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Crichton’s ‘Disclosure’ : His New Protagonist Is a Victim of Sexual Harassment--and He’s a Guy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Crichton looks like a winner but feels like a dinosaur.

True, he stands to make millions from his new novel, “Disclosure,” just as he did with “Jurassic Park,” “Rising Sun” and other blockbusters. Yet to hear him talk, he and other freethinkers face extinction in a fight for survival with feminists and the pooh-bahs of political correctness.

“There’s absolutely a chill in the workplace these days,” Crichton says, picking lint off his Armani suit and scowling down at Central Park, 43 floors below his hotel suite. “Everyone talks about it and no one likes it.

“You can’t make any kind of a joke at work. You can’t make any kind of a personal comment, and it has a little neo-Nazi flavor,” he adds. “It’s the thought police and people are unhappy. They’re not going to put up with it.”

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This will come as news to those who battle gender-based job discrimination. But Crichton pulls no punches, blaming some women for most of the trouble. They’ve twisted modern feminism into a doctrine of special privilege, he claims, polluting relations between the sexes and putting everyone on edge.

At least that’s the message of “Disclosure,” a provocative story of sexual harassment and New Age computer high jinks that has Hollywood written all over it. Indeed, the book was recently sold to Warner Bros. for a whopping $3.5 million, and it reads more like a script treatment than a novel.

Crichton’s latest stars a ruthless woman who beats out her former lover for a coveted executive job. Savoring victory, she tries to destroy him by filing phony sex harassment charges. He fights back to clear his name.

The author says it took him eight weeks to write the first draft of “Disclosure” in a bungalow near his Santa Monica home. He’s on tour to promote the book, but it’s almost beside the point. Like John Grisham, he’s one of those writers whose mere name on a cover guarantees huge sales.

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It also sparks criticism: Why does Crichton make a woman his villain, some reviewers have asked, when most sexual harassment cases are filed by women against men? In 1992, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, only 968 men filed sexual harassment charges out 10,577 complaints.

Meanwhile, there are shots at Crichton’s literary depth: “It will be the very rare person who rereads ‘Disclosure,’ ” sniffed the Wall Street Journal.

So what else is new? Some critics charged that his previous novel, “Rising Sun,” crudely bashed the Japanese, and Crichton has responded with anger, saying such barbs are unfair. Yet his chest-beating, polemical books seem to invite them. Like his characters, he loves being outspoken.

Question: What prompted you to focus on sexual harassment as a topic?

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Answer: I was looking for a long time for some way to talk about the relationship of the sexes in this country. And this seemed to be the right story, this reversed story. It’s a very difficult problem and I had never faced it before.

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Q: You’ve said the plot is based on a real-life occurrence related by a friend. How much did you change the actual incident for the novel?

A: I didn’t want to change it at all. But of course one is required (legally) to change it, so the problem was to find things that would be equivalent. I had to disguise the real situation but tried to keep the values the same. I don’t think I should say much beyond that.

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Q: How did you go about researching the book?

A: I read extensively in the academic literature on the subject and I thought that would be my preparation. Now, I thought, I’ll go speak to people in different corporations, none of whom wanted to be associated with me! I said, “Would you like to be thanked in the book?” And they said, “Absolutely not!” None of the attorneys. I think it shows the sensitivity on this.

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Q: Did anything surprise you in your research at high-tech computer firms?

A: The first thing I discovered is that these people had no knowledge of the (scientific or academic) literature. They had no knowledge of various feminist positions on these issues . . . and they didn’t want to know. Their lives are very fast-paced and they had a kind of rough-and-ready pragmatic approach to gender issues. They’re young companies, and there’s a tremendous amount of sexual activity. Although the companies all have rules about what you can and can’t do with other people, the companies can’t (control) it. The human resources people act like they’re in charge of some rabbit warren.

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Q: Was there a change in your self-awareness as you wrote the book?

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A: Yes, very dramatic. My intention was to address what I thought of as unacknowledged biases and assumptions in our society. And I discovered to my amazement while I was working that I had plenty of my own. I had a good deal of difficult feelings about this protagonist as I was writing.

