Turning the Tables on Toback

photo by Denise Winters PhotographyI’ll cut to the chase. I was sexually harassed and groomed over the course of a week by James Toback, but not sexually assaulted, battered or threatened, as many others were, because I did not accompany him to a hotel room or Central Park. Listening to the news over the past week, I now realize what awaited me if I’d followed through with the “audition.” I am one of 310+ women who was targeted by this sexual predator. This is my story and why I feel none of the women targeted have anything to regret.

On a gloomy day in June of 2000, three weeks before my wedding, I was approached by a man in a black trench coat on 72nd St. and Broadway. I was wearing a tan trench coat. I was 24 and a modern dancer at the time. I was leaving a ballet class at Steps. Toback claimed to be a director wanting to cast me in a movie called Harvard Man. I said, “I’ve never heard of you.” He immediately whipped out a review of his movie Black and White and showed me his driver’s license and a Guild card – either Screen Writers or Directors. I was familiar with the film 2 Girls and a Guy. So Yes! Despite the title, I acquiesced to sit down in a cafe with him.

Toback showed me the script. I would be playing a woman addicted to masturbation and girlfriend to a Harvard student with a gambling problem. I laughed and said, “I don’t know any woman addicted to that.”

He said, “Yes. I have trouble writing roles for women, so I would need you to come out to LA to spend 24 to 48 hours in a hotel room alone with me so I can learn everything about you.” He gave me his card and I left.

I went back to my office and looked up everything I could find on Toback. I worked a night job in a law firm. In fact, I was surrounded by lawyers. My fiancé was a lawyer and our friends were lawyers. I verified his story and films online, but my make-shift legal support team of friends gave me the advice that probably saved me. My friends advised me not to do anything for him without a written contract.

The Audition

Armed with this information, I called him. It is simply what performers do when they are fed stories about being discovered. After all, this person was who he said he was; and I knew I’d regret not following the Odyssey of my twenties, even if it meant entering the cave of a cyclops. At 24, I was certainly a nobody, and Toback had man-eating cyclops written all over his forehead.

So, I told him I would fly out to LA only if I could bring my fiancé. He said, “Well if you need your security blanket, this isn’t going to work.” I snickered, and said, “Oh well.” He said, “Well, wait. Meet me at P. J. Clarke’s on Saturday.”

So I did. I was waiting at the storied bar on 3rd Avenue drinking club soda. Toback walked in and asked what I was drinking. I explained that I don’t drink. He said, “Oh. Since it’s such a lovely day, I thought we’d take a walk in Central Park.” I explained that I had new shoes on and they were cutting my feet. I was breaking in new white heels for my wedding after-party. He was wearing the same black trench coat.

Toback sat down and began a ridiculous conversation in which he probed my sexual proclivities – how I orgasm, pubic hair questions, etc. I realized Toback’s narcissism was boundless when he explained that every actress in his movies has sex with him, and every leading man in his movies plays him- a.k.a. Robert Downey Jr.

I became fascinated to see just how far his narcissism went, so I turned the tables. I started probing Toback. He claimed to have fathered children around the world and done wild things in Eyes-Wide-Shut type sex parties. I decided to test Toback’s limits with an escalating list of repellent and degrading acts. Was he into absolutely anything?

Suffice it to say, Toback couldn’t quite figure out whether to rise to the challenge or if the conversation was now demeaning him.

I’ll spare you the specifics, but Toback responded he’d certainly seen “it,” but “it” wasn’t really his thing. At this point, he got up from the bar and maneuvered the conversation to the door.

The meeting became a stalemate. Toback wasn’t offering me any real role and I wasn’t going to a secluded location with him, so we parted ways on the street. The meeting left me confused and disappointed, but not physically violated. From P. J. Clarke’s, I went immediately to buy an off-white silk wedding after-party dress and got married as planned.

A Cast of Hundreds

Crazy as it sounds, the incident led me to study acting. I misinterpreted the encounter as some sort of cosmic career advice, and I found myself at Penny Templeton Studio, where I eventually told the story to my colleagues, several of whom had been “Tobacked”. We discussed writing a show about it, but never did. We knew there were more of us, but little did we know it would be a cast of hundreds until this week.

On Sunday, I read Glenn Whipp’s article about the 38 women who had been preyed on by the director. By mid-week, 200 more women came forward. By Friday the number stood at 310+ women, including myself, who have come forward to talk about James Toback and his serial sex offenses. Thanks to Glenn’s work, I now know what would have happened if I’d gone with him to Central Park.

In the last week, having joined this strange “sisterhood,” I have listened to variations of my own story retold by other women over and over. I have listened to stories of severe workplace aggression and harassment, sexual assault and battery compounded by death threats, and even an alleged rape. Some of these women are unwilling to come forward to the DA’s office because they know the Weinsteins and the Trumps of the world tend to sue for defamation and fear Toback would do the same. I considered this as well until I realized that suing me for defamation, essentially means suing 310+ women whose stories all fit a nearly identical pattern. Besides, I have been assured by my make-shift legal support team that any number of female attorneys would be vying to defend me pro-bono. Did I mention my husband’s an attorney?

Turning the Tables on Shame

I am fortunate not to have experienced Toback’s worst. And yet, I have no regrets because I did nothing wrong and neither did any of the women who found themselves in more perilous situations. To all the women expressing embarrassment, not only for the acts done to them but for merely thinking this was their “big chance”–Don’t regret allowing yourself to be gullible! I don’t. I was 24, in NYC, on life’s adventure. I would have regretted not hearing what the director had to say. Yes, I sat for two sessions of sexual harassment, but I am no more ashamed of my visits with Toback than stepping on to a crowded train during rush hour only to have an erect penis pressed up against me. That was a daily risk!

Whether or not legal action is ever taken against Toback, I am inspired by the multitudes of women coming forward to tell their stories of sexual aggression alongside #metoo. The act of posting seems almost a cathartic way to release shame or regret. However, it is not our place to regret, rather Toback and others who should be made to regret. We have come together to ensure Toback regrets because no man is too big to fail. We are turning the tables on shame. We survived our 20’s in NY! In LA! And everywhere else! We survived men! We had the audacity to enter the cave! Now it’s time to come out heroes.

I am a nobody. This is my story. It is just one of 310 spikes in the bulging eye of a Cyclops.

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