Sexual abuse: It’s you, him, and his work

Condemnation of sexual harassment and abuse is having a moment, and that’s reason to cheer. But let’s not kid ourselves, the very publications that are now, rightly, devoting space and commentary to reporting and condemning the alleged behavior of Harvey Weinstein over the last 30 plus years, repeatedly rejected pitches and submissions about sexual abuse by an artist and architect they reported on, eulogized, and whose work they continue to follow. The truth is, these stories really aren’t news until enough people, and preferably famous ones, make lots of noise. And thank god they have. The Weinstein revelations have shown how he literally blocked the path of less powerful women, both in the film industry and out. But it is not only a person’s financial and political power that provides them with cover, there are also ways in which a person’s opus itself becomes a part of the pressure for silence when he behaves badly. For some of the males around Weinstein, his skill and accomplishments and the power those gave him, helped them look the other way. Part of the challenge for stopping harassment and abuse is sorting out our feelings about the works produced by alleged perpetrators vs. the men themselves. Did admiration of Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love contribute to silence? What about Chinatown, Annie Hall, A Kind of Blue, and maybe Parsifal? That’s a tough debate, and one that started early for me.

I used to dream the same thing over and over. I am a child at home, and there in our living room is my father, Paolo Soleri, in a large cage, fuming. We, my mother and sister and I, quietly hand paper, pencils, crayons and charcoal to him through the bars, or we hand in clay, or Styrofoam and a woodburning tool, or large flat trays of moist, densely packed silt with knives to carve it, powders and washes to color it. He draws, forms, carves, shoving the beautiful results back out angrily, yelling his fury. It was a clumsily literal dream that started in my early adolescence, when my father, an architect and craftsman, began sexually molesting me, eventually attempting rape when I was 17. It was a child’s solution to the problem posed by a man who I, and everyone around me, saw as the center of the universe.

It has been over four decades since I first had that dream. My father died in April 2013, he was 93 and a half. I had not seen or spoken to him in two years. He had good qualities — intelligence, charisma, discipline, skill — he was extraordinary in a number of ways. But like many such people, including many artists, he was a fierce narcissist, capable only of seeing others in terms of their role in his world. About six years ago, new stories about the past came to light that struck very close to my emotional core. The mindset he and those around him had always cultivated to help it all make sense suddenly didn’t work for me anymore. Things happened, I woke up. It’s been rough but enlightening. I’ve experienced firsthand a familiar storyline about public figures and their work, about abuse and delusion. Despite being old news, many of us seem hard pressed not to repeat it. Here are some lessons I’ve learned so far.

1. It all matters.

My waking up came at a time when the use of rape as a weapon in war was receiving more attention. The stories were horrific, and still are. My experiences felt inconsequential, laughable in comparison. Yet another privileged whine. “Who am I to speak about this?” I asked myself. It is the women in Kosovo, Congo, and so many other places, they are the ones who must be heard, they need to speak. But I was wrong. It’s not the sole responsibility of those who are most victimized to protect the space for our better aspirations. To create a society where women are not abused everyone needs to speak up, just as every story of bias counts if we really are committed to justice. My perspective shifted. Bringing light to this story became a contribution to claiming and protecting that space for me, my daughter, all women, actually all people.

2. Who’s the arbiter of worth?

There are so many reasons why victims of abuse keep silent. It’s not always or only their power as a gatekeeper to your future, there can be other factors as well. When the abuser is a publicly known, creative person there is an added layer of complication. Sorting it out turns into a threesome: you, him — and it usually is a ‘him’ — , and his work. Anyone astonished at the decades that have passed between alleged abuse by Weinstein, Polanski or Cosby and the women making those claims simply doesn’t get it: you are up against him, his opus and all the affirmations those have garnered. The work itself argues against you, is a source of power for him. You are challenging his successes and everything his work means to anyone who has gained from affiliation, and decided that he and his work are essential to their own identity. And you are impaired by the experience itself. In my case my rationalizations for silence took a number of forms: the comparison of my value vs. his as a great figure — No contest!; the comparison of my value vs. his work, regardless of what I think of him — Surely my greatest contribution is to not get in the way; the loss of people ‘close’ to me if I did get in the way — We’re in this together as long as you….; the loss of any special status gained simply by proximity to this person — Doesn’t the luster rub off on the inner circle?; the loss of parts of my identity because they are so closely intertwined with his work — Man and work are one, so it’s all or nothing!

