Stacia M. Fleegal was distraught to see her literary community--which she had previously considered open-minded, loving, and safe--laid low by the torrent of rape allegations that whipped through Alt Lit this past month. Contrary to Elizabeth Ellen at Hobart, who scolded the community for publicly shaming and shunning Tao Lin and Stephen Tully Dierks, Fleegal suggests public shaming and shunning could be a concrete tool we can use responsibly within our communities to reclaim them as safe places for the creation of art. --SBB
Separation of Art and Hate: Abusers, stay out of lit or be shamed
Yes, I did hear someone say “Haters gonna hate” in defense of Tao Lin’s abuse of a 16-year-old girl.
This person then proclaimed his love of Lin’s fiction and proceeded to trot out example after example of artistic geniuses—Miles Davis, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Amiri Baraka, among others—whose work he would remember and whose abusive behaviors he would forget.
Good for him.
But it got me thinking of that old standby of studying creative writing, about divorcing the art from the artist. In workshops, we were told not to assume the speaker and the author are the same, and for the purposes of uncensored creative expression, that advice has merit. A teenager writing grim murder stories is not necessarily the next school shooter in training, for example; nor is the fact that someone only writes happy poems about birds and flowers necessarily indicative of sainthood. That’s one of the great things about art, right? It can show us the full spectrum of human nature, for better or worse, and in so doing, facilitate growth, change how we think and feel, and encourage us to appreciate our lives more. We as artists must be free to make our art communicate whatever we wish.
In a piece for Pacific Standard, writer Jake Flanagin presents Scottish psychiatrist Ronald Fairbairn’s theory about “splitting,” a defense mechanism that results from “an individual’s failure to incorporate both positive and negatives aspects of the self or others into a more realistic composite.” Flanagin relates Fairbairn’s theory to explain how we ignore an artist’s personal shortcomings and instead focus on his art: “Because we don’t typically maintain personal relationships with the artist, the art suffices as representation of him or her. So if we hate the art, we devalue the artist. If we love the art, we idealize the artist.” We do so because, apparently, we are under-developed children who insist on dividing the world into good-bad, into binaries that tend to fall in line with social norms.
But what if we no longer value the artist?
What about when a living writer is publicly accused of, and publicly admits to, abusing, bullying, raping, or assaulting someone? What if we try to be good little writers and keep the art and the artist separate in our minds, continue to appreciate the art itself, but we just can’t? Are people outraged at abuse in the lit community within their rights to assist in the dismantling of an abuser’s literary career? Is that activism or vigilantism?
When Amiri Baraka died earlier this year, I wrote a quick post for a poetry blog I was running for a newspaper in south central Pennsylvania, something to the effect of “This writer was controversial but legendary, check out his work if you don’t know it.” I remember a close writer friend reminding me that “Baraka was a wife-beater.” I remember being torn about how to talk about that, or whether to talk about it at all. I ultimately decided that, at least for me, there would be no solace in lambasting the dead for past offenses, no women were anymore in need of protection from him, and Baraka’s words had done good work in raising consciousness about race issues.
And I stand by some of that, but I feel differently now. I wouldn’t blog anything but a block quote from the AP obituary if it happened today instead. Tao Lin, Stephen Tully Dierks, and Kirk Nessett changed the game this month.
“Granted we don't want to perpetuate the careers of monsters, but I don't think blamelessness ought to be a standard we're looking for in an author. If we did, the canon (and the contemporary lit world) is going to be a pretty small company of saints.” Writer and editor Brett Ortler said that to me in a private Facebook message, and I reprint it here with his permission because, while I knew I would write something in response to the alt lit abuse epidemic, it was this statement that brought focus to this gestating essay for me because…how is this ok?
I believe that bad people can make good art. I also believe that people who object to bad behavior can choose not to consume the art made by the person behaving badly. I believe that’s activism, and that art is a place for activism, as well as a place for compassion. I believe art is and should be a place that always has its doors open for the outcast, the abused, the silenced among us. It should be a safe, well-lit place that, if it were a city, women would feel comfortable walking through alone at night. Call me a dreamer.
“When you learn that these people are orbiting in the circles in which you feel safe, you suddenly feel a lot less safe, period … I think we have the right to expect better. I don't buy the argument that ‘well, it's just a microcosm of the larger world, you see this in every segment of society.’ This is our community and we can all do better and demand better.” Writer and editor Kelly Davio made this comment on a Facebook thread about Lin (also reprinted with permission), and she is making a call to all of us take ownership of the literary world. Why accept the “standard” of every other segment of society? Every other segment of society also doesn’t read poetry or try to write a novel in a month, but we do that differently here, don’t we? We make our own rules and create a subculture in which to abide by or break them. On separation of art and artist, is the “rule” we’re going to choose to uphold one that helps people or continues to hurt them?
One of the most popularly repurposed of E.R. Kennedy’s tweets about Tao Lin was: “everyday I see you fucking monkeys support tao lin support the man who raped me and stole from me and feel alienated, excluded.” Can art please be a place where, if anyone is to be excluded, it’s a rapist? (And if your urge is to stop reading here because I’ve used the word “rapist,” please only stop reading this essay—don’t stop reading discussions about what constitutes consent or about affirmative consent movements on college campuses across the U.S.)
