Believe me, Anita, this is no prank call ...

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So, you're Anita Hill. You teach at Brandeis University, where most of your students have heard of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, but they don't know about the contentious 1991 confirmation hearings that made you both "famous" in the same way that stars of reality TV programs are "famous" today.

One morning, you arrive at your office, which is comfortably stuffed with books and mementos of your long career in academia and government service. The phone light is blinking, indicating you have messages.

You're only half-listening to them as you casually sort through the papers on your desk from the day before. Typically, your messages are from students who are apologetic about crashed hard-drives they swear have "eaten" their overdue assignments.

Sometimes, it will be a colleague wanting to gossip about the latest round of departmental politics. More often than you'd like, you get calls from scholars working on books that reference the 1991 hearings. You always politely decline the invitation to elaborate on your prior testimony.

On any significant anniversary of the hearings, a national media outlet will ask you to comment on a man whose name you're not even comfortable saying. Why dredge up those old ghosts, you wonder.

Suddenly, a voice you can't place interrupts your routine. "Good morning, Anita Hill. It's Ginni Thomas," the voice intones. "[I] just wanted to reach across the years and ask you to consider something."

Your mind races in several directions when you hear her name. You stare at the screen of your computer as it boots up, wondering if you're on the receiving end of a colleague's prank. You've already convinced yourself of one thing: There's no way Virginia Lamp Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, would be foolish enough to call you.

"I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband," the voice says.

You're aghast. You've already been meaning to get your hearing checked. You shake your head, trying to comprehend the secondary meaning of the words. Someone needs to translate the words into a form of English that makes sense.

"So, give it some thought," the voice says. "And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. OK, have a good day."

It's a very strange joke, you tell yourself. The wife of a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice could not possibly be dialing you on a spontaneous whim about events from 19 years ago. She wouldn't be stupid enough to leave such a message on your voice mail. That would be crazy, extremist behavior.

After playing it back several times, you search for clues. There are no other messages from the woman claiming to be Ginni Thomas taking back the earlier phone call. No female voice pleads for your discretion, for the sake of her marriage and credibility as a conservative activist.

Still, it makes no sense for a politically prominent woman to put herself in a position to look foolish and undignified by dredging up the most painful and embarrassing episode of her marriage.

In your Brandeis office, you suddenly see yourself the way you looked two decades ago. You vividly recall the cerulean blue suit you wore, your right hand raised as you prepared to testify before the U.S. Senate.

Before the day was over, you had revealed the Supreme Court nominee's penchant for pornography and jokes about pubic hair on Coke cans. You were mortified, but resolute as the political world spun off its axis.

It was not your choice to participate in the most titillating confirmation hearings in American history. After being subpoenaed by powerful men who expected you to recant before you made it to the Senate floor, you told the squirming, embarrassed senators that the man they were poised to confirm to the U.S. Supreme Court was a petty vulgarian who made unwanted sexual advances to a subordinate.

You squint as the memories roll across your mind's eye. You took a lot of heat from conservatives who questioned your sanity. In the end, Clarence Thomas was confirmed anyway. You both moved on with your lives, insistent that the other was an irredeemable liar.

Now, the voice of a wife in denial reminds you that 19 years is a long time to live without closure. You hesitate before calling security. Do you really want to bring the circus back to town? No, but Ginni Thomas obviously does.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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