It’s early morning in Los Angeles as I walk a side street to a coffee shop to work on a revision of this essay. I’m listening to the audio version of the article “An Epidemic of Disbelief,” a story unearthing the patterns of institutional negligence by the police toward rape survivors. The story makes me pick up my pace to get to my favorite table and finish what I’ve come here to say.
Over five years ago in a screenwriting class, I pitched a feature script about a student who is deterred from reporting to the police after she’s raped and who uses her university’s Title IX reporting process instead. My own school was under investigation for mishandling such Title IX complaints, and it triggered my self-blame and confusion around an assault I’d experienced years before. A lover of fiction and performance, in that moment I desperately needed a mask. I didn’t and still don’t think I need to share why I was writing the script. I wanted to use a character to find the clarity and justice I never trusted myself enough to pursue. I wanted to understand what might’ve happened had I not kept the story to myself, and to understand why I had chosen to keep it to myself.
Despite the reporter in my ear describing an epidemic of men raping, abusing, and dismissing women, I turn toward a voice coming from a car that’s pulled up suddenly beside me, thinking someone needs directions. I stay planted, the curb between us. Taking out one of my earbuds, I listen as he repeats what he said.
“I don’t normally do this, but I saw you walking and I just had to–”
“No,” I firmly say, walking even more quickly down the block to get to the busy intersection. Once there, I turn to see his car circle the other way down the block. I wonder if he’s followed me from outside my home. There’s no shortage of these small moments in my life, or in the lives of any of the women I know, in which sunny mornings are punctured with fear.
The women who have come forward during the last few years to share truths they would likely prefer to keep to themselves could fill this city twice over. But there are still so many voices who’ve been ignored or forced to keep silent or who have decided to keep silent, and that seems precisely the reason to speak out more clearly against the forces that need our surrender in order to survive. If I could put my own silence on a timeline, it’d peak during the last few months, though I have been quiet for years as I’ve slowly awakened to and untangled myself from the toxic mentorship that I entered into at the start of my writing career.
There’s no shortage of these small moments in my life, or in the lives of any of the women I know, in which sunny mornings are punctured with fear.
A diligent student, I trusted my screenwriting professor when, the summer after I graduated, he asked to direct my script. I admired him, and everything I knew about screenwriting, he taught me. Who better to direct my first film? In that moment, I felt the things I most wanted to feel: my story mattered, I was a good enough writer, I had a chance at writing scripts that people wanted to make. The first time I showed up to his office to discuss the project, I walked the sunlit hallway feeling myself entering a liminal space between being a student and an equal. I felt grateful I had found a mentor who wanted to invest time in me. But he was also asking to use a script I had written and developed from my own passions, with my own skills.
We began to meet more regularly to talk logistics and development and, slowly, he began taking me to lunch, eventually even to a basketball game. I thought then that he wanted us to become friends, real partners in creating the project. As he drove me home after the basketball game, I ignored the discomfort in my body and reminded myself that this was part of our becoming equals, that male mentees must do this stuff all the time and it was nice to have that chance, to be on the other side. Still, I quickly found a way to slip in the fact that I was living with a boyfriend at the time, secretly fearing as I spoke that my professor might drop the project altogether. But he didn’t, so I trusted him even more.
We continued working together on casting and research for the production. As I prepared the shooting script, he slowly pushed on parts of the story that he didn’t find believable, like how hostile the police officers were to the survivor. It wasn’t until I sent him an article detailing how police regularly referred to the SVU Unit as the “lying bitches unit” that he began to trust my judgement. As we prepared production documents, he told me to give him a “story by” credit, and later to list him as a “series creator,” though I had invented both the story and the storyworld. I thought he had earned these credits by producing my work. I didn’t fight or ask about what all of this meant. At the time, it didn’t matter as much as my story.
I trusted him, and I know the easy interpretation for why I relied on his validation rather than taking the script and producing it on my own: I wanted male approval. And probably a part of me did. I lacked this in my childhood because my father, a writer, was terminally ill from when I was six years old until he died when I was thirteen. But I think it was more because I’ve long been uncomfortable with my ambition and urge to create, to push myself to realize my dreams, to be fully seen. I often look to others to know when I’m asking for too much.
