When I first heard about Junot Díaz’s outing at the Australian Writing Festival, I felt that queasy sense of intrigue when someone from your academic neighborhood is suddenly knocked from his throne. Because Díaz certainly has held a princely role at MIT — he was the literary luminary of the Writing Program where I taught for most of my teaching life.
As a lifelong feminist, I knew the #MeToo movement was important and long overdue. Moreover, I was strongly inclined to believe the accusers. But I kept coming up against my own resistance to the possibility of Díaz being fired.
I’d been pleased when, soon after he joined MIT’s writing program, Díaz agreed to come to one of my classes to talk about writing Drown. He was a rising star on the tenure track and I was a lecturer with no reciprocal perks to offer, so it seemed a generous thing to do. We judged a student-writing prize together; I took my class to his readings. He inscribed a book for my daughter – a budding writer: “We need your words!” But I didn’t really know Junot. So my initial resistance to his firing had more to do with what I valued in his writing, and what he represented politically.
I’d taught Díaz’s first book, Drown, even before he came to MIT. Drown told stories that hadn’t been told before, set in the Dominican Republic and Latinx working class New Jersey in a voice that engaged with people who came from similar places, which many of my students had. They, too, often spoke a first language other than English (or at least dominant white English) and hesitated to expose this in writing. But here was a guy who knew his bilinguality was an asset – Spanish and Dominican slang unfettered by translation and given equivalent weight to textbook English. These eloquent stories of children coming of age and surviving often opened doors to my students’ own stories.
I’d regularly use one particular story as a model for students’ own work – “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie.” Students recognized that this was lively writing based on an audacious kind of truth telling.
Besides, reading “How to Date…” provoked lively discussion. Looking at this misogynist compilation of tips in the context of Drown as a whole, we could read it as Yunior, son and younger brother of two well-documented misogynists, taking up the patterns he’s been exposed to for his whole life, a study in the making of a misogynist asshole. Then, we’d ask, could it also be a confessional of sorts? See how I am, see how I became the asshole I am? And we’d remember, it’s also a made-up story – not likely made up out of whole cloth, but strands of personal experience woven into a maybe more flamboyant fictional whole.
Sometimes I’d pair “How to Date …” with Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a male character is forcing his girlfriend to get an abortion. Did Hemingway mean to expose his male character as a self-serving asshole? How much did it matter? Wasn’t the truth enough, the words put in the characters’ mouths, for us to parse in our own ways? Again, was Díaz’s narrator-guide presenting like a misogynist jerk? Absolutely. Did that mean Díaz must also be a misogynist jerk? In Hemingway’s case, the evidence was pretty much in. But I didn’t know about Díaz…
So now, to get the case of Díaz’s outing in Australia straight, you have to go back to his own dramatic self-outing in the New Yorker. Here, in “The Silence,” he plunges into the elusive depths, exposing where he went missing, sexually abused when he was eight. Díaz deploys the second person — but not to address a fellow messed-up misogynist predator-in-training. Instead the “you” becomes a fellow survivor, the preyed-upon, anonymous “X”.
Stripping off the misogynist mask, Díaz exposes a broken boy, a broken man filled with “bottomless self-loathing,” self-indicting for the damage done to those around him, and asking forgiveness. As in a classic redemption story, he chronicles his extended wandering in the wilderness; the final Fall (yes, capitalized); and the slow, imperfect climb to something like recovery, with therapist, supportive partner, and self-improvement – “Like I’m being given a second chance at the light.”
In this impassioned plea for understanding, Díaz pays homage to Toni Morrison and Audre Lourde, two of the bravest voice-giving warriors of the oppressed and abused. He directly invokes the #MeToo movement: “I could have called after her me too me too. I could have said the words: I was also raped,” claiming his place in this movement launched by victimized women rising up to speak their truths against their abusers.
Initially the response was effusive, at least from some quarters of the women’s press. Before suddenly the real Fall arrived with Zinzi Clemmons’ accusation. And the uncomfortable question emerged: Had it taken her courage to pull the mask, finally, all the way off?
