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Breaking and entering

The Tantalus Letters: Prologue

Laura Otis 12 November 2006

www.lablit.com/article/171

God, I knew I should have hit on her. This woman gets off in cyberspace.

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the first installment of an original novel by Laura Otis. Set in the mid-1990s when e-mail was just becoming mainstream, The Tantalus Letters is an epistolary tale of four academics – two scientists and two English professors – caught in a virtual net of love, lust, science and literature.

Prologue

11:16 - 2 September 1997
From: Professor Joshua Golden [Department of English, Rollins University]
To: Dr. Simon Goldfarb [Director of Academic Computing, Hutchinson University]

I have been receiving harassing e-mail messages from one of your faculty members, Lee Ann Downing. She has ignored my repeated requests to stop writing. I would greatly appreciate it if you could tell her to stop sending me e-mail and, if appropriate, look into her account. Given the insensitivity she has shown in writing to me, I fear she may be doing the same to others. She may have psychological problems. I am sorry to have to trouble you with this matter, but I can no longer tolerate these lewd and threatening letters.

11:46 - 2 September 1997
From: Simon Goldfarb [Academic Computing]
To: Jerry Lynch [Academic Computing]

Jerry: this is an ugly one. This is one for you. I need someone who can crack anything and someone who can keep quiet. I just got a message from a professor at Rollins that one of our faculty is sexually harassing him in cyberspace. I looked her up, and it’s a woman in the English Department, Lee Ann Downing, full-time, been here eight years. I haven’t spoken to her yet. We’ve got to check this out. I’m not completely clear on procedures, because it’s something of an intergalactic incident. I think the way to go is to pull up the messages she’s been sending, as far back as you can go, and take a look at our sexual harassment policy. I really don’t like this, but we have to do something. See what you can do with her account, and I’ll confront her.

11:47 - 2 September 1997
From: Jerry Lynch
To: Simon Goldfarb

Is she the one with the hair?

11:47 - 2 September 1997
From: Simon Goldfarb
To: Jerry Lynch

Just do your job, dufus, and let me take care of the personal end. I’m going to call her now.

12:02 - 2 September1997
From: Simon Goldfarb
To: Jerry Lynch

She denies it. Now my stomach is starting to hurt. Whew. Feisty little thing. I think she is the one with the hair. The way she has it, he’s been harassing her. I asked her why she hasn’t reported it, if that’s the case, and she said it wasn’t worth reporting. So it’s her word against his.

This is a tough call. I don’t know squat about this guy, and she is one of our own. Just watching her walking over to the deli each day, all that hair blowing in the wind, all ninety pounds of her, gives me a pretty good idea who’s harassing whom. This kind of thing is always a witch hunt, and by accusing her first, he’d be removing suspicion from himself. But we have to deal with this.

I asked her if we could look at her account, and she says, “be my guest.” Just like that, “be my guest.” So go at it. Leave everything, and give this top priority.

14:06 - 5 September 1997
From: Jerry Lynch
To: Simon Goldfarb

I’m in. Her password was “Valmont.” Man, this woman is the packrat of cyberspace. She saved everything she ever got and everything she ever sent. What I can’t figure out is why – either she’s incredibly stupid, or suicidal. Maybe these English professors are just so in love with everything they write, they can’t ever get rid of it. She even seems to have copies of messages that her friends sent their friends, that they forwarded to her. It’s like the national archives in here.

God, I knew I should have hit on her. This woman gets off in cyberspace. It’s just incredible. Whoever this guy is (is it Josh Golden at Rollins?), she really has been sending him X-rated stuff, and boy, I don’t know what he did to her, but she is REALLY pissed off. It cracks me up – an English professor! She uses the F-word like there’s no tomorrow. It’s making my day, jacking into her personal life. I bet she never thought this would happen. But this is what you get if you have your sex life in cyberspace.

14:30 - 5 September 1997
From: Simon Goldfarb
To: Jerry Lynch

I’ve been afraid of this. I knew it was going to happen someday. There are 15,000 people here who send e-mail every day, and if you look at every message going in and out, I wonder how many are in violation of this damn sexual harassment policy. Half? Three quarters? I’ve been going through the thing for an hour, and it says nothing – a misguided attempt to describe impulses that have nothing to do with words. But we have to do something. Print out the works, and let me see it. If it’s like you say it is, we’ll have to take it to the dean.

14:35 - 5 September 1997
From: Jerry Lynch
To: Simon Goldfarb

Define “the works.” Reading through this woman’s file, what I’m wondering is, where do we stop? I mean, she writes to people, who write to people, who write to people – the connections go on and on. Eventually you’d have to look at the whole world’s e-mail, the whole web. It seems like to judge if she’s harassing people, like this guy Golden, we have to look at all the messages they sent her, and maybe the messages they sent to other people about her. It could take a lifetime, exploring the ramifications this thing produced in just one day.

Do we have to bust her? How about putting me in charge of disciplining her?

14:36 - 5 September 1997
From: Simon Goldfarb
To: Jerry Lynch

Just print me everything she saved, if it’s really that good. It’s supposed to rain this weekend.

9:09 - 8 September 1997
To: Dr. Warren DeMoine [Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences]
From: Simon Goldfarb [Director of Academic Computing]

In response to a complaint by Professor Joshua Golden of Rollins University, who stated that he had been receiving harassing messages from one of our faculty members, I have entered and examined the vax account of Lee Ann Downing in our English Department. This is a most distressing and delicate matter, and my assistant Jerry Lynch and I have done our best to handle it with discretion. After reviewing all of the messages she has sent and received over the past nine months, I am still uncertain as to whether she has violated Hutchinson’s sexual harassment policies, given the context of the correspondence. I therefore refer the matter to you, that you may make a decision as to appropriate disciplinary action.