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The Infuriating, Disappointing #TimesUp Moment of Junot Díaz

Junot Diaz at a literary event in Argentina 2009

You know what sucks? Waking up to the news that someone whose work you enjoyed and whose presence in contemporary literature you appreciated both as a geek and as a Latina was not the person you thought they were. This morning, the #TimesUp movement has come for author Junot Díaz, and the revelations are both infuriating, and hugely sad.

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Earlier today author Zinzi Clemmons (What We Lose), who has a history of speaking up on behalf of women of color and calling out the inexcusable behavior of the powerful, released a statement via Twitter about how Díaz forcibly kissed her at an event she organized about representation in literature when she was a 26-year-old grad student, and that she has the receipts to prove it.

While there are one or two people in the thread who are wondering “why she didn’t come forward sooner” *sigh*, Clemmons has received support for the most part, and rightfully so. There is no excuse for using one’s status to forcibly kiss someone. Ever. And Clemmons coming forward as a woman of color in the literary community is brave, considering the short shrift women in the literary world usually get, particularly when they are of color.

Writer Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body & Other Parties) started a continuing discussion on Díaz’s apparently long history of misogynistic behavior toward students, colleagues, and fans. First, check out Machado’s experience with Díaz, and click through to read the entire thread:

In the thread, she talks about her own experience with Díaz at a reading for his book This Is How You Lose Her, during which she brought up the protagonist’s unhealthy relationship with women and Díaz got extremely defensive and proceeded to badger her and not let the issue go long after she said her question was “answered.” Later, at a different reading, he specifically made it a point to read the passages that troubled Machado and alluded to her and her concerns on purpose, just to be a dick about it.

She then brings up the fact that over the years she’s heard stories of sexual misconduct about him from other women, and that this didn’t surprise her, given his writing, and the misogynistic way he treated women more generally, closing with:

Novelist Monica Byrne also describes a bizarre incident with Díaz that included him screaming the word “rape” in her face:

Here is where things get complicated for me. Actually, it got complicated when a fellow Latinx was accused of these horrible things, because damn. No one wants someone on their team to be this much of a sexist asshole. But the topic of his recent New Yorker piece complicates things for me further.

We covered that piece when it was published, and at the time lauded its honesty, and supported Díaz as a survivor of sexual assault. I still support him in that way, and while I’m absolutely infuriated by his treatment of women, I’m also not keen on dismissing his New Yorker piece as a mere cushion for the inevitable #MeToo backlash “he knew was coming.”

First of all, his situation and Kevin Spacey’s situation are apples and oranges. Spacey came out as gay after Anthony Rapp alleged sexual assault at his hands. Second, there is a huge difference between choosing a moment to reveal that you’re gay, and choosing a moment to reveal that you were raped as a child. Coming out as gay, while difficult and rife with its own challenges, is not the same as outing yourself as an abuse victim.

Which is why it infuriates me when people accuse the women that come forward about rape of doing it “for the attention.” I always think: Really? You think it’s fun and awesome for a woman to be known as a victim of assault? Do you really think that’s how someone would choose to be famous if it were actually a choice? 

So, I won’t dismiss his piece as the work of a publicist, or as patriarchy “co-opting #MeToo.” Was Terry Crews also “co-opting #MeToo” when he came forward about his assault? Was James Van der Beek? Is it only co-opting #MeToo when you’ve been an abusive misogynist? Or is it possible for both to be true? Yes, he was abused as a child and that made him the kind of person capable of hurting others. AND yes, he shouldn’t hurt women (or anyone).

Like Crews and Van der Beek, it made sense for Díaz to come forward now as a part of this moment we’re in.

Third, there’s a difference between providing an explanation and making an excuse. It may well be that Díaz was referring to his misogynistic behavior and his assault on Clemmons when alluding to how he “hurt women” after his abuse. The thing is…that happens. It’s something we know happens.

Those who are abused very often continue a cycle of abuse. I recently reviewed the Evan Rachel Wood film Allure, wherein she plays a woman who was abused by her dad when she was a child only to perpetuate that abuse herself with a teenage girl. There are too many stories from people in my own life about the struggle in not allowing the pain of childhood trauma impact the adult you become and how you treat others.

A part of what makes me hesitate to dismiss Díaz’s piece in this way is that I see male sexual assault victims coming forward as a part of the kind of society feminism is trying to bring about. Women have their own set of problems when coming forward about sexual assault, no question. But there is a huge stigma about male assault survivors coming forward because of misogyny. Do men receive societal power because of misogyny? Absolutely. But they lose their right to vulnerability in the process.

Framing Díaz’s story as a publicity maneuver will cause people to look at any and all male victims of sexual assault who come forward with suspicion. I don’t want us to suddenly start seeing every story of a man coming forward about sexual abuse or assault discussed as a precursor to the knowledge of possible wrongdoing.

As of this writing, Díaz has yet to make a statement about these recent public accusations, so I don’t yet know if he will pull the excuse card. When I read the original New Yorker piece, and read the parts where he talks about hurting women, it sounded to me like someone acknowledging that they’ve fucked up, explaining the events that led them to be that person, but then wanting to not be that person.

Abuse doesn’t excuse abusive behavior, but it does explain it, and I think it deserves some understanding. The question I have now is how willing Díaz is to not only atone for his wrongdoing against these women but to actively do the work to change himself and his behavior.

In the meantime, I stand with Clemmons and any other women who come forward about their sexual assault. I absolutely believe her, and believe that Díaz should answer for what he’s done. What I don’t believe is that we have to discount his painful childhood trauma in order to do that.

(via Zinzi Clemmons on Twitter, image: embajadaeeuubuenosaires/Flickr)

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Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.

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