Assumptions

Biography and the Art of Interpretation

Lives don’t tell stories. People tell stories. Lives are made up of events, some connected, some random. Some possibilities are explored, some are averted. It is only in retrospect that a person can go back and make a story out of those events. This necessarily involves interpretation.

I was reading Matthew Sturgis’ “Oscar: A Life” today and I came across an interesting example. A single observation in a letter written by Robert Ross in Sturgis’s book is presented with an almost opposite meaning as it is in my own. The quote is from the period shortly after Wilde and Douglas were forced to give up living together in Naples after Wilde’s release from prison. Here is how it appears in Sturgis:

But the all-consuming intimacy of the past was not recovered. And without the distorting lens of love, Bosie’s selfishness became all too apparent. As Ross reported to Smithers, after a visit to Paris, Douglas ‘is less interested in other people than ever before, especially Oscar, so I really think that alliance will die a natural death’.

The fact that Douglas is said to be less interested in other people, especially Oscar, here is evidence of Douglas’s selfishness. I saw it, instead, as evidence that Douglas became depressed after being forced to separate from Oscar Wilde. After having weathered so much to be together, both suffered from depression when that period of their relationship came to an end. (Oscar Wilde told a friend he considered suicide at that time.) Clinical depression manifests in a lack of interest in things you once enjoyed. Depressed people often withdraw from social interaction. For a number of reasons, which I spell out in the book, I suspect that Lord Alfred Douglas suffered from mental illness and so “losing interest in other people” immediately appeared to me as a symptom of depression. You can follow my reasoning in the book and decide for yourself.

The reason I wanted to write about this quote is that I think it serves as an excellent example of the way a bit of biographical material is put into context, and the many layers of interpretation that go into understanding one line. There are many things a historian must decide. Is Robert Ross’s report accurate? Had Douglas indeed “lost interest in other people, especially Oscar”? Does the fact that the witness was Ross color how Douglas might have behaved? Could he have been specifically uninterested in talking to Robbie about other people (Oscar in particular)? (I can think of a number of reasons why this might be the case.)

Of course a biographer doesn’t interpret one letter in isolation. He or she decides the answer to those questions based on other material uncovered. Sturgis has good reason to read the line as evidence of selfishness. Wilde often describes Douglas in that light in letters to Robert Ross. There is also the small matter of the story Wilde tells in De Profundis.

What are we to make of these sources? How historically accurate was De Profundis? How did the unique context of its creation effect what ended up on the page and how Wilde interpreted the events of his life at that moment?  Was his description of Douglas in his letters to Ross consistent with how he spoke about him in the period to others? Was there something about his relationship with Ross that might have colored how he spoke about Douglas to him specifically? I came to certain conclusions about this, but others will form different opinions.

Generally speaking, the only people who read about Lord Alfred Douglas do so because they have an interest in Oscar Wilde. This creates a certain framing. You can assume that anyone with an interest in Wilde would have read De Profundis before reading any of Douglas’s accounts of their relationship. De Profundis creates a powerful first impression. There have been a number of studies that show that once we form an idea about someone, it is very hard to change, even with new information.

Having read De Profundis, and then reading Douglas’s own accounts, you see the traits that Wilde described. “There’s that selfishness he was talking about.” “There’s that moodiness.”

Of course those traits were there. There is no denying that Douglas had a strong sense of entitlement. He was a snob and was often selfish. The De Profundis account may not have been totally accurate or fair, but neither was it entirely inaccurate or unfair. Would the traits that Wilde criticized in Douglas jump out as much as they do if we weren’t already primed to focus on them and see them as his defining traits?  It’s hard to know, but it is a bias that I think it is worth trying to correct for.

In the end, I can’t say with certainty whether Douglas “lost interest in people” at that moment because he was too full of himself to be bothered with them, or because he had just been forced to separate from his lover, had an argument with him over it, and was depressed. The latter explanation feels more right to me. Read it as you will.

 

 

 

 

 

The Clinton Affair

Monica Lewinsky has pinned a tweet at the top of her feed.

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It must be a message to herself as much as anyone. I needed it as a palate cleanser after making the horrible mistake of typing her name into the twitter search bar after watching “The Clinton Affair.” I wanted to see if there were reviews and commentary on the documentary. What I saw was the vitriol that is still aimed at Lewinsky. A lot of people hiding behind their social media handles express, in colorful terms, their desire that she shut up and go away.

