Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
I Am Deeply Disappointed in Junot Díaz…
Not because I know him (I don’t); not because his work has been impor­tant to me (I have read very lit­tle of it); but as a fel­low sur­vivor of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence.

 

In April of this year, when I read “The Silence: The Lega­cy of Child­hood Trau­ma,” Junot Diaz’ essay in The New York­er about being raped as an eight-year-old boy, I was filled with such feel­ings of hope and empa­thy, of com­pas­sion and cama­raderie, of sol­i­dar­i­ty and grat­i­tude, that I imme­di­ate­ly sent him an email to say thank you and, since I have been telling my own sto­ry pub­licly for more than a cou­ple of decades now, to offer words of sup­port and encour­age­ment. “As more [sur­vivors tell our sto­ries],” I wrote in the first para­graph,

we not only offer hope to, make it safer for, those of us who have not yet been able to speak out. We also help to define a cul­tur­al frame­work with­in which to see hon­est­ly, and a lan­guage with which to talk about accu­rate­ly, an aspect of all-too-many men’s expe­ri­ence that is pro­found­ly misunderstood…dismissed, denied and/or derid­ed.

I had no idea who mon­i­tored the email address I used, or if Díaz would ever read what I wrote, much less respond to it, but I was still hap­py to have writ­ten him. Then, just a few days lat­er, I read the tweet in which Zinzi Clem­mons alleged that Díaz had forcibly kissed her:

I read as well the state­ments by Car­men Maria Macha­do, Mon­i­ca Byrne, Alisa Valdes, and oth­ers who told sto­ries that not only seemed to shred Díaz’ rep­u­ta­tion as an ally to women, specif­i­cal­ly women of col­or, but also placed his New York­er essay in a much more com­pli­cat­ed con­text. Giv­en my own expe­ri­ence of writ­ing about what the men who vio­lat­ed me did to me, I did not for one moment think—as Clem­mons and oth­ers suggested—that Díaz had writ­ten his essay in order to pre­empt accu­sa­tions that he knew were com­ing. At the same time, how­ev­er, there was no way to avoid the dif­fi­cul­ty inher­ent in see­ing him as both a sur­vivor and a per­pe­tra­tor, a sta­tus he seemed to con­firm in the state­ment he released through his agent:

I take respon­si­bil­i­ty for my past… That is the rea­son I made the deci­sion to tell the truth of my rape and its dam­ag­ing after­math. This con­ver­sa­tion is impor­tant and must con­tin­ue. I am lis­ten­ing to and learn­ing from women’s sto­ries in this essen­tial and over­due cul­tur­al move­ment. We must con­tin­ue to teach all men about con­sent and bound­aries.

To be hon­est, I felt like a fool. In writ­ing Díaz, I had with­out real­iz­ing it vio­lat­ed a com­mit­ment I made to myself at least three decades ago: Nev­er to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty of any kind with any­one who’d done any­thing like what the men who vio­lat­ed me had done. I didn’t blame myself for this. After all, how could I have known? Nonethe­less, a part of me want­ed to write Díaz again and take back every word of what my orig­i­nal email had said. Doing that, how­ev­er, would have meant vio­lat­ing anoth­er, equal­ly impor­tant com­mit­ment I feel oblig­at­ed to keep: Nev­er to turn my back on a fel­low sur­vivor.

How to keep both those com­mit­ments with integri­ty is a ques­tion I’ve been try­ing to write about for the past cou­ple of months. Indeed, I had just fin­ished a draft I was sat­is­fied with when I read—and this is the source of my disappointment—the recent arti­cle in The Boston Globe where Díaz cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denies all the alle­ga­tions made against him. The denial itself, of course, is deeply prob­lem­at­ic, if not entire­ly unex­pect­ed. Díaz, after all, has a lot to lose if he ends up going the way of oth­er high pro­file men caught out by #MeToo accu­sa­tions, and I can see how MIT’s deci­sion not to fire him and The Boston Review’s deci­sion to keep him on as fic­tion edi­tor might encour­age him to try to clear his name com­plete­ly.

What’s dis­ap­point­ing about his denial is the form it takes. Accom­pa­nied by his attorney—which means you can guar­an­tee that every­thing he’s quot­ed as say­ing has been care­ful­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly thought through—Díaz does pre­cise­ly what he was accused of by the peo­ple who saw the pub­li­ca­tion of his New York­er essay as a cyn­i­cal and manip­u­la­tive ploy. He uses his expe­ri­ence of rape and his sta­tus as a sur­vivor to gar­ner sym­pa­thy for him­self. Then he uses that sym­pa­thy to stake out a moral high ground, call­ing into ques­tion the char­ac­ter, integri­ty, and verac­i­ty of his accusers—a strat­e­gy high­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the long-dis­cred­it­ed ploy used by defense attor­neys to shame and dis­cred­it women who tes­ti­fy against the men accused of rap­ing them.

