Nearly a quarter century ago, a group of women accused a prominent playwright of sexual misconduct. A Boston newspaper published allegations of sexual harassment, unwanted touching and forced kissing. For the most part, the complaints went nowhere.
In 2017, more women came forward with accusations. This time, everybody listened.
On this episode of Hidden Brain, we explore the story through the lens of social science and ask, "Why Now?"
What has changed in our minds and in our culture so that allegations of sexual harassment and assault are being taken so much more seriously than they were in prior decades?
A note for listeners: This story includes descriptions of sexual harassment and assault. It may not be suitable for all listeners.
Private Truths, Public Lies by Timur Kuran
"Norm Perception as a Vehicle for Social Change" by Margaret E. Tankard and Betsy Levy Paluck
Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM (HOST): This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A warning before we start today's show - this episode includes accounts of sexual assault and may not be suitable for all listeners. In 2016, Maia Ermansons sat down at her laptop to write a Facebook post. It was about a famous playwright, Israel Horovitz. She accused him of serious sexual misconduct.
MAIA ERMANSONS: He put this anger in me that I didn't have before, and that wasn't going away. And I couldn't let it rest.
VEDANTAM: Within months, other women stepped forward with similar stories.
JOCELYN MEINHARDT (WRITER): But yeah, no, he just locked the door, and then immediately...
JANA MESTECKY (ACTRESS): Nobody was there, and it was...
LAURA CROOK: And then he just was on me.
MEINHARDT: I never thought it would go this far.
MESTECKY: I went to the managing director and said I was quitting.
VEDANTAM: The theater world was quick to censure the playwright. Several companies dropped productions of his plays. He quickly resigned from the board of the theater company that he'd founded. Israel Horovitz was disgraced, his career in tatters. But here's the twist. Twenty-four years earlier, another group of women had made nearly identical accusations, and nothing happened. This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we ask, why now? Why have so many women stepped forward to make accusations about sexual harassment and assault, and why is the world finally taking them seriously?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: In the mid-1980s, Jocelyn Meinhardt was a high school student in New York City. She was known for her sense of humor and her oversized vintage clothes. She was dating Adam Horovitz, a teenage musician from the band the Beastie Boys.
MEINHARDT: I went out with him from the time I was 15 to 17.
VEDANTAM: After high school, Jocelyn enrolled at New York University to pursue a degree in dramatic writing. One day in 1989, she got a call. It was Adam's father, the 49-year-old playwright Israel Horovitz.
MEINHARDT: Israel was like, I have a play, and I have two tickets; you know, come to see it. I was like, this is weird. And I don't even think before then I'd seen any of his plays. Like, I just had no relation. He was just, like, my boyfriend's father.
VEDANTAM: Jocelyn went to see the play with her new boyfriend. Sometimes later, she says, Israel invited her to have coffee. She told him she was studying at NYU.
MEINHARDT: And then, you know, he was like, oh, you're in dramatic writing school; that's silly; you should be, like, just writing.
VEDANTAM: And then Israel made Jocelyn an incredible offer. He asked if she'd like to work the summer at his theater in Gloucester, Mass.
MEINHARDT: He created a position for me where he was like, you can come up and be, like, the Samuel Beckett fellow.
VEDANTAM: A playwriting fellowship at a professional theater company.
MEINHARDT: ...And get a stipend.
VEDANTAM: It was unreal - a huge break for a 19-year-old student. Jocelyn says, to top it all, he told her he would take her under his wing, teach her his craft.
So you went.
VEDANTAM: Of course she went. It was like a big, heavy door was being thrown open. Beyond lay endless possibility.
MEINHARDT: It was really the first time I was going to be away from home. Like, even summer camp up till then had been, like, two weeks, you know? I mean, I remember, like, not knowing how to feed myself. Like, I ate a lot of cereal that summer and candy bars, so...
VEDANTAM: At the end of May, Jocelyn packed her stuff and headed up to the blue-collar fishing town of Gloucester. The theater company had rented a room for her.
MEINHARDT: With this really cool senior citizen fisherman's wife who was really awesome.
VEDANTAM: Jocelyn started settling in. The next day...
MEINHARDT: Israel showed up and was like, hop in my car, and we'll drive up to my house. I remember it so clearly because it was a really foggy day, so it just - everything about it was just creepy. And it wasn't late in the evening. It was just, like, dinnertime.
VEDANTAM: They drove through the fog to Israel's house. They went inside, and that door - the one she thought would lead to endless possibility - slammed shut.
