Listen to this story
It’s been just over a month since Junot Díaz shared the abuse he suffered as a child with the world. In light of allegations leveled against him by authors Zinzi Clemmons and Carmen Maria Machado, some called Díaz’s autobiographical essay a preemptive strike. Others likened it to Kevin Spacey’s diversion. And others still perceived Díaz as an opportune figure, a man straddling both victimhood and abuse, the “fulcrum of healing.” A week ago, two dozen professors criticized the media’s treatment of the misconduct allegations as a “spectacle.” Díaz himself writes: “I’ve come to learn that repair is never-ceasing.”
Is he a victim, hero, villain, or all three?
We must recognize that when we step into Díaz’s story we’re entering a space that challenges comfortable assertions around victim-blaming, cycles of abuse, determinism, and who deserves forgiveness in a society that cherishes moral purity and savors disgrace.
To approach the subject from any of these vantage points would inevitably tug at a web that can’t be untangled in a single essay. Instead, it helps me to think of it like a sculpture that seems to morph with each step, to remember that although it’s a single construction it can appear in many forms.
Díaz was deeply abusive. And is immeasurably brave. To see both his capacity for cruelty and his repentance at once is jarring. Where do we place him?
I pondered this question for many years as a victim of and witness to abuse perpetrated by those who also claimed real victimhood, in some cases as a suggestion that they deserved impunity.
The victim-perpetrator dichotomy, a concept explored and complicated through research on child soldiers, feminist theories of rape, and communities recovering from genocide, asserts a simplistic divide between victims and perpetrators of violence. In others words, victims don’t hurt others and those who hurt others shouldn’t receive the empathy that victimhood evokes.
Surely, many assume, no one who endures physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of another could perpetrate the same pain. And no one who perpetrates such pain could be worthy of understanding or forgiveness. The exercise is too complicated and morally fraught.
Unfortunately, the data on cycles of violence, particularly those linked to childhood sexual abuse, is hazy at best. A 1996 report by the United States General Accounting Office found, broadly, that “the experience of childhood sexual victimization is quite likely neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of adult sexual offending.” However, in 2007, the World Health Organization published new research on cycles of violence that suggests “individuals with a history of abuse in childhood are at increased risk of maltreating their own children and/or partners.”
Dean Trippe, like Junot Díaz, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. After publishing Something Terrible, a comic chronicling his own trauma and recovery, he shared the truth: he lived in fear of “something terrible inside… requiring constant vigilance lest the beast be unleashed.” The fear was never substantiated in his adult years, but this hyper-vigilance and ability to accept victimhood seems to be precisely what differentiates victims who become perpetrators of violence and victims who don’t.
Accepting the reality of childhood trauma, acknowledging it as real and thus acknowledging the ways in which it transforms us is precisely where Díaz and Trippe’s paths deviate.
Díaz shares, repeatedly, in his essay:
“Too scared, too committed to my mask. I responded with some evasive bullshit.”
“I spent more energy running from it than I did living.”
“Of course, I never got any kind of help, any kind of therapy.”
“…once that mask was on no power on earth could have torn it off me.”
And this is where another layer of privilege enters an already complex comparison.
Dean Trippe writes: “The real heroes of my life are my parents.”
Junot Díaz writes: “I knew plenty of men who lived double lives. Shit, my father had lived one, to my family’s everlasting regret. And here I was playing out the patrimonial destiny.”
Dean Trippe writes: “My mom’s name is Sarah Trippe, and she’s the strongest person I have ever met. My adoptive dad, Charlton Trippe, has always had my back and believed in me.”
Junot Díaz writes: “I have transformed into the very ass who victimised and broke my heart as a kid.”
It’s difficult to quantify the impact the love and support we receive early in life has on our adulthood. Yet it resurfaces again and again as the key leverage point and predictor of mental, emotional, and physical health for survivors and their relationships.
After re-reading Díaz’s piece several times I felt unnerved at the similarities he shared with an ex-partner of mine; let’s call him Homer. Like Trippe and Díaz he was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Like Díaz he ran from and felt powerless against the way his pain transformed him.
Looking back I can see how my relationship with Homer was one of the most destructive to my sense of reality and my sense of hope. So I’ll say now what I didn’t say then: investing in trauma survivors who repeatedly abandon themselves is dangerous. These survivors exist in an uncompromising double bind: the profound vulnerability that is unresolved trauma and unyielding invulnerability inherent to existing as a man in modern society. The problem is impossible to solve from the outside, and the magnitude of emotional labor necessary to help someone who has no interest in recovery is boundless.
Because of his writing, his acclaim, his visibility as an ally, his ethnic background and racial identity, it’s easy to presume Junot Díaz somehow did not ingest the same toxic messages consumed by virtually every young boy. Exposing this untruth makes the next step possible: recognizing how valuable and worthwhile his admission is, how directly it challenges the standard for vulnerability in men, even as it bursts with brutality.
Any revelation that fractures the victim-perpetrator dichotomy should be embraced to the fullest extent. It’s not true that all trauma survivors become abusers — it is true that surviving trauma (well) means being vigilant about the unique dysfunctional propensities it leaves behind.
This is what I mean when I say in difficult conversations, “own your trauma.” It’s not to situate blame; it means you must take responsibility for how your pain transforms you. Only you know the extent of the damage you can cause and how to mitigate it.
Resources: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) offers a comprehensive list of resources for survivors of abuse and those who support them.