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Guest Post: Ravi Shankar Responds to My Open Letter

This is the first guest post I have had on my blog, ever. Back in July of 2017, I post­ed an open let­ter to the poet Ravi Shankar. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Ravi did not receive the email I sent him to tell him I was going to post the let­ter and so, as he says in his first para­graph, he did not find out about it until very recent­ly, which is why he has respond­ed only now. 

Dear Richard:

I’m writ­ing in response to your open let­ter from near­ly a year ago, of which I was only made aware of this last week.  Strange how in this time of per­va­sive social media, such things can fly under the radar, but when you’ve lived a life as I have, being insu­lat­ed from pub­lic opin­ion is prob­a­bly for the best. Nonethe­less, I want to take on your chal­lenge, answer some of your ques­tions and fill in some of the blanks in your under­stand­ing of what has tran­spired. It does­n’t escape me, even as I write this to you, that I’m still feel­ing self-pro­tec­tive and cir­cum­spect, unable to see and artic­u­late things as sin­cere­ly and ful­ly as I might some­day hope to and also that I’m try­ing to heal things in ways that writ­ing this response might actu­al­ly end up harm­ing and politi­ciz­ing. I’m also very aware that we are two men dis­cussing what I had hoped would become a dis­cus­sion with a woman, Annie Finch, who had ini­ti­at­ed this con­ver­sa­tion in the first place.

Let me take you back to the moment when Annie wrote her essay, “Things I’ve Been Ashamed to Share About Being a Writer Until Now,” which I still con­sid­er as pow­er­ful and mov­ing a tes­ti­mo­ni­al as I’ve read about the relent­less cul­ture of sex­ism that per­me­ates even those worlds that would hold them­selves as more enlight­ened and sen­si­tive to feel­ing, the small cir­cle that poets and writ­ers cir­cu­late in. And how pre­scient the essay would prove to be, com­ing before #metoo, #time­sup, and the cli­mate we find our­selves in today.

When I was tweet­ed that essay, I instinc­tive­ly retweet­ed it after only real­ly skim­ming it, feel­ing the out­rage of the var­i­ous degra­da­tions that Annie has had to go through, not read­ing it close­ly enough to real­ize that I was one of the men men­tioned in the essay. When it was brought to my atten­tion, I read it clos­er and to my shock, hor­ror and utter dis­be­lief, I saw my name among the names of these oth­er men.

The sen­sa­tions that flood­ed through my body then began with increduli­ty, the blis­ter­ing dis­be­liev­ing wave that crest­ed in my ears, fol­lowed by the ire of a man who had been suck­er punched in the stom­ach, final­ly plung­ing into a keen exis­ten­tial doubt for this was some­thing I would swear nev­er hap­pened, but could it have? I sat stunned in front of my com­put­er, try­ing to remem­ber this alleged tres­pass from over a decade ago and found I could­n’t. I still can’t.

That’s when I react­ed instinc­tive­ly and impul­sive­ly. By deploy­ing this tac­tic of pro­vid­ing the first name and last ini­tial of var­i­ous men, Annie’s essay — and she is smart enough to rec­og­nize this, essen­tial­ly pro­vid­ed cloak of cov­er to the Alfred M.‘s and Bill R.‘s of the world and focused all of the atten­tion on the two men of col­or.

So what you ask? If I had done such a thing, I should be held to account. I agree. But let’s zoom out for a moment. At time that Annie wrote her essay, she was the tenured Chair of a writ­ing pro­gram and I was lit­er­al­ly in exile on the oth­er side of the world, on a tem­po­rary res­i­den­cy in Chi­na, hav­ing left my mar­riage, my home, and own aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tion for rea­sons that I was still in the process of work­ing out. I had just sur­vived the hard­est, dark­est days of my life, and was strug­gling to meet my oblig­a­tion as a father to two daugh­ters, hav­ing no steady rev­enue source. I was not a “man in pow­er.” I was ten­u­ous­ly cling­ing for my life. This was already a time of deep intro­spec­tion for me, as recent events had demand­ed that I look at my life, in its entire­ty, from my ear­li­est remem­brances on up. I was being called on to ask myself why cer­tain self-destruc­tive impuls­es had gripped me, but nev­er in a way that harmed any­one but myself, and those who loved me the most. How­ev­er, this accu­sa­tion was some­thing else entire­ly.