MEINHARDT: He just locked the door, and then immediately, like, stuck his tongue down my mouth. And I remember just feeling so trapped, and I remember looking out the window and thinking, can I run? If I left, you know, would anybody help me? And wouldn't I look ridiculous because I had walked into this house, and Israel could just say like, oh, she's mentally unstable or whatever, you know?
VEDANTAM: Remember, this was before cell phones, Ubers and Google Maps. Instead of running, Jocelyn froze.
MEINHARDT: I felt like I was in shock. Like, it was so shocking. It was so shocking. This is my ex-boyfriend's father, you know? Like, I had - blegh. Like, but then I said, I am not here for this; I don't want to do this. And he said this is - or this was inevitable. And I realized that, like, he wasn't viewing it as - and I started to cry, like - and, you know, I think, clearly, you shouldn't have sex with somebody if they're - unless they're crying for joy, you know?
And so I do feel like, on some level, he knew what he was doing. But yeah, he led me upstairs, and I was crying. And I remember kind of seeing it from an aerial perspective. While I wasn't grabbed by my hair and dragged through a park in the middle of the night, could I describe it as rape? Like, could I - you know, because I wasn't screaming and saying no, no, no, no, was that rape?
VEDANTAM: Jocelyn didn't say a word to anyone.
MEINHARDT: I just thought, if I tell people and deal with this, I will have to go home and lose this opportunity. And it felt that I would have to deal with all this shame and embarrassment over what happened because didn't I know that this would happen? So it was - just seemed wiser to just soldier on.
VEDANTAM: So that's what she did. In the weeks that followed, Jocelyn tried to avoid Israel's advances. Sometimes she succeeded, but, she says, not always.
MEINHARDT: One of the times was in the room I was staying where I was - also had my computer up - set up to write. And he came over to help me with my play and then, like, put the moves on me. And it was sort of like, we have to have sex before I'm going to sit down and help you with your play. And that's exactly what happened. The other time, he was like, oh, my office in town is a mess; like, come help me clean it up. And then we're there.
So it was essentially, like, if he was alone with me in a place other than the theater and other than his house, which now had his kids and his twins and his nanny - like, if he could get me into a place - and he was able to do that twice - and both times, I didn't fight him off - and I did feel like I had made that decision. Like, I'm just not going to tell anyone, ever, and I don't want to ruin this opportunity. So, you know, I thought - I remember thinking at that time that you could absolutely forget things. I was like, I am going to block this. I'm not going to think about it, and I'll be fine, you know. Like, I didn't understand that that's not how the brain works.
VEDANTAM: For Jocelyn, the summer became something to endure. It was all made worse by the fact that the Gloucester Stage Company was producing a searing play about the trauma of rape. It was called "The Widow's Blind Date." The playwright - Israel Horovitz. The play tells a story of Margy, a woman in her 30s. Back when she was 17, Margy was gang raped by seven young men, including her high school classmates George and Archie. She's now returned to her hometown in Massachusetts to confront those two men. Much of the play depicts a world where men casually demean women. In one scene, which we had an actor perform, Margy describes what it feels like to have her breasts be endlessly objectified.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE WIDOW'S BLIND DATE" )
LAURA C. HARRIS (ACTRESS): (As Margy) First off, the matter of my mammary glands - my breasts, my tits, my boobs, my jugs, my knockers, my set, my funny Valentines, my perfect little orbs - yeah, they seem to be causing you some grief. My breasts - they've been quite something for me, too, over the years.
VEDANTAM: To Margy, it is all so exhausting.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE WIDOW'S BLIND DATE" )
HARRIS: (As Margy) You know, thinking it over, Archie and George, I will gladly give my breasts over to you for whatever purpose you choose. George, you would wear them on the odd days, Archie on the evens, and I'd be free to get back to work, to get back to sleep at night, to end the constant and unrelenting fondling.
MEINHARDT: I saw that play, like, 500 times because that was the play that was being produced the summer I was there - like, the worst summer of my life. And so it was really - no, I - it's just so complicated and ridiculous because I basically had to watch a play about a woman who was raped confronting her rapists. And no - and that's what part of - you know, I remember Israel saying to me at one point, like, can you imagine hurting somebody - like, what that would do - like, how ridiculous that is? And I was just like, you have hurt me. Like, I - it just was such a mind bender.
VEDANTAM: We repeatedly reached out to Israel Horovitz via phone, email and letters. We asked him about the allegations that Jocelyn and other women have made against him and the apparent contradiction between the message of his play and his alleged behavior. He declined an interview, saying, I'm recovering from two major cancer surgeries. My play, "The Widow's Blind Date," states clearly my feeling about sexual violence against women, which I find to be abhorrent and intolerable. When we come back, we look at the psychology of when people stay silent and when they speak up. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. People often stay silent even when they want to speak up. We may think something in private but say nothing in public. This happens to individuals who've suffered abuse. This happens with entire nations. Duke University political scientist Timur Kuran, says that people pay close attention to public opinion and figure out that sometimes, it's wiser to shut up.
