Was Philosophy Prof. Colin McGinn’s Story Really a Clear-Cut Case of Sexual Harassment?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Oct. 8 2013 11:57 AM

The Philosopher and the Student

Was the saga of Colin McGinn really a clear-cut case of sexual harassment?

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One of the challenging things to grasp about the nature of the relationship is that it had certain quasi-romantic elements, but was not sexual; according to Colin, they discussed and dismissed the possibility of having a conventional sexual affair. The two were deep in a private world, according to Colin, working together on arcane philosophical research on the hand, the jokey strangeness of which Colin memorialized with a parody of a cult on his blog, and they developed an affectionate private patois which both of them used, and which included private hand jokes, and a pet name for one of Nicole’s feet.

In the course of their meetings they would hold and caress hands and feet. In the e-mails, they referred to the specific forms of hand holding and massaging as “grips.” As Colin describes it, the offbeat physical side of things emerged from an excess of affection, a thwarted energy between them, an inventive way of expressing intimacy without sex. Colin says, “We were creating a relationship through the hands. In a way, sex is clichéd. This seemed more original, free of all the problems.”

Judging by the emails and texts, Nicole seemed to be an active participant in the hand intimacy. She wrote to him, for instance, proposing a new “more intimate” grip, which she then went on to describe in detail. One day in early June she sent him a text: “I was thinking of your thumb this morning intertwined with mine.” And in an email: “I should add that I felt a bit of imprint from the hand exercises yesterday when I was typing away. I paused for a couple moments to enjoy it.”

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Later she would report to the university that the touching of hands and feet made her “uncomfortable.”

According to Colin, they found themselves in an increasingly difficult space, both of them balancing their closeness with the necessary limits. In his view, they were trying to construct a bold original bond that would not destabilize their delicate situation (i.e. that he was married, that she was his student). According to Colin, they had many discussions about the form of the relationship, the limits, the nature of it, the possibilities. In emails, at times, he writes about being pessimistic about it, and she reassures him that the connection is strong. They seemed to share a sense of creating something new, pioneering an unusual kind of rapport, an intimacy that does not threaten a marriage or violate professional imperatives. In the emails, Nicole refers to it as “the beautiful and unique relationship that we have developed.”

Colin’s description of Nicole is that she was “original, quirky, highly intelligent, strong willed.” He said, “It was impossible she was manipulated by me.” Ben’s description of her, on the other hand, is filled with stories of her weakened, anxious, often “bawling her eyes out,” of him stepping in, protective, outraged, and her vulnerable, injured. After I talk to both of them, it is hard to reconcile Colin’s Nicole with Ben’s Nicole.

In the emails, however, you can read conflicting feelings. At times, she seems exuberant, clever, playful, eager, warm. At other times, she seems to be pulling back, apologizing, making excuses. Colin now says he did not see it, but a bright strand of ambivalence is clear in moments of stiffness, a return to formality, a psychic retreat. This is not surprising to me: a 26-year-old with a boyfriend, intrigued, flattered, weirdly drawn to a 61-year-old man, yet not wanting to go further, to enter a fully fledged sexual affair. Can one be attracted but wary, invested but anxious, warmly engaged but freaked out, intrigued but put off? Nicole had a boyfriend her own age and this, whatever it was, stood in another category, apart.

One thing that comes across vividly in the correspondence is that Nicole was afraid of mediocrity, of her own limitations as a thinker and scholar. “I’ve been feeling down about my intellect,” she writes. The idea that someone renowned in your field sees in you a collaborator, a potential equal, is seductive. By that I don’t mean to imply that I think she wanted to sleep with him and enter into a more conventional affair, but rather that it is not surprising that she would be drawn into his vision, that she would want to embrace his idea of her. “She was humoring him,” Ben said. “I don’t mean this in a bad way but she was mercenary about his support.”

