Illustrations by Amanda Lanzone
Names and identifying details in this story have been changed.
"You should undo your top button, honey," my new boss told me in a Capitol Hill bar, smiling the way my mother would while delivering the exact opposite advice.
I reached for my blouse. My boss, Meredith, knew what she was doing. She had been practicing law for six years, and I had only taken the bar exam a week earlier. If showing some cleavage would get me where she was, I'd do it.
I liked Meredith. She was as much of a misfit as I was in Washington DC, a city filled with interns and lobbyists. Her Barbie-doll proportions, bleached-blonde cheerleader hairdo, and fishnet stockings belied a calculating intelligence.
Over the din of obnoxious name-droppers, I asked her about her family and her hometown. I wanted to ask her, "How did a woman who wears five-inch red stilettos make it through an Ivy League law school?" but I danced around that question. I had seen Legally Blonde. I understood the danger of stereotypes.
Meredith had grown up in the South, like me. We both loved dogs and were the only lawyers in our families. Surrounded by male martini-drinkers, we sipped wine. Meredith told me about her father.
"He used to be a doctor," she said hesitantly, "but he's in prison now."
I told her I was so sorry.
"He was convicted of raping his patients."
Tears of empathy sprung from my eyes. I took her hand. "My grandfather was a doctor and raped his patients too," I told her.
Meredith should have said, "It's late, we should both go home." Instead, she wanted to know everything. I was equally curious. We had lived in emotional isolation for so many years, and suddenly we had found each other--co-habitants on the island of rapists' progeny. We talked until the bar closed, and when we hugged at the end of the night, I felt like I had found a mentor, a mother, and a sister all in one.
When Meredith and I shared our deepest secrets, we broke down both invisible boundaries and the defined ones clearly spelled out in in the employee handbook, which reminded us this is a professional relationship at every step. A year later, I found myself at the center of a sexual harassment battle against Meredith. Like any good victim, I wondered how I could have prevented my boss's inappropriate behavior. I watched her suffer and begged my firm to do something other than fire her. I even broke her confidence and told them about her father, hoping it would garner some leniency--and I learned a lesson that still haunts me: Doing the right thing can feel terrible.
Although Meredith and I never discussed our families again, the truth hung in the air--a daily reminder of our ugly vulnerabilities. I began to feel an increasing need to protect her. Meredith was a woman who wore leather miniskirts at a conservative law firm. Her Facebook profile picture depicted her performing a lewd act on a beer bottle. In the middle of business meetings, she would apply bright red lipstick. When she took interns to lunch, she asked them about their love lives. Other lawyers gossiped about her, but I bristled at that talk. I saw her as smart and capable, just struggling to be herself. I wore pinstriped suits and asked interns about their career goals. I bored myself; she inspired me.
Meredith and I worked together on an international bribery investigation. Since she lacked organizational skills, I often sat in my office until after 5 PM waiting for orders, only to receive an email saying, "Sweetie, we're going to need to stay late tonight. Lots of work to do! Xoxo." I could never say no to a woman my own age who addressed me as sweetie. The term cemented our secret bond. Although we never saw each other outside of work, she made me feel like we were best friends. I see our dynamic more clearly now: She was raised to flirt, and I was raised to please. In a world without boundaries, we were a perfect storm.
Over time, Meredith became more and more demanding. If she wanted to spend the whole day shopping and then come to work in the evening, I would have to sit at my desk waiting for her until she arrived at night to boss me around. She complained constantly about how hard she worked, but as far as I could tell, her workday started at dusk. I suspected she avoided going home and certainly didn't want to be at work alone. The firm culture dictated that I never argue with my supervisor. Although there was no written rule saying I had to do whatever she wanted, I watched other associates glisten with obedience and complacence. I accepted this as my tithe for high pay and prestige.
At some point during my first year, Meredith's behavior started to strike me as strange. She flirted with male colleagues and opponents and often suggested that I should do the same. When we met with our male counterparts, she urged me to wear more revealing clothing. I pushed back, and she reminded me that my career wouldn't advance if I didn't follow her lead. One night we were working late with a forensic accountant trying to fight criminal bribery charges leveled against the multinational corporation that was our client. Meredith left the room for a minute. The accountant beckoned me over to show me something on his cell phone: a text from Meredith saying, "Would it make this easier for you if I let you come in my mouth?"
