There is a woman working in the Charlottesville Old Navy who would look just like Jodie Foster if her hair were not black. I noticed her and knew I could do a couple of things. I could stalk her around the store until I figured out who she looked like, or I could ask her if she’d ever been told she looked like someone famous. She reacted with the appropriate embarrassment and said, yes, that actress in “Silence of the Lambs.” I saw it then, and would have figured it out except for the hair.
It made me think of Julie, who did look like Jodie Foster, light hair and all, or at least she did when she had the hair cut to just past chin length, except nobody ever noticed it. Maybe it was because she wore her hair longer when she was at the newspaper, or maybe it was because she was so self-possessed that she could mirror Elvis’s claim, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Or look, in her case.
Julie was technically beautiful, but it was rarely an issue on the job. She tended not to let it be. There was never a hint of acknowledgement in anything she did. If it was an issue – a problem – it was someone else’s.
That someone else, as it turned out, was the mayor of one of the small towns that speckle Rockingham County. Julie had gone to cover the town council meeting and as she entered the council chambers, the mayor greeted her by walking by her and swatting her on the ass. Not to put too pretty a face on it, he sexually and physically assaulted her in a way that said he thought he could get away with it or he was too old and ignorant to know there was anything wrong with it.
Julie came back from the meeting either stunned or amazed or shaken, and maybe a little of all three. As she told me about it, I realized that there was something missing from her tale, something that I still expected then, in the early 1990s, something I would almost certainly have seen ten years before. There was absolutely no sense on her part of having done anything wrong. Her attitude, blessedly, was that it was her ass, and he had touched it, without permission, while she was working.
Ken, the managing editor, was going out of town the next day, so I wrote up a memo for his boss, the general manager, Dick. My best memory is that I just ran through the options, from helping Julie push a criminal case, to what I saw as the very least, a story on the front page of the paper.
It’s hard for me to say that they didn’t do anything. Partly because then I have to admit I didn’t resign, and partly because they did do something. They wrote me up, slipped a letter of reprimand into my file, for two things. One was going over the managing editor’s head to the general manager. The other was for what they saw as exaggerated and inflammatory wording in the memo to Dick. Because they didn’t think it was an assault.
But I didn’t resign, partly because I had a family, partly because they hadn’t met my standards. I had decided a couple of years before, when we were still actively covering up a series of sexual assaults on delivery boys, that I had to be better prepared, to decide in advance how much I could stand. In this case, I had decided I was going to resign if either Ken or Dick asked what she was wearing. And they at least didn’t meet that standard. Eventually they would fire me, for complaining about Julie’s assault and a number of other issues they saw as equally annoying and showing equally faulty judgment. I should have left by then, because I kept coming up with the standards. I started too many days telling myself if they stop short of such and such a level of idiocy on this issue, I won’t quit. I can keep working. Because I loved the job when those two were out of the building.
Ken went on to be the oldest man ever to play college basketball, without ever realizing it was a stunt. He was serious about it. Dick left his profession in disgrace after being caught selling news stories. I don’t know if he was still teaching his class in business ethics at the time.
The class apparently didn’t include assaults. At least not in this case. Because that’s not what they thought it was. Mink called me into his office to show me the letter of reprimand, and to explain to me what I was obviously too dumb to understand. “Dick said it wasn’t an assault,” Ken explained, condescendingly. “The mayor was just trying to cop a feel.”
I remember laughing, and I remember that Ken had no idea why I was. He didn’t get angry, or seem offended, and actually smiled with me. He had opened up a door, and stepped through a time warp from a 1950s sitcom, and didn’t know he was standing in 1993. He had no idea where he was, or what the world was like, only that in the insulated comfort of the Daily News-Record newsroom, he could say something like that and be safe from any hint that the world had changed for the better and that ten years later, in that same newsroom, someone would be fired for sexually harassing a fellow employee. But in 1993, the mayor was just trying to cop a feel.
We didn’t agree that I would be the one to speak to Julie. It never came up. Ken and Dick didn’t think there was any need to tell her anything. The issue was settled, and there was no need to do anything else. But I will always be grateful for one thing about Julie’s angry response. “You mean they’re not going to do anything?” she asked, and I felt a sense of relief that she had said “they.” Not that the story was all about me, but by then, to the bosses, it was. I was the one in trouble.
Julie wasn’t in trouble. They figured she was young, and just didn’t know any better.