During the first semester of my first year as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, in 1985, I took a class with Franco Moretti, who was then a visiting professor from Italy. He was considered one of the up-and-coming literary critics at the time and there was much excitement about his work. He was cool. He was hip. He hung out with the New Historicist and critical theory professors in the departments of English, German, French, and Hispanic literatures. I was particularly interested in studying with him because I had been told that he had particular expertise in the Frankfurt School of social theory and philosophy. I was 25 and very naïve. I had spent the previous year in Northern Germany as a Fulbright Scholar and was still coping with the shock of beginning graduate school in a country that felt strange even though it was “home.” Franco demonstrated a great deal of interest in me, and I foolishly believed it was because he found me intelligent. The quotidian details of our relationship—how it began, how many times we saw each other, and where—are difficult for me to recall, but I know that the relationship lasted for the entire semester, about 3 or 4 months. It seemed romantic at first.
Quickly, it became traumatic.
Reporters who have called me want me to spin the narrative, run the film, so they can see it, comprehend it, fashion it into a chronology that makes sense to them. But traumatic memory does not work that way. Traumatic memory is fragmentary because trauma—the word derives from the Greek word for wound—injures the body and brain. Traumatic memories are jumpy, disjointed, incoherent, indigestible, cut off, separated, split away, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be put together.
I remember images, sensations, words, events, but could not say exactly in what order they took place. I remember meeting with him during office hours—his light coming in from the window behind him on the other side of his desk. He commented on my indigo-stained fingers. I apologized and said I used a fountain pen.
I remember him telling me, later, that he wasn’t attracted to me at first because he thought I had fat legs. Because he had only seen me wearing those loose boots from the 1980s, the ones I got from my mother. They were real leather and I thought they were cool. The weather must have warmed up because, he said, he later saw me in my favorite, baggy shorts, the ones I often hiked in.
It was then, when he pruriently gazed at me as though I were some Suzanna in the garden, that he decided to come after me.
He told me I was beautiful like Mathilde in The Red and the Black—not exactly a compliment. He said he had told “everyone” in the English department that he was in love with me. I remember feeling vulnerable, exposed, and ashamed. I remember him inviting me to dinner in his apartment with other faculty friends. I remember being excited about the opportunity to socialize with the women and men I admired so much. I remember the dingy white walls in my apartment in Oakland. I remember him pushing me down onto my futon, going too fast, too far. I remember I said, “No.” I remember I said, “I’m not comfortable with this, I don’t want to.”
I remember him saying, “Oh, you American women, when you say no, you mean yes.” I remember leaving my body and hovering somewhere around the ceiling, looking down and telling myself, “This is not happening to me. It is happening to her, to that body, not to me, not to me, not to me.” I will never forget the bleak, blank despair of that moment, the collapse of consciousness, the escape into nothingness, the fall into disgust and shame.
I remember him telling me that professors in Italy routinely slept with their graduate students, so why was I being such a prude? I remember the yellowish late afternoon light in his office, the window just opposite to the windows in the library. I remember panicking and feeling paralyzed, terrified that someone would witness my defilement, would see him pushing me against the wall, unbuttoning my blouse, putting his hands on my breasts, his tongue in my mouth. I remember the cold against my back, my clenched and churning gut. I remember being stricken, immobilized, and ashamed. Ashamed of my degradation, my helplessness, my passivity. I remember feeling dirty.
I don’t remember how or why I got there, but I was in his apartment and he pushed me against the wall. I guess he wanted to kiss me. I didn’t want to but could not summon the courage resist. In later years, I fantasized about kicking him in the balls, pushing him away, storming out. But he was my professor. He was the mentor I had chosen. I needed to pass the class I was taking from him, at least. At most I would need recommendations, connections, patronage. It was dark in there; the sunlight was outside. I collapsed into passivity, as though the skeleton of my psyche had dissolved and I was a doll, a puppet, a thing. “This isn’t happening to me,” I told myself. I absented my flesh, myself. My mind seemed to disintegrate, to become turgid and stupid. And for days and weeks and months it was impossible to think. I felt dead, utterly alone, separated, alienated, cast adrift, cut off from care, from concern, from love, from life. In class I felt such a sordid lurching in my belly and dizziness that I had to leave the room.
Finally, I stopped going. I took an incomplete.
I read in the news that Moretti said we remained on good terms. Maybe he meant that he gave me an A for the final paper I struggled to birth, that document of wretchedness. We did not remain on good terms. I saw him once, on an airplane on the way to the MLA. I think it was 1998.
He came over with a big smile on his face and said, “Hello, hello! Do you remember me?”
I was sitting with a friend, a tremendous supporter, and we were both on our way to our first interviews. My friend’s presence gave me courage.
