Volume 30, Number 3

The Committee

Josephine Donovan

The first thing I learn is that no one is entirely sure who is on the Committee. Of course, everyone knows who’s on Policy and Resources, the system’s governing body, but there’s another committee—the Committee—a shadow board, an eminence grise that really runs things, it is said. Everyone has their theories as to who is on it. It seems likely, for example, that consanguinity plays a role, for they are all said to look alike. Some say it passes from father to son. An occasional daughter is sometimes allowed to serve but only for EO/AA show. Others say it is a matter of crony clones. They choose members like themselves. Sometimes a trustworthy wife but only if properly vetted with the understanding that her role is merely to ratify decisions made by the real members.

It does in the end boil down to who is real, I eventually figure out. Committee members are the most real; the rest of us live half-lives, subject to their disposal. Those closest to the Committee—who are friends with or know one or more members—are more real than those of us who are out of the loop. They are higher on the Great Chain of Being. The less they know you the less real you are. They can do with you what they wish. It behooves one therefore to get to know someone on the Committee, so as to smile at them occasionally in the corridor, to keep on their good side. Otherwise, they might not see you at all or think you are invisible.

For some, however, who despair of ever encountering members of the inner sanctum, remaining invisible seems a reasonable option. At least that way, some argue, they won’t target you for punishment or otherwise interfere with your life. For, it is well known that Committee members are thin-skinned, and, once offended—which can easily happen—mercilessly vindictive. The problem is no one outside the loop knows or understands their operating code—what is expected or required in terms of behavior. Thus one can easily offend or slight a Committee member inadvertently, thereby eliciting their unmitigated wrath. It is for this reason, some argue, the camouflage of invisibility is a better course than even friendly relations with one or two reputed Committee members, which might alert them to your existence.

I knew of one person, who shall remain nameless, an older colleague informs me soon after I arrive, who offended them by her dress and manner. At least, this is what we surmise. In truth, her dress and manner weren’t that out of the ordinary but they were different enough to be interpreted by Committee members as a statement defiant of their rule and everything they stood for. She wore slacks at a time when it was unfashionable and didn’t drop everything with a smile whenever a Committee member entered her office, but that didn’t seem a sufficient cause, the older colleague reasons, to brand her an outcast, eventually driving her to the wilderness where we hear she starved to death or perhaps committed suicide from shame.

Invisibility might have saved her, the older colleague counsels me with a cautionary nod.

How does one make oneself invisible, I wonder, without in the process losing a sense of reality? Doesn’t one need, at least occasionally, to have others nod and affirm that one is indeed here, indeed real? There are mirrors, of course, I reflect, by which to confirm such convictions. But are they enough? I am fearful, however, of raising this concern with the older colleague, lest I reveal myself thereby to be outside the range of the normal and thus alienating myself from this helpful colleague. For I know that most people consider it odd to reflect overly intensely on metaphysical questions such as are raised by my ponderings about invisibility. Normal people, I know, never worry about how real they are or where that sense of reality comes from. To reveal to normal people that one worries about such matters means risking ostracism, exile over the border into the category of not normal, itself a condition of lesser reality and invisibility—whether one wishes it or not.

Another colleague tells me that the best option is to get to know one of the wives or close friends of the Committee members. If you’re lucky, they might invite you to dinner or lunch where you can act pleasant and normal and thereby be accepted as one of them. When I ask how does one do this if one doesn’t know who the Committee members are, much less their wives or close friends, the second colleague answers that in due time one can figure out who the Committee members are, as well as their wives and cronies. They leave clues and once one has been here a while, one learns to pick them up. Everyone who’s been here for any length of time pretty much knows who the senior Committee members are, he says. Once you know that, it is just a matter of access.

What kind of clues? I ask.

Oh, you can tell by the way people treat each other, he explains. Watch people in the corridors or in the lobby on in the general meetings that everyone has to attend. You can tell from the way people defer to certain ones that they are Committee members.

I resolve to keep an eye open for such signs of deference.

The first opportunity I have is the General Meeting to Introduce New Employees.

Be sure to be on time, my older colleague advises me. Wear a nice outfit. They’ll ask you to stand. Be sure to smile and look innocuously amiable.

OK, I say.

The meeting takes place in a small banked auditorium normally used for large training sessions. It is chaired by a small wiry woman who has a mane of dyed blond hair and large owlish glasses. She introduces herself as Angela Rathbone-Carter. Standing slightly to her rear is a very large overweight man with a bland expressionless face. He sports a pony tail and is wearing a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt. I wonder if he is her bodyguard, as there is no one else on the platform and he is not introduced. He is clearly a person of power, though—perhaps even a member of the Committee. No one else would dare wear such a sleazy outfit. Everyone else wears the usual suit-uniforms.

