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Why Do Monstrous People Win Fans?

Somehow, Trump still gets cheers. But we’ve all adored terrible humans, writes Claire Dederer with needed honesty.

Dorothy Woodend 15 May

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

[Editor’s note: This piece contains depictions of rape and sexual assault involving minors. It may be triggering to some readers.]

When American journalist E. Jean Carroll blew the roof off in a devastating 2019 New York Magazine essay about her experiences with sexual assault — including rape by then-president Donald Trump — I immediately sent the link to the editor-in-chief of The Tyee. “Did you see this?” I asked. We looked at each other, goggle-eyed with the larger implications of the story.

Not for one moment did I doubt the truth of what Carroll was sharing. Real life has a certain tang to it that you simply can’t manufacture. It’s in the details and the marginalia — and Carroll’s story was chock full of it, from the body suit that she cheekily suggested Trump try on in the Bergdorf Goodman luxury department store, to him pulling down her tights in order to rape her in the changing room. Any woman who has had a similar experience would have immediately known that this event really happened.

The conclusion to the story, or at least one of them, took place last week, when the verdict in Carroll’s lawsuit against the former U.S. president resulted in damages in the amount of US$5 million. But Carroll’s legal triumph was only a brief flash of victory.

The day after the sexual assault and defamation verdict, Trump was given a national platform on CNN’s popular journalist-moderated Town Hall to mock Carroll and pedal his usual cesspit of seething lies and general grossness. To call it whiplash-inducing doesn’t quite do it justice. And this is a terribly common pattern among abusers. They do terrible things, then double down on their right to do them.

Like a lot of things in the world, repercussions happen slowly and then all at once. This seems especially true of the monstrous acts of horrible humans. You can only be a complete ick of a person for a time before some form of retribution is enacted from the universe. Or at least that’s what I hope.

And sometimes, justice never arrives at all. Or if it does, it comes in fits and fractured starts that fail to satisfy. Even worse, there’s the unsettling, discombobulating feeling of being implicated, not by hatred or loathing, but love. I bonked into this recently when attending the Vancouver Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. I can detest Donald Trump and love Richard Wagner, but both are arguably bad men. It’s a bit of a leap to go from love to hate and back again, but the two things are sometimes more closely aligned than you would think.

This seasick feeling is the subject of Claire Dederer’s new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.

Dederer, a book critic, essayist and reporter, is perhaps the ideal person to tackle the topic. Monsters evolved out of a 2017 essay that she wrote for the Paris Review that was passed feverishly around the internet like a hot potato. At the time, #MeToo was in full roar as millions of women shared their stories of assault, abuse and misogyny. Suddenly, powerful men were being taken down all over the place. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K.

It was both thrilling and appalling. And also terribly heartbreaking. I remember appreciating Louis C.K.’s comedy before he admitted to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.

The #MeToo tsunami arguably changed the cultural landscape. But even before the waters had begun to fully recede, there were already efforts underway to reintrench the previous paradigms, such as the continued assault on reproductive rights, access to birth control, even no-fault divorce. Build back creepier!

These efforts continue to this moment, not only in North America but around the globe. In Afghanistan, girls are denied education. In Turkey, feminist organizations have come under threat. In Mexico, the numbers of women murdered by femicide has reached staggering new levels. In Canada, the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women continues.

Politics might be the most overtly public place that these patterns repeat (ad nauseum), but in the so-called culture wars, similar struggles are ongoing. Music, art, film, literature: just about every creative manifestation has not only harboured but celebrated the work of monstrous humans.

In Monsters, the author places herself fully in the hard light of self-examination by looking at her love for the films of influential yet extremely problematic film director Roman Polanski.

Polanski made some of the most impactful and artful films of the 1960s and ‘70s, including Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Knife in the Water. But in 1977, he was arrested and charged for drugging and anally raping 13-year-old Samantha Geimer (then Samantha Gailey), and plead guilty two years later. This was the first of several accusations of Polanski’s sexual misconduct involving children.

In examining her reaction to Polanski’s work in Monsters, Dederer uses the analogy of a stain, a creeping darkness that forever marks an artist’s creations.

