How Coming Forward on Harassment at AFI Sparked Outpouring from Women and Response from Dean (Guest Column)
After the writer detailed being kicked out of the prestigious film institute when she reported sexual harassment by a director, the current AFI Conservatory dean vowed "to make sure this kind of behavior never be repeated in our classrooms, on our sets."
A few weeks ago, The Hollywood Reporter gave me the opportunity to tell a story I had long held in silence: As a directing fellow at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film Studies, I was sexually harassed by my principle instructor and then ousted from the program when I took my case to Jean Firstenberg, then the director of AFI.
Revisiting my experience from 30 years ago left me profoundly shaken with shame, fear and rage despite having spent years working as a therapist with women who have similarly been subject to sexual predators and those who protect them. Psychiatrist, researcher and author Dr. Judith Herman calls this kind of trauma for women the "combat neurosis of the sex war." Women in the throes of trauma used to be diagnosed with "hysteria," and their symptoms were widely viewed as stemming from weakness related to their gender. Then, in the early 1970s, it became clear that shell-shocked vets returning from Vietnam with PTSD exhibited the exact symptoms as women who had been raped, subjected to domestic violence or systematically abused. The manifestations of their trauma were, in fact, precisely the same: shame, dissociation, flashbacks, a tendency to self-isolate and/or self-medicate, and fear of re-traumatization. In order to heal, trauma victims need to have the weight of judgment lifted. In short, they need be heard and believed.
The good news is, after my article was published, a lot of great stuff happened. I received supportive emails from women in the U.S., England, Germany and even Saudi Arabia, telling me their stories of predatory attacks in film schools, on movie sets, in the offices and classrooms of the AFI, and in executive suites throughout the industry. I heard from a woman who studied with my instructor, Deszo Magyar, and experienced similar predatory behavior from him. Her email, subject-titled "Out of the Woodwork," confirmed that there were still others who felt shamed and manipulated by this man and none of them had ever spoken of this to anyone outside their private circle. Richard Gladstein, the current dean of the AFI Conservatory, called to tell me that he had personally made sure it was distributed to every student, staff member, and teacher at AFI, and that meetings were being held to make sure that this kind of behavior would not ever be repeated "in our classrooms, or on our sets."
I am hopeful enough to want to believe this is true, and yet cynical enough to wonder. Working women in all areas of our industry are subjected to predatory behavior from much smaller fish than Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer: casting directors, second ADs, production executives — anyone whose name is above theirs on the call sheet — because this crime is all about power.
Yet telling my story was personally cathartic, and it's been profoundly gratifying to be part of the effort to reverse these longtime wrongs. To that end, I am thrilled to be able to help the likes of Women in Film and provide informational seminars, along with referrals to therapists trained in dealing with the trauma of sexual predators in the workplace and in film schools. Women in Film's newly debuted sexual harassment hotline (323-545-0333) will help provide legal counsel and emotional support for women in the industry who face the traumatic distress that I and so many others have suffered.