What strikes me about the online commentary, to the extent I was willing to consider it before looking away with a feeling of having been polluted, was that it doesn’t seem to come from people who love Bill Clinton and who want to protect his reputation. The discourse is too rancorous and primal for that. What is threatening in listening to Lewinsky’s perspective is that it upsets the natural order of things that we’ve become accustomed to where a man who has engaged in a marital infidelity can explain that she “threw herself” at him, that it meant nothing to him, that really she is irrelevant and she should disappear in order to preserve the status quo.

It is a status quo where sexuality is viewed as something a woman gives and a man receives. This creates a responsibility on the man’s part, unless it can be demonstrated that the woman gives so easily that it seems as though she actually enjoys it. Therefore he owes her nothing. We do not have to consider her feelings. She’s an inconvenient problem. It is generally the man who gets to define what category the woman inhabits. There are a lot of women who have become adept at playing by these rules as well. Slut shaming often comes from other women.

Monica Lewinsky is roughly my age. I followed her ordeal with interest. What I remember vividly were the fat jokes at her expense. I was built like her at that age, and the idea behind the jokes seemed to be that if you failed to be sufficiently decorative you didn’t matter. Even the most sympathetic readings at the time turned on the idea that she was chubby, and she had “thrown herself” at the president because of a lack of self-esteem. Why is a man’s extra-marital affair so rarely read as a cry for help and evidence of his woeful sense of self-esteem?

I remember how they tried to write her off as a deluded stalker, and I remember feeling a certain admiration at her strength of character. Clinton was clearly prepared to throw her under whatever busses he needed to, while she was still fighting to protect the secret of their relationship even at the expense of her public reputation. They said there was no relationship– it was all in her head. She was emotionally unstable. And she said nothing.

I remember thinking how sordid anyone’s sexual relationships, no matter how healthy, might sound when presented in the format of the Starr Report.  Sexual acts always sound ridiculous when you spell them out. They make sense in context. Listening to the Linda Tripp tapes, which were all over the news, made me imagine my own conversations with confidants while in the throes of my own questionable relationships. We all make fools of ourselves in the arena of love and sex. (Cue that song by The Main Ingredient).

Here’s how Megan Garber, writing in The Atlantic, describes the background of the Trip tapes:

Lewinsky describes the hot-and-cold nature of her relationship with Clinton—she still refers to him as “Bill,” and sometimes as “B.C.”—during the period when he was running for a second term. She suggests that his behavior toward her, in which he variously gave her gifts (Leaves of Grass), showered her with compliments, and ignored her, going silent for long periods of time, is what ultimately led her to share the details of the affair with Tripp. “I had this nagging insecurity,” Lewinsky tells The Clinton Affair’s camera: “Maybe he just did all of these things these last six months because he was trying to keep me quiet during the election. How stupid am I that I believed this, that I bought this? I felt so deflated, and so desperate. And those were the conditions, along with some other things, that led to me confiding in Linda Tripp.”

I, too, had been in relationships– more than one at that point– where I was more invested than the guy was. My most formative relationship was like that. It was not an abuse of power in the sense that he was not by boss, not in a superior social position, in fact he was a year younger than me, a sophomore when I was a junior in college.

He enjoyed the sex and play enough to want to keep me around when he was in the mood for that, but he wanted me to vanish when he did not. He wanted to have pleasure with no responsibility. He wanted his options open, in case something better came along. So we broke up, and he came back, over and over. I was invested enough that I put everything on hold so I would be free in case he decided it would be an on-again moment instead of off-again. Here’s a poem I wrote about it:

The Cord

I find that I am here again
back where I began
not long ago I scaled great heights
I soared with excitement and joy
never again
I believed
to fall

But here I am again
back where I began

So this joy was no peak,
but the crest of a circle
reaching the top
I was destined to slide round
and from here, at the bottom
there is nowhere but up

But what keeps me in this circle?

It is this cord that I have tethered to you.
I spin, always around you

Perhaps this time,
when I get my momentum going
I will let go of the string
the centrifugal force will act
and instead of rolling back

I will fly…

 

You can’t tell anyone to shrug it off when they’re in it. You just have to live through it– the balm of time.

But that ill-fated romance had a big effect on me. He used many techniques that made me feel I was the one with the problem for wanting something more stable. I was “too clingy.” I was “too emotional” and “needy.” To call this “gaslighting” I think gives him too much intent. I don’t think he had a grand vision of how to manipulate me, he just wanted to have what he wanted and to believe he was doing nothing wrong. He put it on me, and as he was an immoveable object, I tried to adapt myself. I was determined to learn from the criticisms he put on me how to become more loveable.

