“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou

Most of us, that is, women, experience more than one sexual assault, whether culminating in a rape or otherwise. My first: He was a family friend; I played with his kids. I was about 4 or 5. He pulled me into his lap, took my hand in his, and used it to masturbate himself. I ran away when he was done. I didn’t tell because I was afraid my dad would kill him.

The second came during a trip to Mexico to see relatives, when a couple of boys in the barrio thought it would be cool to grope una gringa.  I must have been 11 or 12. I didn’t report that one, either, and for the same reason.

The one that changed me happened in in 1972, 46 years ago. I was 24. It happened at a particularly vulnerable time for me: I had recently left my marriage and was still finding my feet as a Person Who Wrote; it was certainly before I had any reputation at all for calling out BS. It happened like this.

I had recently sold my first science fiction story, indeed my first story of any sort, and was delighted to be welcomed into the San Francisco Bay Area science fiction community as a fellow professional[1]. I had admired many of these people for years, as writers and as editors, so being among them was heady stuff. The group, perhaps the largest enclave of the SF community outside of New York City, was nonetheless relatively small. It consisted of both fans and writers and those whose place lay not precisely in one camp or the other (booksellers, for example, or Charles N. Brown of the SF news magazine Locus)[2]. The community was fairly tight-knit and, from the viewpoint of an outsider, pretty exclusive.

I was happy to be allowed in and happy to accept my first invitation to a party[3]. The party was  crowded and loud, usual for the time and place. There was music going on somewhere although few if any people were dancing; food was left out and warming in the stuffy atmosphere (Psst! avoid the cream cheese dips); and the partygoers for the most part indulged in their favorite pastimes: talking and drinking and smoking. Tobacco. There may have been some dope-smoking going on, probably outside in the yard, but it wasn’t a major attraction. I had recently met many of these folk: well-known professional writers and editors (known collectively and by outsiders as Big Name Pros (when the term was used within the circle, it was almost always ironic); other newbies like me; Big Name Fans wildly famous within the insular world of science fiction fandom; a few relics of the past who had been part of the group forever; spouses and partners. I suspect there were undercurrents that I wasn’t aware of but that’s true of any group. Nobody sits you down and recounts the historical details, you learn them as they become relevant, if at all.

Wit was highly valued and at a premium: I think my entrée came not from my story publication, but because I said,  at a Japanese restaurant when asked about dessert, that it would consist of “sweet fish.” Wit there certainly was as the evening passed. Puns, double entendres, absurdism, quips that worked in more than one language – it was dazzling. True to the Immutable Law of Parties, the level of consumed alcohol rose, the quality of wit declined, and the sound volume doubled and doubled again.

A few hours in, I went into the bedroom where we had piled our coats. I suspect I was in search of a fresh pack of cigarettes, not that it matters. A writer followed me in, pinned me down atop the coats, and put his hands inside my clothes. I yelled but I don’t think anyone heard and after what seemed like forever I managed to fight him off. He was bewildered that I had reacted so badly to what was, after all, just “friendliness.”

You must toss this in the ring: The much-admired doyen of “friendly” assaulters was Isaac Asimov, famous not only for his ceaseless cataract of prose but for his books of salacious limericks and for his belief that any woman he met was fair game for assault. In some circles it was considered a badge of honor to have been publicly assaulted by Asimov, rather like a groupie bragging that she had been raped by a rock star. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t funny. Years later when I was introduced to him as the President of the Science Fiction Writers of America, he was on me and going for my lips even before my name was spoken. By that time I did have a reputation for calling out assholes and was winding up to swing on him (and yes, I knew who he was) when sensible parties pulled me away. I had to understand, I was told, that this was the Great and Revered Doctor Isaac Asimov and I should neither object to his actions nor deck him. I muttered something obscene and left the room.

Note this, too: the Breen situation, (see endnote 2) had led to deep arguments within SF fandom, some of which may persist (I don’t know. I no longer pay attention). A major argument against banning Breen from conventions was that he’d been a part of the community forever and you don’t do that to a fellow member of the group. That and the fact that SF fans were (to use a very broad brush) almost self-defined as kooks, people with few if any social graces, some of whom (truth be told) were barely socialized. So if Breen assaulted children, it was something to be hushed over because he was “in the group;” if Asimov assaulted women, it was Isaac being Isaac, and if this particular writer had a reputation for getting pie-eyed drunk and attempting rape, then it was just this guy being this guy[4].

Note, finally, that I was not “with” anyone. I had come to the party alone. I was fair game.

After I escaped from the bedroom, I found the hostess and told her what had happened. Her response, echoed by a few others, was that that was just the writer being the writer, and why didn’t I have another drink.

This was not a case of not being believed; nobody questioned that attack had happened and, indeed, made it clear that it wasn’t out of the ordinary. It was just that it was ordinary, it was expected, it wasn’t anything to make a fuss over. In essence, it just didn’t matter. Raising a stink, a newbie against a long-time group member, was a non-starter. At best I would have gained a reputation as an hysteric. At worst … there were a number of editors in attendance, all long-term group members. Would they have taken my complaint into account when I submitted work to them? Was I willing to find out?

The answer to the question “Why did she wait so long?” is difficult, and complicated, and differs from victim. And situational. Would I have tried to deck Isaac Asimov, if that particular incident had happened years before it did? I think that question has no real answer. Would the bedroom assault have taken place if, at the time, I was protected by a reputation and a position in the field? Depends entirely on who the assaulter was – the unnamed writer was not the last although he definitely was the most damaging. Each victim has a separate,  solid reason for actions taken or not taken, and it’s not up to us, outside and far away, to opine one way or other.

It’s just up to us to believe.


[1] I had just left a marriage in which not only was it difficult to find time to write, I was forbidden to tell anyone I did so and especially forbidden to tell anyone about that first sale.

[2] It didn’t include everyone: Marion Zimmer Bradley was not a member of this subset within a subset, nor was her husband Walter Breen (this happened a number of years after the original Breendoggle, in which Breen was accused and later convicted of child molestation, details here). According to her testimony in court, MZB covered up for him; according to their daughter’s testimony, it was kinda a  family affair (see links in article). MZB remained a solid and often respected member of the community, which, as a whole, had plenty of practice at looking the other way – it was, in fact, almost a way of life.

[3] If I remember correctly, at Dick & Pat Ellington’s. Dick was a typesetter and long-time fan; his wife Pat sold antiques.

[4] He’s been dead for thirty years. No, I’m not going to reveal his name. My suspicion is that more than a few people in fandom kind of admired attempted rape. If you’re basically unsocialized and you lack the guts to attempt it yourself, then thinking that a member of your tribe did it and got away is something to be celebrated.