In the Warden's study, the older woman said simply: "Very well, if you went to go, go you shall. But before you go you have got to admit that you are incompetent and have no self-confidence." Fortune continues: "My employer did not argue or abuse me. She kept on with these two statements, repeated like the responses of a litany. I entered her room at 10 o'clock, and I left it at two. She must have said these two phrases several hundreds of times. I entered it a strong and healthy girl. I left it a mental and physical wreck and was ill for three years."
Fortune's account profoundly affected me because I experienced something very similar, though more prolonged, when I was PA to Madam X, editor of a now-defunct women's magazine. After a brilliant and happy six months, according to my diary: "I've had two crisis meetings with X, in the latter of which she told me I'd get the sack if I didn't 'pull my socks up'. Part (most) of this is her attitude. Insecure, moody and (reading between the lines because she's controlled and icy in the office) emotionally upset ... It's hard to know when the rot set in ... X sees me as incompetent, lazy, disorganised, overwhelmed by the work, uninterested. I certainly started off full of enthusiasm, but soon felt checked by X's coldness and unfriendliness. Also her harshness at the slightest fault. She has endless bad office habits: shouting to me while I'm on the phone, often giving stentorian comments on how I should handle the caller."
She had other charming habits, as I recall, like yelling from her office through the open door to me: "Get in here." On one occasion she dumped a pile of papers on my desk with an abrupt "photocopy these!" and then, when I did not immediately react, banged both fists on the desk and shouted: "NOW!"
She would drag me into her office for an hour at a time and hiss or shout: "Why are you so useless? Tell me why? Why? WHY?" Since even to answer such a question means accepting one is indeed useless, it's no surprise my self-esteem plummeted. She was big on humiliation. I was forever going in with cringing three- and six- and 10-point plans outlining How I Will Be Better In Future. When I crept out of her office, everybody would eye me curiously, having heard the yells and bangs (the icy control was long gone). Occasionally a junior writer would whisper, "God, what a bitch!" but essentially I was on my own. The older women just shrugged: "I don't understand it. She's always perfectly sweet to me." Everybody else benefits when the boss has someone to possess.
My personality changed: I had a hysterical crying fit in the loo while the fashion editor and her assistant tried in vain to coax me out. X was a martinet about time-keeping, insisting on a strict hour's lunch break for me when everybody else had one-and-a-half hours. Once, when my train was late, I spent the day wandering miserably round Hampstead Heath because I was too frightened to face her wrath. Another time, I found myself looking at the tracks, hypnotised, thinking: "Wouldn't it be easier just to slip under the train instead of getting on it?"
Research indicates that office bullies are often secretly envious of their victims. The diary is frustratingly opaque, and the omission of one incident indicates that I was perhaps repressing a certain sexual element. When I finally got the sack and emptied my desk, I had intended to creep away, but she came out of her office, said "Are you off now?", leapt forward, wrapped her arms around me and pressed me tightly to her ramrod-thin body, while she kissed me on the cheek. "Goodbye," she muttered into my ear, and I fled, feeling violated.Reuse content