Silence of the Sheep

Alright. Let’s talk openly.

If I get fired over this, so be it. It was time for a change of jobs anyway. I hope I don’t, though. I like what I do.

Stagehands are people of all walks of life. Amongst our crew, there are students, anarchists, Rastafarians, punks, ex-convicts, future convicts, junkies, artists. Each of them is more than the sum of their definitions, has a whole life outside the job. There are personalities that collide but usually, we are extremely tolerant towards each other’s character. In a way, we are desensitized to it. And as usual when people close their eyes, this comes at a price.

We didn’t pay this price. A child paid it for us.

Our crew chief.
An ex-commando, a soldier, ex-con, father, divorcee, and as per usual, much more than the sum of these definitions. I got to know him when he was still working for a different company, and gave me a ride home when I was stranded on a job, on the other side of Belgium.

As he started the engine and the radio came to life, Tool came blasting in my ear. Immediately, I had found a friend, and for the rest of the trip, we discussed different music styles, our preferences matching almost perfectly. He was about 40 at the time, so had had lived all those new wave bands I was just discovering at the time. I found out he had been in the army then, got quiet as he told the stories that he usually ended with a shrug, “It was him or me.”

Tired of placing fences, he soon switched companies to the onstage crew: Ours. As a dominant, loveable person, he quickly grew to be a respected colleague. It was a small step to crew chief, 1 of the 2 that we had, at the time.

It was some time after this when I heard the first rumors.
Another co-worker of ours had contacted the office with some unsettling evidence. What I heard at the time, was that he had been harassing her on Facebook chat, using his position of power as leverage. I remember being very surprised at that, because at work he would behave quite neutral towards women- more so than our other chief. The most sexual thing I had ever heard him say was, “She’s got a nice figure, don’t you think?”
I have personally said worse about my male colleagues and I’m straight as a razor.

Now that I think back about it, this probably wasn’t the first complaint that reached the ears of the office, just the first to leak out. The details were hazy at best, but I later heard more. For the sake of privacy, I’ll keep those to myself, because all things considered, they are irrelevant. The only thing undeniably true was that we now all knew about it.
And no one did a thing.

When I asked people from the office, or the other chief, they would shrug. They said they “talked to him about it”. The woman in question left the company. I don’t know if anyone did, but I certainly didn’t bring it up with him. Life just went on.

An ex of mine joined the crew, and much to my dismay, got into a habit of flirting around. The colleagues thought this was hilarious, tossing around her name in my presence in hopes of invoking some reaction or other. But soon enough, I got a phone call from her. About him.

It was about “the things he said to her on Facebook” and how she “couldn’t block him, afraid of what his reaction would be.” I advised to do it anyway, and to stay as far away from him as possible.

He had lived in Ghent before, but had now moved to the Netherlands, together with his girlfriend. That meant that my friend wouldn’t have to drive with him, which was a relief for me. Nothing had changed between him and I on the workfloor- we still joked and worked together, still had lots of fun, but I wouldn’t let him come near a woman if I had a say in it. Not that I did.

And so, life went on, until 2 years ago, as we were doing the testbuild for a tour both our crew chiefs and a few more people would be on. It was a hellish job of lots of waiting, trying to fit things together that obviously wouldn’t, taking them apart again although now they obviously wouldn’t, and waiting some more while the parts were sent to the shop.

I remember lots of professional frowns and meetings in catering. There were lengthy discussions on what each individual would be doing while on the road, while we stagehands watched and waited some more.

The crew chief in question was there every day. He had had some hiccups with showing up on the job and this particular tour was his chance to redeem himself. Sexual harassment in the company isn’t quite as relevant to our employer than waking up on time, mind.

And then, one day after we had said “see you in the morning”, he didn’t show.
We all rolled our eyes and cursed him, now that he might have blown it for the final time. We assumed he was too ashamed to show his face when, the following days, there was no sign of him. His role in the organization had to be filled in and the tour happened without him. But even then, we didn’t get to see him.

When we asked the company, they didn’t give us a word. They shrugged, and said they didn’t know.

Rumors were starting to spread, I didn’t give them much credit. But one in particular was a little more stubborn: Our crew chief was in Dutch jail. It seemed to persist and served as a new feeding ground for more spectacular whispers, in particular that his crime had been sexual in nature. I didn’t want to believe it right away but somehow it made sense. Working closely together with him, I had not noticed a thing, but who knew what occurred when there was no one around to keep an eye on him?

