The Lie That Saves Us

 During his 2017 Netflix special  Equanimity,  Dave Chappelle pantomimes "kicking her in the pussy" as he contemplates the woman who lied about Emmett Till. Photo courtesy Netflix.

During his 2017 Netflix special Equanimity, Dave Chappelle pantomimes "kicking her in the pussy" as he contemplates the woman who lied about Emmett Till. Photo courtesy Netflix.

 

“He was just trying to win you back.”

I was sitting on the couch in a nondescript office with no windows. I was here because of an email my ex-boyfriend had sent me saying I was about to get fired. I was trying to explain to the powers that be why I was afraid of what he might do next.

If stories about trauma had punchlines, this would be mine.

With trauma, there is often the compulsion to repeat. As a writer, I often feel like I’m trying to write the same story over and over again—as if one day, I will finally get it right. And in that moment, everything that doesn’t make sense will finally make sense. Even after the initial trigger is gone, still I feel compelled to return to the scene of the crime.

My trauma is the last thing I want to write about. It’s also the only thing I want to write about.

Trauma isn’t the only thing that repeats itself. In one popular theory of humor, French philosopher Henri Bergson claims that, “[R]eally lively life is not supposed to repeat itself. Where there is repetition, complete similarity, we suspect that there is mechanism behind life. That diversion of life towards mechanism is the real cause of laughter.”

With all due respect to Bergson, I think this is a more accurate description of evil than comedy. Evil, it would seem, tends to repeat the same pattern over and over again without change, while comedy, by contrast, often uses repetition to transform the meaning of a phrase. In this sense, comedy is “lively life,” the repetition without the stagnation.

As one shining example of this phenomenon, Dave Chappelle starts his Netflix special Equanimity with the randomly selected punchline: “And then I kicked her in the pussy.”

This line alone gets a laugh. But when he repeats it later on (spoiler alert), it still comes as a complete surprise.


The same lie, repeated often enough, can start to seem like the truth. But the same man repeating the same old, predictable evil over and over and over again starts to feel like a joke. Harvey Weinstein just wanted a relationship? You have got to be kidding me.


I first started attempting to link comedy with evil because it seemed to me that evil could be inexplicably funny.

When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, I couldn’t stop reading about it. It seemed as if I had watched this scene play out so many times in the movies, but now here it was with a twist: the fancy hotel room, the champagne on ice, room service, drawn bath. A young, beautiful woman. An old, fat, ugly man chasing her around the room naked, demanding a massage­—wait, what?

Here was a story that seemed to play out in infinite variations with infinite victims, a sickening pattern of coercion and abuse, a script that never seemed to change, but instead gave rise to the most ludicrous and grotesque scenes possible.

Weinstein’s pattern is now legendary in its consistency. He would set up a business meeting with an aspiring actress or model that would get moved to his hotel room. Cynthia or Lacey might find herself alone with Weinstein after being lured by a female assistant. He would ask Rosanna for a massage or ask Jessica to shower with him or ask Salma if he could massage her. Often, he would be wearing only a robe or appear completely nude. According to the accounts of multiple women, this would be the prelude to assault or rape or coercion, often buoyed by promises and/or threats about how he could make or break their careers.

In the infinite loop of sexual violence, there is no lasting satisfaction. Any pleasure is momentary, fleeting, insufficient. And so it begins again. Through repetition and rehearsal, evil is sharpened to a point.

“He was just trying to win you back.”

Bob (not his real name) interrupted me. I was trying to explain why I was afraid and I used the word “threaten.” He quickly set me straight.

“He was just trying to win you back.”

It was a throwaway statement, a shrug of the shoulders that I doubt he has given a single second of thought to since. I walked into that meeting thinking that I had a solid case. After all, I had this email. And in the email, my ex made it very clear that I was about to be fired, unless—and this is the important part—unless I decided to talk to him again.

You see, he was the only person who could save me.

I wasn’t talking to my ex-boyfriend, because something had gone terribly wrong. We had dated and broken up and then become friends because we still worked together. And then when I didn’t want to be his friend anymore, he turned into a completely different person, the kind of person who could use work as a pretext to tear me down emotionally.

Never mind all that though—“winning me back” still fit perfectly with his narrative. Other romantics might plant a field full of daisies, buy a ring or write a love song. His grand romantic gesture was to convince me that I was about lose my job.