TIMUR KURAN (DUKE UNIVERSITY): The punishments for expressing a controversial view cover a wide range. At one extreme, there could be a knock on your door at 4 o'clock in the morning, and you can be dragged to prison. You could be taken to a concentration camp. There are societies where that happens. But there are much milder forms of punishment. You can be ostracized from a community. You can be rebuked. Your career can be placed in danger.
VEDANTAM: And so people say one thing publicly and believe another thing privately. Timur Kuran calls this preference falsification. When our views clash with what we perceive to be the prevailing currents, we realize it's dangerous to openly express ourselves. A good example is East Germany during Soviet control.
KURAN: For decades, communism survived by making the populations it ruled afraid to express opposition to the principles of communism and express opposition to the dictatorships that were running the Soviet bloc countries.
VEDANTAM: The silence around Harvey Weinstein's sexual misconduct operated in the same way.
KURAN: It was an open secret for decades, we've learned, in Hollywood and in circles that Harvey Weinstein traveled in, that he was a predator of young women, but also, that if anybody called him out on this, he would ruin their careers.
VEDANTAM: There are ways to talk about our secrets, ways to voice our truths while maintaining plausible deniability. The best way - humor. This is from the sitcom "30 Rock."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
TRACY MORGAN (ACTOR): (As Tracy Jordan) Don't do it, J-Mo (ph). You don't want to mess with Weird Al.
JANE KRAKOWSKI (ACTRESS): (As Jenna Maroney) Oh, please. I'm not afraid of anyone in show business. I turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions out of five.
VEDANTAM: And several years ago, at an Oscar nomination ceremony, Seth MacFarlane told this joke.
(SOUNDBITE OF 85TH ACADEMY AWARDS TELECAST)
SETH MACFARLANE (ACTOR): The 2012 nominees for best performance by an actress in a supporting role are Sally Field in "Lincoln," Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables," Jacki Weaver in "Silver Linings Playbook," Helen Hunt in "The Sessions" and Amy Adams in "The Master."
MACFARLANE: Congratulations. You five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.
VEDANTAM: Did you hear that laughter? Everyone got it. Timur says when the Soviet Union tightly controlled East Germany, jokes were common there, too.
KURAN: Jokes about the aging Soviet leaders, jokes about how inefficient the Soviet economy was, jokes about how hollow Marxism was. But when the information about all of these deficiencies of the system were put in jokes, the person telling the joke did not have to take ownership of the claims. Where they drew the line is with writing an article that would go into a newspaper that would put in words, backed up by facts, the deficiencies of the system that you were joking about.
VEDANTAM: There is power in the written word. Sometimes it takes a news article to turn whispered injustices into public outrage. But this is where the story of Israel Horovitz gets complicated. Preference falsification was certainly at play in keeping women like Jocelyn Meinhardt silent, but it doesn't explain everything. In 1993, an envelope showed up in a Boston newsroom in the mailbox of a theater critic.
BILL MARX (BOSTON UNIVERSITY): A sort of plain, white envelope addressed to me.
VEDANTAM: This is Bill Marx. He now teaches at Boston University. But back in the early '90s, he was writing for the Boston Phoenix.
MARX: Which is part of what was then a very proud tradition of alternative presses.
VEDANTAM: Bill wrote theater reviews. So when he tore open the envelope in his mailbox, he was expecting what he usually received - a hate note from a pissed-off actor. That is not what he found. This was a different kind of note.
MARX: And it essentially was a plea from an anonymous woman at the Gloucester Stage Company, saying that they were being molested, that they were being, you know, sexually harassed by the artistic director, that they had - I remember that they, in the note, mentioned that they created a buddy system to protect each other, and they wanted some help. And it was really - to me, when I read it, it was a cry for help.
VEDANTAM: Bill was stunned. He wasn't really a reporter, let alone an investigative reporter. And yet, he says, it felt like he'd been singled out to do something, like he was being tested.
MARX: I wanted to check it out. I didn't immediately go, oh, this must be true. But I felt, well, I'm hearing this note. It sounded authentic to me, at least enough to where I wanted to start going out and talking to the actresses to see whether it was true or not.
VEDANTAM: He started reaching out to women he knew had worked at the Gloucester Stage Company.
MARX: Sometimes I would have to call two or three times. At times, they were reluctant. They will say, well, I'd like to talk, but I can't talk now, or let me think about this.
