Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lena Dunham's Problem

I had no idea who Lena Dunham was until a few days ago. But I've read quite a bit about her. Apparently Dunham had already become something of a political football before the most recent controversy over the rape scene in her memoir. She's young, female, overtly leftist, outspoken about sex and apparently has often been nude or semi-nude in her film & TV work. And her body doesn't conform to mainstream notions of beauty.

So she's already a dartboard for a lot of folks on the right, and a saintly presence for many of the left.

Reading a lot of what has been written about this latest controversy, I am . . . appalled that some of the people writing these pieces actually seem to have jobs writing. I'd like to try to consider how we might learn a thing or two from this whole controversy.


But first, the story so far:

Dunham recently published a memoir called Not That Kind of Girl. In it she describes a sexual encounter with "Barry," "a mustachioed campus Republican." Actually, she describes it twice. Once as "the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex" and once as rape. She is open and self-conscious about the contrast between the two accounts and clearly would have us believe that the second characterization--rape--is the true one, the first a sort of comforting lie that she told herself and relayed to us. After the Rolling Stone article about gang rape at the University of Virginia (the details of which have been called into serious question), there has been a great deal of interest in campus rape, and Dunham's account drew a lot of interest, including interest from those folks who have Dunham's picture in front of their dartboards.

There was quite a lot of detail about "Barry" in the book. For one thing there was nothing to indicate that Barry was anything but the perpetrator's real name (at least one other pseudonym in the book is clearly indicated as such). There's also his prominence on the conservative scene at Oberlin, where Dunham and "Barry" were undergraduates at the time of the incident. There's also details about his flamboyant mustache and clothing preferences and his date of graduation.

Oberlin is a small school. And Oberlin is about as notoriously liberal as, say, Pepperdine is notoriously conservative. While there was a campus conservative group active at Oberlin at the time Dunham was there, they complain in their published minutes that only 5 or so people actually attend meetings. One would guess there were probably less that 50 conservatives in the entire membership.

At a small school with a small conservative population within it, finding Barry should have been easy if the details were, as you'd expect in a memoir, true.

And there was indeed a prominent conservative student named Barry at Oberlin at the right time to be Dunham's Barry. But he claims never to have even met Dunham. And now, weeks after real-life Barry started complaining about the unwanted and damaging attention Dunham's memoir was getting him, Dunham and her publisher now acknowledge that real-life Barry isn't rapist Barry. In fact "Barry" is a "pseudonym" for the rapist. Dunham and publisher regret the "coincidence."

But even if "Barry" was a pseudonym, finding this guy should really be like shooting fish in a barrel. With so few conservatives on campus, how hard could it be to find a flamboyant, mustachioed conservative leader?

Impossible, apparently.

So it is becoming apparent that Barry's name probably is not the only fictionalized detail Dunham's story. And it is quickly becoming hard to tell where the fictionalization may end. Was this guy conservative? Did he have a flamboyant mustache or not? Did he graduate when Dunham said? Was Dunham really unaware of the existence of real-life Barry? or is this whole episode an expression of mischief or malice toward a prominent conservative at her old college? Was Dunham, in fact, raped?

In her recent apology/apologia, Dunham reasserts the basic claim that she was raped, defends telling about it and asks that we believe. The trouble is though, a) no reasonable voice is questioning the right of women to tell their rape stories, that's a red herring; and b) no one has done more to make it difficult to take Lena Dunham's words at face value than Dunham herself.

She may "have a right to her story," a right "take control" after the ultimate loss of control, but does that mean she has the right to surreptitiously make up important elements of that story, thereby drawing in and damaging innocent third parties? Does she have any reasonable expectation to be believed at this point?

This entire affair, to me, stems back to the rather cavalier attitude we seem to take these days toward some of the core values of journalism and writing. Like, say, truthfulness. Or what credibility is and how it maintained. Being an "unreliable narrator" of serious criminal accusations just doesn't cut it. Blithely admitting such unreliability is completely undermines your insistence that *some* of what you say should be believed implicitly. One doesn't get to be playful and creative (or manipulative and malicious) with the truth on one hand, and be taken at face value on the other.

I sympathize with Dunham, but I think she has played this very badly indeed. She needs to come out with a definitive and exhaustive statement as to what is true and what is not in her description of "Barry" and his actions, not a lecture on what rape survivors need.

What rape survivors need is for Lena Dunham to be straightforwardly honest. The truth doesn't belong to someone to control and remake. The truth is a transaction, and Dunham has violated the trust behind that transaction. She needs to restore it.