I was the first person to file a sexual harassment grievance at Verso Books. This is what happened

I was the first person to file a sexual harassment grievance at Verso. This is what happened.

I am writing this statement to demand that Verso issue an apology to me for their behavior, verbally and in writing, which includes the sexual harrassment I faced from Jake Stevens, their US publisher, and the company’s response.

In September 2018, ten months into my time at Verso, I attended an industry event with Jake and a few other members of the Verso staff. At the end of the night, only Jake and I remained in the bar. We drank together (he paid) and discussed my career, that I needed to find a “thing” that made me stand out. He then said, of my hiring, “we needed someone nice to look at in the office besides Wes”, or words along those lines. Not sure how to react to this, I joked and deflected. He later asked me to “share a cab” back to Brooklyn with him. Jake and I had previously spoken very little; we did not have the collegial relationship he seemed to have with the rest of the staff, and he never showed any interest in my work or professional development. Jake, as the director of the US office, and as a board member, is directly responsible for hiring, firing, promoting, and granting raises. At the time, I was the newest and lowest paid employee, the only woman of color on full-time staff.

Afterwards, I was not sure what to make of this. I spoke to two male friends that night, who both told me that this behavior was inappropriate and was likely a proposition of some kind, and to a female colleague the next day, who agreed that it was inappropriate. However, I decided not to pursue the matter. I didn’t want to make “a big deal” out of something that seemed relatively minor. Perhaps I was misconstruing the events, or perhaps I invited Jake’s comments upon myself. At any rate, I was the newest employee, an outsider; with the least education, the fewest accomplishments, the fewest connections, and the most to prove.

Furthermore, I had my first introduction to the company’s attitudes about sexual harassment in my first two months there, from November 2017- January 2018, when the #MeToo movement kicked off, the multiple, credible accusations of rape against board member and Verso author Gopal Balakrishnan and Verso author Franco Moretti were made public, and the board closed ranks around them, terming the movement as “liberal identity politics”; and that a sexual harassment policy or an HR department constituted “corporatist neoliberalism.” A very odd claim for the board of a for-profit union-busting commercial enterprise to make. We were told not to make any public statements surrounding the allegations. The board refused to cancel the contracts of Moretti or Balakrishnan or to remove Balakrishnan from the board; he would later resign voluntarily. One male board member circulated an email to the entire staff describing feminism and #MeToo in these terms, and likened cancelling the contracts of sexual predators to “burning books.” We all sat around during lunch and read an essay by Susan Watkins in the New Left Review and patted ourselves on the back for our cool smart revolutionary politics. So I didn’t really feel that any good would come of making an issue over this, and held my tongue for six months.

However, this incident weighed heavily on me, the extent of which I wouldn’t even realize until after I left Verso. The company is very successful in marketing itself as some kind of vanguard party, both to its staff and to its audience. It is very successful at making you feel that you’re lucky to be overworked, underpaid, and exploited by them, that you’re betraying your co-workers, or “comrades”, as we called each other, if you rock the boat in any way or fail to achieve the unrealistic standards that they set- all the while, of course, raking in profits by publishing books that rail against this very practice. Still drinking the Kool-Aid at that point, I felt that I was too stupid, too unaccomplished, too uneducated, too uncool to work there in the first place, and if I was seen as a sex object by my boss, well that’s what I deserved anyway and everyone knew it.

In March 2019, at a meeting of the US Womens’ staff, I raised the incident, as was encouraged to file a formal grievance, following the procedures laid out by the sexual harassment policy which we had crafted, independently of senior management, in the wake of the revelations surrounding Balakrishnan and Moretti. I was told that this was not the first time that Jake had behaved in a sleazy and inappropriate way with employees, and that in filing the first ever former complaint, I would be letting him know that we knew about this behavior and would no longer tolerate it silently. I asked for a meeting to discuss the incident with Jake, a verbal apology, a written apology, and a staff meeting to review our policies and establish something concrete to begin rectifying the gender dynamics within the workplace. The Womens’ Group was vocally very supportive and expressed complete solidarity with me.

