The Backstory: Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg

Interviewed by Ashley C. Ford. August 10, 2020. Central Florida

Chronicles of Now: Your story leaves us hanging at the end. What do you think she told him?

Laura van den Berg: Well, in addition to being inspired by news headlines, the story was inspired by an interaction that I had with a man on a flight who was maybe the most appalling human being that I’ve encountered in public or up there, anyway, and who was being really verbally abusive to the flight attendants. The most unsettling thing is that right when it reached a point where people were clearly preparing to intervene, or maybe a flight attendant felt—and the flight attendants on this flight were all women—maybe felt that she could say “sir you’re being verbally abusive, you can’t behave this way,” he would laugh and he would say, after going on this tirade, “Oh it’s just a joke. Take a joke.”

To me, the thing that this signaled was that this is a really experienced abuser and a chronic abuser and an experienced manipulator. I had this back and forth even with myself, Do I say something? Do I not say something? Then finally I did say something, and he was not happy to hear it. And I said it again, just for good measure. So in my imagination, she said something maybe that was kind of close to what I said in life, which is “You are being verbally abusive, your behavior is completely inappropriate, and I see what you’re doing, and you have to stop.” Which is to say sort of seeing the behavior and naming the behavior and finding that language to name the behavior.

CON: So what did he say back to you?

LV: He said something very close to what the man on the plane said in the story, which is “Who do you think you are talking to me like that?” And then I repeated what I’d said the first time and then he was really angry for a minute and then kinda just passed out and seemed to go to sleep which everyone was happy about.

CON: You exhausted him. Yes, yes, I like that you wore him down. You know my grandmother always said she never lost a fight in her life because she never stopped fighting until the fight was over. You just tire people out. This story was inspired by this narrative in the media of Joe Biden and his history of being handsy with women. But it feels far broader and bigger than Joe Biden or any politician or any one man that I think I could name. So what drew you to it? What were you trying to get at here?

LV: Yeah I mean, I think that one thing that drew me to writing about this is that I feel like so many women have experienced these situations where behavior has occurred that is inappropriate, unprofessional, perhaps not abusive, but toxic in that way and misogynistic. And yet it maybe wouldn’t meet the standard for assault. Reflecting on my own history of this as a younger person, I thought to be harassed meant to be groped or to be assaulted meant to be attacked by a stranger. I had no language to describe bad behavior that did not meet that most extreme bar. I feel like so many women have ended up in the aftermath of these encounters feeling traumatized, confused, afraid, anxious, but also left with a question of what just happened? Did that just happen? Did I think what just happened is actually what happened? I think this sort of culture is set up in a way where it really encourages us to constantly be second-guessing ourselves and second-guessing our perceptions and wondering if we’re being too sensitive, if we’re being dramatic, if we’re blowing things out of proportion. And I think when we’re in this sort of category of bad behavior of handsiness, I have been there, I have absolutely had those sorts of encounters with men and then sort of been through that process of second-guessing and talking myself out of my own understandings and my own perceptions. So I was interested in writing into that psychological territory.

CON: You know, the vice president’s controversy is in the background of this piece, right? And the real focus is the whiskey-swirling asshole in first class. I feel like every woman, like you said, has encountered this man at some point in her journey, in her life, along the road. This guy shows up for every woman. He’s real but he’s also emblematic of something that I think is pervasive and often unspoken in our society. What is that thing?

LV: Oh man. I think that it has to do with sort of power, you know. And that in this case his harassment of these flight attendants didn’t appear to be of sexual nature, but it was just so much about power, and I have the power to treat you this way. I have the power to speak to you this way because I’m a man. And race is relevant here too because he’s a man, because he’s white, he let everyone know that he was the most platinum first class, at the top of the first class miles pyramid, because of all of this. And I think the power, too, to just control interaction, You will stand in front of me and you will take this abuse and then when I laugh and tell you the conversation is over, that’s when you can leave. And I think that to me is just so much about dominance and power and wanting to assert dominance over people who have less power at a particular moment.

I have been there, I have absolutely had those sorts of encounters with men and then sort of been through that process of second-guessing and talking myself out of my own understandings and my own perceptions. So I was interested in writing into that psychological territory.

CON: How come some powerful men behave this way and other powerful men seem to be almost offended by this kind of behavior? And we think of them as great examples of feminists.

