I Needed a Job. He Asked If I Was Proposing Marriage.

An illustration of a woman’s silhouette with Ken Kurson’s face.
Celina Pereira

I was 8 when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. For several years, I was afraid to sit in a well-lit room after sundown, because I was next on the kidnappers’ list, and they were lurking in my backyard. I was sure of this.

Was my fear justified? Of course not. Was it real? One hundred percent yes.

Bill Clinton pardoned Hearst on his last day in office. When I heard the news, I cheered. The woman had been kidnapped at 19, raped, and held in a dark closet for 57 days, after which, suffering from Stockholm syndrome, she robbed a bank with her captors. Pardoning her seemed not only fair, but just.

Exactly 20 years later, on his last day in office, Donald Trump pardoned Ken Kurson. When I read the news, I cursed. This pardon was neither fair nor just.

Kurson was the editor of the Observer when it was owned by his friend Jared Kushner. Last fall, Kurson was arrested and charged with cyberstalking three people and harassing two others. According to the federal complaint, Kurson posted multiple malicious professional reviews of a former friend he spuriously blamed for the end of his marriage. He used an alias to send the friend’s colleagues and others threatening emails accusing her of sleeping with her boss, then stalked her at her workplace until her employers were forced to hire a security firm to protect her. His lawyer argued in a statement that the charges were overblown, and he was pardoned before the case went to trial.

Recommended Reading

After Kurson’s arrest, I kept scanning the news, hoping that Trump would be too busy being a sore loser and inciting insurrection to pardon Kurson. I was wrong. Which meant I would now spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.

From November 2014 to late 2016, Ken Kurson sexually harassed me. I wrote about the degrading experience for this magazine in 2018. I composed the essay in the form of a tongue-in-cheek listicle (“How to Lose Your Job From Sexual Harassment in 33 Easy Steps”), because all too often, as we keep learning (and learning and learning), sexual harassment is not just one event or off-color comment, nor is it just the suggestive emails that followed: “In another life, I’d be Mr. Copaken”; “I love your sloppy seconds”; “Are you proposing marriage to me?” It’s a systematic abuse of power that can deny its victims work, money, and health insurance.

Kurson invited me to lunch after one of my stories for another publication went viral, and said he had a full-time job for me with benefits. I told my current boss I was quitting, only for Kurson to say that it was never an actual job offer, and that he couldn’t match my salary. But he dangled the possibility of a full-time position if I kept freelancing for him, while sending me wildly inappropriate emails about his crumbling marriage. I worried that he might be vengeful. “I consider this the Observer’s story,” he once wrote about one of my article pitches, “and you know I come from a grudge-holding desert people.”

I thought he was joking, but after that story was published in The New York Times, he stopped answering my emails for more than a month. Later, when I asked about a late payment for an article, he replied to say the money had finally been deposited in my account, adding, “Sorry you’re broke… Are you in love w anyone?”

(When The Atlantic asked Kurson for comment, he denied that there had been a job offer. About the emails, he said, “All of us have used language in the past that we now wish had been more artful,” adding, “I try my best to treat everyone I meet with kindness and respect.”)

At the time, I was a solo mother of three––two of them in college. With crushing tuition bills, an expensive cascade of illnesses requiring surgeries, and an empty bank account, I’d had to move to cheaper digs and nab the first full-time job with benefits I could find, as a flack for the pharmaceutical industry. This, along with ageism and a shrinking media industry, has derailed my journalism career to this day.

Following the publication of my story in The Atlantic in 2018, I was not surprised to be inundated with similar tales of woe. I was surprised by the number of tales featuring the same antagonist. I created a spreadsheet to organize them. Here are some excerpts:

“Ken was a creep to me, condescending as well … ”

“Your frightening experience with him gave me flashbacks … The way he spoke to me haunts me to this day … Drag the ogre into the daylight.”

“I woke up to your article about Ken Kurson. I had an insane, if not criminal, experience with him that I’d love to talk to you about.”

This last one was chilling. It came from a woman who knew one of the people Kurson was later charged with cyberstalking, and said she had received threatening emails from Kurson herself. When I called her, she recounted both stories of harassment. The behavior she described did indeed sound criminal. And vindictive. I shared it with Jesse Drucker, an investigative journalist at the Times. “Jesse, I need help,” I said. “I want to help this woman, but I feel like I’m out of my league.”

I forwarded him my spreadsheet, with the obvious caveat not to share it further. Then, just as Drucker started looking into each allegation, Trump nominated Kurson to the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Because of course this happened.

Drucker’s story, “The Trump Administration Considers an Old Friend: Ken Kurson,” appeared on May 11. “Concerning Ms. Copaken’s account, Mr. Kurson said, ‘I categorically deny any claim of inappropriate behavior.’”

