Photo credit: Katharine Hannah
My debut novel Temper
is a psychological thriller set in the intense, insular world of Chicago storefront theater. The story was inspired by the real-life scandal at Chicago’s now-defunct Profiles Theatre, where Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox abused his colleagues psychologically, physically, and in just about every other way you can imagine for years, before being exposed by reporters Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt in a jaw-dropping 2016 Chicago Reader
As I was writing Temper
, I often asked myself: If I ever met a man like Malcolm Mercer, the Cox-esque diabolical director at the center of Temper
, what would I do? Would I, like the book’s headstrong heroine Kira, try to take him on and bend him to my will? Or would I turn a blind eye to his bad behavior, like his longtime business partner/enabler Joanna?
Darrell Cox’s appalling actions may have provided the initial spark of inspiration, but he was far from my only source for Malcolm. I actually named the character after someone I knew in real life, a college professor of mine. Like Malcolm, this professor’s reputation preceded him. He was well-known for being gruff, cantankerous, and almost impossible to please, whether in the classroom or in the theater department productions he frequently directed. He was also known for smelling like whiskey and cigarettes at all hours of the day, and making lascivious comments to whichever ingenue happened to be standing nearest to him.
I wasn’t one of those girls — pretty, talented, an object of desire. I had no ambitions to be an actress. My favorite role in the theater was that of the dramaturg: doing in-depth, extremely dorky historical research on the world of the play, about as far out of the spotlight as I could get. I figured that made me safe from his wandering eye.
It was his temper I worried about.
A few weeks in, he approached me at the end of rehearsal. Instantly, I was on edge. I wracked my brain, trying to think of what I could have done wrong. I was terrified that he was about to castigate me, make me cry in front of everyone. So I was completely taken aback when he started praising me instead. He told me how impressed he was with my dramaturgical research, how much the materials I’d prepared would help the cast.
But I still remember it all these years later: my stiff back, the panicked flutter of my heartbeat, the acrid scent of smoke clinging to his clothes.
Then he put his arms around me.
I froze. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there, letting him hug me. I’m sure it only lasted a few seconds, but in my memory that embrace went on forever.
Finally, he let go, and I mumbled something in response — probably some version of thank you
, which might be what makes my blood boil the most when I recall this memory now. I picked up my backpack and left the theater. And I never went back.
Was I traumatized by this? No, of course not. It was just a hug. Unwanted and awkward, but only a hug. Nothing even approaching what Malcolm puts Kira through in Temper
— or what the rumor mill whispered that professor tried with other girls at our isolated Pennsylvania college.
But I still remember it all these years later: my stiff back, the panicked flutter of my heartbeat, the acrid scent of smoke clinging to his clothes, the feeling of my chest crushed up against his bony body. And my certainty afterward that I was never setting foot in that rehearsal space again. I didn’t agonize over the decision. I just walked out that night and didn’t return.
I’ll never know what would have happened if I had gone back, if I’d continued working with him. Probably nothing. But just the possibility was enough to send me packing.
So my final answer is this: if I met a man like Malcolm Mercer, I wouldn’t try to challenge him or condone him. I’d get the hell away from him and never look back. I’m not like Kira, or like Joanna. No, I’m like the unnamed actress on the very first page of Temper
, who runs out of the theater in tears and is never seen or heard from again.
You might think she’s the smartest one in the whole book. After all, unlike Kira and Joanna, she’s safe from Malcolm’s manipulations. But she’s not part of the story either. She stays nameless. No one knows what happens to her after she exits stage left, and no one cares.
Women are well aware that if we knowingly do the dangerous thing — walk down the dark street alone, work with the man everyone told us was trouble — then we’ll be told it’s our own fault, we brought this on ourselves, what in the world were we thinking. But if we do the “smart” thing, try to anticipate and sidestep every danger, then we pay a different sort of price. We’re considered too timid. We’re not putting ourselves out there, we’re missing out on opportunities, we don’t want it enough. And that’s our fault, too.
No matter what we do, we’re blamed. I don’t know the solution. But Temper
is a book about the problem. Writing it has made me realize just how much of my life and career and time and energy I’ve spent trying to identify and avoid men like Malcolm Mercer. It’s forced me to reckon with all the times I’ve retreated instead of standing my ground and fighting for what I wanted, all the ways I’ve ceded power and opportunity for what felt like safety.
And guess what: I’m still not safe. None of us are. We won’t be, not until men like Malcolm, and my lecherous old theater professor, and Harvey Weinstein, and Louis C.K., and Matt Lauer, and Darrell Cox, and all the rest are no longer held up as geniuses and gatekeepers. Until they’re not just pushed out of positions of authority, but never given power in the first place. Until they’re
the nameless ones.
The truth is, I don’t want to confront men like them, or placate them, or flee them in tears. I want to crush them under my heel on my way to the top, and then never think of them again. That’s what they really deserve.
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is a thriller author and the cocreator of the Unlikeable Female Characters
podcast. Her debut novel Temper
is available now from Simon & Schuster’s Scout Press imprint. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.