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:
As a grad student, I invited Junot Diaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature. I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me. I’m far from the only one he’s done this 2, I refuse to be silent anymore.
— zinziclemmons (@zinziclemmons) May 4, 2018
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.