Amid the chorus of stories that define the #MeToo phenomenon, there remain other, unattended stories. These others do not displace the chorus. They do not say, “You are wrong, shut up.” They do not exist in the world of “Keep quiet” or “Be good.” They do not deny the reality of men’s age-old power over women, or conformity as a silencing force. They say power is cunning, power is a hydra; it has more heads than any story or group of stories can describe. They say history does, too. They invite us to inspect the hydra.
What follows is my invitation.
We both were young, 20s, but I was older. We worked for the same outfit, but I was paid. We kissed while walking home from a party, and then at the back of a bus, and then in his stairwell. He had made the first move, but only I could say, in the midst of our distraction, “Of course this means I can’t hire you.” He was an intern, I a department chief. The declaration astonished him—whether because he sensed I underestimated him, I cannot say. Ultimately, he so surpassed the qualifying test’s requirements that not hiring him would have been absurd. Years later, a catty friend would say ambition alone drove the boy’s kisses: “After all, he was gorgeous, and you…” I was his boss and lover, he my assistant and lover, each of us on the seesaw of power and weakness that those dual roles implied until, over time, the temperature changed.
That is a true story, true to me, and the telling, I suppose, encourages you to believe it. But what do you know? Say I were a man and the intern a woman. Say I called her a girl and someone said her desire for a job figured in the encounter. Say you knew nothing of her side of the story, as you know nothing of his—as, actually, you know only the barest details of mine. Say, finally, that she knew the value of her kind of beauty in seduction and social competition—how could she not?—but also its curse. Does that imaginative exercise open what for me is a sweet, if complicated, memory to sinister interpretation? Is the intern now a victim? Am I a predator? And yet the information is unchanged, as revealing and partial as it was at first telling.
The story, like any told from a single point of view, raises an unnerving question about certainty: How can we determine the truth from what we cannot know? In his Histories, Herodotus tells readers that x is what he heard but could not confirm, that y is what his informants say they believe, that z is something he highly doubts but is, in any event, a cultural consensus. Readers might not have verifiable fact, but they are invited to interpret what those views might say about the people who hold them (or the writer who chose to record them). At the detective’s desk, a story of crime is pieced together from multiple sources, but even then, a charging document is not the truth; it is subject to challenge. In literature, truth is an investigation, not an end point, so the story is an instrument for revealing the complexity of being alive, and wisdom, rather than certainty, is the hope.