At one point in the spring, Colin concocted what he called “the genius project,” which was, tongue in cheek, his project of turning her into a philosophy professor with tenure at a not terrible university. Ben says that he and Nicole laughed together about the genius project. “We thought it was ridiculous.” But in emails to Colin, Nicole seemed enthusiastic about it, hungry to hear more; she told him it was lifting her spirits.

Thinking back to my own graduate student days, I can see how if someone is trying to teach you to be creative, be a free thinker, be a genius, you would likely be both intrigued and resentful. You would be hungry for it, and you would hate it. Graduate students, even smart ones, are rife with insecurity, simmering with a sense of powerlessness. You could say the system is almost designed to breed insecurity in them, to break them down, and a gifted or charismatic professor who recognizes a “spark” has more than just the obvious institutional power.

Later, in the letter to the faculty senate the university distills her position: “Despite her anxiety, she continued to tell him what he wanted to hear for fear that if she stopped … he would hurt her career.” This is plausible to a point, but the tone of the emails and texts over the winter and spring is too whimsical, too affectionate, too active, too warm, too energetically participatory, for this to be a comprehensive account of events. To reduce a six-month, variable, colorful, unusual, intimate, singular, or eccentric situation to a single motivation is clearly an oversimplification, though granted an oversimplification that must have been appealing or useful to her at the time.

People have quite sensibly pointed out that Colin was not sensitive enough to his own power, or at the very least not alert enough to dangerous subterranean power inequities, that he didn’t notice the building of hidden resentments and resistances, which seems fair. Though he says something that also seems fair: “Real power didn’t reside with me at all. With the mere fact that a female student goes to the authorities at all, it becomes sexual harassment.” It is true that a female student has the unspoken power to whisper two words and ruin an entire career.

What is, of course, a bit surprising is that an intelligent man like Colin McGinn did not wake up in a cold sweat every day worrying that somehow he would be found out. In part this is generational. In England in his early days as an academic the climate was different, but most professors these days engaged in a “romance” of even an amorphous sort would be terrified. In some sense he thought he was safe because he wasn’t sleeping with her. He was operating under, as he put it, “the illusion of indestructibility.” From the tenor of the emails it seems that he was so invested in her, so deep into it, so warmly enchanted with her, that he did not see her clearly, or read the signals with sufficient acuity. He was not a brilliant reader of Nicole.

For one thing, he told me he was quite sure that Nicole did not have a boyfriend, during the fall and spring he got to know her. He says that they talked extensively about how the relationship would change if she were to find a boyfriend; he asked her once if Ben specifically was her boyfriend and she denied it. She wrote to him about a trip to the Everglades and what she did there, without mentioning a boyfriend. When I told him that Ben was in fact her boyfriend, and had been for the duration of their interlude, he visibly paled. When I told him on Skype, he looked away from the camera.

Despite his reputation for toughness or arrogance, Colin seemed to be in some peculiar, almost boyish way smitten with Nicole. There is a softness in the emails that is not what his numerous critics and remote enemies would expect to find; there is the vulnerability, however whimsically and ironically expressed, of a man enraptured. He writes, “I am feeling concerned that you are depressed and downhearted. I don’t want to add to your troubles, of course. So although I miss you very much, please don’t feel you have to oblige me if you are feeling rotten … I wish I could lift your spirits in some way.”

* * *

How does a relationship so delicately, so precariously, so self-consciously pitched outside of normal definitions fall apart? It is hard to say, but something seemed to happen over the summer that turned Nicole entirely against Colin. In early June she was sending him warm, affectionate texts, and by September she was walking with Ben by her side into the Office of Equal Opportunity to report a case of sexual harassment.

Colin says he thinks the sea change occurred because of work. In June, he started to send her texts reproaching her for not doing the work he was paying her to do. She sent irritated texts back. Reading the exchange, he does seem overly harsh in his demands for her concentration, and I can imagine her being annoyed at his suddenly snapping into demanding boss mode. I can also imagine being afraid of getting on his bad side.

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