I’m so sick of talking about Lena Dunham. I’m even sicker of talking about what’s wrong with white feminists. Feel free to read any missing backstory here on how those things intersect for this piece. It’s a lot to rehash & really the Google machine exists for a reason. But, people keep asking me about why I am not on the “Lena’s being maligned unfairly” bandwagon. And no, it’s not about my personal distaste for her work. I don’t like it, I’m probably not going to like it. I’ve long since accepted it’s not for people like me. And I have a long running policy of mostly ignoring it & by extension her because I don’t find “ironic hipster racism” funny or quirky or whatever it is that people are going to tell me her schtick is. That’s life. I don’t like Sarah Silverman, Lisa Lampanelli or a dozen other “Tee hee I’m too delicate to do harm” white comedians making their bones that way. You’ll note that none of them have been accused of writing about behaving in sexually inappropriate ways with a child. Because as far as I know, none of them did. Lena Dunham did. And yeah, we could debate the validity of the story from when she was 7 on any number of fronts. And I’ve seen a few defenses of the masturbation in the bed next to her sister at 17 too. You want to defend that? Your bag. Not mine. I find it repellent & vaguely triggering & I have learned how many people exist that I would never let watch my kids. And yes, she was younger & there’s a whole child development & parenting post that I could write, but really…I don’t want to write more than one post, and this one is probably going to be too long.
This isn’t really about Lena, Grace, or the dozens of people who are sure to flood my mentions on Twitter later to disagree with me from the bottom of their hearts. I read the book (well most of it, I skipped the food diary because really I just don’t give a fuck about it), and I have my read on the words on the page. But I’m not Grace. And I don’t have to live with Lena (thank fuck for that because OMG), or try to reconcile myself to a sister who outs me & talks about my private life as though it belongs to her. Who I am, what I am, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who spent years pretending it didn’t happen, followed by even more years of trying to come to terms with it. And like everyone else my personal bias colors my interpretation of the words on the page. Lena is not my abuser. I know that, you know that, but damn…she sure sounds like him in so many awful ways.
The person who abused me was a long time family friend who told similar stories to me, and about me later at family functions. He had a special nickname for me that some members of my family might still use if I spoke to them because they don’t know any better. He plied me with candy, access to TV shows, and other treats to get me to sit on his lap, to get me to agree to things that weren’t necessarily physically painful, but are to this day emotionally painful. And while I hope and pray for Grace’s sake that I am misreading, that all of us that find this narrative disturbing are wrong as wrong can be…there is something starkly horrifying about the casual way an adult Lena Dunham describes herself as behaving like a sexual predator to win affection from her sister. This is not about punishing the 7 year old, or the 17 year old for me or many other people.
This is about all of us taking a good hard look at what the adult is saying, how the adult is saying it, and the way that people are rushing in to insist that the person they like, look up to, (or have a business relationship with) is completely innocent of all wrongdoing. This is a cultural problem writ small and large, inasmuch as we may never know what happened in the Dunham house, but we are still pretending that abusers can’t be children, can’t be women, can’t have meant no harm but caused it anyway. Because I suspect that conversation (which should be forthcoming) isn’t going to happen in any larger way I’m going to try to have a part of it here and now.
Here’s the thing about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that no one really wants to talk about, but maybe we need to anyway. A lot of it is innocuous, so much so that you may forever doubt if what happened to you is really abuse. Some of it even feels good. And if things never get truly painful or scary (mine did, which is not something I will detail, but in some ways it makes it easier for me to label) or if the abuser is someone you love, then your mind and social norms work together to make you reject the idea that it was really abuse. And maybe that’s Grace’s story. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know her or how she feels. And that’s not all that unusual because there’s another peg in all of this which seems to have been tossed aside for some folks for whatever reason. Even when survivors admit the abuse to themselves they often don’t admit it to others. It was a secret, it stays a secret.
My primary abuser is dead. Has been for years, and while I still have nightmares about some things I have never ever come right out and told my family what he did to me. They loved him, have fond memories of him, and I don’t know what value there is for me in raking all of the bad things up now. They get to keep their memories, I don’t have to suffer through the telling, or the recriminations, or the questions I can’t answer without causing more pain about why I didn’t tell anyone. And while it has damaged some things in me, it doesn’t define me, so I have made the choices I can live with in handling it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Didn’t hurt. His love for me doesn’t lessen the harm he did to me. And the years I spent feigning affection for him that I wasn’t sure I felt are long gone, never to be recovered. But at least I get to be the one who tells my story, and since he can’t consent to me giving out his name in public, I choose to give him what he didn’t give me. Privacy. Respect for the harm I might do those who love him. Because consent always matters, even in situations that are awful and complicated. I was too young to consent to what he did to me (not that I would have I think, but who knows?) and as an adult I shudder at the thought of replicating that behavior. It might be my story too, but I’m not the only one involved.
Other survivors who are struggling to reconcile themselves with a feminism that says someone can’t be an abuser because…reasons are probably going to be more articulate in examining what’s gone wrong. In hashing out why consent keeps getting ignored, disrespected, and generally erased from a place where it belongs. They are probably better equipped to address this assumption that jealousy is a factor instead of you know…normal human feelings that we all have on reading something designed to evoke a response. It might not be the desired response, but welcome to the world of writing in public. People get to read what you put on paper and dislike it. They get to interpret the words on the page, and decide how to respond.
You don’t have to like my opinion of Dunham’s work, book, or self. That’s fine. But keep in mind I don’t have to like yours, and like so many other people in this conversation I don’t have to agree with it. Or keep liking you. We all have our places where we make a stand. Mine is: If you present yourself as someone who doesn’t respect boundaries, thinks racism is a joke, and who engages in a string of things that I find repellent? I’m not going to be here for you on any level. All your faves are problematic. Yes, including me. All I can do, all you can do, is decide what you can live with and move on. I can’t live with pretending to see nothing wrong with what Dunham says about herself, and so she can be your fave, but she’ll never be mine. All any of us can do is make the choice that suits our own morals.