So yes Annie’s essay com­plete­ly side­swiped me and I respond­ed impul­sive­ly. I wish I had sat with its impli­ca­tions for longer. Silence, it turns out, is often the best solu­tion and it’s a les­son I’ve had to learn the hard way. Instead, I wrote that ram­bling and, in ret­ro­spect, grandiose and mor­al­iz­ing pub­lic apol­o­gy.  But how does one apol­o­gize for doing some­thing they don’t rec­ol­lect and have trou­ble believ­ing even ever hap­pened, some­thing that doesn’t make sense in the first place? I view a kiss as pre­lude and need­ing by its very incar­na­tion to be mutu­al.

I tried hard to remem­ber some­thing from over a decade ago but stalled out. I ques­tioned who I might have been at that time, whether I might have felt cav­a­lier enough that I felt I could just gal­li­vant around, drunk on my own per­ceived prowess, act­ing from the venal impuls­es of the id?  Or since the con­fer­ence in ques­tion, the Asso­ci­at­ed Writ­ing Pro­grams (AWP) is joc­u­lar­ly referred to as the Alco­holic Writ­ers Par­ty, could I have been com­plete­ly man­gled when it hap­pened? Or was this a mis­guid­ed act of affec­tion on my part, a Euro­pean kiss on the cheek gone hor­ri­bly wrong?

I went through each pos­si­bil­i­ty in my head. Of all the men Annie named, I was the only one with the courage and stu­pid­i­ty to attempt to apol­o­gize pub­li­cal­ly. Obvi­ous­ly I should not have react­ed so instinc­tu­al­ly and I should have sat with myself for longer, but my apol­o­gy was heart­felt and sin­cere, if mis­guid­ed. And as I titled it “Towards pub­lic dia­logue”, I hoped that it would start a con­ver­sa­tion.

How­ev­er, the exact oppo­site hap­pened. I was fur­ther vil­i­fied for my apol­o­gy, called a gas-lighter, a cow­ard, and a vic­tim-blamer. Fur­ther engage­ments can­celled on me. A fem­i­nist poet wrote advis­ing me “to cut off my cock.” Annie her­self wrote a blog on “how to apol­o­gize.” I was in the words of anoth­er, no bet­ter than Don­ald Trump who had called women “dogs, pigs and slobs.” I was deemed a per­pe­tra­tor of sex­u­al mis­con­duct and sex­u­al assault.

But I was­n’t Don­ald Trump. Or Bill Cos­by. Or Har­vey Wein­stein. A sin­gle pow­er­ful white woman came for­ward to recount a sin­gle inci­dent and until now, not one oth­er per­son has come for­ward with accounts of their own. I have ded­i­cat­ed my life to mar­gin­al­ized writ­ers, cham­pi­oning equal­i­ty and human rights, and Annie made an accu­sa­tion about some­thing that hap­pened well over a decade ago. On the basis of her account, in the eyes of the read­ers of her blogs, the admin­is­tra­tors at col­leges, and even some of my peers, I was guilty as charged. Some­how that placed me in league with pow­er­ful men who had elicit­ed sex in return for pro­fes­sion­al favors, who had abused their pow­er, who had drugged and raped women and men, and who had shown repeat­ed­ly that they bore no respect for oth­ers.

Then I thought about those times I had been forced into phys­i­cal con­tact with some­one who I had no inter­est in, men and women both, even a few women who were in a posi­tion of pow­er over me. I could write an essay nam­ing and sham­ing them but I nev­er would, and that per­haps says more about my per­son­al­i­ty and gen­der than the right­ness of my posi­tion. But I believe that you can’t fight trau­ma with trau­ma and that wound­ing anoth­er can nev­er lead either to col­lec­tive or per­son­al heal­ing. That’s when I offered to meet Annie pri­vate­ly or with a neu­tral third par­ty, for it felt like the con­ver­sa­tion we should be hav­ing was between the two of us. She refused this too and said that while she would be hap­py to con­sid­er serv­ing on a pan­el with me on the sub­ject, she did­n’t feel com­fort­able dis­cussing it with me in per­son.

On Twit­ter, some­one recent­ly defined priv­i­lege as hav­ing the right to make a mis­take. For I — just like you can I’m sure — can call up the name of a num­ber of men, main­ly white men, who have been whis­pered about for years. Preda­tors who have made pass­es at stu­dents and harassed their col­leagues. Men who have been qui­et­ly asked to leave their aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tions and qui­et­ly been hired else­where. Men who still have a job today. I know some of these men because I’ve taught and per­formed along­side them.

