Two years after women started speaking out and revealing powerful predators, are too many Texas secrets still locked away in a “whisper network”?
In 2017, women nationwide began sharing painful and personal stories of harassment and abuse in what became known as the #MeToo movement—starting a national conversation about sexual misconduct and revealing dozens of powerful men as predators. All the buzz prompted Austin-based attorney Chandler Baker, an author who’d previously written novels about monsters for young adults, to reflect on a scary situation she’d experienced as a fledgling summer associate at a Texas law firm. At a company event, she’d been sipping a margarita from a salt-rimmed glass when she found herself surrounded by power brokers: a partner and his sidekicks. “They were telling me that they had heard a lot about me—laughing as if they were in on something—and asked if I liked older men,” she recently told the Observer.
Baker wrote that she wrangled an escape only after a female attorney caught her eye and “extracted me from the situation with a lot more grace and social skill than I possessed at the time.”
Instead of blowing the whistle like other #MeTooers, Baker began writing a novel for adults, Whisper Network, that explores quieter ways women protect themselves and each other. It’s a system Baker learned growing up in Texas, where ladies often are expected to be “good sports” in the face of dirty jokes, aggressive flirtation, or worse.
“We all know what ‘Bless your heart!” means in the South,” Baker said. “There are ways we can say: ‘You’re close to the line,’ without having someone be openly scolded. But the impetus of that language is to avoid confrontation and maintain this veneer that we’re all on the same team.”
Her novel joins an array of great #MeToo reads, along with She Said, a nonfiction book by New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. In their book, Kantor and Twohey delve deeply into how they persuaded sources to provide sensitive documents and on-the-record interviews to reveal shocking serial abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. They argue that, throughout 2017 and 2018, their sources and their advocates overcame obstacles, raised awareness, prompted prosecutions, and challenged confidential settlements that muzzle victims. Yet they end with how progress stalled in October 2018 during the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was confirmed despite testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed he’d attempted to sexually assault her when both were teenagers. When those hearings ended, public opinion divided and a backlash began.
Meanwhile, back in Texas, many women never publicly spoke out at all.
Yes, we did see one Texas-based congressman, Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi, resign in 2018 over revelations he used $84,000 in taxpayer money to quietly settle a lawsuit over sexual harassment. And yes, two federal judges based in Texas—U.S. District Judges Walter Smith of Waco and Samuel Kent of Galveston—were forced to leave lifetime appointments as the result of complaints made long before #MeToo became a movement. (Smith retired; Kent was prosecuted.) But Texans have far to go: Efforts to strengthen sexual harassment laws largely failed in the 2019 legislative session, and the Legislature itself has a deeply flawed process for handling its own complaints.
The only highly publicized Texas story Baker could recall was a 2018 Sports Illustrated exposé of “misogyny and predatory behavior” in the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, which prompted a new NBA hotline. Even that story “disappeared pretty quickly,” she said.
Instead, many women still resort to the shadowy world some call the Whisper Network. In her novel, Baker, who earned her J.D. from the University of Texas in 2011, describes many quiet ways women share information and subtly protect each other from known predators at work or in social settings. And she muses in one of several philosophical asides about why this remains the case. “We read Lean In,” she writes about the empowerment book by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and yet the glass ceilings “never shattered.”
“But Ms. Sandberg was right about something,” Baker continues. “We had to lean in. It was the only way to hear the whispers.”
The narrative tension in Whisper Network begins when an elderly CEO dies and the women in the company realize, in collective horror, that his likely successor is a serial sexual harasser named Ames Garrett. From the first pages, Baker weaves a frighteningly dysfunctional but familiar world in which the reader gradually discovers how Ames, an attorney, managed to prey on each female character at the firm, from a veteran janitor to a senior VP. Like many #MeToo cases, the plot thickens over an online element: Chaos ensues after Ames is added to an email list of Dallas “Bad Men.” The woman who denounces Ames and her circle of allies all face unexpected consequences. Ultimately, their company turns its massive legal resources against them.
At first, Baker’s fictional backlash mirrors complex consequences faced by real whistleblowers in She Said, the book by Kantor and Twohey. The New York Times reporters focus on how Weinstein managed to keep dozens of women—including famous actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd—quiet for decades through threats, payoffs, movie deals or jobs, dirty PR tricks, binding nondisclosure agreements, or even espionage.
But Baker’s novel turns especially dark and twisty. Revealing more might spoil the ending. Let’s just say that obstacles faced by Baker’s hardy band of law firm ladies make this novel more of a whodunit than a feminist manifesto.
Yet Baker dedicates her book to: “Every woman who shared her story with me or with the world and for every woman who fueled the collective voice within these pages and a movement that demands to be witnessed, we hear you.”
Indeed, the dedication makes you wonder how many men like her fictional predator remain in control of real-life Texas firms. What about that rainmaker whose advances alarmed Baker years ago?
He’s still there, she said.
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