I had never heard of Lena Dunham until a few months ago, but I’ve heard and read plenty about her since. I am not impressed. Mostly, I am unimpressed in her behavior which – at best – can be characterized as obtuse. It is probably more accurately described as egotistical, self-righteous and shockingly poor.
For those who have not been following the controversy, the facts are relatively straightforward. Dunham published a memoir called “Not That Kind of Girl” in which she claims to have been raped while at Oberlin college. She identifies an individual named “Barry” as her rapist and includes several details about his identity, including that he is a Republican. There is an individual named Barry who attended Oberlin at the time Dunham was there and was a Republican. Certain other details Dunham puts in the memoir about him are untrue (such as a mustache), but by typing in all of the verifiable details into Google it isn’t hard for someone to find the Barry that was at Oberlin at that time. For nine weeks, until today, Dunham refused to clarify that the Barry that one can easily identify through a Google search was not her rapist and that, in fact, she used Barry as a pseudonym. Today, she posted a column on Buzzfeed explaining that fact, along with a series of self-serving statements.
Let’s start off with the fact that Dunham has published and sold this book as a memoir, a non-fiction recounting of events that happened to her. For her to use a pseudonym for someone without making that explicitly clear is fraudulent to the reader. It’s fine to use pseudonyms to protect people – go read The Human Factor by Ishmael Jones, virtually every name is a pseudonym – but it is not okay to allow the reader to think you are using a real name when you are not. In at least one other instance in the book, where Dunham does use a pseudonym, she makes clear that she is doing so. Omitting that fact in describing Barry looks, at the very least, grossly negligent and – given the nature of the description – malicious.
Dunham says she has no interest in “exposing the man who assaulted” her. Fine. That is her choice and given the time that has elapsed there would probably be zero chance of convicting him. But then Dunham, who has been paid millions of dollars for a book that is supposed to be nonfiction had this to say:
I was not naïve enough to believe the essay in my book would be met with pure empathy or wild applause. The topic of sexual assault is far more inflammatory and divisive than it should be, with tension building around definitions of consent, and fear ruling the dialogue. But I hoped beyond hope that the sensitive nature of the event would be honored, and that no one would attempt to reopen these wounds or deepen my trauma.
But this did not prove to be the case. I have had my character and credibility questioned at every turn. I have been attacked online with violent and misogynistic language. Reporters have attempted to uncover the identity of my attacker despite my sincerest attempts to protect this information. My work has been torn apart in an attempt to prove I am a liar, or worse, a deviant myself. My friends and family have been contacted. Articles have heralded “Lena Dunham’s shocking confession.” I have been made to feel, on multiple occasions, as though I am to blame for what happened.
If this is the sort of claptrap that passes for mental rigor then we are all in serious trouble. Nobody forced Dunham to write about her assault. She was paid millions of dollars and chose to include the incident in her book, a book she is now actively promoting. What she seems to find objectionable is the concept that people who read the book will hold her to account for allegations and accusations contained within it. It is an attitude which betrays her level of insularity.
Notwithstanding an violent and misogynistic language Dunham has encountered on the internet, and which is illegitimate, Dunham’s character and credibility have been attacked because of actions she took. She chose to write the book. She chose to include the story of her alleged assault (I use the word alleged here, rather than take her at her word, because she shot her credibility when she lied about the name of her assailant). And she chose to include details which, when examined, did not hold up and which implicated an innocent person. The fact that the innocent person she accused is a Republican, and she included that as an identifying detail, only makes the situation all the worse, given her views on Republicans. It looks as if she intentionally defamed someone because of his political views. Whether it was intentional or not, it was certainly irresponsible and fully deserving of fact checking.
Evidence of Dunham’s complete cocoon from reality is further on display when she absolves herself of all responsibility for her actions:
But I don’t believe I am to blame. I don’t believe any of us who have been raped and/or assaulted are to blame. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what is written about me individually. I accept the realities of being in the public eye. But I simply cannot allow my story to be used to cast doubt on other women who have been sexually assaulted.
I have a certain empathy for the journalists who asked me questions like whether I regret how much I drank that night or what my attacker would say if he was asked about me. These ignorant lines of inquiry serve to further flawed narratives about rape, but these people are reacting to the same set of social signals that we all are — signals telling us that preventing assault is a woman’s job, that rape is only rape when a stranger drags you into a dark alley with a knife at your throat, that our stories are never true, and that lying about rape is a way for women to enact revenge on innocent men. These misconceptions about rape are rampant, destructive and precisely the thing that prevents survivors from seeking the support that they need and deserve.
Speaking out about the realities and complexities of sexual assault is how we begin to protect each other. I do not want our daughters born into a world that reacts to sexual violence against women in this way. This reaction, which ranges from skepticism to condemnation to threats of violence, is something I have been subject to as a woman in a position of extraordinary privilege.
Dunham, in an attempt to insulate herself, conflates the concept of blaming people who have been raped (illegitimate) with those blaming Dunham for pointing to an innocent man in her book (legitimate). If Dunham isn’t to blame for omitting a crucial detail about Barry in a book with her name on the cover then who is? That is the blame at issue, not being raped or assaulted. If Dunham was raped or assaulted, the perpetrator should be in prison. Furthermore, I don’t question other women who have claimed to be raped – each criminal incident has to be judged on its own merits. But for Dunham to think it is completely unfair that people are questioning her given what she wrote is ludicrous. If she had said “Barry” was a pseudonym from the start, or had she not provided identifying characteristics that would lead to an actual person then there would be no questioning of Dunham’s veracity. Contrary to her belief that the skepticism and condemnation is the result of her being a woman, Dunham’s account was questioned because the facts didn’t add up. If a reporter had looked at her account, found that there were significant inconsistencies and then decided not to publish because the issue was rape then the reporter would be granting coverage of rape, as an issue, a special privilege, effectively saying that fact checking is impermissible.
Dunham closes with this thought:
Survivors have the right to tell their stories, to take back control after the ultimate loss of control. There is no right way to survive rape and there is no right way to be a victim. What survivors need more than anything is to be supported, whether they choose to pursue a criminal investigation or to rebuild their world on their own terms. You can help by never defining a survivor by what has been taken from her. You can help by saying I believe you.
I’m not sure that I agree with Dunham. I think rapists should be locked up and prevented from raping again. However, I will grant that that isn’t always a possibility and the need to heal is an important goal, and if there has to be a choice made between allowing a rapist to go free and a woman being able to heal, then the woman should be the one to make that choice. What I most definitely cannot agree on, however, is the idea that Dunham is in that position. She could have written a fictionalized account of her assault and she would not be questioned. She could have written a true account of her assault and not be questioned because the facts would show it was true. She could have written a true account of her assault but made clear that the underlying details were changed to prevent identification of the attacker because Dunham did not want to delve back into that experience. Instead, she chose to describe her assault, insert (presumably) some facts which are true alongside facts which are untrue. That created a false account, pointed to an innocent man and ultimately leads to her credibility being a question.