Cox was jealous and controlling, Sara says. He convinced her to destroy the blouses she wore to work because he thought they were too revealing. He would look through old photo albums with her. “You want to keep that one, hon, do you?” she remembers him asking when they came across pictures of her high school boyfriend. “You don’t want to keep that picture. You should just rip it up. If you love me, rip that up.” He insisted on being in the room whenever she talked on the phone to her family. Slowly, Sara felt him chipping away at her personality.
The theater community in Chicago has been reeling this month, after The Chicago Reader published an exposé of alleged abuse at the now-closed storefront theatre company Profiles. The result of a year-long investigation, journalists Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt documented a climate of fear, intimidation, and violence perpetuated and enabled by the two men responsible for much of the theater’s output over the two decades: Darrell W. Cox and Joe Jahraus.
Going off choreography during fight and sex scenes, so that co-actors were violated and covered in real bruises. A pattern of intimidating and psychologically domineering behavior towards colleagues and sexual partners—with, in the case of women, the line between the two frequently blurred. Putting young and inexperienced people in key managerial roles who would be less clear on (or be too intimidated to criticize) when professional boundaries were being crossed. Perhaps most damning, Cox, who is in his 40s, had a habit of aggressively pursing sexual relationships with very young actresses, including a teenage actress still in high school.
When the Reader’s piece was published at the beginning of June there was an immediate and emotional response. The fallout included Profiles Theatre closing for good, but also momentum for wider change and healing in the theater community, coalescing around a new code of conduct created by the Not In Our House group that helped bring about the Profiles investigation.
But amid the talk of healing, there seems to also be a sense of guilt. There had been rumors circulating about Profiles for years, if not decades. And while all this had been going on, their plays were garnering rave reviews.
What really seems to have struck a nerve in the Chicago theater community, therefore, are not just the allegations themselves, but the feeling that everyone kinda already knew about all this. The abuse was an open secret for decades, parts of it literally played out on a stage. Moreover, when you look at the kind of ‘gritty’ and ‘real’ plays they churned out each year (almost universally featuring a domineering white dude played by Cox, brutalizing a series of young, vulnerable women) it feels like it ought to have been obvious something was up.
So the closing of one toxic theatre company is certainly something to celebrate: but it isn’t the end of the story. Sure Darrell Cox was the bad guy, and now he has gone. But what about the people who saw it happen? What role do bystanders in a community play in enabling abuse?
This is a question that reaches beyond a single individual or theatre company, even beyond a single community. Because one woman in three becomes the victim of relationship abuse at some point in her life. And most women are not part of a tight-knit community that will at some point call out her abuser on the front page of a newspaper.
One in three is a lot of women. One in three means that, right now, someone you know is probably going through this. So if bystanders are indeed partly to blame, then we are all culpable.
“I didn’t want to believe that any of that was true,” she says, “because then I kind of felt stupid for helping be the face of the work they were doing at that theater, because it was such a small show and I was so proud of it.” Plus, there was Cox, pointing out to everyone how the house was full every night and how well the audience responded to the violence.
As I read the Chicago Reader’s piece, I found myself nodding along. I don’t work in theater and I only can only understand secondhand, through my conversations with J and his friends, how vulnerable actors are when they inhabit emotionally challenging roles, and therefore the psychological damage that is inflicted on an individual when a castmate breaches professional trust on stage.
But the kind of psychological and emotional abusive relationships Darrell Cox cultivated with the women (and in some cases young men) he worked with was uncomfortably familiar, resonating as it did beyond the closed community of the theater.
Most obviously, I could see parallels to a number of recent high-profile sexual harassment scandals involving professors preying on students.
As with Profiles, the university scandals involved a man in a position of authority within a small community pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable behavior and aggressively seeking romantic/sexual relationships with women who worked under him and would be afraid to say no. Think of Blake Wentworth at Berkeley, Christian Ott at CalTech, Thomas Pogge at Yale, and Jason Lieb at UChicago, to name just a few. Although I know (as most academics must) of cases that never made it to the front pages of the NYTimes, or even as far as a disciplinary hearing.
It strikes me as no coincidence that scandals of this kind have occurred and played out in both academia and the theater. Both are bounded ‘communities’ in the most straight-forward sense of the word, but both are also professional worlds where the line between friends and colleagues is purposefully (and happily) blurred. Both actors and academics can sometimes slip into thinking about their colleagues and their work environment as a ‘family’. Part of the point of pursuing a career in either field is to reject the 9-to-5 rut, to be following a passion, to work long hours alongside people who are equally creative, smart, motivated, and driven.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that families are not always the place where one is safest. The family can be the site of the worst kind of emotional, financial, and sexual abuse. The people we are most emotionally invested in, are the people who hold the greatest power to fuck us up. Families can be scary.