In my early twenties, being on a team with another creative, someone I saw as having more experience and insight, felt like permission to pursue my ambition. It was his idea to submit to Sundance, his idea that we could get a famous actress involved, his idea that my script could be made without a big studio behind us. If I was mentored by him, then success wasn’t fully my own choice. I could half-believe in my talents. I wouldn’t step on any toes. I was safe.
As he drove me home after the basketball game, I ignored the discomfort in my body and reminded myself that this was part of our becoming equals, that male mentees must do this stuff all the time and it was nice to have that chance, to be on the other side.
The year before, when I was a student in his introductory class, the two guys in my group turned down the idea I pitched for our final assignment, a story about a man who abandons his life to attend clown college. Instead, we tried to write a scene in which a thirty-something man fucks a series of anonymous women. I didn’t see much fault in them wanting to write out their desires, it was just that there was no room for my imagination as we wrote. I wanted to tell them that, besides the misogyny, we were basically ripping off a sequence from Wedding Crashers, but I didn’t. Who owned the trope of anonymous sex sequences anyway? Wasn’t it all about your take as the writer? And surely my idea wasn’t much more original. Chaplin had long been an icon of American film, and the next year Baskets came out. Yet, on a whim, I wrote to my professor and told him I had misgivings about our scene. Even though I couldn’t face my partners head-on, I slowly tested honoring my discomfort.
Since then, most of my training has been in the creative writing world, where honesty means tearing characters down to their nakedness, where that is the only way they can become believable. The word, belief, is also tied to reason. It presupposes that we begin by doubting everything and everyone. Belief is what’s put into question by our legal system. To maintain your innocence, you must remain believably innocent to those deciding your case, despite competing claims. The court begins with what is, at its heart, a generous notion: it is more plausible that a human did not commit some horrific crime. Does this mean we believe in inherent goodness? In the reporting on the rape cases ignored and rape kits hidden by police departments across the country, and the hundreds of universities investigated for mishandling Title IX processes, one painful detail stood out to me: victims attempt to engage with the bureaucracies purporting to protect them after their consent was taken away, only to have their DNA evidence left in a dark storage room or in the file cabinet of some dean’s office, like an institutionalized sort of predation, suffocation.
Near the end of filming my script, I had to leave for graduate school. We had a month left and our crew of students was eager to finish. A friend, who was living in an empty house on campus, offered her space. I brought everyone in for a tour. It was perfect. I was told and I trusted that the remaining scenes would be completed while I was gone. My professor suddenly decided to go to a concert in my new city and asked to meet me for breakfast, during which he told me that the project would be done soon. Every few months, he emailed updates that kept belief alive in me. When I checked in on occasion, he offered new hope. He always said he was working on it and we were moments away from completion or a big break. Things would be done soon. The film would be seen.
So, while hope stayed dimly lit, I focused on other projects. I wrote the skeleton of a surreal environmental novel about an aspiring filmmaker living on a chicken farm, which had sections written as a screenplay. I wrote poems about monsters and about being on set. I wrote essays about the idea of performance. I met weekly with a friend in the program to write another feature script. I founded a film series. Meanwhile, I struggled to finish my projects, always with a subtle sense that they would not work out, that my dream did not belong to me.
I want to believe that my former professor was unaware of the moments in which I felt my power diminish, that his years of delay came from doubts about his own talent, that he was daunted by what was left to film, but, when I watched Dr. Ford give her testimony this past fall, I nearly burst open. I finally confronted him. “I can’t go the day without asking, is our project dead?” I wrote. He replied quickly and told me to practice self-care. Moments later, he uploaded a photograph to Facebook of a craft beer called “Predator.” I wondered if I should laugh or cry. This was the person who had told me my story was good, necessary, and urgent? Why had he buried it for years, kept me in the dark, made me feel hysterical for insisting on an answer, for being foolish enough to believe in myself?