And then I start­ed hear­ing pri­vate­ly from women friends. One who was afraid to write on my behalf on Annie’s blog, told me that near­ly every woman had been through what Annie had described and often much worse, but because their own per­pe­tra­tors had nev­er been brought to account, it was not sur­pris­ing that I was being used as a con­ve­nient tar­get. Anoth­er is a woman whom I respect immense­ly, some­one who has helped run an orga­ni­za­tion that works with human traf­fick­ing vic­tims and sex­u­al assault sur­vivors for many years. She was actu­al­ly indig­nant that Annie had equat­ed what I had done to sex­u­al assault, because she knows me and knows that my respect for women is unde­ni­ably inter­twined with my being the old­er broth­er to two younger sis­ters, the father of two lit­tle girls, son to a moth­er who was enslaved by the mores of her native coun­try far too ear­ly in life, son to a father who has abused oth­ers, part­ner to a woman who has her­self been the recip­i­ent of unwant­ed kiss­es and tox­ic pro­fes­sion­al pow­er plays — some­times even from oth­er women. My friend thought it did a great dis­ser­vice to all of those trau­ma­tized women she was work­ing with who have been vic­tims of actu­al sex­u­al vio­lence, like gang rape and incest, to equate what­ev­er hap­pened in my case to what these women go through on a dai­ly basis.

She’s doing good in the real world, so I was­n’t about to impinge on her time to ask her to write on my behalf on some­one’s blog, but nonethe­less, she empow­ered me to share her point of view. She’s also the one who point­ed me towards British aca­d­e­m­ic and author Dr. Joan­na Williams who writes, “the prob­lem with #MeToo is that it takes these seri­ous crimes and it blurs them with a host of behav­iors which are less crim­i­nal. For exam­ple, the class exam­ple is a knee touch­ing, clum­sy flir­ta­tion, unwant­ed kiss­es — these are not the same as crim­i­nal acts. That’s the first prob­lem, in blur­ring of these behav­iors togeth­er actu­al­ly triv­i­al­izes rape, triv­i­al­izes some of the most seri­ous crimes.…I think it blurs all kinds of behav­ior because it presents all women as vic­tims and demands that we should believe unques­tion­ing­ly women who come for­ward with #MeToo alle­ga­tions actu­al­ly flies in the face of legal process. It sug­gests that we don’t need to have tri­als and courts of law, we don’t need juries, we don’t need evi­dence. We can accuse men just by tri­al by media.”

That’s not to imply that what’s been hap­pen­ing is not absolute­ly empow­er­ing and nec­es­sary, and hope­ful­ly #metoo presents a kind of sea-change in the cul­ture of harass­ment that has been preva­lent for far too long. But it feels like the first step. For the idea of the move­ment was nev­er to destroy men but to ask us to look into our­selves to see how we can do our part in chang­ing things. Con­sid­er the cul­ture of tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty we are raised in and how, from being a young boy, we are bom­bard­ed with images that present the sex­u­al­iza­tion and objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women. We are told to man upif we show emo­tion, and we are cov­ered up for when we mis­be­have, because, you know, boys will be boys. But para­dox­i­cal­ly and con­verse­ly, we are also shamed for mak­ing our­selves vul­ner­a­ble, for man­i­fest­ing the impulse of humil­i­ty upon which an apol­o­gy is pred­i­cat­ed. To be a sen­si­tive man in this cul­ture is to be emas­cu­lat­ed and dis­missed, even, it turns out, by those who would argue oth­er­wise.

That’s the con­ver­sa­tion that I want­ed to have, though I wish now I had not respond­ed in any fash­ion, for the names of these oth­er men, some of them accused of much more heinous acts than I, have been for­got­ten, and I have become the focus, the token. And we all know the prob­lem with tokenism is that it is by its very nature based on untruth and hyper­bol­ic dis­course. That’s when I apol­o­gized for my ini­tial apol­o­gy, and reached out to Annie in pri­vate as well, ask­ing her to please take down my ini­tial apol­o­gy. She refused this as well.

When yet anoth­er fel­low­ship oppor­tu­ni­ty dis­ap­peared in the after­math of this, that’s when I react­ed. I see now the rage in my response. How dare this woman in pow­er make a claim that was threat­en­ing my abil­i­ty to make a liv­ing, with­out even hav­ing the decen­cy to reach out to me first? I felt bul­lied. I was scared. For how on earth was I going to take care of my daugh­ters if the oppor­tu­ni­ties I was count­ing on to earn mon­ey were dis­ap­pear­ing? That’s when I did what I wish I had­n’t done, although if I sup­pose if I had­n’t, then maybe we would­n’t be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.

