Yesterday morning, publisher Penguin Random House announced that all future editions—both digital and physical—of Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, would make explicitly clear that the name “Barry,” which was given to the character who raped Dunham while they were students together at Oberlin College, was a pseudonym. In the two months since the book was published, Dunham has come under fire for the essay relating her sexual assault (as well as some others) because many people did not think she sufficiently hid the identity of “Barry,” whom Dunham described as being the “token” Republican at Oberlin, as well as sporting things like purple cowboy boots and a memorable mustache. One possible identity of “Barry” was discovered by conservative website Breitbart, leading to a lawsuit by that man against Dunham and Random House, leading to the publisher’s promise to amend future editions and also to clear the alleged “Barry”‘s name and reimburse all legal fees incurred by him.
Case closed? Of course not. Last night, BuzzFeed published a response by Dunham about the whole situation, in which she both reiterates Random House’s statement (“‘Barry’ is a pseudonym, not the name of the man who assaulted me, and any resemblance to a person with this name is an unfortunate and surreal coincidence. I am sorry about all he has experienced”), while also using the platform to discuss what it means for sexual assault victims to speak out, with the full knowledge that their stories will be doubted. Dunham writes:
Speaking out about the realities and complexities of sexual assault is how we begin to protect each other. I do not want our daughters born into a world that reacts to sexual violence against women in this way. This reaction, which ranges from skepticism to condemnation to threats of violence, is something I have been subject to as a woman in a position of extraordinary privilege. So let us then imagine the trauma experienced by low-income families, women of color, the trans community, survivors with disabilities, students on financial aid, sex workers, inmates, foster children, those who do not have my visibility, my access to medical and mental health care, or my financial and legal resources.
There is little doubt that Dunham was targeted by a site like Breitbart because of her fame and her known liberal and feminist biases, but that doesn’t explain the full rationale for why the story of her sexual assault was picked apart. The reality is that every woman who comes forward with a story of this type of assault can expect to be doubted and questioned, can expect to be attacked if not every little detail of her story is perfectly aligned. And while it is essential, of course, to protect people from false accusations (rare as those may be), it is also important to at least give the benefit of the doubt to those who say they’ve been violated and to listen to their stories.
It is also vital to point out that the parts of Dunham’s book that have undergone intense scrutiny and criticism are the ones dealing with Dunham’s sexual assault at the hands of a college classmate, and interactions between 7-year-old Dunham and her 1-year-old sister Grace. In the latter case, many people—including ultra right wingers—accused Dunham of sexually assaulting her sister, and even though Grace publicly and emphatically stated that she was not a victim of sexual abuse, people ignored her and vilified Dunham. And in the former case, critics latched on not just to Dunham’s description of her attacker, but also to the fact that she was on drugs and had been drinking as evidence that she was complicit in her assault—if it even really was an assault. What is clear in both these cases is that neither time was the victim (or “victim” in the case of Grace) believed; neither time was that person even listened to. In her BuzzFeed essay, Dunham writes, “Survivors have the right to tell their stories, to take back control after the ultimate loss of control.” They also deserve to have us listen; they also deserve to have us believe.
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