So how do we exclude rapists and abusers, not from a place of vengeance but as a form of activism? Well, Elizabeth Ellen posted an "open letter" at Hobart that I’ve seen blasted from every corner of the web (except at Hobart, which closed the post to comments), and she says the public shaming has got to stop, that we should not exclude these men from our community.
“To publicly humiliate and shun and incriminate someone to the point his career and public life is over, you better have more evidence than this,” Ellen declared, seeming to forget or to have never known that Lin himself penned a statement acknowledging the abuse charges Kennedy leveled against him were accurate (though he has clearly taken issue with being called a rapist—see Jezebel’s updated article. Words are powerful, aren’t they?)
As if countering herself, Ellen continues: “And since when is emotional abuse grounds for public shunning?” Well, maybe it fucking ought to be. Studies show that verbal and emotional abuse and manipulation, while often dismissed or deemed “not as bad” as physical or sexual abuse, are actually difficult to quantify, document, in essence prove, and so further enshroud the victim in stigma and secrecy. They also carry longer-term risks than physical or sexual abuse. The last couple of years have seen increased awareness of the dangers of bullying, which is certainly a form of abuse, and that movement has been successful in its attempts to use shame to increase awareness. Does turning shame back onto abusers or bullies make them reconsider their behavior, or make them more defensive and aggressive? I don’t know. But we have to try something new.
Women and victims continuing to keep their mouths shut is not working, and in fact, is further damaging and isolating them. And keeping their mouths shut to protect their abusers from being shamed? Fuck that. I say we need MORE public shunning.
What’s crucial to this call for more public shaming is that those of us doing the shaming don’t backslide into being abusive ourselves. I don’t mean to suggest that every jackass who calls someone a jackass should cease making art and self-flagellate or be ripped apart online; I do mean that every abuser who uses his/her strength, will, and position(s) of power to demean or control another individual should be pointed at and called out and held accountable. Should change. Should strive to become a more compassionate person.
Studies also show that domestic violence is up (one in four American women will be a victim, and one in seven men) and the number of rapes that have gone unreported in the last two decades is estimated to be over a million. Ms. Magazine recently published a story on rape kit backlogs that claims, “an estimated 91 to 95 percent of rapes are committed by serial rapists—and serial offenders commit an average of six rapes each—so stopping them after the first offense could prevent untold numbers of crimes.” I’ve written a bit about victim-blaming, how the burden of proof seems, in the media and in the courtroom, to lie with victims and not alleged criminals. I’m not suggesting we go all Boondock Saints on every writer accused of sexual misconduct. But since rape, assault, battery, and abuse seem so difficult and nebulous and hard to “prove” in our justice system and just getting the word out seems to be enough to spawn outrage, more public shaming might let potential victims know who in our community can’t be trusted and could actually bring about acknowledgment and redemptive action from the accused (again, both Lin and Dierks responded to their respective allegations). So I’m on board with the people who want to put public shunning back on the table. Can anyone think of anything else that’s working?
"I think ultimately, the problem I have had this week with the way things have been handled is the lack of humanity that has been shown throughout,” Ellen writes in Hobart. True, I was also deeply affected by the outpouring of anger from both sides of the ensuing debates online—but I think much of the anger from the side supporting the victims was justified and coming from a good place. I did see humanity, from Davio and Ortler (the latter went on to write a piece for The Barking against the Internet jury culture and a piece for The Nervous Breakdown in defense of Ellen’s right to pen her (flawed, unsourced, meandering, arguably rape-apologist) piece, and both are thoughtful additions to this conversation), and from others I haven’t named or quoted who want to see rape within the literary community extinct. Because the thing is, mob rule and democracy are two different things. People speaking up and being outraged about abuse within their communities is democratic, not anarchic. Name me one worthwhile revolution, one that changed the world for the better, that didn’t start with outrage. Hell, outrage even brought back "Family Guy" and the McRib. “Mob mentality” is a trigger word that seems to run rampant whenever one group of people is trying to keep another in check because the first group has something to lose. In the cases of Lin et al., they might be afraid of losing royalties and notoriety, but no one’s calling for an executioner here. We just want writers to stop raping and abusing other writers.
“What it seems like Kennedy wants (admittedly based on what she's [sic] tweeted) is acknowledgment that Lin’s art and status had a human cost, namely a teenager's well-being.” In a piece for New York Magazine, Kat Stoeffel, though mis-identifiying Kennedy with a feminine pronoun, addresses the touchy issue of calling rape rape and concludes—in her title—that “It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck.” Further, Stoeffel makes a key statement about what might be desirable and supportive recourse for victims of abuse: “It seems like every time someone explains that women and men do not always meet for sex on equal footing, the conversation collapses into a black-and-white debate of Was It Rape—one that, paradoxically, serves to protect men … Women shouldn't need greater justification for testifying about sexual encounters—good, bad, coercive, or rape—than the fact that they happen. But what it seems most women want is to warn other women about a category of jerk courts have no name for: a guy who can’t be trusted not to exploit his power over her.”
