Not because I know him (I don’t); not because his work has been important to me (I have read very little of it); but as a fellow survivor of childhood sexual violence.
In April of this year, when I read “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” Junot Diaz’ essay in The New Yorker about being raped as an eight-year-old boy, I was filled with such feelings of hope and empathy, of compassion and camaraderie, of solidarity and gratitude, that I immediately sent him an email to say thank you and, since I have been telling my own story publicly for more than a couple of decades now, to offer words of support and encouragement. “As more [survivors tell our stories],” I wrote in the first paragraph,
we not only offer hope to, make it safer for, those of us who have not yet been able to speak out. We also help to define a cultural framework within which to see honestly, and a language with which to talk about accurately, an aspect of all-too-many men’s experience that is profoundly misunderstood…dismissed, denied and/or derided.
I had no idea who monitored the email address I used, or if Díaz would ever read what I wrote, much less respond to it, but I was still happy to have written him. Then, just a few days later, I read the tweet in which Zinzi Clemmons alleged that Díaz had forcibly kissed her:
I read as well the statements by Carmen Maria Machado, Monica Byrne, Alisa Valdes, and others who told stories that not only seemed to shred Díaz’ reputation as an ally to women, specifically women of color, but also placed his New Yorker essay in a much more complicated context. Given my own experience of writing about what the men who violated me did to me, I did not for one moment think—as Clemmons and others suggested—that Díaz had written his essay in order to preempt accusations that he knew were coming. At the same time, however, there was no way to avoid the difficulty inherent in seeing him as both a survivor and a perpetrator, a status he seemed to confirm in the statement he released through his agent:
I take responsibility for my past… That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue. I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.
To be honest, I felt like a fool. In writing Díaz, I had without realizing it violated a commitment I made to myself at least three decades ago: Never to stand in solidarity of any kind with anyone who’d done anything like what the men who violated me had done. I didn’t blame myself for this. After all, how could I have known? Nonetheless, a part of me wanted to write Díaz again and take back every word of what my original email had said. Doing that, however, would have meant violating another, equally important commitment I feel obligated to keep: Never to turn my back on a fellow survivor.
How to keep both those commitments with integrity is a question I’ve been trying to write about for the past couple of months. Indeed, I had just finished a draft I was satisfied with when I read—and this is the source of my disappointment—the recent article in The Boston Globe where Díaz categorically denies all the allegations made against him. The denial itself, of course, is deeply problematic, if not entirely unexpected. Díaz, after all, has a lot to lose if he ends up going the way of other high profile men caught out by #MeToo accusations, and I can see how MIT’s decision not to fire him and The Boston Review’s decision to keep him on as fiction editor might encourage him to try to clear his name completely.
What’s disappointing about his denial is the form it takes. Accompanied by his attorney—which means you can guarantee that everything he’s quoted as saying has been carefully and strategically thought through—Díaz does precisely what he was accused of by the people who saw the publication of his New Yorker essay as a cynical and manipulative ploy. He uses his experience of rape and his status as a survivor to garner sympathy for himself. Then he uses that sympathy to stake out a moral high ground, calling into question the character, integrity, and veracity of his accusers—a strategy highly reminiscent of the long-discredited ploy used by defense attorneys to shame and discredit women who testify against the men accused of raping them. Continue reading