Before I can reflect further, however, the bodyguard leaves the platform, sits down in the front row, and the meeting is called to order.

After the new employees—myself included—are introduced, the Converner (the blonde woman) asks if there are any new items for the agenda. A thin feminine voice is raised from the area near the aisle to my right, but as she has no microphone, her words are muffled. All I make out is “computer,” “software” and “incompatible.” She speaks for some time and I sense the audience becoming restless. Several of the men seated near her begin turning around and glancing at her in annoyance; it is clear she is exceeding the time allotted for a person of her low status. The Convener looks uneasy. I catch movements from the bodyguard in the front row, signaling something to the Convener.

Finally, a tall man wearing a creased tan suit in the row in front of the speaking female stands up. I can’t hear his words either, but everybody claps, and the woman’s voice is drowned out. He continues speaking at some length. I occasionally make out words like “inappropriate” and “irrelevant.” His tone is dry and sarcastic.

When he sits down, the man in the Hawaiian shirt gets up and returns to the podium. He says something in a low tone to the Convener-woman, who steps aside. It is clear the real business is about to begin. I sense a ripple of anticipation run through the audience; people lean forward in their seats. This is someone it behooves one to hear.

While I am able to make out his words, I have trouble understanding their meaning. It sounds quite similar, in truth, to what the woman with the thin voice has said; namely, that there is a problem with incompatible computer software components, which they’ve been assured by Technological Services will be corrected, starting with senior officials, within the next several days. In the meantime, everyone is asked to refrain from using their computers. Sensing a note of resistance in the audience, he reminds us the computers have been supplied by a wealthy corporate contributor, and we should be grateful we have them, never mind occasional glitches.

I notice a hand go up near the aisle to my right. It is the woman with the thin voice. The bodyguard in the Hawaiian shirt doesn’t recognize her but continues to talk about how lucky we are to have such up-to-date equipment and perhaps for this reason what a wonderful unit we are. The audience seems spellbound. I feel I’m missing something.

For a while the woman with the thin voice continues to wave her hand—evidently in protest—but gradually it flutters down and out of sight, not unlike the dying swan in Swan Lake.

My colleagues are right. From the one meeting much has been made clear to me about the unit’s status hierarchy. The Hawaiian-shirted man is at the top; the man in the tan suit on the next level. Near the bottom is the Convener-woman—despite her title—and the woman with the thin voice. From this I proceed to deduce that the Hawaiian shirt is on the Committee, perhaps its leader, and the tan suit as well. I should therefore, according to the advice I’ve received, treat these two with especial deference and charm. Because of her close connection to the Hawaiian fellow I should also make sure to establish amiable relations with the woman in the blond wig who serves as Convener. At all costs, I should avoid, it is clear, the woman with the thin voice who has elicited such hostility from the crowd.

I’m horrified, therefore, when the next day I find this woman in my office, implying that she senses my support, that I might be a potential ally.

No, I say. I don’t know anything about you.

She smiles insidiously, as if she can read my mind, as if she knows that I am of her stripe, one of the doomed.

No, I say. You don’t understand. I’m one of them, one of the normal ones. Not like you.

Perhaps my words come across as too blunt, but I’m terrified, you see, to be associated with one who already bears the mark of Cain. I have to make it clear to her from the start that I have not myself been stigmatized. I am new here and innocent.

She continues to smile wryly, as if amused that such naiveté still exists.

You’ll see, she says, leaving my office as quickly as she came.

I sit down in relief, hoping no one at that early hour has seen me in her polluting presence.

Oh, by the way, she says, popping her head back in, have you had the procedure yet?

The procedure?

You know, she says, gesturing across her mouth.

I don’t know what you’re talking about, I say.

They didn’t tell you? she asks, edging back into the room. They often recommend it for new hires—especially women. It helps them assimilate better. I’m surprised they didn’t tell you.

I shrug.

What they do is insert a few stitches to knit your mouth shut, she explains.

What? I exclaim. You’ve got to be kidding. In truth, I wonder if the woman is mad.

No, she says, I know it sounds strange but it’s not so bad really, you get used to it. I had it done.

But how do you eat? I ask indignantly.

Oh, there’s a way you can loosen the threads so you can get a straw through. Of course, you have to live on liquids for a while, but that’s a small price to pay, when you consider.

Consider what?

That it’s a condition of employment.

They never told me that, I say.

Well, maybe they’re trying you out. Some women opt for voluntary silence. They prefer it that way, actually. It’s less messy.