In his initial announcement to the press, Díaz seemed to acknowledge as much, linking his truth-telling to Clemmons: “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my (childhood) rape and its damaging aftermath.” Acknowledging, it seemed, in an admittedly roundabout way, that his past contained both his abuse as a child, for which surely he wasn‘t responsible, and what we could assume was his own bad behavior with women – that “damaging aftermath” for which he knew he was.
Díaz even seemed to be applauding this next unmasking: “This conversation is important and must continue.” He vowed that he’d be “listening to and learning from women’s stories” and asserted that he still endorsed the #MeToo movement as “essential and overdue” even as he was being called out. Instructing: “We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”
Of course this announcement under pressure was stiff, and maybe a little condescending. And okay, ambiguous. It raised some serious questions: Like, okay, all men, but what about you? Who’s the we you’re speaking for? Which women’s stories? What specific boundaries? What damaging aftermath?
Still it seemed a start…
And I thought, then, of a sentence of Eudora Welty’s I’d often share in class: “All good writers tell the truth.” And of how, for all his masks, Díaz’s writing so often conveys the whiff of truth – a truth that hasn’t yet been told, or not yet told enough. So why couldn’t he help us understand how it is for men who’ve been abused, and then act out in ways they wish they hadn’t?
But then Díaz went silent, undoubtedly at his lawyer’s insistence.
Equivalency and Proportions
Now the questions arrived closer to home, as MIT, the institution that employed – and thus “enabled?” – Díaz, launched its investigation, Díaz’s job in the balance: Did he deserve to be fired? Were those the legitimate “consequences of his actions” as Clemmons seemed to imply?
I first thought about Díaz’s potential firing in terms of equivalency and proportions:
So what about the Koch brothers? On balance, who’s done more harm? Díaz or those prime purveyors of climate-denial (among other odious things) in support of their own massive wealth. Yet David H. Koch remained a permanent “Life Member Emeritus” of MIT’s Corporation. The Koch Institute keeps its prominent place on campus, their name emblazoned across its doors.
But of course, this was MIT, home of Lincoln Labs and napalm… heart of the military industrial complex. Obviously it was just too big a gap to bridge. World destruction and sexual misconduct? Apples and oranges.
As the #MeToo movement sped along at a furious pace, so too did these questions of proportionality and equivalency. Could you graph it, each guy along a line? How extreme the assault? How many abused? How convincing the mitigating circumstances? How absurdly false, how rigid, the denial? Then add this all up and assign the legitimate consequences?
It wasn’t hard to recognize the disproportionate and unfair consequences of Al Franken being banished from the Senate, while Donald Trump remained president. And closer to the case of Díaz, you could wonder about completely censoring Sherman Alexie’s books, while the pantheon of great white American misogynist writers — from Hemingway to Roth, Salinger to Updike — still were given space in curricula and on bookstore shelves.
Could we then find some algorithm that acknowledged the emerging trend: the more powerful and famous the man, the more likely the sexual misconduct? Could you determine the rate at which access to power and fame exponentially raised the tendency to abuse? Because men in positions of power and status were falling like flies.
Or could there be something like a latent chromosome for abuse that all men shared? One which, when exposed to a specific toxin — like adolescence, or power, or early abuse — would be released to its full expression? Or, let’s say, the extended adolescence of a place like Saturday Night Live (that incubator of juvenile pranks where Al Franken got his break), or unregulated privilege and power (like being born a Trump) or early insecurity, discrimination, and abuse (as both Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz have so vividly chronicled).
But, really, was this a meaningful scientific question? And, anyway, what would we do with it if it was?
Lucy Marx taught writing at MIT for many years, cut sugar cane in Cuba on the second Venceremos Brigade, and worked as a riveter and a teacher of Vietnam-era vets. This essay is excerpted from Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women Over Sixty (Fall 2019). You can read the complete essay here.