The first step was for the shop steward- which for some reason we had, even though we were not unionized- at the time to raise the issue with Jake over a meeting. This happened over lunch, during which Jake said he “remembered” the incident and thought it was “strange” at the time, but didn’t mean anything by it, and as for the offer to “share a cab”, was only trying to “make sure I got home safe,” and that he “shouldn’t have engaged in the conversation”- as though he were not the one who initiated it in the first place.

I do not blame the shop steward for this, but in retrospect I find it very inappropriate that this discussion happened over lunch. I can’t imagine a sexual harassment claim being discussed at any other company in the same way, as though it were a friendly social event and not a serious allegation of misconduct, or that Jake would have responded this way if he felt any sense of shame or remorse or accountability in such a meeting. I can’t imagine that this conversation as recounted to me lasted the duration of an entire lunch either. Did they just move on after this to discuss Smart and Important Leftist Topics over burgers and beer?

The fact that this fell to one staff member, who is as dependent on Jake for his survival as I was, and has no actual power to enforce anything within the organization, reflects a greater dysfunction. Indeed, having a “shop steward” in a workplace without a union- in a workplace whose management had been aggressively anti-union- seems somewhat farcical, because there is no unified base of worker power to enforce any negotiations that the shop steward oversees. The role seems an ultimately meaningless gesture granted by management to maintain the illusion of a democratic workplace. The fact that I was encouraged to go about this in a way that would cause the least upset to Jake- not in the way that would most adequately and speedily resolve things for me- is testament to this.

I did not feel that this was acceptable and was asked to write a statement discussing the event, which I did, and I have appended it here. In the spirit of full cooperation, and saying what needed to be said, I spent an evening writing an explanation to the publisher of several left-wing books on feminism and labor, my boss, as to why it was wrong to hit on his employees. This statement was read and discussed in a meeting with Jake, myself, the shop steward, and my direct supervisor. I did find this meeting to be productive; Jake said that while “he remembered the events of that night differently”, he was “mortified” to have caused any distress to me by these actions, and was eager to work with me to transform the working culture at Verso to make it more welcoming to women, and to continue fostering my professional development at the company. While this wasn’t a wholehearted acknowledgement of wrongdoing, I felt that it was the best I could hope for, and left the meeting feeling hopeful that things would be satisfactorily resolved and capable of continuing to work with Jake in the office. I asked for the points we discussed in the meeting, including Jake’s apology, in writing.

Six weeks later, after many follow-ups from my end- during which time I maintained a collegial relationship with Jake, believing that he felt genuine remorse and would do the right thing- I received this written document, along with an order not to disseminate it outside the company, lest it prove “damaging” to Verso. This document, which to all appearances had been written with the help of a lawyer, flatly denied that Jake had engaged in any untoward behavior, in fact that “it doesn’t even sound like [him].” It resorted to the classic non-apology of I’m sorry that you overreacted and took offense at my completely benign behavior. I am appending that letter here and defy Verso to act on whatever threat they implied here.

I asked for another meeting among the staff to discuss this, as I felt that it was totally unacceptable. This time, the attitude from the staff was very different. The next couple of weeks are a bit of a blur, I remember many discussions with the shop steward, at least two meetings with multiple members of staff, and a number of tearful discussions in the stairwell with another female staff member whom I considered a close friend.

The overwhelming sense I received was that no one knew what to do at this point and that everyone was too busy with our ever-increasing workload to continue dealing with this.

I had to make the difficult decision as to whether to reveal the grievance to the entire staff and push for an all-staff meeting to discuss it,or try to be “nice” and not cause too much bother to anybody and ask for a meeting only if people were interested and available, or to escalate this to the board- which included Jake- who had amply demonstrated that they did not take such things at all seriously. Perhaps in retrospect I should have revealed what had happened to the entire staff and demanded an all-staff meeting with concrete action points, and taken it upon myself to push for a resolution for this.

But I was ashamed, acutely aware of my outsider position, and not at all confident that I would unanimously have the support of the staff in this, some of whom have close personal friendships with Jake or are otherwise all too aware of on which side their bread is buttered. All of the staff was in the same position as I was- dependent on Jake for their livelihood and their salary and their professional development. And somehow it fell to me to find a solution to this that would not endanger anybody’s jobs, not cause too much inconvenience to anyone, not sin against our cool and leftist politics, not cost the company any money, and not result in me losing my job. Obviously, getting any kind of justice for myself would have to take a backseat to these concerns.

