Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Careers That Weren’t

The women who have accused the famed science educator of sexual impropriety have made claims not just about traumatized minds, but also about traumatized careers.  

Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on September 11, 2016, in Los Angeles.
Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on September 11, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Phil McCarten / AP Images)

The summaries this week of the complicated accusations against Neil deGrasse Tyson—there are now four women, accusing the famed astrophysicist of four different kinds of sexual impropriety—have tended to distill the allegations, and Tyson’s reaction to them, down to a familiar, binary bluntness: “Neil deGrasse Tyson Denies Misconduct Accusations.” Action and reaction, equal and opposite, the negative charges offset with the positive: The women have made claims; he has denied them. A matter of simple physics, the headlines suggest.

What the summaries can miss—and what many of the write-ups of the matter, far beyond the blunt demands of the headline, can miss as well—is the fact that the claims in question are not, actually, just about sexual misconduct. The women who have come forward to share stories about Neil deGrasse Tyson have also been talking about a related, but different, indignity: the harm that the alleged misconduct has done to their careers. They are talking, in that, about something Americans haven’t been terribly good at talking about, even in the age of #MeToo: the radiating damage that sexual abuse can inflict on women’s professional lives. The smothered ambitions. The seeded self-doubts. The notion that careers can experience trauma, too.

Tchiya Amet, who attended graduate school with Tyson at the University of Texas in the early 1980s, has accused him of drugging her, while the two were alone in his apartment, and then raping her. “I came out of it for a moment and shook my head, and then I went out again,” she told BuzzFeed News of her memory of the experience. “The next thing I knew, I was at class the next day.”

Today, Amet talks about the ongoing effects the alleged rape has had on her body, on her mind, on her capacity to maintain relationships with other people. But her accusation extends beyond that: Amet also alleges that Tyson’s behavior led her to leave the graduate program she had worked so hard to be admitted to, and thus to stop nurturing aspirations of becoming an astrophysicist, and thus to give up her dream of becoming the first black woman astronaut. This is how Amet, addressing Tyson from the distance of diverged paths, put it in a blog post in 2014: “How does it feel to know that YOU are the reason there is one less black female galactic astronomer on this planet? Yes, YOU.”

Ashley Watson—who served as Tyson’s driver and later as his assistant when his TV show, Cosmos, was filming in New Mexico—similarly frames Tyson’s alleged sexual impropriety as a matter of professional harm. As the months-long shoot came to its close, she has said, Tyson invited her to join him in his apartment for a bottle of wine; Watson, thinking he might use the occasion to offer her a job on another Cosmos shoot, accepted. (A glass of wine, though, she said.) In his apartment, Watson says, Tyson removed his shirt, began quoting the Nina Simone songs he started playing (“Do I make you quiver?”), and began confessing to her about his need for “release.” Tyson told her as well, Watson says, “I want to hug you so bad right now, but I know that if I do, I’ll just want more.”

Over the course of these events—she stayed for two hours, Watson says, before she could take no more—no job was offered. No professional advancement was discussed. And when Watson confronted Tyson the next day about the discomfort she’d felt about the events of the night before, her boss replied, she says, that she was too “distracting” to succeed as a producer.

Realizing that she could not stay on as his assistant, Watson says, she told a line producer what had happened and proffered her resignation. The producer recommended that she explain the cause of her sudden departure as a “family emergency.” She did.

The pressures exerted on women’s professional ambitions are by now familiar to the point of cliché: Want success, but don’t want it too badly. Speak up, but not too loudly. Assert, but don’t be seen as assertive. Here is another, though, as women seek entrance to professional worlds that were previously dominated by men: Be appealing, but not distracting. The end of that sentence being, as Watson’s claims about Tyson suggest, to the men in power.

This week, as the allegations against Tyson were gaining attention in the American media, Bloomberg published a report about the men of Wall Street and how they have decided to address the revealed abuses of #MeToo. “No more dinners with female colleagues” is one solution they have come to. “Don’t sit next to them on flights” is another. And “book hotel rooms on different floors.” And “avoid one-on-one meetings.” Having had more than a year to listen and learn and adjust to the new information, most of the men Bloomberg spoke with have looked around, searched their souls, and come to a tidy conclusion: “Avoid women at all cost.”

The consequences of this conclusion, for the women on the other end of it, are obvious: The women will miss opportunities for mentorship and fellowship and advancement. Their very presence will be interpreted as its own potential danger: to men’s reputations, to men’s prospects, to men’s careers. The women will, in this ingenious new strain of American Puritanism, be softly shunned: as seductive, as vindictive—as professional threats.

There’s the backlash that comes in the sweep of history, as progress is met in due course—action, reaction—with its conservative reply; there is also, however, the backlash that comes as the sum of small mundanities, as new people seek to rise in the world and the predictable gravities set in. Backlash, here, is a powerful man telling a less powerful woman that she is too “distracting” to succeed. It’s a person of talent being reduced to the charms of her body. It’s a person new in her career, not wanting to make a scene about things, abruptly quitting the job that might have been her big break. Backlash is every party at which a woman who presumes she is present as an equal is instead—as another of Tyson’s accusers claims—made to fend off the slurred advances of someone who assumes she is not. Backlash is Tyson, in the public statement he issued as self-defense, suggesting that Amet’s story is doubtful because of her New Age beliefs, that Watson encouraged him because of her friendliness—the fact that, he said, she’d give daily hugs to people on the Cosmos set. (Watson denies that, calling it an “extremely strange and inappropriate thing to do.”)

