Persona Non Grata: My Experience with Adam Foss

No one ever talks about how sexual harassment disrupts your ability to just do your damn job.

It’s Monday morning. I’m sitting in a meeting with people I need to impress. A notebook is splayed open on the conference table in front of me, defaced with the week’s to-do list. Write that promotion plan. Make sure today’s posts are programmed. Schedule a brainstorm about editorial policy. I am listening to the important people debate and I am taking notes, nodding professionally, sharing my opinion. I am twenty-seven and I have expertise to offer. I am becoming important too.

There’s a turn in conversation, a dollop of gossip like whipped cream atop an apple pie. So-and-so’s speaking agent severed ties with him over a year ago. My pen skids across the page, a blue line slicing through my neat handwriting.

So-and-so is adored around here. My colleague takes no pleasure in dropping this bombshell. When he winces, one of his shoulders rises higher than the other. His glasses slide slightly down his nose. I lick my lips, my throat hot and dry.

So-and-so pursued me when I was twenty-four-years-old. He DMed me on Twitter to ask me out; when I never answered, he asked someone to help him find my desk during his next visit to the office. I was eating fries from a McDonald’s bag when he appeared in front of me. I was wearing a hand-me-down sweater from my dad and no makeup, and I didn’t know what to say when he told me how much he admired my writing. After he left, my coworkers turned in their seats to stare, wondering why I was so important.

He wore me down. I went on one date. I let him kiss me goodbye outside of the Canal Street subway stop. He said wanted to come back to New York to see me again, said he wanted to spend time with me. I blinked up at him, made some joke about how I wasn’t going back to his hotel, and he said of course not without much conviction.

He asked me why I was still scheduling tweets when I was clearly destined for so much more.

I shoved his attention in my desk drawer. It overwhelmed and disoriented me. Instead of untangling the implications of our power imbalance, the decade plus years between us, the reverence with which people said his name like he was a hero and not a man in his late thirties drunk-texting someone’s assistant while she struggled to do her job… I tried to forget it all. Push it out of sight. It’s not like anything happened.

But right now I’m in the status meeting—no longer an assistant, better dressed. My colleague’s glasses continue their descent down his nose. He winches again, his lips curling uncomfortably: it had to be bad for so-and-so’s agent to sever ties like that, for the news of their split to reach the office gossip pool. He doesn’t need to elaborate. A young taste in women isn’t enough to render a man of so-and-so’s stature persona non grata.

My morning warps. I leave the meeting and hide in a phone booth. In a heartbeat I am not twenty-seven. I am small and bloodshot, reading “u up” messages after midnight as I try to finish work. I am not sure how to extricate myself from a flirtation that has escalated, not sure how to appease this powerful man whom my colleagues worship. This is not harassment, it is a botched seduction, and didn’t I open myself up to this? Am I remembering this correctly?

I think I texted a friend about the goodnight kiss, I think I tried to sound flattered and not confused. It was just a date. Just another first date with the most impressive man to ever notice me. And then nothing else happened because I honored the prickle of discomfort at the back of my neck. I screened his texts and told my best friend the full story with an upturned voice like that’s weird, right? Right?

She took my hand, frowned, asked me what thirty-eight-year-old man wants to date a twenty-four-year-old girl?

When I pan back and take in the full landscape, the rumor of “whispers” and “pattern” and “multiple women,” everything looks off-kilter. At a wider scale, so-and-so becomes a bullet dodged and I can feel his force graze the skin of my neck. I feel small all over again, like I’m reading “u up” texts all over again, like I’m nothing but entertainment for a powerful man on a business trip.

Frozen in the phone booth at work, I grasp at dead air: What did he do? Who else did he pursue? Was it a misunderstanding, or criminal, or just the entitled playtime of another man, another progressive man, another hero? The fact that I don’t know and never will makes it even more unsettling. I’ve tuned in at the end of a television show just before the credits begin to roll. What’s happened? How did we get here?

Why didn’t the coworker who showed him to my desk wonder what he wanted with me?

