Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

Reconciling Rage and Compassion: the Unfolding #MeToo Moment for Junot Diaz

It’s time to tell the whole truth about Junot Diaz. Last month, he came out with a powerful piece in the New Yorker about having been raped as a boy. He connected the dots to his own toxic behavior in relationships where he abandoned and betrayed his partners and slept around.

But the story doesn’t end there. Starting with a post-midnight tweet on May 4th, writers Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, and Monica Byrne began publicly filling out the picture of Diaz’s harm to women, and it’s not pretty. Sexual assault. Verbal abuse and bullying. I believe these women are telling the truth, and I believe that we may hear more and worse before this truth-telling is done. Yet as the stories come forth, I also have my eye on the aftermath.

In particular, Clemmons says that when Diaz came and spoke at a workshop on representation in literature, “I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 [year old, and] he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me….I refuse to be silent anymore.” Feminists were outraged when Tr*mp described similar behavior: “I just start kissing them….I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.…” What he really meant was that he catches women completely unaware, and when you are a star, the institutions allow you to get away with this type of sexual assault. Junot Diaz was that star in our writing community for people of color. He could get away with it due to his awards and his fame, and he would always have new “wide-eyed” young women whose guard would be down.

Monica Byrne rightly asks the question of the New Yorker editors: “I read that piece and thought: Did no one at @NewYorker think to ask him what ‘I hurt people’ might mean? Fucking really? In this era?”

The word my Puerto Rican mother would use for Junot’s sanitized version of his behavior would be “chickenshit.” He was bold enough to have his #MeToo moment about his victimization, but not about his victimizing. No. The trauma he experienced doesn’t justify or excuse his behavior. It’s unacceptable. Some of it is illegal.

Today is a day to be pissed. To cuss him out in private and in public. To send all our love and solidarity and support to Zinzi and Carmen and Monica, and whoever else will have come out with her story by the time I publish this or the time you read it. I believe women. I support women. I stand up for women.

And.

What about tomorrow? As Katie J. M. Baker asked in her New York Times Opinion piece, “what do we do with these men?”

I’m not trying to rush anyone’s process of raging about this level of misogynist abuse. But what comes after the anger? Once we’ve had the whitest hot flame of our fury, what do we do with the eight-year-old Diaz who was raped? If he hadn’t grown up to act like an asshole, we would have compassion for him. Since he did grow up to act like an asshole, is there any way that we, as a community, can hold both? I’m not saying to stop being angry. Who can stop being angry when rape culture is certainly not stopping it’s steamroll over our bodies and our consent? But can we hold the complex reality that Junot Diaz is both a #MeToo survivor and a perpetrator? Because this type of abuse is a cycle. Boys are abused (usually by men and older boys) and many become older boys and men who abuse. I don’t want to give him a pass. But I am glad that he appears to be getting help for the trauma that led him to mistreat women in so many different ways. Betrayal in intimate relationships, assault, abuse and predatory behavior in the community of writers of color.

When women are abused, we are less likely to abuse others in the same way that men are. Statistics show that sexual assault and domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men, although female perpetrators and male victims exist, as well. Junot is both.

My goal isn’t to drag Junot Diaz, nor is it to excuse him. My goal is to end sexual violence against women and girls. And in order for that to happen, we need to end male domination. If our society weren’t male dominated, males wouldn’t form a hierarchy in which they abused each other, and females wouldn’t be a dumping ground for men’s toxicity and trauma. But as we work toward reorganizing social and political power in the world, we also need men need to heal individually and in groups. And in order for men to heal, they need both compassion and accountability: men need to reconnect with their empathy, and to be accountable for the harm they caused. We need some restorative or transformative justice. Junot Diaz has a lot of apologies to make. Maybe more than he can remember or finish in his lifetime. He should start now. There also need to be spaces of compassion for men who have both harmed and been harmed. The people they victimized shouldn’t be responsible for holding out that compassion. Forgiveness is optional. But I support men having compassionate spaces to heal.

Because I actually do want men to heal. They’re not a bad batch that we can throw away and get a new set. These are the men on our planet, in our communities, in our families, and in our beds (not all of us, but many). I want men to stop brutalizing women. I want them to stand up to other men’s misogyny. Not some vigilante fantasy, but the everyday shit. They need to speak up when their dude friends are talking sexist shit at the ball game or moving in on a woman at a club or party who’s too drunk to consent or crossing boundaries at a strip club or abusing their female partners or cheating on them. I want all that shit to change. And in order to change those behaviors, men need to grow their capacity for empathy and bravery by addressing their trauma. By his own account, Junot has begun to do so, but it’s far from perfect.

