Men We Hate
Harvey Weinstein at the 2011 Time 100 gala
In 2015, the New York Times published an article with the headline: “Harvey Weinstein Won’t Face Charges After Groping Report.” Two years previously, Dylan Farrow spoke to Vanity Fair about her father, Woody Allen, accusing him of molestation. It would be two more years before her brother Ronan Farrow published his watershed article in The New Yorker about Weinstein and the dominoes would begin to fall, taking out one successful male auteur after another, and five more years until a sentence would be pronounced on the man considered to be one of Hollywood’s most prominent predators.
The first time I went vegan was for vanity, not the animals, and if you’d asked me whether I considered myself a spiritual person, I would have squinted my eyes at you, muttered something about my fundamentalist upbringing, and changed the subject. The year was 2015. I was 24 and wildly unaware. I bought clothes based on what was cheapest and most appealing. Words like “sustainability” and “eco-conscious” weren’t yet in the popular vernacular, much less active principles I followed in my own consumer choices. Veganism was still weird, even in Los Angeles where I lived and worked, something for hippies — crystal-toting psychics on mushrooms warning you to keep your eyes open, man. Obama was president and the world stage appeared as more of a sidebar to the average American than a centerfold. Greta Thunberg wasn’t yet an Instagram celebrity, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was still scraping money together waiting tables and bartending at a restaurant in the Bronx.
I’m wondering lately whether I can utilize a platform like Instagram for artistic expression in good conscience, knowing it’s owned and operated by Facebook, whose practices are widely criticized for enabling data exploitation, ad manipulation, and misinformation. Similarly, I’m fascinated by debates and op-eds that ask, essentially, whether or not one can still enjoy Annie Hall or any other artworks whose creators have not only acted abhorrently, but have, for all intents and purposes, gotten away with it. A sub-header for an article on this very subject in the now-defunct Rookie Mag reads, “Is it OK to love art by terrible people?” But what I’m curious about is “Who counts as ‘terrible people,’ and can anyone be un-terribled?” I, for one, have lied, stolen, manipulated, harmed myself and others, and yet even now I believe I’m worthy of love, forgiveness, and respect.
Who counts as “terrible people,” and can anyone be un-terribled?
Do we have a scale with which to gauge various crimes? Are certain transgressions — e.g. rape, pedophilia, molestation — unforgivable, and are those who commit them irredeemable? And, all that aside, can we continue in good conscience to watch films produced by the Weinstein Company, knowing what we now know about the man who helmed it? Lines blur when an artist’s work bleeds into that of other artists. For instance, is it permissible to watch Rosemary’s Baby in celebration of Mia Farrow’s performance, or must we decry it completely in protest of its writer and director Roman Polanski, a convicted child-rapist, who continues to enjoy his freedom in Europe?
Polanski with his late wife, Sharon Tate, in 1968
In my mid-20s things looked bright enough, but inside I had started to disintegrate. I wandered around my newly-gentrified neighborhood fending off panic attacks and loathing my own skin. I read Toni Morrison novels and Sylvia Plath poems under streetlights and told myself to get over myself. My life was fine. I couldn’t understand my own sabotage, defensiveness, or cruelty. I reeled people in only to cut them loose when fascination or pleasure wore off. My need for them braided around their need for me, and gladly I buried my wounds — a childhood of mental illness and neglect, spiritual abuse, and codependency — into a deeper and deeper hole, thinking if I never looked at them, they simply wouldn’t exist. It’s easy to look back and call myself naïve at best, inconsiderate at worst, but at the time it felt inescapable; a black hole I was being pulled into. I forced myself to keep smiling, daring myself to be happy while betraying myself at every opportunity.
When Roman Polanski was six years old, Jews in the Krakow ghetto he lived in were rounded up, and he watched as his father was sent to a Nazi death camp. His mother was hauled away to Auschwitz and killed immediately upon arrival. The Catholic family he sought shelter with, once they realized who and what he was, threw him out to fend for himself as an orphan on the streets of war-torn Poland. Before he was even an adolescent, years before he would be accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, he experienced immense trauma. Writing about the tragedies — physical or otherwise — that befall each of us, particularly in childhood, Dr Gabor Mate, renowned physician, addiction expert, and author of The Body Keeps the Score said, “There is no sin. There is human dysfunction as a result of trauma.” Where compassion for that dysfunction is concerned, he added, “We readily feel for the suffering child, but cannot see the child in the adult who, his soul fragmented and isolated, hustles for survival a few blocks away from where we shop or work.”
Polanski at the premier of the film Carnage in 2011
For most of my 20s, I worked at a grocery store in the valley of California where the world’s media is mass-produced, where expensive mothers shopped and gossiped with one another while their children stayed at home, attended to by brown-skinned nannies whose language their employers couldn’t speak. My own spiritual awakening and ethical evolution coalesced with no little confusion in a world of $100 haircuts and luxury couture. I entered into a relationship with a woman who saw into and through my destructive cracks and challenged me to be better. The landscape of television began to shift, and series like The Affair explored the repercussions of unresolved pain, and American Crime delved into power dynamics, class, and capitalism. Watching them, for the first time I began to consider the details of my world, down to where my produce came from, who picked it, and for how little compensation. The texture of the fast fashion I’d purchased at mall chain boutiques in the name of affordability began to fall apart, and the holes in their fabric mirrored the holes in my belief systems about what I valued and why. Influences converged and blurred. Did I want that pair of French-made vegan sneakers because I was excited by the company’s practices of ethical sourcing, or because I heard about them first from an actress I admired in The Hollywood Reporter? More likely than not, it was a bit of both.
