Out of My Mind

The Musings of a Woman Who Thinks Too Much

Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron
May 01
You can email me at "nengoron@gmaildotcom" & follow @NelleEngoron on Twitter. My archived radio shows on last season's Mad Men are available (for free!) at: www.blogtalkradio.com/madmentalk **My "Mad Men" commentary for Season 5 is on Salon rather than here -- go to http://www.salon.com/writer/ nelle_engoron/ to find all my Salon articles. **My book, "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4," is available on Amazon in both e-book and print versions.** I'm a writer/editor/consultant who lives in the SF Bay Area. I write about all kinds of things, but am particularly intrigued by movies, relationships, gender issues, belief systems and "Mad Men." (Scroll down left sidebar for links to a selection of my blog posts.) I'm working on a novel and a memoir, neither of which is about Mad Men!

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MAY 31, 2011 11:01AM

A Man Needs a Maid: DSK, Arnold and the Invisible Women

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I spent the summer I turned 21 working as a hotel maid, cleaning up other people’s messes. Having started my work life at age 14 in a frozen banana factory before progressing up the chain of summer jobs to bus girl, waitress and fast food shift supervisor, I was no stranger to exhausting and messy physical labor. Yet nothing prepared me for how it felt to literally clean up other people’s shit.

If you’ve never worked such a job, you may be shocked to learn that many people think nothing of leaving disgusting items for “the maid” to deal with, conveniently eliding from their consciousness the fact that a real human being will be scraping and scrubbing their bodily excretions off various surfaces as well as erasing any other havoc they’ve wreaked. I knew I was signing on for some dirty work, but I was still horrified to find out I’d have to deal with regurgitated food on the furniture and even a large pile of excrement left for me on a shower floor.

You may assume I’m referring to some seedy motel where drug dealers hung out, but in fact I worked as a maid in a family vacation center frequented by affluent couples who came to play tennis, swim and party with their friends while their children were entertained and supervised by the staff. The home addresses on the magazines they left behind included such places as Malibu and Beverly Hills, leading me to suspect that many were used to having someone clean up after them without a whisper of complaint.

As is true of two famous men making headlines for their treatment of women in such jobs.

The nearly simultaneous bombshells about these two powerful figures and the women who served them are eerily similar and yet quite different: Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted to a consensual sexual relationship with the long-time family housekeeper, while Dominique Strauss-Kahn stands accused of (but strongly denies) sexually assaulting a maid sent to clean the luxury hotel suite he’d spent just one night in.

While the particulars of the latter case are still shrouded in mystery, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer has intimated that the defense will not deny the sexual contact, but claim that it was consensual. A reasonable argument in many sexual assault cases, but which this time requires you to believe one of three possible scenarios: That a 32-year-old maid assigned by chance to clean a hotel room found a pudgy 62-year-old man sexually irresistible at first sight, or was spontaneously offered and accepted payment for sex with a stranger, or is the Mata Hari in an elaborate political plot to derail Strauss-Kahn’s political career, and has not only played him sexually but fooled hardened New York City detectives into believing her story. None of these scenarios squares with the accounts of her as a religious woman and exemplary employee of the hotel, toiling away at a low-level job for years to support herself and her child.

Even if the alleged sex in the Strauss-Kahn case is found to be consensual under one of these scenarios, the fact would remain that a powerful and wealthy man saw a woman assigned to clean his room as a plaything to satisfy his desires. And frankly, when someone is responsible for cleaning the toilet you use, as well as dealing with any other horrors you’ve inflicted on the place, such a leap may not be so psychologically strange.

When we put people in the position of serving us in such an intimate and at least subtly degrading manner, it’s a challenge to think of them as human beings exactly like us. After all, if the person who cleans up after me feels exactly as I do, how can she bear to do this job, which I don’t want to do myself? And how can I bear to have her do it? It requires a certain dissociation to even allow such a transaction, requiring the person being served to see a function rather than a person standing before them. (A complaint I’ve heard from more than one exhausted mother about how her children view her, as a consequence of similar domestic service.)

Even greater familiarity doesn’t seem to change the equation, when this disparity of power is in play. Schwarzenegger dallied with the family housekeeper, despite the risk of detection and marital disaster, thus begging the obvious question of why a world-famous movie star didn’t find a more suitable person to satisfy his extramarital desires. Was the famously ambitious Schwarzenegger really so lazy that he simply settled for what was convenient? Or did he see it as all part of the service due to him as master of the house?