Many have suggested that he came out with the New Yorker article to pre-empt the accusations that were bound to come out. Maybe he did. But even if his motives were shady, I still maintain that his New Yorker piece dealt a blow to toxic masculinity. He broke the code of silence among men, particularly heterosexual men of color: if you are violated by another man, never, ever let anyone know. It makes you weak. It makes you a punk. It makes you a woman. For men, to admit victimization is utterly taboo. Junot is the first high profile man of color to tell his story of victimization at the national level. Coming from a poor, African diaspora immigrant background, this is huge. Previously, there had been no high-visibility role model for male survivors from the hood. Now there is. But what do we do with its profound imperfection?

Right now, many of us women are in our own typical pattern for trauma survivors: we see men through a binary. He’s either a good brother or he’s trash. People either want to excuse Junot or vilify him. We need to hold both: he’s a brother with a history of abusing and being abused. I believe that a man like Junot can be redeemed. But let’s be clear, he hasn’t redeemed himself yet. He would need to start telling more of the truth in his public statements, he would need to keep doing his healing work, and he would need to find ways to make amends for all the harm he caused. Maybe he needs to stop teaching for a while. Maybe he needs to be supervised when he’s with female students. Maybe he shouldn’t be jet setting as a guest lecturer star to places with wide-eyed students. I’m not sure what consequences are needed, but it can’t be business as usual. Still, whatever steps need to be taken to intervene in his behavior, I still believe the following basic truth: nobody wants to grow up to be a misogynist. Baby and toddler boys reflect the true nature of the human male before it’s poisoned by toxic masculinity. I want to hold Junot accountable, but I also want to hold up his humanity and push him to be a better leader in this conversation. In the past, he has called himself writing about toxic masculinity. He has also acted it out, and pushed back hard on women who challenged him. Whether we like it or not, he’s a leader, and I want him to use his powers for good.

My greatest hope here is that a space can open up for men to support each other and to begin to do the emotional labor on each other’s behalf. As it stands, girlfriends, wives, female friends, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and female therapists are the ones doing the emotional heavy lifting for men. (At least the therapists get compensated). If we can lift the code of silence and the veil of shame and the compulsory emotional isolation, men can start organizing themselves to do this much-needed healing work for each other.

It’s a tall order, but I refuse to give up on half the population. Women are not going to be able to take down the patriarchy without men backing us. And they need to be clear that they’re doing it to reclaim their own humanity, not as a favor to us. Don’t think your anti-sexist stance is gonna get you cool points, cookies, or get you laid. Fight for yourself, bruh, the boy you were who wanted more than a load of abuse and some porn and promises of pussy to make you feel better. I want to raise the bar on who men can be and how they can show up to take down the patriarchy, regardless of how deeply they have participated in misogyny in the past. Because I’m also angry, but more than angry I’m determined to use all means necessary to end male domination, including compassion and understanding that underneath that toxic conditioning men are human, however inhuman their behavior continues to be.

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41 comments on “Reconciling Rage and Compassion: the Unfolding #MeToo Moment for Junot Diaz

  1. Sally Ember, Ed.D.
    May 5, 2018

    Excellent points: not all who were abused become abusers, and he made choices in every moment that he is responsible for and must he held accountable for, with understanding and compassion for his poor judgment, lack of impulse control, skewed perspectives about sexuality and power.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. Richard Rorty
    May 5, 2018

    This is the most humane and sensible commentary on the whole Junot Diaz situation I have read. Thank you.

    • Chris Kaput
      May 6, 2018

      I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Pingback: Masculinity on my Mind (again) | Just Write to write

  4. CH
    May 6, 2018

    Yes, but I don’t trust men to do the work they need to do without input and guidance from women. How can we expect them to school & heal each other when they are all impacted by toxic masculinity? What is meant by “compassionate space to heal?” What does that look like?

    • JC
      May 7, 2018

      I recently participated in an immersive weekend at a correctional facility that works to create safe containers for men (both from inside and outside the carceral state) to confront trauma and toxic patterns and open up to emotional honesty. It might be an example of the type of scenario you are inquiring about. Not a perfect solution on its own and I agree that there needs to be a significant place for women’s voices and wisdom in the process but it it one of the more profound experiences that I’ve had. The highly-recommended film The Work will give you a glimpse: theworkmovie.com

  5. Gail Dottin
    May 6, 2018

    Thanks so much for this powerfully nuanced view. He must be accountable. But I don’t think he’s the first high level man of color to reveal this kind of abuse. I believe that is actor and former-athlete Terry Cruise. https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Culture/authorities-reject-terry-crews-sexual-assault-case/story?id=53595423

  6. Ingrid
    May 6, 2018

    I have been waiting for this message for years. Vilification does not lead to healing. We have to make room for both rage and compassion to grow as a society. This is true for all social conflicts. I haven’t had the courage to come out and say that. I’m glad you have.

