As a lifelong feminist, I knew the #MeToo movement was important and long overdue. Moreover, I was strongly inclined to believe the accusers. But I kept coming up against my own resistance to the possibility of Díaz being fired.
I’d been pleased when, soon after he joined MIT’s writing program, Díaz agreed to come to one of my classes to talk about writing Drown. He was a rising star on the tenure track and I was a lecturer with no reciprocal perks to offer, so it seemed a generous thing to do. We judged a student-writing prize together; I took my class to his readings. He inscribed a book for my daughter – a budding writer: “We need your words!” But I didn’t really know Junot. So my initial resistance to his firing had more to do with what I valued in his writing, and what he represented politically.
I’d taught Díaz’s first book, Drown, even before he came to MIT. Drown told stories that hadn’t been told before, set in the Dominican Republic and Latinx working class New Jersey in a voice that engaged with people who came from similar places, which many of my students had. They, too, often spoke a first language other than English (or at least dominant white English) and hesitated to expose this in writing. But here was a guy who knew his bilinguality was an asset – Spanish and Dominican slang unfettered by translation and given equivalent weight to textbook English. These eloquent stories of children coming of age and surviving often opened doors to my students’ own stories.
I’d regularly use one particular story as a model for students’ own work – “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie.” Students recognized that this was lively writing based on an audacious kind of truth telling.
Besides, reading “How to Date…” provoked lively discussion. Looking at this misogynist compilation of tips in the context of Drown as a whole, we could read it as Yunior, son and younger brother of two well-documented misogynists, taking up the patterns he’s been exposed to for his whole life, a study in the making of a misogynist asshole. Then, we’d ask, could it also be a confessional of sorts? See how I am, see how I became the asshole I am? And we’d remember, it’s also a made-up story – not likely made up out of whole cloth, but strands of personal experience woven into a maybe more flamboyant fictional whole.
Sometimes I’d pair “How to Date …” with Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a male character is forcing his girlfriend to get an abortion. Did Hemingway mean to expose his male character as a self-serving asshole? How much did it matter? Wasn’t the truth enough, the words put in the characters’ mouths, for us to parse in our own ways? Again, was Díaz’s narrator-guide presenting like a misogynist jerk? Absolutely. Did that mean Díaz must also be a misogynist jerk? In Hemingway’s case, the evidence was pretty much in. But I didn’t know about Díaz…
So now, to get the case of Díaz’s outing in Australia straight, you have to go back to his own dramatic self-outing in the New Yorker. Here, in “The Silence,” he plunges into the elusive depths, exposing where he went missing, sexually abused when he was eight. Díaz deploys the second person – but not to address a fellow messed-up misogynist predator-in-training. Instead the “you” becomes a fellow survivor, the preyed-upon, anonymous “X”.
Stripping off the misogynist mask, Díaz exposes a broken boy, a broken man filled with “bottomless self-loathing,” self-indicting for the damage done to those around him, and asking forgiveness. As in a classic redemption story, he chronicles his extended wandering in the wilderness; the final Fall (yes, capitalized); and the slow, imperfect climb to something like recovery, with therapist, supportive partner, and self-improvement – “Like I’m being given a second chance at the light.”
In this impassioned plea for understanding, Díaz pays homage to Toni Morrison and Audre Lourde, two of the bravest voice-giving warriors of the oppressed and abused. He directly invokes the #MeToo movement: “I could have called after her me too me too. I could have said the words: I was also raped,” claiming his place in this movement launched by victimized women rising up to speak their truths against their abusers.
Initially the response was effusive, at least from some quarters of the women’s press. Before suddenly the real Fall arrived with Zinzi Clemmons’ accusation. And the uncomfortable question emerged: Had it taken her courage to pull the mask, finally, all the way off?
In his initial announcement to the press, Díaz seemed to acknowledge as much, linking his truth-telling to Clemmons: “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my (childhood) rape and its damaging aftermath.” Acknowledging, it seemed, in an admittedly roundabout way, that his past contained both his abuse as a child, for which surely he wasn‘t responsible, and what we could assume was his own bad behavior with women – that “damaging aftermath” for which he knew he was.
Díaz even seemed to be applauding this next unmasking: “This conversation is important and must continue.” He vowed that he’d be “listening to and learning from women’s stories” and asserted that he still endorsed the #MeToo movement as “essential and overdue” even as he was being called out. Instructing: “We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”
Of course this announcement under pressure was stiff, and maybe a little condescending. And okay, ambiguous. It raised some serious questions: Like, okay, all men, but what about you? Who’s the we you’re speaking for? Which women’s stories? What specific boundaries? What damaging aftermath?
