I read recently in the NYT about a Dartmouth professor, David Bucci, who as chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, became responsible for handling a serious complaint by female students into three male faculty members’ alleged pernicious patterns of sexual harassment of many years. In what became a class action lawsuit, Dr. Bucci was eventually named as a conspirator; he was not charged with sexual harassment.
He was a smart man who did research in the basement of an old building at one of this country’s Ivy League universities. He was white and fifty years old. He did not sexually harass or assault women. He, unlike the nine women in the class action lawsuit -and the thousands of others in campuses all over the U.S. for decades and even centuries- had not been sexually harassed by the three named male faculty members. Some of the very changes he had spearheaded to stop the harassment were finally being implemented.
I did not know him or the women in the case, but I can’t stop thinking about it. This is what I gleaned and why it is so painful: It was a grueling few years and he was excruciatingly upset. He felt his reputation had been harmed. He never got the chance to be heard, nor did he get the written redemption he fervently craved when the case concluded. He became seriously depressed, an illness he struggled with twenty years prior, and spiraled into complete despair. And then, he took his own life, silencing himself forever.
He killed himself. Dead, permanently. Not because he was guilty but because he was silenced. At least that is what I believe. He could not bear being absolutely denied his right to speak. There was no way to correct his tarnished reputation, the burden of guilt by association weighed heavily on him, and he could not bear the glaring lack of redemption that would have cleared his name.
Why did he fall under the wheels of the proverbial Mac truck of this outrageously common, virtually text book story of oppression of young women by powerful older men, so very obscenely common in academic institutions for decades? After all, many women have endured equivalent pain and silencing. Think of the history of rape, incest, sexual assault, sexual harassment around the globe and through the ages. The number of women’s voices that have been silenced is impossible to count. It has touched every home and workplace in the world.
Professor Bucci was silenced. Muzzled. Denied his human rights. His hands were tied. Isn’t that how oppression works? Its the pain, the suffering, the loss of one’s voice that kills the spirit. The woman who was raped by another student at college, by a colleague in the workplace, by her father who cannot say a word. Think of the victims of the grand misogynist Roger Ailes. The black person denied work or housing or stopped by the police again, who suffers and rages without a voice. The deaths resulting from domestic violence, rape, racism, homophobia, injustice. Did Matthew Shepard’s family have a voice?
Maybe Dr. Bucci never had been silenced before, like so many others have, and could not put up and shut up. Due to laws around retaliation in cases of harassment, he literally could not speak. He could not stand up for himself. He could not say his side of the story. If he did speak at all, it could be used against him and against the lawsuit. It could be perceived as retaliatory, even if all he stated aloud was “I am upset. I am humiliated. I feel trapped.” But the university’s lawyers needed his silence in the name of legal processes. And so his life became an unanticipated tragic casualty of the whole stinking situation. Without his voice, he was a dead man, quite literally.
Was his pain more important than the pain the women went through? Absolutely not. But it was so futile, ironic and without the possibility of hope. This is the dirty mess of the unanticipated consequences of oppression.
People who have experienced oppression- women and people of color, gay and trans, differently abled and survivors of violence and persecution- we have been fighting for social justice for along time now. Trying to balance the power dynamics between men and women, white and black, straight and gay. We have reached a tipping point where we are not going to take it anymore. And men- whether like Harvey Weinstein or all the hundreds of thousands of university professors who have had sex with their female students or harassed them into thinking they were not smart enough to get credit for their research or underpaid them to do their teaching- have to stop and be stopped.
But can we not stop for a moment and feel the very real pain of people who are unwitting bystanders and who may get caught in the maelstrom? Does fighting oppression mean oppressing others? Or others oppressing themselves? Dr. Bucci’s death stands for and with the hundreds of thousands of other people whose spirit was broken by having no voice, by being silenced. And his pain will linger in his wife as she does her best to provide for their three children. His young kids will be forever wounded by the suicide of their daddy.
A friend of mine in college once told me when I was railing against the rich, that the point of the struggle for equity was not to strip those with too much of everything, but rather to lift up those with too little, until the scales were equal. Dr. Bucci slipped through the cracks because we could not hear him, because he had no voice, because he was silenced. If only we could ensure that only the misogynists, only the perpetrators of oppression would suffer the consequences of the reckoning. If only we could ensure that the number of victims would not increase. If only we could stop the bloodshed of the innocent bystanders in the unanticipated raging storm of oppression.