’ll be different in 2020 should Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren or any other woman gain the Democratic nomination to run against the most lunkheaded creep ever to occupy the Oval Office since Andrew Jackson. It’s entirely possible Hillary Clinton had to take the bullet for all future female presidential candidates three years ago and now that the first one’s been put in her place, maybe we can look at the next one with a tad less terror.
Or maybe I’m just whistling past the graveyard. Time will tell.