Still it seemed a start…
And I thought, then, of a sentence of Eudora Welty’s I’d often share in class: “All good writers tell the truth.” And of how, for all his masks, Díaz’s writing so often conveys the whiff of truth – a truth that hasn’t yet been told, or not yet told enough. So why couldn’t he help us understand how it is for men who’ve been abused, and then act out in ways they wish they hadn’t?
But then Díaz went silent, undoubtedly at his lawyer’s insistence.
Now the questions arrived closer to home, as MIT, the institution that employed – and thus “enabled?” – Díaz, launched its investigation, Díaz’s job in the balance: Did he deserve to be fired? Were those the legitimate “consequences of his actions” as Clemmons seemed to imply?
I first thought about Díaz’s potential firing in terms of equivalency and proportions:
So what about the Koch brothers? On balance, who’s done more harm? Díaz or those prime purveyors of climate-denial (among other odious things) in support of their own massive wealth. Yet David H. Koch remained a permanent “Life Member Emeritus” of MIT’s Corporation. The Koch Institute keeps its prominent place on campus, their name emblazoned across its doors.
But of course, this was MIT, home of Lincoln Labs and napalm … heart of the military industrial complex. Obviously it was just too big a gap to bridge. World destruction and sexual misconduct? Apples and oranges.
As the #MeToo movement sped along at a furious pace, so too did these questions of proportionality and equivalency. Could you graph it, each guy along a line? How extreme the assault? How many abused? How convincing the mitigating circumstances? How absurdly false, how rigid, the denial? Then add this all up and assign the legitimate consequences?
It wasn’t hard to recognize the disproportionate and unfair consequences of Al Franken being banished from the Senate, while Donald Trump remained president. And closer to the case of Díaz, you could wonder about completely censoring Sherman Alexie’s books, while the pantheon of great white American misogynist writers – from Hemingway to Roth, Salinger to Updike – still were given space in curricula and on bookstore shelves.
Could we then find some algorithm that acknowledged the emerging trend: the more powerful and famous the man, the more likely the sexual misconduct? Could you determine the rate at which access to power and fame exponentially raised the tendency to abuse? Because men in positions of power and status were falling like flies.
Or could there be something like a latent chromosome for abuse that all men shared? One which, when exposed to a specific toxin – like adolescence, or power, or early abuse – would be released to its full expression? Or, let’s say, the extended adolescence of a place like Saturday Night Live (that incubator of juvenile pranks where Al Franken got his break), or unregulated privilege and power (like being born a Trump) or early insecurity, discrimination, and abuse (as both Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz have so vividly chronicled).
But, really, was this a meaningful scientific question? And, anyway, what would we do with it if it was?
So then, shouldn’t we just treat men who’ve behaved badly as we’d all like to be treated – as human beings, damaged, flawed, but potentially capable of growth, recovery, rehabilitation?
Which brings us back to Díaz and his impassioned plea in “The Silence” to be treated in exactly this way. The question being, could we, should we, do that? Because, if we could, then stripping him of his job – his livelihood and all his relationships with students and colleagues – actually didn’t make much sense.
So, here on the tricky “he said/she said” ground of the #MeToo movement, let’s speak directly to Díaz himself.
First a question – which may seem a diversion: Have you ever happened across an anthology of women’s poems, No More Masks!, published in 1973?
Because when I read “The Silence,” your extended riff on masks brought this book to mind. Like when you speak of the mask that covered your face so long, or how when it shattered, you kept trying to “wear the pieces.” How even now the “cover stories” keep returning, and your face some mornings still “feels stiff.” What you were saying made sense. Because isn’t that true of everyone? Don’t we all persist in covering ourselves against the shame, the fear of what would be revealed if we took the masks completely off? How they remain, so hard to shed, despite how much they smother us, keep us blocked off from those around us. And how it feels like home, the way we feel behind them. Yes, I thought, you’re right, there will be masks.
But then I thought again of that insistent title “No More Masks!” and what it meant for those who’d chosen it forty-five years ago. Because the masks they describe weren’t quite the same as those you’re talking about in “The Silence.” What Florence Howe calls the mask of “maleness” that silenced women even when they tried to raise their different voices. The masks that others persisted in forcing on us even when we tried to take them off. The masks, as they were then, of all the publications that kept women’s voices out and men’s voices dominant.
