In the autumn of 2014, I moved to Los Angeles to work for a large international law firm. I learned to describe it that way from the employee handbook, which I read nervously from cover to cover on my first day—contemplating in detail all the ways my employment relationship could go wrong before it had even begun. I memorized chains of command and contingency plans and procedures to be followed. It was my job now, after all, to be prepared for eventualities.
One of the potential eventualities the handbook described was a “separation from the firm.” In the event of such a separation, it read, former employees would relinquish the use of the firm’s proper name. Instead, they would be required to refer to it only as “a large international law firm.” As in: “There was rampant harassment at the large international law firm where I used to work” or “I used to work at a large international law firm, but then I realized that all of my colleagues could pull their faces off, so I went back to school to get an MFA.”
I think the idea was that you got to take credit for being the kind of person who could land a job at such a place, so long as you also agreed to carry the shame allotted to someone who somehow managed to squander the opportunity. It was like the law firm was a beautiful celebrity girlfriend who would only date you if you signed an NDA. This way, it could retain the prestige and escape the suspicion, all while denying former employees that most pretentious of pleasures—the name-drop.
The handbook, however, did not detail the various scenarios in which such a separation might occur, so I ended up prepared for an eventuality that seemed, according to the information at hand, impossible. I might as well have been preparing for an alien invasion or a moon landing—something unlikely to happen but worth thinking about because the magnitude of its impact would be inversely related to its frequency of occurrence.
I drove to work every day from an apartment overlooking the ocean and sat in an office with a view of the Hollywood sign. I spent most of my signing bonus on patio furniture, which I belatedly discovered was much more expensive than it should be. I hung fairy lights above and around my new outdoor couches and wore a black Brooks Brothers skirt suit for my company photo. Most days I went outside to eat lunch in the triangular green-and-concrete space between my office building, its twin, and the glass-and-light structure housing CAA. One day a famous actor stood behind me in line at the complex’s Coffee Bean. He talked on his phone while he ordered, and I wondered why he hadn’t sent an assistant.
I was meant to do whatever work was thrown my way and to feel anxious about its amount regardless of objective measurement. Too much was good but maybe meant I was indecisive and possibly disorganized; too little was bad but perhaps forgivable so long as it was not the result of demurral. There were entire meetings for my colleagues and me—the associates—on the unending complexities of saying no. It was like a perversion of a college freshman orientation on the concept of consent, except that where volunteers might teach teenagers to earnestly identify signs of disinterest, Ivy League-educated HR representatives coached us first-year attorneys in the fine art of compulsory enthusiasm. We were meant to learn how to keep our superiors happy by always seeming to say yes even when we were really saying no. The gist was this: genuinely enthusiastic acceptance is preferred, but if you are unlucky enough to possess some persistent sense of personal dignity, then a carefully calibrated euphemism for “no” may be proffered—provided, of course, that you can procure at least two witnesses who will testify to the legitimacy of your refusal, should further evidence be required by the senior partner.
Being a woman and a compulsive high achiever, I didn’t need to be told that it was important to make people like me. I already organized most of my behavior according to a strong need to please, and I almost entirely lacked an independent sense of self-esteem. This orientation toward pleasing was compounded by the fact that my looks were only just coming up to par thanks to a program of severe calorie restriction precipitated by my move to Los Angeles and sustained by my increasing appetite for male approval of my physique.
Beauty being the necessary but insufficient price of entry to personhood for women, I didn’t regard myself as quite yet entitled to very much space in the world. But having been rendered mostly invisible for much of my adult life by my extra body fat, I was also unaccustomed to being asked to yield space within myself to the outside. I knew that I couldn’t presume to make room for myself out there, but I hadn’t yet fielded a demand that I cede room to the world in here. I was used to being left alone.
This was problematic for the purposes of my job at the large international law firm, because it left me in possession of a sliver of the aforementioned dignity, which I mistakenly presumed I possessed as a matter of right.
I sometimes wonder whether I would have been more generous with my compulsive enthusiasm if I had been more beautiful. If I’d had another form of power at my disposal, perhaps I’d have been more willing to write off the other stuff as the cost of doing business. But then, if I’d been truly beautiful, everything I did would have been more palatable anyway. I’d have been pleasing without even having to act pleasant.