National News

A college essay she never let go

Posted October 30, 2017 8:45 p.m. EDT

— Erin Thompson typed furiously, unleashing a torrent of painful memories onto the page.

It was November 2000, and she was a freshman at the University of Arizona. The essay was for class, but she was writing for herself.

Thompson wrote about an encounter she says she had with Hollywood writer and director James Toback two years earlier, when she was 17 years old. She didn't care about the grade she would get; she needed to get it all out of her head.

She remembered the stench of marijuana in the New York loft, the director's hot breath that smelled like onions and kielbasa. He straddled her leg and rubbed his groin against her, she wrote. She didn't name Toback in the essay, though the reader could easily identify which director she was talking about from the names of the movies he was working on.

She turned in the paper. It came back with an A, and a note from her instructor, Heather Nagami. "I'm so sorry you had to go through this experience," it read. "I'm glad you were able to get something positive out of it though, with your own self-reflection."

Thompson, now 36 and an actress in Tucson, Arizona, shared her essay with CNN in October and reflected on the mindset of herself at 17. Her thoughts both as a teen and an adult woman provide rare insight into the impact from the alleged encounter with the director, who has been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting young women over several decades.

CNN has not been able to independently verify Thompson's account. Like many of Toback's accusers, Thompson said she did not file a police report at the time. Toback has not responded to CNN calls for comment for this story, but has denied the allegations made against him by more than 300 women.

Nagami, who now teaches English to middle and high school students in Oro Valley, Arizona, never forgot what Thompson wrote.

"I just remember that essay, and with the recent stories that have been out in the news, I found myself thinking about it again, thinking of Erin," Nagami said last month.

'I was going to read for a big director'

Extroverted and confident, Thompson always wanted to be an actress. She decided to leave Tucson after she graduated high school in May 1998.

Her farewell cake read: "Good Luck in New York."

She enrolled in the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a two-year program in Manhattan. "I had no fear," she said.

She met Toback in the fall of 1998 while riding the subway. He reminded her of the panhandlers she saw who often begged her for money, she wrote. But he surprised her.

"I was a bit tired and not in the mood for a bum at this point," she wrote. "But when he spoke to me, he did not ask for money, rather he painted a beautiful picture of what I could be. He introduced himself as a director and told me I was a fascinating beauty."

Toback, whose best-known films are "The Gambler," "The Pick-up Artist" and "Bugsy," invited her to read for a part in his next movie, she wrote, so she agreed to meet him the next day at a Manhattan loft.

"I was going to read for a big director tomorrow, but little did I know this 'reading' would change my life so drastically."

When she arrived at the apartment, other people were there with Toback, who invited her to join him on a leather couch in the corner.

Two men sat at giant computer screens editing the movie "Black and White," the 1999 film that Toback directed, Thompson wrote.

Toback asked her how old she was.

"Your eyes show so much more history than you're telling me. I want to know how you feel what you feel. I need you to get deeper with me, so I can compare you with the main character," she recalled him saying.

He told her to come to get another reel of film in the video room, so she followed him into a storage room with halogen lights.

Then, she heard the door click.

He told her to have a seat on a swivel chair. She faced a television that Toback switched on. His movie "Two Girls and a Guy" played.

What follows in Thompson's essay echoes the accounts of other women who've accused Toback of sexual harassment.

Reading it again for the first time in 17 years, Thompson grew angry.

"I was more pissed that at some point I didn't say anything to anyone that could have done something," she said. "I still have that guilt -- especially seeing how many more women have come out with the same story."

In an interview with Vanity Fair, actress Selma Blair alleged that Toback asked her to audition for him naked, then asked her to let him rub himself against her.

"I felt disgust and shame, and like nobody would ever think of me as being clean again after being this close to the devil," Blair told the magazine. "His energy was so sinister."

In her essay, Thompson wrote that she ran for the door after Toback climbed off her. The people in the room stared at her, she said.

