Looking Back Through a Misty Film: Recollection from the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop

person

by Bura-Bari Nwilo

In December 2019, I stood over Oly in my apartment in Nsukka and drew her attention to posts of Facebook friends who had screenshot acceptance letters signed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the year’s creative writing workshop. And in my eyes, she could see mild fury hinged on disappointment. I deafened her with tales of my yearly rejections and why I felt I had a right to be disappointed with all things Nigerian.

Then by whatever stroke of fate it was, I checked my email and saw my own letter. Like a letter I had once received explaining how I was among a shortlist of 50 amazing writers and the apology for what could not become my invitation letter, I read those years of rejection and apology into what was an acceptance letter for 2019. When I read through to the second paragraph, I felt an inch taller and almost swiftly, I was massively subdued, like I stood on a tower of resentment for all that had been my misfortune and it turned out it was a day of glory.

When I read through to the second paragraph, I felt an inch taller and almost swiftly, I was massively subdued, like I stood on a tower of resentment for all that had been my misfortune and it turned out it was a day of glory.

Oly shared kind words with me and I went back to the email to see if I had not been too optimistic to have read into a poor letter an acceptance that was only in my imaginations. And I was not dreaming. I was truly invited to the now renamed Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop after more than five rejections.

At the workshop, I shared experiences of my years of application and some of the wild thoughts I had nurtured. Once, I had thought that my serial rejection, after many of my friends were invited, was because I was not Igbo and I thought I could change my name to allow me entrance. Don’t die yet. And for the year I received a consolidation email signed by Ms. Adichie, I could not mix anger with such obviously patronizing letter. Goodwill messages from Facebook friends, of how I was such an interesting writer, added in me some courage to keep writing. And looking back at such thoughts, I am grateful it ended up between Arinze and me.

And for the big question in class, I asked Ms. Adichie what interested her in my entry that did not meet her many years ago, especially since it was just a regular story, something I had not even taken seriously, against the many I had written with all hopes and concern. And there, I concluded that maybe what makes the big mark comes in the funniest wrap. I had written a story about a serial killer who lured her victims, especially taxi drivers. The killer writes about the incidents on her blog. The few paragraphs I sent were the reason I was invited.

And there, I concluded that maybe what makes the big mark comes in the funniest wrap.

I come from a place of ‘serious’ literature. And I have tried creating most of that seriousness. I have given elbowroom to experimentation and maybe it is why I am yet to decide on writing a novel. And after listening to other participants share their acceptance tales; I knew that I was not alone. We were a universe of people motivated by Chimamanda and would do as much as applying for several years just to hear her up-close, watch her read and share thoughts on story writing and being a writer while addressing us by our names and whatever it was that made us stand out.

The 2019 workshop had it a bit unfortunate. The classes were cut to five days instead of ten days and a lot of things had to be stuffed into a really tiny car. Chimamanda, Lola Shoneyin, Eghosa Imasuen, and Novuyo Tsuma Rosa gave us thrilling experiences with backbreaking tasks: reading multiple stories into late night and class writing tasks that would see you read aloud your writings and listen to others and give constructive feedback. We made a coolly glossy family in a few days than would have been imagined. And maybe the shared rooms enabled bonding, but the 2019 workshop was tense, practical, overwhelming, indulging, compelling and it ended on such evenings where writers knew tears like they knew words and sentences. And those whose tears did not make the warm walk through cheeks, it formed a bubble in their hearts and stayed there as a priceless memory.

Her brilliance lies more in her ability to share quite controversial yet informed thoughts without breaking anyone’s back.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is brilliant and adorable in giving kind words. We share a birth date with a ten-year age difference and that’s my consolidation for being a lazy writer. Her brilliance lies more in her ability to share quite controversial yet informed thoughts without breaking anyone’s back. Her playfulness and humane jibes and photo sessions informed me that it takes more than a fine head and great skill to be a superstar. A sprinkle of warmth, friendliness and sometimes vanity could be other awesome additions.

With the workshop, Chimamanda builds confidence, encourages collaboration, and invents homes for broken yet agile storytellers whose shortcomings are not only placed outside the spotlight, but their strength and wellness are given so much cheers and support to germinate.

Bura-Bari Nwilo is the author of The Colour of a Thing Believed, a book of short stories.

Related posts

Death, Diarrhea and Late Night Sackings: The Inside Story of an Unfolding Staff Nightmare at UBA and Dangote

person

Last November, thousands of Lagosians including hundreds of UBA Bank employees attended what was billed as the ‘party of the year’ at the Lekki Special Events Centre on Admiralty Way.

The UBA RedTV Rave had everyone from Wizkid to Olamide to Jidenna to Burna Boy thrilling the festive crowd as UBA chairman Tony Elumelu and CEO Kennedy Uzoka mingled with the artists and guests.