VEDANTAM: But slowly, women began to tell him their stories.
MARX: I mean, there was a tremendous amount of feeling, particularly among the actresses, that if this came out, they would not get jobs; they'd be labeled as being very difficult to work with. So that - they were putting a lot on the line when they were doing this.
VEDANTAM: It's important to note that at this time, Israel Horovitz was a big fish in a small pond. He was an internationally known playwright, running a powerhouse theater in an old, gritty fishing town.
MARX: He had a bit of celebrity star power. And he used to drive around Gloucester in a little sports car with a license plate that had author in - you know, in capital letters. And he used to wear sort of a beret.
VEDANTAM: Laura Crook remembers that vanity plate. She's one of the women who reached out to Bill with a story to share. They agreed to meet in his apartment.
CROOK: We went in, sat down. He gave me a glass of water and had his little tape recorder. Then he said, you know, we'll start when you're ready.
VEDANTAM: In the summer of 1989, she said she attended the Gloucester Stage Company's production of "The Widow's Blind Date." She told Bill she fell in love with the small black box theater and jumped at an opportunity to audition for Israel the following year.
CROOK: And I went in, and I think I either asked him if he - what he wanted, or he said, you know, OK do the monologue, and I want you to cry three times. And I said, OK. And I did the monologue, and I cried three times. And then a couple days later, they asked me if I would understudy. And I said, yes, absolutely.
VEDANTAM: But even before she started the new gig, a friend in the Boston theater world told her...
CROOK: Hey, try not to be alone with him. And I said, OK (laughter). You know, that's going to be - she's like, just try not to be alone with him.
VEDANTAM: Once she got to Gloucester, another actress issued the very same warning.
CROOK: Try not to be alone with him.
VEDANTAM: Rehearsals began. One day, as other actors worked on a scene, Israel called Laura over.
CROOK: And Israel said, hey why don't we go in the greenroom so we can work on your monologue? And I said, OK, because that's totally normal. There's nothing at all - that's absolutely normal to do. So we went into the greenroom, and we sat down on the couch, and I say, so let's just read through the monologue. And I started to read through it, and then he just was on me, and he had his tongue in my mouth and his hand down my shirt. And I jumped up and made a joke. I said, ha-ha, that's not in the script, ha-ha. He came at me again, and I pushed him away. And I don't know what I said then. I think it's - a lot of blood rushes to your ears in situations like that, and you just kind of figure out how the hell to get out of there.
VEDANTAM: Laura says she wasn't the only one at the theater fending off Israel's advances, so she worked out a buddy system with another woman.
CROOK: Israel didn't like lipstick. He didn't like red lipstick. And so we had a tube of lipstick. I had it in my box on my dressing table. So we would always put on lipstick when he was around.
VEDANTAM: Another time, Israel asked Laura to come into the shop to hand her some notes. Laura caught the eye of her friend.
CROOK: I mean, in true black comedy, it was - she was the technical director, but she kept announcing that she was coming into the shop to get a tool of some sort. She was like, I'm going to get a hammer. And then she'd go in, and she'd get the Shop-Vac and walk out. Like, she would not get what she was talking about. And then he would try to kiss me, and then she would come back in and interrupt us again.
VEDANTAM: It was a kind of job a person would want to quit as fast as possible. And yet, when Laura was asked back for another summer of work, she said yes.
CROOK: You know, I've been thinking a lot about that - a lot recently, but I think over the years, I think about it. I wanted to work. Like, there's just not a lot of work out there. I mean, it's a hard job. It's a hard career. And he wasn't always assaulting you. Sometimes you'd have these really great conversations about show business, and theater, and being creative and the art that we all make. And so I just - I wanted to believe otherwise. You just try to make sense of it so that you can live in this world.
VEDANTAM: Bill Marx understood the dilemma Laura and the other women faced.
MARX: I mean, their careers were on the - they felt their careers were on the line, that they would be labeled as difficult, they'd be labeled as man haters, they'd be labeled as, you know, somehow making things up about Horovitz, who apparently was telling everyone that this is just part of his sort of, you know, theater/Hollywood, kissy-kissy, huggy-huggy demeanor.
VEDANTAM: Two of the women told Bill they'd complained to the stage company's board of directors, but to their knowledge, nothing had been done. When Bill reached out to the board president, he was told the women's stories didn't fit the legal definition of sexual harassment. On August 6, 1993, the Boston Phoenix published Bill's article. It included the stories of six women. They chose to remain anonymous but said they would identify themselves if the paper was sued. A week later, the Phoenix published a follow-up story after four more women came forward. Three were nannies who'd worked in Israel's house.