"I had always had a positive outlook on people, but the faces I had just run away from in the editing studio forced me to rethink that outlook," Thompson wrote.

Faith in humanity 'crushed'

Back in her dormitory, she told her friends the audition went well. When they left, she fell to her knees and cried.

She told her roommate, Julie Messer, who Thompson said encouraged her to tell her parents.

Messer, now 46, recalled Thompson "was just all to pieces."

"She was scared to death. She was still shaking. She didn't sleep that night. I sat up with her," Messer said from her home in Waynesville, North Carolina.

Messer said Thompson took a long time to get a few words out. Messer said she doesn't remember the name of the person Thompson said took advantage of her but it wasn't a name she recognized.

"I knew he pushed himself on her. I can't be specific of exactly of what happened," she said. "I do remember (him) taking advantage of her."

She added: "It wasn't just feel you up. It was more than that."

Shortly after the alleged incident, Thompson said she called her mother crying. Adrianne Craig confirmed that her daughter told her about the encounter 17 years ago but didn't go into detail.

Thompson says the encounter "crushed" her faith in humanity and haunted her for years.

She became "disheartened" about a career in movies after that. She trusted few people. She didn't get into a relationship "that I wasn't 100% in control of," she said. "I just wasn't vulnerable."

She buried the memory of that night, drank to self-medicate and threw herself into school and work.

Thompson had carried the essay in a binder of keepsakes for 17 years, moving it from house to house and state to state. She worked as a waitress, a sommelier and a massage therapist.

"I must have kept it because I must have not wanted to forget that I got through it," she said.

'I felt like I was going to throw up'

She came back to acting in 2012, joining the Gaslight Theater in Tucson, and met her husband there. They married two years later.

Still, the memories of the alleged assault haunted her. About a year into her marriage, Thompson caught a glimpse of Toback's cameo in the movie "Black and White" as her husband was flipping channels.

"I felt like I was going to throw up," she said.

'I am done with you'

Last fall, she told her therapist about Toback. The therapist urged her to confront the feelings she had repressed. She thought for the next week about what the therapist had said -- could she find the strength do that?

One night after dinner, she made up her mind. After her husband went to bed, she sat on the couch with a glass of wine, muted the television and went to Toback's page on the Internet Movie Database website.

Butterflies formed in her stomach. She didn't like seeing his name.

Anger welled up inside her. She clenched her fist. She stared at his face -- those dark eyes, mustache and beard. For nearly two decades, she said, the sight of men with facial hair like Toback's had made her uneasy.

Overcome with emotion, she leaped up and rushed out to the porch.

She fastened her eyes on a large tree in the yard and imagined it was Toback standing in front of her.

They were going to have it out in the dark. She cursed him. Then tears came.

"I can't believe you did this to me. I can't believe I allowed it," she said.

She stopped crying.

"I am done with you," she said, and went inside.

She would wait almost another year before she would tell her husband.

Finally, some relief

On October 22, when the Los Angeles Times published the first story about multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Toback, Thompson finally told her husband, Todd.

He was surprised when she told him, he said, and pledged to support her.

"I've seen these movies and I've enjoyed a couple of them," Todd told CNN. "Now you have this total disdain for another human being based off their history."

Since the allegations against the director went public, Thompson has reached out to Sari Kamin, one of Toback's accusers who had spoken to the LA Times, and joined a Twitter group of women that included some who had similar allegations against Toback.

She also has spoken to a prosecutor from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and a New York police detective.

Thompson said the prosecutor thanked her for sharing her story but said the statute of limitations had passed. The prosecutor promised to keep her posted.

In an email, the NYPD said it has spoken to "multiple women who claim that they were sexually assaulted by James Toback. The investigation is ongoing."

Thompson said she wants Toback "to have to pay for something. There has to be some retribution."

After years of holding her story in, she said, she's finally found some relief. "I feel like it's off my chest," she said. "From here on, it's up to whoever can make something happen, happen."