During one of the meetings with multiple staff members that I recall, I suggested an amendation to the sexual harassment policy, but was told that such a move would immediately alert the board that something was amiss. Instead, I was told to “use the weapons of the weak” (I don’t know what this means) and to “rely on personal friendship networks”, as though being treated with respect in the workplace- having one’s complaints of sexual harassment taken seriously and rectified- is dependent on membership in some kind of Brooklyn Media Leftist Cool Kids’ Club. I was told that it would have to be my responsibility to figure out what next steps to take, if any.

When I suggested that we hire someone to conduct sexual harassment trainings at the office, I was told that this was basically not cool and leftist enough for the hallowed halls of Verso. I was told instead to “find a way to feel more welcome at Verso”, which included “writing another piece for the blog”- unpaid, of course. Perhaps I should join in for more of the lunchtime reading groups. Quite frankly, I would rather spend my lunch hour in a Denny’s bathroom; I can imagine no greater torture than sitting through another one of those stultifying self-congratulatory seminars, which seemed all but mandatory. I suppose, then, that if one does not relate to their workplace as a social scene, and does not have “personal friendship networks” within their workplace, one ought to just accept being left out to dry. Sexual harassers and sexual abusers within organizations habitually target outsiders who do not have “personal friendship networks” and I felt that this was especially true in my case. I did receive the assurance from one staff member that, were I to be fired in retaliation, “we would all go on strike.” But this is hardly a solution to anything. Nor was it a strategy unanimously agreed upon by the staff, but said to me by one friend trying to console me.

This was where the staff left matters, and where I was left to manage this situation on my own. My mental health, which had been very fragile for months, had taken a dramatic downturn, and I contemplated suicide on a daily basis. I exercised obsessively, for hours every day, because that was the only time I felt powerful and in control. I had auditory hallucinations for the first time in my life. At the recommendation of my psychiatrist I began working remotely two days a week, because I couldn’t bear to work in the same room with Jake every single day and listen to everyone laugh at his jokes as though nothing was wrong. I had to slap myself hard across the face multiple times just to walk into the office on the days I was there, and spent most of the day in tears, which was embarrassing for everyone. Obviously I was not getting much work done. I remember wondering whether or not to purposely try to look ugly when I went to work; if I dressed in sweats every day and skipped makeup and basic grooming, people would say eew, look at her, giving herself such airs, why would Jake jeopardize his career to make a move on her, she clearly just wants attention. If I dressed up and wore makeup, however, they’d say, see, look at her, dolling herself up, she was clearly asking for it and now she’s crying about getting what was coming to her, she clearly just wants attention. And then, I reflected on how insane it was that this was even a problem I had now.

In the midst of this I tried to fix the problem by being a better employee. I asked for additional training and guidance because the training one receives initially at Verso is extremely limited. This request was treated dismissively and with much heavy weather, and I was asked indirectly to consider that my senior colleagues were too busy to lend the guidance I needed. The medical accommodation that was made at the recommendation of a physician was treated as a major inconvenience and it was suggested to me that I needed to “find a way to be in the office” and was subtly reprimanded by a senior colleague for refusing to give my personal cell phone number out to authors. When my psychiatrist later recommended a two-week leave of absence, much concern was expressed by my colleagues- not for my well-being, but for the all-important publicity campaigns that I would so selfishly be neglecting.

I suppose, during this time when I was punching concrete walls and self-harming with boxcutters and lit matches in bathroom stalls to try and make it through the days in the office, that I ought to have forged some “weapons of the weak’’ and “personal friendship networks” in order to not inconvenience anyone and deal with being in the same room every day as my boss who sexually harassed me in such a demeaning way and the workplace that allowed him to get away with it, so that I could deliver fifteen dazzling publicity campaigns a season on a salary of $40,000 a year. (The revolution after all, is not going to succeed unless Verso books get reviewed in the New York Times!) I can’t help but feel that, had this happened to a different woman at Verso, more established, with more clout- and more “personal friendship networks”- more would have been done to achieve justice for that woman. But perhaps this only happened to me specifically because I was not that woman.

