Controversy in Memoir

I’ve just read about the controversy surrounding Lena Dunham’s essay collection, “Not That Kind of Girl” which was released in fall of 2014. To outline, Dunham had written in great detail about the personality characteristics and appearance of an assailant in an alleged college sexual assault, named Barry. She wrote of him as Oberlin’s “resident conservative” which proved problematic because there was a prominent conservative named Barry who attended Oberlin at the same time as Dunham. Due to confusion surrounding the status of Barry as a pseudonym, Dunham’s writing on the hot-button topic quickly ballooned, making its way into articles on Breitbart and blog posts on the Washington Post. The blog post was written by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, titled, “Could ‘Barry’ sue Lena Dunham over her memoirs?”

In a BuzzFeed post, Dunham claimed that “Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun,” and shortly afterwards, other authors came to her defense.

Mary Karr, author of both “The Liar’s Club” and “The Art of Memoir” said “The woman can’t do anything without people cashing in on her celebrity by kicking her butt in print. She’s the victim here. I am horrified by the hounds of hell running after her. This is another assault on a feminist who dares to succeed.”


I found myself in somewhat agreement with Karr, mostly on Dunham’s side. While I absolutely do not believe Dunham should face legal action considering the crime she was a victim of is much more heinous, I find myself wondering about the honest reality of the situation. Why wouldn’t she have made a clearly stated pseudonym for the assailant’s character as she had for others in the work? At the end of the day I consider this controversy to be an important, somewhat hair-raising example of what can happen to a memoirist who fails to properly vet their work, either by circulating it to relevant characters beforehand or significantly changing names and details.

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