The Part of My MTV News Story That I Usually Leave Out
What's behind my lingering, irrational fear of success.
|Sari Botton||Mar 9, 2020||2|
When I tell people about my time freelancing at MTV News in the mid-90s, I usually just regurgitate the funny parts.
Like the first time I was there, in an office decorated like a play pen, trying to learn how to write 30-second news scripts for Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren — a new skill for me — when an 18-year-old summer intern lobbed a beach ball over my cubicle wall. He couldn’t for the life of him understand why I hadn’t volleyed it back.
Or how about my knack for inadvertently being called in when major performers died — Biggie Smalls and Jerry Garcia, to name a couple — meaning that so much of my work there was writing obituaries.
Then there’s the self-deprecating shtick about how, as time went on, I had to spend half my working hours in the Viacom building searching Nexis (pre-Google!) to figure out who the hell I was writing about, because I was so out of touch with current music.
The part I’ve always left out, despite my inability to even think about MTV News without recalling it: What’s-His-Face’s violence the night I received the initial phone call from editorial director Michael Shore asking if I was interested in freelancing.
It wasn’t the first time W. (let’s call him that, short for “What’s-His-Face”) was violent toward me, and it wouldn’t be the last. Each instance was incited by his jealousy, sometimes of other men, sometimes of me and my successes, no matter how small.
I’ve told almost no one about this, but after publishing an anonymous essay on Longreads in January by a woman whose husband became violent because he was jealous of her successes, I vowed to at least dip a toe into writing about what happened — however obliquely, in order to feel safe. Here we go.
Where ever I’ve traveled in my career, impostor syndrome has followed me. At no time was it more pronounced than during the few years in the 90s when I freelanced as a music writer on the side of various trade reporter/editor jobs I held.
Ostensibly, music journalism was a natural extension of the arts journalism I’d gotten my start in as a New York Newsday intern in 1986. I mean, I liked music. Who doesn’t like music? (Come to think of it, I once had a boyfriend who didn’t like music, but that’s another story for another time.) I am the daughter of a classical and liturgical musician. As a kid I studied piano, violin, and singing. But in the mid-90s, in my late 20s, I wasn’t terribly knowledgable about pop music.
Music writing opportunities had presented themselves, though, and I needed to take them if I was ever going to break out of writing about luxury linens, decorative pillows, personal alarms, and other boring industries. Occasionally the music writing opportunities arose via my connection to W., which didn’t help matters.
From 1992 to 1996, as I strategically hopscotched from the boring 35th Street end of the Fairchild newsroom to the more exciting 34th Street end, I also freelanced my ass off for whichever publications would have me, including: Billboard, Interview, Paper, Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Creem, New York Newsday, the New York Times, and others.
By early 1995 I’d crept to the middle of the floor (specifically the retail beat for the Daily News Record, aka DNR, aka the menswear equivalent of WWD) when a Billboard cover story I’d written about rock stars getting into the fashion business caught Michael Shore’s eye. He needed someone to fill in for an MTV News staff writer for one week, so he gave me a call. It was the first of many times I’d freelance there.
The evening Michael Shore first called I had a secret date with W. — secret because I wasn’t supposed to be spending time with him. Two years before he’d pinned me down and hit me repeatedly. He was jealous that I’d moved on to someone else — P. actually — after he’d broken up with me.
But I wasn’t yet ready to fully quit What’s-His-Face. He and I had a deep, old bond— part trauma bond. Although I was afraid of him, I was still susceptible to his intermittent charms, and I remained misguided by the notion that he was a beautiful mess I could somehow fix. I’d also discovered that as long as I kept him at arms’ length and only saw him only very occasionally, he remained eager and well-behaved, and I was in the drivers’ seat.
Not to mention that the secrecy and infrequency added a certain frisson to each occasion we saw each other. I was single at the time, and figured an occasional tryst wasn’t going to kill me, especially if I avoided the kinds of interactions that usually set W. off. Although, sometimes it was just so far out of my control — like the time he lost it because I told him a friend of mine was dating a major rock star, and he was jealous that…I knew someone who was dating one of his idols…?
We’d planned to have dinner that night at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant where Momofuku Ssam is now located, followed by one of our rare sleep-overs at my place a block away. Around 6pm W. and I were hanging out in the apartment, catching up after a long while apart, when the phone rang. I knew better than to incite his rage by giving anyone else my attention while he was present, so I let the machine get it. But when I heard who it was, I jumped up and took the call.
The call lasted about 20 minutes, and ended with a plan for me to come into the MTV News office the following week — I’d have to take some of my long saved-up vacation days from DNR. I was ecstatic.
But W. didn’t share my excitement. He was suddenly in a dark mood. The darkest mood. He brooded aloud about how unfair it was that I was getting this opportunity when things weren’t go so well for him. He started insulting me in the ways he always had, calling me an attention whore, insisting I valued attention, validation, and career advancement more than I valued him.
Instead of staying sober that night as he’d promised, W. drank and drank and drank at dinner. He mostly didn’t talk, but when he did, he was belligerent, continuing to insult me, slurring his words. After dinner, as we stood on the corner of 13th Street and Second Avenue, W. looked at me intensely and then pushed me. Next he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. Before I could stop him, he had his hands around my throat. He continued shaking me. I cried and begged him to stop. I pleaded with him to stop being angry at me. A part of me bought into his argument that I was the one who’d ruined the evening — maybe believing it was my fault gave me the impression I had the power to turn things around. Maybe the night didn’t have to completely be ruined.
There was no reasoning with W. though, no shifting his mood, no matter how hard I tried. Instead of coming home with me, he took off back to his place in a huff.
I wish I could tell you I never saw W. again, but that is not the case. A few years later I’d foolishly reach out to him, feeling nostalgic, and thinking the spell was broken — believing we could be friends. He’d beg me for a chance — a real chance — to make our relationship work. He’d apologize for the past. Against my better judgement, I would give him a shot.
After a honeymoon period of a month or two, he’d prove he never deserved that chance. He’d cheat on me prolifically. He’d shove me, shake me, put his hands around my throat. Then he’d cheat some more, and beg for more chances.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
I haven’t seen W. in 20 years now. A good shrink helped me move past him, and men like him. But all these years later, co-mingling with my lingering impostor syndrome is an irrational fear of success that’s almost as great as my fear of failure.