The text amused me--and then it terrified me, particularly when I realized that the accountant felt threatened. We were his clients. We were asking him to audit our client's financial records and determine whether federal crimes had been committed. Was Meredith's offer a bribe? Would the Department of Justice invalidate the audit results if they suspected a sext influenced them? As a witness to this crude invitation, was I suddenly responsible for what happened next?
I had two choices. I could play sexual games like Meredith or I could protect myself. Armed with the naïve expectation that I could seek guidance confidentially, I blurted out the whole story to a senior female partner, whom I hoped would agree this was Meredith's fault.
The next day, the firm's outside employment counsel interrogated me.
I never used the words sexual harassment, but the firm used the term for me. They yanked me off Meredith's case, forbade me from speaking to her, and relegated Meredith to an office on a lower floor with the copy machines and floating secretaries. Instead of empowering me, filing the complaint against my troubled boss made me feel like I had betrayed a kindred spirit. I knew she was the child of a rapist, and as the granddaughter of a rapist, I understood her world lacked boundaries. After weeks of working in the same building and painstakingly avoiding interaction, I learned the firm had fired her.
Overnight, I took over our case, received access to her email, and became an office celebrity. Co-workers praised me for getting rid of her and begged me for salacious details. Associates who had never been my friend suddenly wanted to have lunch with me to "get the scoop." Others stopped talking to me. I heard I had gotten Meredith fired because I was offended by her calling me "honey." I heard I was jealous of her good looks.
Soon after Meredith's departure, the firm required associates to attend sexual harassment prevention training. The class told us we were prohibited from retaliating against anyone who had filed a sexual harassment complaint. The instructor, an employment attorney, told us retaliation includes social ostracization.
An associate I had previously considered a friend raised her hand and glared at me from across the room.
"But what if someone filed a false sexual harassment claim? What if it was all based on lies?" Her question was directed to the instructor, but her eyes were on me.
"The veracity of a complaint is not for you to determine," the instructor answered.
"Can I be punished for ostracizing her, though? I mean, what if she punished my friend?"
The answer was yes. She could be punished for ostracizing me, but she never spoke to me again. Once I said hello to her in the hallway. She looked down and walked away.
If I could go back, I would rescind my complaint. Meredith had made me feel exposed and sexualized, but the aftermath made me feel exposed and helpless. Whether they were on my side or not, people believed I had acted out of vengeance. Nobody understood that I had intended to seek guidance, not retribution--I had no idea that Meredith would be fired.
To properly run the case we had worked on together, I had to go through Meredith's emails and piece together the narrative of what she had told the client, what damage she might have done, what I needed to clean up in her wake. She used her work email for personal correspondence, and while I tried to avoid reading messages between her and her husband, sometimes they stared me in the face. Her husband took frequent business trips, and often his flights home were delayed and he ended up staying in Las Vegas or Miami for a couple extra nights. She would offer to fly out and meet him; he always said no. I felt sick. I pleaded with the firm to take her back, or at least to pay for her psychological treatment, but a senior partner told me the firm had wanted to fire her for a long time. I was the smoking gun they'd been looking for.
Being a smoking gun is as shitty as it sounds. I stayed one more year at the firm, but I never stopped feeling like I was a piece of evidence--walking proof that the firm made the right decision. I don't think Meredith was fired because she created a hostile work environment for me, or even because she exposed the firm to liability. I think they fired her because she was different. She was damaged, and she couldn't hide it. There were partners at the firm who regularly had affairs and asked associates to cover them up, but Meredith had no one to cover for her. I know what she did was wrong. I only wish she had been given the role models she never had as a child.
I ran into Meredith a few times after the firm fired her. Each time, we stared at each other, her eyes filled with anger, mine scared and apologetic. We've both moved to different cities now, but I google her every few months. I want to know she's OK. When I look at her photos, I'm struck by how young she looks, her coy smile conveying a childlike sweetness--betrayed, forgiving, expectant. I question if her appearance changed because of plastic surgery or because she escaped the toll of Big Law. I write her letters, but I never send them. I remind myself that some boundaries are meant to stay in place.