Just about immediately after the Anita Hill hearings began on television in 1991, my "me too" moment hit the ground running. These first-ever televised hearings were holding the country hostage. As a nation, we were enthralled; as a woman, I was ready to march, but I just couldn't pull myself away from the TV.
And it began a salacious national debate back then, too.
My phone rang in my apartment in New York City about two days into the hearings and it was my mother. It was an odd call—she got right down to business. Pretty quickly it became apparent that she was acting as a delegate from her bridge club in the Jersey suburbs.
She had two tables full of best bridge friends she'd been playing cards with for more than 30 years. The Suburburatti, I had dubbed them. Occasionally, the bridge club had questions about real life and apparently, I was the kid who was having one, so I'd get the call.
"The girls and I were wondering if you were ever sexually harassed by a boss, Debbie?" she asked with the innocence of a person raised by rabbits.
"Just bosses or do teachers count, too?" I asked, mirroring her innocent tone.
Mom's bridge club was made of women who had collectively raised dozens of baby boomers; the generation of pre-lib women who went to college to find husbands. They didn't work, but they were bright, well-informed ladies who ran the PTA and formed auxiliaries, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for local hospitals every year. They tried to keep themselves relevant through one another, their children and Time magazine, but it became sadly apparent at this point in American history that they were oblivious to what was really going on in the workforce. So, my mother was on a reconnaissance mission for the seven others.
I laughed for effect, "Mom, I never had a boss that didn't sexually harass me." (I have always been known for my hyperbole.)
She sighed. I sighed. I could hear her sadness from across the state line.
"I had no idea," she said with compassion, a commodity she usually saved for special occasions. After a pause, which my mother filled with her cigarette smoke, I lit into her.
"It's a white man's world—what did you think?" At this point, I was a little annoyed that these bright women could be so goddamned uninformed.
"I thought maybe decorum prevailed," she said. "I thought maybe my daughter was safe."
"Yeah, no," I huffed out.
I could tell she was bating her breath for me to tell her some stories—she wanted to get back to her bridge club with something juicy—so I tore into a few of my suddenly relevant tales, all of which paled in comparison to Anita Hill's.
"Well, remember that movie I got cast in that I never did? Ever wonder why? Well, the pig who wrote it (a rather famous comedian who I won't name) had fired me. He had my phone number, called me day and night making semi-lewd comments, inviting me over to his apartment to rehearse. I wasn't sure what to do, so I went."
"Ooooh," Mom lamented.
"He told me there'd be others there, and after all, he wasn't Jack the Ripper, Ma, he was a comedian. I hadn't seen a contract yet, and in one of his phone calls he even offered me a job to punch up the movie as well as star in it, so I had a lot at stake."
"Isn't he old?" mom asked.
"No, he was old three decades ago. He was gross. His skin was greasy and splotchy and his hair plugs had hair plugs. So, when I got to his condo, no one else was there. He made me sit right up against him and when I finally got up the nerve to ask when we'd sign the contract, and how much I was going to be paid, he grabbed me and said, 'Well, it'll be a lot more money if you sleep with me.'"
"Jesus—what did you say?" my mother asked from the edge of her couch.
"It wasn't so much what I said, it was what I did that got me uncast. I laughed. I laughed right in his pig face. Then I said, 'You gotta be kidding! You and me? NO! No, no. You got no shot!' I grabbed my purse and I ran away."
"Good for you! Right on, Deborah!"
"Yeah, it was good, but I never made the movie."
"I'm so sorry. I had no idea."
"You may not have taught me how to fend for myself, but you also never taught me that I had to sleep with anyone I didn't want to."
I told my mother a few more stories. She listened. I could practically hear her jaw drop when I told her about a high school teacher who literally chased me around a desk like we were in a Doris Day movie. We ran around a few times until I dashed out the door.
"Then there was the hideous restauranteur who grabbed my face in his hairy palm and licked my mouth with his swollen gray tongue when I asked if we had eggs Benedict. Right there in the kitchen."
"Didn't any good-looking men ever harass you?" she asked and laughed, trying to lighten the tone.
"It was my second day at a waitressing job that I desperately needed. It was Sunday brunch in the '80s in NY, which was practically a religious experience, and there was a full room of customers who were already annoyed—they'd been waiting. So, I rushed back out to the dining room so upset. I just wanted to walk out. Instead, I started taking tables' orders like a robot, I went from two-top to four-top, took over 20 tables of brunch orders. Then I got the idea that instead of putting the orders in the kitchen (so they'd get made by the chef), I'd walk out the front door—just like Norma Rae! That's what I did. I marched out with my apron pocket overstuffed with orders of pancakes and over-easies that would never be made. I just kept heading north on the upper west side of Manhattan and neither Norma Rae or I ever looked back."
My mother chortled at my antics. "I guess I don't have to worry too much about you, Deborah," she said proudly.
"So, do you and the Suburburatti think he did it?
"Long Dong Silver."
"Hell yes. Hell yes, he did it."
"Pig," we both said at almost the same time.
I hung up the phone but not before telling my mom that I loved her. I felt closer to her than I had in a while and weirdly, I felt safer now that the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, bridge club was waking up.