“Of course I remember you,” I said, “and I will never forgive you for what you did to me.”
He turned away, ran back to his seat and never contacted me again.
Towards the end of the semester in 1985, I was unable to focus on my studies. I was constantly ill, nervous, frazzled, distressed, and ashamed. I didn’t know what to do. One of my friends must have suggested I go to the Title IX officer. I don’t remember. I have forgotten—repressed?—so many things about that period in my life. The difference between ordinary forgetfulness and traumatic amnesia is that, in the latter case, although many moments are gone, the particularly grisly scenes remain permanently burned in. As Bessel van der Kolk puts it, “traumatized people simultaneously remember too little and too much.”
Some memories are too much to bear.
I would never have gone to the Title IX office had I known who held it. It took all my courage to get myself there. With dismay and the familiar sensations of despairing helplessness, I discovered that the person responsible for protecting me was not a neutral party but one of his colleagues, someone I was pretty sure he knew well. She was on his side. Or so I thought, reading her dispassionate expression and body language. She was not warm. She did not want to hear about it. I was so ragged that I blurted out my story anyways. I told her that I was being harassed and sexually pursued. It’s possible I didn’t tell her that he had already raped me. I was so ashamed—ashamed of having been violated, of being unable to protect myself.
I remember her adamantly commanding me, “Don’t tell me his name.” This confused me. I had already told her enough about him—he was Italian, a visiting professor, in the English department—for her to know who he was. Of course, she knew who he was. She discouraged me from filing a formal report by describing the process as involving a scrutiny that sounded more traumatizing than what I was already undergoing. I remember insisting that she at least write down his initials, in case he did this to anyone else. She said she would. She also said there was nothing she could or would do for me unless I was willing to file formal charges. I do not remember her offering me the option to have the university administration write something like a cease and desist letter. Perhaps she did. I doubt I would have agreed to take such a path—it would only have led to retaliation and further abuse.
When I told Franco (honestly, reader, I hate to repeat his name) I had told Frances Ferguson that he was sexually harassing me, he said that if I pressed charges he would ruin my career. He said he would hire the powerful attorney—wife of a colleague in the English department whose name I have forgotten—and shred me. No one would believe me, he said.
I believed him. The relationship ended there. I left the course, avoided him and his cronies, and wrote what I’m sure was a shitty seminar paper.
After he left Berkeley, Franco sent me two chatty letters, which I have not saved. I remember feeling flabbergasted by them. Why would he write to me? Did he think we were friends? Was he so narcissistically deranged that he actually believed that he hadn’t hurt me? After I had told him how devastated I felt? How I couldn’t even sit in his class any more, couldn’t be around him or his faculty friends?
I destroyed them. I didn’t want anything around me that was linked to him. My interest in the Frankfurt school evaporated, and I turned to Simone de Beauvoir and other French feminists. It was difficult to go on, but I resolved not to let him destroy me completely. I avoided courses with people who I believed where close to him, but never really knew whom I could trust. A few good guys, especially Jeffrey Knapp in English and Michael Rogin in Political Science, were tremendous teachers and mentors for me at Berkeley. But I didn’t tell them. I wanted to, but couldn’t. As soon as I passed the qualifying exams for the Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature—then a grueling four hours a day for five days in a row answering written and oral questions in three languages—I fled.
Writing about this takes a toll. Speaking about it, telling the story over and over again, has been far more stressful than I could have imagined. My throat constricts; my heart, thudding furiously, jumps into my mouth; my stomach aches; my forehead throbs. It hurts, physically, to remember and to tell the truth. My body knows what my consciousness refuses to acknowledge. I don’t go here often. I had buried all this deep down in the darkness, and now that I am bringing it back to the surface, I am flooded with unbearable discomfort. I had not expected this.
Folks want to know what prompted me to speak out now. Because it is the right thing to do. Because I wanted to speak out long ago, but was afraid. He threatened me, after all. Now, thirty-odd years later, I know he can’t hurt me. Too many people can corroborate my story. Shortly after Moretti raped me, I told two graduate student friends at Berkeley. I told my fiancé, whom I met the next year. I told my colleagues and friends at Vassar College. I told my dissertation director and mentor at Rutgers, who observed that what Ferguson did was as bad as what Moretti did to me. I hadn’t even considered it in that light until he said so. As I have told my story to various friends in the academy of the years, many told me that they had heard that he had abused and harassed other graduate students. I was not the only one.
He denies it. He is lying. Would you expect otherwise? He is trying to make it harder for me to speak about this. This is how power works. The powerful ones—the insiders, say whatever they want—assured that they’ll be believed. Those of us on the outside—the banished ones with our tongues cut out, like Procne—we refuse to be silent any more. We are weaving our tapestries, telling our stories.
