A black-and-white collage of Jeffrey Tambor, Junot Díaz, Bill Clinton.
Jeffrey Tambor, Junot Díaz, and Bill Clinton. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, and Paras Griffin/Getty Images.
Wide Angle

Junot Díaz and the Problem of the Male Self-Pardon

Forgiveness is hard to give when it’s never asked for.

Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he has the absolute right to pardon himself was met with plenty of justified scorn. The assertion wasn’t merely extralegal and worryingly authoritarian: It flew in the face of what a pardon, at its most basic level, requires—a communal relation. It flattens the dialogue of one person’s apology and another’s forgiveness into a self-interested tautology. I forgive myself.

Outrageous as it seemed, Trump’s attraction to the idea of a self-pardon is less exceptional than symptomatic. Look around, and you’ll see self-pardons everywhere, often disguised as apologies. The high-profile self-pardon commonly involves saying “sorry” into the ether and considering the matter settled. “I’ve never talked to her,” Bill Clinton told NBC’s Today when he was asked whether he’d apologized to Monica Lewinsky, “but I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry. That’s very different. The apology was public.” When the New York Times asked the Arrested Development cast whether they would hire an actor who verbally abused his colleagues, the person who had verbally abused the female colleague in the room with him took it upon himself to reply. “I would hire that person if that person said, you know, ‘I’ve reckoned with this,’ ” Jeffrey Tambor said, noting that he had and continued to do so. The men in the room—to whom he’d done nothing—eagerly accepted this and considered the matter settled. It didn’t much matter to them (or to Tambor) that Jessica Walter, the injured party, did not.

I’ve reckoned with this is a handy phrase. It lets a man’s monologue (often phrased as a journey of self-improvement) stand in for making amends to the people he’s wronged. This is in some ways traceable to our theological heritage: The Reformation turned confession into a more internal, private “reckoning,” and that spiritual model still has power. America has a tender spot for men who admit their flaws. The story of a man who’s done terrible things and sincerely repented is enormously romantic.

The regular speculation about if and when the men of #MeToo will make their comebacks arises from a culture steeped in the belief that men should be able to basically self-pardon—that is, effect their own confessions and absolutions without much involving the parties they’ve wronged.

If you want to know why women are so angry, it’s because this ritual tends to exclude the injured party. This “talk about how you’re going to do and be better” stuff isn’t actually a great formula for reconciliation. It offers neither retributive nor restorative justice. It privileges public acceptance over making things right with the actual victims, who barely seem to register at all. But it’s pretty effective: In an age of never-ending public relations wars, we’re so starved for any sign of sincere spiritual struggle that we rush to reward self-proclaimed sinners who say they’re trying to make good.

“I never said that I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not,” said Trump after the Access Hollywood tape aired. He apologized to his family. He apologized to the American people. He didn’t apologize to Nancy O’Dell or Arianne Zucker, the women he’d been recorded objectifying. But he pledged “to be a better man,” and one month later, he was elected president.

Once you start noticing these one-sided displays of contrition in the media and in life, you’ll be shocked both at how often you see them and at how much pressure women are under to accept these nonapologies that were never made to them in the first place. And while Junot Díaz’s case isn’t the most egregious of these, it might be the most instructive. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author stands accused of, among other things, forcibly kissing a woman who invited him to speak and pulling a younger writer onto his lap at lunch after making her cry. He has himself admitted to mistreating women with whom he’s been involved. He has stepped down from one job (as chairman of the Pulitzer committee) and kept others (with Boston Review and MIT).

As writers go, he is a celebrity, but importantly, a celebrity writer who writes about self-pardons.

“I’m not a bad guy,” is how Yunior, the character who narrates much of Díaz’s work, begins the story “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” in This Is How You Lose Her. “I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.” It’s a gripping passage that showcases a) Diaz’s gift for making characters who have treated people terribly quite sympathetic (Yunior is a persistent cheater) and b) his effort to think through misogyny and its collateral damage in a sincere, if distorted way. By the end of the story, Magdalena turns out to have been mostly right about Yunior. But in that introduction, Díaz’s narrator has pre-empted and sanitized her assessment of his character. By the end of the paragraph, he has quite charmingly called out his own defensiveness and presented the reader with a false choice: We can accept his own zigzagging account of his very human fallibility, or we can side with this “Magdalena,” a woman who reduces him to a stereotype and who we don’t even know. It’s a brilliant little self-pardon.

