For more than a year, as I pursue my daily life, two razor-sharp yet ghostly performances from the American Shakespeare Center’s 2019 season flare in my imagination. When I try to remember an early morning dream, I see, over and over again, the woman who foils a flame-faced predator with nothing but her wit. As I fix my morning tea, I see the girl who shivers at her teacher’s touch. The friend who cozens secrets she will not keep appears as I open my office door or hurry to a meeting. Each of these specters is a character in a play by Shakespeare or Amy E. Witting. Each is me.
These performances—of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Witting’s Anne Page Hates Fun—were the inaugural offerings in the ASC’s “Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries” initiative, which proposes, over the next twenty years, to debut thirty-eight new (and previously unproduced) plays that engage Shakespeare’s thirty-eight in conversation. In 2018, the company invited playwrights to submit work that might respond to and interrogate The Merry Wives of Windsor. Witting won that year’s competition and its $25,000 prize, and the ASC brought her to Staunton, Virginia in January 2019, when her play was rehearsed in their Blackfriars Playhouse (the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre), and again in mid-February, when Anne Page, in repertory with Merry Wives, kicked off the company’s three-month Renaissance season.
That February, I traveled to Staunton determined to see how Witting might turn a new lens on one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed plays. I also wanted to gauge how a contemporary playwright would take advantage of the early modern theatre practices that define the Blackfriars and the ASC: universal lighting, double and triple casting (within a relatively small troupe of players), and the inclusion of audience members on the stage, where they become part of the action. My experience exceeded this focus. Together, the plays riveted me not to Shakespeare’s past but my own.
On February 14, I watched The Merry Wives of Windsor, the play Shakespeare is reputed to have written at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see fat Sir John Falstaff (whom she had enjoyed in Henry IV, Part 1) caught in love’s throes. Merry Wives tracks Falstaff’s desperate attempts to seduce two married women in the town of Windsor. The next night, I attended Anne Page Hates Fun, whose action unfolds in Windsor, New Hampshire. Though Witting includes a large-bellied wit-cracker among her townspeople, she does not ascribe to him anything resembling lecherous misconduct. She concentrates, instead, on the hidden life of a woman named Anne Page, who cannot trust any man because she has been molested by her high school English teacher.
Initially, Shakespeare’s rough comedy seemed an odd foil to Witting’s bittersweet play, which is haunted by loss. I realized, however, in the middle of my second night in the playhouse, that both plays explore the power (and threat) of community where sexual aberration is concerned. Shakespeare’s wives, who determine they must publicly humiliate the seamy seducer who would corrupt their bodies and reputations, demonstrate what a community may gain in scourging a predatory male. Witting’s Anne Page, who determines she must hide her victimization from even her closest friends, makes us consider what a predator’s exposure may cost his victim.
As I write the above paragraph, I consider Anne’s silence with the coolness of recollection’s tranquility.
As I sat in the audience that night, I was anything but calm.
Witting borrows her heroine’s name from one of Merry Wives’s relatively minor characters. Shakespeare’s Anne is the daughter of one of the wives Falstaff endeavors to bed. Though she is modest in speech, she is the object of vociferous debate among three suitors, who compete for her hand in marriage, as well as between her parents, who favor different (and utterly inappropriate) foppish contenders. Witting’s Anne, who speaks for herself, confidently rebuffs her mother’s meddling laments regarding spinsterhood. Insisting she solely values the life of the mind, she engages love only through the counsel she offers others, especially a Muslim exchange student who fears her parents will insist she return home to an arranged marriage rather than attend Harvard. Anne supports this student in staging on the village green a protest whose rallying cry filled the theatre: DOWN WITH MARRIAGE.
So much of Witting’s Anne is forward-looking. Yet she, like the play she inhabits, is possessed by the past. She carries in silence her experience of sexual harassment at the hands of Vernon Kunze. Kunze, we discover in the center of the play, describes Anne’s smile as the lure that draws his touch and compels her, for years to come, not to smile at all.
What happens when a performance cracks open memories you have suppressed for more than forty years? Sitting under the Blackfriars’ beautiful candelabras, I was watching Anne Page recoil from her teacher, and I collapsed into myself. The flashback to Anne’s senior year in high school unfolded with a strange, hypnotic languor.
The handsome, tweed-clad Mr. Kunze padded to Anne and breathed on her neck. A woman beside me exhaled in sorrow; a man hissed from the balcony. I tightened, pressing my back hard against my seat, and then shuddered.
Kunze extended his long-fingered hands toward his student’s face; she stared beyond him and drew her lips into a flat line. I was with Anne as Kunze takes away her smile, and I was climbing a staircase in Perkins Library ahead of my graduate professor at Duke—I’ll call him X—as he lifted my skirt with the swing of his hand. Watching Kunze float across the stage and disappear through the curtained doorway at its rear, I wished I could forget myself. The play went on without me.
I was a new student, and X had asked me to come to his office. “Before you make your presentation,” he said, “let me tell you what I expect.” When we reached the stone staircase, he invited me, with an open handed flourish, to walk before him. His courtesy seemed easy yet otherworldly.
