After Leah Walker was almost sexually assaulted by Mitchell, the guy she dated in high school, she was especially troubled at how helpless she felt to do anything about it. Only the chance intervention of Mitchell’s sister stopped the incident from going too far and this weighed on Leah’s mind for long after the assault. She swore she’d do everything she could to never feel that way again.
Following a suggestion from her mother, she signed up with Joe Corley for karate and kickboxing lessons. As she increased her proficiency, she added Judo and Aikido to her repertoire. By the time she graduated high school, she had achieved her brown belt, and went on to get her red, then black belt in her first year at Wellesley. She became an instructor at a local dojo.
Their sophomore year at Wellesley, Leah and her roommate Dottie attend a computer conference at MIT, where crews from across the country are demonstrating systems and procedures developed in their labs. As they interact with different teams, particularly majority-female teams, rumors begin to surface that Robb Dennison, a post-doctoral fellow from Berkeley, has been making unwanted advances on quite a few of the women. The women explain that such behavior is common at events such as this, but Robb is particularly insistent in his advances. Those who’ve been unfortunate enough to deal with him have been reluctant to launch a formal complaint, since he’s one of the organizers of the conference and he’s hinted that anyone making waves could find it difficult to schedule their presentations.
Leah wants to know more, so she and Dottie set out to find Robb, just to get a look at who’s been causing so much grief for the others. At length, they find a small group gathered around a tall, dark-haired man in a short-sleeved blue shirt with a tie, who seems to be directing the others. He’s wearing a name tag that reads, “Robb – Berkeley.”
“I’m going catch his eye,” Leah says. “See if he tries anything.”
“Think that’s wise?” Dottie asks. “This guy’s pretty influential.”
“What’s he going to do to me? I’m not a participant. I have no stake in any of this.”
“Just to be safe, I’m going to hang out nearby.”
Dottie moves away and shadows Leah, who mills about where she’s certain to be noticed by Robb. He concludes the group encounter and leaves the others talking amongst themselves. As he’s passing, Robb glances in Leah’s direction, stops, gives her a much longer look, and walks over.
“I thought I knew all the participants,” he says. “Which team are you with?”
“Oh, I’m just an observer,” she says. “From Wellesley. I’m Leah.”
“Nice to meet you, Leah.” He indicates his name tag. “As you can see, I’m Robb.”
“There’s so much going on,” Leah says. “It’s overwhelming.”
“Perhaps you just need a guide,” he says. “Someone who can show you the ropes.”
Leah glances again at his name badge. “Well, Robb from Berkeley, I guess that must be you.”
He leads her around the conference center, pointing out different teams and explaining the importance of their work. She notes that only a few of the teams he highlights have women on them and none are led by women. Leah remarks on this.
“I’m showing you the cutting edge research,” Robb says. “The really important work that’s being done.”
“Women aren’t doing important work?”
“It’s important to them, of course. I’m not sure it will have much lasting impact.”
After a while, they settle near a conference room away from most of the crowd.
“So, you’re hoping for a career in computing,” Robb says. “It’s a very competitive industry. It helps to know the right people.”
“I bet it does,” Leah says. “What kind of opportunities exist for someone like me?”
“You’d be great as someone’s assistant,” he says. “Adjunct faculty, associate researcher.”
“Sounds pretty ground floor, if you ask me.”
“You need to prove yourself first. Show everyone you’re a team player. That’s where the opportunities come.” He runs his hand over her shoulder and says, “So, are you a team player?”
He moves his hand across her shoulder and runs his thumb along her cheek.
“I’m not comfortable with this contact,” she says. “Please remove your hand.”
“I’m sensing some reluctance. Do you really want to limit yourself like that?”
“I’m not limiting myself. I’m telling you you’re making me feel uncomfortable. I’ll ask again. Please take your hand off me.”
“So serious. What are you going to do about it?”
She slowly slides her hand across his, then grabs his thumb and jerks it backward. He yells, and tries to pull away from her.
“I’d consider my next move very carefully,” she says.
She maintains her grip for several seconds, then releases him. He grabs his thumb then tries to shakes it out.
“I think it might be broken,” he says.
“Aw, really?” Leah says. “I guess you should have done as I asked.”
He roughly pushes her and seems about to take a swing at her. Leah spins about and launches a roundhouse kick that catches him squarely on the jaw and sends him sprawling to the ground.
“I strongly recommend you don’t get up,” she says.
Dottie runs over. “Leah? What’s going on?”
A man rushes past and stands between Leah and Robb, addressing him, “Robb? You okay, buddy?” He looks over his shoulder at Leah. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here. Some of our colleagues are calling the cops.”
Dottie grabs Leah’s arm. “Come on.”
They start to walk away, but a man steps in front of Leah with his hand up. “Hold on, there.”
“Not a good idea,” Dottie says to the man.
Leah lowers her head, glaring at him and takes a step forward.
He throws up his hands and steps aside. “Never mind.”
“That escalated awfully quick,” Dottie says as they resume walking.
Leah shakes her head. “He was hitting on me and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I had to state my case more forcefully.”
“You’re going to need to talk to the police,” she says.
“First, I need to talk to a lawyer. The most important lesson I learned from my father was let the attorneys handle everything.”
Twenty minutes later, Leah and Dottie are in the office of an attorney Leah knows, Bernadine Schafer.
“You say there are others this guy has harassed,” Bernadine says. “Have any of them filed complaints?”
“I don’t think so,” Leah says. “A lot of people are afraid of him.”
“It would be very helpful for you if they would,” she says.
Dottie rises. “On it.”
Leah takes out her keys. “Here, take the Karmann Ghia.”
Bernadine picks up the phone and dials an extension. “Janelle, could you come in here, please.”
A minute or so later, a young woman appears in the door. Bernadine says, “Are you busy this afternoon?”
“Nothing but routine stuff,” Janelle says.
“This is Leah Walker,” Bernadine says. “I need you to take her somewhere far outside the Cambridge PD’s jurisdiction. Use the corporate card.”
“Sure thing,” Janelle says.
“Check your voicemail every half hour or so,” Bernadine says. “I’ll let you know when it’s safe to return.” To Leah, she says, “Once you’re out of here, I’ll have a colleague send out feelers to the police to assess the situation.”
Leah rises. “Thanks for everything, Bernie.”
She follows Janelle out.
They drive to a pub near the waterfront in Boston and get a seat inside toward the back. They talk for about an hour before Janelle checks in.
“Okay. Sure. I’ll tell her.” She puts away her phone. “Bernadine says a warrant has been issued on you for assault. She’s been in contact with the police to arrange details on how you’ll turn yourself in.”
“I see,” Leah says. “Has there been any word from Dottie?”
“Yes,” Janelle says. “Bernadine says your friend is trying to convince several to come forward. It’s not going great.”
“If anyone can, it’s Dottie.”
“Bernadine suggested we wait a while longer to see if your friend has any luck.” Janelle checks her watch. “Have you seen Batman? It’s playing nearby.”
Leah considers it. “No, I haven’t. Sounds like fun.”
After the movie, Janelle calls in again, then informs Leah that Bernadine has requested that they return to the office. Once there, Bernadine begins briefing Leah on what to expect at the police station.