Three weeks before he was first publicly accused of unwanted kissing by the writer Zinzi Clemmons, Díaz published a laceratingly frank essay in the New Yorker about being raped as a child. It also, ambitiously and with mixed results, outlines the emotional fallout for him and the women he had relationships with. The essay, though nonfiction, participates in some tactics familiar from his fiction. Díaz owns up to treating many women badly, but somehow the women he admits to hurting are never quite visible behind his own hurt; they’re brilliant and lamented but slightly beside the point.

Now, Díaz is no Clinton or Trump. He’s both too smart and too skilled to present his exculpatory confession as a solipsist’s monologue. The essay makes every effort to appear inclusive and conversational; its form is even epistolary. It begins as a letter addressed to a female fan, X—, to whom he had wanted to confess his pain but hadn’t. Functionally, though, it ultimately is a monologue. Like “Magdalena,” X— doesn’t know about the essay and can’t respond. The litany of women mainly acts to reinforce how much he’s suffered by losing them.

The essay is a bleak and painful account of how a young boy was raped by an adult and changed forever. It’s brutal reading. Those decades of repressed agony clearly needed and deserved an airing, both for Díaz’s sake and for the sake of male survivors of sexual assault, who are only just beginning to publicly come to terms with their trauma. Díaz’s piece, however, is rather a more complex machine: The story of how Díaz was victimized is also a confession of the damage he caused in turn. It’s completist in its scope and ambition, surveying most of his life, but it’s structured to keep your focus away from the other injured parties. If the idea is that trauma replicates itself, that victims become perpetrators, it’s odd to so thoroughly sidestep the viewpoints of those you’ve hurt.

This point was made even before the allegations came out, by poet Gwen Benaway and the Root’s Maiysha Kai. Both women flagged how incurious Díaz’s New Yorker essay seemed about the pain he admitted to inflicting. Kai points out that when an apology does finally appear in the essay, it’s not to one of the exes he admits to hurting but to a fan. Benaway observes that his accounts omit what, for women like his ex-fiancée, are likely to have been the hardest parts: “What he doesn’t write about are the conversations she must have tried to have with him first about the ways he’d broken her trust.”

If cheating is the kind of handy term that hides a thousand individual betrayals—the sneaking around, the constant lying, the emotional distance—Díaz’s account performs a similar elision when he incompletely describes its consequences. “She kept the apartment, the ring, her family, our friends. I got Boston,” he writes. The passive phrasing makes his suffering sound almost compensatory, like a transaction—or even penance. In Catholic confession (which has four basic stages: contrition, confession, penance, and absolution), penance is the part where you suffer to make up for what you’ve done. What Díaz’s formulation does, then, is fast-forward through the confession spectrum. He takes a loss incurred as a direct consequence of his actions—the friends who sided with his fiancée—and treats it as penance, the actions one voluntarily performs to signal repentance. If one is working toward redemption, this is, to put it very gently, cutting in line.

But it’s smart as a narrative engine. It makes it seem as though he has been contrite, confessed, and repented. He says as much elsewhere in the essay: “[W]herever I can I make amends; I take responsibility. I’ve come to learn that repair is never-ceasing.” All that remains is—you guessed it—absolution.

But absolution hasn’t come. Not from his accusers, and not from at least one woman in the essay. These people, the relevant parties, don’t seem to agree that responsibility has been taken or that amends have been made. If the injured parties have not been made whole by it, we might be a little suspicious of what his version of “repair” means in practice. The poet Shreerekha, “S—” in Díaz’s essay, has written in a lovely, painful piece of her own that Díaz was actually workshopping the piece while he was visiting with her. He’d even shown her a draft with one very curious omission: the paragraph that would mention and dismiss their relationship. “Even in his narratives, I thought to myself, I am nowhere,” she writes. His acknowledgment of her, when it appeared, happened behind her back. This, then, is what it felt like to be included in the essay: It made her feel more absent than not appearing at all.

If this is meant to be repair, it’s a curious version of it. And this inability to direct an apology to its proper recipient—instead speaking to himself in public—seems endemic. In response to a statement Díaz gave to the New York Times, Clemmons wrote that she “read his apology many times trying to make sense of it, but the words just rearrange into a soup of unintelligibility. You take responsibility how, in your head? What is that?” And while more than two dozen women in the academy signed an open letter warning of a “media-harassment campaign” against Díaz, the women who allege he has injured them have yet to accept his apology, perhaps because it isn’t one.