The threat may have been implicit, but the trauma was real.

 The repetitive nature of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein's multiple sexual assaults shouldn't be a punchline. Photo by  Thomas Hawk  ( CC BY-NC 2.0 ).

The repetitive nature of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein's multiple sexual assaults shouldn't be a punchline. Photo by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC 2.0).

I will add here that trauma isn’t that funny. It’s really not. It’s one of the worst things I believe any human being can ever experience. On a cellular level, it can fundamentally affect your ability to get through life, to do everyday, basic things like go to work or leave your apartment.

Except humans are strange, creative and resilient creatures. Sometimes you can take a lie and spin it into the truth.

I keep coming back to a conversation that I had with an older, male friend about Harvey Weinstein not long after the story broke. We were at Starbucks hanging out and my friend suggested that if Weinstein had really wanted to get to know Heather or Lupita or Ashley or Rose or Liza or Louise, he could’ve just made more of an effort to make himself appealing.

“Instead of–," he mimed pushing a woman’s head toward his crotch, “Why not shave, maybe lose some weight?”

In that moment, my friend put himself in Weinstein’s bathrobe.

And if he could imagine Weinstein as just another average guy trying to find love, then what Bob had said suddenly made a lot of sense.

If the myth of good intentions could be applied to Weinstein, then of course it could be applied to the rapist, the murderer, the abuser, the harasser, the cat-caller, my ex-boyfriend.

“He was just trying to win you back.”

The same lie, repeated often enough, can start to seem like the truth. But the same man repeating the same old, predictable evil over and over and over again starts to feel like a joke. Harvey Weinstein just wanted a relationship? You have got to be kidding me.

Yes, let’s all pretend that Weinstein was just an average dude trying to get with an Angelina, a Gwyneth or a Kate—that he was basically Jonah Hill in Superbad or Seth Rogen in every single movie ever. He was just a guy, standing in front of a girl, whipping his dick out and telling her what needed to happen if she ever wanted to work in this town again.

In Emma de Caunes's account, as reported in the New Yorker, Weinstein is aroused by her fear:

“I was very petrified,” de Caunes said. “But I didn’t want to show him that I was petrified, because I could feel that the more I was freaking out, the more he was excited.” She added, “It was like a hunter with a wild animal. The fear turns him on.”

It dawned on me reading the stories of Weinstein’s victims that he could have easily physically overpowered them (and sometimes did). But he chose not to, because he was trying to draw out the fear. This was all a game to him.

Why would my friend assume that Weinstein was looking for any kind of relationship based on mutual desire? Because of the myth of good intentions, I suppose.

In the myth of good intentions, all a man can ever really want from a woman is love. It doesn’t matter how he goes about getting it. At heart, he is not even an adult looking for an equal partner, but a sad, neglected little boy who just wants to be loved and nurtured. Even if he murders his partner, at least his heart was in the right place. This is how we can pretend that Weinstein was looking for some kind of normal romantic connection.

So what is the truth behind Weinstein's lie? The truth is so simple, it’s almost insulting: Some men enjoy hurting women.

In the narratives of the women he abused, even he seems to buy into this myth. Zoë Brock recounts a terrifying encounter with Weinstein in which he both chased her naked into the bathroom and cried about how she didn’t like him because he was fat.

If the myth of good intentions could be applied to Weinstein, then of course it could be applied to the rapist, the murderer, the abuser, the harasser, the cat-caller, my ex-boyfriend.

The lie is Harvey Weinstein in his bathrobe. Or Weinstein emerging naked from the shower with an erection, pretending that this is a perfectly normal way to conduct business. He is patriarchy taken to its logical extreme and patriarchy taken to its logical extreme looks like a complete joke.

And let’s not forget HW’s go-to statement when one more woman accuses him of rape, assault, harassment or abuse: “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein.” It’s the same lie, the same fantasy of universal consent. Within the denial is the not-so-subtle humble-brag: Yeah, I had sex with Asia and Natassia and Dominique. It’s like he’s patting himself on the back for being such a raving success with the ladies.

