Reckoning Along the Truth and Reconciliation Path
Marx expresses an ambivalence toward Díaz being fired. Díaz had written of his own childhood sexual abuse and opened a conversation “to teach all men about consent and boundaries.” This is a vital conversation. But the opened conversation was locked tight when accusations against him were brought to the institution where he worked. As Marx said, “Public exoneration may short-circuit a true reckoning.” The legal system, whether in the workplace or the courts, answers yes or no questions, and this loaded topic is far more complex. Something closer to a “Truth and Reconciliation” process is called for – a process which allows for the shades of responsibility, the roots of behavior, attending to the ongoing pain of survivors, and the creation of healthy paths forward, laid out in all their complexity.
As a woman over 60, I have experienced my share of unwanted sexual advances, and I applaud the #MeToo movement’s role in giving women material and emotional support in speaking up against them. It is important to believe women, while respecting due process. It’s not just the exoneration that short-circuited true reckoning in this case. Díaz had begun to tell the story of his own sexual assault and how it led to behavior that hurt women. The accusation itself interrupted this process and sent him into a defensive posture – lawyering up and denying everything in order to keep his job.
I am in no way faulting the accuser(s). They are brave for coming forward. I am asking for spaces and structures to deal with the accusations that would allow the perpetrator to admit that his behavior was wrong, and join in a discussion that gets at the roots of that behavior as well as offering restitution to the victim. Victims should not be forced to engage with their perpetrators. Perpetrators may not be willing to admit that any of their actions were wrong. However, in cases where victims and perpetrators are willing, a restorative justice model could acknowledge complexity, hold individuals and institutions accountable, and eliminate the masks.
This would only work in cases where the perpetrator acknowledges guilt and expresses remorse. The elements of a good apology could apply here: admitting responsibility, expressing regret, participating in remedial action to ameliorate the harm, and committing to changed behavior in the future. In my experience with sexual harassment and sexual assault (my own and others’), most perpetrators were not sorry, tried to evade responsibility, and only stopped the behavior if caught and called out. Sometimes the behavior might stop, but the attitude did not change, leaving other women at risk.
Remedies could include participating in conversations to get at the reasons for behavior and alternative ways to deal with it, joining groups similar to those for perpetrators of domestic violence and/or paying for a victim’s therapy. Or, as Marx suggests, perpetrators could write from the victim’s point of view to gain and demonstrate an increased understanding. Labor-management teams could provide space for this in the workplace, and groups dealing with restorative justice could do so in the community. We could all use a deeper understanding of this issue and move the reckoning conversation forward with respect, rather than cutting it short and increasing fear and resentment for men and women alike.
Point of View
But on a less obvious note, I want to suggest that Lucy retract her suggested assignment of having everyone write from a rape victim’s POV. No girl reading the assignment should think of trying it unless she is a rape victim. When one out of four of us have been raped, should we see what those other three have to say about how it feels to be raped? No matter how deep the writer goes, the piece would still not be based on truth; it would be guess work. Christine Blasey Ford told us about Kavanaugh’s drunken laughter; I remember with stark clarity how bright the crust of stars gleamed through the windshield. We should start listening to people who have been there.
No More P.C. Police!
I read Lucy Marx’s essay carefully, and also read Junot Díaz’s own piece on his blighted childhood. I must start out by stating that I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, and have been for more than 50 years (I’m 65). I don’t believe in men abusing women, women abusing men, people abusing their power and/or privilege to get the upper hand in anything. But you know what? Shit happens. People can be cruel and ugly toward each other, whether or not they have talent. They can also just be unpleasant. Many creative people have adopted lifestyles that I don’t agree with at all, including some that I think are downright disgusting. Does this mean I should not read their work?
Having said all that, my response to the questions posed by Marx is that it is impossible to screen out every single human being who has ever behaved wickedly towards another human being. If we imposed criteria like that on the authors currently populating our libraries, the shelves would be pretty empty.
I do think it is important to spread the word about reprehensible behavior, and whether responsibility is taken for this behavior. Let the reader judge for her/himself if this person should be patronized (read, hired – whatever). I can tell you that after learning about the life of Hemingway (for instance), I stopped reading his stuff. It wasn’t the PC police who stopped me, either; it was my own decision that this was not the kind of person I wanted to influence me.
I appreciate and honor the accounts of people who have gone through horrible, wounding experiences – rape and its aftereffects, abuse of all kinds. I take this into account when I make my own decisions.
The human condition is fragile and many of us don’t/can’t get along in the world without damaging others. It’s sad and bad – but the way to the light is not for some outside entity to summarily chop off the head of any person who messes up.
Thoughts on the Outing of Al Franken
Even if the campaign to out Al Franken was orchestrated in a completely cynical way by right wing operatives, still, if the photo was real, I think it was something he needed to deal with. I looked at the photo with a wave of disgust at their antics – his, and those of the person taking the photo – and sympathy for the sleeping woman. Disgust then morphed into outrage on her behalf. Perhaps I didn’t follow the results of the outing as closely as I should have, but my memory was that he did not speak out, he made the decision to resign from the Senate, and then he disappeared from public view.
