When Louis C.K. issued a response to allegations that he had masturbated in front of multiple women, his statement seemed—at first glance—to limp across the finish line as the “least bad” of a handful of bad apologies. It didn’t conflate homosexuality with pedophilia. It wasn’t a Weinsteinian hash of excuses, jokes, boasts, and hopeful visions of transformative personal journeys to be undertaken at a later date. Unlike defenses from Bill O’Reilly or Bill Cosby, it didn’t try to smear C.K.’s victims or refute their stories. “There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for,” the comedian wrote. “And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them [the women] with.”
On its face, C.K.’s apology reads as introspective, sincere, contrite. The Louie star acknowledges that he exploited not just his sway over the women he targeted but also his status in their shared community. His power “disabled them from sharing … and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it,” he observes. He sounds authentically pained as he contemplates what he wishes he had done instead (“reacted to their admiration of me by being a good example to them as a man and given them some guidance as a comedian”). “I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of the pain I brought,” C.K. admits, appearing to surrender to an internal tortured line of self-recriminations.
But upon further reflection, these regretful sentences are deeply flawed. For one thing, they should have come earlier. As Emily Nussbaum points out, C.K. spent years dancing around rumors that he’d exposed himself on set; he let the women dribbling out those accounts look like liars. And he does not wrestle with the full implications of what his behavior (and his silence) meant: how it degraded the idea that female voices could halt abuse, how it normalized an entire culture of impunity and made life harder for aspiring comics he’ll never meet. He suggests, too, that pursuing consent—“I never showed a woman my dick without asking first”—is the same as receiving it. (The New York Times’ reporting also doesn’t support the claim that C.K. always sought permission before unzipping his pants.) Then there’s the actor’s odd fixation on people’s reverence for him. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me,” he writes, alluding for the first of four times to his capacity to impress comedy’s stars and underlings alike.
It is not easy to imagine any combination of words from a defrocked abuser that would feel legitimately satisfying. Still, amid a seemingly endless tide of sexual harassment revelations, a string of disgraced men have come forth in recent weeks to prostrate themselves via public statement. Weinstein took part in the ritual. So did Ben Affleck. So did Jason Momoa. Perhaps these accused parties are acceding to moral demands, or perhaps legal ones. (Weinstein in particular seemed to want his statement to convey a nebulous and unspecific regret, as if giving credence to individual accounts would open him up to prosecution.) But what would a more perfect expression of remorse look like? What does it mean to categorize an apology for sexual harassment as “good” or “bad”?
At minimum, a “good” apology ideally communicates two things: that the perpetrator gets it—he understands the full scope of what he did and how he hurt people—and that he means it—that is, he’s not just saying whatever he thinks will make the consequences of his actions go away. When the New York Times confronted former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier with his bloodcurdling record of sexual harassment, the 65-year-old emailed in reply: “For my offenses against some of my colleagues in the past I offer a shaken apology and ask for their forgiveness. The women with whom I worked are smart and good people. I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them I will not waste this reckoning.”
The words sound at once contrite and pro forma as they dutifully check the boxes: I respect my co-workers, I feel bad, I’ll do better. “Offenses” is slippery in its vagueness. “Some of my colleagues” is subtly exculpatory. (He let down his entire workplace.) The last line presumes that Wieseltier’s victims are especially invested in his personal growth.
Yet Wieseltier’s short email does feel (to me) sincere. The editor may very well be “shaken” as he realizes how his quote-unquote flirtations scanned to the less-established women in his office. What he doesn’t comprehend is that his wrong ran deeper than making “some” of his colleagues “in the past” “feel demeaned and disrespected.” They felt that way because he was actively demeaning and disrespecting them, and thereby perpetuating a rotten power structure that affected, and continues to affect, an entire industry.
C.K., on the other hand, does seem to “get it.” He writes as much in his point-by-point accounting: He abused the vulnerability of the women he exposed himself to, took advantage of his lofty position in New York and Hollywood, compromised the people involved in all the projects that are now being scuttled, and wounded his friends and family. It’s just unclear, given the actor’s timing, and his statement’s strategic blurring of how consent works, that he “means it”—that he feels as remorseful as he says.