On the landing that fronted his office, he pressed me into the corner, pulled his keys from his canvas bag, and opened the door. I remember that bag: flat, army green, anonymous, its handles darkened by grease.
I do not remember anything in the room beyond its oversized desk, the squeaking chair he tipped to the wall, and the straight-backed chair I took before him. No. That’s not right. I remember that dust motes sifted the air. That the leaded panes of the window broke the sky into pieces. I remember feeling small.
He asked, “When are you going to fuck me?”
Why did I laugh?
In the theatre, I wondered if Anne would ever speak of what she had suffered at Kunze’s hands. Immediately after the flashback, she is surrounded by friends who confide in her and seek her counsel. Her best friend Courtney, dying of cancer, extracts from Anne a promise to hold a festival in her memory after she is gone. Her high school beau, Charley, who has returned to Windsor from New York City to tend the ailing uncle who raised him after his parents died, confesses he has failed as a writer. As she listens to her friends’ fears and disappointments, I watched Anne lower her head as if in prayer. Her poise denies the loss she might have shared.
At the hotel bar after the performance, I stood among my friends, letting the noise envelop me. Calder Schilling, the handsome actor who had played Mr. Kunze, carried his drink to the fire. I followed him and said, “You were terrifying as a predator in cashmere and Harris Tweed.”
“Well, thank you,” he said.
“What’s it like to play a ghost?” I asked. He shook his head and laughed.
“I wasn’t a ghost; I was in a flashback. Some of us worried the distinction wouldn’t be clear.”
I watched his eyes survey the room and took my cue to back away.
I wanted to tell him that a flashback and a haunting might be the same thing, that what Mr. Kunze had done to Anne Page was a thing of ghostly contagion. A thing that possessed her, that turned a laughing girl into a straight-faced cipher.
I needed to return to the moment, but which one? The noisy scene in the bar, the play I had just seen, or the upside-down years of graduate school? Around me, faces bobbed in the shadows. Some flashed amusement, others beamed greetings. People were wide-armed, open mouthed, full of blather.
I moved to the wall and leaned against my friend Kim. I knew she was not fully enthusiastic about Anne Page. At the interval, she had compared it to Our Town, and we laughed that we had had enough of Thornton Wilder. Now, though I had congratulated the playwright after the performance, I launched into a withering assessment of how anodyne the play had seemed.
As the performance ended, flamingo feathers drifted to the stage in tribute to Courtney, dead for more than a year. Courtney had cherished the cherry-pink birds since her honeymoon. I glanced at the aperture located in that part of the theatre Shakespeare had called the heavens and tracked the feathers’ downward flight. So much had happened while I was at Duke. A dissertation student in my program hung himself in his apartment. A comparative literature student died from carbon monoxide poisoning in my building when our furnace malfunctioned. I remembered something my friends said often in graduate school in response to the faculty’s oblivion to our coming and going, our absence at a reading, our defection from a theoretical camp: “The gods are not watching.”
In the bar, I asserted, perhaps too viciously, that the feathers had mocked the play’s darker notes. In place of a genuine resolution, which might have been achieved through Anne’s full confession of her victimization by Kunze to Charley, we had experienced Hallmark fluff. The play, I said, was better than that. Or should have been. My friends’ faces grew wary. The actors were all around us. Kim signaled with the smallest smile that she understood what I had tried to say and that she wanted me to stop. The circle in which I stood dispersed. I had gone too far.
Sliding beneath the duvet in my cold hotel room, I realized my experience of Anne Page Hates Fun had canceled one of the American Shakespeare Center’s chief goals: an experience of community that might empower its audience. At the play and, later, in the bar, I felt out of sorts and utterly alone. Riven by the past. Possessed by a ghost only I could recognize.
Where did my story with X begin? When might it end? I have been silent for forty-four years.
The story began when I first visited his office.
Sitting across from X, I watched him swivel to the side and flip his long legs over the desk. I studied the soles of his shoes, their clay-red rubber pocked with gravel. When I looked up, he rubbed his hands through his beard. His eyes danced as if he were wildly, impossibly merry.
“You should know that if you are going to work with me, you will have to work under me, with your ankles hooked around my neck.”
I floated out of myself. I watched myself watching him.
No one had ever said anything like this to me.
“Come on,” he continued. “Don’t play frightened. What are you going to do with Pyramus and Thisbe?” At the question, I breathed a little. I knew my Ovid and wanted to impress him. “The Pyramus and Thisbe story,” I began, “contrasts what follows it. First, Ovid gives us fumbling children who die together; then he gives us Venus and Mars, adulterers caught in flagrante delicto within a net hoisted before the laughing gods.”
He asked, “Is there nothing to laugh at with Pyramus and Thisbe?”
Well, of course, I thought. If you want to read it that way. There’s the comparison of blood pulsing from Pyramus’s suicidal wound to water spurting from a crimped pipe. There’s the lovers’ whispering through a chink in the wall, a version of the paraclausithyron, a lament offered by a lover barred from his lady’s chamber. I didn’t say these things. I sat in silent correction.
“Ovid’s mocking Latin erotic elegy,” he said. “You need to do some real work in classics.”
