As the eye-opening rash of recent allegations pulsates through Hollywood, one can only wonder how these men, the accusations piling into the hundreds and spanning decades, could justify their behavior. Not to others, the answer to that is as simple as lying and denying, but to themselves. How does a sexual assailant permit themselves that behavior when they exist in the same society we all exist in? Didn’t they know it was wrong? The answer is hinted at in how they word their denials.
Like Dustin Hoffman’s:
“I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”
Or David Cross’s:
“I can’t believe I have to write this but I am not a racist nor a bully and loathe them in real life. #Rashomon”
Not to mention Robert Knepper’s:
“Over the past few weeks, my wife and I have discussed the pain women have experienced and the bravery they have shown in coming forward. I am shocked and devastated to be falsely accused of violence against a woman. That’s just not who I am.”
One of the first things instructors teach screenwriters is “the bad guy doesn’t think he’s the bad guy. He thinks he’s the hero.” Everyone is the protagonist of their own stories and very few people who commit violence or sexual assault see themselves as bad people. Instead, they take their negative thoughts and behavior and hide them away. Psychologist Carl Jung called this the Id, or shadow self, an unconscious part of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify with, the unknown dark side of the personality. Jung suggested people balance the Id with a super-ego, an idealized and moral persona that they aspire to. Behaviors that deviate from this imagined character are not seen as representative of them, but as mistakes to be forgotten. This is why, when asked about the allegations against them, so many of these men respond with “I would never do that,” rather than “I do that.”
“I mean, these are people I don’t know, and it’s things I never would have done. And it’s just not worth talking about.”
— James Toback
This seemingly innocuous line from Toback, the most accused of the bunch, suggests the mental process necessary to continue your life after assaulting hundreds of women. Toback doesn’t say he’s “never done that,” he says “I never done that,” as if this were a hypothetical. Of course he thinks it’s not worth talking about because his perspective is rooted in denying this side of himself exists. When he denies the claims, he’s not digging into memory to recover the truth, but instead plugs his super-ego into a sterile hypothetical, running a test in his mind, at the end of which he thinks he would not have done what he’s accused of doing.
Of course, he’s not plugging in the variables that matter.
And most importantly, he’s only considering his idealized self, which isn’t the full picture.
Many of these men have never had to consider the perspectives of their victims until now, and the realization makes them want to deny these perspectives, because accepting them would force them to see themselves in new light.
In the famous episode “Pamela, Pt. 1” of Louis CK’s character fumbles through an attempted sexual assault of Pamela Adlon’s character while she chastises him with “You can’t even rape well.” This scene demonstrates CK’s perspective, an inability to see himself as a powerful dominant man so even when he steps over the line physically he doesn’t see the threat he presents, even as his victim resists him. Instead, all he can see is his failure, his own self-consciousness. Unfortunately, Pamela Adlon’s character is also written by CK, meaning her dialogue only confirms his perspective: that he’s a loser, that he’s non-threatening, that she’s not upset, that this assault is all about him. But how can he see an alternate perspective on their behavior when they deny it in the first place? The inability to see an alternate perspective on your behavior is a natural symptom of denying that part of yourself in the first place. But the benefit of public accusations is that they force people to confront perspectives on themselves they never knew.
Y’all guys can’t define me or define my work as a father. I’m many things, I’m many things you know, yeah I’m a convicted rapist, I’m a hell raiser, I’m a father, I’m a loving father, I’m, you know, a semi-good husband, you know what I mean? What? You know I’m just a man out here trying to enjoy my, you know I was born poor, I ain’t never had nothing, I don’t know how to act but the real thing is I’m just here to be me. I don’t care about who anyone thinks at this stage in my life but yeah, I’m pretty much a tyrant titan. Yeah, that’s who I am.”
— Mike Tyson
Known as “The Baddest Man on the planet” during his dominant boxing days, Mike Tyson’s 1992 rape conviction and three-year prison term caused him to undergo one of the most public acknowledgements of his shadow self imaginable. In this quote from a 1999 press conference, you can see him struggle to find the right definition for himself, recognizing that he is many different things and resisting the public’s desire to define him singularly. Following his release from prison, Tyson had two paths. He could deny his culpability and hide from a public who knew he was guilty or to take a long hard look at himself in the mirror. He chose the latter. In a 2010 GQ interview, Tyson said, “I think I’m a pig. I have this uncanny ability to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘This is a pig. You are a fucking piece of shit.’” However painful, it’s likely that this ability to understand the full scope of his being led Tyson toward recovery.
In 2008, a documentary on Mike Tyson was released. The director of that documentary was James Toback. Is it any wonder that Toback, a man hiding from his tremendous shadow self, would develop a fascination with Tyson, a man who had to find a way to deal with his?
I can hear you thinking. What does it matter how miscreants view themselves? We don’t need to dive into these sick people’s minds, just punish them for their actions. But to actually change the world, men must change their behavior. And the first step to change is understanding. Society has only recently realized that telling women to wear longer skirts is not an effective way to change male behavior, but it resists trying to understand the assailants themselves, fearing their understanding be taken as an olive branch. But the same mentality that allows sexual assailants to continue can be seen throughout celebrity culture.
“As a woman in the public eye, I am labeled a brave voice one moment and an idiotic uninformed navel-gazing whiner the next. There are things I’ve been called that I won’t name here because they hurt my heart and body and they don’t deserve my response. But just as Lady Gaga lives with chronic pain and chronic inspiration, so do we all. She rejects labels and we can too. She understands that we are all works in progress, learning to love ourselves and to and to fight for each other. The bravest thing we can do right now, for ourselves and for this country, is to exist authentically and without apology. So someone says I’m a fat faux feminist dog abandoner? No: I reject that. I say I’m a warrior woman who has lived through and with mental health illness, assault, chronic pain, public criticism, and still I’ve fought every day to tell stories and make jokes. So please, reject the narratives imposed on you and choose your own adventure.
— Lena Dunham
Though, depending on how you feel about dogs, Dunham has never been accused of anything like Harvey Weinstein has (despite a hullaballoo about touching her baby sister’s vagina), her vulnerable and open quote displays how people, particularly public figures, must see themselves in order to not collapse under a din of public opinion. They champion their view and exclude themselves contradicting narratives, hoping they can control the conversation and live up to the projections they have built for themselves. Of course this perspective is nothing new. One of the oldest Hollywood adages is “Don’t read the reviews.”
But denying other’s perspectives and obscuring the parts of yourself that conflict with your ego leaves little room for the truth; the cult of shame tells people they cannot be open about their devious behavior. In our desire to see ourselves as good people, we risk being able to see our complete selves, both as individuals and as a society. This process isn’t exclusive to serial sexual assaulters, but something inherent to human behavior. Because it’s this disassociation between one’s identity and one’s actions that allows people to continue to assault women and still see themselves as non-threatening.
Society believes we can improve our world by finding those most egregious of villains and banishing them. This approach has a judicial simplicity to it: do bad, get punished. But it’s likely to be as successful as crushing the visible ants in your kitchen. They will keep returning until we peel back the walls and look at the true extent of the problem and how our society has nurtured it.