In retrospect, this set me up to accept a similar dynamic the next time around, even to seek it out, to prove to myself that I had learned and that I now could master the situation.

I found myself, when watching The Clinton Affair, wondering if Lewinsky’s earlier affair with a married man who had been her teacher was not– as it has normally been presented–an example of her bad character but a foundational unhealthy relationship that primed her to want another unequal relationship–so unequal that she could test her emotional mettle. But maybe I’m projecting.

This was all long ago, and I had the benefit of being a fool mostly in private.  I have to believe I am not alone in this. We don’t live up to our highest ideals, and so we use public shaming to re-affirm what out values are. We put our collective foibles on Lewinsky’s head so she could take the abuse for us all. Her reincarnation as an advocate for people who are bullied and shamed is quite brilliant. She could never outrun her undesired fame, and so she found a way to put it to use. Good on her. She is good in front of the camera, and who knows, maybe she will yet develop a public persona in which her past is only a distant memory.

Reflecting on the documentary, I realized how much that episode colored the stories I felt compelled to tell as a writer. Nowhere is that more evident than in my second novel Identity Theft (written pre #MeToo) wherein the female protagonist has what she thinks is a consentual affair with a prominent man and is disbelieved to the point that she is jailed as an emotionally unstable stalker. But I see it also in the story of Oscar’s Ghost in the way defending Oscar Wilde seemed to require vilifying Lord Alfred Douglas. What happens when someone’s private life becomes a public story? Who gets to decide what it means?

 

 

 

Crackpot Literary Theories

p30200_d_v8_aaLast night I watched the film The Luzhin Defence, an older title, which I got from the library. The film is based on the novel by Nabokov, which I have not read.

After watching the film, I developed an entire literary theory, which I subsequently discovered is utter nonsense, but it is so satisfying I feel I must share it anyway.

The ending of the film reminded me of something my Russian partner once told me.

We were talking about the “American story.” The hero wins against overwhelming odds and there is a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil and we can feel safe and secure knowing Truth, Justice and the American Way are safe. Americans are comfortable with the happy ending even if it’s an illusion. We agree to this conceit the way a ballet audience agrees that it is normal for women to wear tutus and walk on tip toe. It is a narrative convention.

So I asked my partner what the Russian Story was. His answer blew my mind. In the classic Russian tale, he said, boy meets girl. Boy dies. Boy comes back as a ghost. They live (or is it die?) happily ever after and there is a lesson- a moral.

The hero of the Russian story DIES before it has even gotten interesting! The American story is about winning. The Russian story is about what you learn from losing. American heroes continue in the face of all obstacles. They do not waver, and eventually win through sheer force of character and will.

Russian heroes, according to my are destroyed before they even have a chance to begin. Then the hero is reborn to the circumstances, he is victorious in failure and he brings his lesson back to the world. The American story does not teach us what to do with failure. It simply does not give us the option. Villains fail. Heroes succeed.

Now, my partner is a ballet dancer, not a writer. He has not made a study of Russian literature, and I don’t know if his off-the-cuff description of the “Russian story” is accurate or not. It was, in any case, thought-provoking.

When I saw The Luzhin Defence I felt I had confirmation. Spoiler alert: I will now talk about the end of the film.  The Luzhin Defence is the story of a man being driven mad by his obsession with chess. He only knows how to view the world as a chess game. The film focuses on Luzhin’s relationship with a woman named Natalya, who becomes his fiancee. In the film, Luzhin (brilliantly played by John Tuturro) has been sabotaged, and suffers a nervous break-down during a pause in the final game of the world championship. Told that chess is driving him mad, he must choose between a “normal” life with his fiancee but without chess, or chess and madness. He jumps to his death. In the final scene, the grieving Natalya finds Luzhin’s written plans to complete the chess game. Luzhin’s opponent agrees to let her play the game out using his strategy, and it wins.

Remembering what my partner once said, I concluded that Russian drama is not about what one achieves in his lifetime, but about his legacy. It is not the happy end, the tragic end, or the noble end. It is about the after-effects of a life.

Here’s the problem: The epilogue was not in the novel. From a review in The Guardian:

What was a beautifully structured narrative of mental drama becomes a rather over-familiar costume romance, pillowed by a swooningly sentimental epilogue that has nothing to do with Nabokov’s novel.

So it turns out it is just another example of a film maker adding a happy end (of sorts) to a novel that is felt to be too unsatisfying for the screen.