On the surface, this was the best of times, as a bank that was clearly in rude health celebrated a successful year with thousands of employees, friends and family. The bank had also recently concluded a recruitment exercise that would add nearly 4,000 new employees to its staff strength, so the year ahead looked to be a promising one for most employees present. 

Unknown to them, while senior executives danced with Wizkid in the VIP area, one of the most brutal staff layoffs in Nigerian banking history was just around the corner. They partied well into the night and then showed up for work the following week as usual. A week went by. Two weeks. Four weeks. Then right at the start of the new year – a shocker.

Closed at 5.30PM, Terminated at 10.30PM

Ifunanya (name has been changed) was asked to wait behind at work on Friday January 3. As a 12-year UBA veteran including a long stint in her role as a Branch Operations Manager at a branch in Ojodu, Lagos, this was not an unusual request to receive. She was even used to working weekends so that the ATMs could remain functional and she could troubleshoot other onsite customer-facing issues. This time however, was different. 

Along with other staff members at the branch, she was asked to wait for a board meeting. By 10.30PM, the assembled staff were informed that their services were no longer required. They were then told verbally to write out their resignation letters on the spot and leave voluntarily or be forced out. At this point, her security pass was taken, and along with the other affected staff, her profile was unceremoniously deactivated from the bank’s internal system. She was reminded to drop her work ID on the way out, and thus ended a 12-year association with the bank.

When a relative of hers reached out to tell the story, he was keen to make the point that she was not an agency employee, but a full UBA employee on a monthly salary of N153,000. He could not understand why the bank would treat her that way. I heard similar stories from two other sources who insisted that they were coerced into resigning after being told that their services were no longer required right at the start of the new year.

Shocking and callous as these stories may have sounded, one of the first things you are taught in any professional journalism program is to always balance the story. So I sought an alternate account of what transpired, with the goal of putting the picture together to tell a complete story. There were conflicting accounts of the events of January 3 flying around, with some accounts describing a recruitment and promotion exercise without mentioning any firings, while others reported a purported “restructuring” at UBA, which is a well-known euphemism for “mass sack.”

I managed to establish contact with a current senior employee at UBA who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak about such matters. This was his account of what happened at UBA bank at the start of this year:

“Usually when anyone joins UBA with a Bachelor’s degree, they are put on a GT1 level (N80,000). After one year, they are promoted to GT2 (N100,000), then after another year ET1 (N140,000) which is where a lot of people get stuck on. If you are lucky, you get to ET2 (N165,000). So what UBA did was to meld those 4 levels into one (ET) so any one who was on GT1 and GT2 gets automatically promoted to ET2. Those that were on ET1 and ET2 got promoted to SET (Senior Executive Trainee). 

So it was a promotion of sorts, but honestly it was long overdue because compared to other banks, N80,000 for entry level staff is quite low. About the layoffs: I only know 4 people personally who got affected. The people affected were on manager grades and worked at the head office, they all reportedly got 6 months arrears.”

According to this source, he was not personally aware of the fate of any branch staff or what he termed ‘OND staff.’ He did however say that in his opinion, the bank handled the situation poorly and that Nigeria does need stronger labour laws to protect young graduates fresh out of school from exploitation for cheap labor at the hands of corporates like UBA. He also mentioned that he knows current UBA staff have not had a salary increase in ten years – a remarkable situation for workers in a country whose currency has declined 195 percent over the same period.

As it later emerged, more than 2,000 staff were affected by the shocking late-night cull at UBA. It also became increasingly clear that the firings had nothing to do with a harsh operating environment or decreased profitability. The bank which had brought together Nigeria’s most expensive music stars to perform at its end of year shindig was anything but struggling – it actually hired more people than if fired. What the sackings did though, was clear out a number of people in roles that the bank considered obsolete, particularly within branch operations.

It can definitely be argued that such restructuring is inevitable in the face of rapidly changing technology, which is hardly a terrible thing. What is also true however, is that the bank that paid huge sums of money to bring Burna Boy and Jidenna to an annual vanity event that adds nothing to its bottom line could also afford to retrain its redundant staff to fit into new roles –  instead of just sacking them and instantly bringing in thousands of readymade replacements.

Yet again, the actions of a Nigerian corporate made the point that Nigerian labour law, in addition to be being poorly enforced is also woefully inadequate and unfit for purpose. If after 12 years of useful service to a bank, Ifunanya could be dumped out onto the street without even a few hours of notice – and no regulatory action was forthcoming – then clearly, Nigerian employees working for Nigerian companies have a problem on their hands.

As much as the UBA situation made that point, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to unearth about another Nigerian corporate behemoth.

