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.
Sourced for further reading
Returning to Albany for a job interview this past Friday put me in the unfortunate position of having to miss Kate Daloz’s reading. This blog post, reflecting on excerpts from Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, seeks to compensate for that absence.
The first text to grab my attention was that of Hunter S. Thomspon, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. I loved this piece. It’s funny, self-aware, informal, and still somehow falls under the category of journalism, albeit gonzo. In this work, Thompson conjures a rich story which follows his actions as he attends and reports on the Kentucky Derby, largely carried through dialogue and the sharp wit and humor of Thompson, which serve as a lens through which we see the events at hand. We follow Thompson from playing head games with various strangers he encounters upon arrival to bullshitting his way into a press pass for the race. Thompson is admittedly drunk for the vast majority of the time he spends in Kentucky, due to the fact that he didn’t bring any “strange illegal drugs”. Additionally, Thompson offers us bits of scathing political commentary, particularly calling out then-President Nixon. Accompanying Thompson at this event is an English artist by the name of Steadman, who sketches unfortunately bad portraits of the many people they encounter over the course of the weekend, adding evermore to the comedic nature of the piece and the tensions the two of them face. The piece ends with Steadman ceding, “You know–I’ve been thinking about that. We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomitting on themselves and all that…and now, you know what? It’s us…” followed immediately by a scene of Thompson pepper spraying and verbally berating Steadman as he drives him back to the airport for his flight back to England.
The second text to pique my interest was Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss”. I liked this piece for similar reasons, as it is also carried by a satirical author’s jaded perceptions and plentiful dialogue. Southern even misspells many of the words within dialogue to reflect the accents of those speaking in the same way Thompson does. Surrounded by a racist Mississippi culture, Southern keeps himself liquored up for much of the story, and is repeatedly disillusioned by the evidently inherent hatred in the people all around him. Upon speaking with two graduate students who are obvious racists and end the conversation by simultaneously singing a racist jingle, Southern writes, “despite a terrific effort at steely Zen detachment, the incident left me somewhat depressed, so I retired early, to my cozy room in the Alumni House, where I sipped the white corn and watched television.” (White corn refers to the moonshine he bought upon his arrival, Mississippi was a dry state at the time) When Southern finally gets to interviewing the Baton twirlers to whom the piece owes its name, the dialogue is sparse. He only talks briefly to one about the tassels on her skirt, and to another about In both texts, the author’s opinions and perceptions of the world come to shape the events at hand, adding a particular flavor which, in my opinion, greatly enriches the reading experience.
In Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” we read a powerful character who has reckoned with her environment in a rather unique matter. In outlining the many sickening acts of racism she has faced throughout her entire life, Hurston writes “I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” and “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me.” Both of these lines serve to create Hurston as a vivid character, simultaneously outlining her quirks and captivating readers, effectively convincing them of her worth.
In Lopate’s “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character” we are told at length of the various angles from which a writer must consider his or herself in order to become a captivating character in their own writing. A large part of this is his reinforcement of the necessity to be a complex character, one who is equally self-aware of both strengths and flaws, who can laugh at oneself in times of great sorrow, who can paint an overall honest picture. To me, Lopate’s line, “And it’s in having made the wrong choice, curiously enough, that we are made all the more aware of our freedom and potential for humanity.” perhaps most eloquently outlines the benefit of being a fallible character on paper, something which I am unsure I’d fully accepted prior to my reading.