Author: lauraleeauthor

I'm the author of the novel Angel and a dozen other books on topics ranging from Elvis Impersonation to the science behind annoying things. The San Francisco Chronicle said, "Lee's dry, humorous tone makes her a charming companion… She has a penchant for wordplay that is irresistible."

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What was outrageous in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am not dismissing any of the accusations against Spacey here or arguing that they are not truthful or serious. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.”

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

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A Quite Interesting Question: Do Americans Have an Inferiority Complex?

When I was a Freshman in college one of my professors thought it would be clever to open his first class with a question.

“Does anyone here have an inferiority complex?”

From my seat in the back row I had the urge to raise my hand and say, “I do, but it’s not a very good one,” but because this was true I didn’t do it.

A while back I posed the question: Why don’t we have any comedy panel shows in the United States?  Panel shows are popular in the UK. They have a theme and are organized something like game shows, but the game is really an excuse for comedians to play off each other.

I wondered why the show QI in particular, which had gone through 12 seasons at the time, hadn’t been replicated with an American version as, say, The Office or Undercover Boss has in this direction or Law and Order in the other direction.

My working theory at the time was that our culture is more competitive and that a show that is formatted as a game in which the score is totally irrelevant doesn’t seem appealing. One commenter, who I think was British– or at least not American– based on his spelling of “defence”– chalked it up to different senses of humor on the two sides of the Atlantic. (A subject I’ve pondered here as well.)

What was more interesting to me were the comments posted by Americans. (I am assuming they are Americans because they used “we” when speaking of our fine nation.) One posited that our talk shows are a form of marketing, and movie stars– who only go on the shows to plug their projects–aren’t witty enough for the format. Another suggested that in America “everything has to brought down to the lowest common denominator” because we have such a diverse audience.

What strikes me is that both seem to assume that if some form of entertainment exists in England, but not here, it must be more witty and sophisticated. (You know, like Benny Hill.)

My fellow Americans, we have never been known for our lack of self-confidence. But according to Psychology Today, when an American hears a British accent, he attributes a few more IQ points to the speaker. Even, it seems, when he is making fart jokes. Why is that?

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.

“One of the Most Fascinating Gay Love Stories”

The Guardian today published a joint review of Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years and my own Oscar’s Ghost. called Oscar’s Ghost “a fascinating account of the feud between Robert Ross and Alfred Douglas and of Wilde’s legacy…” and concludes:

 

While the relationship between Wilde and Douglas cannot simply be seen as just a great tragic love story that was thwarted by dark forces, nonetheless the complications that beset it, and the personalities of the two lovers themselves, make it one of the most fascinating gay love stories.

The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy

oscar-bosie

Thank you to Jacke Wilson for having me on the wonderful History of Literature Podcast.  Really an excellent interview and great to speak to someone so knowledgeable about literature. You can stream or download the interview, and I hope you will! Here is the description:

In Episode 87, we looked at the trials of Oscar Wilde and how they led to his eventual imprisonment and tragically early death. This episode picks up where that one left off, as the incarcerated Wilde writes a manuscript, De Profundis, that eventually leads to a bitter feud between two of his former friends and lovers. Laura Lee, author of Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy, joins Jacke to discuss De Profundis, the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross, and how Wilde’s legacy grew out of a web of blackmail, revenge, jealousy, resentment, and high courtroom drama.

A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’

Wilfred Owen is a minor character in Oscar’s Ghost’s third act (a bit more minor than he would have been had I not had to tighten the book as much as I did). He was one of many artists supported, encouraged and promoted by Robert Baldwin Ross, Oscar Wilde’s champion and literary executor.

Interesting Literature

A reading of a classic war poem

‘Strange Meeting’ is one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems. After ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it is one of his most popular and widely studied and analysed. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. As Owen himself put it, the poetry is in the pity.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that…

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See You There?

Oscar Wilde NYC

Getting in my little orange Kia and driving to New York City. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come see me tomorrow at the Oscar Wilde bar in NYC. A bit far? I’m also on my way to Cleveland and Pittsburgh:

November 4: New York, NY: Oscar Wilde NYC. 2-4 PM. Book signing. [Learn more!]

November 6: Cleveland, OH: Cuyahoga Public Library Beachwood Branch. 7:00-8:00 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost and book signing. Free but advance registration is required.

November 7: Swickey, PA: Penguin Books. 7:00-8:00 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost. Short talk and book signing.

Also Detroit Metro Area friends, don’t forget the upcoming Oscar Wilde Tea. Be sure to make a reservation for that one, as space is limited, and you want to get in before the cucumber sandwiches are gone:

November 12: Rochester, MI: Tonia’s Victorian Rose Tea Room. 2 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost and a lovely tea. This is a ticketed event. Here are all the details.