Friday, February 17, 2017

A Story

Once you have heard Monica Byrne's story about Bora Zivkovic, Kathleen Raven tells us, you have essentially also heard her own story about him. Her story is actually a bit more complicated, but Raven also writes too ambiguously about the events for my tastes. Her emotion lacks an objective correlative, "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of a particular emotion," as T. S. Eliot defined it. Or, to put in Hemingway's terms, we vaguely sense how we're supposed to feel upon hearing her story, but we can't quite discern "the actual things ... which produced the emotion that [she] experienced." "The real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion," does not quite come into view.

Here's my sense of what happened.

She had had a couple of glasses of wine on an empty stomach. In November of 2010, Raven was a graduate student attending a conference reception, "eager to get [her] name out to potential employers". Zivkovic had obvious potential in that regard and she "ended up in a cab with" him heading towards a restaurant for dinner with a group of people. Though slightly impaired by the wine, she was able to follow his story about coming to America, asking many questions. After dinner, Zivkovic paid for her part of the bill and what follows is best to get in her words:

I made my way to the hotel lobby, anxious to get away from Bora because I knew I was putting myself in a risky situation. But somehow we ended up standing together in front of the elevators. “Let’s go up to the bar at the top,” he suggested to me. I nodded. Once there, I ordered a plain Coke. He talked and talked. I don’t remember much. I do remember, as we later both stood waiting for the bell to signal my floor, that he leaned over and kissed me on top of my head. I mumbled a farewell as the doors opened and walked away.

The story picks up in May, 2012. Raven had won an internship in New York, which offered Zivkovic a chance to see her about once a month when he had business in the same building. They spoke with such familiarity on these visits that a coworker who overheard them thought they might be married. In July, he invited her to dinner and she accepted. She reminded him of the kiss he "stole" when they first met, apparently forgetting to censure him for it. When they stepped outside he told her, like he would tell Byrne a few months later, of his current marital difficulties. She now forced the issue, asking him whether he wanted to sleep with her. He appears to have indicated he would. She told him she was not interested. He apologized.

Although she says that his answer "confirmed [her] worst fears," for some reason, and one that is not specified, they continued to meet. He apparently continued to express a sexual interest in her. As she tells the story, he had not understood that she wanted to nothing to do with him personally. She also seems to have had some difficulty just telling him frankly that she was not interested in being his friend or unrequited love interest. As a result they appear to have had a very complicated relationship, much of which took the form of an email correspondence. He seems to have gotten the impression that clear boundaries had been drawn and that they were therefore able to speak freely. Aside from that kiss on the forehead and, no doubt, some hugging. The relationship never became physical. (Raven certainly does not tell us that it did.)

There is an episode in which everyone behaves very strangely:

This past June [2013], at the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists meeting in Helsinki, I participated on a panel with my incredibly talented fellow science journalists. Bora recruited all of us and organized the panel. On the night before the meeting began, he arrived to the official conference hotel late at night. “Which room are you in?” Bora texted before or soon after he entered the hotel. I sent him the room number where my husband and I stayed. “Can I come by and see you now?” he texted. “No, I’m afraid we have to wait until tomorrow morning. My husband is already in bed, sorry,” I texted back. A few moments later, I heard a knock at our door. I opened it expecting to see housekeeping staff. Bora stood there. He said, “Hi!!” and walked past me into our room. My husband sat shocked in our hotel bed. Bora grabbed me in an embrace, picked me up, swirled me around, and kissed me on the cheek. After a few minutes of small talk, he left.

The date is important. According to the fragments of an email correspondence Raven published, this is almost a year after they appear to have established some ground rules for their relationship. As Zivkovic apparently understood it, "the ‘dangerous’ moments [had] passed, and [they had the] beginning of a wonderful friendship, having each other as confidants, enjoying each others company, enjoying intellectual discussions, sharing deepest secrets with complete trust, and yes, feeling safe to do flirty things with each other fully knowing it does not mean a breach of trust." Obviously, Zivkovic thought they were friends and that any problems in their relationship would be worked out between them in private. It's not hard to imagine that Raven (and her husband) thought Zivkovic was nuisance by the time he showed up in their hotel room. What is difficult to understand is how this felt like harassment.

