The High Price of Being a #MeToo Whistleblower

Tricia Romano considers what speaking out about abuse at the hands of Eric Schneiderman has cost a close friend.

Tricia Romano | Longreads | May 2018 | 7 minutes (1,770 words)

 

A few weeks ago I was at dinner in New York with an old friend, an editor at the New York Times. She thrust out her phone. “Oh my god, did you see? Tanya!”

Tanya was Tanya Selvaratnam, one of the four women who’d accused New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of physical abuse in a New Yorker story by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow. She and I knew Tanya well. I’d met Tanya 15 years ago when I was a nightlife reporter for the Village Voice. We were fast friends and gallivanted around town together. Now, we had a few bazillion mutual close friends and acquaintances. In fact, right after dinner, I’d be going to her apartment to sleep, as I often did when I came back to New York to visit from Seattle, where I now live. Until that moment, I had thought I would be meeting up with her. She had texted that morning that she’d be home late, as she was going to a party. “Cool,” I wrote. “See you then.”

Instead, my phone started blowing up with messages from our mutual friends.

“Holy cow. Just finished reading the Eric Schneiderman NYer story. What a psycho. Are there any NYC AGs who go after the ‘bad guys’ that aren’t totally twisted? It’s worse than an episode of ‘Billions.’ Glad Tanya is ok.”

“I’m really sorry this happened to her and think she’s seriously brave for talking.”

“Ugh.”

I wrote Tanya and asked if she was ok.

She replied: “I won’t be staying at home tonight. If anyone asks about me, don’t say anything. If the buzzer rings or someone knocks on door, don’t answer. I’ll explain later. At dinner now. I’ll call after. Sorry I didn’t tell you before what was going on xo.”

My dinner date and I sat at the table, our eyes glued to our phones, as we read through the New Yorker story and its horrific details.

“Oh my god,” she said, “I just got to Tanya’s section.”

“Same.”

Silence.

Over dinner, we tried to process it. Some things became clearer to me in retrospect. Tanya had always been a pretty guarded person, and when I asked her how the demise of her relationship with her high-profile boyfriend had come about, she offered vague comments: “I’m glad it’s over.” “Happy to be free.” “Never dating a politician again. Always on.” No sturm, no drang, and devoid of details.

It turned out she’d been staying quiet for a specific reason — and had been cooperating with the New Yorker for many months.

When Tanya met Schneiderman, her interest had been piqued by the age difference and the different orbits they inhabited. She, in the art world/nonprofit/social-justice realm working with The Federation, Glamour, and the Wooster Group; him, in the high-powered New York political realm. In their Venn diagram, there was just a sliver of overlap, enough for frisson when they first met at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, long before he fashioned himself as a crusader against Trump. At the time, Hillary was expected to become President. (An irony — when she met him, Tanya had been writing about the convention for me, for the Stranger, where I had been Editor-in-Chief.)

***

After dinner, my friend and I went back to the apartment of one of the most talked about women in New York. We looked around nervously for reporters. There were none. Inside, we turned on the TV and watched the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, and NY1 dissect the situation about our friend. Her face, her name, her words about horrible things done to her, replayed over and over and over in different scenarios on the screen. There was no new information. It was just a car crash replayed, facts reiterated. Some rumination and analysis, plus disbelief that this so-called good guy could be so bad.

Within three hours, Schneiderman had resigned. A direct result of my friend’s actions. Another friend DMed me on Twitter: “What she did is amazing!”

It really was.

My friend and I started Googling to figure out if there was any way people could find Tanya’s address and phone number. We found a few security flaws and texted her, suggesting she take some things down.

By this time, the New York Times had the story on the front page. So did the New York Post and the Daily News, which had her face printed on the cover. I hoped for her sake that she was in a safe place and not looking at any of the news.

I watched photos of her flash on the TV to the right of her piano, lined with photos of her and all our friends. I wasn’t even the person in the news, and I felt insane. The entire experience was surreal. My friend was literally at an undisclosed location, hiding out, and I was watching a show about her on national television on her couch.

(Later, when I recounted my experience to Tanya, she said, “Oh, you have to write about it.”)