An outlandish scenario, you may argue, yet wives have been treated precisely that way for most of human history. In societies where such behavior is no longer acceptable (especially when married to the formidable women that these two men are), some men may feel the desire for a maid, someone who will obediently serve them and then quietly leave without complaint.

On my own last day as a maid, the crew of college girls I’d worked with all summer went out for pizza and beer and one of my co-workers jokingly punched up a song on the jukebox with that very theme. As Neil Young whined about how a man needs a maid, someone to clean his house, fix his meals and then “go away,” I didn’t know that he was defining a very particular desire; I just felt liberated from the worst job I’d ever had. College graduation was still a year away, and I longed for work that didn’t require a long hot shower at the end of the day. My first post-college position as a secretary was in fact thrilling simply because I could work sitting down while wearing something other than a hot polyester uniform. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I made a dramatic vow that no matter how desperate I might get in the future, cleaning up after other people would be the last job that I’d ever do again.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the bodily excretions that got to me – years later, I was a volunteer caregiver for the dying and dealt with far worse quite happily. It was the invisibility of the position: I was the unseen creature required to come in while the room was empty and take care of whatever had been thoughtlessly perpetrated. Just as I removed all traces of what the guests had left behind, I was required to leave no trace of myself, coming and going like a phantom, as if the work made me not just untouchable but unworthy of even being seen. The restaurant work I’d done was just as exhausting but at least it required that people acknowledge me, even if only in the background, as a person who was serving them.

It's no surprise to me, then, that some people, perhaps including the men themselves, have trouble seeing Arnold's housekeeper and the Sofitel maid who encountered Strauss-Kahn as fully human as the famous, larger-than-life men they are linked to. Both women played a role in which invisibility and silence were required, something that these men may have counted on to a treacherous degree.

I was fortunate enough to get the college education that all those summer jobs helped pay for, and after that, to work my way up from secretary to professional staff to manager. Yet the residue of my job as a maid has stayed with me. The deep-seated feeling that people should clean up their own messes is why I’ve spent the past thirty years doing just that, no matter how busy or tired I was. It was only a few weeks ago that I hired a cleaning service for the first time in my life, after years of urging by the man I live with, who was tired of my gripes about housework. Having already fought down the urge to pre-clean the entire house, I nervously apologized for how dirty it was the moment the two women arrived. Then I took a deep breath, looked into their eyes, found out their names and thanked them for helping me.

Sometimes a woman wants a maid, too – although just to make the bed, rather than to chase around it.



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Gosh, how I've missed you!

(I had to get that out of my system first. Will now go back and read.)
"eerily similar and yet quite different"

The main connection, imo, is the timing. It is possible that Arnold was actively pursued by the maid, which wouldn't make him look any less foolish, but would take the maid out of the role of victim.
I cleaned at a four star one summer in Crested Butte. One night out in town, I met a nice guy on vacation with his family. The next day I was at work, cleaning rooms, and he came in, having forgotten something. He recognized me and the look of horror was horror. I worked my ass off in life, gardener, cook, cleaning a lab, etc, to get myself through and go to med school. I hate cleaning toilets, and I can't justify a maid. I always thank my service staff anywhere I have been, because I was her, once. The difference was, I knew I had a good future ahead of me all along.
I hadn't even made the connection between the two stories, and I agree that it is relevant, and my god, it's such an old, tired cliche, isn't it?

I stay in hotels/motels very infrequently, and I always try to obliterate any trace of myself when I leave. It bothers me to think of someone else cleaning my hair out of the sink, etc.

(P.S. You may notice that the page-load time around here has gotten dismally slow. It may be a real deterrent for people to rate and/or leave comments. This is my second try to post this comment.)
Nelle, this is a great piece. I especially love the following insight:

... if the person who cleans up after me feels exactly as I do, how can she bear to do this job, which I don’t want to do myself? And how can I bear to have her do it? It requires a certain dissociation to even allow such a transaction, requiring the person being served to see a function rather than a person standing before them.