Apparently, I look astonished as she hastens to assure me it’s a long-term traditional practice in the firm and nobody thinks much about it anymore. The stitch punctures heal quickly, and before long you scarcely notice, sort of like pierced ears.

I can’t believe, I start to say when she interrupts me.

Think about it. It might behoove you.

Later in the morning, the woman with the thin voice having thankfully disappeared, I pass the Hawaiian-shirted man in the hall, only now he’s wearing a black turtleneck. I smile broadly.

Hello, I say, nodding, almost bowing.

He smiles back. My heart leaps awaiting his reply.

Hey, he says. You’re one of the newcomers.

Yes, I say, breathlessly, chagrined at my reddening face.

Welcome aboard, he says, shaking my hand vigorously. Glad to have you aboard.

Yes, I say. I’m glad to be here.

He soon disappears down the hall.

I feel buoyed by the encounter. Off to a good start.

In the afternoon another colleague, a woman about my age who in fact somewhat resembles me, drops by.

She tells me I’ve been assigned to her division, and as we’ll be working closely together, it’s best to get to know one another. She invites me to a local café for coffee. I say I’m not sure it’s OK to leave the office building during working hours but she assures me it is. It turns out we have much in common. We’re both single, like Mozart, have cats, grew up in the Midwest and take our coffee black. She seems like someone I can trust and confide in. Her name is Nancy.

I am a hard worker, even, some say, a perfectionist. I keep my desk neat. I never turn my computer off before the screen directions say it’s OK to do so. I follow the rules. I see to all the details. I go the extra mile. I turn out a good product. I receive high marks. It’s not something I take particular pride in; it’s just the way I am. It doesn’t take me long to get the hang of things at my new job and soon, I can tell, I’m considered among the best in the division.

Things go smoothly for some time. I manage to smile to the right people and accomplish my tasks well and before deadline. The time comes for my first evaluation, which is prepared by Nancy, who I learn is my supervisor. She calls me into her office and tells me she doesn’t believe in written evals but that my performance has been satisfactory. I thank her and leave the office, not sure if that is good or bad. I know satisfactory can mean poor, if the other options are good or excellent, or it can mean good, if it’s the highest ranking they give or if the only other option is unsatisfactory. I’m half-way down the hall when it occurs to me to return and ask Nancy what satisfactory means. I hesitate, however, knowing that my semantic question can be construed as challenging her judgment, and I’m beginning to wonder if she’s on the Committee.

I decide to consult with the older colleague who counseled me so kindly on my arrival. She says satisfactory isn’t that good. They usually give excellents, so there must be some problem with my performance. How am I to find out, I ask, without aggravating my supervisor?

The older colleague suggests I get to know a secretary in Nancy’s office. Sometimes they share information. Maybe Nancy always just gives satisfactories.

That will take months, I protest. I might be fired by then.

Do you know anybody else in the unit, she asks.

Not well, I admit.

Try cultivating one of them. They may know what the others got.

There is one woman who sits in the carrel beside me I decide to approach. I talk to her once or twice a day, mostly about the weather or her three-year-old.

The next day I bring up the evaluations. I’m not good at indirection, so I ask her straight out, after commenting on the heat and humidity, how evaluations run in the unit.

High, she says. Nancy’s a cream puff. She gives everyone excellents.

Oh, I say in dismay, my stomach clutching in anxiety. What am I doing wrong? I wonder. I’ve been pleasant enough to Nancy, I reflect. She seems to like me. What have I done to offend?

Not long after, the woman with the thin voice turns up again.

I hear you got a satisfactory, she says.

How did you hear that? I cry in alarm. It’s supposed to be confidential.

It gets around, she says, smirking. Nothing’s confidential here. Everyone knows.

So my reputation’s been damaged, I reflect, despite being completely innocent.

They may be targeting you, she says. I’ve seen that happen.

But why? I say inadvertently, because I don’t really want to discuss the matter with her for fear she’ll drag me down to her level.

I’ve done nothing wrong, I protest.

Hah, she snickers, as if bemused once again at my naiveté. That may be the problem.

What do you mean? I ask, reluctantly engaging in conversation with this nefarious intruder.

They don’t like high-flyers. Especially high-flying women with attitude. They’ll try to drag you down to their level. It’s a very competitive place.

But I’m not a high-flyer, I protest. I’m just doing my job.

She shrugs. There’s no accounting for perceptions. If you made a bad impression somewhere along the line, it can come back to haunt you—especially if you offended a Committee member.

But I never see Committee members, I exclaim.

They’re everywhere, she explains. You don’t have to seek them out, and they’re easily offended. Then come boils and plagues.

