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  • Writer's pictureIshta Mercurio

Thoughts From the Front Lines of the #MeToo Movement

By now, you all know that I have A Story. If you haven't heard my story yet, you can read about it here, and in the links within that article. I don't want to talk about it any more, or at least, not here, in this space. But there are some things you don’t know about, that I want to share. It’s important for you to know these things in order to understand my story properly, and why I decided to tell it, and how it is evolving. There are the days I spent planning my letters to SCBWI, and the hours I spent painstakingly revising them, needing to make clear the distinction between doing what is legally required, and doing what is morally and ethically necessary. How we can succeed at the former, but fail at the latter, and why they are both important. The days after I had accepted my harasser's apology, when I hoped that I had been heard and understood, and I worried that I hadn’t. There are the long conversations I had with people (so many people!) in which I tried to explain that, yes, what had happened to me was inappropriate and horrifying in the moment that it happened, and no, it was not at all okay, and yes, I thought this person deserved to be believed when he said that he was trying to do better. There is a world of difference between someone who wrongs you and admits it and apologizes and promises to do better, and someone who denies that he did anything wrong at all. I think it’s important that we recognize that. I don’t think he deserves any rewards or special praise for apologizing, because apologizing and trying to do better are basic levels of human decency. Nobody gets a cookie for meeting the basic requirements. But I hope his friends don’t all alienate him. I hope he has people around him who will help him meet this standard of behavior, who will expect it of him and who will hold him to it. Even so, I never want to see him again. Then there was the moment when I learned that even though he had been prohibited from attending any more SCBWI conferences, he had arranged to meet people just outside the venue, and I wondered why he would push against the boundaries of his banishment in this way. If he had really meant his apology. If he understood that rules should be respected with their spirit, and not only their letter, in mind. I wonder if he has friends who will remind him that New York City is a big place, and all the women he has hurt have a right to attend a conference without the fear of running into him just outside the venue. I hope he does. But his apology seems less genuine to me now. There was the worry that some people would read about my experience and think that I was just looking for attention, because on the scale of harassment, what I experienced was on the mild end of things, so why am I even complaining? And so I said, over and over and over, that the reason I was speaking up was because I know that I am not the only woman who has gone through this, and unlike some of those other women, I can bear to rehash my story over and over and over and over and over again. So of course. Of course. It has to be me. I have to do this. Someone has to get this ball rolling. If not me, then who? There was the initial shocked silence from the industry after the SLJ piece and Anne Ursu’s piece came out. That silence was scary. I didn’t know if people were taking harassment seriously and trying to figure out what to do and how to fix this hole in the safety net that had allowed predators to sneak through, or saying horrible things about what a whiny baby I was and how all us women needed to learn how to suck it up and move on. (I found out later that it was the former. But isn’t it awful how insidious misogyny is? How it has infiltrated the minds of even the most determined of us? How it makes us doubt ourselves, even when we know it is making us doubt ourselves?) There were articles that stripped all of the nuance that I had so carefully injected into our conversations, out. Maybe the world isn’t ready for nuance. But aren’t we big enough to expect better of ourselves? Shouldn’t we be? There were the terrible, terrible headlines. Even our allies have work to do. There was the piece in the New York Times proclaiming that children’s literature is having “It’s #MeToo Moment”. A moment. How belittling. As if this is just a blip, and soon we will return to our regularly scheduled programming of rampant, everyday sexism and harassment. I am hoping that this is more than just a moment. A movement would be nice, and it feels like one. There is Anne Ursu’s piece, and Gwenda Bond’s pledge. There are people saying out loud, finally, what we have all been thinking and whispering to each other for so long. There are messages from women: me too, they say. I believe you. I’m sorry this happened. And from allies: How can I help? And I tell them all that I am sorry, too, for whatever they have undergone, and to those who ask how they can help, I ask them to go forward with grace and kindness, because the thing is that these people who hurt other people are still going to be walking around after this, and they will need our help to change who they are.