The next semester, I enrolled in Francis Newton’s Ovid seminar. In this, in everything really, I followed X’s counsel to the letter, feeling defeated as I did so. He made the gaps in my knowledge seem insurmountable, my undergraduate accomplishments a sham. All bets were off. I had put myself in his thrall.
Every semester, he insisted I take one or more classes outside the English department. I completed more coursework in Italian authors than I did in Shakespeare. I studied Ovid and Classical Mythography. Did X recommend these courses because they would ground my work in the Middle Ages or because they reduced my contact with the English faculty?
Midway through my first term, I realized how isolated I had become. Other graduate students went to the Cambridge Inn to drink beer and trade stories. I took solitary walks through the Duke Gardens waiting for the ginkgo to drop its fan-shaped leaves. I discovered X sometimes parked his Alfa Romeo on the gravel lot just inside the entrance. When he saw me tracing the path that exited the upper garden, he asked if I was stalking him.
In November, our John Gower seminar met at X’s home. My classmates called it his “stately pleasure dome”—Xanadu for short. We dared each other to stay beyond the seminar, to accept an invitation to take a sauna with X and the two women who lived with him and shared his bed: A, his olive-skinned second wife, who taught Italian at Chapel Hill, and B, his beautiful blond student, who was completing a dissertation on nineteenth-century reprisals of Arthurian romance. B had established this focus when X learned that Chapel Hill English would post a tenure-track opening in Victorian literature. When B was hired, we regarded her, and X, with wonder. His savvy seemed without limit. So too did his sexual bravura and scorn of convention.
I didn’t linger, but left X’s house with a fellow student, Kenneth. Once, after X had reduced me to tears in class, Kenneth had sent me an extravagant bouquet of dahlias, veronica, and daisies. On the drive home, as I watched the indigo-dark fields stream by, I cried, “Look! Dear wooly lambs!” Kenneth laughed, “They’re pigs, Pamela.” I was living in an anamorphic fable. Things appeared to be one thing; then they appeared to be another.
To drive to X’s home, you left Durham, headed toward the Research Triangle Park, and exited to a hinterland. The country road sliced through the landscape. When the macadam dipped below a pasture, I felt as if I were tunneling into the earth. A wooden fence leaned above me; a bank nearly tumbled through my window.
When you reached X’s lane, you had to exit the car, release the gate and swing it open, get back in your car, pull forward, exit again, and close the gate behind you. When you departed, you were instructed to bolt the entrance. Rimed in winter, sweating in summer, the padlock was heavy in hand.
The locked gate announced a world closed upon itself, a world from which there might be no exit. Bumping my way to the house on my first solo visit, I drove slowly through stands of hardwood—sweetgum, ash, red maple—and thought of Dante’s dark wood where the way was lost. Leaving in the shadowed afternoon, I steered with greater confidence; I knew where the gravel had eroded and where the road was cleft. When I accelerated and turned onto the highway, I glanced in the rearview mirror; the trees that had once seemed sentinels smudged and disappeared.
Xanadu, a seventies iteration of mid-century modern, was in many ways nondescript. Anonymity characterized the living room, whose low-slung furniture, dark coffee table, and angled brass lamps offered a study in olive, brown, and gold. There were books, of course, and a fireplace, but no mementos or photographs. I wondered if such things—a framed wedding announcement, a picture at a family reunion—had been discarded as bourgeois or if their absence signaled that nothing was private here, that everything—body, self, and history—was held in common.
Like a bell jar, the house preserved an experiment in which time seemed suspended. Once, I drowsed beside the pool for an entire afternoon. A and B worked in the spring sunshine pulling weeds and planting flowers. X brought me a tall gin and tonic, plucked my strap from my shoulder, and told me I was getting a sunburn.
In April, I went to Easter dinner at X’s house. As he poured the wine, X announced the steaming dish A carried from the kitchen: “Curried cow’s udder for a fertility festival.” B and A set couscous, bread, and salad down at the center of the table, smiled, then dipped their eyes away from me. X’s son and daughter from his first marriage sat beside him. His son’s eyes were flat, his expression vacant; his daughter wrinkled her nose. When X boomed to me, “You need a full bowl; you could fatten up a bit,” everyone laughed.
I felt examined. Did the curry really contain cow’s udder? X met my gaze and his mouth pursed in amusement. When I picked up my spoon, I hoped I could swallow the helping. I had never been an adventurous eater. I wanted to hide my lack of sophistication, my inability to discern what was on my plate. I wanted to mask my fear.
Rich and fatty, the dish tasted of cumin, tomato, and turmeric. When I got home, I drank three cups of mint tea. It was hard to know why my stomach felt so unsettled. Within a year, I had a bleeding ulcer.
The week after Easter, I spent the night at X’s home while he, A, and B attended an out-of-town function. Given the choice of sleeping on the large black bed in the master suite or in a small room that served as B’s study, I chose the latter. By night, propped among dusty pillows, I studied a leather album of photographs: B petting a dog that sat in a child’s red wagon; B in a flounced white ball gown, her arms full of roses; B standing in cap and gown before a columned brick building. Some students swore she had been Miss Mississippi. I thought she was enviably pretty: her complexion pale gold, her eyes shining, her lips a perfect bud.