In July, realizing that this would go nowhere and that Verso was an intolerable place for me to work, I decided to look for another job. I informed my direct supervisor and a senior colleague, who were totally supportive and furnished me with references. In August 2019, I left, and in my exit interview told my direct manager and the shop steward specifically that I was leaving because of the incident with Jake.

***

In the months following, I attempted to rationalize what happened at Verso as isolated to Jake, and that this did not have anything to do with the rest of the company. After a while, I came to revise this stance, through time and distance, and through discussing it with other friends and comrades.

Also, because of another incident which threw Verso’s mishandling of the situation into sharp relief. At the time when the incident with Jake occurred- in fact, that very same week- the editor in chief of another small, leftist publication also behaved very inappropriately with me- though not as egregiously so as Jake. In January, I brought this up casually to a female editor at that publication whom I had gotten to know. That very week, I was informed that they had spoken to the editor-in-chief about the incident, informing him that it was unacceptable, and received an official written apology on behalf of the company from another editor, who was authorized to act in an HR capacity.

If this other company, who similarly had leftist politics and surely couldn’t be charged with uncool neoliberal corporatism for having HR personnel and a sexual harassment policy, could resolve this issue with relatively little fuss, why had this been seemingly so impossible at my own workplace? I realized that this was an issue not isolated to Jake, that I had been let down by the whole company, by people who made a very big deal about feminist leftist solidarity in theory, but in practice left me to solve this by myself. I unfollowed Verso on all my social media and no longer looked at their catalogue or read their books. When people gush to me about how “cool” it must have been to work there, I tell them exactly why I don’t anymore.

In late August 2020, a friend forwarded me the event listing for an event titled “Will #MeToo Survive 2020?” which was to be hosted by Verso, and expressed concern that Verso was putting their name on this event after what happened to me there.

I was infuriated to see this, that Verso would brand itself as some kind of crusader for women in the workforce for clout and for feminist cred while I received no justice for what I went through working there. My friend offered to put me in touch with the organizer, I spoke to the organizer, informing her of the events outlined above. The organizer expressed some surprise, because her contact at Verso, who was also thoroughly aware of all these events, had not mentioned anything about this. I told the organizer that I would prefer that Verso not host this event; but that if they must, that they apologize publicly- that if they were going to publicly crow about their support for women in the workplace,then they must publicly own up to how they failed in this regard. I also wrote to the Verso staff member who organized this expressing my concerns and informed her that I had spoken to the organizer and that she would be reaching out to her shortly.

A few days later, this Verso staff member, along with another Verso staff member whom I had considered a close friend, wrote to me and requested a meeting to discuss the event. I had the strong feeling that this was an attempt to good-cop-bad-cop me or otherwise gang up on me into dropping this, and therefore asked a comrade to sit in on the meeting with me.

What followed was, in my opinion, extremely adversarial, inappropriate, and an attempt to protect Verso’s image and rationalize Verso’s behavior and not to rectify anything with me,despite claims to the contrary. One of the Verso staff members said, “I’m probably saying the wrong things, I’m upset.” It is rather galling to be told, in a meeting I didn’t even ask for, to discuss my sexual harassment greivance with a company, that one of its employees is “upset” and would therefore say “the wrong things’’ to me. I understand that is a difficult topic and tensions were running high, but perhaps this meeting should not have been proposed to me at that time if not everyone involved was able to act appropriately.

I was told that, even though I had never received the apology I asked for, Verso had been “working on improving their own sexual harassment policy” and that this employee had made it her career to get Verso to “use their resources” to publish feminst books- as though Verso is a philanthropy or a political organization, and not a for-profit publishing company operating at a time when there is a huge demand for feminist literature.

It is of course commendable that Verso is improving their own policies. I do not want any woman to go through what I went through there, though I have to wonder how seriously this was taken when, as I have heard, Jake was still going out for drinks alone with new female staff members without this incident having been disclosed. Still, I am very appreciative of the difficulty of doing this at Verso and think it’s very admirable. However, I am not sure how this constitutes an apology to me.

