We spoke with Dr. Pamela Macfie about her essay “Each is Me,” which breaks a years-long silence about sexual harassment that she endured while she was a PhD candidate at Duke University. Macfie is the Samuel R. Williamson Distinguished University Professor at Sewanee, where she teaches Shakespeare and Early Modern Verse and explores early modern allusion as a type of possession in her scholarship. In this conversation, she talked to us about what art provisions, trauma unearths, and writing exorcises.
—Hellen Wainaina, Assistant Editor
SR: In the essay you are candid about your forty-four-year silence, the different forms it took, and the isolation it cultivated. While you reveal that the play Anne Page Hates Fun “ruptured” the years-long false tranquility, was there something definitive about this period in your life experience that made it possible to break the silence?
PM: I stand at a juncture in life that is simultaneously retrospective and forward-looking. The deaths of my parents and my disabled brother immerse me in memory, and my final years in the classroom prompt me to imagine the future. Are there new kinds of writing to explore? Is there something beyond academic striving?
Writing “Each Is Me” has brought me full circle. At the outset of my scholarly career, I permitted X to steal my voice. I refused to call out his behavior; I confided in no one; I ended my practice of keeping a journal, which he disparaged as a dilettante indulgence. His abuse muzzled both my public and my innermost self. Until I saw Anne Page Hates Fun, I believed I had made peace with silence, but Anne’s example revealed what it means to live out a story that cannot be told. Readers have asked if #MeToo encouraged me to speak. For me, it was art, rather than a movement’s social reckoning, that sent me to my brimming past. Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries invited Amy Witting to develop a story Shakespeare had consigned to the margins; Anne Page Hates Fun challenged me to tell the story I had annulled.
Coming in fits and starts, that story eluded my initial attempts to shape it. Ultimately, I realized linear chronology could not recreate the experience I wanted to convey. In the theatre, I was possessed by two narratives: that of Anne Page, as she is haunted by Mr. Kunze, and that of me, as I was pursued by X. I wanted—without using more formal transitions—to braid Witting's play and my own personal history so as to replicate how art penetrates memory.
SR: There have been critical responses to your essay that claim X is given cover by not being named. But this is your story; what, for you, was important to convey? Given, too, the page impresses various kinds of pressures and constraints, were there other kinds of “silences” that were necessary to bring forth this articulation?
PM: My decision to call my predator X grew out of a desire for symmetry. Forty years ago, I permitted my identity to be subsumed within the anonymity of a “Jane Doe” statement. Writing “Each Is Me,” I broke the code of silence and detailed what I had suffered; at the same time, I voided the identity of my victimizer.
Interestingly, a colleague asked if I had meant to evoke with X the would-be seducer in Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela, who is identified merely as Mr. B. I dismissed this suggestion, laughing that I had not read Pamela since my college days. My friend went on to note that “Each Is Me,” like Richardson’s novel, juxtaposes different moments in time. Is it possible the example of an eighteenth-century work informed my “un-naming” of my predator? I am certain that reading provisions us with more than we know.
The idea of something—or, in this case, someone—being “x-ed out,” of being struck through and emptied of meaning, informed my use of X rather than a name. I considered how a mathematical equation uses x to represent the unknown and remembered that this letter often marks the end of something. By calling this man X, I gained control of the narrative he had initiated and moved it (according to the letter’s Latin associations) “out of” his influence. My essay performed both an exorcism of and an exit from the past.
SR: The details that populate this essay are uncannily familiar in their specificity. Still, there are realities relegated to rhetorical questions, things memories cannot untangle. You ask, “Did A and B [the two women who cohabited with X] know from the start I would not become one of them? Had they asked X to pursue me, or was I his quarry alone?” and “What grants some men immunity from a reckoning?” What contributes to our—societal, communal—conferral of immunity to some men? What, if anything, would you say to A and B? To that community—graduate students, faculty, staff—at Duke?
PM: Clearly, our society still struggles to come to grips with sexual misconduct. Perhaps the academy, the world I know best, can show us a way forward. In 2020, in university settings, women who have endured harassment and abuse have recourse to practices designed to hold persons accountable. In the late seventies, an intellectual community flirting with the avant-garde condoned X’s behavior as an experiment in sexual liberation. Reluctant to be deemed conventional, his colleagues and students hesitated to judge his conduct, even when judgment would have identified harm. Predatory behavior on college campuses is now more easily called out for what it is; the atmosphere is different. Title IX requires faculty and staff to report harassment and violence. Feminist works like Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism project challenges us to confront how fully sexism inhabits our culture. Victims who seek redress are joined by voices who cry, “Believe the victim.” The cry reverberates across generations and gender. “Each Is Me” is my contribution to this witness.
An extraordinary number of reactions to “Each Is Me” have opened me to others’ stories, persuading me that an experience I had assumed was singular—my sense of being ghosted by abuse—is in fact widely shared. Two stories stand out. A former student disclosed that her being seduced by a charismatic high school teacher had shadowed her throughout college with the result that she doubted every accomplishment she achieved in his subject; until she broke her secrecy regarding the affair, she had lived “half-buried.” Another reader shared that my experience in the theatre had resonated with his own experience of trauma. Trauma, he wrote, is “a fickle thing”; in moments that are typically inopportune, it returns us to something we have managed, just barely, to repress. Then, he drew attention to the lesson he had discerned in “Each Is Me”: reflecting on pain can be more powerful than the sudden remembering trauma forces upon us.
I have nothing to say to my graduate school community beyond what I have said in print; A and B, however, stand separate from the others. Recognizing their stories were not mine to tell, I exercised care in the essay not to cast their experience as my own. I could not, however, keep myself from asking why they stood apart as X pursued me. I question their motives still. What might they have signaled if they had met my eye? Sympathy? Warning? Defeat? What might they say to me now? In the end, their reserve compelled my openness. I could not plumb their stories, but I could sound my own.