Those sock-pup­pets were based in part on the emails I had received from women whose points of view were not being made pub­lic, though they exist­ed. Some who wrote to me were scared to have their names attached to any defense of a man. My friend on whom “Saman­tha” was based was active­ly pissed off. She did­n’t want to min­i­mize my alleged tres­pass but thought that the out­size reac­tion to it was ridicu­lous and that it prob­a­bly had more to do with race than gen­der. She remind­ed me that over 50% of white women in Amer­i­ca had vot­ed for Trump, so while he would remain the leader of the free world, I would have the rug pulled out from under me. She felt that though it was an indig­ni­ty that no one women should ever have to go through, that mag­ni­fy­ing an unwant­ed kiss or a clum­sy flir­ta­tion moved the focus from those women who were real­ly suf­fer­ing.  I have the receipts of all these cor­re­spon­dences.

So I nev­er intend­ed to troll Annie, or to re-vic­tim­ize her, but want­ed only to defend myself. I act­ed out of pan­ic and des­per­a­tion, and in ret­ro­spect, it was one of the most thought­less things I have ever done. I am deeply sor­ry for hav­ing done it and I don’t expect to be for­giv­en. I can see now how that con­tent of what I wrote was harm­ful and I have to own my own anger in that moment. I felt unfair­ly bat­tered, espe­cial­ly because I had seen Annie over the years since this alleged kiss. I can even recall her greet­ing me once with a hug that she her­self ini­ti­at­ed and ask­ing me on Face­book to join a writer’s group that she man­aged. All of this was done with­in the last decade. So I was utter­ly per­plexed.

How often I wished that Annie and I could have had a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion and that she had been com­pas­sion­ate enough to engage in a dif­fi­cult dis­cus­sion one-on-one in a safe space, one that might have giv­en way to a col­lab­o­ra­tive essay or a mutu­al under­stand­ing that could have made a real and last­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the #metoo move­ment. That did­n’t hap­pen and the mob, it turns out, is not such a great col­lec­tive lis­ten­er. Their pur­pose is too often embed­ded in hate speech and reflex­ive out­rage.

In the inter­ven­ing months, I tried again to write the apol­o­gy that I should have writ­ten in the first place and I have shared that with Annie and I believe that she for­gives me. I put myself back in the shoes of who I was back then and feel like I was final­ly able to own what might have tran­spired between us. That apol­o­gy is pri­vate and I hope will remain that way. Real­ly I should nev­er have attempt­ed to write a pub­lic apol­o­gy in the first place and I should­n’t have com­pound­ed my error by try­ing to defend myself. I’m so sor­ry for doing that.

I should have just lis­tened.

Ulti­mate­ly, though, should the les­son have been to do noth­ing, when that’s the easy way out? Should I have done what anoth­er one of the men named in Annie’s essay did when we dis­cussed it, sweep­ing the entire mat­ter off his shoul­der as if a mos­qui­to had land­ed there? Should I have gone on the attack like Trump and skew­ered Annie? Should I have just said noth­ing? Indeed, any one of those respons­es seems a bet­ter option than what I did. Cer­tain­ly those choic­es would have pro­vid­ed a bet­ter out­come for me.  But I care deeply about this issue and want­ed to look hard at myself. I wish I had not been so dev­as­tat­ed and eager to plunge into the truth of what hap­pened. I wish I had not made myself so pub­licly vul­ner­a­ble by apol­o­giz­ing in the first place.

But it was my sin­cere hope that writ­ing my apol­o­gy would begin a dia­logue and that I would be able to encounter those places in myself where priv­i­lege might have result­ed in blind­ness and where I might have mis­treat­ed anoth­er with­out real­ly see­ing it. That rather than recrim­i­na­tion and accu­sa­tion that my reach­ing out might help open a space for dia­logue where we might inter­ro­gate those places where the unhealthy mas­culin­iza­tion of young men inter­faces with sex­ism in our larg­er soci­ety.

That con­ver­sa­tion nev­er took place. Instead, what hap­pened was that I was bat­tered even fur­ther. I wish I had just been able to breathe and sit with it all, instead of react­ing out of a blind urge towards self-preser­va­tion. I wish Annie could have had a face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion about this instead of medi­at­ing it over social media. Maybe I’m old fash­ioned but I believe in engag­ing with peo­ple one-on-one.