Steven Poole, in his review sheds some light on the problem film makers often face when translating a novel to film.

A clue is to be found in Nabokov’s 1943 short story, The Assistant Producer, in which the narrator draws a lugubrious parallel between cinema and life, both of which mock the unwary with fatal coincidence. “Indeterminism is banned from the studio,” he writes. That is precisely it: the cinema simply cannot maintain creative ambiguity. How do you preserve the master’s playful indeterminism when a movie must show one thing or the other?

So there is a perfectly good literary theory all shot to hell. This all made me think of Oscar Wilde’s story The Portrait of W.H. in which he has his character put forward a theory that the W.H. of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor in his company. After the character explains all the clues that point to his conclusion (and gets someone else excited about it) he abandons his theory because it pre-supposes the very thing he is trying to prove– the existence of the boy actor W.H.

You can imagine Wilde himself becoming excited about the idea of W.H., building a grand narrative about it, only to make the realization that his reasoning is circular. So he shifts his focus and makes his story not simply about W.H., but about the beauty of believing a beautiful story, rather than the factual underpinnings of the story itself. (Lord Alfred Douglas, always a black and white thinker, in his later years set out to prove W.H. did exist using church records.)

In the spirit of Wilde, I’m not going to abandon my beautiful theory just because it happens not to be true. Clearly the end of the film has nothing to do with Russian story-telling. But for a moment, when I believed it did, I glimpsed something– another option for viewing narrative.

What if our stories were more concerned with legacy than with success in the here and now? Would we live our lives differently?

Beyond Saying “Yes” or “No”: Power, Sex, Empathy and Agency

I found myself the other day listening to a podcast by Marc Maron talking about the allegations against his friend Louis CK.

It was fascinating to me to listen to this man trying to empathize and understand what it was like for a woman to be faced with an unwanted and unexpected sexual advance. The only comparable experience he had involved a male teacher who he admired trying to kiss him.

As a woman, until recently, it had never occurred to me just how rarely straight men have the experience of an unwanted sexual advance. “Of course not,” you may say, “because they always want it.” I do not believe this is true, and I think that view is part of the problem.

I remember a while back listening to an interview with Trevor Noah where he was talking about the value of diversity in the writing room of the Daily Show. They were doing a segment on catcalls on the streets of New York. Noah said he thought it would not be a big deal for women. If women on the street whistled at him and called him hot, he imagined it would be kind of nice. But the women on the staff let him know that it is terrible to be walking down the street, minding your own business, and to be catcalled.

Why don’t men get it? I think it comes down that an antiquated notion– one we would do well to be done with– that women are the givers of sex and men the recipients of it.

Let’s get this straight, because I’ve heard a lot of commentary lately that men are just awful by nature and women are virtuous. Poppycock! There are two main reasons why you’re not hearing loads of stories of powerful women groping their underlings. 1. There aren’t enough powerful women with underlings. 2. And this is the focus of this article–We are actively socialized not to initiate. (See my previous article on “making a pass” vs. “throwing oneself.”)

Because we do not usually make the passes, for fear of being seen as sluts, we are much less likely to find ourselves saying, “I thought he was over 18,” or “I thought he gave me signals…” And men, socialized to believe female sexual attention is a gift they should always want, are not nearly as likely to come forward and report to HR “she kissed me and put her hand on my knee…”

It wasn’t always this way. Consider this from The Good Man Project:

Of course, assumptions about male libido, as godawful as they are, pale in comparison to the incredibly creepy cultural ideas about female libido. One of the earliest known postclassical joke books is the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio, in which we find the following anecdote, presented in the painfully stiff English translation:
A woman who was once asked by a man, why, if the pleasure of cohabitation was equal for both sexes, it was generally the men who pursued and importuned the women rather than vice-versa, replied:
“It is a very wise custom that compels the men to take the initiative. For it is certain that we women are always ready for sex; not so you men, however. And we should therefore be soliciting the men in vain, if they happened to be not in the proper condition for it.”
Somewhat later, in the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find this bit, described thus in the DVD package for those who don’t want to watch the video:
Larry is drifting off when Cheryl asks him, “Why am I the one that always has to initiate sex?” Larry explains that he’s always available, and all Cheryl has to do is tap him on the shoulder. Otherwise, he tells her, “I’ll just be mauling you all the time.”
In other words, it is the exact same joke, but the genders have been reversed.

