After the New York Times reported in November 2017 that the comedian Louis C.K. had a habit of exposing himself to women and then masturbating in front of them, he issued an “apology.” At least that’s how it was described in many headlines.
The statement was 494 words. Not one of those words was “sorry.”
When, in January 2018, an anonymous woman detailed a series of unwanted sexual advances by comedian Aziz Ansari, during the course of a date — despite, she wrote, her repeated use of the word “no” and obvious discomfort — he, too, issued a statement.
His was 134 words. Again, not one of them was “sorry.” (Though, to be fair, he had used that word in a private text to the woman, months earlier.)
For a while after, each man kept quiet — Louis C.K. for eight months; Ansari for about five. But they both eventually returned to the stage.
In January, Louis C.K played a sold-out show in San Jose. The event drew a couple dozen protesters. Ansari has five shows scheduled in the Bay Area beginning Thursday, March 14. Four of the five are sold out.
And so it goes, particularly as it comes to these sorts of noncriminal violations. The public listens as a truth is told, an “apology” is made and all is forgiven or forgotten — or forgotten enough that a theater sells out.
It’s been more than a year since the #MeToo movement went viral, and now we know the rhythm of these things. They almost always end with an apology, delivered to us, a public that seems, largely, ready to accept something that is not ours to accept. We do this, in part, because these apologies, however limp or tortured, feel like something when so many men give us nothing. And we do it so that we might also forgive ourselves for the ticket we plan to purchase, the album we want to download, the book we want to buy.
But if something so performative is our destination, if all we’re left with is just another pat redemption story, if Ansari will be performing to four sold-out theaters this week (and in the Bay Area, no less), then what has changed?
Lauren Maul, a comedian in New York City, saw many of these #MeToo-era apologies for what they were, “There was just no earnestness or sincerity in any of them.” So she took the words, exactly as they were, and went about setting them to music. “I can’t write this stuff.”
There are nine tracks on her “Apologies from Men” album. “Kevin Spacey’s Apology: The Remix,” hits an almost-riot grrrl note, while “Sorry & Regret: The Matt Lauer Apology” comes off as a little country. “The Louis CK Apology,” her first, is a ballad, it begins exactly as his “apology” did: “These stories are true. At the time, I said to myself that what I did was OK because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question.”
“They didn’t have substance, and I wanted to point out the flaws of those apologies,” Maul says. “This is what these men said.”
There are better ways to apologize, and plenty of websites and articles to use as guides.
Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall, two writers (McCarthy in San Francisco and Ingall in New York City), have been evaluating apologies since 2012 on a blog called SorryWatch. McCarthy can list, very quickly, all the things an apology ought to include. She and Ingall wrote a checklist some years back. To paraphrase:
• Say you’re sorry. Period. No “ifs” allowed.
• Say it to those you harmed.
• Describe what you actually did.
• Apologize, specifically, for how it affected the victim.
• If you want to explain, don’t make excuses.
• And if you’re doing this in person, let the recipient have their say, too.
“We came up with those guidelines well before #MeToo,” McCarthy says. “They still work pretty well.”
As the #MeToo movement grows, so, too, does the number of apologies we collect. Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime talk show has become a clearinghouse for people peddling remorse. Ditto the chair opposite “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts. There is value in this accumulation, no doubt. “A public apology, if it’s done well, tells the world ‘That isn’t OK.’ ” McCarthy says. “I’m hearing of people searching their memories, going ‘Did I do anything? I’m a nice guy.’ … So it makes a social impact.”
Last month, according to Vulture, Aziz Ansari voiced a similar hope at a pop-up comedy night in New York City. The incident, he said, had taught him a lot. “If that has made not just me but other guys think about this, and just be more thoughtful and aware and willing to go that extra mile, and make sure someone else is comfortable in that moment, that’s a good thing,” he said, according to the website.
Ansari, it seemed, had forgiven himself, and so had the crowd that night and, presumably, all the others that will follow. He, like Louis C.K. and so many others, had found redemption in simply being an example. Their bad behavior was twisted until, somehow, straw became gold and sin became salvation.
There are, of course, things one might do to atone for a horrible act that is, nonetheless, technically legal. “I don’t think it’s just time in the wilderness. The person has to do some work and make amends,” says Lisa Geduldig, a San Francisco publicist and comedian. “If they step down and do the work on themselves, then they can make room for people to come up. … They’ve had their time and they’ve filled up their space.”
Vanity Fair published a piece by writer Nell Scovell last October in which she wrote a stand-up set that might inch Louis C.K. closer to redemption. The ending, she wrote, might go something like this: “I also instructed my manager to help the women I took advantage of. They’re hilarious and deserve that. Like on this tour, I have a different woman opening for me in each city. I’m also giving half the proceeds of this tour and all the proceeds of the streaming special to Time’s Up. I hope that helps.”
But, the truth is, one person’s redemption does not serve to build up another’s lost sense of self, or lost career or lost creative spirit. More often than not, the redemption becomes the story, and the initial harm is all but forgotten.
This is what bothers Noreen Farrell, the executive director of San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates, about all this talk of redemption and comebacks. “I think redemption stories are a problematic placebo,” she says. “They’re not only a distraction from the real heroes of the #MeToo movement, the survivors; it’s actually potentially dangerous.”
These stories work like a fresh coat of paint for a wall covered with mold.
“It’s society’s inclination to find a Band-Aid,” Farrell says. “One has to show that they’re really part of the solution and not the problem. ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough anymore.”