MARX: To me, I absolutely proved what was going on, given the number of women and the activities. Then, you know, when the second article came out and I was called - all the nannies had called me and, suddenly, I had - and, you know, some other women contacting me, then I felt that, A, I've opened the floodgates. Now they're definitely going to have to do something. How can they ignore this? But it was ignored.
VEDANTAM: Officials at the theater recently said that in 1993, they conducted an investigation and crafted a new sexual harassment policy. The theater said Israel flatly denied the charges and that the women who spoke to Bill did not come forward to identify themselves. But in Bill's article, the board president is also quoted as characterizing the women as tightly wound. Laura Crook remembers being really angry and really sad.
CROOK: But mostly, like, OK, that's it. OK. I mean, we were two years out of Anita Hill, so we saw how that went. It wasn't much of a surprise. It was just - I hadn't thought about how much it hurt until now, until all of it resurfacing again, what it is to be - to know you're telling the truth and to be summarily dismissed.
VEDANTAM: Laura and Jocelyn's stories help us understand why the #MeToo movement didn't take off 25 years ago. Timur Kuran would call it preference falsification. Princeton psychology professor Betsy Paluck cites a complimentary idea known as social proof. When people are deciding whether to step forward and say something, they look at what happened to others who stepped forward before them.
BETSY PALUCK (PRINCETON UNIVERSITY): It's social proof at its most basic. We want to know - we wonder how we'll be treated if we step forward to blow the whistle on a certain kind of behavior. And we need sometimes to watch someone else do it and to see what, realistically, are the consequences?
VEDANTAM: When Laura and other actors revealed their stories and found it made no difference, other women received a clear message - shut up, stay silent.
PALUCK: Women especially used to watch other women report and maybe lose their jobs or just not be heard at all or be disparaged. So that is the kind of social proof that used to inform women's decisions about reporting sexual harassment.
VEDANTAM: Another young woman said she met Israel Horovitz in 1994. Jana Mestecky was interning at a small theater in Paris where Israel was working. She says he tried to kiss her and once tried to pull her into his bedroom. When Jana discovered Bill Marx's stories, she received social proof about what would happen if she spoke out.
MESTECKY: I had case-based evidence from a '93 article that came out that nothing happened to Israel Horovitz or the company or the board or anybody else who was responsible for enabling and protecting that behavior. I knew that you put yourself out there, and there will be nothing done other than you lose your job, and you leave, and you're bullied out of it.
VEDANTAM: Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: The same year that Jana Mestecky decided to remain quiet, Maia Ermansons was born at St. Vincent's Hospital across the street from Israel Horovitz's brownstone in Greenwich Village. From an early age, she was drawn to the stage. She started out dancing. It was Maia's dance teacher who recommended her for a role in one of Israel Horovitz's plays. She was 11 years old. Everything about the theater and the playwright delighted her.
ERMANSONS: Oh, I loved him. He was great. Yeah, I had so much fun with him. He was like a grandfather to me. There was a running thing going on during the production. If anyone cursed in front of me, they had to buy me a Toblerone bar, so I, you know, got lots of chocolate off of him. Yeah, it was great. He invited my family and I to a Boxing Day celebration after Christmas. Yeah, I felt very close to him.
VEDANTAM: Maia stayed close with Israel after the production. He made her feel special.
ERMANSONS: Well, he was just always really kind. He always responded to emails extremely quickly. Yeah, it was just this general sense of feeling that I wasn't just anybody else, that I was valued and respected. He wrote me recommendations for things. He would help me - he gave me monologues for auditions. He was great. He came to - at my request was the speaker at graduation for my middle school, PPAS, the Professional Performing Arts School.
VEDANTAM: Fast-forward a decade. In 2016, when Maya was 21, she was going through a rough time and feeling lost.
ERMANSONS: *** getting very difficult to know how to deal with.
VEDANTAM: One day, Maia ran into Israel at a reading of one of his plays. She told him what was going on in her life.
ERMANSONS: And he said to me, don't worry. I'm going to give you as many of my short plays as you want, and you're going to produce them, and that's going to be your project. That's what's going to focus you. And it was really incredible. I thought that it was a beautiful offer, a very cool offer. I'd never produced anything before. He was willing to help me. So it was really meaningful.
VEDANTAM: Maia consider it carefully. She had to conquer her own doubts about whether she was up to it - whether she could direct others, not just be directed. She decided she could.
ERMANSONS: So I emailed him and I said that it would be great. And within minutes, I got a response with attachments to a ton of his plays. And so I began sifting through them to see which ones I wanted to do.