Diarrhea in India, Death in Ibeju-Lekki: The Unbelievable Story of Dangote Refinery

While senior executives at UBA House were going over the finer points of their plan to log 2,000 employees out of their work systems and force them to resign on the spot, a different level of labour exploitation was entering its fourth year about 73KM east of the Marina. There, at the site of the Dangote Refinery at the Free Trade Zone in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, the refinery was taking delivery of the world’s largest crude oil refining tower.

While this was predictably being celebrated across local and foreign media as the start of a glorious new chapter in Nigeria’s industrial history, I was speaking to a whistleblower with close and detailed knowledge of the project. What he had to say about the refinery project, the Indian project managers, the company’s internal culture and its much-publicised trainee program left me absolutely floored. Naturally I reached out to Dangote Group for a comment, but at press time I have received no response or acknowledgment.

My source, whom I shall call “Mukhtar” worked in and around the refinery project between 2016 and 2018, and what I found most distressing amidst everything he said was the revelation that deaths due to onsite accidents are not just known to happen at the refinery site, but are effectively covered up by Dangote. This he said, is because the people who die are mostly site labourers who are hired through staffing agencies instead of directly. When they die, it becomes the staffing company’s problem and the Dangote brand distances itself from it – even though the site owner is legally responsible for all safety-related incidents onsite.

Something else that struck me was that he implied that – contrary to all its public posturing – the company actually has no intention of using Nigerian engineers to run the refinery anytime soon. The trainee program that sent dozens of Engineering graduates for a one-year training program in India? “Strictly PR,” he said.

Accidents
The first batch of Dangote Refinery trainees head off to India in March 2016

For full effect, I have decided to reproduce the full and unredacted transcript of our conversation instead of using quotes and reported speech. Here is the conversation below:

ME: When we started this conversation, you mentioned that Dangote Refinery is exempt from Nigerian labour laws. What were you referencing?

Mukhtar: Because the refinery is in the FTZ, it is not subject to certain laws like local content laws. As such, even mundane jobs are given to non-Nigerian companies. Even the refinery’s fence wall was handled by a Chinese company. This didn’t stop long stretches of the fence from collapsing sometime in 2017. The FTZ affects Labour laws too. The company is not really under any obligation to employ Nigerians. They do so mostly for PR. All key decision makers are Indians (say 98%).

ME: There have been several horror stories about Indian-run businesses in Nigeria. Was this one of them?

Mukhtar: Yes, the Indians are quite racist. Some even demand to be referred to as “master”. To be fair, when this is reported, the HR unit makes a show of cautioning them. But I dont think anyone has ever been dismissed for it or seriously punished. Most of workers who meet their death on site are labourers. So their names might be known to many staff. I’ll see what I can get. It happens. It’s kept under wraps but it happens.

ME: Now you mentioned onsite deaths earlier. I want to know all about this. Why haven’t we heard anything about this?

Mukhtar: The refinery site is not really the best place to work. Mortality rate on site is quite high. People falling from heights or getting crushed by heavy vehicles/machines is quite common. These numbers are not reported because most staff are contract staff (or outsourced) so the company gets to wash its hands off such cases. But safety on site is the ultimate responsibility of the owner of the project. The construction site has a board that is supposed to display the safety statistics but it is never displays the truth. According to that board, there has never been a fatality on site. But in reality, I think 2018 had about 5 fatalities between January and March. If I were to guess, I’d say there have been over 25 fatalities since construction started in 2016/17.

ME: Now you said earlier that the trainee program was a washout and a disappointment. Fill me in on that.

Mukhtar: I was one of the first batch of engineers sent to India for training in 2016. In my opinion, the whole scheme was either poorly thought out or the company was somehow compelled to do it, and did so for PR. Our salaries were being paid into our accounts in Nigeria, so we were using our debit cards to access our Nigerian accounts for expenses over there) Around July 2016 when the naira went from around 160 per dollar to nearly double that number, our spending power was effectively halved.

ME: I also remember that there was a forex shortage crisis in 2016 and Nigerian bank cards stopped working outside the country.

Mukhtar: So when the banks eventually stopped all cards from functioning abroad, we were stranded. The company resorted to selling us dollars or rupees at the black market rate.They deducted the money from our salaries. We had accommodation (two adults per room) and feeding (Indian food which many of us did not like). Some of had to buy intercontinental dishes regularly, because Indian food is really not nice if you’re not into many smelly spices. It was crazy. Meanwhile we were told categorically that we would have Nigerian food and Nigerian cooks. It was a blatant lie by the Indian HR director.

Also, no arrangement was made for our medical care. Those who fell ill had to treat themselves from their pockets. During the currency crisis, those who fell ill had to rely on the rest of us to put together our spare change to pay for their treatment. The company promised to refund medical expenses, but this shouldn’t have been the situation in the first place.