Why didn’t anyone tell me to stay away from him?

Why didn’t anyone tell him to stay away from me?

I suck in my breath. I leave work early and watch my hands shake as the subway whisks me past Canal Street. There is no reason to be embarrassed but I blush deep red when I tell my boyfriend about my day. He’s heard parts of this story before but never with this quiver in my voice—it was always a work anecdote, a dark joke about how he’s not the oldest man I ever dated.

He asks me how the meeting went. I barely remember it. I just know I wasn’t impressive.

Like many others who have experienced sexual harassment, I did not feel that my encounter with Adam Foss was bad enough to “count.” What’s one awkward date? What’s one man over-confiding in your Twitter DMs? What’s a handful of text messages received while you are working, pushing you to meet up with him late at night? We were both adults, regardless of the age difference and the power dynamic between us. Aside from my palpable humiliation, there was no real “harm” done to me.

When I learned in 2019 that Adam Foss had been banned from TED events due to other instances of inappropriate behavior, I felt nauseated. To know that your “just a bad date” story is actually part of a larger pattern of harm is sickening. It both validates your experience and heightens it by showing you that you were right. I came home from work and wrote this essay as a way of teasing out my feelings of shame, confusion and horror. I wanted to publish it but was too afraid to put it online. Even if I didn’t include his name, and even if I didn’t include my employer’s name, I’d be putting myself at risk of burning professional bridges. The esteem of my colleagues at TED meant the world to me. I didn’t want them to think I was making trouble. I just wanted to understand what happened to me.

I’ve chosen to make this post public now because countless other women have spoken up about the harm done to them by Adam Foss. There are so many other women, from his ex-girlfriend to his former teenage intern. We’re following in the footsteps of Raegan Sealy, who published a full account of her sexual assault on Medium yesterday. Reading it, I was disturbed by how much her experience mirrors mine. Raegan and I were around the same age. We met Adam in the conference world. We were both impressed by his burgeoning career as a progressive hero. He over-confided in us, flattered us, and pursued us. We thought we were the only ones, and then the whisper network reached us.

My brief period of contact with Adam pales in comparison to what his other victims experienced, but I wanted to share my story as a way to demonstrate his pattern. Adam Foss uses his reputation as a progressive hero to groom, coerce, and hurt young women. He uses his TED Talk, articles about him in the New York Times, interviews on NPR, his fellowship with the MIT Media Lab, and other accomplishments to camouflage himself as a warrior for the greater good. Every speaking engagement he has grants him access to potential targets: he met Raegan when they were both speakers at a conference, and he used his time at the TED conference and in the TED office to meet other women. I don’t know how many other TED employees he approached, but I’ve heard that I am not the only one.

Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be graphic or violent in order to qualify as sexual harassment. A much older and more powerful man whom I had to maintain a professional relationship with approached me in my place of work and made sexual advances toward me. He over-confided in me about his struggles with being herpes+, a typical grooming technique of sexual predators designed to foster trust and intimacy, and pressured me to meet up with him late at night while I was working. I am lucky that I trusted my gut and said no, and that I never found myself alone with him in a situation where he could coerce or force me to do something that I didn’t consent to.

It is frightening to call myself a victim of sexual harassment, but I am one. As I read the stories of women who were harmed worse by Adam, I feel as if my soul has dodged a bullet.

I can only be thankful for the courage of these women, and that they have taken the risk to speak up against him.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

2 thoughts on “Persona Non Grata: My Experience with Adam Foss

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience so others with similar experiences (whether with Mr. Foss or someone else) can feel supported and validated or can finally see clearer what has happened or may be happening to them.

    1. I cannot read “trust your gut” stories often enough. That’s how often I need the reminder! I related to almost all of your back and forth thoughts and feelings.

      Funny, I just watched my first Foss TED talk yesterday. I really liked it, but I noticed nothing new fm him since 2018? So I decided to google the guy. And I found your blog.

      I believe you. Thanks for posting your experience. Hope things are going well, and that you are well and stay that way.

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