Raven's story is somewhat disjointed, impressionistic. She gives us glimpses of encounters that do seem strange, but that also leave us wondering why she continues to cultivate the friendship. If she was ever his subordinate, she does not say so. (This is a very important piece of information in a sexual harassment story.) She has organized her presentation, not chronologically, but according to the kind of communication that passed between them. First the in-person encounters, then an exchange of emails. (I've tried to restore chronological the order a little here.) Throughout, the reader is looking for the source of the power he had over her. It seems to be mentioned only in passing at the very beginning: she was "eager to get [her] name out to potential employers". As with Byrne, he didn't seem to think of himself as an employer. He just liked her and he thought she liked him.

Throughout she seems to have been in complete control of the boundaries of the relationship. Finally, in August of 2013 she tells him bluntly to stop talking about his sex life to her, and by October she breaks off the relationship entirely. "We can no longer be friends," she wrote to him, arguably at the very moment when he needed friends to stand by him as the accusations of sexual harassment were surfacing. Indeed, from a narrative point of view, the remark is jarring. It reminds us of the earlier definition of the relationship, in which Zivkovic clearly stated that he considered her his friend, indeed, a very close friend. Apparently, she had encouraged him in this belief throughout the past year, and we (the readers) suddenly realize that this is the same period throughout which she felt he was harassing her.

I want to stress, as I did in my reading of Byrne's story, that I am not questioning the facts or even Raven's experiences. I am pointing out some weaknesses in her writing about them. I am suggesting that the emotion she says she felt (that of being harassed) remains "in excess of the facts" as presented. They do not provide it with an objective correlative. She says she "left [their] meetings feeling crushed, confused, cowardly." She says she felt "violated" by a kiss on the forehead that she "didn't ask for". But at no point does she seem to actually get hurt.

Ironically, Raven does provide a formula for another emotion: Zivkovic's despair. Recall that she not only turns her back on him in a time of need but, in that very moment, recasts (for the first time we know of) their year-long friendship as a prolonged campaign of harassment. That moment must have been as jarring for him as it is for the reader. "I am not a suicidal type," he writes to her after she reverses the poles, "but I see no reason to live any more." That's an emotion one can actually find a basis for in the narrative. I submit that it is a poor story that leaves us feeling only sympathy for the would-be villain and only confusion about how the soi-disant victim was harmed.


Jonathan said...

"You cannot take me out to dinner if I have not expressed the slightest desire to do so"

From another post by her. It is hard to fathom how someone can take someone out for dinner without their permission, unless you are kidnapping them.

Thomas said...

Yes, it's like she's living in a completely different moral universe. These feminists (not all of them, but a particular kind of feminist) have a very strange sense of female agency, which will be the subject of an upcoming post. "I did not ask you to kiss me," has the same feeling. As if the only legitimate kisses are the ones women explicitly ask for. Raven actually provides a reasonably good formula for how it feels to be this kind of woman in her account of her first meeting with Zivkovic:

"After dinner, I made my way to the hotel lobby, anxious to get away from Bora because I knew I was putting myself in a risky situation. But somehow we ended up standing together in front of the elevators. “Let’s go up to the bar at the top,” he suggested to me. I nodded. Once there..."

How did she get there? She was "anxious to get away from" him and had plenty of opportunity to just say good night and go to her room. But "somehow [she] ended up" with him by the elevators. When he asked her if she wanted to have a drink with him, she (I guess) "found herself" nodding.

He seems to be making a bunch of overt, conventional pick-up moves. And she is accepting his advances in conventional ways ... if we presume she has ordinary, conventional agency.