ME: Tell me about the training program. What was the course content and the experience like? Was it what you were expecting?

Mukhtar: The training itself was a mess too. We were supposed to be trained to operate the refinery (at the time, it was said that it will be completed by mid 2017), but we were sent to a design company. These (designing a refinery and operating it) are two very, very different things. The trainers did not want us there in the first place. It was not a part of their initial contract with Dangote. Plus, they didn’t know what to teach us because designers are not operators. They were confused, several times, they asked us what we wanted to learn. But we could not know what we wanted to learn cos we knew nothing about the entire business. In the end, they reluctantly settled for teaching us design (skills we were/are unlikely to use cos the refinery was already 90% designed). 

ME: If you say that the refinery was “already 90% designed,” and you were learning design in India, that sounds like your presence was superfluous. Was the company really serious about sending you to learn skills to run a refinery?

Mukhtar: Indians will run the refinery. It will take many many many years before that refinery will be populated by just Nigerians. It was strictly PR. Anyways, the training with that design company was suddenly terminated on December 31st. Apparently, Dangote had not paid them a dime for all the months were were being taught design. They didn’t want to send us back to Nigeria so they moved us to the Dangote office in India. The office housed the Indian engineers (around 150 – 200 in number) who were supervising the design work being done by the design company. Now, it is interesting that these guys were working and earning as expatriates within their own country.

But realising that the “training” was a blunder, the company sent back some engineers to train in an actual refinery. So what was supposed to be a 1 year training became 2 years.

ME: Since returning to Nigeria, is there anything else you have noticed about the project that worries or disturbs you?

Mukhtar: Yes. So we have only the refinery at the FTZ, but the company gets to import things meant for other branches of the company duty-free. As a matter of fact, with the Dangote jetty in place and a customs office right there, the company no longer needs to clear stuff at Apapa. Dangote empire effectively has its own customs and port, because we cannot assume that the custom officers stationed at Dangote’s jetty/FTZ are extremely meticulous in checking what comes in and goes out. Personally, I find this disturbing. No non-military entity should be able to import stuff that easily into any country. This is bigger than just skipping custom duty payment.

–Ends–

Between bank staff being fired at 10.30PM and refinery site labourers being killed by workplace accidents without accountability, the sheer grimness of the picture facing Nigerian workers comes into stark relief. It is afterall, an employer’s market, with several thousand qualified people jostling for every job opening, which creates the possibility and incentive to treat staff like battery animals.

Whether the Labour Ministry is willing or able to do anything about such blatant labour exploitation is anybody’s guess. Nigeria’s government is increasingly weak and unable to impose its will on the country even territorially. In the event that the government did take interest, there is a valid fear that it would go to the other extreme and adopt a lazy anti-business Hugo Chavez approach, as it so often does. The real solution if there is to be one, must come from Nigerian labour having a stronger bargaining position through an improved economy. Anything else as it stands, is little more than a sticking plaster.

As Mukhtar mentioned, even inside the ridiculous situation of being financially stranded in a foreign country at the behest of an irresponsible and insincere Nigerian corporate, the vast majority of the group chose to suffer in silence. They did so because spending a year abroad learning useless information, suffering deprivation and experiencing diarrhea after being forced to eat unfamiliar food was still preferable to whatever alternative was at home.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem facing Nigerian labour. 

Related posts

‘The Fast And The Furious’ Director Rob Cohen Accused Of Sexual Assault

Four years ago, Hollywood director Rob Cohen invited 28-year-old Jane to a business meeting in Manhattan to discuss collaborating on a TV pilot. Cohen chose the cigar lounge where they met and ordered her a drink, even though she didn’t ask for one, Jane would later recall. He then moved the meeting to a restaurant that happened to be situated right by the hotel where he was staying, ordered a carafe of wine and encouraged her to drink some more, she said. 

By the night’s end, Jane said she found herself regaining consciousness in Cohen’s hotel room, naked, while the director sexually assaulted her. She jolted out of bed and threw up.

Medical records reviewed by HuffPost show that Jane sought treatment for sexual assault after meeting with Cohen. Two people close to Jane confirmed that she told them about the assault both immediately after it happened and again about a year later.

HuffPost also reviewed text messages between Jane and Cohen, sent about two-and-a-half years after the alleged assault, in which she told him, “The night we met, you really hurt me and fucked me up.” At the time, Cohen wrote back that he was “so sorry to hear this.” He later told HuffPost, through a lawyer, that he was apologizing for what he believed was a dispute over compensation for her work on the TV pilot. 

In response to a detailed list of questions from HuffPost, Cohen’s lawyer Martin Singer sent a 13-page letter denying any wrongdoing.

