By Lynda Williams
Geoff Marcy is a serial sexual harasser and I feel ashamed for not doing more to stop him for twenty years.
|Add Geoff Marcy and me at the premiere of my
Cosmic Cabaret Show, 1995
Marcy’s evil deeds have only recently come to light, but the pattern started long before the current disintegration of his meteoric career, long before he was The Planet Hunter. Because we were friends and colleagues, I may have helped enable Marcy’s behavior, like many other women who don’t stand up and demand more than a slap on the wrist for what would be a criminal offense outside the academy. What follows is a kind of “I knew him when” tell-all of events only partially revealed on Buzzfeed. It’s an object lesson in what not to do if you realize a friend or mentor can’t keep his hands — or other body parts — to himself.
|Marcy BUSTED by Buzzfeed
In case you haven’t heard the back story, Geoff Marcy enjoyed great fame and fortune as the world’s best planet hunter searching for exoplanets — planets outside our solar system. He was even on the short list for a Nobel Prize, but instead of winning this year, he was outed as a sexual predator. As first reported byBuzzfeed, Marcy was found guilty by the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) of violating sexual harassment policies with female students for more than a decade, dating back to 2001. In fact, it goes back much farther than that. Engaging in everything from flirting to kissing to crotch grabbing, Marcy was a known problem on campus and in the international astronomical community, but nothing serious was ever done about it. Senior women and men warned younger women to watch out for him while Marcy continued his douchebaggery without consequence. Even UCB, after finding him guilty, gave him merely a warning.
After the Buzzfeed article, Marcy published a lame non-apology, but thousands of astronomers signed a petition supporting the victims for coming out and a majority of his colleagues at UCB called for Marcy to be fired. Shortly after, Marcy resigned his position at UCB, as well his position as principal investigator of a $100 million SETI search paid for by a Russian tycoon. The blog- and twitter spheres went supernova with #astroSH emerging as the dominant hashtag and meme for astronomy sexual harassment. Almost immediately after the Buzzfeed story broke, several women, including myself, tweeted that Marcy’s sexual harassment went further back than the UCB incidents — back at least 20 years to when he taught at San Francisco State University (SFSU). And that brings us to my story.
|Marcy at Lick Observatory
during a field trip
with the SFSU Physics and Astronomy Club,
1995 Photo by Lynda Williams
I met Geoff at SFSU in 1994 when I took “Introduction to Astrophysics” with him. While his student, I didn’t observe any inappropriate sexual behavior. He was a fantastic teacher, articulate and passionate, rigorous but fair, and he genuinely cared about his students and their successes. His lecture style had a theatrical flair that made me imagine him wearing one of those puffy Shakespearean costumes and writing with a feather quill pen. He was magnanimous and a little pompous in a classic way that I really enjoyed. Geoff gave me some of the best academic advice of my career: “Determine the time of day in which your brain works the best and study during that time. Arrange your whole life around maximizing your peak brain time for studying.” Not only have I followed that advice but have also passed it down to my own students for decades. Soon after the astrophysics course, Geoff and I became friends. He was only a little older than I and we got along really well, having a similar sense of humor and political ethos. He was friendlier than other professors, but I thought it was because we were becoming friends. As a woman in physics I have many platonic male friends simply because of the lack of gender parity in the field — another factor in the prevalence of sexual harassment. Geoff was no longer my professor nor my advisor and it seemed perfectly appropriate to become friends.
An important side note: I was not your traditional nontraditional student. By the time I came to SFSU to pursue my MS in physics, I was, at 32, a mature, female re-entry student who had already spent almost a decade earning my BA in the avant-garde world of performance art where sexism and overt sexual crudeness are pretty commonplace. In that atmosphere, I grew a thick skin and told offensive people to fuck off. In the early 90s, I worked at The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in the New Genre Department where I managed the media studios and taught production classes. At SFAI, faculty openly dated students, and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll were just an ordinary part of the milieu. Seriously, I’ve seen it all under the guise of artistic expression and First Amendment protections: from a performance artist pulling toy soldiers out of her vagina to protest militarism and sexism, to a male student biting off the head of a live chicken and then ejaculating on it, because, lacking any artistic talent, he couldn’t think of anything better to do. By the time I landed at SFSU and met Geoff Marcy, I had seen quite a bit of the world and had some street smarts. My career goal was to produce and perform musicals based on science and politics, and I needed more knowledge and academic background to do it.