There are the women who come to me with stories of their own, asking if I can listen, asking if I can help. I will always say yes to these women. There is the dawning realization that this change is going to be hard and horrible, and that as much as it is necessary, it will take everything we have to push through it. There are the apologies from men who have been named. Do they mean it? I hope so, but it will take time before we know. I’m not holding my breath, to be honest. They have to earn our trust back. But I’m open to the possibility. There are women of color saying, “Hello? We’ve been here for a while now, trying to talk about this.” And they’re right. And I don’t know why this suddenly became A Thing, now, instead of before. And I don’t want to shut these women out of the discussion, but at this point, the discussion has run away from me and other people are having it in places that I don’t know about and can’t find and that’s WONDERFUL. But I don’t know how to bring it back around to these women, and I feel responsible for that, somehow. I know that the 3/4 of my genome that is white washes out the 1/4 that isn’t, at least on my face, which is where it seems to count, based on the box most people tend to put me in. And I wonder if that played a role in the willingness of journalists and conference organizers and everyone else to listen to me, and I think maybe it did, at least a little bit. I honestly don’t know how to feel about that. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do about it, but maybe I’m wrong, and if there’s something I should be doing, and somebody knows what it is, I hope they will tell me, because I’m listening. There was also the timing, this zeitgeist that we are living in that says that now, now is the time to speak up, now is the time for change. And that encouraged me. I also have a really big mouth. Maybe it’s also that, a little bit. I’ve put my foot in my big mouth in the past, and I’ve tried to reach out and apologize when I’ve done it and realized what I had done. I will always be trying to do better, and wondering if even this “better” is enough. I will always be trying to use my big mouth to do good things. And there is silence, from some corners of the room. Different corners. Different silences. They are all heavy, and they all weigh on me for different reasons. There are new policies popping up everywhere, and there are pledges from men and women alike, promising to do better, and it’s wonderful and overwhelming and I don’t even know about half of it anymore, because this IS a movement, now, and a movement is always bigger than just one person. And as I watch all of this unfold, I think. I think about the man who is inviting other men to join a discussion of how they can help combat harassment, and how it’s good that these men realize that since they are part of the problem, they also need to be part of the solution, and it’s great that they’re trying, but I sure hope they invited at least a few women into the room to help them figure out how to do that. I think about the man who talked on social media about how, as a man, he is aware that he is taking up more oxygen than he deserves, and he admits that he’s too selfish to give it up, but he wants to help lift women too. He is not the first person to point out these things. But he is the first man. And he is also the first person to get attention from hundreds of people. I’m glad this topic is getting attention. But I wonder why this man, why all men, can’t be less selfish. Why we aren’t coming together as a community and asking that of them. And I wonder where all the women who are praising him for saying these things were when women were saying these things earlier this week, this month, this year, this century. He’s saying the right things. But boosting women sometimes means shutting up and boosting women. And I wonder, if he had just shut up and boosted women, whether those women would be getting as much attention and praise as he did, because we are still all steeped in male privilege, and it has oozed into us, and it is pulling at us, sucking us down even as we struggle to haul ourselves out of it. And this is a painful realization, that in order to listen to the words of women, so many of us still need to hear them coming from a man’s mouth. How do we get out of this cycle? I think about how these apologies and pledges are both welcome things, and also, mirrors, reflecting my own past transgressions and apologies and pledges back at me, and I see how gaudy they were, and I wonder if I will ever feel that I have done enough, and I think that I probably won’t. I will work on being able to live with that, with knowing, every day, that on this day I must do more than I did the day before. I wonder if any of these men talking feel like this? I wonder if they are forcing themselves to sit with it? Or are they allowing themselves to be comforted by the sound of their own pledges and apologies and promises, as I once was by the sound of mine? And I think about how harassment and male privilege and toxic masculinity and the abuse of power are all different arms of the same beast. And I wish we could all just... Stop. And breathe. And take about a hundred steps back, so we can really look at this thing that is so huge. So that we can really SEE it. Because we need to see that while we need men to be a part of the solution, singing the praises of men who say the right things while ignoring the women who are also saying those things is part of the problem. Because we need to see that while we need men to be a part of the solution, an all-male anti-harassment committee is still All-Male, and that’s part of the problem. Because we need to see that lifting white voices above those of people of color who have been saying the same things for weeks and months and years is part of the problem, and while it’s good that we are finally talking about this, we need to include everybody in the conversation. Because we need to see that in an industry that is 80% female, a panel that is less than 80% female is unbalanced. Because we need to think before we open our mouths to fawn over male speakers, because when we do that, we are part of the problem. Because we women need to look at ourselves, and at each other, when we say that women are just as capable, and ask ourselves: am I behaving as if women are just as capable? Or, in a room full of capable women, am I choosing to crowd around the man, like everybody else? I mean. This is a movement that is about weeding out internalized sexism and racism and misogyny. If we are going to drive this movement forward, it will take all of us. But why are we so quick to hand the wheel over to the white men who offer to help? We need you on this bus, guys. But let the women drive for once. When THAT happens, we’ll really be moving.

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