I’d rather vomit slugs than name the truths of my experience of working at the National Museum of Ireland, but if I don’t do it I spend the rest of my life living with slug-like lodgers of my work-life past, eating me up from inside.
Such is the way of secrecy and shame.
Difficult and all as this is to do, in direct parallel to the feelings of fear and discomfort in doing it, is the simple knowledge that all I am doing is relating a story of some things that happened to me.
That’s it, I coach myself. Keep it simple: tell my story.
It’s not that I haven’t done this before. I’ve written about my experience, in a dreamy, arm’s length kind of way, without naming names. Before that, I told my story, again and again with friends and colleagues in my profession at the time, and over dinner with friends. It was almost a party piece to relay the outrageousness of what was a kind of open secret of the reality of working in the place I worked in for almost eight years. I could deliver the shock factor with aplomb. It was one way of coping with how bad it was.
And not only that, I went on to tell my story formally, “through the channels” by making a Formal Complaint of sexual harassment. It took all my reserves of courage at the time, and what fuelled me was my conviction that I was doing the right thing. Perhaps I was. I never felt that it did me much good though, in the long run.
For here I am, still, not feeling that sense of closure I thought speaking up would give.
Ever since I wrote my blog post A Workplace Fable, I wrestled with the question of whether I should have named names. I hadn’t, because of fear, and because at the time I needed to approach it for myself with a sense of detachment. Which is the same thing I guess: fear, and shame. I shared it on my own Facebook page, and people who had known were horrified all over again: more so, now maybe, when it was being shared in cold black and white. Some people said, it happened to them too.
My post got shared on, a bit, not far but the farther it went I could tell that some readers didn’t know which institution I was writing about (though it was easy to find out), and that for those who knew the institution but didn’t know exactly which individuals I was talking about, they could be left second-guessing about other staff.
I probably need to name names, was my dawning realisation.
I parked that realisation as far at the back of my mind as I could, along with the slugs. Then #MeToo happened. All over Twitter and Facebook, women began to speak out. Cautiously I “liked” or shared, without comment.
I’ve already shared my own #MeToo, I shrugged.
And I continued to observe.
Colm showed me what was happening at the Gate Theatre, and nodded as my jaw dropped.
Another cultural institution where obnoxious work relations ruled supreme. I caught up with everything Grace Dyas had to say, wrung my hands at wanting to reach out and say well done, well done, well done. I read Justine McCarthy’s piece in the Sunday Times, and thought of all the facts, times and dates I had accumulated in my Formal Complaint.
On Monday I sat down with the baby in my arms and quietly updated my blog post. I did what I’d been wanting to do all along. I named the names in my story.
I confirmed the institution as the National Museum of Ireland, and the man who sexually harassed me as Andy Halpin.
I claimed the simple truth of my experience.
I remember that the first time this man kissed me, unwanted, on my cheek, was the day he interviewed me for the job. The feelings of shame and the degradation of what happened to me are unearthed from where I bury them, all over again.
Grace Dyas said that she felt it was she who had to leave a room when she had done nothing wrong. In the latter six years of my job, I engineered all my movements so that I wouldn’t cross paths with my harasser. Since losing my job, I have not much felt able to return, even as a researcher or a visitor, partly because of the embarrassment of washing my dirty linen in the open, through my blog post, even though I know it’s what I had to do. I do it again now through this post. I bleed myself dry here once again in an effort to purge myself of the shame.
It was not that my time at the Museum was all bad: in fact I had absolutely loved the nature of my work. Remember, I had been devastated to lose my job. But the power bubble that was, and likely still is, has never been more apparent to me than it is now. I reflect on the time I made my formal complaint, when a senior manager and Pat Wallace met with me in my office, informally, to check on me. I felt like they cared: but Pat Wallace elbowed the other man in a chummy way, and chuckled “HO HO, I’d never have thought Halpin had it in him”. (The other man blanked this.) It was like he hadn’t thought him man enough before now. How’s that for ‘locker-room talk’, with me right there? I ask myself, what hope did I have if the boss behaved like he was impressed at the capability of another man in his staff to sexually harass a woman?
And then, some years later in a meeting with Pat Wallace, one of those times where snarling, desk-thumping and shouting was the order of the day, he berated me for not attending a book launch the prior evening. The book was by Andy Halpin. He demanded to know whether this was some kind of “statement” and reprimanded me for not supporting a “fellow researcher.”
My harassment assumed long forgotten, water under a bridge. I tried to remind him, shocked, that I would never support that individual. Perhaps I should thus not have been surprised, then, when in the dying days of my contract, I was asked to debrief my harasser and hand my project back to him. I did refuse, in no uncertain terms.
My time came to leave, and I became another forgettable casualty, because hierarchies favour power, not people. I left Dublin, moved to Wexford with Colm and our children and found a whole new profession by training as a yoga teacher. I can live my life behaving as if those eight years of working in the National Museum never happened, except that of course they did.
I see that Minister Heather Humphries and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht plan to introduce “measures” to address problems of harassment: which is nice. But until power bubbles are deflated, measures just won’t cut it. The entire culture has to be renewed, completely. Maybe sometime , I’ll walk back through the gates of the National Museum of Ireland with my head held high.