A researcher who studied sexual habits in other cultures reports, “the Biwat of Papua New Guinea think women are the sexual aggressors and men are the receivers. They have this saying: ‘Of course the female is the aggressor and aggressive. Has she not a vulva?'”

And, as it turns out, women are the aggressors more often than you might think even in our culture. The BPS Digest calls it one of the 10 most widely believed myths in psychology that men are much more likely to be abusers than women.

A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It’s easy to understand why – men are responsible for more violent crime overall, and being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as a more obvious threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that partner violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men.

But that is not what our culture tells us, not what it reinforces and rewards. I was struck by this sign at a recent protest march to end workplace sexual harassment.

hollywoodmarch
This sign expresses a woman’s right to say “no” and her right to say “yes.” In either case, she is viewed as the recipient of the man’s advance. There is no sign that I can see about her right to make the first move.

Samantha Bee, in her funny PSA on how not to masturbate in front of employees assures men that their dicks are ugly and that no woman actually wants to see one in any context.

And this is totally true, right ladies?

We hear it all the time. Women’s bodies are beautiful. Men’s are disgusting. Then there are the Viagra jokes. They operate on the idea that a man’s desire to have dependable erections in late middle age can only be selfish. It’s selfish because sex is something men get and women give. The jokes don’t work if you envision male sexual function as something that is mutually beneficial to both partners.

Samantha Bee is right, it is easy not to masturbate in front of your employees, and a lot of the behavior we’ve heard lately is reported because it is so disgusting and outrageous. No one wants to be confronted with sex when they’re trying to make a serious business presentation.

DO-vy_CWkAAdU1jBut when it’s in the right context, when it is welcome, it feels good to be appreciated for your sexual attractiveness. It is nice to hear that expressed, and to have someone take a risk and go out on a limb to make an overture.  In the right context it feels good to be viewed with lust. We all want to be desired.

Put another way: To be sometimes considered as a sexual being is a natural human need. To be always considered as an object of desire is a burden.

Men don’t get enough of that. Women get too much. I think we should correct that. We need to go beyond the right to say yes or no, waiting for advances, and calling out the ones that are inappropriate–we need to start claiming our own desire and making more of the moves ourselves.

Maybe that sense of being undesirable is one of the drivers that leads some men to aggressively over-compensate.

I appreciate it when I hear someone like Maron or Noah trying to understand the female point of view. I think a lot more men are trying to empathize these days. I am optimistic that maybe the moment has come when we will stop putting the burden on women to protect ourselves, and start asking men to be responsible in their behavior.

But if some men have trouble imagining what it is like to be in our position, some women also have trouble imagining the real confusion of some of their male friends who would never dream of doing what Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Roy Moore are alleged to have done but who are still a bit nervous that some episode from their past might come back to haunt them. The difference between an “unwanted advance” and a “wanted advance” is whether or not it is wanted. There are some cases when it is clear. (She’s 14, she’s your employee and you have to threaten her, you’re considering masturbating in front of someone at work) There are others where it is not so clear. If you’re going on hair twirls and head tilts as a guide, there is some room to make the wrong judgment. This is why I am concerned about the conflation of different types of stories.

Right now there is only one question being asked: “Do you believe the accuser or not?”

In some cases–not all, but some– you can absolutely believe that an accuser is telling the truth, and also ask if there is some possibility of misunderstanding.

Tara Isabella Burton, writing in Vox, used Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to talk about the long history of the misuse of sexual power. In Measure for Measure, a man named Claudio is arrested for getting his fiance pregnant before they are married. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Vienna, and while it is widespread, Claudio has been sentenced to death as a scapegoat– to show that the duke is tough on crime. His sister, Isabella, goes to an official called Angelo who tells her that he will spare her brother if she will sleep with him. In her outrage, she goes to her brother.

Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”…

It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place…

This play serves as an important reminder that, despite some people’s idealized narrative of the “pre-women’s lib” past, people were still grappling with the injustice of sexual misconduct. Shakespeare knew that sexual harassment is made possible by sexual hypocrisy: that harassed women are rarely believed, that women are only allowed to be wives, widows, or virgins, and this is what makes it so easy to make them victims.

Overt sexual harassment is only part of the story. And sexism is not only a problem of men. We all buy into it in big and small ways.  Studies show that both men and women–including feminists– have implicit biases that men are associated with leadership and women aren’t. (You can check yourself with this implicit bias test. I came out with a “slight bias” associating men with leadership and women with supporting roles.)