I really appreciate that you have dug deeper into the psychology of these "upstairs/downstairs" relationships. (In fact, the whole Arnold/DSK scandal has made me think a lot about that old Masterpiece Theater series, "Upstairs Downstairs.") There is something almost feudal in the way these men hit on the help/ That said, thank you for not only bashing them as sexual predators but giving us something more interesting to think about.
Exactly so, Nelle. There's something so much larger going on here that can't be escaped.
Good to see you back, Nelle. I agree completely with your well-expressed point of view here. We aren't as classless a society as we like to think we are. And I'm afraid it's getting worse.
Hi everyone, I've missed you all, too! Thanks for the warm welcome back - I feel like the prodigal daughter. I've been so busy with work that I've had little time to read here in months, much less do any blogging. Honestly, that's one big reason I finally hired someone to clean the house - so I could write and read more!

Nick, I've heard the gossip that the maid pursued Arnold, too. Unsubstantiated at this point, but believable. And certainly it was by all accounts consensual. But I think the fact that he paid her off and kept the whole thing a secret for 10+ years from everyone (including his wife) fits with my "invisible" thesis. He did want her to stay quiet and out of sight.

Oryoki, I wish I could say your story surprises me, but it doesn't. It is amazing how repelled some people, especially affluent ones, are by the labor that others do for them. I'm also reminded of news reports around the royal wedding that had the titled folk sneering that it was hard to tell the bride's family from the hired help at the ritzy hotel at which they were all staying in London. And the Middletons are millionaires! As someone else noted, we like to think we're not class-conscious like the British, but it's still lurking in our society, I think, in subtler forms.

Jeanette, the similarities struck me immediately, but maybe because of the experience I write about here. And like you, I am horrified at the idea of leaving a mess for others to clean up. (I usually tidy up the table I eat at in restaurants before leaving.) And it's wonderful to "see" you here again, too!

Thanks, Zoe! And "Upstairs, Downstairs" is hands down one of my all-time favorite TV shows. I watched the original U.S. broadcast in the 70's and was mesmerized by it. I'd love to watch the whole series again. (Sadly, the recent "sequel" was glossy but very underwhelming. Downton Abbey was closer to the mark set by the original and still best of the servant-master series.)

Kathy, thanks! I think that's one more reason these cases have hit the public's nerve and continue to be talked about a lot. There is a lot of subtext and teasing it out can be controversial.

Hi Matt! I agreed with you in my response to Oryoki just above. I think we are definitely better off than in some other societies in which it's impossible (or nearly so) to escape from the class you are born into, but I think Americans are sensitive to class in many ways that we often don't want to cop to.
Welcome back. Dignity is never out of style.
Well, damn, looks like there's another story in the news right now.
Invisible woman, I like that. It is very true that many women who work these jobs are doing jobs that nobody else wants to do, nonetheless people who are on vacation, or people that have the money to hire people to do the dirty work they don't want to do. It is still a little much to go after people as in a sexual way, but being human comes with a lot of loose messages, and many ways for people to keep proving no matter how smart they are they are still capable of making a few good messes, now where are the cosmic maids to clean up such messes?
Great to see you back here Nelle. As someone who lived in hotels for 10 years, I've met a few folks with DSK's sense of entitlement. And once upon a time I might have been surprised at the disgusting state in which some folks leave rooms. But over the years I've heard enough stories to disillusion me.

That was a smart comparison of the role of the maid with the role of the mother who constantly cleans, tidies and keeps the household in working order.

And I liked how you touched on the phantomness of such jobs. I once had a summer job as a maintenance guy in a nifty office building, I wore a maintenance uniform. It was like Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility. No one looked at you in the elevator and they talked as though you weren't there.
I have to admit; being a maid sounds like a horrible job. I didn't even enjoy working at Arby's.
I will echo the sentiments of others here...good to read you again. I have been a stay at home mom for the most part, but I actually worked at the Sofitel in DC as a cocktail waitress in '08/'09 during a short stint of single motherhood when I left my man for a while. I even served DSK a few times. Those of us working on the floor enjoyed a higher status than that of the cleaning staff, but even so, I felt the "upstairs downstairs" distinction deeply. One day during my first few months as a hotel employee. I came to work bounding through the front door, or trying to. My manager seized me, turned me around, and firmly/politely pushed me toward the service entrance. Having never been in service before I was not pleased to be treated so. I knew then and there the job wouldn't last long.