For as a result of Annie’s blog and my response to it, my own life has irrev­o­ca­bly trans­formed. In its after­math, I’ve been suf­fer­ing from PTSD, from sui­ci­dal ideations, from a shame so great as to be rel­e­gat­ed to a sort of soli­tary con­fine­ment, both per­son­al­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly. In essence, as in the time of the purge or the witch hunts or the com­mu­nist scare, I have been black­list­ed. I’ve been made into a pari­ah and begun to lose those things I’ve worked for and earned. I was com­mis­sioned to write a blog post for AGNI & spent my free time doing this as an unpaid ser­vice for the mag­a­zine and it was up for a day before being tak­en down. Edi­tor Bill Pierce wrote me to say, “Annie Finch’s blog posts and your response there, dis­turbed sev­er­al of the edi­tors enough that they did­n’t want us to pro­mote your work.”; Gary Clark, the Direc­tor of the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter wrote to me after I had received admis­sion and won a fel­low­ship to fin­ish work on my next book and had already booked a tick­et there from Aus­tralia to say, “Infor­ma­tion [was] brought to our atten­tion about you. The Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter staff and I do not feel it is appro­pri­ate for you to take part in the VSC com­mu­ni­ty at this time” (the work I sub­mit­ted dealt explic­it­ly with my own dif­fi­cul­ties, so I won­der who reached out to them and how that one per­son­’s tes­ti­mo­ny, being so obvi­ous­ly per­son­al­ly and polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed, could pro­duce such an intend­ed effect); George Rosen­feld of the Lexi Rud­nit­sky Poet­ry Project, where I have been a judge for the last decade, help­ing bring into print the work of a female poet­’s first book, recent­ly wrote to say “I regret that in light of recent con­cerns we feel we must ask you to resign from the pan­el of judges” (a deci­sion that Lexi Rud­nit­sky her­self, a close friend of mine before she trag­i­cal­ly passed away, would have been appalled by); a book of con­tem­po­rary Indi­an writ­ing that I had signed the con­tract for and had already deliv­ered is being tak­en from my hands even as I write this to you.

So yes, this has been per­son­al­ly dev­as­tat­ing, espe­cial­ly when it becomes clear that I am the vic­tim of prej­u­di­cial treat­ment and being held up to a spe­cial scruti­ny to which few oth­ers seem to being held, a judge­ment that is reserved for rapists and pedophiles. A quick glance at the ros­ter of who attends these artist’s colonies and serves on these pan­els con­firms that there are those who have been upfront about their own sub­stance abuse, sex­u­al deviance, or objec­tion­able beliefs, and those who are well-known to be creeps yet who con­tin­ue to receive invi­ta­tions and insti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tions.

And I don’t believe that is the point of #metoo and #time­sup. Any move­ment that is based on destruc­tion will nev­er achieve the heal­ing that it needs. It’s not enough for NBC to fire Matt Lauer, for exam­ple, with­out inves­ti­gat­ing itself for how such behav­iors could have gone on for so long. And maybe we all just need to stop and lis­ten for a long while, but after that, we need to engage in com­pas­sion­ate dia­logue. I have been car­ry­ing as tal­is­man a few lines from anoth­er amaz­ing female poet who wrote this to me:

We live in strange times. So much out­rage, so much dra­ma, so much amne­sia. Per­haps we have all col­lud­ed in some way in mak­ing that hap­pen. But I am one of the many that feels a deep unease at this cul­ture of reac­tiv­i­ty and chron­ic indig­na­tion. I’m for­ev­er try­ing to fig­ure out strate­gies of engage­ment and with­draw­al. Nowhere near crack­ing it yet, I’m afraid!

Yes­ter­day morn­ing, I was sit­ting around a din­ing table with a few oth­er writ­ers at an artist colony (for con­trary to the brush with which I’m being tarred, I’ve been a respect­ful and val­ued mem­ber of such com­mu­ni­ties all my life) and one of them was a woman of col­or who demon­strat­ed to me the true dev­as­ta­tion that our sex­ist cul­ture can pro­duce. She talked about an expe­ri­ence with a pro­fes­sor who was sup­posed to be writ­ing her a rec­om­men­da­tion and how his pass at her result­ed in her own self-con­fi­dence being utter­ly shak­en. How she remem­bers ques­tion­ing her own tal­ent and abil­i­ty, and whether she had was being praised for her work or her attrac­tive­ness the entire time. It was almost enough to make her give up writ­ing. That’s dev­as­tat­ing! And so I take it to heart when you say that my par­rot­ing of my friend’s view­point might have pre­vent­ed oth­er women from com­ing for­ward.