On July 6, 2016, former news anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of the media behemoth that is Fox News. In December of 2019, Bombshell — a film dramatization of the events that followed — played in cinemas all over the world, just in time for awards season.
For a long time, my trauma was my excuse, ready and primed. I operated from the viewpoint that I was not responsible for the ways I lashed out, because my subconscious was running the show and “I didn’t mean it,” or “it wasn’t my intention.” It’s difficult to take responsibility for latter day repercussions when things have happened — often at a young age — that feel or are truly out of your control. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote about this, referring to our subconscious turmoil as our shadow. “What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases the patients themselves have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious.” He observed that “We carry our past with us…and it is only with an enormous effort that we can detach ourselves from this burden.” Dr Nicole LePera, a contemporary self-described “holistic psychologist” who eschews traditional therapy in favor of ushering in an era of what she refers to as “self healers,” described this state as “the mental software that was created in our childhood while our brain was in a theta hypnotic state.” How we often function now, as adults, is driven by this state. She explains, “In our unconscious state, we don’t connect to our authentic self. We live in our ego stories. We project, defend, and deny. In doing this we live a future based on our past.” In lieu of becoming conscious of what drives us, we often avoid, self-destruct, lash out, or otherwise create a tornado of turmoil in our lives.
For a long time, my trauma was my excuse, ready and primed. I operated from the viewpoint that I was not responsible for the ways I lashed out.
But just because there’s a lack of awareness surrounding our actions doesn’t mean we’re not accountable. Trauma isn’t an excuse, except for when we say it is, which happens more frequently than you might think. We determine which decisions or behaviors we’ll grace with our forgiveness and empathy, and which we won’t. After viewing Bombshell with a new friend and neighbor, she made a passionate argument for why the overwhelmingly passive actions of the women in the film (and by many in real life) are inevitable, are pathological, are not even choices. Why? Because of the patriarchy, she said, because of societal conditioning, because of individual grooming by abusers. So (her argument went), these individuals couldn’t be held responsible for their responses (or lack thereof) to the events and situations that unfolded. I’m almost certain she wouldn’t have given that same leeway to the Holocaust survivor that is Roman Polanski, or any other man who she deemed to hold some power, no matter what abuse or terrors they may have personally endured.
Through the untangling of my own understanding of trauma, the way I viewed the world shifted dramatically. The further I stepped into the corners of my own psyche, the more morally ambiguous the rest of the world appeared, and yet, almost impossibly, the higher my standards for my own behavior and that of others rose. I came to see that “I’m doing my best” only works if there’s a willingness to listen, to receive feedback, to redirect, rework, recalibrate. A lack of a certain level of cognizance isn’t unusual for any human being, but what we can and must regulate — even in the midst of our own, often turbulent healing — is our openness and reactiveness to what’s being uncovered. If we don’t want to grant others license to act like assholes, marinating in their own mayhem, we must hold ourselves to the same standard. Separating a person’s trauma and their choices — including their crimes — no longer seems a viable option, not if we’re truly seeking compassion and understanding, connection and community.
When boiled down to the seemingly insignificant details of our daily existence, personal integrity (at least in a capitalistic society) can be challenging, if not downright paralyzing. It’s no longer just a few fringe conspiracy theorists who recognize that corporations are busy poisoning our natural resources and controlling our freedoms, and yet I still use banks, I still fill my car with gasoline, I still buy over-the-counter pills from my local drugstore. Sure, I own a pair of shoes from that vegan, sustainably-minded company in Europe, but I also own two pairs of leather Dr Martens. I haven’t stopped watching films like Manhattan or reruns of The Cosby Show. In terms of our support — financial or otherwise — of the businesses that run us, what can integrity even look like? Unless we want to retreat to a mountain hermitage, we have to participate in failed systems run by flawed humans, systems we ourselves helped create and perpetuate.
When it comes to these men we hate, or anyone we’ve branded as a villain, I can’t help but wonder whether the real issue isn’t the crimes themselves (as reprehensible as they are), but the fact that they often go unacknowledged. The most hated are those who have never been held accountable, who haven’t “paid” for their crimes. And what payment would satisfy us? Would the punishment be measured by length, or by magnitude? I’m not sure our society believes in the possibility of rehabilitation at all. In our white-hot righteousness, in our simplistic desire to see clear victims and villains, and to see villains punished, we risk overlooking context, nuance, and trauma. We ignore the fact that each person is more than just one or two of his deeds.
In our simplistic desire to see clear victims and villains, and to see villains punished, we risk overlooking context, nuance, and trauma.
None of us find comfort in examining our choices unless we’ve learned to reason our way around them. But if that’s our modus operandi, how different are we really from a Polanski, continually fleeing, or a Weinstein, incredulous at his sentence? None of us get through this life with clean hands, and we’re lying to ourselves if we think we have. We are all of us criminals at some point, to some extent, and capable of the very worst. A willingness to investigate and acknowledge our own actions and their ramifications — whether their roots can be traced to abuse, survival, ancestry, illness, or anything else — is vital to our growth as individuals, as a society, and as a species.