The sexual misconduct allegations against Neil deGrasse Tyson, explained
When they were in graduate school together in the 1980s, Tchiya Amet says she looked up to Neil deGrasse Tyson.
They were both black students in the majority-white astronomy department at the University of Texas Austin at the time, and Tyson was “like a big brother” to Amet, she told Vox in 2018. “We were comrades.”
That changed, she said, when she was over at his apartment one afternoon in 1984. She said he offered her a drink of water in a cup made of a coconut shell. The next thing she knew, she said, she was naked on his bed, and he was performing oral sex on her. When he saw that she had awoken, she said, he got on top of her and began penetrating her. Then, she said, she passed out again.
Tyson has said in a public Facebook post that the two dated briefly but that the encounter she describes didn’t happen. Tyson has not responded to multiple requests for comment by Vox. For her part, Amet denies that she and Tyson dated — she says they were just friends.
The next time Amet saw Tyson in the halls of the astronomy department, she says she asked him, “How did this happen? Why did this happen?”
“He said, ‘Because we’re in this alone, and we’re in this together,’” Amet said, “and then he walked off.”
“I didn’t know what he meant,” she said. Soon after, Amet dropped out of school.
Amet has been speaking publicly about her experience with Tyson, now an astrophysicist, TV host, and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, since 2010. She confronted him at a public appearance in San Francisco, she told David G. McAfee at the religion website Patheos. She posted her story on her personal blog in 2014 and on Twitter in 2016, and McAfee wrote about it at Patheos in 2017 and published an interview with Amet in November 2018.
When Amet wrote about her experiences in 2014 and 2016, she got little to no response, she said. “It was like you could hear a pin drop.”
In fact, Amet’s story didn’t get widespread attention until 2018, when two more women, Ashley Watson and Katelyn Allers, publicly accused Tyson of sexual misconduct. In December, another woman, who has not been named, came forward, telling BuzzFeed News that Tyson sexually harassed her in 2010.
Fox and the National Geographic Channel, which are slated to air Tyson’s show Cosmos in 2019, launched an investigation, which Tyson said in his Facebook post that he welcomed. On March 15, 2019, the networks announced that their investigation was complete and that they were moving forward with Cosmos.
There are likely many reasons for the delay, including the fact that Patheos, which publishes a variety of blogs on religious topics, isn’t part of the mainstream news ecosystem. Reporting on sexual misconduct takes time and can pose unique legal challenges. At least one publication, BuzzFeed News, began investigating Amet’s allegations in 2016 but did not publish a story until 2018.
It’s also worth noting that Tyson has not been charged with a crime. Still, it’s striking that, even in the #MeToo era, Amet’s story took so long to become widely known. The fact that her allegations only became national news when two other women joined her says a lot about what it still takes for a woman’s voice to be heard.
Amet has been telling her story publicly since 2010
Amet’s experience with Tyson affected her profoundly, she said. She told Vox she ended up dropping out of graduate school and pursuing a different career as a musician and sound healer. Meanwhile, Tyson became a celebrated astrophysicist and the host of several television programs, including Nova, StarTalk, and Cosmos.
“When I would see him on TV,” Amet said, “I would be triggered.” She would cry, curl into a fetal position, and sometimes be depressed for days afterward, she said.
In his Facebook post responding to the allegations, Tyson denied Amet’s account. He wrote that the two dated briefly, and “I remember being intimate only a few times, all at her apartment, but the chemistry wasn’t there. So the relationship faded quickly.”
Mario Vela, Amet’s ex-husband, told Vox that shortly after they met, sometime between 1984 and 1986, Amet had mentioned the experience with Neil deGrasse Tyson. He said she had brought it up multiple times over the course of their relationship, which ended in divorce around 2009.
Vela said that Amet had told him she and Tyson were students at UT together and had a working relationship at the time of the encounter, and that “she woke up the next day and didn’t know what happened.”
He said she had not told him about waking up to see Tyson performing oral sex on her but that the experience was a “sore subject” for Amet and she would sometimes stop talking if he asked too many questions.
In 2010, when Amet was living in California, she found out that Tyson was slated to give a speech at San Francisco’s Palace of the Fine Arts, she told Vox. Her first impulse was to leave the state, maybe even the country, she said. But then a friend and the man she was dating at the time encouraged her to attend the event and confront Tyson.
The San Francisco event was billed as a “Cosmic Conversation” and affiliated with the series Nova, according to Bill Bradley of HuffPost. In a statement to HuffPost, WGBH, one of the producers of Nova, said, “We are aware of an allegation made by an audience member at a 2010 public event regarding an alleged incident some years earlier, but there was not sufficient information available then for follow up.”
