SAG-AFTRA's Sexual Harassment Task Force:
‘Why I care’
by Pamela Guest
December 18th 2017
During last month's November 16th, 2017 SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Local Board meeting the motion I made to form a Sexual Harassment Task Force (SHTF) within the union--separate from the SAG-AFTRA President’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Safety--passed unanimously. I was given the mandate to spearhead the effort. There was much discussion as to whether the SHTF would be under a national or local committee. So far its status is unknown. I heard a rumor that the LA Local Women’s Committee put me on a task force or commission that they’re forming, but I've heard nothing official.
Now you might ask how a newly elected SAG-AFTRA board member was so bold as to find herself making a motion to form a SAG-AFTRA Sexual Harassment Task Force. The story involves my personal #MeToo story, a film and an Oscar winning composer.
In 2013, I was randomly led to read an online article about the brother of an acting colleague who was on trial in New York for allegedly killing his girlfriend. You don’t hear that kind of thing everyday so imagine my surprise when I googled him and up came the article “The Curious Case of Joseph and Nicholas Brooks". Joseph was the Oscar-winning composer of the song “You Light Up My Life” (and director of the film). Joseph’s son, Nicholas is the now-convicted murderer. I’ve described my reaction in an evening recorded at Rogue Machine’s Rant and Rave on Justice in August 2015 which you can listen to here:
Pamela Guest on Justice
from the “Rant & Rave” Podcast recorded live at Rogue Machine Theatre on August 24, 2015.
Reading for the first time about them, I learned that Joseph Brooks committed suicide in 2011 while awaiting trial on 120 counts of alleged sexual assault of young actresses in New York City. Reading this article dredged up from deep within me the long-hidden memory of the rape I endured as a college student at what I thought was my first professional audition. As I read I recognized my assailant as Joseph Brooks who I knew by another name in the early 70’s at that fateful audition in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was damaged, unhinged, destroyed by this encounter. I told my boyfriend and my two best friends after it happened. At no time did they suggest I report the event to the authorities. I suppose they were trying to protect me from further abuse at the hands of the unsympathetic legal system, which still exists in this country. I was too ashamed to even mention it in the years I spent in therapy off and on. I never thought about what had happened, but as I grew older continuing on in this business I found myself terrified and shaking after and during an audition for a television show produced by a most sympathetic family friend, but before a roomful of men. I became aware I had a problem.
So when I read the article, I immediately sprang into action. I wanted to finally fight back and lift the burden of shame I’d imposed on myself. I sought legal advice from my college boyfriend, now an attorney in Tennessee. I met with the Manhattan Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted Brooks in hopes of connecting to his other victims to heal and perhaps take legal action together. She’s currently working on the Weinstein accusations in New York. I gave an interview to the NY Times, which was later sensationalized in the Daily Mail over the Internet. Most of what was printed wasn't quite what I said which was traumatic again for me. Some members of my theater company turned their backs on me for speaking out.
I learned more than anyone would want to know about our legal system and victims’ rights. I dove into researching NDA’s and learned how SOL’s are different in every state. I learned the value of talking about what happened. I found that after keeping this secret for so long the only way to free myself from its grip was to share my story. Speaking out was difficult and I never would have done it if I didn’t HAVE to. I still do.
I met Gloria Allred at a luncheon and pleaded with her to take my case. She didn't. I learned I had to file in Michigan where it happened. I could file because Brooks had given me a phony name so my Statute of Limitations (SOL) had two years before it ran out. The brother of one of my college friends took my case pro bono and we filed a lawsuit in Ann Arbor. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to fight back. It was time to heal. I so deeply wanted someone to acknowledge that I’d been seriously harmed. My career as an actress had been severely disrupted by this horrific event.
In 1981 I was directed by John Cassavetes in an Equity waiver production of a play with Gena Rowlands and Martin Landau playing my parents. John told anyone who would listen that I was “THE actress of my generation.” But I didn’t know or believe it. I had lost faith in myself. After all, how could I, a smart scholarship student at the University of Michigan have gotten myself into such a vulnerable, at-risk situation? It must have been my fault. I must have done something wrong. Instead of really continuing to seek acting work, I had an unhappy but successful career as a casting director, safe behind my desk.
But then in 2013, the most miraculous thing occurred. After I started speaking out and fighting back, I started to work as an actress. A friend cast me as the lead in his movie and I won several awards for my work. I finally passed my audition for the Actors Studio where I am now a Lifetime Member. My one tiny scene in a new sitcom became the promo for the whole series and that episode was seen by all the Emmy voters.
The lawsuit dragged on and on, never going to court as the Brooks’ estate tried one delay after another. At least two other victims had won judgments against him and I was being pressured to walk away. I couldn’t or I would have. I began paying another attorney who knew about the music business and the disposition of Brooks’ royalties. I was called a liar, an imposter, crazy and worse but still I hung in there for dear life. Why? Because I had to.
While all this was going on, my daughter Liz, a USC film school grad and a fine actress in her own right, suggested we make a short film about what happened based on the rape scene I had written for an acting class as a healing exercise. I had submitted that scene on a lark to the 2016 Amsterdam Film Festival and won second place. We shot the film in August 2016 with my daughter playing me. As I stood behind the monitor watching her go through my experience, my own healing took a gigantic leap. With tears steaming down my face, I finally knew that what happened to me was not my fault. With that knowledge, I decided to settle the lawsuit on equal footing with the other women, with no NDA or gag order, because I needed to tell my story freely and widely. And of course there’s been no acknowledgement by the estate of his guilt.
“the first of many”
starring Elizabeth Guest as Pamela
A casting director friend who’d seen our film “the first of many” credited it with starting this #MeToo revolution within our industry. The film qualified for Academy Award consideration and has been playing for Academy members since September. Sadly it didn’t make the shortlist so you won’t be seeing us at the Oscars, but our hope is that by telling my story we will encourage others to tell theirs and heal. My life, which I always thought would be as an actress, has now become all about advocating for victims/survivors. I am an official speaker with RAINN’s Speakers Bureau and was invited to work with V-Day, Eve Ensler and Jane Fonda’s global organization to end violence against women. Thus my interest in SAG-AFTRA having a dedicated Sexual Harassment Task Force to lift the lid off this insidious part of our culture, to find new strategies for prevention and to give victims a forum in which to heal.
“Artists are the gate keepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” Paul Robeson