I was 31 years old when I first experienced Dennis Hensley at his worst. He tried to seduce me, accosted me, and assaulted me.
--IN 1983, I WAS TEACHING a workshop at Seattle Pacific University's writers conference. I had one book just out and was writing a lot of articles. I volunteered to pick up editors at the airport and see them settled in. Dennis Hensley was one of my charges.
He asked if I had the time to take him to some waterfront. I was deep into my second novel on Seattle's pioneers and was happy to show off my city and explain some of its history. We also talked a lot about publishing. Being pretty new in the business, I was eager to talk about the industry and how it worked.
When I dropped him off at SPU, I went with him to his assigned apartment to make sure I'd delivered him to the correct spot. I had. He invited me in to continue our conversation. No problem. I had half an hour to kill.
I took a chair kiddy-corner to the sofa, where he immediately sprawled with legs casually stretched out and hands behind his neck. Instantly uncomfortable, I tried to figure out how to extrapolate myself. The quicker, the better. My anxiety increased when he began telling me how important he was: editor here, editor there, on this faculty, on that one...how I could look at any masthead and see his name. He went to all the conferences, his wife had lupus, he could get me on the writers circuit if I agreed to rendezvous with him. He pulled out his keys and—still prone on the sofa—began swinging them back and forth on his left index finger like some cheap B-movie, promising me publication in any magazine I wanted, as often as I wanted, and workshops at all the conferences.
He'd take me right to the top, he said, make me a best-selling author. Without him, I had no hope of succeeding. It was all about who you knew and he knew everybody. The threat was clear.
I said no.
He flew across the room. Next thing I knew, he was on his knees in front of me, face in my groin, hands and arms around my back, begging. I can't recall the exact words, I was in total shock. This wasn’t happening. Then fear snapped in. I shot up the back of the chair and ran for the door. I wasn't fast enough.
He slammed it shut, pinned me against the wall, trapping me between his arms, and started kissing me. I thrashed. He persisted. Nauseous from his hot breath, his touch so revolting to me—and electrifying fear buzzing head to toe, I gave him a hard shove and got outdoors. I ran through the labyrinth of downhill sidewalks to my car on the street below. I jumped in just as he jumped into the front seat on the passenger side. I'd hardly had time to insert my keys in the ignition. Terror ignited.
He leaned over and grabbed me by my neck, pulling me toward him. I reared back as far as possible, hugging the door, the old-fashioned door handle digging into my spine. Trapped. I couldn't access the handle and a way out. Though I knew if I ran, he'd chase me down, and no one was on the street to help. He again seized me, dragging me across the seat. I was spared the groping only because it took both his hands to forcefully hold my head in place. His tongue in my mouth and choking me, I gasped for air and kept saying, "Stop. Get out of my car."
He would not. I thrashed and ducked and pushed. He simply seized harder.
Finally, somehow, I managed to honk the horn. He jerked to a stop. If he didn't get out of my car, I told him, I'd start driving and honking until someone came to help me, preferably the police.
He debated. Then eased to his side of my car. He put his hand on the door handle but wouldn't get out.
He stared at me. I stared back. I would not blink. I knew if I did, it would be all over. Fear burst into rage. "Get out of my car. Get out of my car!"
A full minute passed without blinking, a dark game of power, and I wasn't going to lose.
He finally sighed and pulled up on the handle. "It's all your fault," he said, parting shot. "You're wearing that pretty white dress.
At that I blinked.
ALL THROUGH THE CONFERENCE I avoided him and fretted about having to take him back to the airport when it was over. I kept trying to minimize the whole thing in my head because it was too audacious and violating to be real. He didn't rape me. I was okay. He didn’t mean it. It was my fault. But it was useless; I was scared. The day before the conference ended, I finally went to my friend and assistant director, Nancy Iremonger. I told her what had happened and asked if she could ask the director, Rose Reynoldson, to reassign DH to someone else. The whole idea of being at his mercy again made me crazy. “Don’t tell anyone,” I said. “It’ll hurt his reputation. I only wanted to be relieved of my responsibility.” Most of all, I feared retaliation. The man had threatened me with career oblivion.