As for publishing feminist books, I am still frankly astounded that this was proffered to me as some kind of justice for what I experienced. If Verso publishes feminist books, it is because Verso, the company, has deemed it profitable in some way, if not through revenue then through publicity and branding and connections. Unless there is, floating around somewhere, a proposal where it is written “this feminist book is being published as an apology to Emily Janakiram for the sexual harassment and lack of support she received at Verso” instead of a list of figures, I can’t even imagine how or why I am supposed to consider that as making amends to me. The Shitty Media Men list is full of publications that have published feminist texts. Imagine if one of Leon Wieseltier’s accusers was told that she should be content with no apology and no consequences for Wieseltier because The Atlantic publishes articles on feminism.

I was then asked, in a combative tone, “so, should Verso not publish any feminist books?” To which I said, no, I have never asked for that, and am not asking for that, though my personal opinion is that it is hypocritical for Verso to profit from such books while failing their female employees so spectacularly. However, if Verso did nothing but stop publishing feminist literature, this would not solve anything, though I suppose they’d get points for consistency at least. This was then asked again, repeatedly, at least three times at various points in the conversation, to which I said the same thing.

I was told that Verso would likely pull out of the event. “I’m not delusional, I don’t think we’ll be able to get a public apology in a few days,” said the Verso staff member, as though I am delusional for requesting such a thing. If such a request is “delusional”, I think this says more about Verso than it does about me. The conversation did close with a commitment to resolving things with me and pushing for a private apology, because they “did not want me to feel this way”, and because “I [the Verso staff member] don’t want to have to go through this every time Verso hosts a feminist event.”

I understand that this was a great inconvenience and embarrassment to the Verso staff member who said this. But I didn’t want to have to go through being propositioned by my boss, relapsing into self harm, suicidal ideation, panic attacks, gaining fifteen pounds and turning into a zombie on antipsychotic medication so that I could be in the office without bursting into tears, or leaving my job at Verso, the one thing I was proud of in my life. I wish inconvenience and embarrassment had been the only consequences for me.

***

Following this meeting, I reached out to one of the women on the call- whom I had not asked to get involved with this at all- because I had considered her a close friend. Here is our exchange:

I would not air private conversations publicly if it did not in my opinion speak to Verso’s attitude towards the incident, towards me, and towards their supposed feminist worker solidarity; and of course this message relays the opinions of two of Verso’s senior staff, who are also publicly very Cool Leftist Feminists. It is mindblowing to me that one of Verso’s #FeministEditors would invoke “Verso as a whole”- because private companies are people too?- and try to tell me that I am wrong about not having been supported, as though this is a judgement that Verso employees get to make. It is outrageous that they would blame me for the long meetings I supposedly caused by having the audacity to be angry. And it is appalling, though sadly all too typical, that this White Women’s Tears tactic would be deployed against me by people who, again, “make their careers” from feminist literature.

Image for post
Image for post

Overwhelmingly, the lesson that is brought home to me again and again seems to be that I, as the person who suffered the sexual harassment, am the only one who will suffer consequences for that harrassment; and moreover, that it is my duty to be nice, accommodating, “reasonable”, patient, controlled, and otherwise a perfect model of feminine virtue, while Verso and its employees get to behave however they like.

The events following that conversation in late August are somewhat convoluted; I will describe them to the best of my ability here.

Shortly after this meeting, another #FeministEditor from Verso, who also is the editor of a prominent Marxist journal, reached out to me to discuss the incident. She told me that “anything is on the table”, that “Verso will never ask me not to speak about my experiences”, and that the “Women’s Group” will be seeking an apology for me. I was asked to write another statement, which I did. It is basically this statement up until the point of the earlier conversation.

Some months went by without an update, despite my repeated follow-ups. Then in late October, I was contacted out of the blue by another Verso employee, introducing me to an “ unbiased third party grievance investigator,” hired by Verso, who described her role as “eradicating any conflicts and moving things further.” I looked up the investigator and her firm, and saw that the firm serves employers by “conducting workplace investigations.” According to their website, this is important because “If the employee feels that his or her concerns have been adequately addressed, he or she is less likely to go to a party outside the company for satisfaction, such as the EEOC, an attorney, or a labor union.”