“The proposed Story is an outrageous defamatory hit piece, making extraordinarily offensive assertions that my client engaged in heinous sexual misconduct, criminal wrongdoing, and other inappropriate behavior, which are vehemently disputed and denied by my client,” wrote Singer, who is well-known in Hollywood for representing Bill Cosby and other men accused of sexual misconduct in that cutthroat industry. Singer cautioned HuffPost against “publishing this Story in an effort to feed the ‘Me Too’ media frenzy with this salacious Story.”

Cohen is best known for directing the first “Fast and the Furious” film back in 2001, which spawned a $5.8 billion global franchise with seven subsequent installments and two more planned. He directed “xXx,” released in 2002, and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” released in 2008, along with a number of other frenetic films packed with handguns and high-speed car chases. 

In February, his daughter, 32-year-old Valkyrie Weather, publicly accused him of molesting her when she was a toddler. Weather, who is transgender, also recalled trips with Cohen to visit sex workers in overseas shooting locations when she was a teen and still presenting as a boy. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the director described his daughter’s allegations as “categorically untrue.” 

The molestation allegation was not new to Cohen — Weather’s mother brought it up in divorce proceedings more than two decades ago. Cohen, through his lawyer, told HuffPost that his being awarded sole custody of Weather in the divorce proceedings demonstrated that the allegations were not valid. At the time, evaluators could not determine whether abuse took place, according to documents reviewed by HuffPost. 

Jane contacted Weather this year shortly after reading Weather’s public statement. Jane wasn’t interested at the time in making her story public, but the two women had worked together, and Jane wanted Weather to know she wasn’t alone. She agreed to talk to HuffPost as a way of supporting Weather and has now decided to go public with her experience.

news

Cohen met Jane, who requested anonymity to protect her privacy, in early 2015 to discuss her role consulting on that TV pilot with his daughter Weather. The director had offered to use the industry contacts he’d accumulated in his four-decade-long career to shop the pilot around to the networks. Emails reviewed by HuffPost confirm that Cohen collaborated with Jane and Weather on the television project, although it never came to fruition. A major network representative also confirmed to HuffPost that she had discussed the project with Cohen.

Jane felt weird about the meeting with Cohen almost immediately. Cohen flirted with her and volunteered details about his sex life, she recalled. But she needed the money and was excited about the career opportunity, so she tried to ignore his comments.

Although Jane’s memory of the later parts of the evening is incomplete, there are details she remembers vividly. She remembers feeling suddenly alone with Cohen in the large restaurant after the other diners had trickled out. She remembers starting to feel “fuzzy.” She remembers him leaning over to kiss her cheek and thinking that was strange. She remembers being at another bar with Cohen — she distinctly remembers the checkerboard-patterned floor. 

The next thing she remembers is waking up naked, she said. She remembers Cohen’s face in her crotch and his fingers inside her. She had not consented to any of this.

She made her way to the bathroom to vomit and stumbled back to the bed. Cohen tried to penetrate her, but he stopped when she told him to, she said.

Meanwhile, Jane’s boyfriend at the time was starting to worry, he said in an interview with HuffPost. Jane had told him about the meeting with Cohen and said she expected to be home around 10 p.m. By that time, he hadn’t received any text messages from her in a while. He thought it was strange for an older man (Cohen was then in his mid-60s) to turn a business meeting with a 28-year-old woman into a late night of drinking, but he knew the show was a good opportunity for his girlfriend — who was struggling to find work — so he tried to be supportive. 

Jane finally arrived at her boyfriend’s house in a taxi around 1:30 a.m. He wanted to know what had happened that night, but they were both tired and just went to bed. When they woke up in the morning, Jane was distant. Her boyfriend still remembers her “thousand-mile stare.” 

At first, Jane didn’t know what to make of her experience with Cohen, she told HuffPost. She had a vague uneasy feeling about the night before but her memory of the encounter was hazy. 

The night after the alleged assault, Jane went out to dinner with her boyfriend. Once they were seated, Jane’s gaze settled on the checkerboard floor. She panicked as memories of the previous night flooded into focus. Unable to conceal her anxiety, she told her boyfriend what had happened after her meeting with Cohen. 

The fact that Jane says she vividly remembers being assaulted but has a hazy recollection of other parts of the evening is not unusual, Patricia Resick, a psychiatry professor at Duke University, said in an interview. Jane would not have been able to form any memories during the time she was unconscious, Resick noted. And even when she was conscious, she would have no reason to remember parts of the evening that did not seem unusual or dangerous.

Jane told HuffPost that she was a social drinker at the time and does not recall consuming enough alcohol to black out or lose consciousness. “It did not feel like being very drunk,” she said.

Within a matter of weeks, Jane went to a health clinic to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Medical records reviewed by HuffPost show she sought treatment as a victim of sexual assault. Jane told the medical professional who treated her that she continued to work on show development and communicate with her alleged assailant, medical records show. 

