By Susan Hamovitch
This is a letter to Professor Mitchell Langbert, whose words I read with shock and dismay.
Dear Dr. Langbert,
Every year, I receive an alumni fundraising letter from Brooklyn College, and every year, within seconds of opening it, I toss the letter in the recycling bin. It isn’t because I don’t value my education. I toss the letter without hesitation because of the pervasive culture within my graduate department (Television/Radio) of the objectification and abuse of women. I can’t speak for all departments, but in the years I attended the school, the Department of Television/Radio was a very scary place for women. We were not only literally man-handled but also verbally humiliated, our ideas trivialized. And when I registered a complaint, a valuable job offer was rescinded.
When I entered the first-year sequence, in the fall of 1988, women were a small minority. There were three women in a class of 12, which quickly reduced to two, when one of us suddenly left the program less than halfway through the first year. With the exception of Sister Camille, a nun more dedicated to her church than her department, the faculty of TV/Radio was entirely male.
Our faculty was not only male but made up of retirees from the corridors of the major networks. Given what we now know about how injurious to women the television/film industry is, the abusive character of our department shouldn’t have been surprising. They were simply importing the culture of the studios. The abuses we’ve been hearing about for the past year at CBS, NBC, ABC, and the major newspapers, radio stations and film studios, were also the rule of the day in our college studios and classrooms.
One industry refugee, Herb Dorfman, would brazenly and openly fondle the students of our incoming MFA class – both male and female. We would be taking a break in the common area when he would emerge from his office and run his hands along our heads, necks, and shoulders for no reason it seemed other than his pleasure. As we’ve come to understand sexual abuse and violation, it was far less about physical gratification than to give him a sense of unchallenged power. Our bodies were not our own, or inviolate, the roving hands seemed to say. The invisible line that should have protected each one of us was being crossed daily by a figure of authority in the department, and we all, including myself, felt it incumbent to not speak out about it. In the beginning, you dismiss, you rationalize, you tally the benefits, and you endure. The power dynamic, I can assure you, rendered us powerless to protest. Though the touch of his hands was loathsome, I acquiesced, and so did everyone else in my class. It took me a long time to ask him to stop. And although he complied without hesitation in my case, his uninvited and quite unwelcome fondling of others never stopped for a second. He simply took me off the “permitted” list.
Inside the classrooms, Professor Langbert, we experienced verbal degradation, the objectification of women and their bodies, with similar effects. Reg Gamar, another alum of the TV industry, now deceased, would come to class quite drunk, and from the beginning to the end of his lectures, would pepper his comments with lewd remarks about women’s bodies and sexual habits. I served as his teaching assistant and witnessed his lascivious ranting, perhaps meant to titillate the boys and put the girls in their place. I should have realized that my report wasn’t news. Everyone knew. “Oh that’s Reg,” my fellow students said when I told them, wide-eyed, about my weekly sessions with Professor Gamar. They accepted, even tolerated his “antics,” with something verging on affection. Professor Gamar’s slurred verbal jabs at women had become part of an accepted culture. Only now do I really grasp how pernicious the effect of even one professor’s behavior could be on an entire department. To get along you really did have to go along. His degradation of women’s bodies and characters was infecting the department, but then I was only dimly aware of this. I knew only that I had no one to turn to. But nonetheless, after observing Professor Gamar’s teaching style over several weeks, I made tracks to the department chair, assuming I’d find a receptive ear.
But perhaps the worst affront was curricular: what we were encouraged to address, or not address, in our creative work. At the beginning of my second year, I chose to produce a short TV piece about a group of women in Camden, NJ who were empowering themselves to make a small dent in the poverty of their city. I was intrigued by their use of the word “empowerment.” That’s what I wanted to explore in my piece. (How ironic in retrospect that this was my quest.) When my turn came to describe my project to the class — a sort of pitch — the professor, Don McLennon, another industry refugee (now deceased) put his index finger in his mouth and made it disappear down his throat – the gesture for vomiting. I shouldn’t have been surprised that in his view my project had absolutely no worth and was even vaguely disgusting. I was upset, of course, but no one else in the room said a word, and so, on the spot, I stopped my pitch, and never brought the project to fruition.
Returning to my attempt to complain about Reg Gamar’s unacceptable behavior, the department chair, Bob Williams (also from the industry) was a man of few words. (My classmates referred to him as “the shark” for the way he seemed to glide silently, on soft-soled shoes, into a room, ostensibly to observe what was taking place.) At first I wasn’t surprised that Bob said nothing, but I expected him to take my complaints seriously. A few weeks before, Bob had offered me an adjunct position, with intimations that something more permanent and larger might be in the offing. However, shortly after I went to his office to tell him about Gamar’s abusive lecturing, the offer was suddenly rescinded without explanation. I believe my complaints cost me that job.
I was extremely grateful when graduation day came. I was free of a place I’d learned to endure but had cost me my dignity, my sense of self-worth, and hampered my creative and professional development. With the current wave of outpourings by women, who suddenly, with the protection of a movement, feel yes, empowered, to voice their memories of assault and abuse, I feel it’s now permissible for me to give words to what I’ve been holding in for more than twenty years.
In later years, I was gratified to notice that the department gradually added more women to its full-time faculty and that more women were entering the program, but the bitter taste of those two years remains to this day.
I think that anyone who trivializes the sexual abuse of women, or makes light of misogyny, is grasping at age old patterns of male behavior. The effects go deep and are deeply damaging to their targets. They’re not funny, Professor Lambert, whether spoken as satire or in earnest.