#metoo

On October 17, 2017, in Past Morning Briefs, by David

I’ve waited a long time for this day. More than 25 years, actually. And it’s bittersweet, but I’m ready, we’re ready, to have this conversation.

I was young, it was my first full-time job, and a dream come true. A full-time position writing the weekly newsletter and planning department events for Walt Disney Feature Animation. My first day on the job, I placed two Oscars won by The Little Mermaid in the Trophy Case. And I was quizzed point blank on my sexual orientation by one of the heads of the department.

What could I do? 26 years old, a straight, white guy from the midwest, and the biggest opportunity of my young life. I nodded and smiled, and listened politely as the sexual politics of this career opportunity were laid out before me. I wasn’t in Missouri any more.

But I forged ahead with the idealistic hope that nothing too crazy could happen to me if I stayed true to myself, aimed to deliver beyond all expectations, and stayed true to the values of the corporation. Ah, the naivete of youth.

I delivered week after week, no matter what. With tremendous exposure for an entry-level position, I turned the right heads over time, many times. My weekly newsletter was hand-delivered by me to the offices of the CEO and the President every Tuesday. Eighty Tuesdays. As time went on and I made the newsletter my own, I received a letter of thanks and encouragement (“we love your writing…you are very funny…” from the Office of Jeffrey Katzenberg. This was the reason why I came to Hollywood. A dream was coming true.

And yet, no matter what I did, I would always be subject to the whims of that one department head who “took an interest” in me. I wasn’t his direct report. I was supporting his production with a Wrap Party. But he took control of my career at Disney, checking in at least weekly to see if I would succumb to his overtures.

Was it obvious? No, it was surreptitious. This, it turns out, was one of the shrewdest, most political, deviously vicious people I’ve ever encountered. Think Jafar from Aladdin. And he is still in a position of tremendous power in Hollywood, and on Broadway.

Did I realize what was happening while it was happening? Well, I knew I clearly had a problem in this guy. But what was I going to do? He had all the power. The game was clear, and he controlled it. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was screwed. Figuratively, of course. I would never trade my integrity, sexual or otherwise, for a promotion. This is a trait forged by the fire of my experience, and it has served me well over the years because I survived what followed.

When it fully dawned on me that my opportunity was becoming compromised by the choice I was being presented, I asked my boss’ secretary for advice dealing with this guy. She knew the players, and warned me to be careful and keep moving forward. As several awkward one-on-one meetings to discuss the Wrap Party ensued, I recall trying to end one meeting in his office that kept dragging uncomfortably on with personal conversation and innuendo.

Me: “Time to get back to business.”
Him: “I’ll give you the business.”

There was a sinister sneer underlying his comment. It was made from inappropriately close proximity. He knew I was in a relationship, and he had met my girlfriend a few weeks before. I laughed off his proposition, and left the room untouched. That’s when things began to unravel.

My hours – which started at 60 hours a week, no less – got even longer. Years later, a girlfriend applying for a job in Disney’s Theatrical Marketing Group told me she was told by a friend already working in the department that she would not get home before midnight until she fucked one of the department heads. Nice.

The hours increased, and ticky tack complaints about my work from my harasser and his crony, President of the Division, escalated. My health began to noticeably deteriorate. Huge welts appeared on my face and chest. Stress reactions. The first time I’d ever encountered such a physical reaction to a situation in my life.

Our internal HR staffer took me aside, and told me that there was internal conversation about the breakouts visible on my face. He told me, at great risk of his career at Disney, that I was on my way to a constructive discharge and recommended that I file for Workers Comp. That way they couldn’t fire me, and I could keep my job while working my complaint (stress through excessive job hours) through the System.

Unlike this very generous and brave co-worker, the System was not my friend. Filing Worker’s Comp was akin to declaring war. My days were officially numbered. In retrospect, of course, they were already unofficially numbered. My boss was pissed. And kind of screwed.

Nice guy, but didn’t lift a finger to help me. He knew what was happening, and he knew the character of the people involved. But he had 30 years at the company and a family to support. So he did nothing. I later found out that he, too, was fired from the department, along with all of the other men on the Admin Team, within three years. This was the first purge by the Gay Mafia at Disney (made famous in the Michael Ovitz trial), and it happened in the mid-1990s.

The next chapter of my saga went on for about 8 more months. I call that time, “The Meat Grinder.” I would continue to get tactical advice from our internal HR Rep. He had no power to actually help me, and was risking his own job every time he gave me advice. Some of the items he suggested would be beneficial in case I decided to file a lawsuit down the line. It was also helpful to have someone on the inside who understood what was happening and wanted to do the right thing. Though from a business standpoint there was nothing he could do.

I told my story, in its entirety, to Corporate HR. The Rep was very interested to hear what I had to say. Then he did absolutely nothing to address the situation. My harasser was powerful – very powerful within the Company, though that was nothing compared to the power he holds there now. By standing up for myself in this extremely awkward and potentially nuclear situation (from a PR standpoint: producer of Disney Animated films sexually harasses young staff coordinator, pre-Anita Hill). For Disney HR, I was basically a problem to be handled.

At that time (1991), Disney had the power to adjudicate its own Workers Comp issues internally. So they made a case against me while I continued to do my job. I performed admirably under the circumstances, knowing any slip-up could get me fired for cause.

I stayed even later hours to be sure to get everything done. I documented all of my communications at work with everyone that meant anything (the CYA file). I even wrote a Simpsons teleplay on spec in the hopes of getting drafted into their writing corps. A colleague helped me get the script read by Simpsons producer David Silverman, who gave me a ton of constructive criticism and asked me to write another one. But at that time, that’s all I had in me. My brain was melting.