You have written with a powerful insight here. Well done.
I just read a book about cleaning rituals and attitudes in mideval Italy: and how "washerwomen" in literature and art were almost categorically retired prostitutes, and often continued to serve the masters of the homes they ended up in. I found that kind of odd an fascinating. I like your very sensitive post on this subject.
Excellent post. I've had those horrid jobs too, and left them behind, but the awful feeling of being treated like "the help" has never left me. I smile at waitresses and thank them, I leave tips for maids, I look cabdrivers in the eye and talk to them. I have a housecleaning service, and they're like family. We talk, we chat, they know my kids, and they cried when our dog died. For years, we've jokingly called them our marriage counselors, and they think it's hilarious to come to our house and do some counseling with mops and brooms.
The notion of a human being made to feel invisible is horrific. Combined with a sense of entitlement through which it is acceptable to satisfy one's "needs" by force is damnable.

Excellent thought provoking piece Nelle.
This is an excellent insight that explains a great deal about discrimination of all kinds (not only against maids):

"When we put people in the position of serving us in such an intimate and at least subtly degrading manner, it’s a challenge to think of them as human beings exactly like us. After all, if the person who cleans up after me feels exactly as I do, how can she bear to do this job, which I don’t want to do myself? And how can I bear to have her do it?"
Your last line reminded me of Judy Syfers "Why I Want a Wife." I have ads for two cleaning services on my desk and I have been struggling with asking and paying for help because I feel, like you, we ought to clean up after ourselves, but I am working hard enough that I need some help so that my home stays habitable and enjoyable.

I had a lot of the same kinds of jobs that you had, including 'maid,' but I didn't do it for long, I just couldn't. It made me too mad, and I could make as much money in one dinner shift as a waitress. That really made me mad. I see my past jobs in every person who does a service for me. I hope to always sufficiently honor the help that they each are in my life.

As for those modern day feudal lords, how pedestrian and banal they really are! Thinking of them gives me indigestion.
Thank you; a much needed piece on this issue. r.
It's you! I read this with relish, and hope it is not my last Nelle post ever.

One point I particularly resonated with was not hiring a cleaning person. I can afford this, but since my youthful hotel maid career, like you, am uncomfortable with the idea of someone scrubbing my bathtub and vacuuming my dust balls. Yet, I loathe housework and when work is ramped up often live with a filmy grungy bathtub and dust balls as large as grapefruit.

BTW, you forgot to note in your report of maid experiences how those who poop all over a clean set of towels and vomit on their pillows also do not leave a tip!!
So glad to see you posting here, Nelle. As usual, a wonderful insight on a topical subject. Please stay in touch.... (I'll pm.)
Thanks for this post, Nelle. I have been divorced twice; neither husband was willing to clean a bathroom or kitchen. After reading this, I understand my feelings of outrage and helplessness over that situation much more clearly.
Hi Nelle,

I'm new here--thanks for an amazing post.

I've never worked as a maid, but sometimes when I've been treated as invisible (or even asked to get coffee!) in a professional setting, I've wondered it an attitude of "women are mere accessories" wasn't behind it.
Excellent essay. R
Thinking about this with some historical context makes sense. It's been this way for centuries. Even one of our founding fathers had children with the teenaged half-sister of his late wife -- only she was from the wrong side of that family and therefore considered invisible and not fully human. That hundreds of years later, we haven't evolved beyond that, is horrifying.
Fabulous, powerful piece. Your discussion of the "invisibility" of the housekeeper puts a new spin on the Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn stories that have been done to death in the media.

Great insight, here. I've always felt that people who leave a hotel room in a state of filth do indeed suffer from a kind of disassociation. But worse, I know for a fact that some people enjoy having someone else clean up their mess because it makes them feel superior, like they are getting their money's worth, or that their station in the world is temporarily elevated. Sick.