This story is not just about Moretti and Ferguson. It is also about the unacknowledged power to intimidate and abuse that professors wield over students. It is about the men who harass female graduate students and the women who cover up for them or look the other way. Ever since patriarchy became the dominant mode of reproduction—Gerda Lerner traces its origins in emergence of Mesopotamian temple-towns 3,000 years before the current era—women have cooperated with misogynist power structures to advance their own social and political capital. I think most academics start out with good intentions, but too many are perverted by the institutions in which they achieve fame and fortune. I can forgive, but not excuse, their corruption.
Why don’t more women speak out about their abuse? Rape survivors very often doubt themselves because our point of view differs dramatically from commonly held beliefs about sexual assault. As Judith Herman observes in Trauma and Recovery, returning veterans who have been traumatized are at least recognized for having been to war, but the terrorizing violence that rape survivors experience is rarely acknowledged:
Women learn that in rape they are not only violated but dishonored. They are treated with greater contempt than defeated soldiers, for there is no acknowledgement that they have lost an unfair fight.
Sexist viewpoints, shared by women as well as men, too, often dismiss what survivors experienced as terrorizing violations. Sometimes, even close relations refuse to understand, forcing victims to choose between expressing their point of view and remaining part of the masculinist community—a community that routinely blames the violated for their violation. Masculinism privileges the masculine over the feminine in all aspects of being and in all body-minds and defines the masculine over and against the not-masculine—the not-strong, the weak, the helpless, the shameful. I want people to know what happened to me and to all those who fight for dignity in an academic system riddled with institutionalized masculinism.
In my letter to Stanford, I wrote that I wanted to bring Moretti to justice. I meant that people should know about what he did. I wanted to make sure he would never have the opportunity to do it again. He should not be allowed to supervise female students. He should not be allowed to keep his fancy named chair or Emeritus status. He should not be allowed.
The University of California at Berkeley injured, wounded, traumatized me in two ways: first, by preventing and thereby permitting a sexual predator to harass and rape me. Second, by shutting me up, out, and down, via its ice queen Title IX officer who should not have been in that office in the first place. I had to leave academia for a long time to get my bearings. The University of California has had a problem with professors harassing students verbally and physically for a long time, as William Kidder shows in his forthcoming essay. Moreover, as Ali Colleen Neff suggests in her piece about academic precarity, the cut-throat academy enables, even encourages, people to do terrible things to others in order to get a job, tenure, full professorship, endowed chair, and distinguished emeritus status.
Immediately after I published my letter to Stanford on Facebook, a old friend directed me to Seo-Young Chu’s eloquent and moving “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe: Fugues in the Key of English Major.” He also wrote that Chu “said she knew of one person, presumably at Stanford, who was assaulted by Moretti. She said it was “not her story to tell,” but if you are gathering info or other people assaulted by Moretti, maybe she would help you out.”
I emailed Seo-Young to see if she might give me the woman’s name. She responded, “The victim I know is overwhelmed by fear and does not yet (or ever?) wish to “come forward/out.” Which makes me even angrier at F.M. and others who abuse power to silence the vulnerable.”
Much later on, Jane Penner, an extraordinarly brave woman whom I did not know, contacted me on Messenger and wrote,“I knew Franco Moretti briefly when I was English Ph.D candidate in the mid-90s—we were both in Hanover, NH for a 6-week literary theory seminar. He was teaching; I was a student. His behavior toward me that summer did not rise to the level of assault, but it was unquestionably the most severe sexual harassment I’ve experienced in my life.” She also mentioned, “I am slightly freaked out by speaking up (Don’t love the limelight?), but I feel I need to do it, especially given that he, predictably, is trying to discredit you.” The recent article in the New Republic, “A Professor is Kind of Like a Priest,” explains that Moretti chased Penner around her house and refused to back off until she released her dog.
Another previously unknown professor, who has requested anonymity, also contacted me on Messenger and wrote, “What happened (mid-90s,somewhere between ’95-7, I think) was Moretti was recruited for a permanent senior Victorianist position at Hopkins by Frances F. and Walter Michaels, and [Moretti] made a pass at a graduate student while on his job visit. Only when the Hopkins graduate students objected strenuously to his hiring because of the advances he had made toward the student, was the informal offer rescinded. I want to clarify that this episode predated my time at Hopkins, but was well-known. Frances herself told me of the incident, though she never connected it to her time at Berkeley as Title IX officer.” The writer also asserts that “my knowledge is secondhand, but I could certainly direct the reporters to the relevant people.” She gave me permission to share her contact information with reporters, and I have done so, selectively.
