Sophia Kaufman: Opening the Chamber of Secrets
Almost exactly one year ago, I spent a Saturday visiting all the girls’ bathrooms on campus to document the graffiti in them. I was writing an essay for a journalism / memoir writing class, and had been thinking about women’s spaces on campus after spending the summer doing research on the history of women at U-M. I had also been mulling over how the girl’s bathroom feels like an unusually influential place in girl’s lives — at least, it has been in my and all my friends’ lives. It has been both a place of exclusion and inclusion, of mental breakdowns and fun wild nights, a strange kind of solidarity.
A lot of what I saw scribbled on stall walls was sweet: messages of hope, funny anecdotes, quotes, even several political dialogues — one stall was literally covered in discussions of privilege, appropriation and the current political climate on campus. Somehow, the inspirational quotes scrawled in Sharpie on the inside doors of these bathroom stalls felt more intimate, despite their technically public nature, than, say, chalked inspiration on the Diag. By the end of the afternoon, I was excited; I felt like I understood the graffiti lexicon of the ladies’ room, and could definitely write an essay about it.
On my way out of Angell hall, I decided to check one final bathroom. In the last stall I looked into, under the toilet paper dispenser — so you could only see it if you were sitting down or bending over deliberately to look — I saw something etched into the wall, and underlined:
Underneath it, there was a single name, almost too faint to read. This bathroom looked like it hadn’t been painted in years; there was no way of knowing how long ago someone had decided to pull out her keys and warn other girls in what might have been the only way she felt like she could.
I went home and took a long shower after that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that etched name recently, as Harvey Weinstein’s name joins those of the past few years: Bill Cosby. Casey Affleck. Roger Ailes… the list, as we all know and choose to forget, goes on, and on and on. I’ve been trying to think about something new to say about rich and powerful men getting away with sexual assault in this industry. But there isn’t anything new to say. It’s all already been said, and reworded, and retweeted, and turned into a hashtag and a think piece, and said again.
As per usual, people have combed through the media of the last decade looking for hints, suggestions, clues to prove that Weinstein’s behavior wasn’t unknown. In one video going viral, an interviewer asks Courtney Love for advice she would give to a young girl moving to Hollywood. There’s a flash of recognition in Love’s eyes; looking away from the camera, she says, “I’ll get libeled if I say it,” almost to herself. Then, making a decision, she leans into the camera and wryly remarks, “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons, don’t go.” That was from 2005.
I could write about what a retrospective combing through clues by the media looks like to survivors of assault who are used to not being believed — even those whose stories have been corroborated time and again. I could write about all of the different hashtag trends that have been borne of this story — #womenboycottTwitter, #WOCaffirmation, and #metoo — and all of the inherent contradictions or problems with them. I could write about how exhausting it is to keep hearing simplistic debates over separating the art from the artist (although calling Weinstein an artist would be a bit of a stretch — and besides, I’ve already done that).
As much as all of those thoughts are swirling around in my head — as I sit scrolling through Facebook, watching as #metoo appears on the profiles of well over half of my women friends from high school or college — I keep thinking about how Courtney Love struggled in front of a camera between that simultaneously public and private warning, ultimately choosing to risk it. About how we are constantly having to wrestle with ourselves in situations like this, negotiating between private whispered warnings and public shouts. Because the stuff in the middle — the obligatory self-aware Billy Cosby jokes at award shows, the semi-ironically given statistics on late night TV, the hashtags that get us banned from Twitter — none of it ever seems to make a difference. And more often than not, in this struggle to choose to go big or go home, going big doesn’t make much of a difference either.
I can’t help but keep thinking about that faintly etched name on that bathroom wall. That chamber of secrets, if you will.
A couple weeks ago, I checked that stall again, to see if it was still there. It had been painted over.