We need to change our cultural dynamic so women have more agency in all areas of life.  If you look back at some of my past articles you will see all sorts of examples where women are encouraged to think of ourselves as “being” while men are encouraged to think of themselves as “doing.” It begins in childhood, where boys are praised for their efforts and girls are praised for our inherent traits. We read children’s literature where boys go off on adventures, and girls try to get home. We’re even sometimes taught that math is important because it makes us more attractive to boys. We try to “empower” girls by teaching self-esteem while we send boys off to build fires and earn medals for achievement. We’re given entirely different messages about risk- boys are encouraged to take them, and girls are warned we’re inherently vulnerable. Into adulthood, stories for men are about saving the world. Stories for women are about being OK with yourself just as you are. Publishers and agents bring their assumptions about those stories to the fore when judging work by male and female authors. We seem to picture female writers as doing it for self-gratification and men for work. Therefore men’s writing is viewed as serious and worthy of academic study, while the very existence of famous female writers of the past is erased. (A reviewer in a prestigious literary review publication recently expressed surprise that my “Oscar’s Ghost” was “not sentimental.”)

I have to admit that my own two novels reflect these biases. I found it much easier to write about male beauty from the point of view of a male character in my first novel Angel. In my second novel, Identity Theft, I made fun of how the (female) director of the film The Holiday felt it was important that Jude Law’s character be wearing a tie before Cameron Diaz’s character invites him to her bed– if he were of a lower social class it would make her a slut. Nevertheless I gave in to gender expectations in my own writing. The main female character, Candi, fantasizes about a sexual encounter with a rock star. In my initial conception, she had an uninspiring life and lots of stress and she wanted a fun adventure. I came to realize that she was coming across as not “likeable” or “relateable” enough.  So I gave her body image issues which provided a socially-sanctioned sympathetic motivation for her sexual desire. She wanted the affair to boost her self-esteem, not to pro-actively go out in search of pleasure.

We do not just need to change how men think about us, we need to change how we think about ourselves.

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 upset people so much 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 passing judgment on the accusers or saying their statements are not truthful. 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.” In an interview years ago about his career at that time (ironically with Charlie Rose) Spacey said he couldn’t get work and was pleased to get a role as a “spear carrier” because he didn’t want to wait tables.

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 weird and 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.

What Does a Writer Look Like?

Today GQ posted a feature on “How to Dress Like a Writer.” My answer: stay in your pajamas all day. You are an introvert with a home office. GQ took a more dapper approach. Now, GQ is a men’s fashion magazine. So it would be unfair of me to point out the well-dressed writers they featured were all men. I came to the story through a side door and so I was struck by the absence of women before I realized what the publication was.  But this led me to wonder: when the average person hears the word “writer” what comes to mind?

I have written about gender and trends in publishing here in the past, so I won’t look up and link all the articles again, but research has shown that women read more than men, women make up the vast majority of publishing professionals, and this has been true for ages. In the Victorian era, female writers outsold their male counterparts by a comfortable margin.

Given all of this, you might expect the image that comes to mind when you say “writer” to be a woman. I’m guessing, however, that it is not. Your picture was probably more Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King than Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling.

For even though women do more reading, and undoubtedly more writing, research shows books by male writers find a clearer path to publication, books that are seen as appealing to male readers are more likely to be published, to be taken seriously as literature and to get reviews. And even though female writers were more popular than male writers in the Victorian era, we have little historical memory of them. The serious writers studied in literature courses have overwhelmingly been male.

I did a little unscientific test to see what images the word “writer” evokes when not in the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I typed “writer” into Google image search. Pictures of typewriters and fountain pens are the most common images associated with the term. More often than not, if there is a person in the picture, it is a man who is using the tool.

Writer at work

But the male images are not as overwhelmingly dominant as you might expect. At a quick glance my impression is that it is perhaps a 60/40 split of men to women. There was also one dog:

Boxer dog making note

What struck me more than the number of male images vs. female was the way male and female writers seem to be depicted. Here are three of the first images of women writers that came up in my search:

The women are in pastoral settings, getting inspiration from nature. Men are more likely to be shown in a professional setting, struggling over words at a typewriter in a book-filled office.

The overall impression I get from looking at these pictures is that writing is serious business for men, they labor and struggle over their text, whereas women write for pleasure and self-expression.

How does a writer dress? If he is a man, he dresses for the office and is correspondingly taken seriously as a professional. If she is a woman, she dresses for the beach or the forest, and probably carries a diary.

 

For more on initial assumptions about identity categories see my 2015 post What is an Identity?

Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.