In my mid-20s, I was an assistant editor toiling on the lower rungs of the New Republic, working late nights and long shifts. One evening, most of the staff went to a bar after work. The usual lines of banter were soon crossed; the teasing turned darkly sexual. As the night progressed, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s intellectual luminary and literary editor, cornered me, alone by the bathroom, and put his mouth on mine. I clapped my hand over my mouth in surprise. “I’ve always known you’d do that,” I recall he said.
A few days later, I told the story to the editor of the magazine, Peter Beinart. The mortification of the moment wasn’t just from the kiss, I explained. It was the intimacy of the touch and the dialogue that accompanied it. There was a clear invitation to continue an assignation elsewhere. Other women, he had intimated, had apparently accepted similar such offers. When I fled, I thought I heard him laugh.
In disclosing this incident to my superiors, the outcome was, in many ways, far worse than the act itself. It’s not exactly that I was disbelieved; it’s that in the end, I was dismissed. Over one wrenching week I learned why women, typically, don’t divulge such stories. Me — I regretted it immediately.
I can’t even quite explain why I came to Beinart, other than that after this event, I felt strangely unmoored. Anyway, as far as I knew, the New Republic had no system for reporting sexual impropriety, and, even if they had, I wasn’t seeking some sort of formal inquiry. (This is not, I know now, unusual.) I certainly wasn’t hoping to have Wieseltier punished. Some 15 years later, I’m still not.
I was hoping, I realize now, to be reassured that the magazine editors valued my input and work enough to be concerned about me. But in the days following my disclosure, I felt entirely alone. No one knocked on my door, though I know now that at least one other editor had some idea of what had happened. I told a couple of my fellow writers, but no one spoke to me much at all. Likely no one knew what to say. Wieseltier was not someone one crossed lightly.
Those lonely days stretched into years, 15 of them, until several women accused Wieseltier, a public intellectual, respected critic, and giant of the magazine, of sexual impropriety. Suddenly I had company.
Two weeks ago, a slew of those women came forward to speak about their Wieseltier experiences for a story written by Michelle Cottle for the Atlantic. I agreed, with tremendous trepidation, to relay part of this experience for her article as well. (Others spoke, mostly anonymously, to Clio Chang at Splinter.)
Cottle’s piece wove together her own decade-long, problematic relationship with Wieseltier and a series of allegations about his in-office conduct over the span of about 20 years, ranging from inappropriate touching and kissing to purposely creating sexually charged or compromising situations. Her article appeared soon after the abrupt dissolution of what was to have been Wieseltier’s new magazine in the wake of what remain undisclosed allegations, and his subsequent formal apology for past misdeeds.
“The women with whom I worked are smart and good people,” he wrote. “I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected.”
As Cottle and Chang both point out, that Wieseltier had behaved outside the bounds of normal office behavior was no surprise to the women of the magazine. What was at issue was whether, or what, the men at the magazine knew — and what they did with that knowledge.
Cue an onslaught of surprised tweets and comments from former writers and editors of the New Republic. Longtime former owner Marty Peretz was adamant he’d never heard of any such salacious activities.
The shock rings quite hollow.
After all, I did speak up. If no one was informed such things were taking place, I feel quite sure that mine was not the reputation being protected.
When I realize that 15 years passed between my experience and today, I can’t help but wonder: If, in 2002, my outreach had produced a different outcome, or at the very least started a conversation — could some of this have been prevented?
Last week, I reached out to Beinart, who now teaches journalism at the City University of New York and is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and a columnist for the Forward. He quickly confirmed that I'd come to him at the time.
"Fifteen years ago,” he texted me in a formal statement:
Sarah Wildman brought a deeply troubling incident regarding Leon Wieseltier to my attention. I was not Leon’s boss. We both served under Marty Peretz, the owner and editor in chief. Feeling I had a legal obligation to report the incident, I informed Marty and insisted that he come to Washington to tell Leon that such behavior was unacceptable. The three of us met but Marty did not take meaningful action. I am not saying this to exonerate myself. I should have done far more. I was complicit in an institutional culture that lacked professional procedures regarding sexual harassment, and which victimized women, including women I considered friends. I will always be ashamed of that, and will ensure that I am never similarly complicit again.
Peretz, reached by phone, insisted to a Vox editor, “Peter never, ever, ever reported this to me.”
The former owner, who sold the last of his shares in the magazine in 2012, declined to speculate on the wave of allegations against Wieseltier. “I don’t know what’s true and what’s not,” Peretz said.
He added, “I don’t remember Sarah Wildman.”
Vox reached out to Wieseltier by email and text. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The culture of the New Republic may have made the Wieseltier case inevitable
An organization’s culture is hard to truly see when one is living inside it. Institutionalized sexism doesn’t have clear markers. It’s like acknowledging the color of air. The New Republic, for decades, was a springboard for many careers — but mostly for men. The women knew we had a far shallower chance of rising up the masthead than our male counterparts; all of us hoped we’d be the exception. To do so, we entered into a game in which the rules were rigged against us, sometimes pushing us well past our point of comfort in order to remain in play.
That was particularly true when it came to Wieseltier. He is a renowned author, a charismatic speaker, and a celebrated once-in-a generation intellect whose reputation soared over the 30 years he spent as literary editor of the New Republic.