In 2014, Amet wrote about her experience with Tyson on her personal blog. “I continue to wonder if he is still hurting women,” she wrote. “It is also important for me to speak out NOW because it is important for ALL people that have been sexually violated in any way to stand up and speak out if we want this type of cruelty to cease.”
Amet also tweeted a link to her blog post on the hashtag #astroSH, devoted to discussions of sexual harassment in astronomy, in 2016. That year, the allegation got a mention in a blog post by Hontas Farmer, an astrophysics researcher. Farmer told Vox she decided to write about Amet’s allegations after seeing her tweet. Her piece “had very little impact” at the time, Farmer said.
Amet did talk to one reporter from a larger news outlet in 2016. BuzzFeed News reporter Azeen Ghorayshi, who has reported on sexual harassment in science and the #astroSH hashtag, got in touch after seeing Amet’s tweet. But BuzzFeed was “unable to adequately corroborate the events from so long ago, and did not publish her allegations,” according to a story by Ghorayshi published in December 2018.
Amet wasn’t necessarily hoping for a response when she wrote about her allegations, she told Vox. Rather, she spoke out because she wanted her story in the open in case Tyson ever tried to run for president, she said. She said she had a feeling that he might try to run for public office — and at least on Twitter, his fans have in fact urged him to do so. Still, “it was kind of weird” that so few people seemed to be paying attention to her account, she said.
Finally, in 2017, as the #MeToo movement gained steam after the New York Times and the New Yorker reported on harassment and assault allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, journalist Beth Winegarner included Tyson on a Medium list of celebrities accused of sexual misconduct, linking to Farmer’s post. Winegarner told Vox that when she put the list together, she solicited suggestions from readers, and one sent a link to Farmer’s post.
HuffPost also reached out to Amet in 2017, after she tweeted about #MeToo, according to Bradley. But HuffPost does not appear to have published a story on the allegations until 2018.
In the fall and winter of 2017, powerful men from chef Mario Batali to CBS anchor Charlie Rose were the subject of public sexual misconduct allegations. Reporters at news outlets around the country were actively searching for stories of sexual misconduct by prominent people, and people were avidly reading these stories and discussing the issue on social media. But Amet’s allegations did not get a national platform until 2018.
Reporting on stories of sexual misconduct takes time, and there are often legal issues involved that can make it difficult for media outlets to publish stories based on a single allegation. In her story at BuzzFeed, Ghorayshi notes that she spoke with more than 30 people about the allegations against Tyson over the course of three years.
Still, the lag time between Amet’s first public statement and wider coverage of her claims is revealing, both for how long such claims can take to see the light and for the many factors that can keep them from gaining public attention, even in a time of reckoning around sexual misconduct.
McAfee, the journalist at Patheos, told Vox he read about Amet’s allegation on Winegarner’s list. He first wrote about the allegation in October 2017.
He chose to cover the story, he told Vox, because he was such a fan of Tyson.
“This needs to be addressed one way or the other,” he says he thought. “If I can debunk it, then that’s great. If not, that needs to be out there.”
Even after he had published his story including allegations against Tyson from Allers and Watson, McAfee told Vox he’d received few inquiries from mainstream media outlets.
“I think that a lot of people are literally just waiting for anybody other than Patheos to bring it up,” he said at the time.
In 2018, three other women decided to come forward
Meanwhile, in spring of 2018, Ashley Watson, a 29-year-old producer’s assistant, had begun working with Tyson on the show Cosmos: Possible Worlds, set to air on Fox and the National Geographic channel in 2019. Watson started as Tyson’s driver, she told Vox, but he quickly promoted her to be his assistant.
The two had a friendly relationship, she said, and she loved working for him — until the night he invited her over to his house. When she accepted the invitation, she told Vox, she assumed he was planning to offer her a job as his assistant when the show moved production to Europe for the next 14 weeks.
“I thought it was for a professional conversation,” she says.
But then, she told McAfee, Tyson put on romantic music and talked about how people need “releases” in life, including physical releases. As she was getting up to leave, she said, he showed her a “Native American handshake” in which he held her hands and looked into her eyes. She said he told her the handshake represented a “spirit connection.” Then, Watson told McAfee, Tyson put his hands on her shoulders and said that he wanted to hug her but that if he did, he would “just want more.”
Watson confirmed McAfee’s Patheos story to Vox.
Tyson wrote in his Facebook post that he did invite Watson over and show her a handshake but that he intended both as friendly gestures, not sexual or romantic overtures.
After the encounter, Watson told McAfee and confirmed to Vox, she reported what had happened to a supervisor at Cosmos. She also confronted Tyson. He apologized and “acted shocked,” she told Vox.
The incident caused Watson to quit her job as Tyson’s assistant, she said. “I had worked to hard to acquire this small amount of self-respect that I do have for myself, and I just had to go,” she told Vox.