I watched on Twitter as Tanya and the other accuser who chose to be named, Michelle Manning Barish, were turned into holograms. Not people with feelings that real things had happened to. They became symbols and stand-ins for political arguments, and, of course, the subjects of conspiracy theories. British blogger/conspiracy theorist, Louise Mensch, the left’s answer to Alex Jones, tweeted: “This is absolutely terrible. It’s a pack of lies about @AGSchneiderman and a victory for @PutinRF. And – it won’t save @realDonaldTrump from one goddamned thing.”

Not even a few hours passed before the Twitter morons lined up to assert that the women were Putin plants. I tried, in vain, to defend the women, muting, and blocking, and reporting. Anyone with a brain and the ability to type Tanya’s name in a Google search would find out that she’d been a longtime Democratic activist. A feminist who has done work for Planned Parenthood, she was a dyed-in the-wool-liberal, and she wasn’t carrying water for Trump by blowing the whistle. Had they even read the article? (They had not, I was sure.)


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Mensch and her followers opined that the women were terrible for ridding the Dems of the biggest Trump crusader in the country, a popular, but incredibly flawed belief. A specious argument, it presumes that Schneiderman was a special snowflake, and that he alone would be the one to save us from Trump, that none of the work he was doing wasn’t achieved with the help of dozens of employees in his department. Those investigations, like all shows, must go on. And you can’t claim to be the party of principles if you allow people without any principles to represent you.

Soon, my boyfriend informed me that the Schneiderman story was at the top of Reddit. Tanya became a character in assorted hot takes: “Eric Schneiderman seems to think he’s Christian Grey. He’s wrong.” “Eric Schneiderman Has Always Been A Con Man.” There was a listicle on Heavy.com, “Tanya Selvaratnam: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know,” as if she was Alexander Skarsgard’s new girlfriend, and we were just fangirls getting up to speed (“2. Selvaratnam Wrote ‘The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock’” and “3. Selvaratnam is an Award-Winning Prolific Producer, Actor, & Filmmaker”) The gruesome details from her experiences with Schneiderman were sprinkled in between.

Not to be outdone, the New York Post gave her its special treatment, pulling out the most shocking quote, nestled deep in the New Yorker story, and bringing it to the fore. “He started calling me his ‘brown slave.’”

It was still hard to process — that the person in the story was the same person as my friend. I still hadn’t had a lengthy discussion with her about this. It was all so weird.

***

The next morning I woke up, and the New York Times had the story as its lead; Jill Filipovic and other deep thinkers were starting to weigh in. Tanya had even been Drudged.

While I was still at her apartment, there were two knocks on the door. I texted Tanya and asked if it was her. She was still in her bunker. The doorknob jiggled. I tiptoed up, and a business card from the FBI appeared under the door. Later, when I returned after a long day of meetings, another note from a reporter was also there.

The entire experience was surreal. My friend was literally at an undisclosed location, hiding out, and I was watching a show about her on national television on her couch.

Later in the day, I finally got Tanya on the phone. She was fine; she had protected herself by avoiding the news and social media. She was relieved to be able to talk a little more freely with me about it, after having kept it quiet for so long. But she was still holed up like Dick Cheney during 9/11, in her undisclosed location, receiving food, friends, and phone calls.

In the morning, I had Googled her name to see what else came up, and realized the first pages of her search results — which had once been home to information about her book, her filmmaking, her acting, her activism, her producing, her website, her writing — were now filled with repeated reports of alleged sexual violence and psychological abuse. Her identity had been overshadowed by this terrible man, and her whistleblowing. This would follow her — maybe not forever, but for a while. Though she finds her work mostly through her network and word-of-mouth, there may be a moment when a potential client or employer will have to Google her and see this. Will it make them pause? Will it make them wary of hiring someone with a notorious profile? I worried. “It’ll blow over,” my friend from dinner assured me over text.

That’s the thing you don’t think about when you see the news in a two-dimensional, theoretical way. You don’t think about the accusers as real people who are doing something that life-altering. Their reality and their reputation change instantly. The bravery isn’t in the hours that it took to tell the reporter, but in the weeks and months and years afterward, where the story follows them through the ether. They live in its shadow, so that others may be free of darkness.

* * *

Tricia Romano is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Seattle paper, the Stranger; previously, she has been a staff writer for the Seattle Times. She has been published in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Elle, and the Village Voice, where she was a columnist for eight years.

Editor: Sari Botton