In an excerpt from the book recently featured in the Guardian, she writes:

“Strange idiosyncratic personal rules arise from such knowledge — I have a much easier time watching films that Polanski made before he raped Samantha Gailey. And yet at the same time, Polanski — predator, statutory rapist — collapses into Polanski the preternaturally talented Polish art student, wunderkind, Holocaust survivor. When we stream his 1962 psychological thriller, Knife in the Water, we wish we could give our few dollars to that blameless young Polanski. We wonder: How can we bypass this terrible old criminal? We can’t. We can’t even bypass our knowledge of what he’s done. We can’t bypass the stain. It colours the life and the work.”

The artists and writers featured in Monsters includes both men and women. Michael Jackson, Picasso, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, among others. But the types of acts that stain these different people vary widely. Women are deemed monstrous for abandoning their children. Men, for mostly sexual violence or abuse. Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol after writing her SCUM manifesto about the need to get rid of all men, provides a rare instance of a woman committing an act of violence.

In plumbing these waters, Dederer is an excellent interlocutor. Honest, critical, but also very funny. A person that one would not only want to hang out and drink beer with, but also a deeply thoughtful writer, willing to ask herself the hard questions and face the answers head on.

This degree of openness is not only necessary but important, as the landscape continues to shift. The events concerning Carroll and Trump last week demonstrate that the battle is never really over: it just moves to a different time and place, and keeps on trucking.

In her book, Dederer devotes a chapter to the life and work of prolific American filmmaker Woody Allen. The incestuous intermingling of his personal and professional life has spawned innumerable analyses, everything from essays to documentary films. It exerts an awful fascination still.

As a kid, I felt a profound unease with Allen, as well as confusion and befuddlement about why any woman would want to have anything to do with the dude. In fact, I remember clearly thinking, “Hey women, get away from that guy!” Turns out that my eight-year-old instincts were correct.

But Dederer discovers there is often a divide in how people view the intermingling of the facts of Allen’s controversial personal life and his prolific cinematic outpourings. As she writes: “The men say they want to know why Woody Allen makes women so angry. After all, a great work of art is supposed to bring us a feeling. And yet when I say Manhattan makes me feel urpy, a man says, No, not that feeling. You’re having the wrong feeling. He speaks with authority: Manhattan is a work of genius. But who gets to say?”

It’s much easier if one outright loathes a particular work. But love complicates these clear divisions, making way for rationalization, excuses and all kinds of prevarication. Almost no one is immune. Artists are human after all, no matter what level of genius, and we are all imperfect creatures.

This agonized tussle isn’t always between about male artists versus everyone else. Dederer dedicates a section of her book to composer Richard Wagner and actor-writer Stephen Fry, who made an entire documentary about his need to somehow square his love for Wagner’s music with his profound distaste for the composer’s beliefs.

In addition to her love for Polanski’s work, Dederer is equally conflicted about her love for David Bowie and the revelation after he passed away that he had had sex with a teenage fan. Here is where things get even more sticky. Anyone who lived through the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s knows that was then and this is not then. But the notion that history is something to be relegated to the past, that somehow we’re on an upward arc towards enlightenment and better behaviour, knows that it isn’t that simple. Nor is it true.

Dederer sums it up: “One of the great problems faced by audiences is named the Past. The Past is a vast and terrible place where they didn’t know better. Where monstrous behaviours were accepted. Sometimes the Past seems incredibly far away, sometimes it seems to have ended last year or even last week; more difficult to accept is the idea that we are living in it right now — if by the Past, we mean a moment in history when injustice and inhumanity reigned.”

Which brings me back to this past week. Just when it looked like some repercussive chickens might be coming home to roost, and justice pecked out in a court of law, CNN threw open the coop and let the wolves in to howl and bay as the former U.S. president trotted out his top 10 hits of racism, misogyny and mendacity.

Here’s the rub. As much as it tempting to consign all of the people laughing and cheering as Trump did his performing seal act to ‘Camp Horrible Humans,’ these are all regular, ordinary folks with kids, partners, parents and so on. They love and are probably loved by friends and family.

As much as one would like, one cannot deny them their humanity, in the same way they seek to deny it to others. What can you do? Refuse to look away, not only from other people but also oneself.

To her credit, Dederer doesn’t offer any simple answers to the question of how to untangle the sticky strands of love from the work of monstrous artists and by extension, monstrous people: “We’ve all loved terrible people. How do I know this? Because I know people, and people are terrible.”

Maybe there is no easy way to do deal with what Dederer calls “the problem of human love.” There is only the ongoing work of figuring it out. But sometimes, I wish there were better answers. I really do.  [Tyee]

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