How­ev­er, might I sug­gest Richard that you recon­sid­er shame and judge­ment as effec­tive mech­a­nisms of social rela­tion?  None of us are born want­i­ng to mar­gin­al­ize anoth­er human being; but when his­tor­i­cal­ly an entire econ­o­my has been fab­ri­cat­ed upon the enslave­ment of oth­ers and some con­tin­ue to ben­e­fit from that fact dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly, a ves­tige of that mem­o­ry has to remain, to con­tra­dict us when we feel the urge to shame anoth­er. That unre­solved ambi­gu­i­ty remains at the heart of the Puri­tan dri­ve towards com­pli­ance. For Bud­dhists, on the oth­er hand, shame, if under­stood prop­er­ly for what it is—an impov­er­ished men­tal­i­ty, the ter­ror of being judged, a state of lack­ing, the con­di­tion of per­pet­u­al­ly insufficiency—can actu­al­ly become a trans­for­ma­tive prin­ci­ple. It can pro­vide a gate­way to a larg­er, more inclu­sive sense of belong­ing, can open our­selves up com­pas­sion­ate­ly to oth­ers, because in the end it shows us how emp­ty the ego­ism with which we invest our­selves real­ly is com­pared to the vast­ness of our lumi­nous true natures.

The phe­nom­e­non of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry pub­lic sham­ing on the inter­net has been well doc­u­ment­ed by soci­ol­o­gists and writ­ers like Welsh jour­nal­ist Jon Ron­son who writes, “we are defin­ing the bound­aries of nor­mal­i­ty by tear­ing apart the peo­ple out­side it.” That’s part of our Puri­tan inher­i­tance and can lead to the mass cathex­is of a “holi­er-than-thou” mob men­tal­i­ty that reduces its human play­ers into over­sim­pli­fied place­hold­ers of good and evil. Once that sort of reifi­ca­tion is in motion, even the most basic ten­ants of jour­nal­ism can be sub­vert­ed to fit the pre-exis­tent pat­tern. It’s brand­ing a let­ter on the fore­head and it’s lazy think­ing that lacks nuance. It’s assum­ing that we are not capa­ble of change and growth.

The appetite for pub­lic sham­ing some­one is large because in Ronson’s words, “the snowflake nev­er needs to feel respon­si­ble for the avalanche.” We can each pile on, trans­form our own dis­sat­is­fac­tion into a blud­geon with which we can take whacks at one anoth­er. We can deem this civic dis­course and feel bet­ter about our­selves, no mat­ter whether our pub­lic sham­ing has engen­dered depres­sion, sui­ci­dal ideation, para­noia, anx­i­ety, or PTSD in our vic­tim. Nev­er mind the fury which may boil up in the per­se­cut­ed indi­vid­ual, mak­ing them lash out anew against fur­ther inno­cent vic­tims, dri­ving them to revenge them­selves on oth­ers as a means of release, of per­pet­u­at­ing the cycle of abuse. As a sur­vivor your­self, Richard, I’m sure you know all of this much bet­ter than I could ever write.

So thanks for the invi­ta­tion to respond to your let­ter. Like my poet friend, I’m nowhere near fig­ur­ing out the right way for us to go for­ward, but I know that I am try­ing. Even as I write this, I can feel how defen­sive and armored I still remain. I can sense that I’m not yet quite up to the lev­el of dia­logue that my heart tru­ly desires. I know I am one of many men and women who are strug­gling in this moment, and while I am will­ing to go deeply into this social­ly charged ter­rain, I know I still haven’t sur­ren­dered ful­ly to the whole cat­a­stro­phe, which is what is being asked of me–and of us all.

Still I am cau­tious­ly hope­ful that this uproar will ulti­mate­ly lead to dia­logue, heal­ing, restora­tive jus­tice, clear see­ing, rad­i­cal love…all of things that we so des­per­ate­ly need to go for­ward in our shared human­i­ty. I believe that all of us are deeply flawed and yet inex­tri­ca­bly bound togeth­er, and I remain hope­ful that in spite of all the pain we might inflict on one anoth­er, that there’s a health­i­er way for us each to inter­act. I sure hope so. I know that not say­ing any­thing and hid­ing those ugly parts of our­selves is not the answer, and I remain con­vinced that some good can ulti­mate­ly come of this.

Take good care of your­self and thanks for your work on behalf of all those who don’t have voice. In the end, you’re right; I don’t believe we are on the oppo­site side of the line at all.

