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.
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.