Cohen recalls meeting Jane at a bar in 2015 to discuss the television project, but he denies being in a hotel room with her or sexually assaulting her, Singer wrote. According to his lawyer, Cohen also denies that Jane was unconscious in his presence and claims that Jane left immediately after their meeting ended. 

After the health clinic visit, Jane tried to move on. She still wanted the TV project to work out. And she hoped that what Cohen did to her was a one-time mistake by a man of an older generation, rather than part of a pattern of predatory behavior. Maybe he felt deep regret, she thought. Maybe no one had told him about the importance of confirming consent. But the assault continued to weigh on her, she said. 

In 2016, more than a year after the incident, Jane’s current boyfriend — who didn’t yet know about her experience with Cohen — made a joke about one of the “Fast and the Furious” movies while they were waiting for a train. Jane winced at the joke and her boyfriend could tell he’d said something wrong, he recalled in an interview. Jane told him that she had been raped by Cohen but that she didn’t like talking about it. She asked him not to tell anyone.

hearing all this shit about harvey is really hard and i can’t stop thinking about what you did. i keep wondering if you even know or care how much you hurt me. im guessing no. Jane, in a text message to Rob Cohen after the Harvey Weinstein story broke

Then, in October 2017, The New York Times and The New Yorker exposed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decadeslong pattern of sexual misconduct. The news made it even harder to put Cohen out of her mind. She was frustrated that she was still affected by him, even years after the assault, she said. The next month, she decided to confront him. 

“The night we met, you really hurt me and fucked me up. hearing all this shit about harvey is really hard and i can’t stop thinking about what you did. i keep wondering if you even know or care how much you hurt me. im guessing no,” Jane texted Cohen, whose number HuffPost confirmed. “Anyway, im not tryina be in the news or anything, i don’t want anything from you, but an apology would be nice.” 

Cohen texted her back about an hour later. “I’m so sorry to hear this,” he wrote, according to texts reviewed by HuffPost. He asked if he could call her the following day and she agreed. 

When he called, Cohen apologized for causing her pain but framed the incident as a misunderstanding between two people who had drunk too much, Jane said. At the time, she wanted to believe that was true.

Shortly after the phone call, Jane recounted the conversation with Cohen in text messages to her former boyfriend — the one who had been waiting for her to return home the night of the alleged assault. Jane told her ex-boyfriend that Cohen didn’t “challenge [her] account” and “seemed to understand that he needs to be careful about consent especially when drunk in the future,” according to the contemporaneous messages reviewed by HuffPost. 

She felt a little better after the call, she told her ex. She felt like she had passed the guilt on to Cohen. She didn’t want her name in the news and she didn’t think “canceling” him would help her. She just wanted him to understand what he had done to her so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else. 

Asked by HuffPost about his apologetic text to Jane, Cohen claimed he’d thought she was talking about money. “My client recalls receiving an odd text or email from [Jane] inferring that she had been taken advantage of, which my client understood to be a complaint that she had never gotten paid for consulting on the defunct project,” Cohen’s lawyer Singer wrote. “Significantly, my client categorically disputes that [Jane] said anything to him during that call about any alleged sexual assault.” 

Presented with a screenshot of the text conversation between Jane and Cohen — in which Jane referenced “the night we met” and Harvey Weinstein — Singer said that “nothing in the alleged text exchange you provided is inconsistent” with Cohen’s explanation of events.

Earlier this year, Jane learned she wasn’t the only person with sexual assault allegations against Cohen. On Feb. 21, Cohen’s daughter Weather accused him of having used her body “for his own sexual gratification” when she was 2 years old. Weather posted her statement on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit ― where Jane eventually found it. 

news

Valkyrie Weather in a recent photo. 

She always had the sense that she had been sexually abused as a young child, Weather told HuffPost, and it was a feeling that confused her since she couldn’t recall a specific incident of abuse. That feeling grew more acute as she got older, particularly after she came out as transgender and started working with a therapist. In April 2017, when Weather was 30, she decided she needed to ask her mother directly. She wasn’t comfortable discussing it over the phone, so she reached out to her mom on Facebook Messenger. 

“Was I raped?” she asked her mother, Dianna Mitzner. 

“When you were a toddler,” Mitzner wrote back, “I walked into the bathroom you were in the bathtub with him he was usu g [sic] your body to masturbate.”

Cohen denied the allegations when Weather confronted him via email days later. “NONE OF THAT WAS TRUE,” he wrote in an email, which HuffPost has reviewed. “It was SHE who had you on top of her naked body in the bath tub when I came home unannounced.” 