Nancy, however, said several women had been complaining of the same thing; that Rose was aware of it; and that I needed to speak to her since my experience exceeded anything they'd heard so far. If I told, Nancy urged, I could help keep other women safe.
Rose was distressed to put it mildly. She listened and told me that he’d never come back to Seattle, and that she would take him to the airport herself and explain to him why.
An aside: Rose is the only person in authority who ever believed me, took action, and protected me. Up until this year, it’s only been Rose to take action, risk a lawsuit, her moral principles totally intact.
She was concerned and called me afterward. When she confronted him, no names mentioned, he seized on me. “Brenda came on to me, happens all the time. Women are always throwing themselves at me and I have to fend them off. They retaliate. You know, 'the scorned woman' and all that."
She explained she was speaking of several women, not me, and reiterated he was not coming back, ever, to Seattle Pacific.
He then threatened Rose and SPU with a defamation lawsuit and loss of income. Rose therefore called to caution me; and to tell me that she was convinced he was not yet done with me. She was right.
He began writing in such a way I dared not ignore him. I had friends on the board of the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference (Association now) and he wanted me to get him invited to speak. I called Rose, read her the letter. She told me he could, and would, destroy my career if I didn’t comply.
"You have your children to think of," she told me. "We have to wean you free of him. Wait a week or ten days, then answer as briefly as possible. I’ll help you. The next time he writes, we'll wait two to three weeks. Each time, wait longer. Each time, get briefer, until he moves on and leaves you alone.
She also advised giving him my friends' numbers—and to then call my friends and tell them the pickle I was in. They of course did not call him. In fact, they put me on the board instead, in charge of the summer program, a rather ironic development.
Hensley kept it up for over a year. Finally, as Rose predicted, he quit.
Flash forward a few years to Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference.
I WAS A FREQUENT ATTENDEE, but one year, I noticed that DH would be there. I knew the director well enough to call and ask if something could be done to keep me safe. Dave Talbot, with apologies, said he first had to verify my story with Rose Reynoldson. A few days later, he called back. Five things happened.
1) Rose confirmed my experience. Now he seemed to believe me.
2) Dave asked if Hensley had approached any married women. An accosted married woman, he said, is a more serious offense because it was adultery. My marital status made me less sinned against? Hensely’s sin less offensive?
3) The conference would not un-invite DH for fear of a lawsuit. I hadn't asked that he be uninvited—I knew well his vindictiveness. But they would, said Dave, no longer invite him to future conferences. I appreciated the gesture but was sorry Mt. Hermon didn’t have the guts of Rose Reynoldson and SPU.
4) Dave offered no protection. I was on my own.
5) Dave concluded by telling me that if I came, I was not to speak to or confront Dennis Hensley on Mt. Hermon grounds. I was not to be protected, yet Hensley was to be protected from me.
At that moment I decided I would do just that: I would confront Hensley. On or off the grounds. I didn't need Mt. Hermon’s permission, and my therapist felt it imperative to confront him, name the crime, and walk away. As long as I went with someone. Abusers always re-victimize by accusing their victims of lying, being crazy, and/or sinisterly motivated.
Once at Mt. Hermon, I found no one willing to help. The response among friends and colleagues was one of shock at my audacity. It was unChristian to "shame" him, I would "get him into trouble," I had "to suck it up." Those who didn't care about keeping him safe or comfortable declined because it would hurt their careers. He was too powerful. I was to "lick my wounds" and "get over it."
In addition, I found trying to stay safe exhausting. I constantly had to angle myself into the company of others. I had to know where Dennis was at all times so I could be elsewhere. What buildings would he be in? Which workshop, then, could I take, away from that building? How close would he be sitting to the person I needed to talk to? Such constant calculations and looking over my shoulder forced me to focus on him, reliving the assault, trapped again into that experience—diverted from what I came to do. I was determined more than ever to confront him, with or without help—or permission. I would not live subservient to the power everyone handed Dennis Hensley.
