A word after a word
after a word is power.
First, he paid to take an online writing workshop with me. Then, when that course ended, he offered to pay me three times the amount I earned for teaching online to do the exact same work—provide weekly lessons on technique and edit all of his essays—only this time with just him.
I was recently unemployed, completely broke, hoping that perhaps I could make a living off of freelance editing. I said yes, and in the year that followed, it was the only yes I ever said to him that I actually meant.
The personal essay is a place of expression. Exploration. Experimentation. It’s a sacred space, even. I’ve figured out a lot about myself, have had life-changing revelations and intriguing insights all while orchestrating a personal essay. I say “orchestrating” because it’s more than just the actual writing that gets me closer to me, but it’s the editing that brings enlightenment—the choreography and control of relentless revisions that undoubtedly help me to understand more about me, my relationship to language, who I am in the larger world. It’s all about finding the perfect words, their power, discovering the precise way to describe the experiences that have shaped me. Made me. The revision process is when I sit down with myself—sit in myself—to soak in my words and figure out what I’m really trying to say.
What I’m trying to say here is that, as a freelance editor, when I’m hired to revise an essay, I show up to do more than just correct grammar, adjust sound, or create better readability. I use that writer’s words to help guide her closer to herself.
Or rather, himself, in this case.
Him: Old enough to be my father, married with a son, and with a top-level job at a huge corporation—the actual work of which he despised, but the money was more than enough. Also: survivor of abuse and addictions. So he said. He would come to say many things, to send many words as bait to reel me in. He was a man who said he didn’t like his life—no passion, no excitement—and wanted to commit himself to something he’d always loved to do: write. He had the money. I had the skills. I agreed to give him online private writing lessons to help him get closer to himself through the power of words.
I see now it was always about him wanting to get closer to me.
Me: Early thirties. MA in Women’s Studies. Essayist at the beginning of her career, a woman who didn’t shy away from writing about sex, trauma, addiction and all of that Hard Life Stuff. A woman who was a lesbian, but who had, in an extraordinary turn of life events, married her best friend from college—a man.
My client knew all of this. I was a published author, after all, and so it was easy enough for him to read up on me. Which is exactly what he did. But reading isn’t knowing. And the yearning to know more about me appeared to be something he couldn’t resist.
As I read more of his words, as we moved into our fifth month of these lessons, as I became attuned to his own struggles that he tried to detangle in his essays, we eventually inched beyond the editor/writer relationship and became a vague version of friends. We swapped phone numbers and started following each other on social media.
So when I was having a hard moment in my marriage and took an impulsive solo, three-day drive across the country to visit a friend and figure out my life, I told him the basics of what was going on. Unhappy. Needing a breather. Wanting change. Before he replied to my email, PayPal notified me that he had sent me some money. Surprised, perhaps even a little flattered, and absolutely grateful, I profusely thanked him and told him that in exchange I would edit even more of his work.
A week later, on the day I turned around to drive the three days back home, ready to resolve the marital issues, my client sent me that extra work: an essay titled “I Want to F**k You.”
Here is where I could have, should have said, “No.” Here was the perfect opportunity to establish a firm boundary. Because even though it was cloaked in second person, I knew this raunchy essay was about me. Not directly; he was creative enough not to give away anything specific about who the “you” really was, but enough to make me feel uncomfortable and, ultimately, repulsed. Not wanting to hurt my client’s feelings by telling him what his essay really was—inappropriate and disrespectful—I said nothing about the boundary he crossed. Though more than that, I kept silent because I didn’t, no, couldn’t risk losing that large sum he paid me monthly (not to mention the numerous $100 or so payments he would randomly float my way with the note: “Just because I know you need it, and I really care about you. You’re such a talented writer and editor and you’re changing my dull life into something exciting. You need it more than I do. In fact, I wish I could give you all my money, but my wife might not like that. Love you.”).
I edited the essay in a hotel room the night before I returned home to my husband. I focused on craft—pacing, organization, word choice. My comments were full of lies in the form of faux-enthusiastic encouragement. The excitement of breaking boundaries. Sending the essay without noting how utterly tasteless and manipulative it was for him to make me edit it, I hoped the essay was a fluke, and then went back to dealing with my life. I didn’t mention any of this to my husband. We had enough going on as it was. We didn’t need to argue over how my main source of income was coming from a man I had never met who wanted to have sex with me.
I refer to this man as “my client,” though the word has always sounded sexual to me, even though it’s the correct term to use in this context.
Client: a person or group that uses the professional advice or services of a lawyer, accountant, architect, etc.
I feel violently ill when I think about the “service” I provided him for an entire year without contestation, and how he did, indeed, use me.
A few weeks later, he admitted “I Want to F**k You” was about me. Here’s my surprise face. Even in that moment of confession, though, I didn’t stop him.
How many emails or texts did he send me that said some version of: “I really need to write about my love for you, so let me know if you’re ever uncomfortable with that. I don’t know what it is, but you’ve really sparked something in me with this whole writing thing, and I have to keep going after it to see what all of this is about. I know if I keep writing, I’ll find my answer.”?
How many times did I cringe as I encouraged him to write about whatever he needed to write about, that he was paying me after all, and so of course I would always respond as his editor? How many times did I separate myself from what he wrote?
How many times did I split, cleave myself to pay my rent?
Essay as expression. Who am I to edit someone’s journey to himself, even when that path is solely composed with textual raunchy sex and unsolicited, unreciprocated attraction? As an editor, I don’t ever want to silence my clients. I want them to dig deep and explore. I want them to write the words they never thought they could. I told him to keep writing, and now I blame myself for telling him he could write about anything. About me. His attraction. What he’d like to do with and to me. I dive into the art of self-blaming because in our society, silence is a yes. Though shouldn’t it be a given that an editor isn’t forced to revise essays that are about the narrator wanting to have sex with her? Shouldn’t I make money because of my skill, not because he got erections when he thought about me? Wrote about me? Shouldn’t I have been paid for what I did, not for what he wanted to do to me? And couldn’t I be compensated for my brain, not for my “hole” he more than a few times told me he wanted to fill?
When he wrote, “I feel like the kid at the front of the class who’s in love with his teacher and is hoping to get a beaver shot,” I wrote nothing back.
When he texted, “God, you’re just so f**king hot,” I texted back, “Thanks.”
When he said to me on the phone, “Chelsey, I just have to hear you say it. Just say it. Tell me you love me,” I said through clenched teeth, “Yeah, I love ya. You’re a great guy.”
My stomach lurched, but my rent was paid. When the next day another surprise $150 floated my way, accompanied with a text message: “Now you and your husband can go out on a date tonight for Valentine’s Day. I’ve had a great V-day already. Conjugal activities with the wife,” I said my standard reply, “Thanks,” then went out to dinner and a movie with my husband, not mentioning where the money came from even though I knew I should have told him, should have said something about this man and his desire and me. I didn’t, but I could have. We had resolved our marital issues and were back to functioning as a loving, solid unit.
But as my client kept pecking at my holes word by word, my sense of shame rooted deeper within me to the point that I didn’t know how to admit all of this to my husband, didn’t know how to have that conversation.
What I told myself: I was being a really great editor for encouraging my client to write about taboo topics, trying to pretend the whole time I read them that they weren’t about me. But they were. Undeniably. And eventually, explicitly.
All that said, I have to own up to my own manipulation here. I knew my client would do anything for me, would do whatever I wanted if it increased his chances of being with me. After my husband and I sutured our marriage back together, we eventually ripped it apart at the seams one more time. I wanted a separation, or at least my own place to live. It was about space. On a wet December morning I called my client, crying, asking for money because, “I think I might leave my husband.” I said those exact words knowing they weren’t true but would raise my client’s hopes that we’d be together, which would ensure that he’d give me the money I needed for a deposit on an apartment. A few days later, my husband and I reconciled. When I told him I wasn’t leaving my husband, he said a bit too-nicely that he was glad we were committed to working things out. A few weeks after that, he let me know that “I got my hopes up that you’d run away with me.” I replied by pointing out how his wife wouldn’t appreciate that.
I never told this man to stop, though I did continue to tell him, “No way. Not going to happen.”
And yet he continued to press: “I know you’ll never leave your husband for me, but I can’t get you out of my head. You’ve touched something deep in me. You’ve changed me.” Then another essay full of explicit information about his sexual history and repulsive words about his current desires for me would appear in my inbox.
I could go on. I could state the number of times I read about his erection. I could count up the amount of money he paid me. I could recount the frequency of my lies—how often it was I said that we were cool, that of course he could keep writing about me, and that I’d always reply as an objective editor. I could explain how he paid to fly me to his city, to meet him, to write with him for a weekend, and how I met his family, how I slept in their guest bedroom. How I wondered if he masturbated in those sheets after I left.
I could also list the avenues of my subtle resistance: “I’m not attracted to any man but my husband,” and “You’re like a father figure to me,” or “Let’s concentrate on your use of tense in this essay.” And even, “How would your wife feel if she knew how much money you have given me?”
I own up to the fact that I didn’t say no, which creates a type of implied encouragement. But I shouldn’t have been put in the position in which I would have to find the strength, safety and confidence to say that no in the first place.
When he sent me a 26-page essay to edit, I glanced through it and quickly assessed that it was another grotesque love letter to me. An essay he said he needed for me to edit because the essay still felt like “something’s missing,” but that he thought he was really onto something big and that I was the only person who could help him get to it. When I asked if I really needed to edit all of it, asked if he was paying me to edit his words or read more about his feelings for me, and then when I told him I wouldn’t do the latter, he said he couldn’t separate the two, that his desire for me was a part of his writing. He said I had to do it.
For the first time that year, I felt like I was being forced to do something I desperately did not want to do.
If the essay weren’t an expression but a physical act, this situation would be called nonconsensual sex. Rape.
When I received the email in which he demanded me to do it, I looked up from my computer and told my husband, in a series of seeping, then weeping breaths, what my client had said to and written about me in the past year. The text messages when he announced that he was going to go masturbate. The essays that forced me to find out about his fantasies of having sex with the women at his office—and how it was that I knew this because he was writing essays about having sex with women in his office and sending them to me while sitting in his office at work. The other essays that described his sex life in great detail. Virginity lost recounted in too many words. The messiness of a menstrual cycle. Messages he sent to express what he thought about my body. All of this. More of this. Much more.
I told my husband all of it.
It wasn’t until I saw how someone whom I deeply loved, someone who dearly loved and respected me back, reacted to my situation that I realized this was sexual harassment. My husband’s rage and disbelief prompted—no, empowered—me to write an email to my client that stated he was never to contact me again. My client replied with words about how this wasn’t fair, words that argued that I told him—encouraged him!—to explore all of his complicated feelings in his essays. He said he deserved better than this.
It was then that I decided to actually read all of the 26-page essay—not for him, but for me. Now that I was saying no, I needed more to say no to, and I was certain there would be plenty to object to in his most recent “work.” There was. He wrote about seeing my picture online and falling in love with my face, immediately prompting him to sign up for my online workshop. He wrote about my body, “slender legs, sweet ass.” He wrote about how he watched me walk around a bookstore when I was in his city, watched me through the bookstore’s outside window, watched me until the yearning ache in his body was unbearable. He wrote about his lust.
My next email to him contained these words among a few others: Stalker. Predator. Violator. Then I told him, again, to never contact me. He replied with a quick apology. I responded immediately:
“STOP CONTACTING ME.”
My husband took over from there, emailing him, telling my ex-client that, “Chelsey is not your emotional/fantasy whore. You are not entitled to eye-f**k, stalk, and disrespect women without consequence…If she or I hear from you again in any form through any medium, we will send your wife and professional network what you have written about her and contact the relevant authorities to initiate a restraining order/sexual harassment proceedings.”
The words my husband wrote named what I hadn’t been able to name. If all of this had occurred in a traditional work setting, I would have had a human resources department to help make this stop. A freelance editor, though, is on her own—although when she begins to speak up, others can speak out, too, can raise the volume of the overdue no. She just has to muster the courage and find the words to tell someone who can help her.
Sans an HR department, I was at the point where I needed saving. Needed protection. I needed my husband.
It is not lost on me that essentially a man had to bail out this weak-feeling woman from the terrible situation she found herself in because she didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings—didn’t want to put her needs in front of another’s. How an inability to say no leads to enabling. I had put myself in a position in which a necessary course of action—an exit strategy—wasn’t an option. Add to that the fact that often a man won’t back down from his sexual pursuits unless another man swoops in and tells the guy to knock it off—indeed, I needed my husband to save me.
That should be the end of this. Predator client gone. Let’s move on.
But there’s the fact of the aftermath. On guard for over a year, always anxious about what my client’s next communication might say, my computer—the one that he actually bought me after I told him my computer died, but before I found out that my computer didn’t really die, but just had a slight, quickly fixable glitch; either way, he bought me a computer and I didn’t tell him not to—started to feel like a crime scene. With the client gone, the caution tape removed, I could then fully see and sense and reflect on the trauma caused by his words. How they held power over me. Controlled me. Trying to let go of that hyper-awareness felt terrifying—then nauseating. With him gone, my mind had the space to finally realize how much my body had been violated. How much I had pushed it away. Mind/body separation—amplified by his assaulting words.
Writing has always been a spiritual practice for me. My mental savior. My connection to something bigger. His sexual harassment made my temple feel tainted. That is, words felt hard. I couldn’t write. Couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t create the sentences I needed to find my voice, to empower myself to get through this. To move on. In his absence, the floodgates of trauma’s aftermath opened and all of my pent-up anger and fear and sense of violation poured out of me, making me insane.
A few weeks after my husband told my client off, I still felt too shattered to even have hope that I could fuse myself back together. Depressed and dissociated, no one—no place—felt safe. Suicide started to seem like the only viable option for relief.
Time for a trip to the psych ward.
During my three-day mental health retreat, I started to feel calm again. A break from the world (and my computer) helped me to regain my breath. Because having a team of people take care of me nonstop for 72 hours gave me the emotional space and energy to concentrate on finding the words I needed to describe what I had been through. To put language to an experience so I could begin to understand it—to have power over it.
When my husband picked me up from the hospital after my discharge, I climbed into his truck feeling positive, sensing the aftermath’s intensity was lessening.
And then my husband said this: “You f**ked around behind my back for an entire f**king year.”
Here, more trauma. Here, more shock. A breakage, a splitting. I cleaved. Again. My husband saw my silence as lying, as deceiving, as disrespecting. I saw my silence as surviving, saw my lying as a tool I used to keep me functional. My husband didn’t share my perspective. (Likewise.)
He blamed me for what happened, told me that I enjoyed every minute of the affair, and that my depression was stemming from missing my client.
Which is to say that the man who saved me had become the man who was traumatizing me—though, as hindsight has explained, his response wasn’t totally unreasonable. It was a situation built on lies and silence—no way to trust what was truth. I understand this now, can see how silence is a betrayal. Trust broken—just like it is in an affair.
There are the reverberations of such unrelenting sexual harassment. I can sense them occurring even now, three years later. Sometimes, I type with unsteady hands. Sometimes, I jump at the sound of an incoming message. At times I think I see suspicion sweep across my husband’s face—the subtle expressions that speak more truthfully than the words we say, the ones we employ to insist everything between us is okay.
But perhaps sometimes all we can do is succumb to silence. Because in it, we can find the words that give voice to the things that have gone unsaid.
The essay, you see, can be a space of confession, reflection, recognition.
Though, the essay, as I have seen, can also be a space of control, manipulation, traumatization.
Either way, the power of words is what shakes us.