When “Disclosure” begins, Tom Sanders is a computer executive in his early 40s who expects to get a long-awaited promotion. By the end, he’s lucky to still have his job and the respect of his wife, a tough-talking attorney.

Sanders’ problems begin when Meredith Johnson, a stunningly attractive employee in his Seattle-based company, DigiCom, seemingly comes out of nowhere to pluck the promotion away from him. The two had an unhappy affair 10 years before, and hours after her new job is announced, Johnson invites Sanders up to her new office for something more than a handshake and a glass of wine.

At first, Sanders can’t believe what’s happening and he tries to dodge her overtures. But she persists and finally gets him down on a sofa with her. At the last second, he refuses to go through with the act, saying it would be wrong. He reminds his new boss that he has a wife and two kids, but she erupts with fury, vowing to get even with the man who has spurned her.

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For the rest of the book, Sanders fights valiantly to convince scores of people--including his lawyer--that he has been a victim of sexual harassment.

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Q: Seconds before Sanders backs off, he has undressed Johnson and there’s quite a bit of heavy breathing. Isn’t it hard to view him as a victim?

A: Yes. His pants are down around his knees. So how much of a victim are you? And yet, when you turn the situation around, current feminist dogma says absolutely that if it’s a man and a woman and that situation occurs, and she says ‘no’ at the very last moment, that’s absolutely within her rights. She’s a victim throughout the whole encounter. But when you reverse the roles and look at it, you’d say, no, that’s not right at all. He’s a participant. He has a role. He could have backed out earlier. So what’s going on here?

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Q: What does that tell you about sexual harassment in the workplace?

A: There are some cases (of harassment) that are just clear, certain kinds of behavior that are no longer acceptable and haven’t been acceptable for a long time. There’s another kind of behavior that represents hypersensitivity. In the middle it’s muddy, and the middle is wide. And what attorneys say is, there’s almost always something else going on between two people (beyond sexual tensions).

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Q: Where does modern feminist thought fit into all this?

A: I’ve always welcomed more powerful and independent women. But I absolutely do not favor the protectionist, victimist posture of some feminist groups. I think it’s bad for women and it’s a bad strategy for men. Egalitarian feminism says men and women are equal and should have equal opportunity. . . . Protectionist feminism says women have special needs and special requirements. Women must be specifically protected. And that protectionism is (defended) by a group of men and women.

A tall, imposing man, Crichton speaks in the measured tones of an academic. Although some dismiss him as a pop writer who hops the latest trend, it’s hard to ignore his credentials. A graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School, he’s written 13 books and directed several films. Worldwide, there are more than 100 million copies of his works in print.

At 51, Crichton is married to his fourth wife, actress Anne-Marie Martin, and has a 4-year-old daughter, Taylor. Throughout the interview, the author stresses that he doesn’t want his words--or his book--to be seen as a diatribe against women. The key point, he says, is that both sexes have to live and work together equally and with a lot more mutual respect.

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Q: At the end of this book, a character says sexual harassment issues won’t be resolved until 50% of all executives are women. What do you mean?

A: Traditional corporate America is a roomful of men. White men, usually. And the most important differences start to occur (in the workplace) when you’re not the only woman in the room. The more women there are, the more that kind of level changes. So, when will (these problems) go away? When there are more or less equal numbers. When we see that there’s a spectrum with women executives, as with men. Some are nurturing, some are not. Some are curt, some are polite. Some abuse their power, some don’t. Some have to be fired.

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Q: How do you see harassment disputes changing in the workplace?

A: As more and more women become supervisors, they’ll get charged (with harassment). The charge is easy. The charge is a snap. And you are presumed guilty in this country--it’s astounding. The charge can be used to get rid of somebody you don’t like. So more and more women are going to see this.

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Q: There are many men and women who would object to those comments. They’d say you were creating a misleading and unlikely incident to sell books.

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A: I don’t want to tiptoe through my life. It’s a drag. And I don’t want to feel that the world is dangerous. I think part of my tendency to be outspoken is the desire to contradict that prevailing caution.


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