The allegations against Max Landis, the wealthy son of director John Landis, are as appalling as they are varied: Landis’ alleged malicious conduct ranges from social bullying to psychological abuse to physical abuse to rape. Tempting though it might be to focus on the more severe allegations, one thing the Landis case illuminates, even at this late stage in our collective education in predatory strategies, is how some less-than-understood social patterns make abuse not only possible but truly challenging to recognize. We still aren’t great at understanding abusers as part of society, or at grasping the way an abuser’s public image intersects with his private conduct. Key to understanding the rapes and physical attacks is the lighter social choreography Landis seems to have excelled at; the ugly in-group and out-group dynamics he established made his conduct difficult to call out (let alone stop). To put it bluntly: What’s instructive about Landis is how open and public and even ironic he was about his shittiness, and how long that openness shielded him from any consequences. (Landis’ father reportedly threw a one-year “anniversary party” to celebrate his acquittal on charges of involuntary manslaughter after three people, including two children, were killed in an accident during the filming of Landis’ segment of the Twilight Zone: The Movie.)
Landis’ modus operandi appears to have been an extreme openness about his own shortcomings that gave the impression of maturity. This will be familiar to Louis C.K. adherents who took his riffs on his creepy tendencies and compulsive masturbation to be not just satire but proof that he understood these behaviors to be out of bounds. Landis admitted loudly and often that he was difficult or a monster or worse, and benefited from the ease with which people confuse candor with self-awareness. According to the Daily Beast report, one woman he bullied over her weight describes how this worked on her: “even though he’d bring up openly that he’d given an ex-girlfriend an eating disorder I somehow didn’t identify what was happening to me as that.” As “Lainey,” one of his victims, put it: “He was always vicious, but everyone would say, oh, that’s just how Max is. He’s a jerk. He knows it. He calls himself out on it. There was this conflation of self-awareness with meaningful change.”
Most of us have known men like this—men who aren’t just widely reputed to be “difficult” but who talk a lot about their “difficulty” in ways that imply deep self-knowledge. They’ve discovered that society harbors a peculiar tolerance and even admiration for this kind of person. Their transgressive behavior is proof that they are original, that they don’t worry about conventional banalities like being liked or admired, and because of that they are liked and admired. Exceptions are made in the social compact: Loving and accepting them is a condition of group membership; it is the work of those entering the circle to adapt to their ways. A woman referred to as “Veronica” in the Daily Beast’s reporting recalls his calling her food choice “retarded” and publicly accusing another woman of having an eating disorder the first time they met. “I immediately wrote him off,” she said. “He was rude, loud, and obnoxious and I wanted nothing to do with him, and yet I was still curious as to why the majority of my social circle seemed to like him so much.” She adjusted, and describes him later harassing and assaulting her. (According to the Daily Beast, Landis did not respond to multiple request for comment on the allegations.)
Landis, who dubbed his inner circle “the Colour Society,” appears to have been an adept power broker who carefully created and managed cliques to maximize his own centrality. “He created a group chat with his closest friends where he would essentially character assassinate people he didn’t like to us,” one woman recalled. People would go to some lengths to avoid being targeted, and whatever discomfort that may have occasioned was chalked up to the price of genius. His dickishness got elevated into art. Landis’ public shittiness became evidence of frankness, even transparency. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the ways Hollywood men have sabotaged the careers of women they fear will report them is by branding them difficult. For women, being trouble tends to be a career death rattle. For men, it proves their genius: They must be amazing because whole groups of people with apparent good judgment put up with them.
The “missing stair” theory tries to explain “toxic” people who everyone finds a way to work around rather than confront. Landis, and his kin, can be explained by a corollary: the “squeaky stair” that calls constant attention to its own defects and gets loved, instead of shunned, in return. Landis isn’t alone. He fits a pattern so recognizable that it can be easy to gloss over: a public jerk, a rich scion leveraging his fame for cruelty, a manipulator obsessed with creating and destroying reputations. But that checklist, familiar as it is, should be all the scarier for it.