Days later, we spoke on the phone. He told me I should take over the film and start from scratch, though all I wanted was to release the footage we had. I offered to hire an editor. He told me to run a crowdfunding campaign for a new film and how much to raise. I agreed, scared and unclear about the process. Asking my family, friends, and teachers for money felt uncomfortable and disempowering, but I felt cornered. I wanted the story to be seen, for all of the work and trust to have mattered, to know that poking at my wound had served a larger purpose.
That night, the fire alarms in my building went off several times. On the stoop, I laughed with my neighbors about our landlord, who was angry that we’d called 911. She’d told us to go back in and check all three stories for fire before involving anyone else. We sat together as a rainstorm picked up. The firemen came in and out. We shared stories about her most extreme acts of negligence. She often told me after a bad experience with her – a six-month broken stove when I moved in, mice and cockroach infestations, the ceiling collapsing from water damage – that hardship would be good for my growth, that I should be grateful. The message felt a little familiar.
I want to believe my former professor was unaware of the moments in which I felt my power diminish, that his years of delays on the project came from his own doubts about his talent.
When the crowdfunding campaign failed this past winter, I connected with another indie filmmaker, who explained that the credits taken by my professor had been egregious. I had always had control of my script, of my story, and I had rights to my footage. It didn’t feel good to take my professor’s name off the script or to send him a letter telling him why. He replied immediately, explaining the steps I should take to protect my script, steps he had known about all along. I moved from angry to scared to doubtful, landing on exhausted. And yet the most difficult realization was that I hadn’t known my rights, that I continued working with him because I wanted a mentor, that I’d ignored the small moments in which I felt, but couldn’t yet name, that something was off.
Of course, the footage wouldn’t have been possible without our collaboration, which is a complicated moral, emotional, and ethical fact. I believe in forgiveness and in imperfect people, but what do we do with the art that’s made from those who’ve hurt us? Is sharing this story some kind of betrayal? I know that if I don’t release the footage we have, it will have been an even worse betrayal of that twenty-two year old to whom the idea of seeing her story produced meant the world and who trusted fully and deeply that it would be.
None of my writing instructors ever taught me how to protect my rights from those who publish or produce my work. While I think that simply making art can be good for the soul, even art that is never to be seen, those who earn their livings by teaching aspiring writers can and should prepare writing students to be working, collaborative artists. It’s been five years and I can finally say with confidence that my script is mine. The footage we have is imperfect, but it’s ours.
Mentorship is possible and necessary. I’ve had mentors at other points in my writing life, but they seemed to step aside when I wanted more direct instruction about how to “make it,” telling me instead: if you want this, it is yours. I thought they didn’t like me or believe that I could be a writer. Now that students seek guidance from me, I see that to mentor is to guide and support, to give a nod along the way, but also that the mentee’s belief in herself must come from an internal agreement with her own talents and must empower her rather than make her dependent on the whims of a mentor.
In the months following my professor’s receipt of the letter asserting my rights, I finished new scripts and a manuscript I’d been tinkering with for years. It was like a flood. I had my voice back, and I felt that I could finally trust it. I had been protecting someone who took advantage of my dream. Being silent is nice, but it isn’t kind.
I have started releasing the footage, completed during that time of simple belief in story, because what we made never belonged in the dark, and neither does the harsh lesson that accompanied its production. Yes, universities are wonderful homes for intellectual growth, but they are also bureaucracies. Humans and stories can get lost in them.
I had my voice back, and I felt that I could finally trust it.
A recipient of the The Quinn Creative-Writing Prize from the University of Michigan, Juliana Roth holds an honors degree in English Literature and Environmental Sciences. She worked in programming and communications for The Ecology Center, the Center for the Education of Women, and the World Animal Awareness Society. Juliana earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rutgers University–Camden, where she organized the Writers House Film Series, served as a reader for StoryQuarterly magazine, and taught creative writing and composition courses. Juliana’s screenwriting was selected for the 2019 Atlanta Film Festival, the Socially Relevant Film Festival, and the Austin Revolution Film Festival, and was featured on Girlgaze and in Cinema Femme. She was twice nominated for 2018’s Best of the Net Anthology for her fiction and non-fiction. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, VIDA Review, Irish Pages, The Atticus Review, The Establishment, Yemassee, and The Adroit Journal, among other publications.