LV: Yeah, gosh that’s such a good question. I mean maybe they’ve been to therapy somewhere along the way, which this man on the plane surely needs if he hasn’t gotten it. I think that there are probably so many, I would imagine, factors that merge together in terms of someone’s worldview, their upbringing, their experience, their natural character or way of seeing, and maybe they’ve ascended to a place of power but perhaps they weren’t necessarily born into that kind of power or their relationship with power has been more nuanced, more complex as they’ve moved through the world, and that that has informed their way of seeing. So I think that there are probably many factors for the different kinds of male models we see in the political sphere, but—and I just met this guy and was stranded next to him on a plane so I certainly wouldn’t presume to know the inner workings of his soul—I do think to act like that there must be something really broken in a person. I think that kind of rage often comes from a place of brokenness. There is that saying, Hurt people hurt people, and I do think that there is something to that. But the world can’t be responsible for anyone’s brokenness. It’s our job to fix that within ourselves ultimately.

CON: Yes, it’s an explanation not an excuse.

LV: Yes absolutely.

CON: This story really gets into these situations where women feel uncomfortable. They are insidious situations, and the men in these situations are often oblivious to this stimuli around them that women are picking up on and then in most cases, because they’re the only ones picking up on it, taking responsibility for it.

LV: Mmhmm.

CON: What do you think women lose because of what men won’t allow themselves to see or hear?

LV: Yeah, oh my gosh, that’s such a great question. And I think that that’s been sort of a really painful line of conversation that I’ve seen around #MeToo—women who are saying because this happened earlier in my career, I didn’t ultimately pursue this path. You know I have a friend who has an intense sort of phobia of doctors to the point where it’s really difficult for her to seek medical care even when she needs it because during one of her first medical exams, which was performed by a male doctor, he did something that was inappropriate and violating, and you just think about this sort of accumulation of violence of all kinds, whether it be physical, emotional, psychological, but the accumulation of these daily violences and the way that they can really shape our way of seeing and thinking and the way we sort of make decisions and the paths we pursue and the paths that we don’t and sometimes it sort of closes . . . there’s so much to say about this. How much time do we have?

CON: I understand.

LV: Yeah, but I think that this is a really painful line of conversation that’s come up in the #MeToo dialogues. This idea that because something happened to a woman early in her career, she didn’t pursue a particular path, or she didn’t reach in a particular direction. And I think in some ways the greatest cruelty of the kind of violation that I write about in this particular story is again, just the way that they can undermine our own perceptions and our own grasp on reality and the way that our body is telling us this is what happened and it was wrong. But our brain for all kinds of reasons—because we don’t want to lose an opportunity, because we’re scared, rightly scared of consequence and repercussion—is trying to talk our body into a different story. I think that estrangement from the bodied reality and the intellectual reality, that feeling that maybe we lost trust in ourselves and the ability to truly see a situation, which is so important to anything that we do and to any kind of work that we do, is a really profound loss that so many women experience.

CON: I mean, I would count myself among them, and I know quite a few women who would stand right alongside me.

LV: Yeah, same.

CON: How do you think the vice president handled those allegations? Were you paying attention to that story as it continued?

LV: I think his handling of it has been poor, in my opinion. I’m not convinced that Biden really understands the pain he’s caused. I also wanna pause and say I plan to vote for Biden. Some of his accusers, including Amy Lappos, have gone on the record to say I accused him of this, and I still plan to vote for him. And I think that is just simply the position in which we’ve found ourselves, but I do feel it’s important for me to make it clear that I intend to vote for him despite the many things I could say in response to this question.

But yeah, I think his handling of it has been poor. I’m not sure that he really understands or has really absorbed the pain that he’s caused. And I think his response tends to sort of, sometimes be defensive. But also, when there is more of a gesture in the direction of accountability, chalking it up to how norms have changed and times have changed and he understands he needs to change with those times, and it’s like, This was never okay. It’s not a question, it’s not a matter of simply social norms have changed, this was never okay. The difference is that we do have a little bit more of a vocabulary to talk about why it’s not okay, and some women might feel a little bit more agency in speaking publicly about what has happened to them and why it’s not okay. But I think when the former vice president blames shifting times, it’s sort of really taking himself out of the equation. This was not fine then and it is not fine now and it will not be fine in the future. The end.

CON: Can you think of your ideal way you would have wanted him to respond?