Backlash, as well, is Katelyn Allers, who has also come forward with allegations against Tyson—admiring her tattoo of the solar system at a professional gathering, she says, he traced its path up her shoulder and under her dress—deciding not to attend more professional events where Tyson might appear. Backlash is the woman taking herself out of the equation. Backlash is the notion that the world is organized by frail little planets that orbit, inevitably, around a singular sun.

The term sexual harassment was coined in 1975, when the feminist scholar Lin Farley used it as part of her testimony in a New York City Human Rights Commission hearing on women in the workplace. It arose from the recognition, Farley has said, that in a world so skewed toward the interests of men—and tilted even more toward the interests of men who are white and straight and powerful—sex could be weaponized as an instrument of backlash.

The term’s coinage was, it would turn out, a quietly monumental event. Sexual harassment gave women language, finally, to describe the abuse they so often experienced at work: abuse that manifested as sexual behavior but that was, in fact, evidence of a deeper form of discrimination. In 1986, the case of Mechelle Vinson—an assistant manager at a savings bank, whose boss had assaulted and raped her more than 40 times in the business’s vault—was heard by the Supreme Court. The justices found, unanimously, in Vinson’s favor. “Without question,” William Rehnquist wrote, summing up the decision, “when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, the supervisor discriminates on the basis of sex.”

The women who are now sharing their stories about Neil deGrasse Tyson are summoning sexual harassment in its original sense: a sexual violation whose harms ripple out, in wayward waves, to affect one’s professional reputation, career, and livelihood. “How does it feel,” Tchiya Amet wrote to Tyson, and she was addressing not just what she claimed he had taken from her, but also what she claimed he had taken from the world: her gifts, her skills, her potential for a particular kind of contribution. The things that, she suggested, had the planets moved on slightly different paths, might not have been lost to the darkness.

The same weekend that found Neil deGrasse Tyson issuing his Facebook-published self-defense, the comedian Louis C.K. made another appearance at the Comedy Cellar in New York City: one more leg of a haphazard redemption tour that has made no apparent effort at true redemption. C.K. has lately become an avatar of cultural anxieties about “who deserves a #MeToo comeback”; revealingly absent from much of that conversation, however, are the women on the other end of his behavior. The allegations against C.K., after all, weren’t simply that he masturbated in front of people who had considered themselves his colleagues; the broader matter was that, when rumors began to circulate about his behavior, C.K. had denied them, suggesting that the women were lying. Less than 24 hours after C.K. masturbated in front of her and her comedy partner in a hotel room in Aspen, Julia Wolov told The New York Times, “guys were backing away from us. We could already feel the backlash.”

It’s another cliché: The man misbehaves, the woman gets blamed for it. Her reputation is compromised; her career is stymied; she is branded as difficult; he is simply a man being a man. This bind—the sexual offenses becoming professional ones—is a stubborn element of #MeToo. One of the women who accused the former TV host Charlie Rose of misconduct summed things up like this: “I was hunting for a job, and he was hunting for me.”

Similarly, Ashley Judd is suing Harvey Weinstein for “damage done to my career as a result of sexual harassment.” Salma Hayek described, in detailed terms, the producer’s several attempts to squelch her career. So did Mira Sorvino. And Annabella Sciorra. Illeana Douglas made similar claims about Leslie Moonves. The McDonald’s workers who went on strike this fall framed their argument specifically in terms of workplace safety. Miyoshi Morris, a worker at a Ford plant in Chicago, said of the alleged abuse she endured from a supervisor, “I slept with him because I needed my job.”

Americans, over the past year, have gotten relatively good at discussing the emotional effects of sexual abuse; they remain, however, much less good at discussing its professional effects. “The working women’s revolution I once envisioned hasn’t happened,” Lin Farley wrote in The New York Times last year, and in its absence the term sexual harassment has become too unwieldy, too imprecise, too commercialized. As the writer Rebecca Traister put it, “We must regularly remind everyone paying attention that sexual harassment is a crime not simply on the grounds that it is a sexual violation, but because it is a form of discrimination.”

The allegations against Tyson have served as one more such reminder. And they suggest, on top of everything else, the need for more precision—and indeed for broader empathies—as #MeToo stories get discussed in public. They accuse; he denies; sexual misconduct and its defense; point and counterpoint; the scientific method. But what gets lost in the easy binaries? What of the lives and careers and ambitions of the people doing the accusing—people who, in coming forward with their allegations, will have their names permanently entangled with the man they say did them harm? The stories of those who have lived in Tyson’s orbit have served as reminders that, here on Earth, we remain biased toward the stars.