Diaz’ first move is to respond to the con­nec­tions some of his crit­ics have drawn between him as an indi­vid­ual and the misog­y­nist male char­ac­ters he has cre­at­ed. The argu­ments mak­ing these con­nec­tions have been espe­cial­ly damn­ing because they sug­gest that the behav­ior he’s accused of, the poor treat­ment of women that he admits to in his New York­er essay, and the appalling­ly misog­y­nis­tic things done and said by his male char­ac­ters are all of a piece. As a result, as the Boston Globe arti­cle puts it, Díaz has found him­self hav­ing “to draw dis­tinc­tions between the artist and his art, between sex­u­al mis­con­duct and con­sen­su­al rela­tion­ships gone wrong.” After all, Díaz is quot­ed as say­ing, “There is a line between being a bad boyfriend and hav­ing a lot of regret [which is how he char­ac­ter­ized the poor treat­ment of women he wrote about in his New York­er essay], and preda­to­ry behav­ior [such as that exhib­it­ed by the male char­ac­ters he has cre­at­ed].”

As any­one knows who has ever thought seri­ous­ly about the rela­tion­ship between an author and her or his char­ac­ters, main­tain­ing the dis­tinc­tion between fic­tion and reality—even when there might be overlap—is impor­tant. It’s rea­son­able, there­fore, for Díaz to want to make sure that peo­ple under­stand the dif­fer­ence between lev­el­ing accu­sa­tions against him and pro­ject­ing onto him through those accu­sa­tions the fic­tion­al thoughts and behav­iors of the fic­tion­al char­ac­ters he has cre­at­ed. How­ev­er, by insist­ing on this dis­tinc­tion in the way that he does, Díaz sets up a frame­work that, unchal­lenged, would allow him to con­trol how the accu­sa­tions against him are under­stood.

By defin­ing “con­sen­su­al rela­tion­ships gone wrong” and “preda­to­ry behav­ior” as mutu­al­ly exclu­sive cat­e­gories, Díaz sug­gests that no mat­ter how wrong a con­sen­su­al rela­tion­ship might have gone, that wrong­ness would exclude preda­to­ry behav­ior by default. This notion, of course, which was debunked decades ago when mar­i­tal rape was final­ly made a crime, is false on its face. How­ev­er, by char­ac­ter­iz­ing the behav­ior he is will­ing to own up to, the behav­ior he dis­cussed in his New York­er essay, as by def­i­n­i­tion not predatory–by, in oth­er words, insist­ing that the line sep­a­rat­ing him from his char­ac­ters, at least in this regard, is an absolute one–Díaz cre­ates a sub­text which iden­ti­fies those char­ac­ters, in terms of their preda­to­ry behav­ior, not with him at all, but with the very preda­to­ry man who raped him. Fol­low the log­ic of this sub­text, and you end up in a sit­u­a­tion where sug­gest­ing equiv­a­lence of any sort between Junot Díaz and his char­ac­ters is tan­ta­mount to say­ing that Díaz him­self is fun­da­men­tal­ly no dif­fer­ent from the man who raped him–a dicey propo­si­tion at best, since it implic­it­ly triv­i­al­izes what it meant for Díaz to have been raped in the first place.

This sub­tex­tu­al appeal to our sym­pa­thy sets up the next move in Díaz’ strat­e­gy, which is to claim for him­self the moral author­i­ty of suf­fer­ing. You can see this in the sec­tion of the Globe arti­cle called “He also said, ‘MeToo,’” which is framed as a response to those who saw Díaz’ New York­er essay as a cyn­i­cal and pre­emp­tive ploy. “Díaz defends the piece as gen­uine,” the arti­cle observes, “say­ing he started…it over a year ago.” How­ev­er, instead of offering—or of get­ting Díaz to offer—evidence of that gen­uine­ness, the reporters who wrote the piece quote instead what Díaz has to say about how “trou­bled” he was “while pro­mot­ing his recent­ly released children’s book, Island­born:”

I was doing events with chil­dren exact­ly the same age I was when I was raped…I was los­ing my [exple­tive] lit­er­al­ly hav­ing to sit, to kneel with 6-, 7-, 8-year-old chil­dren.

I know first­hand how dif­fi­cult it must have been for Díaz to sit and inter­act with chil­dren who were the same age he was when he was raped, but what that dif­fi­cul­ty has to do with sup­port­ing his con­tention that the New York­er essay was “gen­uine” is beyond me. Indeed, the only way I can make any sense of the above quote is as an attempt to col­or as unfair, if not unjust, any dis­cus­sion that focus­es more on what Díaz is alleged to have done than on what he’s been through. “For heaven’s sake,” he seems to be say­ing, “look how dif­fi­cult being a sur­vivor made it for me to pro­mote some­thing as sim­ple as a children’s book. Now imag­ine how much more dif­fi­cult it must have been for me to write and pub­lish that essay. Do you real­ly think I’d put myself through a year of hell like that for any rea­son oth­er than telling the truth?”