But there’s something else, too, that unites both the Profiles case and the university abuse cases.
In both communities, rumors had circulated for years, with warnings passed down woman to woman that X should be avoided at all cost. And when the scandal was finally aired in public, there was in the same sense of outrage and frustration at community authority figures, who hadn’t done more to stop this individual when the abuse was brought to their attention.
All this implies bystanders: people who saw what was going on and did nothing.
On the one hand, there is a lot of anger directed towards the authorities, who it as assumed should have taken control of the situation: the actors’ union Equity, university HR staff, older actors serving as mentors, deans and heads of department, reviewers who came to plays, conference organizers who ignored allegations.
On the other hand, there are all those other people (male and female) who were in the same room and presumably saw the inappropriate touching, heard the put downs, noticed the tone of voice, overheard the veiled threat, passed on the rumor, passed by the argument, passed on the buck.
How culpable are those people? Why didn’t they step in? And is there any hope they will step in to stop the next Darrell Cox?
These are some of the women I know. The woman I’ll call A was a relative. She had a razor sharp wit and threw wonderful parties. On rare occasions her husband could be sweet and affectionate, but daily life throughout their long marriage was planned around his ‘moods.’ He would fly into a rage. The atmosphere would be explosive. Parties, vacations, shopping trips, and even just ordinary days at home hung in the balance as she carefully gauged whether or not he would play along.
If us kids were there, A would make faces behind his back. After he’d screamed at someone and stormed out the room, she’d whisper ‘old fart’ and stick a finger up at his back to make us giggle. But never to his face. I was in my early twenties before I noticed she never did it to his face.
A always said that she didn’t have children of her own because babies were boring. But a couple of years before she died, she confessed that she’d decided to stay childless after the time he hit her so hard she fell down the stairs.
I met B on my very first archaeological excavation. I was 16. She was (and probably still is) the toughest woman I’d ever met. She was strong, farmer-tanned, drank neat whisky, and when she drove us to and from site each day in the minivan, she’d play loud goth music or the Gypsy Kings and laugh like a drain as us teenagers bounced around in the back.
B taught me how to dig and it’s probably her fault I become an archaeologist. She also told us that a few years previously she’d been in a relationship with a man who beat her. B was the one to teach me that one in three women are victims of domestic abuse.
C I knew in college but only tangentially, because she didn’t have many friends. I knew the one person she hung out with other than her boyfriend, and our intermediary friend initiated a weekly ritual of watching a TV show together on Sunday nights. C was tall, athletically slim, gracefully beautiful and also incredibly smart. Top of her class at Cambridge smart. Sci-fi novel reading and learning Greek for fun smart. Despite looking like a model, I never saw her in anything other than jeans and a t-shirt.
She didn’t turn up one Sunday. Our mutual friend found out later that it was because she’d spent the weekend fighting with her boyfriend. On the Saturday morning, as they were going out to breakfast, she’d lent over to pick something up and he’d been able to see her thong peeking over her jeans. Obviously this made her a slut.
After the two-day long fight he refused to speak to her for a week. C was sick with anxiety. Eventually he showed up unannounced with roses and took her to dinner at one of the most expensive restaurants in town, to show her she was forgiven.
D I met when we were both in our early twenties. I wondered why she didn’t seem interested in dating, and was surprised at her certainty that she’d never get married. Later a mutual friend told me that she’d been in a relationship when she was in college that was so violent, she’d decided she would do anything to avoid making the same mistake again. Better to stay on her own for the rest of her life, than risk another man turning on her. When we ran into each other in our mid-thirties, she was still on her own.
E was in a long distance relationship. She hadn’t made many friends in her grad school program because her boyfriend would call her every evening, and if she wasn’t at home alone he would keep calling her over and over and over—all night if necessary—until he got hold of her. Then he would question her for hours about who she’d talked to, for how long, what about, and where exactly she’d been. To avoid the interrogations, E just stopped going out.
Also at grad school: F, whose much older boyfriend told her no one else would ever love her if they broke up. He would hit on other women while she was sitting right next to him, and tell her she was imagining things and/or an uptight prude if she got upset. When she found out he had slept with someone else, he proposed.
G was another academic. Her husband was like A’s: every social event dominated by his angry, brooding moods. He could sit in the corner the entire evening seething with rage, because she’d made them ten minute late earlier in the day. Towards the end of the night he’d call her a bitch and start telling her to shut the fuck up, fuck off, fuck off, fuck you.
Five hours before I moved to another country, H sat on the floor of my apartment. I was frantically packing, and she was meant to be helping. But she’d had another harrowing week of fights with her fiancé and just sat there, staring at the floor. “I probably shouldn’t commit suicide.” H kept saying. “I shouldn’t do that. Right? No. You’re right. I shouldn’t do that.”
