Chapter 29: Friday, Dec. 8

In which suggestive lyrics cause a tempest, and Diantha seems attracted to the Green Sherpa's unsavory proprietor.

By Alfred Alcorn

Published September 17, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

A rude surprise awaited me at the meeting of the Appropriateness Subcommittee this afternoon. In looking back on it, I think nothing less than a coup was attempted. As I may have mentioned, Professor Athol called rather breathlessly earlier in the week to tell me that a matter of pressing importance had come before the Subcommittee and that my appearance was especially important. Well, obviously, I thought it had something to do with the Spronger-Jones affair. At worst I imagined I would be upbraided for interviewing the disputants in that case without the express approval of the Chair. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I should have guessed something was very amiss from the atmosphere in the Rothko Room the moment I walked in. Maria Cowe was in attendance along with a young woman I had seen somewhere before.

At any rate, I had scarcely sat down when Professor Athol, a bit nervously reading from a statement, said that a very serious matter concerning one of the members of this body had been brought to the attention of the Subcommittee. He cleared his throat. "Ms. Jessica Straits, who works in the Office of Human Resources, has reported a very disturbing incident involving, you, Mr. de Ratour."

At first I couldn't quite grasp that they were discussing me. I kept waiting for mention of Ms. Spronger and Mr. Jones as the import of the accusation slowly registered. My initial irritation at being summoned so peremptorily gave way to concern and then to anger. But I remained silent.

"Ms. Straits, in her complaint to Ms. Cowe, relates that on the afternoon of Friday, November 10, she was, during a conversation with Mr. de Ratour, subjected to a humiliating recital of suggestive lyrics from a rap song." Professor Athol paused, as though for effect.

By now everyone in the room was staring at me, except for Ms. Doveen and Izzy Landes, whose glances were of surprise and concern. I returned the stares of the others, looking right at each of them. "Please continue, Professor Athol," I said. "With every word, I feel I'm getting richer. Whether we settle this matter in or out of court."

Professor Athol cleared his throat again. There seemed less certainty now in the expressions of reproach on the faces of those who thought they had an open-and-shut case. "Ms. Straits, in her statement, asserts that Mr. de Ratour's unsolicited recital of obscene lyrics left her unable to perform her duties with her customary efficiency. She said she 'no longer felt she had a safe, supportive, nurturing environment in which to pursue her work.' She further states that the trauma of the encounter made it necessary for her to seek counseling from a therapist in the University's health services. The therapist's remarks, while being kept confidential, are part of this report. On the advice of her therapist, she has joined a support group for survivors of sexual harassment."

I'm not sure now how I kept myself from making an unseemly outburst. Perhaps it helped to take notes. When Professor Athol turned to me finally and asked if I would like "to present your version of what happened during the incident under review," I remained seated and calm, formulating my response. After a few moments I stood up. I looked at all of them. I cleared my throat. I said, "First, my attorney will need a list of everyone who has had any role whatsoever in arranging this public humiliation."

"Mr. de Ratour ..."

"Please let me speak, sir. My attorney will take from those involved, under oath, depositions as to when and where you met and what was discussed. Second, anyone who is part of this cabal to humiliate me should consider getting his own counsel, because I intend to sue each of you individually for defamation of character ..."

"Mr. de Ratour ..." Ariel Dearth started in.

I interrupted him. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dearth, I already have an attorney to represent me in this matter. And I'll be giving him 50 percent of what we'll get in damages. In fact, I'll give him 75 percent. Just as an incentive."

"This is not a public meeting, Mr. de Ratour," Ms. Brattle stated.

"You should read the by-laws establishing the Subcommittee, Ms. Brattle," I retorted pointedly. "They state very clearly that anyone coming before this committee shall have two weeks to prepare his response to any and all charges. It also states that any incident that reaches the point where the parties in conflict agree to meet with the Subcommittee will go into the records of such parties."

"Those are private," Ms. Cowe said, a look of alarm on her face.

"We can let the judge decide that," I said.

"I think Norman's exactly right," Izzy said. "Due process is due process. Just to call us to this meeting on a charge of a sexual harassment case without prior notice carries a presumption of guilt."