I remember her walking through Allen Building in an orange paisley shift whose sleeves were tipped with tiny bells. Had she made the dress? A sewing machine stood in the room in which I slept. The bells’ tinkling made her seem a fairy thing, a creature thrumming just out of sight, just around the corner. I never really knew her.
Recently, I found her photograph on the Chapel Hill webpage, where she remains a professor. Though she is heavier and her honey blond hair has turned silver, a certain mystery still adheres to her smile.
A and B were always cordial but reserved in my presence. I sensed they made their faces blank as soon as X greeted me at the door.
Sometimes at parties, they balanced against one another and traded laughter: A’s a deep contralto; B’s higher, crystalline. Like exhibitionists who had forgotten their audience, they were content unto themselves. A’s raisin-dark eyes blinked in amusement; B tilted her head like a bird. The women’s intimacy, a topic of endless speculation, drew the gaze of every man in the room. From time to time, X regarded them too. His face appeared jovial and hawkish by flickering turns. He commanded the room.
Did A and B know from the start I would not become one of them? Had they asked X to pursue me, or was I his quarry alone? It was impossible to know. A and B remained inscrutable. Sometimes, they seemed more like props than persons; sometimes, they seemed dangerous, their sidelong glances confident and strangely knowing.
In my first summer at Duke, I followed X’s directive and enrolled in two courses: his history of the English language and Holger Nygard’s seminar on the folk ballad. My first publication in graduate school, a study of “The Cherry Tree Carol,” came out of Nygard’s seminar. My worst grade at Duke, the lowest accepted for graduate credit, marked my work for X. The low grade did not come as a surprise; my work had drawn X’s consistent disapproval.
As X disparaged my efforts, I floundered in making the connections the course demanded. Once, he interrupted me in the middle of a presentation with an emphatic “no”; when I asked him what I needed to correct, he called upon another student. At the end of that class meeting, as he doled out new assignments, I sat in dread. I worried that he would omit me and could not look in his direction. When he finally said, “you’ll need to research the etymology of ‘glamour,’” I was sure he was making a joke at my expense. I assumed the word was linked to amor, the Latin word for love, a perversion of which I was in the process of rejecting.
As soon as class ended, I went to the reference section of the library to consult The Oxford English Dictionary of Etymology. I could not wait to confirm my suspicions. I wanted to catch him out, but I also wanted to be wrong. As I sat at a long table taking notes on a yellow pad, X swung around the corner, raised his hands in mock surprise, and leaned over me. “Look who’s working. Let’s see what you have.”
Reading over my shoulder, he seemed nearly to whine: “‘Glamour—Scottish in origin, associated with magic and enchantment through gramarye, a variation on the Middle English word grammar, signifying scholarly work, especially occult learning.’” When he snorted, “Is this it? Have you even looked at Shipley or Klein?” I felt his hip press against my shoulder.
Dipping to the side, I crooked my head and looked up. His belt buckle gleamed like an amulet, and my mind jumped with meanings I had not written down: grimoire—in Middle French, a book of spells; ghel and glimmer—Indo-European derivations signifying shine. I didn’t say a thing. I knew what I knew. He had the upper hand.
I exhaled and wished I were somewhere far away.
Another word from the seminar sticks in my head.
One morning, as we gathered our books and papers at the end of class, I told my friend Bob Mielke his presentation had been fascinating. X chortled, “Fascinating? That’s a word! Do you even know what you’re saying?” Three students stopped at the door and looked back. “Can you tell me what fascinating means in Latin? It doesn’t just mean something that casts a spell; it signifies the phallus, the erect phallus.”
Grinning with delight, X patted my head as if I were a dog. I kept absolutely still. When the last student had cleared the room, he lifted my hair, cupped his hands over my ears, then pulled his fingers down until they circled my throat. “Don’t you know what I can teach you?”
I remember his coffee-dark breath and the red-gold hair that fringed his nostrils. I do not remember walking from the room. Sometimes I am still there.
Everything I recall from that summer is discontinuous.
X’s face, tightened in class, and laughing at the door of my apartment.
The smell of dust as I hid in my closet.
The thud of my window air conditioner.
The rumble of his Alfa as he drove away.
Often, I would lie in bed murmuring lines from a poem I had memorized in my first weeks at Duke:
They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand
I had put myself in danger.
I wanted to say, “I do not remember.”
Until I watched Anne Page fix her face so it might display neither joy nor sorrow, I had nearly persuaded myself that my experience with X had never happened: that his left eye didn’t pucker when he was angry; that he didn’t swat at wasps as if he were invincible; that he had never silenced a seminar with a squawk of disdain.
In the theatre, the flashbacks were clamorous, ineradicable.
He asked, upon my second visit to his office, “Have you come to give me some?” The world seemed to tilt. I was in the swaying car of a Ferris wheel in that heavy second when, reaching its zenith, it rolls forward and down. My stomach dropped. I was going to fall.