For my part, I make my bed every morning I wake up in a hotel (even the morning I leave), partly in consideration of the hard-working maid, but also because I prefer to function in neatness and order. Additionally, no cleaning service we employ at our house (which is rare) is permitted near the toilet. No person should clean another's toilet.
as someone who has had fairly decent, "respectable" jobs most of my working life, but is now working as a hospital housekeeper for the past 3 years, i can honestly say i've learned more about classism than any degree in sociology could ever give me.
Wonderful post. I've never understood the reluctance to hire a cleaning service. Whenever I've had the money, I've done it. Now I tend to be tidy and clean up ahead of time a little -- I could never leave the disgusting messes that I know some think nothing of -- but I have found that it eases marital strife, leaves me more free time when I'm busy, and there is nothing quite like coming home to a house that smells lovely and is CLEAN. I should add that cleaners make very good money here, $20 an hour and up, so I definitely do not feel that I am taking advantage of anyone. And I never ask them to make beds or do dishes or anything like that.
I had a number of reactions to this great post. One, I'm Latina. The staff at the hotels I stay at may be the only other Latinos I see, so they are not invisible to me. Two, I hate the idea of strangers cleaning up after me. I rent cabins and cottages sometimes, and even if I pay a non-refundable cleaning deposit, I try to leave the place spotless. But...I have had a cleaning lady for nearly 20 years. That's also a Latino thing. When your family is from where labor is cheap, they're used to having household help. Anyone who is middle class has household help. That intimacy is expected. I just don't exploit people. I pay $25 an hour. I budget a certain amount every month for the weekly cleaning service, and she gets it whether she's had a sick day or personal day or there's a national holiday.

When I went on disability, we cut back on a lot of stuff but not on the cleaning woman, because this is her JOB. I'm about a third of her income, if not more. My cleaning my own home would not help this woman. My treating her like a real employee, like what I expect as an employee (even though she's really an independent contractor with other clients) does help her. Refusing to hire household help because you think you are supporting the dignity of women is something only the financially comfortable would think of.
power does dehumanize. there is misogyny in this culture. racism. classism. your first hand accounts really resonated. i have often been awed and outraged by the insensitivity of those in a higher status lording it inappropriately over those who are conscientiously trying to do the job they were hired to do.

re dsk, I wanted badly to believe he was set up early on since it seems he was politically more liberal than the cronied up other clowns of the imf and i have actually known a woman who lied about being raped and it was disproved and the rabid rat bastards will seemingly do anything to sabotage liberal advocates. but dehumanizing people lower on the food chain or dehumanizing women, at times done by both men and women to women, is far too prevalent and the circumstances seem like this is not a setup. when i read that French reporters and women politicians literally avoided being alone with dsk i thought, oh dear. i remember years ago reading about arnold's groping. i want dsk to get a fair trial. but there are too many people who possess a moral schizophrenia, and sex addiction is one more addiction in which morality is tossed out the window and has the potential of tragic escalation. sounds like he may have been enabled and the addiction might have morphed into criminality. i was always angry about what bill clinton's staff called "bimbo eruptions" whereas his handlers hustled to discredit or extricate him from the women that clinton had hooked up with and keep the secrecy from his wife. i think his sexual behavior was not the business of the Republicans or America, but the coverup stuff was crossing the line it sounded like. I think when Clinton's crew deliberately slimed the reputations of other women to protect Clinton's rep, he crossed the line. sex addictions like all addictions are symptoms of serious problems. we are all susceptible to addictions. we need to hang onto our morality and responsibility and reach for recovery and sustained consciousness. addictions are slippery slopes that keep on escalating if not contended with.
is Dominique Strauss-Kahn married? If he's not, and his version of the story turns out to be true, that it was consensual and maybe even for money, that I don't see that as such a bad thing. It's probably illegal, though maybe not in France or Amsterdam or wherever the old, fart thought he was instead of New York, but it's just two people doing their thing. At least the woman brought it to the public, if her side turns out to be true then she did the right thing.

Why didn't Schwarzenegger's maid come out with the truth years ago? The coercion on Schwarzenegger's part to keep her quiet is what makes this situation truly slimy. Did he use money or his biceps to keep her from revealing the truth? I don't think he's that kind of person, but he did something to keep everyone from knowing.