VEDANTAM: Maia eventually chose five plays to work on. She recruited an actor who was also interested in producing, and they got to work. They changed language that felt dated. They started working on casting. Maia wanted to get as much done as possible so that when she met with Israel...
ERMANSONS: I could show him that I was actually invested in this and that I was putting the time in and I wasn't just waiting for him to tell me what to do.
VEDANTAM: Finally, Maia was ready. She wanted to talk production with Israel. At the time, he was overseeing rehearsals at a theater in downtown Manhattan.
ERMANSONS: He lives just a few blocks away from that theater, and I live further uptown, so I was saying I could go downtown to meet him. It's not a problem. And he insisted on coming up to my house.
VEDANTAM: He showed up a half hour earlier than they had arranged.
ERMANSONS: That threw me off a little bit.
VEDANTAM: But when she met him in the lobby, everything seemed fine.
ERMANSONS: Very friendly. He was very nice.
VEDANTAM: They went into her apartment.
ERMANSONS: And then the second the door closed behind him, he just - it was like a switch had flipped. He came and tried to kiss me, and then he put his hands on my breasts, and he pulled me to the couch in the living room and had me sit on his lap. And then I got up, and then he pulled me down again back onto his lap. And he stuck his tongue in my mouth, and I jerked away. Then he did it again. He held my head in place, and then I tried to get up again, and it was just sort of going around in circles like that.
VEDANTAM: Maia grew up in New York, and she thought of herself as tough. But in that moment, she didn't respond the way she would have expected.
ERMANSONS: I felt very self-conscious and nervous of offending him, which is something - to this day, I can't believe that that's how I felt in the moment. But then he - I kept sort of trying to veer the conversation back to the plays, back to the work, back to the production. And he interrupted me, and he said, before we get started, I just have to say I've known you since you were so young, and your breasts have just become so big and beautiful. And it was so - it was just impossible to process what was happening - that he was talking to me that way. And it was very strange that he acknowledged in the moment how long he's known me. But you know, part of me was almost hoping - you know, he's approaching 80, he's senile, maybe he doesn't quite understand who I am. But in that sentence, in that line, that clearly wasn't the case.
VEDANTAM: Maia tried again to explain her ideas for the plays.
ERMANSONS: He had no interest in what I had to say about them. He sort of had his game plan for how they should be done.
VEDANTAM: And then, she says, he tried to kiss her again.
ERMANSONS: And I said, I have a boyfriend. And he said, so? I have a wife. And then he said, I'm doing this for you, Maia. You know, I'm doing this for you because I love you. I love you. Do you know how much I love you? Do you love me? And he needed to hear me say that I loved him back. And then he told me no great woman ever became great by being a good girl.
VEDANTAM: Maia says she kept resisting. Eventually, Israel left.
When the door closed behind him and he left, what was going through your head?
ERMANSONS: I punched the kitchen wall. And I sat down on the floor, and I was just shaking with rage - rage that wasn't there when he was in the apartment. It was all very - I almost felt like my 11-year-old self dealing with him when we were face to face. And the second I didn't see him anymore, the second I got him out of the apartment, I just couldn't believe I had just let him leave and hadn't hit him. It was a very, very strange,
VEDANTAM: For more than 25 years, Israel Horovitz was protected by silence. Women who tried to speak up were shut down. The whisper network had turned thready and faint. Maia did not know about the accusations in Israel's past. But after the incident, she called her friends. She told her mother, who quickly tracked down the articles from the Boston Phoenix.
ERMANSONS: And reading those articles changed something in me. The description of what he did to them was exactly what he did to me.
VEDANTAM: Maia wanted people to know what had happened. She called a prominent theater where Israel often worked. She says the director didn't call back.
ERMANSONS: It was radio silence for three months. And then one day, I saw on Instagram, actually, a post of Israel in rehearsal, on stage for the play they were working on. And it was captioned The Man at Work, with a bunch of hashtags like #genius, #lovethetheater.
VEDANTAM: Maia burned with a white-hot fury.
ERMANSONS: I got so livid. I couldn't believe it.
VEDANTAM: So she sat at her kitchen table and slammed out a post on Facebook. I asked her to read it for us.
ERMANSONS: (Reading) In the beginning of June, I had a meeting with a playwright in my home. He is my senior by several decades. I've known him since I was 11. I regarded him as an honorary grandfather.
VEDANTAM: Maia described in detail what Israel had done to her, but did not mention his name. She finished up the post this way.
ERMANSONS: (Reading) And it hurts me that, even though some people do know what he's done, it doesn't seem to matter. And there will be more women. And some of them may be a lot tougher than me, but some of them will surely be a lot less tough. We've got to protect each other, especially when it would be so easy for a woman to feel this was her fault.