Those masks, I thought, no, you can’t leave those on. No, you can’t choose to tell your cover stories if they mask the other against her will. When you say to us, “You’d be amazed how easy it is to rewrite the truth away,” I believe you. But this is one truth you can’t rewrite away, one cover story you cannot tell, one mask you cannot wear, the one that covers another’s face.
So, yes, this is the tricky “he said/she said” quandary of the #MeToo movement. Because who but you could confirm if Zinzi Clemmons was telling the truth?
There were your words. The way those words accumulate tells a vivid story – of a man compelled to pursue women like the maldito perro you confess you became. How you reduce so many of them in “The Silence” to simply “sex” (“I tried to use sex to fill the hole”), the anonymous harem (“all my other girls”), betraying emails on a phone (“my bullshit seduction attempts”), or drug of choice (“I needed stronger hits to keep the wound inside from rising up and devouring me”) as you became “the Negro who would sleep with everyone.”
Your story raises the question: When did the “bullshit seduction attempts” veer towards aggression? When did the need for “stronger hits” turn into hits on women? And does it make sense that they never came close? So, then, when Clemmons says you cornered her and forcibly kissed her, can you see why, to the outside observer, it might seem a relatively modest claim against a self-confessed damned dog? One that some of us would be inclined to believe.
And when others joined Clemmons to say they too were made to feel small, and even afraid as you lashed out, masked in front of you, treated to your contempt, we had to ask: Were they all lying?
Now, I despise a witch hunt. I recognize how quickly the urge to condemn can lead to conjured-up accusations, then how quickly these can lead to the noose around the neck. I know because one of my foremothers – eleven generations back – was hanged as a witch at Salem. A woman whose worst offense was being old and impoverished. Who arrived, we think, in the New World as an indentured servant, and was condemned when she was old and very poor again, no longer fertile or desired (a “relic” as widows then were called). The evidence against her? She pushed too hard for grain a farmer owed her, and the farmer’s cow died the next day, kneeling as if in prayer – sure sign of witchcraft.
You’d be surprised how much a grandmother who ends up on the gallows still feels like kin even eleven generations down. Which may be another reason why I resisted calling for, well, not the gallows, but your banishment from MIT.
I also have to say I kind of loved that little boy, that “Yunior” who looks across the kitchen of “The Fiesta” at his mother – his lovable, besieged, defenseless mother – and wishes so much to tell her that he loves her even as he drowns. That eloquent little boy, I didn’t want to drown. I wanted him to learn to love like that again when he grew up – as you too say you want. I wanted him to tell his story, because we need your words.
So the “trial” was underway – the investigations at the Boston Review, MIT, and Pulitzer. It was an important conversation, as you’d agreed, but which I imagine must have felt to you like a gathering witch hunt. As others chimed in with their own stories, or reflected on where your reckoning fell short, as Lili Loofbourow did, coining the apt phrase, “the male self-pardon.”
But then came the first of your public exonerations – the Boston Review’s. (Although at the same time, we heard, three BR poetry editors had resigned in protest.)
Then, right after, this is how you broke your silence.
Categorically denying: “Yo, this doesn’t sound like anything that’s in my life, anything that’s me.” Not me, not her story, not her boundaries…
Really, from you? Who’d laid it all out, over and over, for us to see. Compulsive chronicler (as you’d admit) of your (and “Yunior’s”)“bad behavior” with women. Not anything that’s me?
Yes, you’d gotten your reprieve – what I’d hoped.
And yet …
I knew more would join the growing list speaking out in solidarity with Clemmons and to condemn you, refuse to read (or teach) your work, boycott your events, write you off as lost. Some would come to your defense, as others had, despite, perhaps, their qualms. Then there’d be those who’d side with you for opportunistic reasons.
A wall would go up, dividing those in the #MeToo movement, those you’d claimed as sisters (and brothers) – who shouldn’t be divided. Between those who’d stand up against your denial, and those who’d defend you. Undermining you along with the #MeToo movement, forcing the mask more permanently back on you as well.
If the first time around is a tragedy, as Karl Marx says of history, the second time around is a farce. So as the semester started up with you (mostly) officially exonerated and, I assumed, back on campus (your tragedy, I guess, averted), and the #MeToo tsunami still cresting, we came to the farce – another public exoneration. The spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings, riveting us all. Where the lines were firmly drawn and the wall up before the “trial” began.