This problem, the sincerity problem, is intrinsic to the very genre of the apology. How can a text designed to show that someone’s feelings about his actions have changed not read as an empty attempt at rehabilitation? The person apologizing is literally saying that he wishes he had not done things he chose to do in the past. He is announcing that, as if via spiritual conversion, he is a new man. And in putting distance between the guy he was and the guy he is, he is implicitly urging us to engage with the improved version of himself, which means turning away from his prior wrongs. Apologies are supposedly about acknowledging our mistakes, but in practice they can permit us to disown them.
A statement from journalist Mark Halperin, accused last month of sexual assault and harassment during his time at ABC News in the ’90s and 2000s, illustrates this beautifully. Halperin apologizes for his “past actions,” describes seeking counseling for the “personal issues and attitudes that caused me to behave in such an inappropriate manner,” and writes: “Those who have worked with me in the past decade know that my conduct in subsequent jobs at TIME, Bloomberg, NBC News, and Showtime has not been what it was at ABC.” The priority is explaining how far he’s evolved. And even in conceding that he “can never do enough to make up for the harm I caused,” he effectively puts a lid on his abuses, letting the anguish he “caused” gather dust in the simple past (not present perfect) tense.
This distancing technique plays out with C.K. as well, though in a slightly different way. As an artist, Louis C.K. has mined a vein of rueful self-loathing for decades. He has leveraged a guilt-prone confessional temperament into millions of dollars and a hit television show. Slate’s Willa Paskin argues that “C.K. has occupied a unique spot in the cultural firmament because, unlike all those other thoughtless brutes, he seemed to have thought so deeply about brutishness.” At any given moment, he is working on two levels. Declaring himself a terrible person is his shtick. And this shtick—broadcasting his faults and his desire to improve in the same transmission—allows him to hint that he possesses secret layers of decency, even if, humbly, he pretends not to see them. C.K.’s apology is now doing the same work his art has always done: absolving him of toxicity by spotlighting his hyperconsciousness of it.
Irrational as it sounds, I can’t shake the sense that the revelations surrounding this man darkly suit his purposes. They add up to a dizzying program piece on the theme of exposure. The original act of taking out his penis. The public representation of that act in his comedy and films. The additional humiliation of “getting caught.” The self-abasing striptease of the apology. At what point does the gratification that comes with unveiling your weaknesses stop and the real penitence begin? How is this wallowing statement—“I’ve brought pain to my family and friends, my children and their mother”—not just one more act of titillating self-evisceration from an expert at performing his own shame?
Again, no apology will ever be completely pure. Self-interest—whether professional, financial, emotional, or spiritual—is always wired in. Perhaps the question is whether the listeners are ready to mend broken ties, to allow the apologizer to try to become a better person. Will they accept his contrition and give him another chance?
Books have been written about that drama. But the truth is, once we start really thinking about the conditions under which a man’s words reveal or effect his deeper transformation, we are no longer talking about apologies; we are talking about confessions. C.K.’s statement, especially, belongs to the tradition of St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two men who perhaps took an unseemly delight in cataloging their erotic transgressions. In The Confessions, Rousseau recalls “haunt[ing] dark alleys and hidden retreats, where I might be able to expose myself to women in the condition in which I should have liked to have been in their company.” The same passage also begs the reader’s forgiveness, castigating the author’s “indecency” and “distorted notions.”
You might call such sexual self-citation “masturbatory.” (To extend the metaphor: For most people undergoing confession, heaven waits at the end of the journey.) Rousseau’s memoir helped define a lineage of work deeply interested in whether individuals who trespass can find redemption and less interested in the healing of the people hurt along the way. That genre feels depressingly present the more we hear from powerful, sexually abusive men in 2017 trying to restore themselves to our good graces.
It is surely true that the real answer to “Is there such a thing as a perfect apology from a man accused of sexual harassment?” is a simple no. No request for forgiveness (even if it masquerades as a no-strings-attached admission) lands well when we’re not ready to forgive. But for Louis C.K., the celebrated bard of his own grotesqueries, a better option would look nothing like the abject confessional he’s offered. He could have released a short, simple statement that didn’t attempt to explain or justify his behavior. He could have kept his “sick … fascinatingly bad” thought processes to himself. Most usefully, he—and all the others, too—could have banished the fiction of his own obliviousness: the idea that masturbating in front of semi-strangers still wearing their winter coats could somehow be reasonably construed as appropriate. He could have confirmed that he harassed women, that he is sorry, and that he did it even though he knew at the time that it was wrong.