Image for post
Image for post

I demanded a straightforward explanation of this “investigation”- after all, I certainly don’t need anything “investigated”, I know very well what happened. I had already written multiple statements and sat in multiple humiliating meetings. I didn’t see the purpose of participating in this “investigation” if Verso was going to just use it as another way of wriggling out of doing the right thing. I was told that it was solely for the purpose of crafting a new sexual harassment policy, that only the new union would have access to it, that neither management nor Jake would even be able to speak to the staff liaison about it, and that it was totally independent of the apology process. I said, in that case, I’d be happy to speak to the investigator once I had received the apology I had been promised.

About six weeks after that, the contact from the Women’s Group reached out again, attaching the letter that this group sent to Jake Stevens and Rowan Wilson, the director of the UK office, asking for an apology for me, and informing me that Verso had unionized, expecting me to erupt in tears of jubilation, I suppose. I am mystified by the fact that they would again be asking Jake, the perpetrator of the incident in this, to approve an apology to me. They also appended my statement when writing to Jake and Rowan. I had given permission for this statement to be circulated, but I guess I was too sanguine in assuming that Jake would not be involved in the process and that it went without saying that he would not receive it. I would not have been so open about the harm he caused me if I had known he would read it. It feels very violating. Finally, I was told that the response from Jake was not total cooperation- imagine that!- but that no apology could be made until the investigation, which I had declined to participate in was finished, which seemed to contradict what I had been told about the process- that the investigation had nothing to do with the apology. I outlined these concerns to the contact at Verso and asked for clarification.

This was in December. Since then, I have heard nothing, despite my repeated follow-ups, except the fact that this “investigation” has concluded.

Back in late February of 2019, two weeks after I had a severe nervous breakdown and tried to hang myself in the stairwell of that building on Jay Street, a close friend of mine who thankfully has nothing to do with “The Left” was listening to me decide whether or not to file a formal grievance. “Look,” she said, “you should only do what’s right for you, because these people will all egg you on and then just leave you when it gets hard.” I scoffed at the very notion. Now, I wish I had listened to her, who was rightfully so scornful of all these people.

I had never asked for anything but an apology. I was not trying to “cancel” anyone, or cause anyone to lose their jobs, or even to be actually punished. To me an apology is not “I’m sorry you and your wandering uterus were offended by my totally harmless behavior.” An apology is not “We apologize for what this person did, but not for what the rest of us did.” An apology is meaningless without a total and sincere acknowledgement of the harm that was done.

So far, the only consequence Jake has suffered is being taken out to lunch. In addition to the toll this period took on my mental and physical health (my knee and my rotator cuff are still damaged from excessive weightlifting during that period; who knows what lasting damage the antipsychotics wreaked on my system and my cognitive faculties), I have lost writing opportunities, organizing opportunities, and friends.The worst damage was not done by Jake, but by the rest of the Verso staff, who are all about that feminist worker solidarity until it’s threatening to their own interests. Many feminst extraordinaires on the Left are either friends with Jake, have dated Jake, are friends or co-writers or co-organizers or whatever the fuck with the Verso staff, want to either work at Verso or be published by Verso, or just love Verso books, and who am I anyway? No one who matters, so it’s no loss if I am the one who is alienated and harmed by what was done to me. If this had happened to someone who mattered, then I am convinced the response and the fallout would have looked very different.

In the spirit of transparency, I am appending a Google folder here with all of the correspondence relating to this incident, because I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. It is Verso that should be furtive and ashamed. I am sick of allowing these people to control the narrative of this incident because they are more powerful and well-connected than I am, and frankly, I don’t have anything to lose at this point. If you have read this very long statement and are in solidarity with me then I appreciate you more than I can say. I’m not sure how to end this, so I suppose this is as good a place as any.

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/13VJhWu6u1M6TtrMUxJHGkbEji2yMp59A?usp=sharing

Emily Janakiram

January 28, 2021

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store