If you’re a feel­ing per­son of any kind, it’s dif­fi­cult to say yes to that ques­tion, which is pre­cise­ly the point. The third move in Díaz’ strat­e­gy, dis­cred­it­ing his accusers—and I am going to focus here on what he has to say about Zinzi Clemmons—depends on it. The Globe arti­cle fore­shad­ows this move ear­ly on:

So far, Díaz has been spared [the fate of oth­er promi­nent men who’ve fall­en as a result of #MeToo accu­sa­tions] because…some of the alle­ga­tions [against him] have with­ered under scruti­ny […] Clem­mons, [for exam­ple,] who accused Díaz of forcibly kiss­ing her in a stair­well, has refused to say whether it was on the lips.

Notice how the word with­ered rais­es to a make-or-break sta­tus the stakes of both the detail Clem­mons refus­es to give and her refusal itself. This is the first exam­ple of the defense-attor­ney strat­e­gy I men­tioned above. Ask for inti­mate details of the encounter, the more sala­cious the bet­ter, and when the woman won’t or can’t pro­vide those details, use her silence to call her cred­i­bil­i­ty into ques­tion.

The jour­nal­ists who wrote the Globe arti­cle do not make this case quite so bald­ly, but, hav­ing plant­ed its seed at the begin­ning of their piece, they return to it lat­er in the con­text of Díaz’ full-throat­ed denial of Clem­mons’ alle­ga­tions:

I did not kiss any­one. I did not forcibly kiss Zinzi Clem­mons. I did not kiss Zinzi Clem­mons,” Díaz said. “It didn’t hap­pen.”

After that quote, the jour­nal­ists go on to describe two pieces of evi­dence in sup­port of Díaz’ denial: the “cor­dial email” from Clem­mons that Díaz received the next day, which made no men­tion of a kiss; and the words of a Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor who, on meet­ing Clem­mons after Díaz left, char­ac­ter­ized Clem­mons as “delight­ed, not shak­en.” This evi­dence does not actu­al­ly prove any­thing, of course, but once the reporters place it side-by-side with a restate­ment of Clem­mons’ insis­tence that Díaz did in fact kiss her forcibly, along with her refusal to pro­vide details about the kiss, the impli­ca­tion is clear. In that con­text, Clem­mons’ ret­i­cence about those details makes her look if not like an out­right liar, then cer­tain­ly like some­one who has some­thing to hide, whose motives might not be as pure as she claims–or at least like some­one who has tak­en “this whole #MeToo thing” a lit­tle too far. Indeed, dis­cred­it­ing Clem­mons in this way allows Díaz to claim the man­tle of #MeToo for him­self. “For some­one like me,” he’s quot­ed as say­ing, “who’s a vic­tim and a sur­vivor, MeToo stuff mat­ters.”

I assume it’s obvi­ous, but, for the record, I do not think Zinzi Clem­mons is lying; nor do I think her refusal to say where or how Díaz alleged­ly kissed her has any­thing to do with the cred­i­bil­i­ty of her accu­sa­tions. A forcible kiss is a forcible kiss. To argue oth­er­wise, to insist on a hier­ar­chy of vio­la­tions, may be rel­e­vant when talk­ing about the sever­i­ty of the con­se­quences a per­pe­tra­tor ought to suf­fer, but it is absolute­ly irrel­e­vant when ask­ing whether or not there was a vio­la­tion in the first place—which, giv­en Díaz’ denial, is the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion at stake here.

That Díaz has cho­sen to respond to that ques­tion by retreat­ing into strate­gies men have long used to avoid tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for their sex­u­al mis­con­duct leaves me, frankly, as a fel­low sur­vivor, feel­ing betrayed. I saw in the hon­esty of his (admit­ted­ly flawed) New York­er essay an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make some real room in pub­lic dis­course for the voic­es of men who have sur­vived sex­u­al vio­lence; and I saw in his ini­tial, if implic­it (and also flawed) con­fir­ma­tion of the accu­sa­tions against him the poten­tial for a deep­er, more inci­sive hon­esty. I wanted–I think male sur­vivors deserve–the con­ver­sa­tion to which that hon­esty might have led. Instead, play­ing pol­i­tics with his own heal­ing, espe­cial­ly in this Boston Globe arti­cle, Díaz has turned the dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing him into one of com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives of vic­tim­iza­tion, where what will mat­ter in the end will be who wins and who los­es, not what those nar­ra­tives might have to teach us and how we might grow from them.

Indeed, the nar­ra­tives are very impor­tant. They touch on ques­tions of race and gen­der, on the pol­i­tics and socioe­co­nom­ics of artis­tic pro­duc­tion and suc­cess, of cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, of the nature of sex­u­al vio­lence, and more. The nar­ra­tive that seems to have got­ten lost in the mix, how­ev­er, is the one that Junot Díaz and I–along with at least one out of every six men–share, the one that, in my expe­ri­ence, almost always seems to get lost in the mix: the nar­ra­tive of what it means to be a man in the process of heal­ing from sex­u­al vio­la­tion.

In this case, I believe that loss is on Díaz, which is why I am so deeply dis­ap­point­ed in him.

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