Journalists from the New Republic called the faculty whom my source named, but none of them would speak out about it. They were protecting Ferguson, I suppose. I fired an angry letter at the magazine, published it on Facebook, and seethed with ineffective fury. The patronage system in academia is a terrifying force. People are afraid to speak the truth for fear of offending someone who might just decide to stop publishing their work in the prestigious journal where they have a powerful seat on the editorial board; some offended party upon whom one depends for letters of recommendation might just damn one with faint praise.
I was angry because the New Republic left out so much of my story and that made me feel even more isolated and helpless. Moretti isolated me and then violated me. When my nerves vibrated with weeping voices and jangled my thinking, I sought help, comprehension, comfort, protection, and refuge in vain. The University did not offer assistance; it did not want to hear me. No one wants to hear about rape, especially if the rapist is a member of the institution that the complainer is trying to get into.
Cut out her tongue! When the academic community closed ranks and refused to substantiate my story—that the Title IX officer was a member of the same department, which never should have been allowed—I felt even more isolated, and like I was screaming at the world but no one could hear me.
Academia doesn’t like to regard itself as part of the problem. So when someone complains that the academia is a system that shelters and enables abusers, rapists, oppressors, the system isolates that complainer, even suggests that she, is the hostile aggressor. It cuts out her tongue by blaming her for trying to ruin someone’s career, making everyone uncomfortable. Or it says, “She’s crazy, hysterical, blowing things out of proportion, making stuff up.”
The usual stuff. Shame the victim.
Shame shut me up as well. I felt ashamed for having allowed it to happen, for tolerating the intolerable. Ashamed for complaining about it. The heavy shame I have carried for all these years is not a burden I took up consciously. It does not reflect a weak character or an irrational mind. Shame is the symptom of the misogynist culture in which I live and the academic culture founded by monks who celebrated masculinity as righteous, god-like, rational, and normal and femininity as suspicious, evil, irrational and monstrous. Aristotle notoriously said that women are inferior and imperfect beings, not quite human. And the Abrahamic traditions construed woman as the lesser being who should be ashamed of herself for having allowed the serpent to seduce her in the first place. The ideological undercurrent of the arts and the sciences has for thousands of years condemned us for being female in the first place and reviles women who engage without strict patriarchal surveillance in the sexual act that brings life into the world as defiled, spoiled, sullied, tainted, tarnished, polluted, degraded, dishonored, befouled, befiled, debased, ruined. We are all of us steeped in this culture that shames women for being women. Our grandmothers had their tongues cut out, or bridles placed on their heads, when they complained about the arbitrary hierarchy that keeps men in power over women and other feminized beings.
But we are speaking anyway, because, even if no one hears us or understands what we are saying, we are paying attention to the wounds and the bruises and the pain in our bodies, the somatic symptoms that tell us what we have always known but have so long denied: we are suffering and we demand justice. We have scars and we can point to them and we are doing so together and we are screaming at the world that has tolerated and dismissed our trauma even as it alleges that it forbids it. We are crying foul and shame to those who practice and enable the sexual exploitation of women and even reward the perpetrators and enablers with riches and favors and prestige.
We are aggrieved, we are mourning what we have lost and what we still suffer and we are weeping and we are shouting. We reject the codes and hierarchies we once accepted, the lenses through which we learned to regard ourselves as shameful. We will no longer be ashamed and we will keep screaming until the world hears us and we are free.
As I said, it hurts to talk and write about it. The truth hurts whether we utter it or not, and I extend my compassion and stand in solidarity with those who cannot. Too many still suffer. Too many will continue to suffer until we change. I want our society to transform by rejecting masculinism and embracing the worth and dignity of feminine beings as equal to (not the same as) masculine beings in every way. We start by believing the individuals who have had the courage to speak up, to talk back to the powers that have demeaned and abused them for so long.
I sent this essay to my alma mater, UC Berkeley. The Title IX office took nearly a month to respond to me, presumably because they were fussing, like chickens, among one another and their legal team. After much back and forth, I had a phone conversation with the head of the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), Denise Oldham. She was very careful in her speech and produced a long preamble about all the things that had changed since 1985, how much better things were now. After patiently allowing her to carry on with this, and when I realized that she wasn’t going to address what happened to me, I interrupted her: “This is all very well, but what does any of it have to do with me?”
To be fair, she did finally admit that the university had grossly failed me, and that the trauma I suffered as a result of reporting, asking for, and failing to get help from the University while Franco Moretti continued to harass me, had caused lasting damage. I felt grateful to her for saying that, and assured her that I wasn’t seeking to sue.
I asked for an apology, an official letter of apology from the University. A number of weeks passed in silence. Again!! I felt shut out, pushed away. No one told me what process of investigation would take place, or who would be consulted, or why it was taking them so long. I still have no idea who weighed in on the decision. I got the following letter:
Kimberly Latta is an independent scholar of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century literature in English, an artist, and a psychotherapist living in Pittsburgh.