What exactly is an Open Secret, anyway? / by alix clyburn

At some point in nearly every tale of sexual harassment, the reporter says it was an open secret in the industry/newsroom/office/world-at-large.  It got me thinking about that term, open secret.

I think, at least in this appropriate-albeit-overused instance, open secret seems to mean it’s something that shouldn’t be happening but is, and doesn’t impede on the powers-that-be enough to do anything about it. In other words, the dudes in control didn’t mind that women and, in some cases, young men were being harassed or even assaulted at work.

The incidences of harassment and assault are awful. The open secret thing is also awful. Here’s my worst-case scenario interpretation of this: It’s the most self-destructive incidence of tribalism we humans could possibly exhibit. If this open secret thing is evidence of men subconsciously circling the wagons to protect other men, we are doomed.

Why are we humans so ready to set aside our morality and values in this way? Why is the release of the film, or the continued upward trajectory of the producer, or candidate, restaurateur, comedian, writer, editor always more important than doing the right thing? What else is an open secret?

I realize it’s hard for these bosses to now stand up and say “I’m sorry. I was complicit in this harassment.” And as disgusting as it is to hear all these stories, I do think the relentless tide bringing all this flotsam to light will change the future. The women coming forward are incredibly brave and I hope they will go down in history as pioneers who helped change the American workplace.

(Nobody thinks this is a thing unique to the entertainment, media, and restaurant industries, right? Hopefully these celebrities who’ve spoken up will help embolden accountants, attorneys, managers, legislative staffers and other office workers to make a stand too.)

With each story, I realize how much insidious shit I put up with in the course of my career. We all do; we’re acculturated to endure it. I smiled gamely as I was groped by the handsy old executive director out of a misplaced sense of respect for my elder; I chuckled with discomfort at the lame flirtations of my client since he was, after all, a client; I rolled my eyes in mock shock (and genuine tedium and disgust) at the off-color jokes a male co-worker would make since it didn’t seem worth the trouble to raise a stink. I didn’t think I had the power, and they clearly assumed they DID. I’m grateful and lucky nothing I experienced was sexual assault or even truly scarring. But none of it was acceptable. The open secret for women even in 2017 is that we put up with way too much shit.

I listened to Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey on Super Soul Sunday podcast—I know, so corny. He’s an easy guy to mock, but he’s not without his good ideas. One is how encouraged and excited he is by technology and social media. He sees it as an incredible force for positive change, and at times like this, I think he’s right. The catalyst for Black Lives Matter was smartphone video. (And, btw, the reality that cops routinely harassed and occasionally did much much worse to black people was also an open secret.) The initial Harvey Weinstein story was traditional reporting, but I think the way it has unleashed this septic tide is thanks to social media. Maybe Deepak is right. Open secrets are harder to keep in the world of Twitter, smartphone videos, and nonstop media glare. We all have a little power now, even the people who white men thought they didn’t have to worry about.

(And yes, of course I don’t mean all white men. Calm down.)


The power we always had

Since 1920, we’ve had one power that technology didn’t give us, and we’re still figuring out how to use it effectively. The vote. Think about it. A month before Trump was elected, the open secret of his harassment and assault was played out nonstop all over the media. He bragged about sexual assault. We Americans elected him. A majority of white women voted for him. Why? Why would they vote against their own self-interest? Why would they vote for a man who bragged about assaulting their fellow women? Why aren’t we women protecting our own tribe?

Who are these women? Why do they think they win by toeing the line these men dictate? Why do they hold on with such a death grip to the fairy tale that old white men will take care of them? Santa Claus isn’t real. They know this, right? Are they afraid of taking power? Do they not want to do the work? Do they feel uncomfortable speaking up? Do they find it unladylike? So perplexing.

I don’t want a girl v boy world. No one does. But these men are hostile to the rights of women, so to vote for them is to vote against yourself. In Gloria Steinem’s book, My Life on the Road, she did such a compassionate and incisive job of explaining who these women are and why they vote against themselves. It helped me so much to read her perspective, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see it happen.


Empire of Greed

When I was a kid, my brothers were teenagers. They were good at doing drugs but weren’t that good at hiding it from my parents. We lived outside Detroit, and my parents would sometimes leave work—and the United States—to cross the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor for lunch. Once, on the way home, they discovered that one of my brothers (or “a friend they didn’t really know that well”) had left a small bag of maryjane in the car.

I was only tangentially aware of all this, of course, because there was a lot of really important stuff going on between my Barbies and that handsome fuzzy-haired GI Joe at the time, but I do remember one dinner when, in disgust and frustration, my mom said, “I don’t understand how every dumb teenager in this town can find the drug dealers, but the cops can’t.”

The reality was, and is, that the cops probably knew exactly where the drugs were coming from. It was an open secret, if you will. Today, it’s not the cops I’m concerned with, it’s the FDA. Please read the New Yorker article, Empire of Pain about the astonishingly rich Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma. For one thing, it’s thrilling writing. Patrick Radden Keefe shoots emotional stakes and suspense through what could be dense and dull material. The FDA is so beholden to these greedy degenerates they did nothing to slow the firehose of Oxycontin this company was spraying all over America. Purdue even had a side company that researched which doctor’s offices were overprescribing the drug. When their statistical analysis revealed a doctor over-prescribing this dangerous drug did they intervene? No. They called these doctors “whales”—just like the high rollers in Vegas.

The story lays bare the way our government and Western medicine at large is so complicit in the opioid epidemic. Everybody turned a blind eye to the open secret of the rampant over-prescription of Oxycontin. Nobody really held the Sackler family’s feet to the fire while their privately held company time and again squirmed out of culpability. Chump change payouts and sealed agreements kept these somehow legal narco-criminals up to their eyeballs in millions. At one point, when doctors who prescribed the drug grew concerned that patients were showing signs of addiction, Purdue came up with some verbal jujitsu bullshit to say it was a “pseudo addiction” the patients were experiencing. The solution was…. you guessed it…. More Oxy!  Ka-ching.

The Sacklers are epic philanthropists. Their name adorns wings of the Met, a full Smithsonian art museum, and more. They give none of the billions they’ve made to addiction recovery, maybe so as to not appear in any way responsible? With a fraction of their fortune, they could finance a nationwide rehab program. They don’t. The final paragraphs of this New Yorker piece are Gatsbyesque and chilling.


Escape to The Good Place

And I don’t mean narcotic escape, I mean TV! Silly and smart is my favorite combo in all things and I fell into a deep pit of it with The Good Place. I was intrigued when the series premiered last year, mostly because I’ve harbored a crush on Ted Danson since he was Sam Malone. But, I never watch TV so I never watched the Good Place. Then, the series had a finale that generated serious “OMG!” buzz. Then, I realized that one of my favorite tweeters @meganamran, writes the Good Place. Then I couldn’t decide what book I wanted to read next. Then I started binging on it on Netflix.

It’s so funny and quick. Kristen Bell is so great, plus she’s remarkably pretty and her hair is perfect. Damn people on TV are so incredibly, absurdly beautiful. Books are much easier on my tender ego.

The news these days is pretty hardcore, I sometimes need to turn away, and much like a year ago when I escaped to Hogwart’s, this series has given me a wonderful but smart form of escapism.