Cosmic Cabaret, 1995
So Geoff and I became friends. When he took interest in my artistic work and personal life, it didn’t seem inappropriate. His crude sense of humor seemed tame by comparison to my experience in the art world. I didn’t feel sexually harassed. He never copped a feel or transgressed my personal boundaries, and if he had I think he knew I would have bitch-slapped him. I thought Geoff was brilliant and progressive and clearly headed for great success. Geoff was always very supportive of my creative work, attending my Cosmic Cabaret performances and Planetarium shows. He was supportive of the Physics and Astronomy Club (PAC) I started and participated in educational events for the community. He hired me to build a website for the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women (CSWA), of which he was a board member, on the history of women in astronomy. We worked closely together on that. I interviewed him several times for the school paper, on his discovery of a brown dwarf star and for his breakthrough detection of the exoplanet 51-Pegasus b. We joked about how astronomers struggle to find military spinoffs for DOE grants and we talked about the dual use of science in the military. We also talked about the challenges women face in STEM and he was genuinely concerned and working to make more parity in science. He asked about my personal relationships and I asked him about his too. I was thrilled with our blossoming platonic friendship and looked forward to future mutually rewarding collaborations, weaving together the worlds of art and science.
And then everything changed.
|Elender Wall, Heather Hauser, & me, 1995
Heather Hauser was a fellow female graduate student who was working with Geoff Marcy. She was smart, arty, cool, and gorgeous, so I enlisted her to co-star in my video production of Einstein’s Angels, a parody of the TV show Charlie’s Angels. The short video starred Heather, myself, and SFSU physics undergrad and opera singer Elender Wall as crime-solving physics babes. Heather was much younger than I, but we became friends and I felt like a big sister or aunty to her and many other younger women in the department. As president of the PAC, I was a student leader and outspoken feminist in the department, and that is why I think Marcy’s victims approached me for help.
Early in November 1995, Heather confided to me that Geoff Marcy was behaving towards her and other female students in overtly sexual ways that felt upsetting and inappropriate, as described in this Buzzfeed article. She was clearly distraught, confused and angry. She told me that she wondered what the fuck was wrong with him and why he was doing this to her. “I don’t want to come to school. It creeps me out to be in that small windowless lab with him. I can’t sleep. I’m sick. I don’t know what to do.” Suddenly I felt sick too. It is disturbing to learn that your friend is a sexual predator who is hurting people you care about. She knew I was friends with Geoff and hoped I could help. I told Heather I would talk to Geoff and try to find out what action could be taken through the school to make him stop.
I was reeling, rewinding all the conversations I had ever had with Geoff, re-evaluating and trying to assess if he had also transgressed with me, questioning my own actions and behavior. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. A few nights earlier, on Halloween, he had told me on the phone, “I wish you were a piece of chocolate so I could melt you in my mouth.” At the time I didn’t think much of it. I probably said, “Oh you are such a perv!’’ But with the new data his victims had just shared with me, his clever candy line made me cringe. It put all of his behavior towards me in an entirely new context. I feared I had unwittingly enabled a sexual harasser and I felt a personal responsibility to do something to put a stop to it.
I immediately called Geoff. What I said, as best I can recall after twenty years, is essentially that a few female students came to me for help about his sexual harassment. He denied it. He told me that they misinterpreted his actions. He was trying to be friendly, to make them feel comfortable. He was only trying to boost their self-esteem by paying attention to them. I explained to him what sexual harassment was and read him the definition. He dismissed it, claiming he knew all about it because he was on CSWA, after all!