If women have a hard time accepting apologies, or declaring a public reckoning over, it may not be because they’re vengeful grudge holders but because they’ve had little to do with the apology machine whose output—male epiphany, primarily—they are told they should accept. Women, in this arrangement, must be supreme apology catchers, grasping at any sorry volleyed into space, to no one in particular, for unspecified harms, on the assumption it was meant for them.

Even in more private contexts, women are expected to accept some version of the thoughtless “flowers and chocolate” routine in lieu of having their real concerns addressed—like the women in This Is How You Lose Her, whose men cynically use “every trick in the book,” as Díaz writes in “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” to pacify women injured by their betrayals (“You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy”).

Maybe women are simply exhausted from being insincerely managed—treated like alien entities you appease with roses and Neruda rather than human beings whose rather modest desire is not to be lied to by people they love. The collection is called This Is How You Lose Her, but it functions, among other things, as an almanac of women who have stopped believing apologies made in bad faith.

Though Monica Lewinsky has written eloquently of her emerging awareness about the power imbalance between herself and Bill Clinton, and despite the fact that the #MeToo movement began with women speaking up, few of these cases have seen the accused in real dialogue with the accusers. The Díaz case is different: For one thing, he is a victim too. For another, the women who have been hurt or felt threatened by him are writers themselves. And they’re writing back.

The responses have ranged from tweets to full-length essays; in Latino Rebels, writer Marianella Belliard describes the way he racialized her and linked her looks—her “good hair”—to her success:

He seemed to be trying very hard to find ways to make me uncomfortable and demean me by calling me ‘negrita.’ He thought he was touching a nerve. And although he wasn’t harming me in the way he imagined (my own work focuses on the habitual denial of Africanity among Dominicans), I found his undeniable intent to hurt or degrade me alarming and even frightening.

Novelist Monica Byrne has described a dinner where Díaz repeatedly yelled the word rape at her. Alisa Rivera described an encounter in which he told her she had “the face of the oppressor” and needed to “darken up if you want to be a real Latina,” after which he pulled her, weeping, into his lap. Multiple women have described disturbing encounters with the author, and while not all of these add up to sexual misconduct, they do fill in gaps that his confessional essay left decorously empty. The self-pardon can’t quite complete its cycle if people he admits to hurting explain in detail what he leaves vague.

While Díaz was brave to speak up about an experience he spent decades repressing, the women he hurt have shown real courage, too, because the incentives to prop up a talented man—and omit his misdeeds—are real. Karina Maria Cabreja notes that her first reaction to Zinzi Clemmons’ accusation was resentment on Díaz’s behalf; she’d felt great pressure to portray the Latino author as “respectful” to her when she interviewed him for Ampersand and wished Clemmons had kept quiet. Absent that pressure, she’d have told the story differently, as indeed, she now has: “Junot Díaz was not respectful to me,” she writes. “He was condescending, sarcastic and mean; that’s the truth.”

This is what happens when other voices are permitted in: The ritual of the self-pardon expands into a harder but more promising discussion. “The strangeness of my past and my complicity in so much of what happened is hard to fully crystallize,” Shreerekha writes. “I remember one morning during graduate school when he called and told me to go to the doc and get checked out for STDs; his lover had just confessed that she might have transmitted something to him, and he had broken up with her, and she was crying, he shared, just out of control. Stunned, I also remember a strong desire to hold this lover of his whom I did not know but felt so intimate in knowing her loss of him.”

It’s an astonishing anecdote that looks beyond the male-centered loss endlessly chronicled by Díaz. Shreerekha claims to see another woman’s pain in ways he does not.

Díaz might be the closest thing we have in this cultural moment to a man with a deep and intensely articulated self-awareness about misogyny who still somehow participates in it. He himself theorizes this: “I don’t think men can transcend their masculine privilege,” he told Cabreja. “I don’t think that happens. I think the only thing that men can do is they can manage it. No man in the world stops being a vector for this most horrific of all dominant ideologies.”

Now, the risk of describing patriarchal oppression and itemizing manipulative tactics in your fiction is that you will be suspected of resorting to them yourself. Díaz both names and resents this tendency in the Q&A that culminated in an intense discussion with fellow writer Carmen Maria Machado (which has been characterized differently by different parties): “As a writer of color, you’re constantly laboring under the—not only is your work autobiographical, but then you’ll be criticized because of the behavior of your characters,” he says shortly before she asks her first question.