Now I know that men can be victims of abuse and assault, too. But there’s a gender-specificity to so many of these recent offenses that aligns with other issues of gender disparity in lit, plus a general heinousness that I can’t ignore, won’t shut up about, and am determined to try to change, and I’m not above resorting to some public shaming to do it. Black Lawrence Press, after Ellen’s Hobart piece was published, removed her story from an upcoming anthology: “This is not the kind of provocative Black Lawrence Press wants associated with this anthology and the press.” That’s activism. Alexandra Naughton and Dianna Dragonetti have started a Tumblr to name names and publish or re-publish survivor lit. That’s activism, and empathy. More, please.
As I said before, we make the rules here. At the risk of over-romanticizing art, I think I am drawn to creating things because the world of creators seemed always to be open-minded and accepting of individuality, and so, a loving and even safe place. I’ve never believed all artists are wonderful people. I recognize that as a straight white female from a working class background, I had some struggles but also certainly enjoyed some privileges that made it easier for me than for others to study and publish writing. But I was floored this fall by back to back to back reports of abuse, rape, and exploitation of women and children, and things don’t feel so safe anymore. And I was ripped apart inside when I read anything in defense of the abusers, whether I ever read and enjoyed their work or not. But I wouldn’t rather not know. This is my community. If someone’s raping or abusing people to whom they have access via our community, I want to know. Tell me, E.R. Kennedy and Sophia Katz and Kat Dixon and all the others. And if the perpetrators are shamed into admitting their wrongs, as Lin and Dierks both were, then all the better for society. This call for more public shaming has redemption firmly set as its end goal.
Still, if the perpetrators are shamed into silence, retiring from art, and withdrawing from our community, then I say, at least it isn’t the victims. I say, good riddance. I say, unapologetic and willfully ignorant abusers, stay out of lit.
I acknowledge that there are dangers—risk of slander, libel, and vigilantism—inherent in this kind of messy and complicated conversation, but I think those dangers might be outweighed by the risk of further silencing and shaming victims. Being afraid to say the wrong thing for fear of being yelled at isn’t a way to live in a relationship and it isn’t a way to live as a writer, either. We can and must know the facts before shaming anyone because we can and must understand that people’s reputations and livelihoods could be at stake. I believe that writers might be The Ones who should be having this messy talk, out in the open of the web, because most of us are thoughtful about what we say. I don’t fear being criticized for writing this without having all the answers; I fear not being able to add productively to the conversation—and abuse continuing to plague my community.
Can we, in good conscience, and must we always, truly separate the art from the artist? Is holding fast to that ideal doing a disservice to the higher purposes of making art? Is it bordering on censorship or merely a matter of personal taste to decide to dislike a piece of art because the artist is a criminal or sociopath or a person full of hate and ignorance? I can’t tell you what to do or feel; you need to draw your own lines. But I know that reading excerpts from Richard Yates made me feel ill after I read Kennedy’s tweets and Lin’s response. I felt ill again when my various feeds became choked with the back-and-forth of the outraged vs. the apologists. More than ill, I felt myself slide backward into a life where I was yelling for help in my front yard while an ex broke my phone, then tackled me to the ground, in plain view of neighbors, and no one came. All the properly placed trigger warnings on the web couldn’t have prevented that wave of nauseous despair.
The point is, it feels wrong to me to celebrate and promote even the beautiful, even the crafted and transcendent, creation of an abuser. It’s a heart thing. It’s like finally deciding you don’t love the person who hit you anymore, can’t recognize what they’re offering to you as love, as a profound or beautiful thing that can help you evolve or appreciate life. Can’t recognize it as art.
I’m seeing more and more personal narratives from survivors of domestic violence and partner assault/rape all the time. An anonymous piece published at XOJane in September really spoke to me: “As a community we must be loud, we must be vocal, and we must be active. We must be willing to keep each other afloat, at all costs. We must empathize with the psychological warfare being perpetrated against these victims everyday. We must present ourselves publicly and with pride, and we must create a long term safety net for these men and women to land in when they get too tired to fight. We must be here for one another, side by side with neon signs flashing ‘You are not and have never been alone. Did you hear me? You are not and have never been alone.’”
I look at all the books by living writers on my shelves and wonder how many were written by perpetrators of those one million unreported rapes. I really wish I knew. Let’s keep this conversation going. Let’s take ownership of our community and try new things, even controversial things, to keep it a safer place, as free of hate as possible, no matter which side of the rape/abuse culture debate you make your own.
Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays in the series, click here.
Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbook collections of poetry, most recently antidote (Winged City Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared most recently in Knockout, North American Review, Fourth River, Best of the Net 2011, and more, and have been three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first published essay, a personal narrative on domestic violence, recently appeared at Luna Luna Magazine. She is co-founder and editor of Blood Lotus and an online writing instructor and social media coordinator for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing.