Private lessons for a famous male director: Was I complicit in this loaded workplace dynamic?

I wouldn't have gotten the job if I wasn't young and pretty and smart, so I cultivated an air of appealing mystery

Published September 14, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)

Open book and glasses on wood desk in the library room (Getty Images/  Konstantin Maslak)
Open book and glasses on wood desk in the library room (Getty Images/ Konstantin Maslak)

As a young woman raised in the wake of the modern women’s lib movement, I always believed I came of age during the forward surge of female empowerment.

I was wrong.

But it wasn’t until the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements hit the national zeitgeist and opened the floodgates of conversation and reckoning that were long overdue that I realized just how wrong. When these movements ramped up, I was ecstatic. Finally, victims of sexual assault and harassment had a powerful voice.

Like many women, I've experienced my share of “run-ins” — what my friends and I, back when we were fresh out of college, had called the inappropriate behavior and unwanted advances to which we were often subjected — with men, bosses, lovers and colleagues. It was time to reexamine these experiences through this new lens.

I’ve not been a victim of sexual assault, and for that I am grateful, having seen close friends go through that trauma. But I recalled the boss who used to grab my breasts and who propositioned me one day at a work lunch, and the co-worker who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Other past experiences were more ambiguous, even unclassifiable, like the time I worked as the private philosophy tutor for an Oscar-winning film director.

I was aware — as many people around me at the time also pointed out — that if I hadn’t been a good-looking young woman with ample boobs along with my philosophy degree from Yale, I would not likely have been offered a shitload of money to give a famous director personalized philosophy lessons. Maybe I’d be serving him coffee instead, or performing some other anonymous background duties. From the start, our relationship was defined in part by its loaded dynamic: the minefield of sexual politics that can exist between powerful older men and young women, especially with the latter teaching the former.

Was I complicit in perpetuating that dynamic, though? That was a harder question to face.

Very early on, my famous boss asked me if I was single. I was aware of the power I wielded as a young woman — power that a young woman can better wield if she is in fact single. The minute I took myself off the hypothetical market was the minute I would lose much of this power. On the other hand, admitting to single status was also dangerous, because it could also be misread as an invitation. I had to come up with something that would strike the balance, so I smiled casually: “Not at the moment.”

I did believe that I needed to be attractive to him in order to keep his interest — not just to keep the lucrative gig, but also to learn all I could from being around someone at the top of his game in film. I decided to walk the razor’s edge until it became too uncomfortable to continue. I dressed a bit provocatively for our lessons — sexy, but not too obvious.

I felt like I was in charge of where this dance did or didn’t go, and that if he tried to cross the line, I could walk away. But as time went on, I found myself becoming fixated on him. It was nuts — I even turned down dates with age-appropriate guys I met on set because I knew he’d find out about it, and I worried about what he would think.

Even then I knew I shouldn’t allow my tutoring gig and strange friendship with my boss to affect my love life, but it did. I liked the power that came with wielding an air of mystery and perceived availability, so I worked hard to maintain the mystery by maintaining a perceived availability.

To what end, I didn’t know.

Perhaps for career help, though I never asked him for it. Perhaps just for the attention. In any case, he didn’t know what to do with me or how to help me, and eventually our relationship, such as it was —not strictly professional, but also not out of bounds — hit a stalemate. When the movie left town our arrangement petered out, not unlike the ending of “Lost in Translation,” when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson go their separate ways.

Back in the States and away from his gaze, working my first professional job, I was able to see myself in relation to him more clearly. The time had come to leave behind the little girl with dreams of a strong older man on a white horse swooping down to lift her up and away from the cold rough waves of life.

From what was I looking to be saved, anyway? Work? Work, as I should’ve remembered from my study of Heidegger, is what sets us all free from Angst, our awareness of the finitude of existence, the blackest hole there is. And there’s no doubt that while obsessing over our ambiguous relationship I spent more time in that dark place than I ever have before, or care to again.

#MeToo? I’m not so sure.

One thing I am sure of is that, despite the fact that I’ve been married almost 20 years now and no longer pursue ambiguous relationships with men, I’m glad to be around to witness this reckoning. Even though I believe I escaped my encounter without major harm, the effects have lingered — so much so I wrote an entire novel inspired by that time in my life. It’s clear I’m still unsettled by it. I realize the story could have taken a darker turn. How would things be for me today if I’d succumbed all those years ago to an older, powerful man’s tempting persuasion? I shudder to imagine.

By Marilee Albert

Marilee Albert is the author of "The Tutor," a novel published by Rare Bird Books.

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