The mistake we make when thinking about charismatic and powerful abusers is to assume that their charisma and power come from their talent. That the sheer force of their brilliance makes them irresistible. This is why we ask questions about what to do with their art, whether it is necessary to boycott their work, whether it is fair to teach it to facilitate discussion or if that time is better spent on the under-rated (a category that overlaps with the abused). And we fixate on the one or three (or sixty-something) cases we get the identifying details of, as though they are the whole story. They are not. Because the secret to why charismatic and powerful abusers get away with what they do for decades, rising in the ranks, is that they are devious. Their abuses extend beyond the professional into the realm of the intimate. They weaponize the most beautiful thing of all: love, or more accurately, its possibility.
Beneath every list of allegations is something else, something far more nebulous – a collection, large or little, of broken hearts. There’s no chance that a perpetrator in the workplace (be that a studio or a boardroom) has not also behaved reprehensibly in his private life. That the ongoing, worldwide revelations about sexual harassment have begun to include abuse (particularly but not exclusively emotional abuse) in relationships delineates this.
This is only partially about author Alisa Valdes writing about how, 22 years ago when neither of them had established their careers, she dated Junot Diaz – and he treated her very badly. I’m thinking of the women who contacted Valdes to say he’d done the same to them. I’m thinking about how we aren’t entitled to any of their stories – but also of how many of them would certainly have been storytellers, and we’ll never hear of them, because they had to swallow their truths and stay in the shadows. I’m thinking, actually, about my own JDs. That archetype: the charismatic person (usually male) you fall in love with, whose overtures you consent to, whose maltreatment you don’t know what to name, the ghost of which lingers for a long time.
Many years before someone I knew, had liked and respected, and now know to be a perpetrator was outed, I read a book of stories by someone who’d loved him and saw her hurt spilled all across its pages. I knew of their history as we all know things, in our small-minded, wide-mouthed spaces. But not everyone gets to alchemise what happened, into art or into anything. If we manage to, we’re still harrowed by a lack of acknowledgement of abuse of that nature, which operates under the false promise of love. But it’s so gauche in these circles to speak of love.
We’re all fooled – as their audiences, as their friends, and even as spectators to their exploits. By charm, not by talent. It’s important to recognise this, because it helps those they fooled with greater repercussions. The ones who encountered their ugliness in the workplace, of course, but equally the ones who were overpowered in seemingly romantic configurations – and then dismantled, invisibly, from within.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 10th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.