It’s been a rough couple of weeks.
It’s been a rough couple of decades.
My heroes, writers whose work I have loved with a passion, who I have admired and promoted and hoped to emulate some day, have turned out to be . . . Oh, what’s the phrase I’m looking for?
Idols with feet of clay?
Less than perfect?
Ah, no. I’ve got it.
Horrible fucking human beings.
This is not a new thing, of course. I was an English Lit. major in college. I put in my time arguing about whether or not Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was truly racist or merely reflective of the general beliefs of his time—Chinua Achebe’s argument that “Great artists manage to be bigger than their times” absolutely convinced me of Conrad’s racism, by the way—or breaking down the misogyny in Lawrence’s Women in Love or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. (Although the recent discovery of an essay in which Lawrence argued “the revolutionary idea that women are human” casts some new light upon this issue. I bet the arguments in Lit. classes have been tweaked again!)
But it’s easier, having these debates about books whose authors are long dead. My emotional attachment to them as people is limited. The repercussions, particularly financial, of engaging with their work are also limited. My own personal involvement in the author in question’s life is non-existent. The excuse that “they lived so long ago that they simply didn’t know better, as we do today,” while not an all-absolving panacea (see Achebe), always hovers over the books, the plays, the essay, like a benevolent ghost who smooths away the rough edges and leaves us something soft and palatable. It is okay to enjoy these authors and their work still, because we know better these days.
I have been so very, very naive.
I’m also not sure I’m even capable of arguing coherently about the subject right now. There is a difference between pointing out racism or misogyny or what have you in a text and pointing out such things in an author’s personal life. There are crimes that are authorial and crimes that are actual, legal crimes for which one goes to prison. And I’m conflating these things right now, mostly because the number of horrifying things about which I am outraged is growing so rapidly that I’m having a hard time keeping track of them.
Orson Scott Card was one of my first heartbreaks.
I first read Ender’s Game in college, I think. I’d already become a fan of Card’s work while reading the Alvin Maker series, an alternative history of North America in frontier times that echoed, to me, the magical realism I was also discovering in my literature classes. Ender’s Game is a SFF classic and I connected with that text in a way that felt nearly primal in its essentialism. I understood Ender in my soul. (I will ask you to excuse the melodrama by remembering that I was still in my late teens. Nearly everything affected my soul, often also giving rise to some truly terrible poetry.) When Card, in Speaker for the Dead, took Ender away from Earth and on a journey of discovery through space and time, I went with him. He opened my mind. No doubt he did some more work on my soul too.
And then years later, I came across this:
“Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”
That’s Orson Scott Card in 1990 in an article called “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality.”
Well, that sucked. I was already a feminist and a gay rights supporter, going to school at an East Coast women’s college where it was clear that one of the benefits of being at Mount Holyoke was a remarkable lack of fear that you’d get the shit beat out of you for holding hands with a girlfriend while walking around outside. Finding out that Card genuinely believed that homosexual behavior (and I particularly enjoy his careful phrasing there, so he can still talk about his homosexual friends who he knows and loves, because it’s not gay people who are bad, just any actions they take that express their, you know, gayness) was a valid reason to send someone to prison was shocking. It rang with cognitive dissonance.
Card, after all, was the man who wrote an entire book (Speaker for the Dead) about the concept of Otherness. One of his characters writes as an essayist under the pen name Demosthenes and describes an elaborate “hierarchy of exclusion” that delineates degrees of strangerhood or Otherness. The overarching theme of Speaker for the Dead is that we must not judge others unless we can take them in our hearts from being Other to being deeply understood. Until we can know them as we knows ourselves and, through that process, understand ourselves more truly than we did before.
And the same guy who wrote that book also said that gay people who do not deny themselves from ever having sexual contact with a same sex person “cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society”?
I was baffled. How could this be the same person? I wondered if maybe that essay merely reflected some old, outdated thinking.
As activism ramped up and states began legalizing marriage equality, via the judicial system or via the ballot box, it became clear that Card’s bigotry was no relic of the past. When the movie version of Ender’s Game was announced, it didn’t take more than a minute for people to start collecting examples that ranged all the way up until last year.
This was bad.
I found myself, along with countless Orson Scott Card fans, trying to figure out what to do. This was not a purely intellectual argument about whether or not an author who lived in a previous century was a bigot or a sexist or just an all around horrible human being. This man was a living, breathing, donating-his-money-to-campaigns-to-deny-basic-rights-to-others human being.
