Spring Semester Scandal at My MFA

CONTENT WARNING

Now that I’ve finished my literary theory class, it’s on to the next course: a fiction seminar. Full disclosure, I copied a lot of this from novelist Lily Hoang’s syllabus, which she generously shared on HTML Giant. Of course I chose my own textbooks, set up my own schedule, and found lectures online. But the structure of the course is mostly thanks to Hoang.

I turned two places for lectures. The first is free, offered by the BBC over any podcast player. Titled The Invisible College, it gathers recordings of dead writers discussing their work, from Langston Hughes to Doris Lessing, then stitches them into short 10-minute episodes centered on a theme. For this gift, I owe Cathy FitzGerald a great debt.

The second source is MasterClass where I chose Margaret Atwood’s course on creative writing. Here’s the scandal part of my semester.

If you know about Atwood’s scandalous support of a professor accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple people, you might be surprised why someone as feminist as I am, a participant in the #MeToo movement, would purchase a class from someone the movement (rightly) criticized.

Well, it’s quite simple. Her class was the best fit for what I’m doing this semester. And also, if you’ve even attended only kindergarten and first grade, you know perfectly well that always getting a teacher you like and agree with is just not possible.

But let’s talk about #MeToo and why Atwood’s behavior is problematic.

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

Do I think she made the wrong choice defending a professor who was a serial offender, without hearing out his accusers or looking into their claims?

Absolutely.

Do I think she had a point about the university system for prosecuting sexual assault cases being flawed?

Of course. There is no perfect way to do these things. There just isn’t. It’s one of the reasons I have a lot more hope that we can all throw our weight behind Black Lives Matter and get officers prosecuted for excessive force. There’s body cam footage. There are often multiple witnesses. The public can often see for itself that a particular interaction was not de-escalated by the officers. (I took a series on public safety taught by an officer who emphasized de-escalation, so I know what this looks like, and I know they can do it. And none of these officers who wind up killing Black people are even attempting de-escalation techniques.) I’m confident that if we have the will as a society, we can solve this. We can, at the very least, prosecute violent officers.

I’m not so optimistic about the #MeToo movement. Very few assaults come with corroborating footage. Most occur behind closed doors, so there are rarely witnesses, either. The majority of assaults are never even reported.

Still, there’s often evidence. Friends and family may notice symptoms of trauma. Rape kits can also provide ample evidence, but many police departments don’t bother to process them. As of July this year, Scientific American reported that over 100,000 rape kits are waiting to be tested in the United States. This has been a problem for decades. How can women successfully prosecute their rapists if police departments withhold the available evidence?

Then, there’s the fear that men will be jailed due to false accusations. But guess what? That doesn’t happen (more here). Research indicates that roughly two to ten percent of rape allegations are false, which is on par with most other crimes. And no research has turned up men rotting in jail from such allegations. Also, consider the people who make those allegations? Teenage girls looking to get out of trouble with their parents. Teenage girls with a history of lying as well as a criminal record (check out the evidence).

False accusers are pretty easy to spot.

They are not Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

They are not accomplished, professional women who have their lives together.

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And you know what else? The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimates that only about 35% of rapes are reported. That’s it. For two-thirds of the men who go around raping people, their victims are too scared to even come forward. Two-thirds of rapists who should be in jail, never will even be named by their victims.

So even if 10% of rape accusations are false, that doesn’t even come close to the number of rapes that will never be reported.

This is why people got upset with Atwood, and why they remain upset with Atwood. She claims feminism, and has often been a committed feminist. Yet when the chips were down, she folded.

When she had a platform and an opportunity to educate the public about the prevalence of sexual assault and its lasting effects on victims, she instead encouraged people to doubt women who dare to come forward. Which we all know now is a minority of rape survivors. Most rape survivors do not come forward. You’ve probably noticed even on this blog, I have used no last names.

Here’s why. We’re afraid of being disbelieved. We’re afraid of having our own lives ruined because we dared speak up.

And you know what?

We’re right to.

We’re right to hide in the shadows and think no one would believe us, so why name names? We’re right to think police don’t really want these things solved, the government doesn’t really want to prosecute because look at that backlog of rape kits. Even before COVID came along, over a hundred thousand women were raped and reported it, and nothing happened. Even the evidence wasn’t processed.

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

I have closely followed the stories of women who have reported stalking, rape, and abuse. Who have brought violent men to trial. And they have endured so much harassment and abuse, in some cases above and beyond what had already been done to them, that their mental health crumbled. They won their cases, but at what cost?

They ask that question of all of us.

Yes, I got justice. But now my life is ruined.

I want to live my life, and because of people like Margaret Atwood, if I want to live my life, I have to keep quiet. All I can do is blog behind a name that isn’t mine, never giving my abusers’ full names, and hope society will let me go on with my life.

You can report muggings, carjackings, armed robbery, non-sexual assault out on the street, and no one is going to send you death threats. No one is going to fire you. No one is going to start saying well, maybe we just shouldn’t hire women at all. No one is going to stalk you in hopes of terrifying you into silence.

And Margaret Atwood emboldens the men who think these are the right responses to women. If a big-name feminist comes forward and says, you better think twice when a woman accuses a man of rape because the poor man and his reputation… You’re going to feel vindicated when you disbelieve the rare woman who has the courage to report. You’re going to feel better about a justice system that doesn’t even investigate tens of thousands of rape cases. You’re going to put the 65% of rapes that are never reported in the back of your mind and forget about how many rapists are out on our streets, doing as they please. And people like Atwood facilitate that.

So I’m with #MeToo on this. Atwood’s approach to Galloway’s case was not only unethical. It also undercut the work of #MeToo, to help society understand how widespread sexual violence really is and how ineffectual our systems are at prosecuting, let alone preventing, its perpetrators.

We live in a society that has a rape problem.

And Atwood isn’t helping us acknowledge that, let alone solve it.

But I still need a good solid lecture series on creative writing.

And Atwood, in my opinion, is still an incredible writer.

So here we are.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Look, my abusive father was a software engineer. He coded for all sorts of Fortune 500 companies. And I have absolutely no plans to stop eating cereal or buying the toilet paper that I know his work helped produce.

Awful people are everywhere. And going on a “cleanse” from everything they’ve touched just isn’t possible. It’s not. It’s a dumb idea. Sorry, but it is. Unless you’re a hippie out there making your own toilet paper and clothes and movies and growing your own food, you’re out of options.

I wanted a great creative writing class by a great author.

And yes, she may be a terrible feminist.

But here we are. This is the world we live in. The messy, messy world we live in.

* * *

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Featured photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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