"A Power I Didn't Know I Had" -- A Mentee Asks Why I Never Tried to Sleep With Her
Mama, this post is one you CAN read, I think, because there’s nothing explicit here – just general references.
Folks, I’ve got a couple of subscriber-only posts coming up in the next few days I think you might enjoy — so if you haven’t, please consider supporting this newsletter. Either way, I am very grateful that you’re reading.
Because, I told her, I didn’t think it was what she wanted.
In the summer of 2016, a former mentee and I meet for drinks in Beverly Hills. Kimberly had been my student between 2009 and 2011, and we haven’t clapped eyes on each other since she’d transferred to a four-year school.
After nearly an hour of catching up, Kim puts down her glass, and asks me why I never hit on her.
“I beg your pardon?” I reply. I had not expected this question. Kimberly had spent countless hours in my office, and we had been very close, but the boundaries in our relationship had been both clear and unspoken. There was no need to define what had seemed both wonderful and obvious.
“I know one of the other girls you slept with. Corinne wasn’t nearly as close to you as I was.”
It is a question, hiding in a statement.
“I didn’t realize you knew it was Corinne. And yes, you and I were closer.”
I’m not sure how much more Kimberly wants or needs to know, but it’s clear that answer isn’t enough.
Kimberly studies her glass of wine, finishes the last drop. “So why not me?”
I shrug, and smile. “Because it wasn’t what you wanted.”
Kimberly gasps and laughs.
“You’re right. I never thought of you that way. And you know, it never crossed my mind that you might think of me that way until I found out about the other girls. And then some people just assumed you and I had slept together -- and they had trouble believing that you never even tried. So I started to wonder.”
I instinctively apologize. Again. I have already apologized to Kimberly countless times, just as I have apologized to all my former mentees for letting them down. My fall from grace was a shock and disappointment to so many.
Kimberly doesn’t want to hear it again, not this time, and she waves her hand, impatient for me to grasp the point of the question she’s asking. She’s confident enough in her looks to be certain that the answer can’t be that I never found her attractive. There’s another reason, she suspects.
I repeat the truth. I never made a move on her because it wasn’t what she wanted from me. “It wasn’t our story,” I say.
Kimberly considers this. “That’s true. So what did I want?”
“A mentor, nothing more. You needed me to be that for you. You didn’t think of me in any other way.”
“That doesn’t hurt your ego? That I didn’t want to sleep with you?”
Kimberly had read the drugged and drunken concatenation of confessions I vomited all over the Internet in 2013. I had claimed I did everything for affirmation, that validation from young women was my greatest addiction.
I tell Kim that my ego is just fine. I tell her that being part of her life for so long was a privilege and a joy. I mean these words. I loved being wanted sexually but I also loved being needed and trusted as a mentor. Neither was more precious than the other.
The waiter brings Kim another glass of wine. “I’m glad for me,” she says, her voice softer. “I’m glad you saw what I needed. But the others.... how were you sure they wanted you that way?”
I tell her I always waited until it was screamingly obvious. I tell her that without exception, I only slept with students who made it clear that they wanted to sleep with me. I do not flatter myself; even when I was much younger, fitter, and handsomer, I figure only a small percentage of young women genuinely wanted to go to bed with me. And of that small percentage, an even smaller number were willing to take the initiative to make it unmistakable that that was what they wanted.
Kimberly asks if I ever turned down such an offer. I tell her that I did say no, many times – mostly because I sensed on some level that despite someone’s enthusiastic expression of interest, sleeping with me would not be a good idea for them. Sometimes, it was clear that this person had romantic hopes I knew I couldn’t fulfill; sometimes, I sensed (or had been told) that a background of abuse played a part in an unhealthy attraction to authority figures. I know a lot about self-injury; my body is covered in scars I’ve inflicted on myself. I may be a fool, but I know better than to let a young woman use me like a razor blade on her own flesh and psyche.
I rarely said “no” because of a lack of sexual interest on my own part. Since I first became a sexual person, nothing has been more enticing than another person’s interest; nothing is a greater libido-suppressor than another person’s lack of attraction to me. For most of my adult life, I’ve let myself be chosen by another person’s certainty. One of my therapists said that was a typically feminine approach to sex, and when I asked her if I ought to take that as a compliment, she laughed so hard she spilled her coffee. Do you think it’s a compliment? She asked when she had finally composed herself, and I told her that I did.
Kimberly asks the obvious follow-up. “So, if I had been sexually interested in you, and made that clear, we would have slept together?”
I nod, and ask if knowing that upsets her. She shakes her head, and remarks that it’s strange to realize that the boundaries of our relationship were defined largely by her own sexual desire (or lack thereof). “That was a lot of power I didn’t know I had,” Kimberly says; “I don’t think I could have handled knowing you were so…. so malleable.”
It’s my turn to laugh, ruefully.
“I used to tell people that you were the safest man I had ever met. And now it turns out that you were safe only because I needed you to be safe, and if I had wanted something else, you would have been something else. That’s…. that’s kinda crazymaking for me, Hugo. Honestly.”
I look down, feel the shame rising. I start to apologize, and Kimberly puts her hand over mine.
“Don’t start that again. Let’s just say you were exactly what I needed when I needed it, and I am grateful. And I am going to choose to believe that the girls who wanted something else from you -- and got it -- are as grateful as I am.”
I need to pee. I go to the men’s room, and return to find Kimberly waving her glass at me.
“Well, professor, you’re so expert in what people want. I want to change up my drink; what am I thinking of ordering?”
I press my fingers to my temple, doing my best caricature of a psychic, perhaps Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent. I close my eyes tight, then open them wide as if I have had a vision. “I know! An Old-Fashioned!”
Kimberly shakes her head. “Your gifts are limited, my friend. I’m having a vodka soda. But I know you want a couple of maraschino cherries in your next Diet Coke, right?”
I admit it is so, and we sit another hour, and talk about the now instead of the past.
As I’ve written many times, I’m the only person who has ever lost his career thanks to a report of sexual misconduct that he filed himself without any corroborating evidence. You may suspect I have invented this conversation with Kimberly, and you may even suspect I made up having slept with my students. I can insist these things happened, but you can’t be sure.
Your narrator is almost as uncertain as you are.
Because mine is the only account I have, and because mental illness and time (not to mention drugs) play tricks on memory, I have genuinely forgotten how many students I slept with. That same uncertainty shows up in how I think about my misconduct. Even now, I cannot decide if what I did merited the end of my teaching career. I go back and forth between tremendous guilt and bitter defiance, and the only growth I’ve had in all these years has been to accept that I may never come to a place of certainty about whether what I did was wrong.
If one of my student exes was to come forward and say, “Now, after all these years, I look back and I regret what happened,” that would shift everything. Until someone tells me that, I am left to my own unresolved internal debate.
Kimberly and I remain friends, and every once in a while, she still calls me for advice, even after all she knows. That is a very, very great comfort, and almost certainly, more than I deserve.