I invested a lot of emotional and intellectual energy in my rationalizations. And there were strong external demands to continue. I was in my mid twenties when an elegant Italian architect, a friend of my father’s from their university days, looked at me flatly, with judgment saying “How can someone with a father like yours not devote your life to him?”

But really, how does this work? Do we weigh out ‘greatness’ against particular transgressions? How do we know when someone is ‘great enough?’ Does a good symphony get a racist off the hook? What number of outstanding films earn a serial sexual predator a pass? Do we assemble cultural critics to decide if the behavior should indeed trouble us, or just be an expected part of the package? What if the reviews are mixed? As neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky wrote, “The road to hell is paved with rationalization.” When a person’s power is derived from work that inspires through its beauty, logic or perception, rationalizations are easy to come by.

Now I can see how misguided my rationalizations were, but you can bet they are alive and well and powerful in many people’s minds. Believing the value of creative contribution is a substitute for, or at least out ranks, human value, moves us all into risky territory. This realization is obvious in retrospect, but surprisingly hard won.

3. Beware the coterie.

Rationalizations are psychological and moral workarounds that make asking honest questions about individual worth forbidden. Rationalizations are constantly bolstered by words and actions of both distant observers and members of the inner circle. Those workarounds are surprisingly resilient. For some of those close to exceptional, difficult people, their own agenda flourishes under these conditions, and rationalizations reinforce their niche, shielding them from their own doubt. Taken to the extreme, the rationalizations create sycophants who can become nearly as narcissistic in their devotion as the focus of their attention.

I finally told some of Soleri’s inner circle about my experiences about 24 years ago, others learned of them six years ago when I tendered my letter of resignation from the board of Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation, with an explanation of why. In response to receiving my letter, one of my father’s long time colleagues and board member wrote “I am disappointed in everyone.” A strange reaction from a man I had known since I was seven. Two years later he presided at a memorial seminar eulogizing Soleri and his work. His message seemed to be that, yes, he’s disappointed that those things occurred, but he’s equally disappointed that they are being brought up, instead of silenced.

4. Take a look — is it respect or delusion?

It took a long time but the workarounds finally stopped functioning for me when my father, in a fit of petulant selfishness, brought my daughter to tears one day in early January 2011 when the family had gathered for the New Year. My sister tried to quietly comfort her, reinforcing the strategy my sister and I had followed all our lives: swallow your hurt and anger, relinquish a sense of self, press on without being a disturbance. Seeing her hand reaching discretely for my daughter’s knee in consolation was the moment of clarity for me; I finally woke up. Here was the transgenerational transmission of trauma described by psychologists being acted out before my eyes, as I had also acted it out so many times as well. The absurdity of constructing workarounds that ignore your own sense of self, self defense, and of right and wrong, in deference to this man became obvious, finally. I believe resilience requires toughness. I had thought I was being tough and resilient, but I was deluding myself.

For me this was the grand flaw that plagued Soleri, his work and his organization: his single-minded control enforced by the deference of all to him. Without true peers of age or accomplishment in his inner circle, deference was the default for those living and working with him. In interactions with others, he had no time to spend teasing out the difference between compromise and engagement and so, in the name of never compromising, came intellectual isolation.

Soleri had a favorite phrase, “a better form of wrongness”–his unflinching assessment of efforts to make fundamentally flawed strategies work better — think ‘green growth.’ That day in January I could finally see that deference, and believing his behaviors were excused by his brilliance and his work, was simply a better form of wrongness.

5. Truth is hopeful, silence is cynical.

Abuse damages the victim, but it is also profoundly antisocial. The toll extends through space and time, an aura surrounding victim, perpetrator, and those who know but accept through silence. Silence provides cover for such abuses to persist. Silence says you have no hope for change. In addition to any personal benefit they might hope to accrue, those close to brilliant abusive people fall easily into this cynicism. This is the challenge. The proximal social environment of exceptional people selects for those willing and able to rationalize what they see. Everyone has too much to lose, the workarounds kick in, and they can be complicated. Basically, there is only one choice available, so if you like some part of this work you must be prepared to accept, without question, the less savory elements as well. You’re either with us or against us.