In mid-December, though I had a temperature of 102°, he insisted I write my Chaucer exam with the rest of the class. When I placed my papers on his desk, he said, “You look terrible. Unfuckable.”
Once, he appeared at my carrel and handed me The Kiss Sacred and Profane. The book’s red cloth cover had an ink stain in its lower right corner. I studied the blot as if it were a Rorschach test and whispered in my head the word paronomasia—a play on words. A pun. Everything was coded.
The academy was a different place in the late seventies and early eighties. There were no women on the graduate English faculty at Duke in 1976. Only one had joined the department by the time I had finished.
She gave X a key to her Allen Building office so he could use it between his morning classes there. I remember walking past that office and discovering X leaning against its half-open door. With a gaze that was both forthright and insouciant, he said, “I need to see you.” I stepped inside; he made a shushing sound and ran his hands up my dress. The room became a place of danger.
I cannot recall anyone ever speaking about sexual harassment.
At the end of my second year, the professor who would eventually direct my dissertation tried to offer me a way out.
One afternoon, when he heard the clatter of my wooden clogs as I hurried from X’s office in the library tower, DeNeef stepped through his door and asked if I had a minute. I had been crying and my face was hot.
“I know you’ve been with X,” he said. “Is there anything you want to talk about?” “No,” I answered, “though I’m not sure if I should write on ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn’ or ‘Upon Appleton House.’”
He offered, with a downturned smile, “That’s not what I meant.”
I clenched my hands. I didn’t want to be a fool, a neurotic, or a piece of history. The year before, another student had been so outspoken about her discomfort with X that she had become a laughingstock.
I had so much invested in earning the PhD. My father, who had never finished his dissertation at Johns Hopkins, had a special interest in seeing me stay the course. He and my mother had made sacrifices for me to attend Goucher College. I wanted the degree for my parents and myself; I wanted it for the sake of my disabled brother, who had never learned to speak. I couldn’t lose my fellowship. I had to keep my head down. My work was everything.
In retrospect, I believe most of X’s colleagues envied his imperious privilege.
Once, my Eliot professor joined me in line at the campus coffee shop and asked if I had ever been to X’s home. The question came out of the blue. My answer scanted the truth. “Our seminar has met there several times,” I replied. Stooping slightly, he blinked his milky eyes and said, “X has a special interest in Medieval and Renaissance Studies Fellows. Are you going to write for him?”
Something X frequently pronounced flared in my mind: “For Aquinas, curiosity is the precondition of sin.”
A dangerous curiosity led me to house-sit a second time. I wanted to read X’s environs at my leisure and listen to his walls.
The weekend passed with more tedium than interest.
On the final afternoon, however, his three dogs went crazy. The two Dobermans and the Weimaraner raised a wolfish keening that made me leap from the table. Two boars and a spotted sow rooted in the beds flanking the pool.
The scene was absurd, but I was terrified. I worried about the damage the pigs would cause and feared the dogs might shatter the sliding glass door. At the best of times, the dogs ignored me and I had never really learned their names. Rupert? Gottfried? Their names came from medieval history. My private moniker for them, the Berserkers, was useless now. As they fought for quarter, I backed away. I wanted to haul them from the glass but feared their snapping jaws. Their barking was so loud I couldn’t think.
I took the phone book into the garage and looked up Animal Control. When I reentered the kitchen, the dogs knocked me to the floor and bolted into the garage. I scrambled up and slammed the door. They were corralled, but I was too.
At the gate, I climbed into the Animal Control truck and directed the officer to the house. Still barking, the dogs now battered the garage doors. I said, “They can’t get out,” and hoped that was true.
The pigs had disappeared, and I wondered if the officer thought I had made up the story. He stroked his chin, stared over the pool, then drew his eyes to me. X had told me not to have anyone on the property. Trembling, I told the officer he could go, waited a bit, and then walked down the drive to bolt the gate.
When I returned to the house, the dogs continued their frenzy. Luckily, I had had the foresight to leave the sliding door unlocked. I did not enter through the garage. I couldn’t muster the courage.
As a soft wind sidled about the house, I swept dirt and resettled plants, hoping X wouldn’t be angry, that he wouldn’t call me a child.
I let the dogs into the kitchen, fed them, and waited for everyone to return. I never set foot in the house again.
There were advantages in working with X. He invited his best students to collaborate with him and helped us build our vitae. He tapped me to become an editor for the Modern Language Association Bibliography in my first year, the year I elected four classes from him. My name appeared beneath his own in the Medieval and Neo-Latin volume.
That fall, he gave me a stack of cards. Each identified an article published in a journal or Festschrift. My task was to locate the volume, read the piece in question, and specify the rubrics under which it should be catalogued; the rubric might be the name of a writer, the title of a literary work, a genre, or a topic like dreams or gardens.
At least half of the publications were in foreign languages. I read French and Italian. German, however, presented an obstacle.
When I asked a third-year student what he did with articles he couldn’t translate, he said, “I fake it.” I couldn’t take the risk. I cajoled a graduate student in German to help me. We would meet in Perkins library, take the journal somewhere X would not discover us, and plug away. My submissions were scrupulous.
The next year, X gave me no cards.
