Richard Rabinowitz: Historian, Curator, Sexual Predator
On March 30, during the Awards Breakfast at the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) in Hartford, I made public an open secret: the decades-long collusion of leaders in the public history field — including leadership of the NCPH, academic historians, museum directors, and more — with a sexual predator.
Every time another organization gives Richard Rabinowitz an award or commission, it is a slap in the face to the dozens — perhaps hundreds — of women he abused while they worked for his company, American History Workshop.
Notably, not one person has come forward publicly in his defense, or in defense of those who enabled him by sending vulnerable students to work with him.
The following is my personal #MeToo story, but I shared it, after much deliberation, to illuminate the consequences of shielding predators.
This problem cannot be addressed with platitudes about believing survivors and providing prevention training in the future.
If you work in the history or museum fields, you know someone who has heard about Richard’s sexual victimization of young women. You might know someone he has victimized.
The following was tweeted, gradually, from my personal account, @intersectionist, on March 30th. I used the conference hashtag — #NCPH2019 — so that others engaging with the conference via twitter would not miss it. A lightly edited version is shared here. Hopefully it will enable others to supplement what I describe.
Content Warning: Sexual harassment perpetrated by a past National Council on Public History Award(s?) Winner.
As my train hurtled towards Hartford, I read through the National Council for Public History conference program. I noticed that despite the conference theme of “Repair Work,” there is a distinct silence around repairing the most intimate damage that has been perpetrated in our field: sexual harassment and rape in the workplace and in graduate school.
A ton of panels on race…but precisely one session talking about sexual harassment and violence — and even then, on how to prevent it, not how it is a problem in our field.
Or rather, your field: you may have noticed that I kinda left.
I describe myself as a site- and community-specific artist. Both site and community have elements of time to them. And so, there is a time for everything that I do, a right time.
This time, almost eight years to the day that, on my first day of work on my dream job, he sat down next to me, wrapped his hand around my naked calf, and said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
This time, as my train approaches New Haven, where, as I transfer to the train to Hartford, I’ll be able to see the hotel where he propositioned me less than two months later.
In the past few days, I’ve put out a number of tweets using the #NCPH2019 conference hashtag. They’ve garnered over ten thousand impressions, hundreds of “likes”, and a bunch retweets from #twitterstorians.
Far too many of the people who liked and retweeted my tweets were victimized as young women by same the man who fucking victimized me.
Some of these women have continued to protect him, out of fear, despite now holding extraordinarily high positions within our field.
Some of these women have even gone on to promote his brand, making the chance to work with him all the more desirable for the young women — like me — who would come after them.
My tweets were also seen by some of the people who protected this man with their silence; who encouraged me and the young women before me to take the “amazing opportunity” of working with him, knowing full well what a predator he was — but withholding that information from us.
None of the men that directly enabled him to prey on me retweeted or liked my posts.
But maybe the ones who enabled him to prey on you did.
I say all of this to emphasize both the relatively small size of the Public History community, and the colossal impact that this man has had within it. The extraordinary number of people who have enabled him, either actively, or with their silence.
After all, the Tenement Museum! The Slavery in New York exhibits at the New-York Historical Society!
Let’s be honest, National Council on Public History members. You know you love these projects, studied them in graduate school, are inspired by them, teach them. #MeToo.
We know his work — but will we ever know all of the women whose early careers he derailed, whose lives he fucked forever — even if he failed to destroy us?
The project I worked on under him was the last “official” public history project I ever worked on.
Now, I teach undergraduate and graduate courses on public history; and I create public humanities+public art projects about the past.
Now, I write articles about things like Hamilton. And publish them in the same journal that publishes articles he’s written; reviews of his work; etc. You may have read that article?
It’s been interesting to notice how much less interest public historians have in that article than people in other fields. Even though, based on the metrics, it is one the top papers ever published in The Public Historian.
The same goes for the public projects I create. Most of the time, when I try to share my #TheMuseumOnSite projects with people who bill themselves as “Public Historians,” their eyes glaze over. All this is the basis on which I surmise that I have left the field.
And I am not the only one who was pushed out of the Public History field by sexual harassment.
We’ve heard it so many times now, in so many industries — thanks to the #MeToo movement.
He fired me a month after I refused to fuck him in the adjoining rooms he had booked for no perceivable reason, on the trip he had contrived for me to accompany him on for no perceivable reason (a trip which I resisted going on, but only so much — I’d learned by then to pick my battles).
Then, he told the three men who had mentored me into being the ideal candidate for the job that he fired me because I was difficult to work with.
One of those men — a person who I know is reading this thread — had the decency to reach out to me immediately to ask what happened.
So, within days of being fired from my dream job, of surviving my first experience with workplace sexual harassment, I found myself on the phone with him, and with the two other men who recommended me for the position. After many, many years of professional relationships with each of them — as their student, then variously as dissertation advisee, mentee, and colleague — for the first time ever I had to sexualize myself, to highlight my gendered vulnerability.
It was humiliating.
And then, a month later, I had to have that same conversation with another mentor of 6+ years: the Director of the Smithsonian Museum that had hired Richard (who in turn hired me) to work on the exhibition.
The three men with the greatest proximity to his work reacted the “right” way. That is to say, they didn’t for a second question the truth of what I told them.
Now I realize:
They didn’t question my claims about what he did, because they weren’t surprised. They’d heard it all before. They knew what he was when they enabled him to prey on me.