He’s right. There are limits to what Díaz’s litany of his characters’ manipulative behaviors can tell us.

But we can learn something from the way Díaz talks about his manipulative characters, which is what I think transpired in the recording of Machado asking Díaz about his characters’ “borderline-sociopathic disregard” for women. Díaz disputes the premise: He defends Yunior on the grounds that Machado is missing the real story, which isn’t about women at all. Yunior is the unseen victim here; his brother mistreats him, and no one sees that because he hides it so well. “Yunior is the opposite of what we could call the traditional memoirist where instead of sort of framing his suffering, he does everything to remove his suffering off the center stage,” he says, with some admiration.

The essay Díaz would go on to write participates in the “traditional memoirist” mode he seems a little scornful of here: Unlike Yunior, it focuses so much on his suffering that there’s not room for much else. The trouble (for the women) is that in neither mode—Díaz’s memoir or Yunior’s stoic opposite—does the women’s suffering get much stage time.

Yunior treats women badly. He cheats on them, he lies to them, he makes them feel crazy. Díaz won’t quite grant that in his discussion with Machado, and knowing what we know now, it might be a little easier to understand why. In his response to her, we can perhaps hear Díaz—who admits, in his essay, to performing masculinity in ways that mask trauma and pain—defending a character who also jokes about and minimizes his suffering. His defensiveness could even be seen as demanding sympathy for a character whose damage he fears people will miss.

And Machado, of course, is doing the same: She’s insisting that the pain of the women—which is never central—be fully acknowledged and reckoned with. Both are trying to make overlooked pain visible.

Díaz’s final argument is that, far from disregarding the women he’s hurt, Yunior’s compulsive confession is evidence of his atonement. “Why is Yunior so clear, why does he so obsessively bear witness to everything he does wrong in relationships?” Díaz asks Machado. “The nature of privilege is that you can always say that’s the past and move forward. But Yunior seems not to be interested in that at all, Yunior seems to be very, very interested in keeping open the book on everything that he’s done wrong. I mean, like, he obsessively holds the page open.”

This is the heart of the problem: Díaz seems to regard Yunior’s confessional impulse as essentially exculpatory, a man reckoning with himself—“I’m not a bad guy.” Machado, perhaps sensing this, asks how recording one’s transgressions while continuing to transgress adds up to making amends for the pain you’ve caused. She’s refusing the self-pardon’s implicit terms.

This is the problem with our apology culture: Holding the page open, as Díaz puts it, isn’t quite the same as letting someone else write in the book.

Some part of Díaz would agree that real repair is necessarily communal. “The only way this thing that’s called patriarchy can be cured in me is collectively. We have to collectively dispel this horror,” he said in his interview with Cabreja. “This constant turn towards the individual masks how these things function. Everybody’s belief that you can just be like, oh I can abjure this, just by an act of will is the reason this shit is so powerful. It’s the reason this shit continues. It’s the reason this shit continues to grip us all. Cause this shit isn’t individual.”

He’s right, but individual action is both possible and necessary. It requires that a man in his position learn to apologize to those he’s injured and seek forgiveness on their terms. Yes, our reconciliation system is broken, and men who self-pardon are sometimes doing as much as they believed was expected of them. We can sympathize with that; the instructions our culture gives to men are almost as poor as those it gives to women.

But it’s fair to ask for more.

What frightens people about #MeToo is in part, I think, that everyone is guilty. And we’re starting to realize it in new ways. If you grew up in a culture that structurally undervalues women, then you, yes you, have undervalued them. Maybe you haven’t taken some people seriously enough. Maybe you’ve treated them badly. Maybe you’ve condescended to them in your heart. Maybe you’re worried about their having power. Or, maybe, it’s now clear to you—in ways you couldn’t see before—that you did heinous things, things you wouldn’t have done to people you truly respected as equals. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to understand this moment without thinking of yourself as a monster, which you have never felt you were. Maybe you long for redemption and feel it’s no longer available.

This is why fixing our apology culture matters. Moving as it can be to watch men move past the things they’ve done, it usually feels redemptive because we don’t have to see the people they did things to. That’s not the case anymore. We all need ways to heal and be healed. Forgiveness may take a while; it may not come at all. But a reckoning can’t begin and end with the self.