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Kenneth Lonergan Used a College Newspaper to Write a Petty, Dismissive Response to the Allegations Against Casey Affleck

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In the months leading up to this year’s Oscars, the allegations of sexual abuse made against Casey Affleck in 2010 finally started to get some attention. But unlike Nate Parker, whose awards season campaign (and general reputation) crumbled under his own sexual assault allegations, Affleck’s seemed to roll right off his very successful back. For every article written about his behavior, dozens more never even acknowledged any controversy at all.

One of those institutions that focused only on the work without addressing the accusations against Affleck was Wesleyan University, where Kenneth Lonergan, the director of Manchester By the Sea, attended before transferring to NYU. In an op-ed for the school’s newspaper, the Argus, a student named Connor Aberle wrote a piece condemning Wesleyan for praising Lonergan following his Best Original Screenplay win.

Wesleyan University cannot insist on claiming credit for Kenneth Lonergan unless they also acknowledge their complicity in the success of a perpetrator of sexual violence. Lonergan essentially won Affleck his Oscar by handpicking Affleck for his movie. A famous actor’s connections enable them to continue their success, and we must be cautious about praising enablers, especially when they help sexual harassers. Wesleyan cannot have it both ways; it can either be true to its progressive brand or it can indiscriminately praise every semi-notable success from alumni (and even students who transferred out).

It’s standard practice for schools to champion their successful alumni, but Aberle’s point is a valid one: the blanket response of alumni praise is worth being criticized when the circumstances around those successes don’t line up with the school’s values. It’s an interesting article, and a good jumping-off point in discussing these important, often ignored issues.

You know who didn’t care too much for the article, though? Kenneth Lonergan. That’s not surprising, but what is surprising is how he chose to respond. The Academy Award winning director wrote his own letters-to-the-editor op-ed for the Argus, titled “How Connor Aberle and The Argus are Complicit in Slandering Casey Affleck.” If that sounds like a petty form of response, oh just you wait.

Connor Aberle’s article about myself, Casey Affleck and Wesleyan’s supposed complicity in condoning sexual misconduct – and worse – by tauting me as a Wesleyan alumn after I won an Oscar last week is such a tangle of illogic, misinformation and flat-out slander that only the author’s presumed youth can possibly excuse his deeply offensive display of ignorance, and warped PC-fueled sense of indignation.

Lonergan continues to criticize Aberle for using terms like “sexual violence” and “sexual harassment” interchangeably and, with excessive condescension, for dropping the “grown-up journalist” word “allegedly” from his discussion of Affleck. Honestly, some of Lonergan’s claims here are worth discussing, but by immediately blaming “PC culture” for a genuine concern over the celebration of an alleged sexual abuser, it makes it difficult to even want to hear him out.

Lonergan goes on to address the allegations made against Affleck on the set of the fake documentary I’m Still Here, which saw lawsuits being filed by two women, the movie’s cinematographer (who was the only woman in the crew) and producer. You can read a thorough rundown here, but (content warning for sexual assault) the accusations include Affleck climbing into Gorka’s bed while she was sleeping, encouraging her camera assistant (Antony Langdon) to expose himself to her, and one instance of Affleck and the movie’s star Joaquin Phoenix (whose sister was married to Affleck at the time) locking themselves in the women’s shared room to engage in sex with other women.

Here’s how Lonergan addressed these allegations:

Casey denounced the allegations as being totally fabricated. Like most civil suits, this one was settled out of court by mutual consent on undisclosed terms. In other words nothing was proved or disproved.

He accuses Aberle of needing to “unwind his tangled, immoral chain of reasoning” and says his article “exemplifies a disjointed abuse of morals.” He ends the letter saying he hopes “Mr. Aberle is capable of taking a much harder look at the merits of his own arguments before he decides to air his views in public again.”

It is true that none of us who weren’t on that set ourselves know for sure what happened. But the entire point of Aberle’s piece is to call out the default practice of giving credence to the alleged abuser over the victim, time and time again. No, we don’t know what happened, but just because Casey Affleck settled those suits with a deal that no doubt included strict non-disclosure agreements, that does not mean we are under any obligation to pretend the accusations were never made.

Lonergan makes sure to mention that the suits against Affleck were part of “a civil lawsuit for breach of contract.” His wording feels like a sly attempt to undermine the women, implying that their accusations of sexual assault were either fabricated to support other contractual issues, or simply one part of a larger suit. It subtly perpetuates the pervasive idea that calling out famous men for sexual assault does anything but risk ruining a woman’s career. Women do not make false claims like these for money or for professional advancement. That simply isn’t the way the world works, and thinking a woman could gain anything at all for attacking a man in such a position of power (i.e. the director/writer/producer/Ben Affleck’s brother) is ludicrously misguided.

It’s understandable that Lonergan would want to defend himself, or his longtime friend. But to dismiss this important conversation, of which he has made himself a part, as “PC-fueled” is to contribute to the systemic, willful silencing of women’s voices.

When two different women make these accusations, we need to listen. Because men like Affleck, Cosby, Polanski, Jared Leto, and all the other men of Hollywood whose misdeeds remain “alleged” until the world is forced to stop ignoring them—they get listened to. They get praise and they get Oscars. They get the benefit of every doubt. These are wealthy, well-connected men, and the women speaking out against their ilk will possibly never receive the trust and other benefits afforded to them. The least we can do is listen to these women’s stories and continue the conversation after they’ve been silenced.

(via AV Club, image via Shutterstock)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.

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