Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, December 11, 2017

An Open Letter to Senator Al Franken

Dear Mr. Franken:

I’m a Minnesotan who has admired you since your earliest Saturday Night Live skits, through your movies, your Air America days and book publications, up to your election and re-election as my U. S. Senator. There was always a sophomoric element to some Saturday Night Live skits that I found off-putting, just like the USO skits I've been seeing lately, but there was also a lot of more sophisticated humor exactly to my liking, much of it written by and/or featuring you.

I liked you because of SNL. I started loving you after I saw When a Man Loves a Woman and, especially, Stuart Saves His Family, which was rather a lifeline for me when it came out while I was going through a very difficult time. The personal lives of artists can be quite separate from their work, but I find it hard to believe that someone who speaks with so much understanding about fragile and vulnerable people would himself prey on vulnerable people.

As an assault victim myself, and the victim of various forms of sexual harassment over my life (you are exactly the same age as my husband and me), I think the #me,too and #Ibelieveher movements are timely and important. Tragically, your long track record of understanding and supporting important women’s issues is exactly what has put you in such an untenable situation now, and fully explains your reticence to defend yourself more strenuously after both the original Leann Tweeden charges and then additional people complaining about you groping them in photo ops. My default position has always been to believe the victim, but verify.

Tina Dupuy's article in the Atlantic, summarizing the charges against you in the worst possible light and saying she believes these charges because when she asked for a photo op, you “groped” her and “copped a feel,” said that your egregious sin was to place your hand on her waist. In the photo accompanying the article, her arm is around you, her hand on your shoulder, her head tilting toward yours, but she was left traumatized because your hand was on her waist?

I write books about birds and produce a radio program/podcast about them, so at book signings and visits to community radio stations like KAXE in Grand Rapids and KUMD in Duluth, men sometimes ask me for photo ops, and they virtually always put their arm around me. They want the picture to show that we've established a friendly if momentary relationship—that's the whole point. Sometimes a guy's hand doesn't find the proper target to begin with. These are hurried encounters, and often people feel pressured to get it over with because there's a line, plus they (and I) are often nervous, so I know the most awkward hand placement can often be entirely unintended. As the victim of attempted rape and assault, I know the difference between awkward human encounters and sexual assault.

I can understand some women who have been victimized in the past being triggered and traumatized by what for others would seem innocuous. But if an adult honestly can't handle an associate touching her waist in a photo op that she herself asked for, shouldn't it be her responsibility to make her limits clear from the start?

Back in the 1980s when our congressman, Jim Oberstar, did a town hall in Duluth, I gave a little spiel about some legislation that would have serious effects on birds. When it was all over, I was among the crowd leaving UMD when Mr. Oberstar was being led out by his staff, who were surrounding him to usher him away more quickly. He saw me, broke away from them, and walked straight over, gave me a huge bear hug, and said, “I like you!” I thought that was a lovely thing.

Your situation upsets me on a personal level. You of all the politicians I’ve ever paid attention to seem uniquely vulnerable as a human being to being wounded by such charges. It of course also distresses me on a political level. After your masterful questioning during Session’s Senate testimony and your longstanding work to protect net neutrality, coming to a vote this very week, the charge sparking this whole thing, with Roger Stone's heads up days beforehand, feels both uniquely politically motivated and uniquely politically damaging to the best of everything the Democratic Party stands for.

It also upsets me with regard to the specific issue of sexual harassment. I believe a full investigation of the charges against you, and against other Congressmen and Senators, would help clarify which offenses are truly toxic and even illegal, and which are ones people can deal with and move on from, allowing all of us to become more sensitive human beings. Democrats have historically stood for redemption and progress.

This entire movement to protect women will have been for naught if all it succeeds in doing is to destroy the careers of a few men without clearing a pathway to move forward so our daughters and granddaughters can live their lives without having to deal with the kinds of real assaults and harassment the #me,too movement is bringing to light.

I have been so proud to have you as MY Senator. I was one of the people up here in Duluth so painstakingly recounting every vote during your original election, and was filled with pride and joy when you won, fair and square. I expected a lot from you, and you’ve exceeded my every expectation as my Senator.

So I am hoping against hope that you will find a way to rescind your resignation. I need you as my Senator. The State of Minnesota and indeed the whole United States of America need you in the Senate. Please don’t abandon us now.


Laura Erickson

P.S. I sent you a fan letter back in the 90s when you were on AOL. You sent me a very nice response but it has been lost in the electricity. That is the only time I've ever encountered you in real life.