Here’s the thing. When Harlan Ellison took it upon himself to grab the spotlight at the Hugo Awards by grabbing the breast of the Guest of Honor, Connie Willis, it wasn’t funny. Nor was it clever. Nor was it satirical. Nor was it a joke between friends. And, just be clear, it was NOT part of a scripted routine. Yes, the shtick between her and Robert Silverberg was a planned routine to make the evening amusing for the audience, but Harlan's actions were unplanned and unwanted. It was a power-play. It was demeaning. It was sexual harassment enacted in a public environment. It was reprehensible.
How do I know this? Let me just say, I have an inside line.
No, really, I do. This is quite likely the only time in my life I’ll be able to claim an inside line on ANYTHING. But this time, I do. Because I know an immediate member of the Willis family—Connie’s daughter—who was there during the Hugos. And let me tell you, from what I heard from her, Connie Willis is pissed. And rightfully so.
I've read a fair amount of speculation on what Connie Willis actually thought about what happened. People have debated the deep inner meaning of commentary she made at a panel after the event. People have pondered whether she and Harlan are, or were, actually good friends. This is natural. In some cases, this speculation tipped into the realm of victim-blaming, but not in all.
(And as a parenthetical note about victim-blaming, I want to be clear on something. Connie Willis is under no obligation to do anything in this situation. She was the one who was assaulted. She deserves the support of others, not requirements by others. She is under no obligation to remain silent, nor to speak out, nor to file a police report, nor to do anything else. Let me state this again – she was the person who suffered the insult. She has the right to decide what to do about it. The person who should be expected to do something is Mr. Ellison, and that something is to make sincere amends. In my opinion, and the opinion of others, that hasn’t happened.)
But back to the speculation about how Connie Willis might feel about all this.
Harlan Ellison claimed, on his website, to have left an apology in a voice message for Connie Willis. From what I understand from her daughter, the message could only loosely be construed by a chimpanzee whacked on smack as an apology. And, in fact, I’m beginning to wonder if “chimpanzee whacked on smack” might not be a reasonably good description of Mr. Ellison himself. Under the circumstances, I doubt it would come as a surprise to anyone to know Connie Willis isn't exactly happy.
Is this hearsay on my part? You betcha. But it’s hearsay via the Willis family, with my phrasing wrapped around it. Any inaccuracies involved are my responsibility, inadvertent, and will be corrected if I find I’m factually wrong on any count.
So, look folks, here’s the situation: Harlan Ellison behaved like a predator. He assaulted Connie Willis in public, in a fashion designed to be humiliating, in a manner that demeaned her, and in a way that was NOT part of the evening’s script. He grabbed her breast in front of a crowd – and with that intentional grab, he stated to everyone looking:
Hey, everybody! Connie Willis may think she’s an honored guest. She may think she’s an acclaimed author. She may think she’s in charge of this ceremony. She may think we’re friends and I respect her. But you know what? She’s my bitch if I want her to be. She’s my prop. Her breast? It’s my breast. Her event? It’s mine to disrupt. Her talent? It’s mine to denigrate. Her gender? It’s my weapon and I can use it to pump myself up at her expense.
I am Harlan. I am male. I must be the center of attention. Hear me roar.
Like a rapist who uses the sexual act as a means to express power and control over someone else (usually female), he used a sexual gesture to express power and control over an esteemed author, a mother, a friend, and an honored guest of the convention.
Later, when taken to task, he posted on his own website. He made an encouraging start, I will admit. Here's a direct cut and paste quote: “iT IS UNCONSCIONABLE FOR A MAN TO GRAB A WOMAN'S BREAST WITHOUT HER EXPLICIT PERMISSION. To do otherwise is to go 'way over the line in terms of invasion of someone's personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst… For me to grab Connie's breast is in excusable, indefensible, gauche, and properly offensive to any observers or those who heard of it later.” Good for him. He added, “"I am 100% guilty as charged, and NO ONE should attempt to cobble up mitigating excuses for my behavior."
Yep, that went pretty well. Until he torpedoed it by then signing off and defining his behavior as “puckish.” Puckish? Mr. Ellison, combining “puckishness” with your apology makes your apology meaningless. You were not puckish. You were not playful. If you were a lesser writer, I’d say that you just phrased things badly. But you’re not a lesser writer. You’re a brilliant one. To imply that your behavior was somehow winsome or cute is the tactic of an abusive husband who, when confronted by the target of his abuse, says, “Well, Jesus, woman. It was just a joke. Don’t take it so seriously. Don’t you have a sense of humor?” Believe me, working at a women's shelter and as a women's self-defense instructor, I hear these sorts of minimalizing tactics all too often.
It was not a joke. It was a power play. It was abusive. It was rude. It was absolutely unacceptable in civilized society. You can’t apologize and minimize at the same time. If you think that your 70+ year reputation as a bad boy will excuse you, that you can say you’re sorry while wearing a shit-eating smile and winking at your fan base, you are wrong.
We will not wink back. We will not be charmed by your shit-eating smile. We will not nod and say, “Oh, that Harlan. He’s so puckish!”
You stepped over the line. You treated an esteemed colleague like an object, you assaulted her onstage. And in doing so, you not only demeaned her, you diminished yourself. You made yourself a dinosaur, a Neanderthal, an atavistic throwback, and a caricature of your worst traits. You made a good start at a public apology, then dug a hole right under it and collapsed it down upon itself.
Not funny, Mr. Ellison. Please take your puckish tag-line, re-evaluate, and try again. I would like to respect you once more. I think a lot of us would. Including your friend, Connie Willis, and her family.