Cohen offered a more measured statement when Weather went public with her story this year. “I hope and pray that one day, my child will come into the realization that no matter what anyone says or tries to convince her was the case when she was a child, it is both untrue and unimaginable,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in February. 

When Mitzner brought up the alleged bathtub incident during her divorce from Cohen in the early 2000s, he denied the allegations but did not accuse Mitzner of being the abuser. He also made no mention of abuse by Mitzner in his communication with HuffPost. 

After a yearslong custody battle, Weather was sent to live with Cohen in Los Angeles, which had more schooling options than the rural area where her mother resided. Weather chose to move back in with her mother less than a year later, she told HuffPost. 

Through his attorney, Cohen pointed to the custody outcome of the divorce proceedings as vindication. Because there were no other witnesses, HuffPost could not independently corroborate Mitzner’s version of events. But to Weather, her mother’s description of the abuse rang true. It felt like the answer to a question she had been struggling with for most of her life. And it resonated with her memories of her father thrusting his pelvis in front of her face when she was a child and taking her to see sex workers in Thailand and the Czech Republic when she was a teenager.

The “narrative that I was somehow tricked into believing he abused me, that I was too young to remember my experiences at that age, falls short when talking about a barely adolescent child in Prague and Bangkok,” she told HuffPost.

Weather felt it was important to come forward because she suspected her father had mistreated others. “My greatest hope is that others who have been hurt by Rob Cohen feel that they are able to come forward as well,” she wrote in her statement earlier this year. 

When Jane saw Weather’s post on Reddit, she was angry that she had convinced herself that her experience with Cohen was an anomaly. 

Oh, what the fuck, she thought.

By then, the television project had fizzled. Jane and Weather were no longer in regular contact but they still occasionally swapped podcast recommendations or movie trailers. Jane had never told Weather about being assaulted by Cohen because she didn’t want to damage Weather’s relationship with her father. And she still didn’t want to go public with her story. But she did want Weather to know she wasn’t alone.

“Hey,” Jane wrote on Facebook Messenger.

“I kinda never wanted to tell u cause i thought it’d be super awkward for u and i couldn’t imagine how it’d be helpful, but, uh me, as well.”

Do you have information you want to share with HuffPost? Here’s how.

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.

Related posts

The truth about comedy writers’ rooms

Grubby banter, sexless flirting and the smell of pizza and ambition … writer Sarah Morgan reveals the funny business that goes on behind the scenes of your favourite shows

books

In the recent movie Late Night, Mindy Kaling plays a naive young comedy writer joining the writing team on a late-night US chat show. The staff are exclusively white, male, expensively educated and surly a running gag is that every one uses the womens restroom to defecate because no women work in the office. Kaling, as a perky diversity hire, shakes up the show and drags it into the 21st century. Its a wish fulfilment comedy: what would actually happen, with just one woman or person of colour in the room, is that the lads would carry on being sexist and racist but would then swivel their heads at her like ventriloquist dummies to check that she was cool with it.

US writers rooms have a feral romance to them, as seen in shows such as 30 Rock, which was inspired by Tina Feys real time as head writer on Saturday Night Live, when her male peers would pee into jars on their office window sill and call it sun tea. In the UK, were a little more embarrassed at the idea that comedy is written, and feel it should be hidden away, shamefully and quietly. (When a writing partner and I asked for an office at the BBC in which to write our radio series, we were grudgingly offered The Jill Dando room, an 8ft sq office in TV Centre featuring a King-Kong-at-the-window-scale mural of the tragically murdered TV personality. We laughed. Writers are horrible.)

Recently, ITV announced an initiative to aim for gender-balanced writing teams on its comedy shows, which came as a shock to some people who claim to passionately love comedy but dont know how it is made. People who think Morecambe and Wise came up with all their own material, and Angela Rippon just started doing all that mad stuff with her legs on the day. You know what though? Its sort of OK comedy writers feel deep down we are doing our job properly when you dont know were there, like God. No, not like God: we dont have that level of self-esteem. Were like people who pump out the toilets at music festivals. Thats it. Gag writers are like the portable loo people, quietly keeping your entertainment entertaining. We know that no one at home cares if Simon Cowell is being genuinely spontaneous, or if his quip about David Walliamss trousers was crafted by a sweaty nerd on a 600th of his salary. Were just happy to be in showbiz.

I love my job. Ive worked in more than 50 writers rooms, not including the shows I helped develop that never made it to air. Some days I pinch myself that Im being paid to laugh my head off. On Horrible Histories you get free lectures from historians its like being paid for school, only youre actively encouraged to make fun of the lesson afterwards. Some shows Ive proudly worked on for decades, some were just a fleeting engagement in a production company office that smelled of pizza and ambition. Food is vital to the workings of a writers room. If a producer offers to buy lunch, everyone will immediately order the most expensive thing possible, because comedy writers are tiny children, and also because you know a free lunch means you are working through lunch.