LV: That’s such a great question. I think, I feel like I would need to sit with that for a while to have maybe an answer that feels completely true. I think a step in the right direction would have been accountability in the sense that he was wrong to have done these things and that he was wrong to have violated these women in these ways without sort of pinning it on “it was a different time” or changing social norms, but to say something like, “It was wrong then, it was wrong now, this is why it was wrong even if it wasn’t particularly sexual, this was an abuse of power. I was in a position of power and I abused that power.” I think a sort of more forthright acknowledgment of that would at least have demonstrated that he perhaps does understand the harm that he’s caused. But I think until there’s that, at least the indication that there’s some degree of self-honesty at work, it’s hard to imagine how a person won’t make the same mistakes going forward, you know? And there are, I think very often with these men, it’s a chronic pattern as opposed to an isolated incident, which is why one woman comes forward and then it’s like the dam breaks and you have all these other women coming forward and saying, Me too me too me too. And I think until there’s self-honesty, I have very little optimism about changed behavior, and I think as a starting point I would say a greater degree of self-honesty on Biden’s part would have been a step in the right direction.

CON: Mm. On the floor of the House of Representatives recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out Republican Congressman Ted Yoho for rudely accosting her on the steps of the Capital and for calling her a “fucking bitch” in front of reporters. AOC is part of a younger generation than your narrator. She would be part of my generation. Do you think that generationally the tables are finally starting to turn on boarish, sexist, immature men who should know better?

LV: I hope so. Yeah, I think AOC is a hero for so many reasons, and I really admired her just taking a hard line on that and saying, Hell no, sir. Not today Satan, no. And I do think that there is something of a generational shift where people are rightly drawing harder lines about behavior that’s just completely unacceptable. And I think also it’s often much more difficult, and particularly for public figures for women of color, to draw those lines, that they often pay a bigger price for it. In some ways, white women’s anger is validated or even encouraged in a way that I don’t think is true for women of color and so I’m sure that she has and will face retaliation for being so forthright, and I also feel that it was absolutely the right thing for her to do. And the more women we see take those sorts of stands in public, in office, I think it helps us all sort of find our inner courage.

But I teach undergraduate creative writing and I do see that in students. I think a kind of willingness to call out bad behavior and not in a sort of coded, private way. But there are also situations where women just aren’t able to do that. I mean it might be a matter of their own safety, it might be the risk of retaliation is too grave, it might be that they’re vulnerable in a particular way and they just can’t take that risk. But I feel like, speaking for myself at least, if I am in a place where I can take the risk even if it’s difficult, even if there will be retaliation, I am duty bound to say, No you cannot behave in this way, you cannot say these things. The time where you could do this in public or in private and get away with it is over.

And then once we sort of prove to ourselves that we can speak out, and we will, and we are capable, and we are more than capable, not that it gets easier per se or it gets less risky, but we just know that we have the capacity to do this.

CON: I like that. Get him kicked off the plane. That would be my plan.

LV: Yeah.

CON: Early on in the story the narrator doesn’t want to call out the vice president. He’s the vice president, and she’s a nobody according to her friend. Her friend, who might even be her body in my mind, she’s on the wrong end of a power dynamic, but at the end of the story she finds her voice to speak out. What changed her?

LV: So in my understanding, I think that the confrontation on the plane and why that felt to me like an apt container for this story—because it comes from a headline we sort of have a sense of what happens next—she does come forward with her allegations. I think being, in some ways there’s this feeling of confusion like, I know something happened with the vice president and I know that it was wrong, but can I really say anything? Should I say anything? Sort of being tangled up in all of these questions and then having people in her life discourage her and saying, “No you don’t want this attention, this is going to completely derail what you’re trying to do,” about coming into contact with a man who’s like toxic masculinity on steroids. And it’s so explicit and it’s so not ambiguous and it’s so clear that someone has got to intervene and say something to this person and take a stand for decency, that it clarifies her thinking ultimately about whether to come forward or not in regard to her allegations against Biden. And I also think that sometimes, I mean one of the great loves of my life apart from fiction, is boxing. And I have been boxing for a couple of years and started sparring maybe a year and a half ago and I remember my coach being like, “The first real punch you just eat, flush, the first one is the hardest and then it gets easier.” And there is something to that, and sometimes I do think that if we’re not used to speaking out and standing up, I think the first couple times we do it it’s particularly hard because there’s the question of Can I? Can I do this? Will I do this? Am I capable? And then once we sort of prove to ourselves that we can, and we will, and we are capable, and we are more than capable, not that it gets easier per se or it gets less risky, but we just know that we have the capacity to do this. And so I think that there is something about confronting the man on the plane that sort of affirms that she has the capacity to confront the vice president in this way.

CON: Laura van den Berg, thank you so much for your story. It was an amazing story and thank you so much for coming on The Chronicles of Now podcast.

LV: Thank you so much Ashley. I loved your questions! 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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