The perfect victim

Anna Quindlen

October 18, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

SHE SEEMED the perfect victim. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she was the perfect person to teach us that there are no perfect victims, that no matter how impressive your person, how detailed your story, how unblemished your past, if you stand up and say, "He did this to me," someone will find a way to discredit you.

And so it was with Anita Hill. Intelligent, composed, unflappable, religious and attractive, she testified to her sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas and even to her own inadequacies, agreeing that it had taken her too long to come forward, that it was hard to understand why she had kept in touch.

And as soon as she left the room, she was portrayed as nut case, romantic loser, woman scorned, perjurer.

Clarence Thomas thundered about the sexual stereotypes of black men, and the Senate gasped obligingly. Little attention was paid to the stereotypes leveled at Professor Hill. Aloof. Hard. Tough. Arrogant.

This is familiar shorthand to any successful woman. She wanted to date him. She wasn't promoted. She's being used by his enemies. This is familiar shorthand to anyone who has ever tried to take on the men in power.

African-American women are sometimes asked to choose sides, to choose whether to align themselves with their sisters or the brothers. To choose whether to stand against the indignities done them as women, sometimes by men of their own race, or to remember that black men take enough of a beating from the white world and to hold their peace. The race card vs. the gender card. Clarence Thomas milked the schism.

With his cynical invocation of lynching, he played masterfully on the fact that the liberal guilt about racism remains greater than guilt about the routine mistreatment of women. We saw more of Judge Thomas' character last weekend than we ever did during his confirmation hearings.

What we learned is that he is rigid, histrionic and anxious to portray himself as perfect too, a man who will not even allow that two men watching a football game might talk differently than they would if there were women in the room.

The members of the Senate took to the floor Tuesday and congratulated themselves on educating the American people about sexual harassment. Well, here is what they taught me:

That Sen. Orrin Hatch needs to spend more time in the taverns of America if he thinks that only psychopaths talk dirty.

That the party of the Willie Horton commercials is alive and well and continuing to wrap itself in the deft smear for the simple reason that it works.

That the Democrats behaved in these hearings the way they have in presidential elections, hamstrung by their own dirty linen, ineffectual in their pallid punches, weak advocates for the disenfranchised.

I learned that if I ever claim sexual harassment, I will be confronted with every bozo I once dated, every woman I once struck as snotty and superior, and together they will provide a convenient excuse to disbelieve me.

The lesson we learned, watching the perfect victim, is that all of us imperfect types, with lies in our past or spotty job histories, without education or the gift of oratory, should just grin and bear it, make nice and try to stay out of the supply closet. "This sexual harassment crap," Sen. Simpson called it, evidencing his interest in women's issues.

What I learned from Professor Hill was different. When she returned to Oklahoma, where she may well teach all the rest of her days, unmolested by offers of high appointment because of her status as a historical novelty act, she had a kind of radiance. It seemed to me the tranquillity of a person who has done the right thing and who believes that is more important than public perception.

There is only one explanation for her story that seems sensible and logical to me, that does not require conspiracy theories or tortured amateur psychoanalyzing or a member of the United States Senate making himself look foolish by reading aloud from "The Exorcist."

There is only one explanation that seems based not in the plot of some improbable thriller but in the experiences of real life, which the members of the Senate seem to know powerfully little about. That explanation is that she was telling the truth and he was not. Simple as that. She got trashed and he got confirmed. Simple as that.

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