Creeps depend on the lie of the ‘big break’

By GILLIAN BROCKELL | The Washington Post | Published: October 27, 2017

One spring evening in 2004, director and screenwriter James Toback sat in my section at a French restaurant in New York City. I was a 23-year-old waitress.

“Actress, singer or dancer?” he asked me.

“Writer,” I said.

If you’ve read the recent Los Angeles Times article in which dozens of women allege that Toback sexually harassed them after promising to help them break into the entertainment industry, you can guess how the rest of our conversation went. He gave me his number.

At the end of my shift, I raced home to tell my roommate what had happened. We’d arrived from Texas the previous fall on a Greyhound bus. It had been a rough six months. We were sharing a fifth-floor walk-up studio with more leaks when it rained than we had pots and pans. We could barely afford the rent. I’d just graduated with an English degree and had no idea how to start a writing career.

So I felt lucky when this man, who had been nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, said he could tell I had something special and wanted to help.

My roommate and I rented his movie “Black and White,” like he’d told me to do. One of the first scenes depicted a graphic ménage à trois in Central Park. That’s when I noticed the weird bowling-ball sensation in my stomach — a feeling with which I’d only recently become acquainted.

Two months earlier, a wealthy painter who’d also sat in my section at the restaurant asked me to pose for him at his home in the Hamptons. He promised he wasn’t a creep. He invited me to a prestigious gallery for a reception celebrating his work, introducing me to his wife and his friends as his “new muse.” So I agreed to pose, but made my boundaries clear. I thought that would protect me.

It didn’t. He was a creep. Thirteen years later, I’m still ashamed of what happened, how easily I was talked out of boundaries.

So, with that new knowledge that, yes, men decades my senior would actually try to have sex with me, I balked at calling Toback.

I regretted it for years.

I cursed myself for not having the guts to call, instead of praising my gut for telling me not to. Even if he was as lecherous as I suspected, so what? Shouldn’t I have at least heard what he had to say? Shouldn’t I be willing to take some risks to achieve my dream?

It’s this impossible choice that men like Toback rely on. They know you believe they are the gatekeepers to a rewarding career. This can happen in any industry, but it’s particularly acute in creative industries, which lack a formalized career path like law and medicine, and are awash with stories of being “plucked from obscurity” after a chance encounter.

Rosario Dawson was a teenager sitting on a neighborhood stoop when the director of “Kids” walked by. Ellen Pompeo was a bartender when a casting agent spotted her. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” manuscript was rejected by a dozen publishers before she got a call from Bloomsbury.

But what if, instead of good-guy Barry Cunningham, Rowling had been contacted by the co-founder of Weinstein Books? What would she, or should she, have done? If she had said no, would the world ever have heard her voice?

Now, I’m not nearly as talented as Rowling. But these past few weeks, hearing account after account from women pressured to trade access to their bodies for access to success, I wonder what creative geniuses the world has missed out on. What performances, what screenplays, what novels don’t exist because talented women gave up after encounters with the wrong gatekeepers?

I left New York a few years after Toback came to my table, still broke, much more dejected and with a drinking problem for good measure. I gave up on “the dream” and moved back to Texas. It’s a common tale, I know. My eyes are rolling, too. And, to be clear, I don’t blame it on the screenwriter, or the painter. I don’t know if I could have “made it” back then even if I’d met the right gatekeeper.

Until the Los Angeles Times published its article, I was still unsure about Toback’s true intentions when he gave me his number. But I stopped regretting not calling him in my early 30s, when I was years sober and had started writing again.

What I found out then, what I wish I had known at 23, is that there’s a slow route to the writing life, too, where the asymmetry of power isn’t so steep. I got my first paid writing gig through a woman I used to waitress with at that French restaurant. Since then, my slow route has been paved with grad-student debt, internships, endless email pitches and deep friendships.

I didn’t need a Toback. The whole concept of needing a “big break” is a lie. We all get hundreds of small opportunities that can build into something great. And we don’t have to submit ourselves to dangerous men to find them.

Gillian Brockell is a video editor at The Washington Post.


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