And while I miss him as a strong progressive voice, someone whose political growth I had been following/supporting/relishing, I had the (maybe odd) reaction of feeling proud of him for the way he handled it. “See, that’s how men on our side respond to being outed,” I thought. Like a grown-up. Without fanfare. In sharp contrast to, let’s say, the petulance and rageful temper tantrum, and then creepy denial and pretense of, say, Brett Kavanaugh. Taking the oath of office with his hand raised and his loving family looking on. You can just feel how false that photo is….
Franken set an example for how any of us who do something wrong need to own it, take responsibility for it. Accept the consequences. That is, for me, the takeaway message from his outing.
And it leads me to the burgeoning movements around restorative justice, led by women of color. To use Marx’s apt metaphor, you can’t stand in the deniers’ circle and be part of a process of restorative justice. It demands moving from (or through) denial into some kind of acceptance, however flawed or partial. It’s a process that everyone who participates in learns from and grows within.
The point being: none of us is perfect. Each of us messes up. And we are all in this together, which implies degrees of complicity. The only people who can’t begin to be part of a process of restorative justice are people who are so stuck in denial that they can’t/won’t begin to take some responsibility for their actions. Which in some way, means accepting that there are consequences, and they are deserved. If you spend all your energy fighting the consequences of an action that you understand deserves consequences, then you have not left the denier’s circle. Kavanaugh certainly hasn’t. And we don’t yet see any evidence that Junot Díaz has broken his silence either. He made a start, and then retreated back inside that circle. Marx’s piece enables us to see this clearly, and for that clarity, we owe her a huge debt.
In My Words: Reflecting on Junot Díaz , Misogyny, and the Writer’s Role
Reading Lili Loofbourow’s essay alongside my mother’s was thought-provoking. I particularly found this point of hers to be significant: “If the idea is that trauma replicates itself, that victims become perpetrators, it’s odd to so thoroughly sidestep the viewpoints of those you’ve hurt.” It is a cycle, but the only way to break the cycle is to allow everyone involved in the cycle to have a voice and for each one to listen to and respect the others’ perspectives. Perhaps Junot wanted people to do that for him, but he wasn’t necessarily doing it for others.
Loofbourow makes several other points that are also key to the #MeToo conversation: “[I]ndividual action is both possible and necessary. It requires that a man in his position learn to apologize to those he’s injured and seek forgiveness on their terms.” She goes on to say, “The instructions our culture gives to men are almost as poor as those it gives to women. But it’s fair to ask for more.” And “everyone is guilty. … If you grew up in a culture that structurally undervalues women, then you, yes you, have undervalued them.”
These are powerful statements. We can empathize with this man, and he can feel sorry for himself for what happened in his past, but both he and we also need to address his actions in the more recent past and present both despite and in addition to acknowledging how awful things may have been in his youth.
When Junot read at the Boston Arts event I had organized when I was interning at City Hall, he hugged me (he was touchy-feely and a bit macho in a way that felt familiar, but was not inappropriate). He asked what I was studying in school. I said, “creative writing” and he said, “Oh boy, good luck with that,” half-jokingly. Then he signed my book: “Anna – Write! We need your words.” I was enchanted.
A few years later, I heard him read from his new book to a packed crowd in Brooklyn, a much different atmosphere than the tiny reading I’d helped organize in Boston. When he took audience questions, a young woman asked about the presence of misogyny in the book. He explained, “I don’t mean the book itself to be misogynistic, but rather to reveal the truths in this culture of machismo, and that is very real. We have to be able to acknowledge it and discuss it, so I’m glad it’s provoking these questions.” I thought that was a great response at the time. But it seems like he had trouble taking his own advice later on, and recognizing that he needed to not only acknowledge the presence of misogyny, but deeply acknowledge and atone for his own role in it. It relates to a theme from Drown that my mother pointed out and that definitely stood out when I read the book. She wrote, “Yunior, son and younger brother of two well-documented misogynists, taking up the patterns he’s been exposed to his whole life, a study in the making of a misogynist asshole. … See how I am, see how I became the asshole I am?” This is the essence of misogyny, trauma, and abuse – it’s cyclical. But to break that cycle, we need to address the cultural problem and then go further, and individuals who are part of it need to take responsibility for their role. This, in turn, raises some really interesting questions about a writer’s role.
Which relates to my mother’s discussion of Hemingway’s work and misogyny. She says, “Did Hemingway mean to expose this or was he sympathetic with the guy? How much did it matter? Wasn’t the truth enough, the words put in the characters’ mouths, for us all to parse in our own ways?” When Díaz writes about misogynistic characters, how much is he intentionally siding with different characters, and how much is he just exposing the culture and generating conversation? How much do his own role, experiences, and opinion matter? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think it’s an interesting and important part of the discussion of the writer’s role. I think it’s one Hemingway should have thought about, and one that Díaz now has a chance to reflect upon. And it’s important that he do so, even more so than when that young woman asked him a question at the Oscar Wao reading in Brooklyn several years ago. How much do we need to separate an author, his actions, or his intentions from his written words? To what degree can we still value Hemingway’s work, and Díaz ’s work, while expressing frustration with their actions?
So yes, Díaz did tell me: “Anna – Write! We need your words!” and this is an important message for every aspiring writer. But it turns out it’s just not enough; it matters what those words say, and how you back them up with thought, and action, and reflection.