In response to his denial, I posted a Twitter thread presenting some of the written evidence, email by creepy email.

At the end of the thread, I wrote the following: “Many more women and two men have contacted me about similar fuckery. So FBI, if you’re vetting, call me. I know things.” I didn’t even @ them. I was in a blind rage, never expecting the FBI to actually respond.

But soon after, FBI Special Agent Mateo Gomez called. He arrived at my front door on June 4 with his partner, Special Agent Emily Eckstut, who was young and kind-faced and wearing comfortable flats. Somehow, it was her shoes that won me over, but not before I made both agents show me their badges at the door.

“I figured I’d bring a woman along, since I know this stuff is hard to talk about with men,” Gomez said. I thought, Good on you, FBI! That is correct. I definitely do feel better talking about sexual harassment with a female special agent. Although I’d feel much better if you hadn’t had to come at all. Or if sexual harassment were considered a punishable crime with real consequences instead of a nuisance women have had to put up with since the dawn of the human penis.

The FBI agents listened, went back to their desks with my spreadsheet, and contacted the people listed on it. Soon after, Kurson withdrew from consideration for the post, blaming the amount of paperwork involved in the vetting process.

When Kurson was finally arrested and charged with cyberstalking two years later, I felt a profound sense of relief. Finally, I thought, a sexual harasser would be brought to justice because he broke other laws that our legal system considers punishable.

Thanks to Trump, that relief didn’t last.

“What do I do?” I asked Special Agent Eckstut, of the comfortable shoes. Two other agents were listening in on the line. “I gave you guys the information that led to his arrest!” I said. “He’s not going to look kindly upon that or me.”

“If there’s an imminent threat to your safety,” Eckstut said, “call 911. If it’s less imminent, let us know, and we’ll certainly look into it.”

I asked about getting a restraining order, but restraining orders, I was told, are only for people with whom you’ve been intimate or for people who have already been charged with committing a violent crime against you. Because I turned down my harasser, and because verbal sexual harassment is not a crime, I can’t get one. (Hello? Can we fix this too?) Plus, Eckstut told me, restraining orders are not the FBI’s purview anyway.

“I mean, as a last resort, there’s always witness protection,” one of the male agents offered.

Yeah, no, I thought. I am not going to go into hiding and leave everything and everyone I know and love behind because the man who targeted and sexually harassed me, as well as cyberstalked at least one woman and inflicted pain on many others, was pardoned by a twice-impeached self-described pussy-grabber of a president.

We need a better system for all of us who have been harassed. Even seemingly “minor” cases like mine can leave behind craters of personal and professional destruction. Given the number of people who feel victimized by Kurson, his denial of wrongdoing, and his lack of apology, he may not grasp the extent of the damage he caused. But it was real, and it had consequences. One woman who reached out to me told me that she had moved to a different city to get away from him.

We shouldn’t have to rely on whisper networks or HR departments that were put in place to protect the company, not its employees—and, at least in my case, took zero responsibility for freelancers. (Before I wrote about my experience with Kurson in 2018, James Karklins, the president of Observer Media, told my editors at The Atlantic that there had not been any formal complaints against Kurson during his employment. Karklins also confirmed that there was no process for writers who weren’t on staff to file complaints.)

What if, instead, we could forward emails that suggest or demand sex tied to professional advancement directly to the police? What if sexual harassers didn’t just get canceled or fired from their jobs, but had to consider the possibility of jail time if they stole women’s income, future prospects, and sense of safety? Surely my livelihood is worth more than a flat-screen TV filched from my family room. And our criminal-justice system should treat it that way.

Recently, Kurson posted on Facebook a photo of himself with his new wife on a post-pardon, mid-pandemic vacation in Miami. Above it he wrote, “I have to change my life. Almost every aspect. My attitude, my outlook, my behavior, my humility.” Then he offered anyone who needed it $50 or $100, no strings attached.

Gross, I thought. Among other unprintable words. A truly contrite man does not offer cash to random strangers on the internet. He does not post Hebrew verses, as Kurson did a few weeks earlier, to prove his rediscovered piety. He apologizes to those he’s harmed. And a presidential pardon from your best bud’s father-in-law is not the result of prayer, proof of innocence, or evidence of reform. It’s graft.

Kurson said he comes “from a grudge-holding desert people.” Well, my ancestors come from that same desert. So instead of sitting in the dark, fearing the possibility of Kurson’s revenge for the rest of my life, I have chosen to flip on the light and sit right here in this window, where everyone can see. This is me, collateral damage from a presidential pardon that should never have been granted, refusing to give my unrepentant, creepy hack of a sexual harasser power over me any longer.