No opportunity presented itself until the very last day. We'd be driving together in a van up to the airport. I thought at first fortune was on my side. Not so. My editor/friend knew the whole story, but she warned me again to keep my mouth shut. By this point I was feeling battered by the conference director's position. His friendly interaction with Hensley throughout the conference (without once checking to see how I was doing) let me know that abusers were easily tolerated and favored over the abused.
I was also, by this point, smarting over the constant admonishment to be silent. For my own well-being and in order to move on I had to speak. I had to say "this happened.
I got my chance to speak up when we arrived at the airport. I blocked access to his suitcase and told him he owed me an apology for his sexual advances and assault. The stunned silence from the van was deafening. DH slammed me sideways and hissed, "You're crazy! You’re sick! You need help!"
The venom, the shove, the predictable outburst and the silence around me left me shaking in a van full of people. The van drove on and no one spoke to me. No one even asked what had happened. And my editor friend muttered under her breath that I had gone too far. Clearly, I was the one at fault.
Oddly, I felt empowered. In that moment, alone in a van packed with people who thought ill of me, I had confronted Dennis Hensley. He might retaliate, yes, but he'd never again corner me.
I never went back to Mt. Hermon until March 2018. I was too scared, and I was fed up. I felt disrespected and looked down on. Also, it was unpleasant avoiding women who fluttered around him year after year. Did they, do they, owe their success to him?
Flash forward to Mt. Hermon 2018.
DENNIS WOULDN'T BE THERE, so I signed up. This is when I ran into Kathy Ide, the new director, and learned that she’d sent a letter of her zero tolerance for sexual misconduct amongst her staff. When I thanked her for it, she asked if I had been a recipient of unwanted sexual advances in the past and my story spilled out. She wasn’t surprised and even guessed it was Dennis. She explained that conference directors had gotten together and uninvited him to 17 of 18 writers conferences in 2018. I have to say, the respect I found coming from Kathy was a relief. Rather than being shoved aside, somehow flawed, I was made whole.
Quite healing, actually, to come out of isolation. For that's where I have been since 1984.
A chance meeting at the same conference with Susan Titus, editor at The Upper Room, put me on a long list Dennis Hensley’s victims. I was asked to speak with Taylor University in Indiana—who subsequently allowed DH to resign due to a preponderance of evidence. I was content to let things rest at that, a burden off my shoulders, knowing he’d never again hurt women. However, he came out swinging, saying he’d taken the high road, and we're all lying and hopping aboard the “Me Too” bandwagon. Turns out twenty of us had come forward. From all over the country. Over three decades. That's some bandwagon.
As these other stories tumbled into the open, the wounding of these women was so raw and grievous—and involved more that just Dennis Hensley—that I found myself no longer content to remain silent about the terrible wrongs done. In my book, Dennis Hensley and the others just don't get to "take the high road" and continue scapegoating me or others. No, not in my book.
I consequently spoke up: Jeremy Bauer-Wolf of the online InsideHigherEd, Sophia Lee at World Magazine, and Ann Byle at Publishers Weekly.
IRONICALLY, I FIND IT EASIER TO FORGIVE HENSLEY for what he did—he’s driven by his own demons—than the industry that should have helped me. They were motivated by greed and self-preservation—at great cost to me and others.
It really does have to stop.
Links to publications that push for a higher standard in Christian publishing:
Publishers Weekly -- https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/religion/article/77877-sexual-harassment-uncovered-at-christian-writing-conferences.html
InsideHigherEd -- https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/07/17/former-taylor-university-professor-sexually-harassed-women-decades-survivors-allege
WorldMagazine -- https://world.wng.org/2018/08/crouching_at_every_door