Doing better: Dunham and denial

Content Note (copy-pasted from Jemima’s post linked in the passage below): Be aware this post discusses child abuse, I am not linking to the claims by Dunham, be aware if you go looking they can be very triggering and are quite graphic.

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Spoiler warning for Avatar: Legend of Aang part 2. Also, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

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I’m not fully up to speed on the Lena Dunham controversy that’s emerged based on extracts from her recent memoir “Not That Kind Of Girl”. I’ve read a couple of bits of commentary, one of which presented a couple of the main extracts on which the problem is based.

The controversy is not about the things that Lena did when she was young. They are, frankly, quite dreadful and for that reason I’m neither going to link nor describe them in detail. They relate to improper conduct of a sexual nature by Lena Dunham towards her 6 years junior sister. The controversy is about the way that Dunham has related to these events, dismissing or minimising their significance by describing them as “normal childhood exploration”.

Jemima @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar wrote yesterday about the issue, using the (disputed) passage from John from which we get the phrase “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And also, “Go now, and sin no more.” Her theme was adult responsibility, arguing that the deeds of a young child may not bear responsibility, but the adult has responsibility for how zie relates to their past deeds.

Since my last post, about Julie Bindel’s advice to “quash” sexual fantasies that are contradictory to one’s political or social justice values, I have naturally had on my mind Jung’s “shadow self” concept that I quoted from Doctor Nerdlove’s excellent piece. Bindel talks about sexual fantasy, which is, after all, the realm of the mind and not (necessarily) the physical world of interactions between embodied people. Dunham’s situation is about actual events and interactions in that physical world. More specifically, though, it is about memories of one’s previous actions.

That great work of literature, “Avatar: The Legend of Aang” has a passage in season 2 in which the (former) villain Prince Zuko falls ill after having allowed Aang (whom he had sworn to capture and destroy, so as to redeem his honour in his father’s eyes) to escape. His uncle, tending for him, speculates that it is a malaise of the soul rather than the body: “When he acted in a way that was so contrary to his image of himself, it brought an unbearable conflict within his spirit.” (I may be misremembering the exact wording, but this is the essence of the scene)

In the same way, people can have in their past actions memories of behaviour that runs contrary, even directly opposed to, their perception of themselves. A real-world version of the “shadow self” that is not just some hidden personality traits, but some real world events that must be in some way suppressed or rejected.

I do not know if this is what happens in Lena Dunham’s case. Carter (Jemima’s blogging mate) discusses the issue and suggests, “Reading Dunham’s accounts of herself I couldn’t avoid the feeling that Dunham is engaged in some kind of unpleasant, self-referencing kind of performance … Lena Dunham, by contrast, appears to see her offences and sins as anecdotes that embellish her account of herself as weird, or unusual.”

But it occurs to me that, when faced with the discomfort of recalling ones own actions that challenge or potentially destroy one’s self-perception, particularly of one’s self-perception as “a good person”, it can be difficult to address.

There is a strong train, particularly in Western thought/religion/belief (I’m less familiar with Eastern thought/religion/belief on the topic, but recalling a Buddhist monk who came to talk to school kids at my secondary school, I suspect it is different) that the soul or personality is inherently immutable: we are what we are, the “leopard cannot change his spots”, Jack Skellington should not try to emulate Santa Claus. If we are immutable, then our bad deeds must be a part of us now just as much as then. This is strongly seen in the way people tend to view (certain) crimes, but is equally strong in the way that people tend to view themselves.

Either “That deed was bad, therefore I am a despicable person”, or else, “I am not a bad person, therefore that deed wasn’t really bad at all.” There is also the “I was not myself” angle, saying that some temporary influence changed one’s culpability, or one’s personality.

Lena Dunham’s language is of the, “I am not a bad person, therefore this was not really a bad thing to have done” variety. To accept that, regardless of whether it is “normal” or not for a child to behave in such a way, it is wrong and caused harm for her to have done so, would challenge the essential “goodness” that Dunham might wish to believe she has.

Denial of self, or of responsibility, or of harm: the only options open to us if we believe that people cannot change, and evil deeds must come from some essential “evilness” within.

But people do change and can change, and can learn to do and be better than they were (it’s a big part of what literature is about, in many ways). We can meet with the shadow self and understand it without being governed by it. Similarly, we can meet with our “shadow past” without being defined forever by what we once did. In order to learn from our past wrongs, we must accept them for what they are, understand what was wrong about them, and commit to do otherwise in future. How we learn what was wrong may vary: for a child who grows up and learns more of consent and ethical boundaries, this gaining of adult responsibility is one way in which that learning can come about.

In a post I’ve been working on that I hope to publish later today, I discuss in passing the ways in which I have changed in my understanding of gender and feminist issues, and how as a teenager I was not good on these counts. I reconcile myself to the memories of cringeworthy deeds and remarks by acknowledging that I have learned to do better, to understand better (and often, to keep my mouth shut when I don’t know what I’m talking about – although still working on that one). I do not call my former self “good” or “bad”, but I was certainly in the wrong about a lot of things. People who know my beliefs and actions now, would not recognise the young me, and would probably be very cross indeed about some of the things he said, did and believed.

But to be sure of becoming better than we were, we must understand how and why we were wrong. Dunham’s behaviour and language now, as an adult, whatever her motivation, serves to deny or obscure these essential points of learning.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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