Your friend,









  • Veron­i­ca Posted June 2, 2018 3:28 pm

    Sad­ly, this only adds to the ini­tial impres­sion. He still believes he has the right to a one-on-one dis­cus­sion with some­one who has clear­ly expressed she does not want one. Harp­ing on that shows a total dis­re­spect to her deci­sion. He wants a dis­cus­sion and so her not agree­ing to one is seen as a slight, as a trans­gres­sion against him and not as her right not to asso­ciate with him. He obvi­ous­ly does not under­stand he caused his own prob­lems. He admits he should not have used sock pup­pets to troll and yet does­n’t under­stand that it was that trolling that was so dis­turb­ing and is the rea­son he has been unin­vit­ed from func­tions. It was abu­sive behav­ior on clear dis­play. It’s more than some­thing regret­table but ulti­mate­ly harm­less. It was harass­ment and bul­ly­ing. I wish he under­stood that men­tion­ing, as some type of pro­tec­tive armor, that he is a father of daugh­ters, a son of a moth­er, and a hus­band of a wife means noth­ing in this con­ver­sa­tion. Most men fathers, sons, and hus­bands whether they are misog­y­nists or not. I see that sort of defense as a red flag each time. When he sees that he does not get to steer the con­ver­sa­tion where he wants it to go and to cajole or shame a woman who has clear­ly stat­ed she has no inter­est in hav­ing that par­tic­u­lar dis­cus­sion with him, per­haps his apol­o­gy will sound some­what sin­cere. Here, unfor­tu­nate­ly, he spends para­graphs stat­ing how unfair it is that she will not have this con­ver­sa­tion with him. Even at the end he does­n’t get it. He wants it to lead to dia­logue. This is not his call to make.

  • rich­new­man Posted June 3, 2018 7:23 pm

    This is addressed to M, whose com­ment is in mod­er­a­tion, in the event that he or she has come back to see if it’s post­ed: Please check your Maili­na­tor account. I sent you an email because I had a ques­tion about your com­ment that I’d like to dis­cuss with you before I approve it. Thanks.

  • rich­new­man Posted June 3, 2018 10:39 pm

    I want to offer a more gen­er­ous read­ing of Ravi’s let­ter than either Veron­i­ca above, or the cou­ple of peo­ple I’ve heard from through email or oth­er pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or M (if you’re read­ing), whose com­ment is still in mod­er­a­tion, have giv­en. It’s not that I think those harsh­ly crit­i­cal read­ings are wrong, because I don’t, but rather that I want to be true to the premise of my orig­i­nal open let­ter, which was to take seri­ous­ly the call for dia­logue that Ravi made in the orig­i­nal apol­o­gy he sent to Annie Finch and gave her per­mis­sion to pub­lish on her blog. I am going, there­fore, to iden­ti­fy three or four moments in Ravi’s response where I think the door to that dia­logue starts to open a bit, in the hope of open­ing it even fur­ther, start­ing with the point towards the end of his response, where Ravi writes:

    Even as I write this, I can feel how defen­sive and armored I still remain. I can sense that I’m not yet quite up to the lev­el of dia­logue that my heart tru­ly desires. I know I am one of many men and women who are strug­gling in this moment, and while I am will­ing to go deeply into this social­ly charged ter­rain, I know I still haven’t sur­ren­dered ful­ly to the whole cat­a­stro­phe, which is what is being asked of me–and of us all.

    Leav­ing aside the melodrama–which is of course part of the armor­ing Ravi is talk­ing about–the fact that he is will­ing to say this in a text that he clear­ly intends as a response to his crit­ics sug­gests to me a desire to hear what those crit­ics have to say. The pas­sage can be read, in oth­er words, as an invi­ti­a­tion to pull the entire text of his response apart, show­ing him where he fails to get down to the lev­el of dia­logue he wants.

    Part of the dif­fi­cul­ty with this invi­ta­tion is that Ravi seems ini­tial­ly to have thought of it as an invi­ti­a­tion to women, or at least to one woman–as he says in his first para­graph, where he makes clear the dia­logue he intend­ed was with Annie, not with anoth­er man. Women, of course, have been engag­ing, or at least try­ing to engage in this dia­logue for a very, very long time, with only lim­it­ed suc­cess at best. So I can eas­i­ly see why a woman would resent what Ravi has writ­ten here, and it’s why I think this dia­logue needs to hap­pen between and among men, much more than between men and women.


    Anoth­er point at which I think the pos­si­bil­i­ty of real dia­logue starts to open up is when Ravi writes:

    Then I thought about those times I had been forced into phys­i­cal con­tact with some­one who I had no inter­est in, men and women both, even a few women who were in a posi­tion of pow­er over me.