    • Sara Parks
      May 7, 2018

      Yes! Agreed! Thank you (both Ingrid and Aya).

  7. Thank you for this. It is measured and nuanced, and therefore really important. As someone who is also a survivor of childhood sexual violence, though, I’d like to point out what I think is a disturbing trend in a lot of the more measured commentary on Diaz that I’ve been reading: the idea that men who have been abused go on to abuse. While that is certainly true of some men who’ve been violated, it is not true of most male survivors. (To put it another way: while it may be true that many men who abuse have histories of abuse, most men who are abused do not go on themselves to abuse.) It’s important to understand that Diaz was raped as a context for understanding his particular situation; to generalize from him to “male survivors” as a group, however, is dangerously misleading and unfairly misrepresents the lived lives of the vast majority of us. Indeed, as a discourse, it borders on the pathologizing, not so different from the old myth that a man or boy who is raped by a man will, in the end, become gay.

    • MrsB
      May 6, 2018

      You make a good point about rape but I think this discussion should look more broadly. Men are needing to come into account for themselves because while they may not be sexually or physically abusive, they may be emotionally abusive. They may be sh*tty fathers or spouses. Men aren’t just damaged by histories of sexual abuse but patriarchy. Sexual abuse is a terribly acute trauma, but so many men are acting out the psychological distortions that a lifetime of patriarchy has inflicted upon them. So I think even the “good ones” need to go deep and look at the ways they are inflicting damage on themselves, people around them, and the world.

  8. Aaron Hamburger
    May 6, 2018

    Wow! So great. Thank you

  9. mycyclestories
    May 6, 2018

    I would encourage men, and women who care about men’s ability to face their shadows, tap the roots of their trauma, learn to heal, transform and be held accountable to look into the work being done by the man kind project. Mkp.org

  10. dwillwrite
    May 6, 2018

    Excellent! Compassionate yet stern admonition. We neec each other to heal and reconcile our pain.

  11. Keysi Montás
    May 6, 2018

    No one should get a pass, and the more visible a person is, the more vigilant and guarded we must be. And, let’s also not be blinded to the fact that Junot has come out to face his demons (which are our society’s demons) in a most public and courageous way. I know not two other brothers (myself included) who have come out so publicly and so raw in atonement as he has. One is not born with the tools to understand and oppose patriarchy and misogyny; on the contrary, what we are taught in church, in school, in society, in the media, in the colors picked when a child is born, is precisely the opposite. We (all of us from before we are born) are taught to be participants, practitioners, supporters and guardians of the status quo. Junot is reckoning with all of this, and as he examines his past and recognizes it for what it is, and struggles to understand and oppose patriarchy and misogyny, I will join him and support him, hoping to get the courage to face my own demons.

  12. Martha Southgate
    May 7, 2018

    Couldn’t agree more. I do hope though, that he steps up and truly apologizes and takes accountabilty as he should–ideally in person or at least in private with some of those who have spoken out and publicly in a non-weasel apology to all. It will be sad and a crucial missed opportunity for all if he doesn’t.

  13. Dame Luz
    May 7, 2018

    While I agree with some points, I feel that women shouldn’t be solely responsible for all the emotional labor that goes into carrying these men. Men need to start stepping up and holding each other accountable.

  14. E
    May 7, 2018

    This is a fantastic response to a really fraught situation, so thank you for that! I’m sure you’re talking about Latinx intellectuals when you say that Diaz is the first survivor to come forward, but I did want to point to an athlete who did, one for whom the act of unmasking his trauma was literal as well as figurative: http://toofab.com/2017/06/12/how-american-ninja-warrior-flip-rodriguez-sexual-abuse-story-is-saving-other-victims/

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  16. Irene Hoge Smith
    May 7, 2018

    Thank you so much for a voice of reason. At a conference this weekend of therapists and psychoanalysts who are also writers a friend and I were talking about how to find ways to speak for balanced thought in a time when the discourse is so relentlessly polarized.

  17. Webb Mealy
    May 7, 2018

    Thank you, Aya, for showing that anger and cynicism are not the same thing, fury and lack of kindness are not the same thing. I hope men will read this and realize how high the stakes are. We urgently need to get right and do right.

  18. Colin Ehara
    May 7, 2018

    Brilliant, bold, beautiful. I’m going to read/discuss this with my Seniors this week. Thank you, Aya.
    -Colin

  19. Rex Manning
    May 7, 2018

    Nice article. It kinda read as a compassionate exploration of equality – on some superficial level. Mostly, though , it high lighted the continuing l
    lack of accountability we’ve come to expect from feminist media (I.e only men perpetrate suffering.

