Unbearable situation, unthinkable solution

TM Logan
Opinion - Books Thursday, 08 March 2018

TM Logan on his new thriller, about a woman whose boss is a serial sexual harasser

At the time, it seemed like just another media enquiry - just one of hundreds we dealt with every year.

It was autumn 2016, and the Guardian was carrying out an investigation into sexual harassment in higher education, asking every university in the UK for facts and figures so they could build up a national picture. How many documented cases did we have of staff harassing students? How many cases of staff harassing other staff members? What was the real scale of the problem? As head of the communications team for a large university, it was my job to find out the facts and put together our response.

The stories that followed in the Guardian made for disturbing reading. Looking at the national picture across the whole of the sector, a theme seemed to emerge: senior male academics persistently harassing both female students, and female colleagues, typically younger and more junior members of staff. More than 100 women had shared their experiences with reporters Sally Weale and David Batty.

"Many women," they wrote, "said they had not pursued complaints for fear of jeopardising their academic careers. Those who did complain said they felt isolated and unprotected, while the more powerful men they accused appeared to be untouchable."

While the university where I worked did not seem to be worse or better than many others, it was clear that across the whole of the UK there was a pattern of behaviour that had not been widely reported before. Victims afraid to come forward for fear of harm to their careers; the perpetrators - often professors - using their power and reputation to act with virtual impunity; a system that seemed to be hugely biased in their favour. All the features that would come to characterise the Weinstein scandal the following year, and the incredible #MeToo movement that has followed.

Looking back on it now, that phone call from the Guardian turned into a catalyst for my writing as well. I was drafting the follow-up to my debut thriller, Lies, and the new book was going to be about a moral choice: a man facing an unbearable situation, presented with an unthinkable solution.

The story would explore the boundary between right and wrong, and the shades of grey in between the two - the tension between what is just and what is right. How might that boundary become blurred if he found himself in a situation where his options were being taken away, where laws and rules failed? How much pressure would it take for him to make a decision he would never consider under normal circumstances? And what would happen if he did?

But there was something about it that just wasn't working. At an early stage of writing, I pitched the premise to my first readers' panel (my wife), and her reaction was distinctly lukewarm. Never a good sign, in my experience.

I went back and thought about my central character some more. How about if my protagonist were female, instead? Working in a university? With a boss who was both an immensely accomplished academic with a stellar reputation, and a serial harasser of female staff and colleagues? A boss who makes it quite clear he can destroy her career unless she gives him what he wants?

I thought it might make a strong setting for a novel, if my protagonist was backed into a corner and so desperate for a solution that she might resort to desperate measures. I pitched the premise to my wife again, and she engaged with the idea straight away. And that was when Dr Sarah Haywood, the lead character of my new thriller 29 Seconds, was born. By summer 2017 the story was finished.

It was almost exactly a year to the day of the Guardian front page that another story hit the media: the New York Times expose of Harvey Weinstein on October 5th, 2017. I was with friends in a café in Bath, en route to our annual surfing trip to Devon. I had bought a selection of UK newspapers for us to read over breakfast, and they were full of the Weinstein story. But I can't imagine anyone realised, at the time, just how far the shockwaves of that story would travel.

Five months later, the bravery of victims has spawned the amazing #MeToo movement, their testimony underlining the damage that can be caused by a powerful individual, operating with impunity, holding the power of life and death over the careers of those beneath him in the hierarchy. Their stories remind us of the potential for similar situations like this to develop, wherever there is a major imbalance of power and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, not just in the film industry, but anywhere - even in the hallowed halls of higher education.

TM Logan is the author of the bestselling psychological thriller Lies, which has sold more than 300,000 copies in the UK alone. He worked for more than 20 years in journalism and communications, including a stint as a reporter at the Daily Mail and subsequently as deputy director of external relations at the University of Nottingham. 29 Seconds is out from Bonnier Zaffre today (8 March).

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