Sure enough within the week boils erupted on my legs and arms. I’m horrified. A visible sign. I hasten to cover them over with long sleeves and slacks. My camouflage is momentarily successful; even though the pus occasionally oozes through the fabric, I quickly learn to shift my position so it dries rapidly and is unnoticeable.

Thus I’m able to continue for a week or so until the lesions begin popping out on my face. I try masking them with blush and face powder but sooner or later they catch Nancy’s eye, and I’m placed on indefinite sick leave. An official from the Health Department abruptly comes to my office unannounced and, after strapping a mask over his mouth and nose, informs me I’m being quarantined until further notice.

What? I cry in protest. What does this mean?

The health official raises a censorious eyebrow as if to suggest such a pretense of innocence is not believable: you know what behavior you’ve engaged in that has resulted in this disease.

It’s contagious, he says, so we have to keep you away from the others.

As I am formulating my response the woman with the thin voice appears. She says the Committee has taken an interest in my case, and I will soon be called to account.

But I’ve done nothing. These, I say, pointing to my lesions, are easily explained. They’re stress-related.

She shrugs. I guess you just weren’t invisible enough, if that was your strategy.

I tried to be, I protest. I can’t help these boils. They just popped up.

She glances distastefully at my sores.

The boils are the last straw, she says.

But I’ve done nothing to offend.

You stand out too much, she explains. What they want is drabness, averageness, something in the gray range—no sparks, no boils, no adventuring, nothing to challenge their rule.

I start to protest, then realize it’s futile.

I’m soon called before the Personnel Subcommittee of the Committee. It is composed of the man I’d assumed was a bodyguard—now wearing a light blue turtleneck, a second person I’d never seen before and Nancy.

So, she is on the Committee, I think in satisfaction, as I slip politely into the courtroom. At least I’ve learned that.

A bailiff grabs my elbow and pulls me to a chair in front of the elevated bench where the subcommittee members sit as judges and jury.

My boils are stress-related, I find myself blurting out, even before I’m properly seated, relieved to have an opportunity to explain my situation in a rational forum.

The bailiff taps me on the shoulder with a rod, shaking his head sternly.

Silence, he says.

Soon a younger woman—a clerk, I gather—enters from the side. She reads a long statement, which begins, we are here assembled in the matter of former employee of Division Three. She pauses to nod at Nancy. That’s our division.. I soon lose track of the indictment, alarmed by the term “former employee,” and turn to studying instead the impassive but slightly annoyed expressions on the faces of my colleagues behind the bench.

It’s all a misunderstanding, I start to speak up. I didn’t. I never.

The bailiff taps me on the shoulder.


The judges do not look at me, instead glancing occasionally at their watches in apparent boredom. I have the impression the verdict is a foregone conclusion.

Finally, their decision is rendered. Banishment. I’m to be exiled to the wilderness, just like the woman my older colleague had warned me not to emulate.

I’m led from the room by the bailiff.

You have twelve hours to gather your belongings, he says. Then, adios.

I return to my office where I find the loyal older colleague.

Perhaps you can meet with others out there in the wilderness and band together, she says, trying to put the best face on things. Perhaps you can find your predecessor.

I thought you said she committed suicide from shame, I say.

It was reported she did, the older colleague admits.

That wasn’t a fair proceeding, I say. I thought this was a democracy where everyone has rights.

She snorts.

They must have seen something in you that was threatening. A raised eyebrow perhaps in an unguarded moment. Or vibes. They go a lot on vibes.

How is it, by the way, I add, that they tolerate that woman with the thin voice. She’s much worse than I.

She poses no threat, the older colleague explains. Then again she may be a collaborator, an informer.

I can’t believe that, I say. I thought she was trustworthy.

My colleague smiles again. Perhaps you revealed something to her.

Well, good-bye, I say, once my things are packed into boxes. Tomorrow I’m off forever to the wilderness.

It may not be forever, she says. Sometimes they let them back in. If there’s a regime change. Plus, they keep poor records and have short memories. In a year or two they may have forgotten. You can start anew, pretend none of this happened, reapply.

The next day I leave town for the wilderness. As expected, it is a dry, barren land, but not entirely depopulated. People look up with shy curiosity from the side of the road as I trudge along toward the mountains, dragging my suitcase on wheels behind me. Their faces hold expressions of understanding, of sympathy. I feel welcome.

One positive development occurs within hours after I take my leave of the office building: the boils disappear. I’m whole again. The sun feels good on my face.

The wilderness these days is not what you’d expect. There are malls and shopping centers, reasonably priced motels, all the modern conveniences. One doesn’t suffer from material want. I settle in for a comfortable wait. My friend the older colleague has agreed to alert me to news of regime change. We converse from time to time by phone.