In contrast, truth is hopeful, and inevitable.

6. The work and the person, find your own way.

I have tested myself over the last years, looking hard at Soleri’s artistic and architectural work. Most does not seem to me to be compromised by his worst behaviors. I still like much, though not all, of what I see, it still rings true. But it is clearer now. Viewing it free from the rationalizations and workarounds, I can also see flaws, expressions of ignorance, arrogance, narcissism. Teasing out a response to a work and its maker is complicated, and personal. Time or distance can depersonalize or disconnect behaviors from works, but not always or for everyone. For me now, unless a work is an extension or expression of an individual’s antisocial behaviors, or enriches and affirms those, I need to assess that work separately from its maker.

So, yes, there are still aspects of Soleri’s work I agree with and admire. There are ideas I believe he was very right about. And he was no charlatan, not a financial wheeler and dealer, he had no hidden agendas. He started by attracting a group of people willing to work hard, a group held together by valuing ideas more than material rewards. Yet ultimately, for better and for worse, it became a group held together by their commitment to him, or more accurately, what proximity to him did for them.

Every human endeavor is marked by at least some people whose contributions are significant and enduring, but whose behaviors were, or are, anywhere from unpleasant to horrific. Clearly we don’t need to endorse the antisocial behaviors of Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis, or others to enjoy and benefit from their work. But failing to make this distinction contributes to the long history of hiding, and so tacitly accepting the harmful transgressions of creative public figures, especially during their lifetimes. I see now that I, and others in Soleri’s inner circle, failed to acknowledge this distinction and act on it. We allowed respect and admiration to morph into acceptance — albeit sometimes reluctant — of his behaviors, forming a coterie of deference and delusion. And for me personally, delaying the process of loosening the grip of this history.

Charles McGrath wrote in the NYT in June 2012 that “the cruel thing about art — great art, anyway — is that it requires its practitioners to be wrapped up in themselves in a way that’s a little inhuman.” Indeed, I’ve been told more than once, “that’s the way brilliant, creative people are.” Honestly? Do we really accept abusive behavior as a necessary and justified cost for the contributions of intellect or creativity? If so the implications are significant, and grim. But the good news is that even if that might be true in some cases, it doesn’t mean we have to put up with it. It’s how those around the exceptional person respond, and the values of the society we craft, that determines what happens when behaviors that are “a little inhuman” begin to occur.

In Soleri’s case I believe that the same hubris and isolation that contributed to my abuse also made him, and some of his coterie, incapable of sustained engagement with the intellectual and artistic worlds they felt neglected by. While clearly ahead of his time, ultimately it was his personality even more than society’s myopia that relegated Soleri to the role of “prophet in the desert.” Later in his life he would comment that society did not make good use of him, which I believe is true, but the responsibility for that failure was his more than anyone else’s. It’s tempting to speculate that the results would have been better if those around him had stopped rationalizing and instead called him out, based on hopeful values, not cynical, self serving ones.

Soleri has been dead for nearly five years. The swell of hagiographic films, essays and performances has slowed, hopefully making room for a more useful perspective that includes not only consideration of his work, but also honest acknowledgment that he was flawed. That work will have to stand on its own, and not be seen as an inseparable part of Soleri as a person, including his best and worst behaviors. For me that work deserves recognition and use, but it’s value will never negate his faults, or obscure the larger lessons.

Histories like these are a painful mess to sort out, but sunlight is a powerful healer. #metoo seems to be providing a first bit of that light to many, and also shows that the number of women, and men, who have been harassed and abused far outnumbers any conjuring up of “goldiggers,” that favorite label among alleged perpetrators and their legal teams. But speaking out is just a beginning. Others undergoing experiences similar to mine need assurance that protecting themselves and demanding fairness will be supported, regardless of who the perpetrator is, or how his work is perceived. They need to know that strengthening society’s capacity for fair, thoughtful treatment of everyone is also a valuable contribution, and not a threat. They need to know that power, no matter what its source, is not a pass for antisocial, damaging behavior.