With so many women coming forward to tell their stories of sexual abuse and harassment, America is getting a course in Apology 101.
Lesson 1: the moment an “if” enters an apology — when the offending person is sorry “if” the offensive thing they did offended anyone — it becomes a nonapology.
Kevin Spacey’s recent nonapology to Anthony Rapp began with a teetering if — “if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology” — then moved to “I am sorry for Rapp’s feelings.” (Lesson 2: “I’m sorry you feel” equals nonapology.) Then came the bizarre segue into Spacey’s coming out as gay (“This story has encouraged me to address other things in my life…”) Such creativity is the result of an accused sex predator, at a moment when accusers are being believed, needing an Oscar-worthy deflection.
Compared to Spacey’s two-pronged approach, Harvey Weinstein’s Oct. 3 letter in the New York Times was a Swiss army knife. Weinstein closed his nonapology by listing the ways he planned to “channel” his “anger”: fighting the NRA, making a movie about Trump, and the pièce de résistance: starting a $5 million scholarship fund for women directors.
The nonapology of Louis C.K., who masturbated in front of disgusted women whose careers he then ruined, is in a league of its own. His Friday letter in the New York Times, which declares at the outset, “These stories are true,” makes him appear higher on the food chain than fellow perpetrators.
C.K.’s letter is constructed like one of his jokes: an arresting admission, followed by a series of twists. He goes on to mention how “admired” he is — four separate times. His attempt to show sensitivity to the residual harm he caused — “the fact that I was widely admired … disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried” — is quite a gloss. In reality, these female comedians were told to shut up, and it was clear they needed to avoid C.K., who is a creator, director, and producer in their field, and also his manager, Dave Becky, in addition to projects involving the other influential comics Becky represents. That translates to missed opportunities, blackballing, and in at least one case quitting the profession. Also, while he listed by name four of the five who came forward, how long is the actual list?
C.K. could have prevented the community-wide stigma these women were subjected to by admitting the truth years earlier, rather than repeatedly dismissing it as rumor — which is something he didn’t apologize for. No one doubts that had they not come forward now, he would have maintained his denials and continued masturbating in front of women, which is essentially what he does in many of his jokes, not to mention his new film, I Love You, Daddy, whose premiere was canceled. (Lesson 3: Apologizing because you got caught does not equal apology.)
Looks like Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused in the Washington Post last week of molesting a 14-year-old girl, has no plans to apologize, so he won’t be needing any ifs. Though Republican senators scrambling to react broke into a resounding chorus of them. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) initially said, “If these allegations are true, he must step aside.” “If,” repeated Rob Portman (R., Ohio), John Cornyn (R., Texas), Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), Susan Collins (R., Maine), and Susan Murkowski (R., Alaska). Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) dramatically threw in a “shred” — “If there is any shred of truth to the allegations…” — as did Pat Toomey (R., Pa.). (By Monday McConnell said he believed the women and called for Moore to drop out of the race. Other GOP senators have followed his lead.) Needless to say, there will be no trial, and therefore no shreds, between now and the special election on Dec. 12.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump “believes that if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside.” The logic here is impeccable: If you can’t trust an accused child molester to do the right thing, who can you trust? Certainly not female accusers — not this administration. Meanwhile, most Republican lawmakers appear stuck in 1991, when they gazed skeptically across the room at Anita Hill.
For victims of sexual abuse, the ordeal of not being believed can outweigh the devastation of the original trauma. Moore’s accusers didn’t approach those Post reporters, and were reluctant — decades later — to tell their stories. Now, with each senator’s “if,” a woman in Alabama named Leigh Corfman might ask: “What part of a 32-year-old man offering to watch a 14-year-old girl while her mother went inside for a child custody hearing, then asking the child for her phone number, don’t you understand? What part of driving me 30 minutes to his home in the woods, touching me through my bra and underpants, and guiding my hand to his underwear, do you not understand?”
Reporters Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard, and Alice Crites got more than 30 on-the-record corroborations of Corfman’s account, and those of three other women, then filed the most detailed, credible, and well-sourced article imaginable. What if Republican senators sat down and spoke with these reporters, or with Corfman? What if they cared about the lives of women as much as passing their tax plan?
Those are my ifs.
Diana Goetsch is a writer in New York City and the Grace Paley teaching fellow at the New School. email@example.com