Could there be a more cursed literary genre than the apologetic self-assessment from a man brought down by the #MeToo movement? Most of these mea culpas are short statements of vague contrition accompanied by promises to seek therapy and do more “listening,” but this week two prestigious legacy print publications, Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, offered up lengthy essays by radio personalities who lost their jobs after being accused of sexual harassment, abusive behavior, and (in one of the cases) assault. John Hockenberry’s meandering “Exile,” in Harper’s, is a windy exercise in radioactive self-pity, beginning with the poignant image of his Emmy and Peabody awards wrapped in plastic and languishing in a “cluttered storage unit in Brooklyn” amid boxes that he wonders whether he’ll ever open again and segueing into speechifying about the decline of “the traditional language of romantic modesty” by way of a grievous misreading of Lolita and reminiscences about playing Zorba the Greek in a high school play. The piece is one long and very weird train wreck.
Far more conventional and therefore less fascinating is Jian Ghomeshi’s milky personal essay in the NYRB about his life as a #MeToo offender avant la lettre, fired in 2014 from his prominent role as host of an interview program for the Canadian Broadcasting Co. after several women accused him of nonconsensually slapping, hitting, and choking them during sexual encounters. In many respects, his essay is the quintessence of the form, a frustrating exercise in bland soul-searching, misdirection, and hand-waving. Yes, he is sorry for “how I treated some people in my life,” for being “emotionally thoughtless in the way I treated those I dated and tried to date,” and for being overly “demanding on dates and in personal affairs.” How exactly those demands and that thoughtlessness manifested themselves isn’t specified, but he wants you to know that some of the charges are “inaccurate.” He doesn’t clarify which ones and how so. (Jeet Heer in the New Republic details how Ghomeshi downplays and misrepresents the accusations lodged against him and how they were resolved.)
Ghomeshi has mastered the lingo of contemporary progressive gender politics, and he knows better than to present himself the way Hockenberry does, as a clumsy, misinterpreted suitor. He acknowledges that he “began to see [his] own actions as part of a systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity,” and portrays himself after the fall as benefiting, despite his extensively detailed sufferings, from “a crash course in empathy.” He’s listening, though signs of actually absorbing what he’s heard remain scant. Like Hockenberry, he affirms his commitment to feminism and broods over the mental list he keeps of former friends and colleagues who ditched him when he was down. Both men take pains to point out the aspects of their identities that make them targets of discrimination. (Hockenberry is disabled; Ghomeshi is of Iranian descent.) Both admit that their successes made them full of themselves and convinced them that they could get away with treating others however they pleased. While Ghomeshi never mentions therapy, the post-downfall insights he presents reek of it: “If the opinion of others is how you define yourself, what happens when all of the outside props of status—the ratings, the followers, the social media likes—are torn away overnight? Who are you?”
Why are these protracted confessions so unsatisfying? The most obvious answer, pointed out by New York Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg, is that the writers don’t exhibit much genuine compassion for the women they’ve harmed or much awareness of how extensive that harm might be. While true enough, this isn’t surprising; they wouldn’t be sexual harassers in the first place if they were any good at considering other people’s feelings. Systemic sexism makes it possible for men like Ghomeshi and Hockenberry to get away with harassment and abuse, but plenty of men in their positions don’t harass or abuse others. And neither Ghomeshi nor Hockenberry seems to understand why they were among those who did.
By contrast, television showrunner Dan Harmon’s apology earlier this year to a former writer for his series Community, on his podcast, Harmontown, is widely considered one of the few successful specimens of the form. Harmon developed a crush on the writer and confessed to “flirty, creepy” behavior toward her, even as he refused to admit what he was doing to himself. She let him know that he “was divesting her of a recourse to integrity,” but “I just didn’t hear it because it didn’t profit me to hear it, and this was, after all, happening to me.” When she finally explicitly rejected his overtures, he retaliated by treating her “cruelly, pointedly.” As a result, “I lied to myself the entire time about it, and I lost my job. I ruined my show. I betrayed the audience. I destroyed everything, and I damaged her internal compass.”
Harmon’s admission—off-the-cuff and seemingly unstudied—works because of its specificity; he details exactly what he did. His target, Megan Ganz, tweeted about how gratifying she found this: “I only listened because I expected an apology. But what I didn’t expect was the relief I’d feel just hearing him say these things actually happened. I didn’t dream it. I’m not crazy. Ironic that the only person who could give me that comfort is the one person I’d never ask.” But just as important was the authentic rage Harmon shows toward his own feckless, delusional selfishness. Instead of the usual mealy-mouthed pro forma regrets, his apology writhes with self-loathing.
Admittedly, hating himself is part of Harmon’s persona, but it is also the missing piece in most #MeToo apologies. Sexual harassment isn’t just an exercise of privilege, it’s also an act of self-hatred, acknowledged or not. Whether the harasser wants revenge against “women” for rejecting him in the past or just longs to lord it over his supposed inferiors, he’s attempting, like all bullies, to fend off the sneaking suspicion of his own secret, contemptible worthlessness. That Hockenberry and Ghomeshi can go on for thousands of words without coming anywhere close to this insight suggests that they still have a long way to go before they understand not only what they’ve done, but who they are.