I asked him why he was doing this, when he had just announced the detection of 51-Peg b, on the eve of becoming world-famous. I asked him if he suffered from imposter syndrome, or if he wanted to get caught because he felt he didn’t deserve his success, or if his success was triggering sexual misconduct or bolstering his sense of being invincible. I told him that no matter what the reason for his illegal and unethical transgressions, he needed to admit he had a problem, take responsibility, and get help. He continued to deny and dismiss my accusations. It was becoming clear to me that I would not be able to convince him to do the right thing unless I threatened him with legal action. The next day I sent him this email:
Date: Wed Nov 15 13:51:58 1995
After much thought, I feel very uncomfortable with our talk yesterday. I was so upset that I couldn’t really express myself. But I don’t think that I needed to apologize to you for being angry.
I know that I am not the first or the only one. I think you have a serious problem and you need to face it. I just don’t understand why at such a high point in your career you would carry on in such a negative and potentially self destructive way. You remind me of Bob Packwood…. you are such an active “feminist” and yet you sexually harass female students! Maybe you are not aware of what sexual harassment is.…
You know that you have done this and more and I think you don’t have a clue as
to what kind of emotional trauma this causes. I really think you are a great teacher and scientist and I think it would be a great loss to the community and to students if you do not deal with this behavior problem. I think that it is because I think so much of you that I was easily manipulated.
I am sorry it has come to this. I really enjoy working with you and looked forward to continuing to do so in the future. I hope that we can all grow and learn from this and move on. But you have to deal with it. You have to change. I know I have.
Heather and I decided to go directly to the sexual harassment officer at SFSU to make our complaint. I didn’t want to report Geoff to the chair of the department or to his colleagues because I didn’t fully understand how serious the problem was and I didn’t want to be a “trouble maker” or suffer any retaliation from other people. I was hoping the administration would be able to deal with Geoff and force him to face his problem and get help.
We met with Penny Nixon, the sexual harassment officer at the time, and made our complaint. She told us she would speak with Geoff. She explained the grievance process and that we could file a formal complaint, which involves a much longer process and investigation, or just stop at this point with an informal complaint. She assured us she would take our complaint very seriously. We trusted her and stopped at the informal complaint level.
It took several weeks for Penny to meet with Geoff. Interviews on TV and for the international press got in the way. As Penny says in the Buzzfeed article: “‘I distinctly remember sitting down and talking to him,’ said Nixon, who is now a reverend in San Mateo. ‘I told him, you can’t do this, and if you continue, your career will end — it’s that serious. I don’t remember how he responded to that.’”After the first confrontational phone call, Geoff and I continued to have a few more communications via phone and email. It’s clear from some of these that he was realizing that he had a problem, or at least he was pretending as if he did.
Date: Sun Dec 10 13:20:18 1995
It is quite hard for me to reveal my thoughts to you at this time. The pain I am experiencing is intense, and I’m very scared. I also feel extremely vulnerable and quite powerless….
I am thinking very hard about my behavior with other female students. I promise to give this subject my most careful consideration, with a resulting change in light of your thoughtful reports and analyses.
(I stopped emailing him, preferring to talk on the phone instead. Oddly, he kept emailing me, not fearing that I might accumulate evidence.) A few hours later, after talking on the phone, this arrived:
Date: Sun, 10 Dec 1995 17:36:32 -0800
Thanks again for your precious thoughts.
First, I do feel that I “have a problem” in dealing with female students. I promise to work very hard on it. Please trust me that I will dig deep to change and improve. I will be careful about initiating suggestive language or communication of any kind. I will look hard at the many other related subtleties too….
I do really understand that your respect for me deteriorated as you received complaints from others. I understand that, and empathize. You have behaved wonderfully, given the pressure you were under….
Please respond, as I couldn’t bear not hearing your feelings.
With many thanks for your honesty,
I suppose we talked on the phone again after that. The next day, I received his last email.
Date: Mon Dec 11 10:45:37 1995
Subject: Re: thanks
Yes, I learned a huge amount from talking to you.
I met with the sexual harassment officer, Penny Nixon,
today and got good feedback from her. So, I’m on the road.
I met with the sexual harassment officer, Penny Nixon,
today and got good feedback from her. So, I’m on the road.
Apparently on the road to UC Berkeley to harass more women!
