Me, Too -- And I Let It Happen

This is what women my age used to do back then...

How uncannily connected they were, those two recent headlines: the death of Hugh Hefner, closely followed by the spectacular undoing of Harvey Weinstein. It was a kind of double obituary (one hopes) for the image of that 20th century American man of success, and the delicious perquisites that adorned his achievement.

The glossy pages of Playboy magazine schooled us women every bit as carefully as its targeted heterosexual male readership; the pictures, as well as the intelligent, breezy articles, gave us to understand that men ran the world, and beautiful women were their playthings. It was true in the corporate board room, and it was true on the Hollywood casting couch.

I was in my 20s, at the height of Playboy magazine’s hegemony, when I had my own encounter with a Weinstein-like character.

It was a Tuesday in early November of 1976, and I had the flu. A school friend called me – I hadn’t heard from her in some time – asking me to join her later to meet her boss. I told her I was sick, and sorry to miss the opportunity to see her. She begged and wheedled, saying what a nice guy her boss was, and please just come to the King Cole Bar for a drink... Finally I said yes. I really did want to see my school friend. And her boss sounded fairly interesting; he was a composer who had made a fortune writing ad jingles, and now was directing a movie in Hollywood. I was an aspiring singer-songwriter at the time, so it sounded potentially useful to meet a person like this.

My friend greeted me at the King Cole Bar, and introduced me to her boss, Joe Brooks. He was not unattractive, I thought, for a man pushing 40. (I was 24.) The three of us talked about this and that; Brooks had a terrible stutter, but he was charming all the same. After about 20 minutes, my friend suddenly stood up and announced she had to go. I was dismayed; I’d come mainly to see her, and now she was leaving me alone with her boss?

After she left, Joe Brooks began working me over: showering me with a combination of compliments and deep-sounding, challenging observations about my personality. In my feverish state, I began to feel very unbalanced and vulnerable. I don’t remember how he got me to agree to go over to his pad in the East 70s.

I sat in a chair shaped like a giant baseball glove while he sat at his piano and played me the title song he’d written for his new film: “You Light Up My Life.” I loved the song, and was sure it would be a hit. (It was.)

We moved to the bedroom. I waited a strangely long time for Brooks to emerge from the bathroom. I sat on the bed, uncomfortably naked, my eyes focused far off on the TV in the next room, showing early polling returns from the presidential election.

It didn’t occur to me to say no to Joe Brooks; it was as if it were not even an option.

The sex was harsh and unemotional. He was mostly behind me. The moment he was done, he went back for another long spell in the bathroom. We went through all of this twice.

Then he took me downstairs and hailed me a cab. He gave me a five dollar bill for the fare.

I headed to my parents’ house across town, knowing my brother would be there watching the election returns. I couldn’t face being all alone, even though I was exhausted and burning with fever.

We watched TV until 2 a.m., when Jimmy Carter was declared the winner of the election. All the while, I was writing obsessively in my journal, recounting every detail of my evening. By writing it all down, I’d intended to portray the experience to myself as another notch on my belt, just as I had done with so many other questionable amorous adventures.

But this one wouldn’t quite settle in correctly. Maybe it was the fever. Maybe it was the strange bathroom delays, or the five bucks. Anyway I couldn’t process it the way I usually did.

All these years and presidents later, that evening still bothers me.

I’m spooked most of all by my 24-year-old self, who came out of that escapade telling herself she’d scored big by snagging an illustrious movie director.

This is what women my age used to do back then: we would justifiy an unwanted sexual encounter by telling ourselves that we were accumulating interesting experiences of our own choosing. It gave us a sense of ownership, when in fact we were merely a momentary amusement for a man in a position of power. Young women in the 1970s were unwitting aiders and abettors of men’s worst tendencies, by encouraging them to use us and subsequently toss us aside. No, it was we who were tossing them aside, we told ourselves.

It didn’t occur to me to say no to Joe Brooks; it was as if it were not even an option. My resulting passivity rendered me a willing complicitor in the very Playboy worldview that I believed I was thwarting.

The ironic co-conspirators in this scenario were the women’s liberation movement ― and the pill. We could see ourselves as self-actualized, free-spirited creatures, racking up our sexual conquests with perfect impunity. This atmosphere played right into the hands of horndog creeps like Joe Brooks. (And it worked beautifully for Hefner, too; he could appeal to the liberal elite by advocating for legalized abortion, when above all it buttressed his hedonistic lifestyle by heading off any pesky paternity suits.)

Decades later, in 2009, Joe Brooks had his own Weinstein-grade comeuppance when he was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting 11 women. Scores of additional women continued to come forward, even as the case moved toward trial. Brooks was vastly diminished by then, having suffered a stroke and fallen deeply into debt. His face was sunken and hollow-eyed: he was nearly unrecognizable.

Before the trial began, Joe Brooks tied a plastic bag around his head and attached it by a hose to a helium tank. In his suicide note, he claimed that he would be exonerated of the charges against him. He remained delusional to the end. 

Three days after Brooks died, his then assistant, Shawni Lucier, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of “criminal facilitation;” hers was a maximum-strength version of my school friend’s job, 35 years earlier. My friend today ― an evolved, compassionate wife and grandmother ― is aghast to contemplate her brief gal-Friday turn in the 1970s. But the girls she’d brought around weren’t getting raped, exactly; they were just going along with the circumstances, as one did back then.

By the 1990s and 2000s, STDs, especially AIDS, had cast a very different light on promiscuity; young women were no longer in such a hurry to jump into bed with just any guy. Maybe that was why Joe Brooks had to resort to grislier tactics – Craigslist ads offering film work to lure aspiring actresses to his apartment, then assault and yes, rape – to get what he needed.

The element of transgression is a powerful aphrodisiac. Once Joe Brooks encountered resistance from the women he assaulted, he may not have been able to go back to the compliant ones – even if he could have found any by then. Who knows: maybe if I’d put up more of a fight, he might have given me ten bucks for the cab.

But there is a kind of cumulative triumph here. The Playboy Mansion has deteriorated into a fusty dump; Gloria Steinem survived her Bunnydom and is still among us to tell that tale and all the others; and Harvey Weinstein has been dismissed from the very Academy that had awarded him so many statues. As for the women Joe Brooks assaulted, and who subsequently ventured forward to accuse him publicly, they were the truly brave ones. They took their action in an atmosphere far less supportive than Weinstein’s accusers find themselves in now. For a certainty, what each of those women in the past found the courage to do became a nugget of encouragement, paid forward to those who speak out today. And maybe, just maybe, the combined energy and dignity of all those women across the decades will at last unmuzzle the multitude of assaulted women whose abuser, that ultimate preening Playboy, now occupies the White House.

[You can read the whole appalling story of Joseph Brooks ― including the possibly even more appalling story of his son Nicholas ―  here.]

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