In the spring sunshine, he hailed me from across the quad, where I sat with two friends. “Where are your MLA entries?” he asked.
“You didn’t assign me any.”
“That’s the point. You’re incapable of initiative.”
Neither of my friends spoke a word. Both were writing dissertations under his supervision. Both were men.
X soon marched off.
My face blazing, I asked them, “Did you receive your assignments?”
“Well, yes,” David said, “but don’t let him get to you.”
Hiscoe sighed, “It’s just a game.”
In my last semester of coursework, the game X played was hide-and-seek. I saw him in class, but avoided any conversation beyond its limits. I gave up my carrel in Perkins’s dark stacks and shifted my work to the Divinity School Library.
One day, I looked up, and there he was: his smile a sharp hook, his eyes ice-cold. I was writing an essay about graves in the Old English laments of women. I didn’t want him to know.
As I walked to the door, he stepped in front of me: “Here you are. Right beside the Patrologia Latina. You know I use it every day.”
I did not. I was afraid to leave and afraid to stay.
Dropping my eyes, I studied his green canvas bag and imagined it being full of tricks. Some students called him Doctor Caligari after the monstrous psychiatrist in the 1920 German horror film who hypnotizes a patient and instructs him to commit murder. Like Caligari, X wielded absolute authority. He also knew the power of suggestion.
After I completed my coursework, I went nearly a year without seeing him.
Abandoning both Perkins and the Divinity School, I studied for my doctoral exams in the undergraduate library on East Campus. X’s office was more than a mile away. I collected books from Perkins at night, when I knew he would be home. In the month before the exams, I joined my parents on the Maryland shore to safeguard my ability to concentrate.
X would not read my exams; he was no longer on my committee. Still, I wanted to avoid him.
As I waited for the department secretary to deliver the examination booklets, I heard his rolling laugh. I stood up, lifted my purse from the floor, and moved to the far end of the table. Turning to the window, I silently rehearsed, as if they were a mantra, three rhetorical terms: paronomasia, ethopoeia, aposiopesis . . . pun, impersonation, a sudden breaking off.
I wished I could cancel his performance of bonhomie. I wished he could be muzzled.
I concluded my essay on Renaissance satire with the observation, “You must have a long spoon to sup with the devil.”
Another year passed, and Professor Newton invited me to a party honoring a visiting classicist who had written on Ovid’s Heroides. I was flattered to be included. I should have known X would be there.
Studying a piece of cheese pressed between his thumb and forefinger as if it were a rarity, he spoke without meeting my face: “Are you still a literary naïf?” I turned my glass in my hand; the air thickened like syrup. “Can’t you say anything? Can’t you think?” His voice was so sharp that Professor Newton looked across the room.
I wanted to say I was working on the narrative of rape. That I had submitted to the South Atlantic Review an essay exploring sexual and literary violence. I couldn’t form the words; they crawled back down my throat.
His voice dropped to a growl, “I didn’t think you were still in the program.” Was he telling the truth?
I remembered how he had loved to ambush a timid student at the beginning of a new term, pull a face of slack-jawed surprise, and demand, “What are you doing here?” He had laughed about this trick; it was instructive, he said, to watch a face darken in shame.
Professor Newton led me by the arm into his elegant wainscoted hall and said in the kindest tone, “You don’t have to put up with this, you know.” As the blood roared in my ears, I thought my face would collapse. I hurried to get my coat.
X resigned from the faculty without explanation in January 1982.
In May, a headline in the Duke Chronicle announced: “Ex-student sues professor; alleges sexual harassment.” The student had left the doctoral program in English after X had caused her “two years of almost continual mental anguish.”
Most administrators who had been interviewed declined to speak to the matter. The Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity remarked, “In situations where sexual harassment is alleged, there is generally a closing of ranks and an unwillingness on the part of colleagues to get involved.” A member of my dissertation committee was quoted as saying, “I’ve been delighted that this has been quiet for as long as it has.”
Had it been quiet?
His unconventional household inspired relentless jokes and gossip. One of his students invented a Middle English couplet that declared: “Likerous was his wif, and eke his paramour / Their deerne love was subtile, swete, and sure.” When I heard the rhyme, I wanted to say, “Wrong! Their love isn’t hidden or concealed. It’s on full display.” The next year, X published “Chaucer’s deerne love and the Medieval View of Secrecy in Love,” and my classmate’s jingle was repeated everywhere.
In 1980, a new student joined X’s ménage.
I remember the first time I saw them together. It was a glorious fall day; the treetops gilded the sky. As she matched her gait to his, I felt a dream creak, then slide into gear. I imagined covering my face.
Doe-eyed and soft-spoken, C appeared demure and self-contained. At lectures, she did not put herself forward, but strayed about the margins.
Once, at a department party, I began to speak to her, then remembered the time A had said to me, “I understand le chien noir has you by the throat.”
“The black dog?” I had asked.
I wanted to counter, “Your husband has me by the throat,” but didn’t. She had put me on notice: I was a thing to be explicated.
C taught in several colleges in the Raleigh-Durham area after finishing her doctorate. Ten years into her career, she became a lecturer in English at Chapel Hill. I wonder if B had put her forward.
