James Toback Tried to Break Me, But #MeToo Helped Me Heal

Thanks to the community of women who formed over social media, I'm finding my voice again.

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26 October 2017, 7:31pm

Image by Jacqueline Lin. Original photo by Ron Galella/WireImage

For the last 20 years, I've wanted to forget James Toback. But I continue to be haunted by the way the screenwriter and film director humiliated me by performing a lewd act in front of me without my consent. Though he has denied doing this to dozens of women, claiming that it has been "biologically impossible" for the last 22 years, I know what happened to me in 1997. And the worst thing about it has been his impunity—the privilege he's had to live his Hollywood life while the women he's alleged to have abused have been forced to cope with the resulting trauma. I hate to think about him. But when I do, it's often because there is a new allegation of sexual harassment or assault in the news—like those involving Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, or President Donald Trump.

So it was hard for me not to reflect on my disturbing experience with Toback on October 5, when the New York Times revealed several sexual harassment allegations leveled against Harvey Weinstein. As I read through the horrific accounts of Weinstein's alleged victims, everything seemed so damn similar—from the way he was able to spot the most vulnerable women with promises of "stardom" to the way his alleged victims' cries were drowned out by his prominence. It felt like there must be a manual out there for sexual predators.

But while Weinstein and his victims were some of Hollywood's most famous success stories, Toback is a bit obscure in the annals of pop culture—far more people have seen Shakespeare in Love than The Pick Up Artist. And most of Toback's accusers are like me, women who do not appear on the cover of magazines or red carpet events, even if we may have wanted that life before Toback diminished our desire to be a part of the industry.

Today, I work as a drama teacher in New York City. But when I first met Toback back in the fall of 1997, I yearned for the spotlight. I was 27 years old and still trying to get my big break. He approached me on the Upper West Side while I was shopping at an antiques fair. At first he looked kind of homeless, dressed in old baggy dirty sweats. But he told me he was a filmmaker. He said he was responsible for Bugsy, which had been nominated for an Academy Award. And he promised me he could make me his new undiscovered talent. I told him to go away. But he gave me his number instead and challenged me to look his name up in the book Bugsy at the Barnes & Noble on 83rd St. Curious, I followed up on his suggestion and found his picture plastered over the back cover. At that moment I wondered, Am I actually being discovered? Is this the break I've been waiting for?

But when we met up at his editing studio in Chelsea a week later, he put me through the same degradation he's been accused of subjecting more than 200 other women to. There was dirty talk, a rub on my leg, and a sexual release for him that created years and years of shame and anger inside of me. Through the whole episode, Toback never let me forget that he was powerful and connected. He bragged about his gambling habit and his "boy" Robert Downey Jr.

I never really spoke about the incident unless it was with another woman who had been taken advantage of by some man who tried to coercively wield their future or their dreams over their dignity. In part, this was because I was afraid that Toback would ruin my career. I thought no one would care about my story, because I wasn't famous like he was. I also wondered what people would say about me. I figured they'd ask, "Why did you ever go back to the studio with that creep—couldn't you tell? Why would you let it get that far?" Even as time passed, the power he exerted over me never ceased to frighten and hurt me. I remember seeing him on a bus on the Upper East Side a few years after the incident and I broke into a panic attack and had to get off immediately. And when I would hear about him galavanting with stars like Alec Baldwin in gilded industry events like the Cannes Film Festival, I would erupt in rage.

All of those dark feelings kept coming back to me earlier this month as I read more and more about Harvey Weinstein and his alleged deeds and I wondered when it would finally be Toback's time. But then I came across the #metoo campaign, which began to go viral on social media on October 15. In response to the Weinstein scandal, women from all walks of life used the hashtag to share the times that they had been harassed and assaulted. These women took their advocacy and their desire to help others like them into their own hands. As their voices grew stronger, I didn't feel so alone with my pain. Instead, I felt empowered to add my own #metoo message. I tweeted: "Now that Weinstein's happened when can we put James Toback in jail? #metoo"

This tweet helped connect me with several other women who claim to have had similar experiences with Toback. The dialogue we had as survivors led to the formation of a sort of social media support group. In the beginning, there was just a handful of us, but with every passing day, the number has grown. There are currently more than 200 women who claim to have been assaulted or harassed by the same skeezy filmmaker.

Our unity has already generated real action. We were key sources in an LA Times piece journalist Glenn Whipp published on October 22, which helped shine a light on Toback's pattern of alleged sexual harassment. Now, when you google his name, it's not clips of Black & White or an IMDB page for Harvard Man that show up. Instead, it's global news sites like CNN and the Guardian with articles focused on the allegations and celebrities calling him out for his abhorrent behavior.

Right now, many of the women are coordinating their efforts to submit complaints to local law enforcement in both Los Angeles and New York City with the goal of bringing charges against Toback. While I'm hopeful that happens, I'm mostly thankful for the community I've found.

We are all women who feel we've been robbed of our own safety by a predator who got away with it for too long. But we are not alone. And together, if we keep talking and sharing, we can help ensure that this doesn't happen again.

When VICE contacted the office of Jeff Berg, James Toback's former agent, about Karen Sklaire's allegations, it said it would forward VICE's message to Toback. Toback has yet to respond. If you've suffered sexual assault or harassment, you can reach out to the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline, which can give you access to a free range of resources.
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