For me, this changes a lot. I understand the argument that Card has already been paid for the rights to film his book and that the money I spend on a movie ticket doesn’t go to him. That he no doubt sold the film rights to his book ages ago. That supporting the film supports actors and production people, electricians and costumers and the poor kids trying to get a foot in the door by fetching coffee for movie stars, almost all of whom were outspoken in their condemnation of Card’s bigotry.
Because if that movie was a success, they’ll want to make another. If that movie is a success, new generations of readers will go out and buy Card’s book, which absolutely benefits him financially.
And I’m even torn about that. Because the books in that series are powerful and they speak directly in opposition to the very bigotry Card trumpets every chance he gets. I have a ten-year-old son. I want him to read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, to learn from them as I did. I think reading those books will make him a better person. It’s just that reading those books also supports a terrible human being.
How to draw this line?
I decided that as long as I kept my original copies of the books, so that no further financial gain was experienced by the author as a result of my son reading them, and as long as I committed to conversation with my son about Card’s beliefs and how strongly I disagreed with them–how I voted with my ballots and my wallet and my mouth every time I could to support equality–then I could expose my kid to these books that so changed my own thinking.
Are you exhausted yet? I’m exhausted. I was so, so tired of thinking about these issues. I was so, so glad this was the worst of the worst and that I’d reconciled my own mind and could move on.
Because it never stops. And the awfulness is sometimes less awful, but sometimes it is so, so much worse.
Greg Mortenson wrote Three Cups of Tea and once again, I fell in love. My Goodreads review of this book is still up, a reminder of how very wrong a reader’s judgment can be. I flogged this book to everyone I knew. I raised money for CAI, the nonprofit organization created by Mortenson that was building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the conditions that locals both participated in the building and committed to allowing their girls to go to school.
Much of Mortenson story has since been exposed as a fabrication (most exhaustively by Jon Krakauer in his exposé, Three Cups of Deceit) and his charity is under investigation for mismanagement of funds. I was not alone in my feelings of betrayal when this story broke. Three Cups of Tea, and its editions written for children, brought many people to activism. The passion readers developed for this book, readers as elevated as Admiral Mike Mullen and General Stanley McChrystal (and don’t think that didn’t thrill me…the military taking lessons from a nonprofit on how to engage more helpfully with the people whose country they were invading! This book was magic!), was amazing to see. The corresponding disbelief and depression were equally overwhelming. But surely, this is a rarity, this revelation that someone we have admired so much could be so flawed.
Two weeks ago, during the final proofreading edit of one of my manucripts, an error in attribution was caught. I had referenced a statement made by General Eisenhower about Field Marshal Montgomery as my heroine, a World War II history buff, explains the origin of her company’s unusual name. The comment in the margins said, “A quick Google search shows that Roosevelt said this (or some variation of this) about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. I can’t find any mention of Eisenhower saying this about Montgomery.”
I was confused. An error on my part was not impossible, but it seemed odd that I would mix up speaker and subject and era, all at the same time. Maybe Eisenhower stole the words from Roosevelt when he wanted to insult the Field Marshall? It was easy enough to investigate. Although I had first drafted this ms. more than a decade ago, I knew that I’d been in the middle of a Stephen Ambrose obsession and it was in one of his books where I’d come across the story. To Google I went, determined to figure out the mystery.
I typed Stephen Ambrose into Google . . . and the very first autofill that came up was Stephen Ambrose plagiarism.
You’d think these things would come as less and less of a surprise to me.
I’d missed it entirely when the scandal was first exposed, but Ambrose has since been revealed as both a plagiarist and a fabricator of his interviews, most notoriously with Eisenhower (ah ha . . . this explains my mis-attributed quote), but clearly a repeat offender, going all the way back to his college thesis.
Picture me sitting on the floor (my WWII history bookshelves are on the bottom of one bookcase) in shock. Stephen Ambrose? Stephen fucking Ambrose? The author of D-Day and Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers. The Founding Director of the Eisenhower Center for Leadership, where they have raced to collect oral histories of World War II from the men and women of that generation before they die and those stories are lost to us.
I have sat on Omaha beach in Normandy, Stephen Ambrose’s book in my hands, and read and cried because his words had the power to make the stories of so many individuals real to me at that moment. History is so often taught to us from on high, movements of governments and cultures and armies. The story of the individual is usually lost, or disregarded. Ambrose’s books, quoting extensively from oral histories, put the individual front and center. You never lose sight of the overall context of the war, but you read about the man who thought it was ridiculous that his supplies for the D-Day invasion included cigarettes, until his fear drove him to start smoking on the boat ride over. You read in their own words about men and women’s pain and suffering and fear until you understand that this big picture event in history, World War II, was composed of so many millions of individual stories, and this understanding changes you.