Once, a University of the South colleague asked if I had known her.
“Yes,” I replied.
“And B and A? And their Svengali?”
“Yes. Sometime, I will tell you about him.”
The timing of this conversation felt weirdly prescient. My colleague and I were driving to Virginia to participate in an American Shakespeare Center workshop on “Shakespeare and #MeToo.” Gazing through the window at the apple-green Shenandoah Valley, I thought about the farms leading to Xanadu. From time to time, a gust of wind rocked the car.
What did I have in common with B and C? What marked me as different?
What allowed me to get away?
X pursued a certain type of young woman. In appearance, we were utterly conventional. We wore pastel twin sets and silver jewelry engraved with our initials. Our sports were tennis, sailing, and horseback riding. We penned thank-you notes on Crane stationery. I had enjoyed a protected upbringing and imagined B and C had too. Did our privilege present an irresistible challenge or mark us as easy prey?
Something else linked us. We were swiftly impressed by his teaching and sustain its emphases to this day, shaping our own scholarship around questions of literary influence. B has explored the Victorians’ recreation of Arthurian romance; C, American adaptations of medieval notions of the Book of Nature. I have written on early modern allusion as a form of possession.
The word, X taught me, comes from the Latin influere: to flow into. Initially, the verb signified an influx of flowing matter; by the Middle Ages, it signified also the influx of ethereal fluid that shaped human destiny. Harold Bloom’s statement comes to mind: influence “is influenza—an astral disease.”
When I defended my dissertation and went on the job market, several of my interviews ended with the question, “Did you work with X?” A person at Ohio State went so far as to ask, “Were you caught up in X’s dismissal?” His colleague, shaking his head, offered, “What a mess.” What could I say? I looked at the floor and wondered when the story would be buried.
I have lost touch with most of my grad school friends. When I came to Sewanee, I shut the door upon the past.
I did, in my early years on the faculty, occasionally see my friend and classmate David. Once, he told me he had talked with X at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. X had asked David to meet him on a small hill that overlooked the campus. Arriving, David found him in the gold Mercedes he had sometimes driven when we were students. Lifting a cocktail shaker from the leather console, X offered him a drink. David said, “It made me kind of sad.” I didn’t say anything in return. “Sad” was not the word that came to mind.
I wonder now if X exercised dominion over me long after I left Duke. Perhaps I have tried to exorcise his presence in what I have written: interrogations of deceit, domination, and voices beyond the grave.
Sitting at Anne Page Hates Fun, I couldn’t make sense of my fury. When Anne accepted her high school sweetheart’s proposal, I wanted to protest. I hated the implication that he would rescue her, though I have surely been rescued in my own marriage. Most of all, I despised her refusal to speak of her experience under Kunze’s hands.
Anne’s modus operandi challenged my own, but I didn’t know it. At least not right away. Now, I see the symmetry between us. In the Blackfriars Playhouse, I caught myself chewing my thumb and remembered how X had warned me about this habit: “Don’t make yourself ugly.” Maybe that was the point. Anne Page withdrew her smile from the world. I bit my nails to the quick.
Kim and I ended the weekend in which we had seen Merry Wives and Anne Page with our friends Ralph and Judy Cohen. Ralph, Co-Founder and Director of Mission at the American Shakespeare Center, is a charming raconteur; Judy’s hospitality is without measure. I was happy to sit before their fire, raise a glass, and talk about Shakespeare and his “New Contemporaries.”
Like me, Ralph earned his doctorate at Duke, but we had not overlapped. When we started to talk about George Walton Williams, with whom we had both studied Shakespeare, a chill prickled my arm. I knew what was coming.
“Did you work with X?”
I sighed and said, “I had to stop working with him. The first time I went to his office, he asked me to sleep with him.”
Ralph laughed, “He was outrageous, wasn’t he? When I was studying for my qualifying exams, he asked Judy if I was ready, and said, before she could answer, ‘You can guarantee that Ralph will pass; you can have sex with me.’”
I stroked the Cohens’ dog and thought about Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sleek and leonine, X did not resemble the fat knight in appearance; he wasn’t larded with disease. He did, however, match Falstaff in behavior. Both men pursued women in ways that flouted discretion; both took advantage of the moment they inhabited. X misappropriated the freedoms associated with the sexual revolution; Falstaff plied the freedom associated with playing the Lord of Misrule.
My mind drifted to the spectacle of John Harrell’s Falstaff splayed across a young woman balanced on an onstage gallant stool. Harrell had played the braggart knight as teetering always on the brink of expiration. His belly-led swagger left him breathless; his attempt to rub his bottom across the young woman’s lap capsized him to the floor. On Friday night, the audience had cheered at seeing him fall.
At the end of the play, Falstaff enters Windsor Park imagining he will enjoy a midnight tryst with a married woman. Though he prays to “the hot-blooded gods” for a “hot back” and a successful “rut-time,” he does not experience erotic frisson. He is burned by tapers wielded by the men he tried to cuckold and is pinched by a scrambling horde of “fairies” (the townspeople at large). As a circus of noise and motion churned over the stage, people around me stamped the floor as if to say, “Bravo, Mrs. Ford! Bravo, the town that puts down the man who would ruin a woman!”