In my years at the magazine, Wieseltier seemed to command the space — the office, the halls, the conference room, the meetings. It was dazzling at times, infuriating at others, sometimes both. We were all, at times, in awe of him. He could be incredibly kind and encouraging to young writers, and act as a catalyst to their careers; he was also known to be capable of scathing criticism toward those less powerful than himself.
When I told Beinart my story, his response, it seemed to me, was perplexed at best, panicked at worst. He told me he felt compelled, legally, to launch some sort of investigation. But it all felt ad hoc.
At some point, someone — I believe it was Peter, though he no longer recalls this — advised me that I should tell Wieseltier I had said something, lest he be caught unaware. So I stopped by his office.
It proved an awful idea. Wieseltier was cold. He wanted to know why. As in: Why would I have said anything? In my recollection, he told me that I was acting like a child. In the moment, I felt like one. I had spoken, I said feebly, because I had felt uncomfortable.
If that sounds inarticulate, that’s because it — I — was.
Soon after that miserable conversation, a meeting was held in Wieseltier’s office — I was there, with him and Beinart.
(Beinart also described to me a different, earlier, meeting, between him, Peretz, and Wieseltier held explicitly to discuss this incident. Peretz, however, denies he was ever informed at all.)
In my presence, Wieseltier told the higher-ups that his marriage was a happy one, that he had no reason to be untoward. Of that night, he said we had merely “shared” a kiss. I remember that word. It was so breezy. It was so easy. It was so nothing. It was practically a lark.
I don’t remember speaking. I certainly don’t remember challenging it. I began to question myself, in that room, in that moment, a doubt that stayed with me for years. That was his version of events. At the time, and for a long time after, I wrestled with how I might have responded. What could I do? What was real, after all? Wasn’t this, too, a version of reality?
As far as I know, the entire incident was never spoken of again. I hadn’t yet heard the word “gaslighting,” but I think of it now. The very few people who learned of the incident from me were left with only one clear takeaway: Silence was infinitely preferable.
The narrative of shared complicity left me feeling deeply, deeply ashamed. I also felt frozen out. About two months after the incident, I ran into Wieseltier in the copy room. I remember I apologized.
I recall how I shaped it. I said I had wanted to come speak to him during the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, when Jews come to wipe the slate for the coming year, asking for forgiveness from those they have harmed. He said if I had, he would have welcomed me with open arms.
Truthfully, though, I was fortunate.
A recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study found that 75 percent of women experience retaliation after reporting.
I wasn’t retaliated against. I was simply left to wither.
I left the magazine a few months later.
This is a story I never planned to tell
If you’d asked me last month, even last week, I’d have balked at the mere idea of writing an essay like this. I never planned to tell anyone this story. I had buried it, tucked it away marked under S for shame and cross-referenced into Y for youth.
In the weeks since the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted, I, like many women, have thought back on any number of small and large incidents I’ve tolerated in my adult life. The famous writer who casually caressed my bum on a crowded balcony, because he could; perhaps he knew I wouldn’t say anything, so as not to make a scene. The man I had interviewed for a story who began to knead his fingers into the back of my neck and shoulders, leaving me to try to carefully extricate myself without, God forbid, being rude.
There are far more prurient stories I could share, and far larger, physical, violations, but these smaller anecdotes also keep swimming back up to the surface. That’s because, as a young woman, I learned to categorize. “Look,” I’ve said more times than I care to recall, “it could have been so much worse.”
That in mind, I might still not have written anything, except that at the New Republic, as far as I know, I was the only one on staff who spoke up. And you know what? It felt like I’d ruined my life, or at least my career, for a time. The shame certainly never went away.
So when former (male) colleagues at the magazine began publicly saying that not only had they never known what was going on around them but no one had ever said anything, I felt compelled to finally outline what they’d missed.
In these past few harassment-story-saturated weeks, women have appeared in caches of 10 and 20, finally sheltered by the weight of their own numbers and the relative, if cold, comfort of corroboration, telling story after story of intimidation and predation. Many of these are horror stories of sexual assault and rape. That, thankfully, was not what happened to me, here. It’s in part why I hesitated to tell it, lest it in any way seem to diminish the enormity of what others have gone through.
But it’s important to remember that an individual woman, like I was, usually doesn’t realize she is, or may be, one of many. We all start out alone. And most often, we remain in that isolated bubble. That lonely space is a dangerous one — for careers, for mental health, and, most importantly, for systemic change.
My story was a lesson of sorts — just not the right kind of lesson
A half-dozen of my former colleagues contacted me after the Atlantic story ran. All express remorse. It’s a familiar refrain these days: We should have done more. We didn’t know what to say.
It’s been both mortifying and vaguely heartening to hear from everyone. But when I see my friends tweeting about how they had no idea what was happening in the office next door, I wonder: Why weren’t they told? Wouldn’t it have been better to have told the women on staff we were valued, if, indeed, we were? Whom did the silence protect?
The other day one of my former TNR colleagues, Sacha Zimmerman, who is now an editor at the Atlantic, told me that she had known my story at the time. It was instructive. When Wieseltier kissed her at a bar four years later, she said, she didn’t bother telling anyone.