    I grew up in a house with two violent sisters and a violent mother, as the youngest and only son. I’ve see
    Abuse against males been marginalised for my whole life. Now, it would seem, you’re asking for help from what you consider to be ‘good’ males to help take down a patriarchy. If you’d focus on things like eliminating violence and sexual assault against PEOPLE instead of specfic genders or races, etc, we’d actually have a decent chance at establishing equality in society. But, that would require alll people to be accountable, not just the currently accused.

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  24. Davis
    May 8, 2018

    I first have to say I am male and part of African diaspora. I am a fan of Junot Diaz. After saying that, I find this article distasteful and in bad form.

    Junot has been in public eye for about 20 years. So, we have one person claiming she was forcibly kissed and two other people about him losing temper in public during a conference, and some ex- with a blog that borders on vengeful stalking.

    But your statement below
    “Maybe he needs to be supervised when he’s with female students”

    That is what you suggested and recommended? Is this serious? Is he an animal that can’t control himself?

    He has been working for many years as a professor. Has anyone complained about him? Are any of these women students, employee, co-worker, etc..

    Remember all these four people are making these statements are over a 20-year window in junot’s life.

    This is not trial. A trial you have a jury and both sides tell their story. This is just public flogging.

    • Keysi Montás
      May 8, 2018

      Thank you Davis!

      • Davis
        May 8, 2018

        I am surprised by other comments. There is nothing balanced about this article. With statements like:
        “Junot Diaz has a lot of apologies to make. Maybe more than he can remember or finish in his lifetime”
        Based on “forcible kiss” which seem like one time encounter and don’t know the context and losing his temper in heated discussion twice.
        what else has he done?
        What does he have to apologize about that would take a lifetime?

  25. Birch
    May 8, 2018

    Where is the mention of mental health in this and the role that plays??? Why is no one mentioning that?

    And as a woman, of course I do not condone sexual harassment, but to flog him for losing his temper – COME ON. I’m getting really tired of no one being allowed to be human any more. Do you never lose your temper/act like a s****y friend or relative/wish you’d done things differently? We’re all supposed to be perfect every second of every day, or we should be fired from our jobs and never work again. Where is the humanity? Where’s the compassion? None of us are perfect – male OR female. Why does no one get the chance to say, “Hey, I did some things I shouldn’t have years ago, but I’m a different person now and I’ve changed”???????

    • Davis
      May 9, 2018

      Thanks for sharing.
      I felt genders pitching their own camps with this episode.
      It is good to get a woman’s perspective.
      I believe Junot has been open sharing that suffers from severe depression whether in his recent essay or other forums. Of course, that doesn’t excuse any form of harassment(if it occurred) but losing the temper stuff…

      So, four people said something thru social media remember this nearly over 20-year time window of Junot life-
      Two people about him losing his temper or raising his voice at a conference
      One was an ex- whose view or blog seems warped to me.
      One lady was “forcible kiss”… who waited six years to confront him without introducing herself at a festival in public and then immediately twitting about the incident and her brave act to rest of the world…

      What was her intent?

  26. Pingback: Reconciling Rage and Compassion: the Unfolding #MeToo Moment for Junot Diaz | Michael Copperman

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  28. Illygirl Alien
    May 9, 2018

    Reblogged this on lauracholula.

  29. Godhuli Bose
    May 10, 2018

    More thanheal himself i wsnt to see Diaz make a concerted effort to heal the ones he has harmed. And that will be work. He’s ruch enough to afford good therapy but his victims may not have his cash flow. I dibt feel like coddling his anuse of celeb power. He’s a writer, an intellectual- he should have known better. Thats the special skill writers have- but he chose not to use it on himself. And yes i fo suspect he was afraid, i mean mortally afraid of the Me Too backlash.

    • Godhuli Bose
      May 10, 2018

      Trying to fix my typos but it won’t let me. Sorry!

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  31. Johnny
    May 14, 2018

    “Many have suggested that he came out with the New Yorker article to pre-empt the accusations that were bound to come out. Maybe he did. But even if his motives were shady, I still maintain that his New Yorker piece dealt a blow to toxic masculinity.”

    Junot Diaz has alluded to Yunior’s rape many times. Watch his videos on youtube he mentions Yunior has been raped all the time. Isn’t miss lora literally about a woman raping a young boy.

  32. Johnny
    May 14, 2018

    Are we gonna forget the 2012 article where Junot Diaz mentions Yunior’s rape. The article he wrote in the New Yorker wasn’t a move to protect himself.

    https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-anatomy-of-a-cheater-junot-diazs-this-is-how-you-lose-her/#!

  33. Great piece. One correction, Junot is not the “first high profile man of color to tell his story of victimization at the national level.” Consider Lavernues Coles of the NY Jets among others…

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