A former colleague asked why I even bothered reading _______’s book. First of all, of course I was going to read it! Second of all, it perfectly clarified for me the kind of sexist double standard I was subjected to. Not just the kind of double standard, but the actual, exact one.
First, a mini-book review: Unless you’re me, and the book might potentially enlighten you about your own experience relative to this particular person, I can’t recommend it. I say this as a total memoir junkie, and former ghostwriter of memoirs. It fails as a recovery memoir because there’s not an iota of honest self-reflection. Just a lot of “Here’s how perfectly shitty I was to people!” with some “Can you believe I got away with this?!” and even a little, “How cool is it that I got away with this?!” thrown in for bad measure.
It fails as a memoir more generally because it does not even attempt to make meaning of what is basically an accumulation of anecdotes, the kinds of stories you regale people with at a party — and by “you” I mean a frat boy who has never once confronted his privilege as an affluent, straight, white, male.
The difference between your diary and a memoir is that the latter demands you process and present your experiences in a thoughtful way. You don’t need to bang the reader over the head with the meaning you arrive at — or the meaning you are even still seeking, publicly, through the writing — but one way or another you have to artfully interpret your story, first for yourself, and then for your readers. That’s the whole point of the endeavor.
That is, unless you scored your book deal based solely on your ill-begotten (now seriously eroded) platform.
For me, though, the book was incredibly validating in two ways: 1. It illustrated how differently _ and I were treated when we made mistakes. 2. Hmmm…maybe I wasn’t the one who made many of the mistakes I was blamed for, yet couldn’t recall making. Maybe, at least sometimes, I took the fall for the guy who now admits to being drugged out of his mind most of the time, and getting away with all kinds of sloppy errors because of it.
It was 1996, and I was 30-and-change. I thought I was losing my mind.
Someone was making enormous errors at work, and I was getting blamed for them. Bold-faced names got misspelled, or they were the wrong names entirely. Unedited early drafts were published instead of finalized versions. In one instance the word “like” was changed to “kike” — I was informed of that error (which went to press!) in an anonymous postcard addressed only to me. (__ and I are both Jewish, so that mistake remains a bigger mystery than the others.)
I would wrack my brains trying to figure out exactly how I’d messed up, but never could. Yet, instead of expressing my doubts or standing up for myself, I accepted the blame and apologized profusely. I internalized what _ and our boss said about me because they had more power than me, even though none of it made sense.
It didn’t help that I was an insecure, emotional wreck. I wondered whether the wearing romantic relationship I was in had dulled my abilities. I was going out with F., one in a long line of beautiful messes who was utterly exhausting to engage with. There was always something wrong, and I could never predict what the next drawn-out drama would be about. Back then I still existed in the emotionally unaware state wherein I not only believed it was my job to placate an irrational, irascible person, I also got a perverse charge each time I succeeded at it.
Still, knowing what I do now, and having been through plenty of other difficult times in my life through which I still showed up and did good work, 24 years later I am fairly certain that I wasn’t the one fucking up.
I can’t say for sure that it was _ who was. There are other credible suspects: a copyeditor who stalked me and became nasty when I didn’t give him the attention he craved; an ex-friend on staff who, by her own admission, had felt threatened by my quick rise in ranks, and who handed me an apology letter at the goodbye party another friend threw for me when I left, begging my forgiveness for “all the stupid things I’ve ever said or done to hurt you.”; a higher-up who presented my ideas as her own, then complained to our boss that the problem with me was that I had no ideas. Maybe one of them was sabotaging me? I’ll never know for sure. It all went down so long ago, before it was easy to collect forensic digital data.
What I can speak to, though, is the difference in the consequences _ and I faced. I was placed on probation and given a warning that after one more error I’d be fired. _ was allowed to fail endlessly upward, receiving promotion up on promotion, maintaining his coveted job at the top of a masthead for years and years, despite: not showing up to work — sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time; falling asleep while interviewing a job candidate; trashing hotel rooms; publishing racist and homophobic tropes; allowing to go to press one article with false quotations from a major celebrity, and another with a byline falsely attributed to a major writer.
He still got his big, fat salary. Still got to fly around the world first class, staying in 5-star hotels, even for illegitimate trips to score more drugs. Still got squired around in Town Cars, on the company’s dime.
That is one hell of a hall pass.
During the brief time I spent on probation before quitting, our boss made my work life a living hell. He made a great show of publicly shaming and shunning me. He would amble over to the double-desk I shared with _, look right past me, and say, “__, please tell Sari she needs to do x, y, and z,” as if I weren’t sitting right there. As if I were invisible. As if I were nothing. This was in an open-plan newsroom, where others could witness these cruel, cold affronts.
Our boss adored _ like a son, and never liked me, even though I was really fucking good at my job. I wrote compelling celebrity/artist/author profiles. I expanded the scope of our coverage — and our audience — to include younger people of note, in other fields than we’d previously covered.
That I was so clearly out of place at society events — a mainstay of our coverage — made our boss uncomfortable. In a sea of statuesque, blonde social x-rays in couture, I was a short, curvy, brunette, brown-eyed urchin in bargain-basement skirt-suits, pilled tights, and scuffed shoes.
Being an outsider meant I was unafraid of taking certain risks — capturing the bitchiest of quotes, documenting a famous actress’s chain smoking while six months pregnant. But as much as bitchy party gossip was the publication’s stock in trade, our bosses were careful not to offend the wealthy party-goers, the people buying advertisers’ exorbitantly-priced clothes.
By contrast, _ fit right in. Where I quietly observed, he schmoozed, and flattered, and flirted.
A couple of weeks into my probation, I covered an Author’s Guild event where I was seated next to an agent looking for someone to ghostwrite a client’s book. I saw this as an out, and took it. Ultimately, it led me in a better direction, first toward ghostwriting memoirs, then toward writing and editing personal essays.
But it sucked that I left my job, and a field I was good in, filled with shame and self-doubt I’m now pretty sure weren’t mine to own. I took on the version of me they projected, tucked my tail between my legs and skedaddled. I saw myself as no good, a failure.
It has taken so long and so much hard work to undo that. Reading ____’s shitty book might have taken me over the final hurdle.
Post script: I imagine some of you are eager to read about a more recent resignation, but I’m not ready to write about that. The last six months before I quit, especially the final two weeks, truly broke me. I’m only first realizing now the degree to which I was barely holding it together all that time. I’m giving myself some time to recover and make sense of it. It’ll be another story for another time.