As far as I could tell, SFSU made Geoff watch a video on sexual harassment and let it go at that, because a month after his last email to me he was on PBS News Hour. He quickly became a media darling featured in Time Magazine, the New York Times, NOVA and all the astronomy and science press. Within a few years he would be offered and accept an endowed chair at UC Berkeley. His success was meteoric and global and, as we all know now, regardless of his confessions acknowledging his problem, his sexual predatory behavior continued. But at the time, I had hoped that he was dealing with it and was sincere about being “on the road” to recovery and rehabilitation. At the very least, I hoped that he would learn coping skills and behavior to keep his impulses under control.
At the time, I didn’t really understand the grievance process like I do now, after working in academia for nearly two decades. Had I known at the time that nothing substantial results from an informal complaint or that there is a statute of limitations on sexual harassment, I would have immediately proceeded with a formal complaint and I would have pushed Geoff harder to face his problem, possibly even publically, because I had many opportunities to do so in the following years. The thing about sexual harassment or any hostile work environment is that you don’t have to be the victim to be victimized by it. It has long been known that witnessing sexual harassment or any kind of discrimination in the work place constitutes a hostile work environment. I confess that for years I regretted ever confronting him because it didn't do him any good and mostly it negatively impacted my career. And then there is never-ending fear of retaliation while remaining in the Astronomy Universe Marcy ruled over. That stress is real and has followed me for many years and still does to this day. Retelling this story now makes me sick to my stomach.
The Physics Chanteuse and started doing custom cabaret-style shows for science conferences and events. After an unacceptable “bait and switch” from the director of the program at UNL, I returned home to SF and taught physics and astronomy classes part time at SFSU as an adjunct, while at the same time doing a lot of shows as The Physics Chanteuse for different physics organizations. I started getting press and more gigs. My career seemed to be taking off. Marcy was still an adjunct at SFSU while at UCB and we avoided each other.
During this time, my friend and colleague Ron Hipschman was invited to a party at Geoff’s house honoring Jill Tarter, the great SETI astronomer, who is a big hero of mine. When Ron asked if I wanted to tag along I jumped at the opportunity to meet my hero. Ron didn’t know about the sexual harassment at SFSU and I didn’t tell him. I think when Geoff saw me at his party he nearly shit his pants. It was very uncomfortable for both of us. I sang my SETI@HOME song acapella to the party but it was one of the most nerve-wracking performances I had done to date because I knew I was not welcome by Geoff, who must have been terrified I was going to say something about his sexually harassing ways. But I don’t know for sure. Should I have outed him at his own party? That would have been tacky and caused a scene, and women are taught not to make scenes.
I guess one good ass kiss deserves another. Or maybe he believes what he said. I don't know. The problem is that you can never believe anything a sexual harasser tells you.
I had another weird opportunity to out Geoff in public. In 2000, I was interviewed by Claudia Dreifus for the New York Times. She persistently asked me to give her dirt on scientists: who was sexy, who slept around, and so on. I guess she assumed that because of the way I looked and what I did that I was a slut who slept with the scientists at my shows, which I never did. I could have told her about Geoff. I had the evidence — the emails. By then he was world-famous and I was being asked if I knew about anyone who was nasty. She was so persistent that I wondered if she knew about Geoff’s sexual harassment and was trying to give me an opportunity to out him. She even called me at one point and said something to the effect of: “Look, Lynda, I hate to tell you this but the story is looking pretty boring. Unless you give me something juicy I don’t think it is going to run.” It was bizarre. I told her no, I don’t have any dirt on anyone. I knew what a career changer a feature in the New York Times could be and I didn’t want it to be about sleazy male scientists; I wanted it to be about my work as a science entertainer and educator. Luckily the New York Times ran the story anyway.
Over the next decade, there were more conferences Geoff and I both attended but I avoided him. I did tell a few close friends and colleagues about what happened on a promise of confidentiality. I hoped that Geoff had rehabilitated himself, but I didn’t know because I was not privy to his world. Ironically, I received a lot negative criticism from women in physics for wearing cabaret style clothes in my shows, even being barred from performing at American Physical Society (APS) conferences by women leaders in APS. But that’s another story for another time.