The job has changed a lot in 10 years, but some writers rooms do still feel loud and gladiatorial, as in Late Night. Often in the UK they are dominated by male Oxbridge-educated caucazoids (some of my best friends are male Oxbridge-educated caucazoids, etc, etc). Writers are generally sensitive and insecure. If you put us together in a room we will overcompensate like the advice given to someone on their first day of prison, punch the biggest bloke in the yard.

There was one pop-based panel show writers room so notoriously toxic, the survivors talk as though it has been entombed in concrete like Chernobyl. A half-formed idea would get cut short with a Thats shit or Not funny. The writers assistant would get sent out with a complicated sandwich order and a grave warning that the star would lose his shit if she got the order wrong. (Of course, the sandwich shop didnt exist. She was terrified! Lol!)

Tina
Tina Fey in US sitcom 30 Rock, which was inspired by her time as head writer on Saturday Night Live. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

 

These rooms are raptor pits, according to Andy Riley, co-creator of Year of the Rabbit, who has compiled a glossary of writers room terms on his website How to Talk Comedy Writer. There is loads of secret lingo, such as Die-dia (from Kat Sadler), an idea that you feel dying in your mouth the second you start pitching. A bad room will crush a die-dia dead (thats not funny), a good room will toss it around a bit to see what other ideas it shakes out. A die-dia is from the same family as the bad version, which is a much derided term that a higher-up might use when pitching the shape of a joke, but not the joke itself. We need a funny reveal for what the dog is chewing. The bad version is a dildo? I dunno, youre the writers. Honestly, pitching the bad version is actually really useful, but its a thing that producers say so writers make fun of it. We dont often get to feel lofty.

Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show, says: Comedy writing rooms should be like improv Yes, and Rather than Thats shit. When a room is good, its heaven, a sort of sexless flirting where colleagues bat ideas back and forth and nothing is off-limits. A certain amount of inappropriateness is actually vital to the health of a room.

Executives who pop in can be startled by the filth and off-topic banter. Its our way of getting to know each other. Jason Hazeley, co-creator of Cunk on Britain, calls this doing scales the practice gags that warm you up for the real work. Ive also heard it called clearing the pipes or getting the poison out. Its not pleasant, but it is funny, if dead-baby jokes before 10am are your thing. Quite why were allowed to get away with this Im not sure, theres no other job where its expected that you need to be appalling before you can do your job properly. Sure Ill bring in this 747, but I just have to snap the legs off this heron first. Its my process.

When the Times Up movement hit Hollywood there was concern that some people wouldnt feel comfortable with the anything goes approach. There was a famous lawsuit where the writers assistant on Friends (the only female and person of colour in the room) sued because of the eye-wateringly inappropriate conversation among the chief writers (including speculations about a female cast members genitalia). The decision went in the shows favour, with the judge referring to the Friends room as a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.

Sarah
Ive been in situations where later Ive pondered the weird nature of my employment Sarah Morgan. Photograph: Karla Gowlett

 

Ive never felt unsafe or intimidated at work, but Ive been in situations where later Ive pondered the weird nature of my employment. There was a day in a small room where the head writer delivered a monologue about inserting Cadbury Mini Eggs in the non-traditional orifice of a lady friend. I didnt feel especially harassed (I almost certainly yes and-ed with egg puns) but I cant speak for the young woman whose job it was to sit and take notes all day. Crucially, Im not sure it was a super-productive way to write in-house sketches for the website of a luxury car brand.

While no one wants to think about how the sausage is made, its a fact that most shows have writers rooms panel shows, award shows, sketch shows, topical news shows, a chat show for a popular fake TV judge they are all team written. Though youd be forgiven for not knowing that if you look at the credits. Writers arent much of a thing in comedy, outside sitcoms. They are credited as programme associates (or additional material). Programme associates are the modest heroes thinking of funny captions for a photo of a puffin, or writing questions about Boris Johnsons hair, or coming up with sketch ideas a talk-show host could do based round a giant papier-mache vulva that had been commissioned by the production company for another show but didnt get used. (These are all things that have happened on programmes I have written on, sorry, been associated with.)

But the title may not be around for ever. The Writers Guild of Great Britain is starting a campaign to scrap positions such as programme associate and credit writers for their writing. Writers should always be credited as writers, says Gail Renard, former WGGB chair and member of the guilds comedy committee, or else they stand to lose their residuals, pension contributions, and other payments theyve rightly earned. Why should we be hidden in the shadows like some dark comedy secret?

Well, theres lots of reasons why comedy writers should be kept a dark dirty secret see above but a reluctance to give proper credit isnt one of them.

Late Night is showing in UK cinemas.

 

 

 

 

Related posts