VEDANTAM: That might have been where the story ended. But then, news broke. A tape surfaced in which then-presidential candidate Donald Trump bragged about assaulting women.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've got to use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful - I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. I just kiss.
BILLY BUSH (RADIO HOST): (Laughter).
TRUMP: I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
BUSH: Whatever you want.
TRUMP: Grab them by the pussy.
VEDANTAM: It was the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape.
ERMANSONS: Just the casual nature of it is - like, how they - yeah. It's - he just, you know, he can grab women's bodies. Israel grabbed my body. It wasn't mine - they didn't see - he didn't see it as mine. Trump doesn't see it as the woman's body. Like, it's theirs. They have some ownership over it. And that really, really upset me. It still upsets me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Maia watched in disbelief as Donald Trump was elected president.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: I just received a call from Secretary Clinton.
TRUMP: She congratulated us - it's about us - on our victory.
VEDANTAM: At that moment, something snapped. The day after Trump's election, Maia reopened her Facebook post.
ERMANSONS: I reposted the original thing - the original bit, the piece that I wrote. And I just put something at the top saying that in light of the election, I'm ready to say the name. It was the playwright Israel Horovitz.
VEDANTAM: Maia also felt compelled to find other women who'd been through what she'd been through. She had powerful tools at her disposal - Facebook, Twitter, Google. It was a whisper network but on high octane. One of the first people she connected with was Jana Mestecky, who has stayed silent about what happened after she met Israel in Paris in 1994. When she heard Maia's story, Jana knew she had to speak up, too.
MESTECKY: It made me mad that it was still happening and that maybe if I had said something, maybe it would make a difference. I don't know that it would have made a difference then, but I'm raising two girls. And, you know, I couldn't look at myself if I didn't.
VEDANTAM: Maia also did something else. She contacted The New York Times. All over the country, powerful men were being toppled on charges of sexual harassment. In late November 2017, the Times published an article detailing the stories of nine women who publicly accused Israel Horovitz of harassment and abuse. In that article, the playwright apologized but said he had a different memory of some of these events. The reaction to this article was completely different than in 1993. The Gloucester Stage Company quickly severed ties with Israel. Other companies canceled productions of his plays. His own son, Adam Horovitz, said he believed the accusations. ***
Not long ago, I was talking to my wife over dinner about this story. I was trying to understand, why now? Why are women being heard in a way they were not heard before? My wife, Ashwini Tambe, researches gender issues and recently wrote about this topic.
ASHWINI TAMBE (UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND): I'm an associate professor of women's studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
VEDANTAM: What she told me about was the theory of horizontal violence.
TAMBE: Horizontal violence is when people turn on other people in their own lives when they are not able to actually effect change against more powerful targets.
VEDANTAM: It's a term used by the 20th-century psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon. He wrote about how people living under brutal colonial rule dealt with oppression.
TAMBE: Because it's so difficult to attack or target colonial rulers, what Fanon found was that people were lashing out against people in their own lives.
VEDANTAM: Think about pressure building up in a container. The energy needs a way to escape. If it can't blow the top off, it might explode sideways.
TAMBE: I think that the election of Donald Trump has served as a trigger, and it has provoked a great deal of fury and impatience because he represents, for many people, the ultimate unpunished predator.
VEDANTAM: Fanon used the term horizontal violence to describe rage that was misdirected or misplaced. Ashwini says horizontal action is a better term to describe how many women have channeled their rage over Trump's election to call out the men in their own lives who have sexually harass them.
TAMBE: It feels very, very important in this moment to topple those perpetrators who are within reach because, at this moment, Trump remains unreachable, even though Trump shapes the context in which enormous anger against misogyny and sexual harassment has risen.
VEDANTAM: Maia has the same take as Ashwini.
ERMANSONS: I think it's Trump. I think that's what it is. Clearly, there's been something building for a long time. But it's such a huge deal for your leader, the leader of the free world to not care about women that it's so unbelievable.
VEDANTAM: Laura Crook was one of the women who came forward to speak to the press in 1993. She did so again in 2017. She still lives in Gloucester, and she's grateful that her allegations were taken seriously this time around. But when she thinks about what happened to Maia, she can't get over the terrible costs of the delay.