It is difficult to convey in mere words the emotions that came up when the Buzzfeed story broke about Geoff in October 2015. Hearing all the awful stories of abuse, I felt sick to my stomach. Watching his stellar career disintegrate also made me nauseated. Such a waste. Rather than feeling vindicated, I felt ashamed that I did not do more to stop him and to help him stop himself. I regret not filing a formal complaint at SFSU and telling the chair of the department and the dean about Geoff’s abuses. Had I more skill and courage perhaps I could have helped Geoff get the help he needed to stop him from abusing more women for another 20 more years.
Although this is a classic mistake women make — blaming themselves for other people’s actions that they think they could somehow have prevented — we do have a responsibility to speak out, and the institutions we speak to have a responsibility to take action. But the abuser himself has the responsibility to change. When the problem arises between student and teacher, it can be terrifying and almost impossible to speak out, though. Scholarships, grants, careers are on the line. Which is why those senior professors who knew about Marcy’s behavior had a responsibility to do more than just warn the “fresh meat” on campus. The reports of victims don’t change the fundamental nature of the abuser, but repeated reports indicate a pattern of behavior that requires serious consequences, not a slap on the wrist or a warning to possible future victims. I wasn’t alone in being derelict in my community duty to do something about Geoff Marcy’s destructive predatory behavior. As John Asher Johnson shares in his blog Mahalo.ne.Trash in the post “The Long Con”:
Geoff’s inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest “open secrets” at any exoplanets or AAS meeting. “Underground” networks of women pass information about Geoff to junior scientists in an attempt to keep them safe. Sometimes it works. Other times it hasn’t, and cognizant members of the community receive additional emails, phone calls and Facebook messages from new victims.
Why didn’t leaders in the Astronomical Community do more to confront and stop Geoff? I feel that the leaders are, to a small but significant degree, complicit in his crimes and must share in the responsibility. We can’t allow predators to prey on our students. The system failed Marcy's victims. And yet people will argue that he alone is to blame for his actions. Is he?
Faculty are required by law to report any knowledge of sexual harassment. Why didn’t the leaders in AAS or CSWA file complaints, reports, and stop him? Were they afraid of retaliation or risk to their own careers? Why does the community allow it to go on? As one of his colleagues told me in confidence "It goes on because we are data-driven and extracting the data is really difficult - the women feel embarrassed and ashamed... He is vindictive and they are right to worry that he will use his power over them."
So now what? Clearly the pervasiveness of sexual harassment (and racism and misogyny and other forms of discrimination) is not exclusive to the field of astronomy or STEM in general. As our society struggles with creating gender and racial equity in a culture that is based sexism and racism, we need to learn how to address behaviors that lead to hostile work environments so we can all be empowered agents of change.
We need to train people to defend themselves and not be victims. I know that is not popular either because, in theory, women should be able to walk down the street in a thong and not be catcalled, and women should be able to go college and not be welcomed with a dildo at the door. But that isn’t the reality we live in yet and until we do, we need to learn how to defend ourselves. And teachers need to learn how to behave.
We also need to learn how to use compassionate nonviolent conflict resolution to rehabilitate members of our communities who transgress social norms. I wish Geoff Marcy would use this as an opportunity to be an agent of positive social change. He could go cry on Oprah and then devote his life to making reparations to his victims and working for social justice. Instead, rumor has it that he is claiming to be rehabilitated and is marginalizing the recent complaints at UCB as being outdated and overblown. That doesn't sound rehabilitated to me.
We are so smart about science and technology but so utterly stupid when it comes to culture and society. As Martin Luther King said “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” Bringing parity and balance between scientific knowledge and social intelligence is perhaps the single most important problem we face as a species. With the technological capacity to destroy life on our planet we need to urgently develop a science and culture of peace and social justice. We need a love boson more than the Higgs because the greatest mystery in the Universe isn't exoplanets or dark energy, it is how we as a species are going to live peacefully and sustainably on this tiny spaceship called Earth. Lovon!
FREE LOVON Valentine Cards at lyndalovon.com
Next up in the series: #AstroSH Part 2: Tim Slater