What’s the lesson here: Trust no one?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s something a little more complicated, which is that when we place our trust in a public figure — a politician, a playwright, a movie star, a newscaster, a beloved radio host — we’re projecting it onto a façade, an outward shell behind which can be a strikingly different person. And even more: Our trust fortifies their power, because it translates into ratings and profits and is therefore sustained by a corporate system invested in protecting the asset and looking the other way. Our trust helps render a potential abuser invincible behind a false front of amiability, status, and cultural clout.
Am I saying that we’re somehow responsible for the sins of Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, and Israel Horovitz (that’s just the past 24 hours)? Or that you and I and everyone else who admired them enabled the Charlie Roses and Harvey Weinsteins, the Louis C.K.s and Al Frankens? Nope, nope, nope, and nope. Their actions are their own, arrived at by choice, entitlement, misogyny, and a belief in their own invincibility.
But they held that belief because for so long it seemed to be true. No one dared go public, settlements were made, and all that mattered was that the asset was protected and the money kept rolling in.
For my own part, I’m ashamed to admit that when I wrote a 2014 profile of Horovitz on the occasion of his directing his first movie, I failed to look at the 1993 Boston Phoenix reporting and Globe follow-up on assault allegations against the playwright. In other words, I’m part of the problem, too. I take the opposite of comfort in this realization.
Now everyone’s talking, or so it seems. The dam has broken, or has started to. When is too much? Only after every last person, known and unknown, has been called to account for harassing, abusive, and assaultive behavior, obviously. As long as it continues to exist, there can never be too many revelations and toppling of icons, all the way to the top (*cough*). The events of the last months may lead to change, in that some powerful men may think twice before acting on their urges now that they understand there can be repercussions. Now that they know their careers can end.
So in whom do we trust? There’s an unofficial parlor game making the rounds lately that could be called Who Would Kill You? Meaning which beloved icon would finally destroy your faith in humanity if it were revealed that they, too, have been a predator? “Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks would kill me,” a friend of mine has said. Obama. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Springsteen. The Dalai Lama. It’s a short list.
We’re in the midst of what the stock market calls a correction, when a state of affairs that is inherently unnatural swings back toward a norm. And if a new era is upon us in which previously complacent men (mostly) start monitoring their every interaction with paranoia, better that than the landscape of repression and damage that is only now coming into focus for roughly half the population. (The other half knew about it already, remember.)
Part of the reckoning lies in coming to grips with the severity of the sins and the ensuing response. Matt Lauer had a button under his desk that turned his office into a holding pen, according to a report in Variety; he has been accused of whipping out his dingus in front of underlings and having had not-very-consensual sex in his office until the woman passed out and an assistant had to be called. Garrison Keillor and Al Franken and Pixar’s John Lasseter have been accused of being grope-y and handsy and creepy. Should the punishment be the same? Perhaps not in the courts, but in the public square, yes, absolutely. Their brands have been built on trust, and that trust has been betrayed by no one but themselves. They have made toxic their places of work and there can be no detox until they go.
For some of us, this feels like comeuppance. Personally, I’ve always thought of Lauer as a fatuous morning-show idiot, especially after his absurdly lightweight and lopsided handling of last year’s presidential debate. All you have to do is watch his 2012 interview with Anne Hathaway, in which he dwells disgustingly on a paparazzi photo that exposed the actress’s crotch, to realize the man has issues with women.
Others we may be less gleeful to see yanked off the stage. But it’s not going to stop, and it shouldn’t. As I write this, I’ve just finished reading screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s precise, moment-by-moment account of being sexually assaulted by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons in 1991, when she was 24, and felt my heart break at this passage: “You didn’t punch me, drag me or verbally threaten me. You used your size to maneuver me, quickly, into the elevator. I said ‘Wait. Wait.’ I felt dread. I was very, very sad.”
Right there is the damage done to one person by another, and it never goes away. Lumet went on to have a career in her chosen field; other women walk away from what might have been, forcibly reminded that they’re not wanted in a man’s arena, or wanted for only one thing. These incidents don’t just break a person, they break a life.
Simmons and Lauer and Keillor have all offered variations of apologies, all qualified with language indicating that they “remember things differently.” Well, of course they do. No one’s an abusive predator in his own mind, and I doubt many of these men consciously contemplated the power imbalance on which they surely counted. They probably thought they were romantic devils, sexy bad boys. They thought of their office place as a “flirty” environment, in the not-at-all icky phrasing of newsman Geraldo Rivera in a recent tweet defending Lauer.
Now they’re finally learning what “flirty” looks like from the other side of the divide, and it’s ugly as hell. And we’re learning, once again, that the gulf between a trusted facade and what happens in the shadows it casts can be shameful and immense.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.