The Denial Diaries: On #MeToo Men With No Self-Awareness

In a good story, a character suffers, changes, and grows. In real life, women suffer while men double down on their delusions of virtue.

Dan Harmon had no plans to say anything about the way he had treated Megan Ganz. But then, in January, the writer who used to work for him on “Community” accused him of sexual harassment on Twitter. Though he was advised not to respond, the women he worked with told him that if he was serious about making amends, he needed to talk about where he went wrong. So a week after Ganz’s tweet, Harmon spent seven shaky, breathless minutes of his podcast, “Harmontown,” on a systematic breakdown of the self-deceptions — including calling himself a feminist and those who questioned him “sexist” — that enabled him to harass Ganz. “I did it by not thinking about it,” he told his listeners, “and I got away with it by not thinking about it.”

Ganz had expected the apology, but not the relief. That’s what she got hearing the confirmation that the harassment had actually happened — that she wasn’t being hysterical or sensitive or bitchy or any of those other things women are accused of whenever they speak up. “Ironic that the only person who could give me that comfort is the one person I’d never ask,” she tweeted.  Harmon didn’t rationalize or justify his behavior. He didn’t make a vague gesture towards some general mischief. As Ganz put it, he took “full account” of his actions. She called it a “master class in How to Apologize.”

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“People who clearly understand who they are — and how they’re seen.” That’s what it means to be self-aware, and it’s something only 10 to 15 percent of the population can claim, according to psychologist Tasha Eurich in her 2017 book Insight. The reasons she cites for the general paucity of self-awareness are intuitive: We lack perspective, we prefer to view ourselves positively, we’ve become more self-absorbed with social media. The term dates back to 1876, and it wasn’t until the next century that its opposite, denial, was outlined by Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna: a psychological defense that blocks facts from our awareness because we are too uncomfortable to acknowledge them, let alone accept them. Anna associated denial with an immature mind unable to cope with reality.

If 15 percent of the public is self-aware and about 250 powerful men have been accused of sexual misconduct since last year, about 38 of these men should have had a personal reckoning. But when you ask these men to write a “soulful, introspective exploration of their own misdeeds,” Stephen Metcalf argued on Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” podcast recently, “you get the very kind of person who committed those misdeeds, and you get them repeating all of the mentalities, exhibiting all of the mentalities that allowed them to commit them in the first place.” It’s been a year since #metoo went viral, and Dan Harmon appears to be the only man who has had the self-awareness to publicly acknowledge his behavior and parse it. The others have proven Metcalf right.

In October, two radio personalities accused of mistreating women, John Hockenberry and Jian Ghomeshi, published essays repositioning themselves as the victims. The two articles are virtually interchangeable in their lack of insight. Hockenberry’s “Exile,” which appeared in Harper’s, gives us a disabled man striving for old-fashioned romance in a world that no longer understands what romance is, a world that should change to suit him, not the other way around: “Creating a new universal scaffold of love and romance is not far-fetched for a twenty-first century that needs to be suddenly intentional about all sorts of dynamics formerly on autopilot. Just add it to the to-do list along with climate change, income inequality, and racial justice.” Ghomeshi’s “Reflections From a Hashtag,” in The New York Review of Books, meanwhile, stars a woke Lothario targeted by social media for nothing more than being “emotionally thoughtless.” “One of my female friends quips that I should get some kind of public recognition as a #MeToo pioneer,” he writes. (NYRB was later forced to clarify the seriousness and number of extreme allegations that Ghomeshi passed over with a flip of his hair, and its editor subsequently departed the magazine.)

In the aforementioned Slate podcast, Wesley Morris divulged that every woman he spoke to had told him, with reference to Ghomeshi and Hockenberry: “I would read a good version of that.” But who would write it?

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This is when we collectively turn to the unexpected men outed by women as part of #metoo, the men who had branded themselves as thoughtful allies. They include, most recently, writer Stephen Elliott, but also stand-up comedians Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K., men whose careers are based not only on performing self-awareness, but a particular self-awareness within patriarchy. They are self-proclaimed male moral arbiters, standard bearers of prescriptive masculinity. Unfortunately, their insight stops where their bodies start. Accused of masturbating in front of a number of women, Louis C.K. released a 463-word statement in which he failed to say “sorry” once, but mentioned no less than four times how much he had been admired by these women. He wrote, “I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them,” before concluding, “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” Less than 10 months later he was back on stage, performing a rape whistle joke as if nothing had happened.

C.K.’s work, like Ansari’s and Elliott’s, should be perfectly suited to this moment but turns away from it instead — a tell that these men are in truth only as “feminist” as Harmon was when he harassed Ganz.  So certain are they in themselves and their interpretation of their behavior that they’re willing to do a complete 180 to prove their innocence, aligning with ideologies they previously opposed. All to avoid a personal reckoning.

Aziz Ansari apologized for misreading the cues of one of his dates. But then the comedian who explored feminism in “Master of None” and co-wrote a book called Modern Romance: An Investigation, launched a reactionary tour, “Working Out New Material,” in which he denounced the performative leftists he had previously courted with his progressive comedy. “At least with the Trump people,” Ansari quipped, “I kinda know where they stand.” The irony was lost on him. “One might have hoped that, nearly a year later, he could find a way to reckon with one of the movement’s messiest lessons: that even men who wish to serve as allies of women can, intentionally or not, hurt them in private,” wrote The New Yorker’s Eren Orbey. “Instead, like other men who have reemerged in recent months, he seems to have channeled his experience into a diffuse bitterness.” With the left coming at him, Ansari veered right.