The job may be invisible, but once they work day is finished, all is even. We just have to create a society where everyone remembers that, and people are not maids and servants by night, maybe by day, but not always and forever.
Nice to see you again, wonderful essay.
Brilliant, beautiful, insightful essay, and a look into the issue of "class"differences in America that's only getting more and more pronounced with our increasingly divided economy. Though I was a waitress for many years before and throughout college - a position that some consider lowly, though somewhat less "invisible" with the added incentive of 'tips' - I did part of one summer cleaning up the home of a private person and found it decidedly unpleasant. When, years later, I found myself needing to hire housekeeping help (yeah, I really needed it, working 12-14 plus hour days 7 days a week), the guilt was enormous. I have the greatest respect for the people - in America, often the immigrant 'underclass' - who do this work with professionalism and dignity.
I do have one happy ending story to the maid saga however - my longtime housekeeper when I lived in LA - a green-carded Mexican immigrant - managed to save so much money working 6 days a week cleaning houses (along with her husband, who worked in construction) that they bought themselves a cottage on the beach in Mexico (very pretty - she showed me pictures), went back home, and retired. She told me when she left how grateful she was that she'd only be cleaning up her own home from now on.
>>> The essay is great and I agree with you on everything apart from this little bit. It demeans the woman in my humble opinion. We don't know her at all but I suspect she is a warm and wonderful human being.

Re cleaning the messes of others: I am older so have a cleaning service come once a month to do the heavier cleaning. I always clean my toilet before they get here and spiff up the house. I cleaned houses as a student and have seen objectionable stuff as well. It amazes me how some people can live in such filth.

At a religious retreat once a participant told the story of a woman who had been less than neighborly to a neighbor. When the neighbor was packing up to move the woman went to her door and said "I have to clean your toilets." the neighbor replied that it wasn't necessary for her to do so. The woman said "You don't understand - I MUST clean your toilets." Doing such a humble job was her way of apologizing but people who clean for us have nothing for which to apologize.
I took a deep breath, looked into their eyes, found out their names and thanked them for helping me. -- That's the important part, right?
This was the bit that I was referring to .. apparently my using the > erased the copied text:

he obvious question of why a world-famous movie star didn’t find a more suitable person to satisfy his extramarital desires. Was the famously ambitious Schwarzenegger really so lazy that he simply settled for what was convenient?
Thank you so much for all your wonderful, thoughtful comments! I'm sorry that I haven't had time to respond to more of them individually, but I have read and appreciated all of them.
frankly, i don't know how these women do these jobs. i cannot begin to imagine what they run into when they enter these rooms to clean them. that said, i try to be as tidy as possible when i stay at a hotel. i guess that makes me different. whereas i don't want them to think me a slob, apparently slobs want the maids to think they are slobs.
i side with the maid. i believe he assulted her. why would a maid find this senion citzen attractive? he took on more than he baragined for. and he was warned not to behave this way in america, as we take these sexual assults seriously; he should have listened.
This post makes me think of the scene in the movie "Gandhi" where the reformer forces the residents of his egalitarian, interracial ashram in South Africa to take turns cleaning out the latrines. A drastic measure, it is true, and his wife rebels at first, but the old guy may have had a point.
I was married for more than 40 years to the same man, and as the marriage continued and I began to feel more "used," it showed in the fact that I couldn't stand to clean up after him or even do his underwear. His mother later said that I "never treated her son right because I made him do his own laundry." Women, when you begin to feel resentment for cleaning up after your man, and he refuses to clean up after himself, it's time to call it quits. You have become his maid with sexual "rights." You are no longer that beloved respected partner.
Thank you. Thought provoking. I'm in the hospitality industry and also travel off and on for work. The housekeeping staff has an incredibly tough job. The work is hard enough without crass "customers" thinking they can get their pound of flesh out of the person paid just over minimum wage to clean up their mess. Yet there are a lot of people who need this type of job that doesn't require a college education. Remembering to treat people with respect is what most of us can do. Look people in the eye, thank them, and also leave a tip! It's always appreciated.
Submitted without comment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbQYeERYFGw
Nice to see your post and this good POV.
Like Zoe, I love your observation "It requires a certain dissociation to even allow such a transaction, requiring the person being served to see a function rather than a person standing before them..." It reminds me of Steinbeck's observation in Travels with Charlie, "“If by force you make a creature live and work like a beast, you must think of him as a beast, else empathy would drive you mad."

I, too, fear invisibility. Perhaps that's why I write? Will enjoy reading more of your posts. Thanks.