Ironically, my son is also a WWII history buff and I had just introduced him to Ambrose via a collection of his essays, some of which my kid had devoured with his typical, quote everything aloud to me while reading, passion. So here I was again, not only fixing the problem in my manuscript and dealing with my own disillusionment, but also having to discuss with my son this unhappy revelation about his most recent historian idol. To introduce to him, at such a young age, the idea that you cannot simply trust people, even those we respect or who are in positions of authority that would lead you to believe they were worthy of that trust.
I’m going to stop using Except, no here, because what I have learned is that it doesn’t end. Ever. And I need to stop writing and thinking as if there is ever a finish line in this race.
Last week, I found out about SFF author Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband, Walter Breen. I am going to keep details limited, because they are horrifying and triggering. (The links here lead to posts that are nauseating and if you have any sensitivity to descriptions of assault, rape, child abuse, please prepare yourself before you click.) Suffice it to say that Bradley and Breen both participated in and covered for each other over decades of child abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Details of this abuse have been revealed in court documents, in journals from witnesses at the time, and in statements from Bradley’s daughter, Moira. Many people have been writing about this extensively in the past few weeks, including Deirdre Saoirse Moen on her blog and Natalie Luhrs at Radish Reviews, triggered by an author profile from Tor on the anniversary of her birth that has since been taken down.
I spent hours on Twitter talking to Deirdre and Natalie and others, trying to reconcile once again my understanding of an author with their real-life actions. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books might have been my earliest exposure to feminism. They were certainly my earliest exposure to positively-written queer characters (because I’d read Heinlein first, but even as a teenager I recognized that a man writing female characters who happily screwed each other at the drop of a hat, or the trousers of their male partners who enthusiastically joined in, was just creepy fantasizing). The first story I ever submitted professionally was to one of MZB’s Sword & Sorceress anthologies. I was in high school, and the personalized rejection I received which encouraged me to submit again is still in a file folder in my cabinet. The Mists of Avalon was revelatory to me as both a reader and a writer, showing me that you could take a story known by so many and completely change it’s meaning, merely by adding women as real people to the events so “clearly” understood previously. Bradley’s author notes in the backs of her books described her large, sprawling household as a writer/artist commune, with people (most of them young, coincidentally, and vulnerable) moving in with them for years at a time. I remember reading those notes and wishing I could go there. Wishing I too could live in that house, with that family of authors and songwriters and creative people of all kinds.
This is rather sickening, in retrospect. And although Marion Zimmer Bradley is no long alive, her estate apparently still profits an individual who is also currently defending Bradley’s reputation.
So, I am struggling. I am struggling to understand how to think about these writers. What to do going forward. I do not wish to erase their works from existence, although I completely understand and support those whose reaction is to throw away the books and never read one again. But I also know that these book have changed lives, saved lives (I have lost track of where I read a comment by someone who talked about how MZB’s books helped her at a time in life when she felt suicidal), and I don’t want to take away from future generations the possibility of finding that same mind-opening or comforting experience in these texts. I also believe that there is value in working on problematic texts, in analyzing them and understanding ourselves and our complicity in a culture that allows those who cause harm to continue doing so for years, decades, without the most basic examination of their actions.
Mostly I just don’t know what to do.
Maybe the problem is with me. Maybe I am the one who needs to grow up, to stop idolizing people based on their words, whether fiction or non-fiction. To stop believing so strongly that this thing that I do, this job that I love–telling stories–that has the ability to change a mind, change a heart, change the world, necessarily goes hand in hand with being a decent human being.
Because it doesn’t.
I’m not sure where I go from here. There are many people writing much more intelligently than I on all of these subjects. I am aware that I have made no coherent argument in this post. That this is simply an outpouring of my own personal grief, which is trivial in light of the damage that is has been and is being done to real people, whose suffering is both vastly worse than mine and also ongoing. I take some comfort from knowing that my participation in the Summer Rain anthology supports RAINN, a group whose work does so much good for survivors of abuse and assault. But how do I counteract the damage done by my support of all of these writers, over so many years? How do I stay on top of information as it comes to light so that my enthusiastic support for some book in the future doesn’t promote the fame and fortune of yet another person causing harm?
I don’t have enough answers. Any answers, really. And I would greatly appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.
ETA: Natalie Luhrs has corrected my mistaken impression that the MZB profile was issued by her publisher. It was posted by Tor, who regularly profiles important writers.