But it’s not just him. The world has been trying to convince women that love and abuse are one and the same, that in order to get one you have to accept the other. It’s not just women like Sophie and Romola in the entertainment industry—it’s all of us. It’s that shrug of the shoulders. Pay to play, sweetheart.

Harvey Weinstein only has one narrative. And in all likelihood, he will be telling that same story until the day that he dies. To state the obvious, a lie is meant to conceal the truth. So what is the truth behind the lie?

The truth is so simple, it’s almost insulting: Some men enjoy hurting women. They live for the look of terror on Cara’s face or Zelda’s face or Brit’s face. They hurt her because they want to and because they can. The dominant narrative helps to conceal and excuse abuse.

And that’s why I think “he was just trying to win you back” has stayed with me. There’s the subtle implication that I should be grateful that this man wants me at all, enough to write me a trauma-inducing email. I mean, it’s not a sky-written marriage proposal or anything, but at least he’s making an effort.

 More than 80 women have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

More than 80 women have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

It’s this same logic that dictates that if I don’t like being cat-called that I “just can’t take a compliment” (look at me, misreading this poor man’s intentions). Or if I don’t want to be hit on at work, I “should be grateful that men still find me attractive” (because someday they won’t).

And that brings us to the greatest lie of all: This is just the way it is. This is the way Hollywood works. This is the way love works. This is how it’s always been and always will be. Nothing will ever change. You are powerless to change reality, so stop trying.

Fuck that.

“He was just trying to win you back.”

How could I have misread the text so thoroughly? How could I be so wrong about the reality of my own experience? Sometimes the violence is so entangled with the romance, the promise with the threat that you can’t tell one from the other. There’s always that hidden “or else.”

This is all just a big misunderstanding.

Except, I don’t think I misunderstood. Rather, I understood too well: My ex-boyfriend didn’t want my love. He wanted my compliance and he used fear to get it. I mean, it worked—not in the way that he intended, I suppose, but it did work. I was terrified.

The fear was twofold: I was afraid every single day that I was going to be fired and I was afraid every single day of what he might do next. I felt like I was just waiting for something terrible to happen. And that’s the thing: my greatest fear (he is the only person who can save me) was his deepest fantasy (I am the only person who can save you).

At the end of his Netflix special, Chappelle tells the story of the murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till in 1950s Mississippi. It’s a pretty sobering story for a comedy show, but he goes there. He talks about the white woman whose accusation led to Emmett Till’s death, and how she admitted on her deathbed that it was a lie.

And then Chappelle does something remarkable. He links this woman’s lie to the murder of Emmett Till to the progress of the civil rights movement to his career today. He explains that through the cowardice of one woman and the courage of another, something shifted. Emmett Till’s mother insisted that he be buried in an open casket, so that the whole world could see the evil that had been done to him. Racism had a face, a body.

The comedian asks, “How could it be that this lie could make the world a better place?”

Chappelle, who has talked about the 2016 election and its aftermath throughout his show, suggests that Trump “might be the lie that saves us all,” imagining the kind of future where Americans can come together over the joke that is the current presidency. Trump is the lie taken to its most logical, most hysterical extreme. He is toxic masculinity and white supremacy and corporate greed and unchecked narcissism laid bare—but he didn’t cause the insanity. He just made it too obvious to ignore.

At the very end of his show, Chappelle says of Emmett Till’s accuser, “And if that woman that said that heinous lie was alive today, I would thank her for lying. And then I would kick her in the pussy.” And the crowd goes wild. Chappelle uses the repetition of a throwaway punchline to build themes of unity from division, harmony from conflict, good from evil.

To anyone going through something traumatic right now, all the hope that I have is for you. I know with everything that I am that you’re going to be okay. You’re okay and you’re going to get through this. My heart is for you.

We have the capacity to change and grow the stories that we tell about our trauma. We have the creativity to imagine a different future and the courage to fight for it.

“He was just trying to win you back.”

The lie will save you. The lie is saving me.

If I ran into Bob at the farmer’s market today, I would thank him. I would thank him for saying what he said. Because if he hadn’t said that to me, I wouldn’t be as angry as I am right now. I wouldn’t feel like someone had set me on fire. I wouldn’t have this drive and this passion, and I wouldn’t feel like my words could burn this world to the ground. I would never know that anger gives rise to the fiercest hope.

I would thank him. And then I would go home and I would keep writing.