    In the con­text of the entire response, it would be easy, and per­haps even tempt­ing, to dis­miss this as a trans­par­ent attempt to minimize/trivialize and deflect attan­tion away from what he did to Annie. As a sur­vivor of sex­u­al vio­lence myself, how­ev­er, I try to resist that reflex. If Ravi is telling the truth here, it would be no less dif­fi­cult for him to be spe­cif­ic in ways that might per­suade read­ers of that truth than it is for any sur­vivor. In oth­er words, the fact that this state­ment sounds as uncon­vinc­ing as it does might have more to do with the fact that it is true than with Ravi’s try­ing to deny and deflect the seri­ous­ness of his own actions.

    That truth, of course, would have no bear­ing on Ravi’s respon­si­bil­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty for what he did, but it would be an open­ing to a very dif­fer­ent kind of con­ver­sa­tion about the nature of what he did. So, again, I find the fact that Ravi was will­ing even to say this to be poten­tial­ly indica­tive of a desire for real engage­ment with the issues at stake here.


    A third point is when Ravi talks about the pri­vate apol­o­gy he sent to Annie Finch: “I put myself back in the shoes of who I was back then,” he says, “and feel like I was final­ly able to own what might have tran­spired between us.”

    It is entire­ly pos­si­ble, of course, that he tru­ly does not remem­ber what “tran­spired” between him and Annie more than ten years ago, and I think it’s point­less to argue about that. This moment of reflec­tion, how­ev­er, where he feels like he could imag­ine him­self doing what she says he did is again one where a real dia­logue might begin.


    And, final­ly, the sock pup­pets. I am not going to quote from that part of Ravi’s let­ter, because it’s sev­er­al para­graphs long, but I do want to say this: I find his expla­na­tion for why he cre­at­ed them–the des­per­a­tion he felt–and his apol­o­gy for hav­ing cre­at­ed them cred­i­ble and per­sua­sive. This does not in any way ame­lio­rate the seri­ous­ness of what he did in cre­at­ing them; it does not at all dimin­ish the false, mis­lead­ing, and dam­ag­ing nature of their con­tent; and I would not take back a sin­gle word of what I wrote about them in my orig­i­nal let­ter. Nonethe­less, for me, the fact that Ravi has owned up to them in the way that he has means it’s time to move on to fig­ur­ing out what it would take for him to regain the trust he’s lost. That, too, is a moment where real dia­logue can start to hap­pen.


    Whether or not that dia­logue does start to hap­pen, of course, is ulti­mate­ly up to Ravi. I just impor­tant for me, per­son­al­ly, not to lose sight of those places where it might begin.

  • Annie Finch Posted November 9, 2019 8:01 am

    Sev­er­al years down the line, i am re-read­ing this piece and even more grate­ful to Richard for mak­ing a space for it—and also to Ravi for writ­ing it. There is much truth here.

    In par­tic­u­lar, I am glad to see Ravi’s state­ments tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for mak­ing the sock pup­pets and acknowl­edg­ing that hav­ing cre­at­ed the sock puppets—rather than the sin­gle unwant­ed kiss— is the source of the career dif­fi­cul­ties he’s been hav­ing. Those state­ments may be hard to locate in this long and elo­quent post, so I will quote them here: “That’s when I did what I wish I hadn’t done, although if I sup­pose if I hadn’t, then maybe we wouldn’t be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.” And “For as a result of Annie’s blog and my response to it, my own life has irrev­o­ca­bly trans­formed.”

    When vic­tims fear that per­pe­tra­tors may suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ate harm from our truth-telling, we end up car­ry­ing dam­ag­ing, painful secrets for the per­pe­tra­tors’ sake. It is cru­cial for women and oth­er vic­tims of sex­u­al abus­es to know that it is always safe and appro­pri­ate to tell the truth (even about “small” inci­dents of sex­u­al­ly abu­sive behav­ior). So let’s acknowl­edge that the RESPONSE to the blog is the issue, and that the fall­out on Ravi here has not been about the kiss itself but about the sock pup­pets.

    I am moved by Ravi’s dis­cus­sion of shame through a Bud­dhist lens and intrigued by how the emo­tion of shame unites us in such expe­ri­ences. It seems there is much to dis­cuss here.

    Final­ly, I want to acknowl­edge and appre­ci­ate the one sim­ple, mov­ing sen­tence which to me is the core of this post: “I should have just lis­tened.”

    Thank you, Ravi.
    Apol­o­gy accept­ed.


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