"Thank you, Mr. Landes," I said.

"Are you threatening the Subcommittee?" Ms. Schanke wanted to know.

"You're very perceptive, Ms. Schanke. Absolutely. I am threatening those members of this subcommittee who had any role in this defamation of my character."

"It's not what you think, Norman." Professor Athol said, trying now to be conciliatory. "We're here only to find out what happened."

"You're here as dupes of an Administration determined to smear me in any way it can. I will not only be suing anyone here involved in this outrage, I will be suing the University for a great deal of money. It will need another fund drive when I get through with you. I would also remind those of you involved that any effort to cover up any aspect of this conspiracy will be construed as obstruction of justice, which is a felony. And none of you, I assume, wants to go to jail."

I turned rather dramatically at that point to the young woman, Ms. Straits, who was sitting beside Ms. Cowe. "As for you, Miss, I am personally sorry if I have caused you the least distress. I regret that you will have to be involved in the litigation to follow. I will try to spare you the full brunt of what is about to befall the others implicated in this criminal attempt to smear me."

And with that I strode from the room, leaving the door open as I left. Izzy joined me and we went down the elevator together. We made our way over to the Club, where he treated me to a good stiff one in the bar.

"It's political, isn't it?" he said as we rehashed what had happened.

I nodded. "They don't really need much. Just a rumor. A quiet call from one of the Regents to Bob Remick telling him that I'm involved personally in some unsavory business with a young woman. You know how it works."

He smiled. "What did you say to the young thing to drive her to therapy?"

"I have no real idea. Lyrics, if you can call them that, from a rap song. From a friend of Diantha's. Good God, Izzy, had I known I offended the poor thing, I would have apologized. Whatever happened to ordinary human decency?"

He shrugged and looked at his wine. He said exactly what I was thinking right then. "How is Elsbeth faring?"

I tipped back my whisky. "She's not well at all. She's disappearing, right off the face of the earth. All except for her spirit, which grows with a palpability I wouldn't have believed."

Izzy got up to go. He put his hand on my shoulder. "I wouldn't worry, Norman. You left them all petrified. They'll be running around like scared cats for the next three weeks."

Perhaps, but when I got back to my office I called Felix and told him what had transpired. I told him he should start billing me instead of the Museum, as this was personal. He said he would have to look over the by-laws establishing the Subcommittee, but that, on the face of it, I might have a case. He said that if it turns out that the Subcommittee hearings are a quasi-judicial form of tribunal, then due process applies. That is, I should have been informed of the charges against me and given a chance to prepare a response. The clincher might be, he said, the fact that the hearing and what it pertained to goes on my record, regardless of the outcome.

Darlene told me when I returned that Ariel Dearth had called twice. And I hadn't finished talking to Felix more than a few minutes when he called me again. I launched immediately into ill-disguised insult. When I paused for breath, he said, "But, Norman, I have not called you about that."

I think it was the use of my given name that kept me from hanging up. "I mostly want to say that I tried to dissuade the Subcommittee from taking this step. I have also convinced Ms. Spronger and Mr. Jones from pressing their suit against the University. In fact, Norman, because of some things you have said, things which I have taken very much to heart, I have begun a complete review of my own professional life. I just wanted to clear the air and thank you."

I couldn't quite believe it at first. I kept waiting for some disclaimer, some codicil canceling the import of his remarks. I thanked him with as much grace as my skepticism allowed and hung up. What was the world coming to?

Alas, in many ways, the roil and moil of all this comes as a kind of relief. The Subcommittee and its clumsy attempt to impeach me is the least of my problems. I am more concerned with the fact that Diantha seems quite taken with Freddie Bain, the proprietor of the Green Sherpa and, I sense, a very unsavory character. What am I to do? She calls me Dad from time to time, but I have no sway in these matters. I probably wouldn't, even if I were her real father. Such are the times.

And Elsbeth, poor dear, is literally on her last legs. Yesterday, Mildred, one of the home-care helpers, told me she really shouldn't try to walk anymore. How awfully ineluctable is the regression back to helplessness that awaits all of us.

Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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