First, for the record, let me tell you my story about another of those perversely creepy Hollywood predators, a sort of cut-rate Harvey Weinstein: the screenwriter and film director James Toback. As I read now of women he preyed upon year after year, I feel the rage that’s bubbled in the back of my brain for decades reaching the boiling point. I should be elated that Toback has been exposed again as the loathsome predator he’s been for half a century. But I’m stuck on the fact of elapsed time, all these decades that male predators roamed at large, efficiently sidelining and silencing women.
Toback could have been picked up by New York’s Finest when he hit on me in or around 1972. But I didn’t call the cops, knowing it would come to nothing. Nor did I tell our mutual employer, the City College of the City University of New York. I had no doubt about which one of us our male bosses would believe. I had already been labeled an agitator for campaigning to add a program in women’s studies to the curriculum. Besides, to any normal person, the story of what happened would sound too inconsequential to seem anything but ridiculous: not a crime but a farce.
I didn’t know Toback. I must have seen him at infrequent faculty meetings, but we taught in different writing programs. There was no reason for our paths to cross. Ever. So I have no memory of him until the day I flung open the door of my Chinatown loft in response to a knock, expecting to greet my downstairs neighbor, and in walked Toback. My antennae went up. How had he managed to get past the locked street door? I remember talking fast, trying to get him out of my place without provoking a confrontation. He agreed to leave with me—to go out for tea or lunch or some little excursion I proposed—but first he insisted on using my bathroom, from which he soon emerged naked. I remember the way he listed the many things he had in mind for me to do for him. Among them, one demand persists in memory, perhaps because it was at once so specific and so bizarre: that I suck and pinch his nipples.
I beat him to the door, furious at being driven from my own loft. I think I threatened to come back with the cops. Something scared him, anyway. From a shop on the street, I watched as he left my building on the run, waddling away at top speed.
Reader, if you think that nothing really happened, then you are mistaken. This incident took place almost 50 years ago and, though I hadn’t thought of it in ages—not until his name popped up in the media—the memory remains remarkably raw. I still want to see him marched naked through the streets of Manhattan and Los Angeles to the jeers and uproarious laughter of women.
At the time, Toback was no more than 25 years old, while I was nearly 10 years older, a thoroughgoing feminist, and luckily faster on my feet than him. But recent reports say that, in the 1980s and later, Toback routinely focused his attacks on very young women, some of them teenagers, using promises of film stardom (sound familiar?) to lure them into encounters that left them sodden with shame. He is now in his 70s and, although women have reported his predation several times in major magazines, he was still on the prowl last month and had never before been called to account for his actions.