We saw how it played out: As Blasey Ford took the mic, so scrupulously bound to parsing the truth that it was painful to watch, before Trump’s minions. We gagged (well, some of us) on their fake gentlemanly deference and their Aunt Lydiaesque frontwoman – her creepy kindness. We watched as Kavanaugh appeared, his teary appeals for pity now in the past, bucked up and goaded on by the Abuser-in-Chief – rage and bullying on full display. We heard how the nation reacted, taking sides on either side of the wall which now seems so high – those outraged at the “witch hunt” of poor Brett (who of course lashed out in self-defense), and those who believed Blasey Ford’s painstaking testimony. And Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court.
So what’s to be learned? What can we take away – in our reckonings?
This much, at least: public exoneration doesn’t prove innocence.
Also, denial may well pay off, in the public realm, more than acknowledging the truth – as long as the truth can’t be proven.
And maybe: public exoneration can short-circuit a true reckoning.
Because it seemed, once you’d been exonerated – found innocent (enough) by the investigators – you chose, with your adamant denials, to abruptly end the reckoning, announce it over. By the time you came out to the public again in your PR firm’s suite, you were ready.
“You’d be amazed,” you say, “how easy it is to rewrite the truth away.” And yet, I didn’t believe it was easy: To put the mask back on. To repudiate that first awkward overture to the #MeToo movement.
But, of course, the #MeToo reckoning would go on – with or without you.
And I wondered, if I were still at MIT, would I be teaching your “How To Date…”? Yes, I thought, this time we’d read it, then I’d give a prompt: Tell this story from the girl’s point of view, whichever one you want – Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, Halfie. Try to hear her from the inside. Make her queer if you want. Whatever girl you want to be. And I thought of saying to you, why don’t you try it yourself? See what you find.
Then when the Pulitzer committee announced your reinstatement as chairman, and I knew you must be celebrating this last step in your public exoneration but I not so much,. I decided, aren’t we all in this communal reckoning together, so why not try? Lob one over the wall to the other side.
But what was in my hand I wasn’t sure. A last Hail Mary? A flag of peace? A mother’s plea? One of those flyers always raining down from planes over your DR? A grenade across the DMZ?
But since it’s always best to start with the pluses, I’ll start with what you’ve already given us in your reckoning:
You braved the shame and stigma to tell us of your own trauma, allowing others to follow suit – ones who’ve been traumatized like you.
You helped expose the truth of how that trauma spreads. So, if we can go back to charts and diagrams and try a Venn – the kind with overlapping circles – you’ve helped us see how broad the overlap will be between the victims’ circle and the victimizers’. How hard it is to escape that overlapping ground. You’ve helped us understand how it plays out for those stuck in the middle.
You clarified the vectors of race and class and gender, and how they work against the ones pinned down where they intersect. How that complicates the stories of the #MeToo movement.
And even when you revealed the gaps in your own reckoning, you opened up the conversation. You provoked those you’d left out to speak for themselves, and you inspired a critique that went beyond yourself. Encouraging us to ask how those like you, who try, might go on – if they’re not driven back behind the mask – to a fuller reckoning.
But why stop there?
Why not give her the chance you didn’t have? To face the one who hurt her and tell her truth. To hear you answer. Isn’t that also essential?
Which brings me to the trickiest part of all.
So let me try another Venn, and that’ll be it. In this one, let’s make a circle for those compelled to speak their truth, to claim their place in the #MeToo movement, as you did. Let’s make another for the deniers – those who try to mask that truth, or lie. Then let’s look at where these two circles might overlap.
So. Can we agree they never will? You can’t belong to both. That won’t compute. You can’t call out “me too, me too,” no matter how true, then step back behind the mask when others speak their truth against you. You need to listen, then find the words to answer as best you can, to reckon with it – even if it feels like you’re speaking against yourself. Even if it means you might lose something you want.
Can we say this with confidence? True reckoning involves finding your way out of the deniers’ circle. For those who don’t, can we both say, #MeToo is not your hashtag?
The editors of Persimmon Tree invite you, our readers, to send us your reactions to Lucy Marx’s arguments. Do you agree with Marx? Did this piece surprise you? Expand your ideas on the subject? Your experiences? We will publish a selection of your responses (500 – 1,000 words) in the Winter issue.
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