One day the unimaginable happens. A conflagration strikes my old office building. It is completely demolished with great loss of life. I am horrified as I read of the disaster in the local paper. My first thought, of course, is to thank God that I wasn’t there. But then I think of the others: my former colleagues. The Committee. Nancy. The woman with the thin voice. What happened to them? Did they survive? Despite my ill treatment I wish them no harm. Not in my worst revenge fantasies would I have imagined this. I try reaching my older colleague but there is no answer and I fear the worst. The word is there are few survivors.

Soon I learn the authorities are saying the catastrophe was undoubtedly caused by someone in the wilderness, that haven of troublemakers. Perhaps a disgruntled employee. I start wearing a disguise: a blonde wig, a baseball cap and dark glasses. I spend my days in shopping malls where no one will think to find me.

People in the wilderness are not as chagrined by the tragedy as one might expect. Everyone expresses sorrow, of course, at the great loss of life, but there is an undercurrent of satisfaction that that citadel of power got what it deserved. Of course, most of us in the wilderness had been victims of its resident authorities, the Committee.

In truth, we no longer know what to think. What if the Committee no longer exists? Who’s running things? Can we return? Many of us—especially the older exiles—have adjusted to their new surroundings. It’s true everything is less real out here—there is less being—but somehow there is more freedom. It occurs to me that there may be an inverse relation between reality and freedom. The more one has of one, the less one has of the other. To be real, I conclude, one has to kow tow to authority. But when you’re free, you’re on your own, invisible. No peg to hang on. Most people can’t stand it.

One day my cell phone beeps. It’s the older colleague. I’m thrilled that she has survived.

How are you? I ask in excitement.

Fine, she says in her lackadaisical way. I wasn’t in the building.

And the others? I ask.

All gone, she says. Kaput.

Oh, that’s terrible, I say. What loss of life.

Yes, it’s a terrible loss, she says. But new life will spring up. It always does.

We are silent.

Now’s your chance, she says fiercely.

What do you mean?

The Committee’s gone. Come back before a new one forms.

Oh, I couldn’t do that, I say. Take advantage of a horrible disaster.

In my mind’s eye, I see her shrug.

Well, it’s your decision, she says.

Anyway, I hear they think a disgruntled employee did it. I fall into that category. They’re probably looking for me.

Oh, the records have all been destroyed. Just change your name. There’s no one left to recognize you.

A clean slate? I say, almost involuntarily.

Scorched earth. Tabula rasa.

I’ll think about it, I say.

You could even be on the new Committee, she says. Who will know?

Why don’t they just abolish the Committee? I ask all of a sudden. Now is the time.

They’ll never do that, she says.

Why do we need a Committee? I pursue.

It organizes things for people, she says. Tells them what’s what and who goes where, who’s on top, who on the bottom. People need that kind of direction. They can’t live without it.

Why? I ask.

People aren’t strong enough.

It’s a tyranny, I say. Now that I’m away I can see it for what it is. People are submitting to tyranny.

The older colleague laughs. Why don’t you start a revolution then?

Maybe I will, I say, though I’m not the type. There are plenty of people out here who will join me.

I hear a hmmph from my colleague. Good luck, she says.

After I hang up I think about it. It will take organization to do a revolution. I will have to go about contacting all the disgruntleds in the wilderness. It will take lists, phone calls, meetings, and, yes, I realize with a pang, a committee. It will take a committee to overthrow the Committee and then where will we be? With a new Committee, a new tyranny.

No, it has to come from within, I think. It has to be spontaneous. If everyone had the nerve to defy the Committee, it would no longer exist. Subversion one by one. Otherwise, reality will soon resume its usual shape. The Committee will soon reform and start organizing and dictating everyone’s life.

But doubts soon confront me. Will people have the nerve? Or will I be left out on a limb of my own creation? Can people live without the Committee? What will life be like without it? I imagine people floating helplessly into the clouds, thus unweighted, unable to anchor themselves. I myself fear evaporating into thin air if I remain in the wilderness. Do I need the Committee too, despite my hatred of it? What should I do?

I go to a local shopping mall and pace up and down, weighing the options: stay here in the wilderness and risk eternal invisibility, becoming a spirit-shade or organize a new Committee here or there, becoming part of its reality once again, submitting to tyranny.

I choose freedom.

A voice comes to me: be your own committee.

Maybe others will join me. Like antimatter to matter, we will be anti-Committees in the wilderness, a counterforce to gravity, centrifugal, attracting their energy to us, a black hole of redemption.