But the sentence you've found in another post tells us something about what's going on here. You want to say, "Of course I can't take you out to dinner if you don't have any desire to do so. You will express this lack of desire when you reject my invitation." But she is saying, "You must not ask me out to dinner if I haven't expressed any desire. You must not try to kiss me if I didn't ask. I am helpless to refuse. You, the man, have all the agency in these situations. I will go along with anything you say."

Anonymous said...

I think the common narrative explaining her actions / feelings goes as follows:

Bora clearly was an important figure in science journalism. Because of this, he was in an actual or perceived (!) power situation over Raven. Given the actual or perceived power he had over her, she could not possibly have given consent to any of the things she agreed to do with him (get drinks, go for dinner). The fact that she consented multiple times explicitly (accepting a dinner invitation, agreeing to come to the bar) is meaningless in this narrative.

Note that I do not subscribe to any of this. I find it infantilizing and in fact discriminatory because it assumes that women are generally unable to exert their free will in situations/relationships where a real or perceived power differential exists.

Thomas said...

Yes, that's my sense of the narrative too. By reading these stories closely, I'm trying to reveal the structure of that narrative.

One thing I would add (and will add in upcoming posts) is the assumption that there is no non-professional space in which members of the (science) journalism profession can meet and just be themselves. That's of course absurd. But it's the only way BZ's actions can be classed as harassment. Everything suggests he made it very clear he wanted a friendship (or something even more personal) with her. She seems to think she shouldn't even have to reject the idea. Everything that happened between them, she thinks, can be held to a professional standard.

If such a profession does exist somewhere, I sure would never want work in it.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the actions described here fall into a gray area where I wouldn't want to a rule-bound entity to get involved but I also think he'd cultivate better relationships if he'd have more of a clue. Given the number of times nobody said no, the number of times that he backed off when explicitly refused, and the fact that in most/all cases there were no formal work relationships at the time that things happened, I think it would be a bad idea for rule-bound entities, like employers or professional organizations or courts, to get involved. At the same time, if he'd have more of a clue about reading people, be a bit more cautious, etc., people around him would be more comfortable and he wouldn't burn bridges. And on the third hand, if people would be a bit more assertive, he'd back off faster. But instead we get this neo-Victorian thing where people feel too weak to say "no" to a suggestion to go up to a restaurant.

People want to believe that everything can be reduced to rules applied by institutions or groups, but that is dangerous. Things really do work better if people use good sense and good judgment (on both sides of an interaction) to avoid the need for rules. I feel like there needs to be a category of "I don't condone it but I don't think rules are the solution either."

Thomas said...

Also, it's best to invoke rules to resolve actual conflicts stemmed from real harm. In the Byrne and Raven stories there's no demonstrated harm. At worst, rules were broken. You're right that there's a Victorian mood about it.

In any case, I agree with you that he comes off as a little clueless. (Interestingly, that's the impression we get in the stories that are casting him as some sort of predator. Again, that's not very effective storytelling.) I think I'm worried about this because I believe that a lot of very good scientists are congenitally (if often also endearingly) clueless in precisely this way. Science journalism seems intent on chasing them out of the sciences.

Anonymous said...

This is similar to the story of the student who was hit on by a postdoc at a bar during a conference. If you ask me whether I think there should be a rule against making a clumsy pass at someone with whom you have no professional or academic relationship while in a bar rather than a work site, I will say no. Provided that once the person indicates disinterest you promptly back off.

But if you ask me whether the guy would have done well to be more careful in interactions with younger women, and less skeevy in how he makes a pass, I will say yes. If you ask me whether what he did was really terrible and harmful, I will say no. If you ask me whether social interactions will go more smoothly if people behave better than him, I will say yes.

The problem is that there's a contingent that wants rules and sanctions for these gray area infractions. I think the ideal solution would have been for a few of his friends to say "Dude, seriously? Don't come on so strong with the younger women!" and her friends to say "Ugh, what a jerk, let's go somewhere else and commiserate!" With decent social norms and compassionate people trying to implement those norms, these situations could be handled artfully.