So I ask myself, whenever I read in the news about these high-profile cases: How culpable were those fellow actors and professors and directors and students? Why didn’t they step in? Is there any hope they will step in to stop the next Darrell Cox?
It has taken me a month to figure out how to write this piece, because I fear the answer is no: no one will step in next time. I fear this, because I know that I’ve never stepped in either, and I still don’t know how I could.
When I read the women’s accounts in The Chicago Reader, I recognized the kind of power-games described right away, even though I wasn’t familiar with the context of working on a play.
The violent temper, the walking on egg-shells, the sense of reality being undermined so that you don’t know any more what’s a normal reaction and what is not. Not because I have lived through that kind of relationship myself. I’ve been lucky in that way (and I don’t flatter myself that I’ve avoided it through anything other than luck.) I recognized it because I have been a bystander to this kind of relationship most of my life.
Actually I realized recently that there has probably never been a point in my life when I didn’t know at least one woman going through this exact same thing. Maybe I didn’t know her well, but I knew her. And I saw it happening and didn’t say anything.
So the question is, when the abuse is not happening in a community like a theater or a university, if it’s just a couple or a small family; when there’s no HR department or Union you can call on to intervene, and no journalist who is going to write an expose—in that kind of situation, who is left to step in? Who do we blame? Who do we sign up to a code of conduct?
I understand the Chicago theater community’s relief when Profiles closed its doors and Darrell Cox was blacklisted. This particular individual has been stopped, in Chicago at least, and although the doubt obviously remains that he was not the only person pulling this kind of shit in the theater world, there can be hope that this case will at least empower people to take a stand and intervene next time it happens.
Likewise, I hope the high-profile coverage of particular professors caught sexually harassing their students and keeping their jobs leads to universities changing their attitude and firing the bastards right away.
But what about all the women who are trapped in exactly the same kind of power-trap, but who don’t have the backing of an institution or a community? The women who are on their own, one against one, being slowly crushed every day. Who steps in to help them? Who is going to fire a husband or boyfriend or fiancé? Who is going to protest outside his house? Who will make sure he can’t harm anyone else in the future?
What does stepping in actually look like?
I think of the women I have known and respected and loved; the colleagues, mentors, and friends. I knew at the time that they were in trouble, if not physically then emotionally and psychologically. But I didn’t once say anything: I have never stepped up to help any of these women. I never knew what to say.
What can you say?
At what point—especially if you don’t see someone more than every couple of weeks, say, or only in mixed groups—at what point do you drop into a conversation about your coursework, or your holiday plans, or even just what you are planning on cooking that night, “Yeah we tried that new place near the library, but the coffee was gross. By the way dude, I’ve been meaning to tell you that guy you married and have a kid with treats you like a piece of shit. I know you don’t have any money or ability to provide for yourself and your family without his income, but you should really leave him.”
I am not asking rhetorically. I would like to know what to say.
Emotional abuse can seem hard to pin down. That’s precisely the problem. It’s a mind game, an attempt to assert complete control over the victim. It doesn’t have to involve physical violence at all. It’s instead about warping another person’s sense of realty so that they become entirely dependent on the abuser.
In the UK, the popular radio soap opera The Archers devoted a long-running story line to an emotionally abusive relationship as a way of building awareness and addressing myths of what domestic violence is and isn’t. Because there is often confusion about where the line lies between a bad relationship and an abusive relationship.
When I took a look back at the article on Profiles after writing the list of some of the women I knew who had been in abusive relationships, I noticed that, with the exception of the possible sexual relationship with the girl who was still in high-school, it doesn’t seem like anything described was illegal. This isn’t anything to celebrate or excuse: but rather reflects how few tools we have to address the problem. If he had been physically or sexually violent with his partners off stage, that would be covered by law (the physical violence on stage, of course, is a more complicated matter). But men who just destroy a woman’s state of mind, who grind her down until she doubts reality, men who torment their partner with constant attacks and recriminations and trap her in a cage made from her own fear: that’s not illegal, at least not in the US.
The damage of emotional abuse is hard to fight back against, because a symptom of it is that the victim is being purposefully misdirected from the source of the problem: being told that it’s her who causes him to get angry, her who is crazy. Every individual incident can be explained away. It’s only when you see the pattern that you understand the problem.
Thinking about all this, I feel like I can understand the sense of guilt bystanders in the Profiles case and at the university departments feel. Because I feel the same guilt. I see a common pattern. There has never been a point in my life where I haven’t known at least one woman in an abusive relationship. And those are just the ones I notice.
I’ve never yet called any of them out. I don’t know how I would. But the fact is, abuse cuts across class and race, age and education, and the statistics are clear: you know people who are in this situation right now. You are also a bystander.
I want to know. What can we do? I’m not asking rhetorically.