Watson had read McAfee’s first Patheos story about Amet in February, before she began working with Tyson, she told Vox — she says she’d heard from someone else working on the show that there were allegations against Tyson. But at the time, she said, “I kind of just brushed it aside.”
She thought of it again the night of the incident with Tyson, she said. A few months later, in August, she decided to reach out to Amet to tell her that “someone out there in the world hears you and believes you,” she said.
Amet told Watson that she had been in contact with McAfee, and Watson agreed to let Amet pass along her contact information to him, she said.
At first, Watson was cautious — “I don’t really know Patheos,” she said. But after meeting with McAfee in person, she became convinced he genuinely wanted to help Amet tell her story.
Watson still wasn’t sure about coming forward under her name, but decided to do so when McAfee told her that Katelyn Allers, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell University, was also willing to speak publicly about her own allegations of sexual misconduct by Tyson, and would be providing a photograph of the two of them together.
“If this professor and doctor was willing to do this to maybe add some credibility to Amet’s story, then I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” Watson recalls thinking.
In December 2018, a fourth woman publicly accused Tyson of sexual misconduct. The woman, whose name has not been released, told BuzzFeed News that Tyson approached her at a holiday party for employees of the American Museum of Natural History in 2010, which she was attending with her then-boyfriend. Tyson made sexual jokes and suggested she join him alone in his office, she told BuzzFeed’s Ghorayshi. Two friends confirmed to Ghorayshi that the woman had told them about the incident shortly afterward.
The fact that Amet’s story got so little coverage for so long says a lot about who is believed
In what has become a common pattern in the #MeToo era, Amet’s story got wider attention only when other women spoke up to join her. Watson believes Amet struggled to get coverage of her account in part because of her race and her career. Amet practices sound healing, using tuning forks to produce vibrations she says can relieve pain and treat illness.
In his Facebook post, Tyson appears to use Amet’s beliefs about sound healing to call into question her credibility.
“Long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, she was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets,” he writes. “As a scientist, I found this odd.”
Watson said she found his criticism of Amet’s beliefs ironic. Tyson says that believing in sound healing and astrology hurts someone’s credibility, Watson said, but “he was trying to manipulate me into touching him because of a ‘spirit connection.’”
“To me, it feels like classic gaslighting,” she said of his Facebook post.
She also believes Amet’s story got more attention when Watson and Allers spoke out because “we have a lot more privilege than she does, as white women.”
Amet believes her race is one reason her story didn’t get attention for so long, she told Vox. Another reason, she said, is that Tyson is beloved by many.
“He is a black astrophysicist and there’s hardly any, and he has this charismatic, charming side,” she explained. “People are having a hard time accepting my story.”
White women have long been taken more seriously than women of color when they speak up as part of #MeToo. When the movement gained more public attention last year, many credited actress Alyssa Milano with starting it, despite the fact that activist Tarana Burke, who is black, had started a campaign called “Me Too” to help sexual assault survivors a decade before.
As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart has noted, women of color in low-wage jobs can be especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, but much early coverage of the movement ignored them. And when actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek spoke out about sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, he responded more aggressively than he had to many allegations by white actresses.
Meanwhile, even in the #MeToo era, it typically takes the testimony of more than one woman before a powerful man faces consequences. It makes sense that multiple people with similar accounts can add credibility to one another’s claims. But the fact that a very serious claim didn’t even get public attention until now says a lot about how America still views the words of women.
Perhaps Amet hasn’t gotten a mainstream audience until now because her accounts were published on Patheos — McAfee notes that many of the comments on his interview with her read something like, “I’ve never heard of this guy, he’s just a blogger.” Perhaps it’s because people are skeptical of her career or her beliefs. Perhaps it’s because of systemic racism that still leads Americans to doubt the words of women of color. Perhaps it’s a combination of the three.
But whatever the case, Amet is only now getting attention for a story she’s been telling in public since 2010. Fox, National Geographic, and the producers of Cosmos announced that they would investigate the allegations. On March 15, 2019, Fox and National Geographic announced that the investigation had been completed, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The networks said in a statement that Tyson’s show StarTalk, which had been taken off the air after the allegations became public, would return in April. “Both Fox and National Geographic are committed to finding an air date for Cosmos,” the networks said in a statement. “There will be no further comment.”
Amet’s story is finally a topic of national conversation, and she said she is trying to sort through her feelings.
“For most of my adult life I was afraid to talk about it,” Amet said of her experience with Tyson. “After I spoke about it, my concern was finding other people who had been affected by him, so that they could feel better too.”
Now that others have spoken out, she said, “I’m looking forward to what comes next. I’m not sure what it looks like, but I think just being less afraid is going to be a great way to live.”
Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Hontas Farmer.