#MeToo & My Demons: When Did I Confuse Violence With Love?
What do you do when you know a predator intimately? Do you walk away? Do you shame them? Do you say nothing?
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed below are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
November 2013. My colleague and friend at Tehelka magazine where we worked told me she had been raped by the Editor-in-Chief Tarun Tejpal. I was black with anger when I read her email complaint.
My rage was directed not just at Tarun but also at Shoma Chaudhury, for her response to the complaint.
As a woman and the next-in-command after Tarun, the complaint was sent to her and she did not act adequately on it as mandated by the law. She apologised for the same in front of the NCW, Goa. In one of her statements, Shoma had said "The criticism that I did not act in a measured way or in a correct situational frame-work, I accept that and I have apologised for it. But I would also like to remind everybody that I had really a day and half to act on any of these before the media storm took over".
Women Enablers of Sexual Abuse & Harassment
Now, as I read journalist Seema Mustafa’s defense of her own behaviour when complaints were taken to her about the then The Asian Age boss M J Akbar, I am filled with the same rage. Ghazala Wahab said she was a young and petrified journalist who Akbar preyed on repeatedly and about whom she complained to Seema. And nothing happened.
Seema says the following, “Akbar used the work place to hire young girls who received undue attention. We don’t have any idea – and I say this with complete responsibility and after discussion with a couple of my senior former colleagues –whether he had sexual relations with them, but yes women were promoted out of turn, brought on to Page 1 sub-editing as he handled that directly, and there were whispers about specific girls on the desk. London was a choice posting, almost always reserved for girls, though a couple of guys did dent this bastion, and the perception was that the sub editor (never a reporter) posted there was the current favourite – and available for Akbar when he visited London which was often.”
With this self-confessed fore-knowledge, Seema still did nothing about the complaint Ghazala Wahab made to her.
She said the complaint wasn’t explicit, and further, “We suspected a great deal; often felt we knew a lot of what we weren’t actually able to see, but in real terms there was not a shred of evidence, ever.”
What Do You Do When a Predator is Known to You?
As a journalist, surely Seema cannot ignore the fact that the onus of collecting the evidence is on the person being complained to – that is, her. And that brings me to another troubling question that #MeToo has thrown up that goes to the very heart of the matter. #MeToo disrupts like nothing else because it calls out the people we admire and love.
And it is very hard to tell yourself that your mentor or sometimes your partner – even possibly your parent – is a sexual predator. Where do your loyalties lie? How do you deal with the prospect of your world crashing around you?
Well, quite often, by pretending it isn’t crashing. It’s a defence mechanism so many of us are guilty of. I will continue to call out people like Shoma and Seema on their utter and complete abandonment of their responsibility as bosses receiving complaints of harassment. But I want to dig deeper. I want to look at my own storytelling and where it has been spectacular in spinning stories that prevent me from seeing the ugliness in men I have befriended, admired and loved. Let me give you just two examples.
Too Close for Comfort
A dear friend, liberal and feminist was charged with rape. My first instinct was to say – No. Impossible. This cannot be true. Every cell in my body tells me he is not like that. But then I had to stop and think. If I externalised that thought, would I be like Shoma and Seema? That was an unbearable prospect. So I said to myself, since I am not privy to the woman’s side of the story and cannot get to her at all, I will refrain from forming an opinion in the case. And I will stay away from my friend.
Am I holding my friend guilty without so much as a conversation with him? Perhaps. And as a friend, I have totally let him down.
Even after the case went to trial and he was acquitted, I continue to remain incommunicado. I am deeply conflicted and confused. I read the judgment and that didn’t help at all. I recently read a report – the first and only time I heard the woman’s side of the story. It made my stomach churn.
Who did what? Was there assault or not? I have no idea, and if I was faced with the task of investigating this case as part of an internal complaints committee at an office, I would have to step aside and say – I am a friend of the alleged offender and not in a position to be objective. So let’s pick someone else. I would still have to choose sides in who I stand up for and associate with thereafter.
How We Internalise Violence
And this is the extraordinary power and git of #MeToo. It puts us all – women, men and all other genders – in a quandary about ourselves. There is another time where I was involved with a man who I knew was full of violence. It was in fact his violence and self-destructive streak that attracted me to him in the first place. He thumped his fist in anger on the restaurant table on our first date and threw a beer can at the wall because I didn’t respond the way he wanted.
He went on to break the nose of a guard at the gate because he was asleep on the job and potentially put me in danger. The night the guard’s nose was broken is the night I slept with this man. I was both fascinated and terrified. I knew what I was doing and also did not. I was in Afghanistan.
I was seeking out stories on violence to contend with my own personal history of violence. And the two things fused into one in the shape and form of this very volatile Danish man.
Can I Watch a Woody Allen Film Again?
It didn’t last for more than a few days. But the question I am asking myself as #MeToo forces me to look at the dark mirror and see myself reflected back is – what part of predatory behaviour and violence in men have I internalised so deeply that it’s mixed up with love? Will I never watch a Woody Allen film again?
Will I have the courage to turn away from more people I love who I have long suspected to be sexual predators even if there is no proof? Each day is a new test.
Each day #MeToo makes the world around me implode, and forces me to change too. I am terrified of what I see and at the same time, willing to step inside the chamber of horrors and look at all the ghosts – my own and all the rest.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author of ‘The Anatomy of Hate’, forthcoming from Context /Westland in November 2018. She tweets at @RevatiLaul.)
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