Now I realize:
Only one of these four men truly reacted in the right way when I called to tell him what Richard had done to me. And that was the man farthest removed from the public history field. In that first phone call, this man expressed anguish, anger, and concern that felt, frankly, human.
He’d barely heard of Richard, and had never met him, but took responsibility and began blaming himself for not sharing that even he had heard that Richard was “a predator.” He told me that the only story he had heard was three decades old, so he hadn’t imagined it was still happening.
And I know that he knew how much this project meant to me. He’d supported setting aside my nearly-finished dissertation, for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In the 8 years since then, the other three men — the ones who knew what he was — gradually distanced themselves from me, and from their previous, unstinting support of me. I can’t overstate the role each of them played, prior to that, in shaping me.
That’s what made their betrayal so much more devastating.
Conditioned by our sexist society, I felt on some level that I was now less in their eyes, having outed myself as the target of another man’s lust.
One as much as told me in that first phone call how worried he was about how this would affect his own professional relationship with Richard. The others continue to work with him. Every time I see their names alongside Richard’s on a program…I feel so small.
The three of them are all still on my list of references. I realize that this may jeopardize my relationships with them…but then again, what relationships?
And this is why I have left the field.
I’ve heard that other women — some of whom I know are reading this — were caught by their mentors when they were in a free-fall after Richard used his tired old playbook on them. That may be the difference between those of us who stayed in the field — and now lead it — and the untold numbers of us who left it.
And now, you’re hearing it from me, even though so so many of you already know:
Richard Rabinowitz, author of the acclaimed new book, Curating America; who is currently being showered with ALL of the career-end honors; who recently did a stint as a Guggenheim Fellow…all of which he got through the active support or passive silence of those who knew what he was, but for some fucked up reason thought the value of his work superseded that?
Or, in fact, what exactly was it that they thought?
What exactly was it that YOU thought?
I sued his ass, by the way. You can look up the complaint, filed in Kings County Court.
I didn’t do it until the last possible moment, just before the statute of limitations ran out.
Because — and, again, you know this already, reader: I was depressed and I was afraid.
And then, I was just afraid. And then I was afraid and depressed. And then I was just afraid.
I was afraid of retaliation.
I was afraid I wouldn’t get a job.
I was afraid of ever being in his presence again.
I was afraid of alienating my powerful male mentors — who, after that initial phone call, made pretty clear they had no desire to talk about it anymore.
I was afraid of damaging an institution that I loved and believed in with all of my heart, at a fragile stage of its development.
I was afraid of generating a New York Daily News story that would be the first thing to pop up on google for the rest of my life — the kind of story that would forever damn me to being sexualized by my future colleagues and students, and treated as what he had trained me to think I was:
Someone who only got the job because she was hot.
Someone whose intelligence and creativity were nonexistent.
Yes, the New York Daily News reporter did contact me. It’s his job to sit at the courthouse and troll the filings as the come in, and he does it well. I declined to be interviewed.
But, see, now, I know that it won’t be my top search result on google for the rest of my life.
Ironically…that may well be Hamilton — and that may well be thanks to this field’s — this organization’s — journal.
And so, this time, now, is when I’m telling you that I filed that shit; that you can look up the complaint, and read through all the details. I feel no need to share them again — and anyway, chances are you’ve already heard a version of everything he did to me. He’s not especially creative.
Through those intervening years, before I filed the lawsuit, I kept telling myself what so many people tell themselves when it happens to them — what I know for a fact that many women who were victimized by Richard told themselves and still do tell themselves:
“Well, I mean, it was gross, it was awful…but it wasn’t really SO bad. Like, he didn’t actually rape me, or force himself on me physically, or try to blackmail me. So many women have it so much worse and they don’t complain…& am I sure what he did was even illegal?”
When I finally overcame all of that and filed the lawsuit… Actually, I won’t go into everything that happened next. His reaction was absurd and retraumatizing.
The extremely stressful bullshit of it all amounted to a second, part-time job during my first year of teaching in a tenure-track position. But it ended in a settlement. And — most bizarrely — it ended in a settlement without a confidentiality clause.
How, you may ask? Because he waived it. At his request, there is no confidentiality clause in our settlement.
Why the hell would he do that? Wish I could tell you…but the settlement mediation process is the one thing that did remain confidential.
So, what happens now?
What does the National Council on Public History do?
What does The Public Historian do?
What does the University who is purchasing his papers do?
What do the men who knowingly enabled him do?
What do the women who have lived under a layer of his slime since their early days in the field do — a layer that may have thinned a lot or a little, but which I fear will always be on us?
I am so very glad you asked.
Here is my list of demands:
I’m done. I’ve said my piece. I’ve done my emotional and intellectual labor. I’ve put my neck out professionally. I’ve neglected preparing for my own sessions so that I could write this. I’ve made it hard for old mentors — and others who were victimized but chose to support him, or chose to stay silent, making it possible for me to be victimized — to look me in the eye when we pass each other on the escalators.
For eight years I have lived with the shame of this, the destruction of my confidence in myself as a scholar and an artist, the immeasurable damage to my relationships and my health, the time and money and energy spent on healing instead of building.
For eight years I have cowered beneath the weight of the sexist narratives of our society that he so skillfully activated, making me fear any chance of coming across as a sexual being in a professional setting — and at first, even fear being alone with male colleagues.
The rest is up to y’all.
After all, I did leave this field.
Because, right under y’all’s knowing noses, it happened to #MeToo
Tweeted by @intersectionist on March 30, 2019, 8:33am–10:39am