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The Silent Treatment

She was a Yale senior. He was the superstar professor she’d hoped to impress—until he put his hand on her thigh. Two decades later, she’s speaking out. But her alma mater still isn’t listening. A story of sex, secrets, and Ivy League denial.

English Major: Naomi Wolf as an undergraduate.  
(Photo: Courtesy of Naomi Wolf)

Twenty years on, I am handing over a secret to its rightful owner. I can’t bear to carry it around anymore.

In the late fall of 1983, professor Harold Bloom did something banal, human, and destructive: He put his hand on a student’s inner thigh—a student whom he was tasked with teaching and grading. The student was me, a 20-year-old senior at Yale. Here is why I am telling this story now: I began, nearly a year ago, to try—privately—to start a conversation with my alma mater that would reassure me that steps had been taken in the ensuing years to ensure that unwanted sexual advances of this sort weren’t still occurring. I expected Yale to be responsive. After nine months and many calls and e-mails, I was shocked to conclude that the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intact—as secretive as a Masonic lodge.

How did this all begin? For years now, Yale has been contacting me: Would I come speak at a celebration of women at Yale? Would I be in a film about Jewish graduates? Would I be interviewed for the alumni magazine?

I have usually declined, for a reason that I explain to my (mostly female) college audiences: The institution is not accountable when it comes to the equality of women. I explain that I was the object of an unwanted sexual advance from a professor at Yale—and that his advances seemed to be part of an open secret. I tell them that I had believed that many Yale decision-makers had known about his relations with students, and nothing I was aware of had happened to stop it.

Where is the professor now? they ask. He is still there, I explain: famous, productive, revered. I describe what the transgression did to me—devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men.

Then, heartbreakingly, a young woman will ask: “Did you tell?”

I answer her honestly: “No. I did nothing.”

“Have you never named the guy, all these years on?”

“No,” I answer. “Never.”

“But,” she will ask hesitantly, “don’t you have an obligation to protect other women students who might be targets now?”

“Yes,” I answer. “I do have that obligation. I have not lived up to it. I have not been brave enough.” And then there is always, among those young, hopeful women, a long, sad silence.

After such speeches, a young woman will come up to me—in Texas, in Indiana, in Chicago—in tears: My music professor is harassing me, she’ll say. I tried to tell the grievance board, but they told me it is my word against his, and that there is no point in pursuing it. I know I won’t get a job if I do anything about it. My lit professor made a pass at me; he is grading my senior thesis. My female adviser basically told me to drop it if I want to graduate; to switch classes; to start all over with another subject. My lab instructor keeps putting his hands on my body, and his mentor is on the grievance committee. I can’t sleep. What should I do?

I am ashamed of what I tell them: that they should indeed worry about making an accusation because what they fear is likely to come true. Not one of the women I have heard from had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence. One, I recall, was drummed out of the school by peer pressure. Many faced bureaucratic stonewalling. Some women said they lost their academic status as golden girls overnight; grants dried up, letters of recommendation were no longer forthcoming. No one was met with a coherent process that was not weighted against them. Usually, the key decision-makers in the college or university—especially if it was a private university—joined forces to, in effect, collude with the faculty member accused; to protect not him necessarily but the reputation of the university, and to keep information from surfacing in a way that could protect other women. The goal seemed to be not to provide a balanced forum, but damage control.

Finally, last summer, I could no longer bear my own collusive silence. Yale had reached out to me once again. The Office of Development had assigned an alumna to cultivate me: She sent a flattering letter inviting me to join a group of women to raise money for Yale.

I wrote my own letter back to Charles Pagnam, vice-president of development. I could not join such an effort because I had been sexually encroached upon at Yale twenty years ago, I explained. The professor involved was still a very visible presence on campus. I wrote that I did not know what steps Yale had taken to protect students, and I wanted to know about the effectiveness of the grievance procedures now. I asked for a private meeting. I heard nothing.

Weeks later, I called Pagnam, told my story to his staff, and re-sent the letter. Again, no response. More waiting. I called the dean of Yale College, Richard Brodhead. He took my call right away. I told him I was calling because I was sexually encroached upon twenty years ago by someone on his faculty, and I wanted to set up a confidential meeting to address it. I wanted to be sure, I said, that Yale’s grievance procedures are now strong.

Brodhead seemed to know who I was talking about. He implied the man in question was not well. “I don’t think you understand why I am calling,” I said. “I don’t want to bring a lawsuit against Yale or Harold Bloom. I don’t want the meeting, or this experience, to be public. I simply need to know that the institution is accountable.”

“I’ll get back to you,” he said. He didn’t.

After months of silence, I called Pagnam again, determined to reach him. I was starting to feel like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. One assistant responded brightly: “You should try the Women’s Studies Program!”

It was now about six months since I had first sought a response from Yale. To my amazement, I was facing a blank wall.

I was also in a state of spiritual discomfort. Keeping bad secrets hurts. Is a one-time sexual encroachment by Harold Bloom, two decades ago, a major secret or a minor one? Minor, when it comes to a practical effect on my life; I have obviously survived. This is the argument often made against accusers in sexual-harassment cases: Look, no big deal, you’re fine. My career was fine; my soul was not fine. I had an obligation to protect others from which I had run away.

Every Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition requires a strict spiritual inventory. You aren’t supposed to just sit around feeling guilty, but to take action in the real world to set things right. We pray, “Ashamnu. Bagadnu. We have acted shamefully . . . behaved wickedly.” The sin of omission is as serious as the sin of commission.

Every year, I wonder about the young women who might have suffered because I was too scared to tell the truth to the people whose job it is to make sure the institution is clean. I am not at peace when the sun sets and the Book of Life is sealed: I always see that soft spot of complicity.


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