X’s seductions went unchecked and unrebuked. The students he harassed did not collaborate against him. We never spoke to one another. The volume of his confidence muted ours. My loneliness was absolute.
Seeing Merry Wives and Anne Page back to back, I could not help but measure the confidence of the women who orchestrate Falstaff’s comeuppance against the reticence of Anne Page, who keeps the secret of her humiliation by Mr. Kunze. What grants some men immunity from a reckoning? Is it charisma? Sprezzatura? A sweating grotesque, Falstaff does not possess these attributes. X and Kunze, by contrast, embodied them. X choreographed seduction as a pas de deux that summoned amazement and disbelief in equal measure. It was hard to imagine he might force a woman to crouch in fear. A and B and, later, C walked beside him and smiled at the world.
Four years after I had first climbed the staircase to X’s office, I climbed a set of stairs leading to a conference room in Allen Building. There, I met my dissertation adviser, a Durham attorney, and the University counsel. Three dark-eyed men. I had been asked to make a Jane Doe statement regarding my experience with X.
I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be marked a victim or a trouble maker. I had agreed to make the statement only because I had been assured my name would not be disclosed.
After two hours of questions and recorded responses, I balked. I didn’t want to sign the statement. Feeling a fool, I looked at my dissertation director and forced out the words, “I keep thinking about something my mother says: ‘Don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want everyone to read.’” His face creased in sympathy. Still, I felt suspicious. Folding his hand over mine, he said: “Sign and close this chapter. Close it and write your book.”
Sometimes, I think about my status as “Jane Doe.” Unknown. Anonymous.
See Jane run.
Like my experience in the Blackfriars Playhouse on February 14, 2019, this essay promised to be one thing, but became another. I entered the theatre ready to decipher the way two plays—one from the late sixteenth century and one written in the past year—might speak to one another; I exited realizing that Anne Page spoke to my own history as much as to the early modern work that inspired it.
When I first wrote about these plays, I did not admit that Anne Page Hates Fun had ruptured me, leaving me cleft in two. I addressed Witting’s work and its intersections with Shakespeare’s from an aesthetic, rather than a personal, perspective. Doing so, I advanced an essay whose emphases were highly descriptive, yet deliberately aloof. I mapped the actors’ gestures and movements. I recounted the songs they performed before the shows and in the intervals: Carl Carlton’s “She’s A Bad Mama Jama,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House,” Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” I cited reactions from different audience members; I did not hint at my own.
In early December, I met with Adam Ross, Eric Smith, and Hellen Wainaina to discuss this piece in its first incarnation. The afternoon was winter-gray, the Review office softly shadowed. As I settled myself on the sofa and pulled my essay from my bag, Adam leaned in my direction and said the essay seemed remote, that he could not discern where the performances had sent me; he felt something was missing. Hellen offered, “I kept looking for you, but couldn’t find you.” I didn’t say anything right away. Then, I began: “Something happened to me that I never talk about. When I was in graduate school at Duke, the professor who was my advisor asked me, the first time I was in his office, when I would sleep with him and then for two years pursued and harassed me and made me believe myself a failure. Witting’s play made me feel as if I were watching myself.” I spoke these words without thinking, then looked in Hellen’s direction—she had been my student—and wondered why I had exposed myself in this way. The room filled with a silence that seemed both charged and reverent. Later, Adam told me that he, Eric, and Hellen had been stunned, that the room seemed to grow cold.
When Adam broke the silence, he said, “This is what you need to write.”
In the end, I had needed an audience to ask, “Is there a story you’re not telling us?” My initial essay had been an act of silence that denied what had been for me the harrowing force of Witting’s play. I had wanted to dismiss Anne Page as a character who seems unbelievable, who speaks only once of her sexual victimization to the man she will marry and only then in words that block interrogation: “Mr. Kunze would harass me at school. I didn’t know how to talk about it, and I’m still trying to sort that out. I don’t want to talk about it.” I had wanted to mock her. But the truth was something different. Anne Page was, for me, all too believable. Her story bled into my own.
Two weeks ago, I received an email from a Sewanee alumna, a member of the class of 2002. Her message was one of apology and grace. She regretted that she had not kept in touch with me and thanked me for my mentorship in her work at the university. She didn’t know if I would remember her.
I recalled her with clarity. Her gray eyes could laugh and she could write with a punch. She had argued that Bottom’s confusion of “deflowered” for “devoured” unmasks sexual anxieties that darken A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I smiled, thinking about her work as a fund raiser for the North Carolina Symphony.
Then I read, “This week I had coffee with one of your former professors, Dr. X. It was fun not only to connect over medieval literature but also to learn that he taught one of my favorite professors. How special for me to meet someone who influenced your studies, knowing you influenced me.”
For an instant, I thought my computer might gobble me up. Then I laughed out loud. Once again, X was shaping the narrative. He had reappeared like an uninvited guest, a revenant who can’t be silenced. But his voice doesn’t silence me now. When Anne Page cracked me open, the words finally came, and in a torrent.