CROOK: Just I wish it - I wish it could've stopped at '93. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that so many women had to go through this when it was stoppable - was absolutely stoppable.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, experts on both sides of the Atlantic were certain that the Soviet Union would endure for many decades. Preference falsification blinded regimes to their citizens' growing dissatisfaction. The pressure reached a breaking point in 1989. It took authorities by surprise. As protests at the Berlin Wall gained momentum, the regime that once looked invincible suddenly looked fragile. Preference falsification now started to work in the other direction. Very quickly, defending the old regime became dangerous. In exactly the same way, many powerful men accused of sexual assault have found themselves without defenders even amongst their own families. The social proof has changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: In Israel's play "The Widow's Blind Date," Margy goes back home 20 years after she was gang raped. She wants to confront her assailants to hear them say they did something wrong. Twenty years after what she describes as the worst summer of her life, Jocelyn Meinhardt, the playwrighting fellow who worked on that play in 1989, made an appointment to meet with Israel.
MEINHARDT: I just confronted him. I said, you know, we're here. He was just like, oh, it's so great to see you. We should have gotten together - la-la-la (ph). It's been too long - blah-la-la (ph). And then when we sat down for coffee, I just said, you know, the reason - I have a reason for seeing you. And I just want to talk about what happened.
And I didn't say rape. I think I - you know, I said - I talked about the trauma. I was like, that was deeply traumatic. It affected my whole life, and it's affected my romantic relationships, my - you know, just everything. And he was like - what? - you know, just sort of taken aback.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Jocelyn says Israel apologized.
MEINHARDT: But in that non-apologetic way - when, you know, it's not - it wasn't anything that landed and that he really took responsibility for it.
VEDANTAM: She says he suggested that what happened between them was not abusive.
MEINHARDT: At one point, he was just like - do you remember us? - like as if it was a romantic thing that I was just remembering wrong - which was enraging. And the thing that really, really sticks with me and really also is angering was just that - you know, you weren't underage - like because it wasn't - because I was 19, that made it OK.
VEDANTAM: Not long after Maia named Israel in her Facebook post, she received a voicemail.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ISRAEL HOROVITZ (PLAYWRIGHT): Maia, this is Israel calling. I'm so upset. I don't know what to say. I had no idea. It's a terrible, terrible misunderstanding. It was a terrible mixed signal. And I didn't know you were upset. And I love you, Maia. And I never, never would hurt you that way - never, never, never. Please, you've got to believe me. Oh, my God. I'm just shaking. Somebody just wrote to me and told me about it.
I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry, and I love you. And I would never, never, never hurt you that way. That was such a missed signal and such a - oh, my God.
VEDANTAM: In his note to us, Israel said "The Widow's Blind Date," quote, "states clearly my feeling about sexual violence against women, which I find to be abhorrent and intolerable."
We asked actors to read some lines from the end of Israel's play. In the scene, one of the men who raped Margy tries to explain why he did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE WIDOW'S BLIND DATE" )
ERIC MESSNER (ACTOR): (As Archie) Nobody planned it, Margy. It just happened, honest to God. I mean, well, boys are always talking about wanting to do it with this one or that one. And everybody was always saying they'd love to do it with you because you were, well, beautiful. But nobody really meant it, jumping you. It's just when George here, well, started, everybody wanted to, too. Everybody liked you.
HARRIS: (As Margy) You liked me, Arch?
MESSNER: (As Archie) I did - a lot.
HARRIS: (As Margy) And that's how you showed me you liked me?
MESSNER: (As Archie) I was tricked out at first, I was. Otherwise, Margy, the first word you would have heard whispered in your ear would have been, I love you. Because I did. And I do. I do still, Marg, something wicked.
HARRIS: (As Margy) I love you would not have helped.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman and Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Renee Klahr does our social media. We had original music today from Ramtin Arablouei. Laura C. Harris and Eric Messner performed the scenes from "The Widow's Blind Date." Special thanks to Patrice Howard, Ashley Messenger, Greg Lewis, Chris Turpin, Neal Carruth, Mark Memmott and Anya Grundmann.
This week's unsung hero is Tarana Burke. In 1997, 20 years before the #MeToo hashtags lit up social media, Tarana Burke started a movement to help victims of sexual harassment and assault. She called it Me Too. While millions of people now know about the hashtag, far fewer know about the woman who created the term.
Longtime HIDDEN BRAIN listeners are familiar with the name Maggie Penman. She's been a producer on the show since our inaugural episode back in September 2015. It pains me to say that this is her last episode with us. Maggie's moving to Boston to work at the wonderful public radio station WGBH. Thank you, Maggie, for everything that you have done to help build HIDDEN BRAIN, and we wish you all the best on your new adventures.
If you found this episode to be interesting or helpful, we'd love for you to share it with others. Please think of a couple of people who would like HIDDEN BRAIN, and tell them about our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.
Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.