So did Stephen Elliott. The queer-aligning writer could have produced the piece Morris and his friends wanted, but he chose instead to complete the woe-is-me redemption triptych with an essay in Quillette, a pseudo-intellectual publication with a conservative bent. “These people on the left aren’t liberals at all, actually,” he told Bari Weiss (who reads Quillette daily) in The New York Times. “What I’ve come to realize is how close they are to the people on the right.” It was an about-face for Elliott, a teen runaway, former mental patient, and BDSM submissive who had forged a life and career on the margins. The self-described activist had also founded the literary site The Rumpus, which helped launch feminist writers like Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed who have written about their own traumas.

When his name appeared on The Shitty Media Men list next to accusations of rape, sexual harassment, and coercion, Elliott’s history served as a sort of alibi. Writer Michelle Tea, who was championed early on by Elliott, called him out for using the disenfranchised as a shield. “I wrestled a lot with what I saw as his need to be down with sex worker/queer/feminist communities without doing the actual work a cisgender straight white dude needs to do to be an actual ally,” she tweeted.

In his essay, “How An Anonymous Accusation Derailed My Life,” Elliott repeatedly fails to acknowledge his behavior — which has also been addressed by women who are not anonymous, including writer Claire Vaye Watkins, and The Rumpus’ managing editor Lyz Lenz and editor in chief Marisa Siegel. “I’ve certainly been unaware of boundaries and transgressed them without realizing,” he told the Times when confronted with those names. But instead of expounding on his border blindness, he side-stepped, harping instead on the semantics of anonymity and the specific rape accusation. The Adderall Diaries author even admits that he spent three months getting high, which could be considered the opposite of self-reflection; a sort of voluntary self-detachment. His security with his own virtue intact, Elliott puts his accusers on trial instead — quite literally, as it happens, suing list creator Moira Donegan for $1.5 million for defamation. As former Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald tweeted, “there’s a lot of serious thinking and listening and reconsidering about rape culture and sexual harassment and power dynamics that he just hasn’t done yet, and seems totally resistant to doing.”

Despite Elliott’s attempt at misdirection, the holes in his awareness are preserved for posterity. In a widely-read essay in Tin House in 2015, “On Pandering,” Watkins juxtaposes her memory of Elliott’s advances when she was hosting him during her MFA with his. This is her version, which scans with a number of other women’s descriptions of his m.o.:

“Stephen flirts with me all night and back at my apartment he attempts, with what I’ll graciously term considerable persistence, to convince me to let him sleep in my bed rather than on the air mattress I’ve inflated for him in the other room. I decline several times before he relents, doing so only after I tell him I’m seeing someone.”

And this is Elliott’s (from the Daily Rumpus newsletter):

“I tried to get in Claire’s bed. It was a big, comfortable bed. She said no, how would she explain it to the boy she was getting to know. I said there was nothing to explain to the boy, nothing’s going to happen. It’s like sleeping with your gay friend. But she wasn’t so sure. She had been drinking and I don’t drink. I slept on the air mattress in the other room.”

In his version, in his mind, Elliott is looking for some comfort from a young woman, who wants to give it to him but can’t, whose loose inhibitions — she has been drinking! — mean she might not be able to control what happens. He is the chivalrous one, the sober one, who chooses to sleep in the other room. The self-deception is so strong that it bends reality.

As Harmon said of Ganz (emphasis his), “It’s not as if this person didn’t repeatedly communicate to me the idea that what I was doing was divesting her of a recourse to integrity. I just didn’t hear it because it didn’t profit me to hear it, and this was, after all, happening to me.” Watkins noted that in Elliot’s recounting, she was not given a last name like her male colleague; the Gold Fame Citrus author was simply the student with the bed. “Stephen Elliott did not rape me, did not attempt to rape me. I am not anywhere close to implying that he did,” she wrote. “I am saying a sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement.” This is what Elliott does not think about — his power as a famous writer, as a man alone with a woman in her home at night — because he is too busy thinking about himself, that someone somewhere said he raped them.

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About five months after Dan Harmon’s master class apology, GQ profiled him. In the piece, the author notices Harmon’s copy of Melody Beattie’s The Language of Letting Go: Daily Meditations on Codependency, and Harmon mentions his therapist several times. The “Rick and Morty” co-creator also uses language — “I need to form a new neural pathway” — that is familiar to anyone who has been treated with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The idea is to focus on your thoughts and feelings in order to become aware of them, which provides the opportunity to challenge them and reframe your beliefs and behaviors. Without this awareness, you fall into pre-established unconscious patterns. It turns out that introspection can be cultivated — besides mindfulness, using mirrors to see yourself, recordings to hear yourself, and feedback from others can all foster self-awareness.

“Think about it,” Harmon concluded on his podcast. “You gotta, because if you don’t think about it, you’re gonna get away with not thinking about it, and you can cause a lot of damage that is technically legal and hurts everybody.” This is where you find Stephen Elliott, who is suing a woman whose only aim was to help other women. This is where you find Louis C.K., who is convinced he has been “to hell and back” and chooses to focus on the $35 million he lost in an hour over the women who lost because of him. This is where you find Aziz Ansari, John Hockenberry, and Jian Ghomeshi, who believe everyone else is the problem. But, in a sense, the solution is as simple as Dan Harmon’s famous “Story Circle,” a framework he conceived to fix each one of his narratives: A character desires, the character is gratified, the character suffers, the character changes.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.