When college professor Alec Klein learned that accusations of sexual harassment and bullying against him had gone public, he curled up in a fetal position in a darkened room in his home in Glencoe, Ill.
“I understood there was nothing I could do about what was happening,” Klein, 53, writes in his new memoir, “Aftermath: When It Felt Like Life Was Over” (Fidelis Books), out now.
“I was a realist. My life was destroyed … The pain was particularly excruciating because I wasn’t driven by things like money and glory; what I did mattered. It was who I was.”
In March 2018, Klein officially landed in the crosshairs of the #MeToo movement. He was — unfairly, he says — accused of sexual misconduct by students and staffers at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he had taught for almost 10 years and where, he said, he had received only stellar evaluations from his students.
After resigning under pressure from the school where he led the Medill Justice Project for 7 years, Klein said he “lost everything.”
Once a Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominee who had investigated cases of people wrongfully accused of crimes, Klein said he suddenly became the kind of person he used to write about.
“Cancel culture is a phrase but what happens to the real people who are canceled?” Klein asked The Post. “Even very high-profile individuals have for the most part just up and disappeared. It’s dangerous. Anyone can get canceled over anything. It’s the weaponization of the Internet and it’s scary.”
Ten women who either studied under or worked with Klein at Medill made the initial accusations against him, in a letter sent to the dean of the Medill School of Journalism in February 2018, during the height of #MeToo.
“Today, we are writing to tell you that Alec Klein’s time is up,” the letter read. “His harassing behavior. His predatory behavior. His controlling, discriminatory, emotionally and verbally abusive behavior has to end. We all know about it. We’ve experienced it. It’s time you heard us. It’s time you listened.”
Among the allegations in the letter:
- Klein attempted to kiss a prospective employee, prior to hiring her. On the same occasion, he asked if she smoked marijuana and asked to smoke with her and ordered her several cocktails.
- He asked a female employee to come to his hotel room “for drinks” on a business trip.
- He gave unwanted neck massages while a female employee was trying to work.
- He made sexually graphic remarks at work.
- He frequently commented on employees’ physical attractiveness, appearances, attire and bodies.
- He sent texts “intended for his wife” to a female student.
- He asked an employee if she was a stripper.
The letter also stated that Klein “belittled, insulted and berated” students and called him a “liability and a predator.”
On March, 19 more women came forward with a second letter — sent to Northwestern as well as the media. Again they accused Klein of inappropriate touching, making sexually suggestive comments, holding extended closed-door meetings and creating a “hostile, discriminatory work environment.”
Klein denied the accusations. In the book, he writes that the accusers used as part of their ammo allegations made against him by a former employee in 2015. She had been his administrative assistant and accused him of making sexual advances both when she applied to work at the Medill Justice Project, and later while she was employed there. Northwestern investigated the woman’s claims but was unable to substantiate them, according to a statement made by university officials.
Klein writes that the university also caught her in a number of documented lies. He said he was shocked that the “university did not even lift a finger when it should be defending him even after deciding that those allegations were false three years ago.”
As news of the allegations spread, Klein describes how quickly he began to feel like a pariah, both in his neighborhood and professional life, as both friends and colleagues distanced themselves or dropped him outright.
“What do you do when you feel like your life is over?” Klein writes in the book. “For several months, my answer: Plant my head — face-first — into the fibers of the dining room rug as I lie for hours at a stretch. This pose was aided by a heavy dosage of Xanax. And alcohol. Which, according to the fine print, would give me seizures, death, or a deep slumber. I was left with the latter.”
He said he felt suicidal but was beaten to the punch by his father, Ed Klein, the former editor of The New York Times Magazine, who took a hundred sleeping pills and put a plastic bag over his head not long before his son was to be interrogated by university officials in May 2018. The elder Klein survived and his son wondered for a time if he “tried to end it all because he knew I didn’t have the courage to do it.”
Klein eventually did submit to the university inquiry, which he called a “Kafkaesque investigation” that involved answering questions both about his time at Medill as well as his personal life as a college student himself.
He claimed that university investigators ignored 10 years of what he claimed were glowing evaluations by students, including from some students who later accused him of misconduct. In 2016, as a result of investigative work done by Klein and his students at the Medill Justice Project, a judge vacated the conviction of a daycare worker accused of shaking a baby to death.
But “there is no due process when it comes to #MeToo,” Klein writes. “I had hundreds of pages of records and e-mails that contradicted the allegations. It didn’t matter. It was surreal and crazy. In the midst of this terrible hurricane, lawyers say you have to honor the process. If you try to fight it back against the #MeToo gale force, it makes it worse.”
Northwestern has never said what conclusions the school reached in its internal investigation. Several women told a few media outlets like Teen Vogue that the school had found Klein to be in violation of the school’s sexual-harassment policy but Northwestern officials never confirmed that publicly.
Calls and e-mail requests sent to the Medill School of Journalism by The Post were not answered.
Klein decided to resign rather than fight the accusations because of the “terrible toll” the situation was taking on his family.
Oddly, according to Klein, his wife Julie-Ann was one of the few people in his life who did not desert him — and in fact urged him to fight back. The couple had split up prior to Klein’s issues with Medill but he moved back into the family home after his resignation from the school. It was not to resume his marriage, he said, but to save money and “co-parent” their daughter, now 13, and son, now 11.
The two were still living together although legally separated until last month, when Klein moved out of state to look for work.
“One unlikely source of support didn’t bail on me: Julie-Ann,” Klein writes. “She may have hated my guts on a daily basis. She may have wanted to pummel my face every so often if it were legal. But that was for the detritus of our marriage, not this.”
Late in 2018, Klein began commuting back and forth to Oklahoma from Illinois, where he helped launch a nonprofit that helps wrongfully convicted or excessively sentenced prisoners (many of them women) regain their freedom.
He said he also became religious after first reading Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” in 2016 and forged a new and closer bond with his father. The two even formed a type of private detective agency with a biblical title: Matthew 56 Investigations.
During a phone interview with The Post, Klein sounded both broken but also strangely at peace and without bitterness. He said he’s deliberately chosen not to be angry or vengeful. But he does want to warn people about what, he said, could happen to anyone.
“People were accused of being communists at the height of McCarthyism,” he said. “It was only much later that people said it was crazy. The same kind of thing is happening again. They’re coming for you and who knows how long it will take this time for it to be stopped.”