Ultimately, the Workers Comp claim led to three official meetings at Disney’s discretion with a detective, a doctor and a psychiatrist. All under Disney’s employ.

The detective went first. He was by far the most objective. As I told him my story, he listened intently, asked a lot of questions, recording the answers on tape. When we got to the part of the narrative that led to my predicament, he snapped off the recording device and spoke to me, person-to-person. This was a textbook case of sexual harassment. I needed to document what happened, look up and understand what sexual harassment is, and get a lawyer to help me through, or out, of this situation. He made it clear that I was not going to be able to work through this with the studio on my own, despite my wishes to the contrary.

He was right. And honest. And helpful. I followed his advice, even getting input from two of my cousins who are both lawyers. One who now does personal injury, and the other who is a lawyer in the entertainment business. They advised against going the legal route. Neither of them was interested in being the first lawyer to go up against Disney in a public sexual harassment lawsuit. Though I’m sure there have been hundreds of cases filed or settled against the famous Disney harassment culture since. Just ride it out, they advised. Try to find another job within the company.

But that wasn’t happening. And I couldn’t quit, either. My medical bills (GPs, dermatologists, eventually allergists and nutritionists) were in the thousands. Without a job, and insurance, I would have been bankrupt within months. I was going to be at Disney until they 1) acknowledged Workers Comp (which probably would have set them up for a massive lawsuit), 2) fixed the situation internally, or 3) fired me.

The psychiatrist was next. He asked many deeply personal questions, apparently in the hope of finding some psychological grounds for my dispute. He was mean, got super personal, and I think he even plays a psychiatrist in the movies. No quarter there.

The Doctor told me point blank that I was going to be fired for filing the complaint.

Ostensibly they were investigating to decide if I was the victim of massive job-related stress. I had welts on my face and my chest like I’d never experienced before. Dozens. But proving workers comp by stress is a very tough case to make. Especially when the studio owns the final decision.

Not surprisingly, Disney ruled in Disney’s favor. Soon thereafter, I was constructively discharged.

Between the date that I finished the investigative process and when they let me go, I ran into the man who sexually harassed me out of my first full-time job. He was coming out of one of the buildings Feature Animation utilized in Glendale. Back then, we were scattered across five locations.

A few years later, they built a beautiful animation building on the studio lot, a reward for the success of the films that were produced in that era: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. In my short time at the studio, I supported each of those productions, which have all earned billions in revenues for The Walt Disney Company. I was paid about $7 an hour for the approximately 19 months worth of 60-100 hour weeks I served at the House of the Mouse.

My harasser looked ragged, messed up, disheveled in a way I’d never seen him before. This guy was meticulous. Master of his carefully developed image. I couldn’t tell whether his state had something to do with my workers comp claim, which was being handled by the studio as a potential sexual harassment lawsuit, or some other Disney-related stress. But I gave him a ride, mostly in awkward silence, to another part of the campus, and never saw him in person again.

As I said, he is still with The Walt Disney Company, and among its most highly paid and powerful executives. He even appeared once on The Bachelorette, an ABC show, and gave sage marriage advice to the bachelorette and her suitor. I found that somewhat ironic.

As for me, it took years to work through the anger and pain of that massive unfairness. Looking back, I still have feelings about the experience. But it doesn’t own me like it did in the 90s. It took three years to undo the stress bomb that led to all of the breakouts. The solutions: rest, regular exercise, and a massive restriction of diet. Plus a complete avoidance of any and all employment by The Walt Disney Company.

I did heal and found another path to success that led me into the technology business and Symantec Corporation. I told Symantec HR I would never work for another corporation like Disney, and they promised me that if I hated working for Disney, I would love working for them. Symantec kept its promise, and I spent 10 super-productive years there, providing my life with some much-needed stability.

Since then I am going on 14 years in the business of dance music and events. I have a business (The Cruz Coalition, with my business partner Art Cruz), and as a DJ and music producer I am doing things and having experiences I couldn’t have dreamt of when I was an aspiring, and idealistic, young writer/producer at Disney. Who knows what would have become of me had I stayed in the Disney salt mines with its legions of abused.

Clearly some idealism and naivete was left behind at Mauschwitz. But not all. Which is one of the reasons I never sued. Sometimes I wonder, if I had filed suit, could I have stopped that guy from harassing others. Maybe. Or maybe the pressure of being Anita Hill before Anita Hill in my already fragile state would have crushed me for good. I did try to tell my story to the Los Angeles Times before the statute of limitations expired, but they never followed up.

I’ll tell you one thing though – I believed Anita Hill. And she is a hero for standing up and telling her story, although it didn’t stop America from putting that cretin Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.

But I will never forget what happened to me at Disney. And I will always hold tremendous empathy for those who are made victim by the insidiousness of sexual politics. And I’m grateful that the day has come when we can talk about how it’s wrongfully impacting our world and our system. Think of all the people who abused their power to coerce sex, and then used that same power to either promote or demote their victims based on personal whims, desires and fears.

I am grateful that #metoo is shining a light on this issue. Sexual politics exists in many forms, and can move in many directions, though almost always for the powerful and against the powerless. Think of all the unhealthy and unfair choices that are made when sex inappropriately enters the work place. So many lives and paths irrevocably changed. While we may never be able to undo that unfairness, let’s learn from it and make the future a place where the consequences are greater, where sexual abuse and sexual harassment are far less likely to happen.

#metoo

 

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