The word kept growing more ridiculous, to the point that no one really believed what they were telling each other during the car ride home. It was too absurd to be true.
Then someone walked by who knew what was going on and from the moment she gave us that hint, we were on her like flies on shit. Starved for information for over half a year, we wanted to know what was going on. It couldn’t possibly be worse then what was being said, right?

Ha, ha.
It was worse. I stood perplex when I was told.
Yes, our crew chief was in jail. He had voluntarily gone into custody, virtually proving his guilt before his conviction.
Yes, his crime was a sexual one.
Yes, it involved a minor. A 12-year old, in fact.

There is more but this is where I’ll stop. It gets worse, much worse. The details are publicly available in Dutch but I must warn you: There’s a good chance you’ll regret going there. If you are in any way emotionally involved, I guarantee it.

The things he was sent to prison for were just about the worst things one person can do to another, short of killing them- debatably. It was an explosion of things that we all knew he carried deep inside him, a show of what would happen if we let it- what did happen.

He is in prison now, but not for long. He’ll be out soon. And like the court, we judge him, point the finger. At him, at him, but never at ourselves.

I met her recently: That first woman, where to me, it all started. I was very careful about bringing it up, but as soon as some trigger word fell, she spilled the beans. Everything that she had told the office, I now know. And every sentence was a conviction, every word a question screamed glaringly into my ear, until she finally posed it:

Knowing what was happening, how could you tolerate it?

I opened my mouth but I didn’t have an answer. I hadn’t even considered it. I gave it some thought, thinking I’d come up with some answer, some excuse, some redemption, a way of cleansing my hands.

But there is none, is there?
We sat by and watched it happen.

He wasn’t imprisoned, which he should have been. He wasn’t arrested, which he should have been. No one, of the dozens of people who knew, filed a complaint, which we should have. He wasn’t fired, which he should have been. He was barely even reprimanded. We all closed our eyes and shrugged, like we do, and in the end, a child paid the price.

We continued to work with him, joking, high-fiving, building. We sat at the table with him, knowing what he was and shrugging it off.

I know now, there were others. That pretty much every woman in his surrounding has seen this side of him, except most keep it quiet. My immediate reflex was to judge them, but truth is, vulnerable as they are, they are less to blame than I am.

What happened in the Netherlands, was partly my fault. I could deny and justify it, but the truth has some annoying habit of sticking around.
That it happened in the Netherlands, makes it much more bearable. It’s no one that I know, far away from my bed. Despite being a father and human being, I can talk about it without getting angry or upset. Fully aware that every time I do, is an insult added to the injury, the damage done.

Some people say he won’t get far when he gets out, which is some time within 2 years. That retributions will follow, and he will pay for it with his life. And then comes my time to shrug, unsure about how I’m supposed to feel about that. As if murder could in some way be justified, like we justify the crime of our silence, paid for by a child.

I consider all of this, the worst thing I have ever done. If there is a hell and if I go there, this will be the reason. I would tell her I’m sorry if it didn’t come as an insult.

All I can do now is learn from my mistakes, and I sit annoyed and afraid for the moment that it will happen again, because I know I’ll have to make that statement that I failed to make before, setting my foot down and fighting, knowing all too well that it’s a fight I will lose.
It might cost me my job, like this text might, or more. In the scheme of things, a small price, some inkling of redemption that I owe her. A laughable gesture, barely more than the careless shrug we gave.

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One response

  1. Line

    Zonder je te veroordelen, wil ik zeggen dat het me goed doet. Ik ben blij dat iemand die gezwegen heeft, beseft dat hij daardoor een grote verantwoordelijkheid heeft gehad in het gebeurde. Ook zwijgen is kiezen. Men kiest altijd. Men doet alleen alsof men niet kiest door te zwijgen. En dat is een grote dikke vette leugen.
    Maar het is me ook al overkomen. En ik kan je gevoel alleen beamen: ik voel me laf. Een zielige, bange lafbek. En ik laat het nooit meer zo ver komen. Ontslagen worden is inderdaad het minste.
    Als ik ooit in die situatie kom, wil ik dat mijn medestanders van moed getuigen en doen wat juist is: voor mij opkomen. No matter what!

    16 June 2015 at 00:57

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