Just over a month ago, Lena Dunham published a memoir called Not That Kind of Girl. It was widely reviewed across pretty much any publication of note, and became an insta-bestseller, with a sold-out international book tour and tons of media coverage. You honestly had to be under a media-repelling rock to have missed it. It was a fairly inescapable pop culture moment.
Just a few days ago, someone named Kevin Williamson found a passage in the book objectionable and wrote about it in the National Review. Williamson’s observations tend to skew misogynistic, racist, transphobic and otherwise hateful, with articles titled “The Rape Epidemic Is A Fiction” and “Laverne Cox is Not a Woman” and suggesting women who get abortions ought to be hanged. Williamson wrote two pieces on Dunham, the first in which he said he had “doubts” about whether Dunham’s account of being sexually assaulted in college was true, and the second in which he called out “Lena Dunham’s sexual abuse, specifically, of her younger sister, Grace.”
His words — “sexual abuse.” Williamson did nothing other than include a passage from Dunham’s book to make this claim, airily asserting that her behavior would be “considered child abuse in many jurisdictions,” without actually citing any actual statutes. Usually I would just write this off as a right-wing nutjob trying to smear a successful young woman with a powerful voice that she uses in support of women’s rights and Planned Parenthood, except something weird happened: Williamson’s allegation was picked up by another right-wing site, TruthRevolt, and started spreading like wildfire through not only the world of conservatives, anti-choicers and misogynists, but also a certain vocal flank of progressive types who self-identified as feminists.
At issue is discomfort with the passage cited by Williamson, buttressed by other elements cherry-picked from the book. Dunham tells a story of herself at seven, curious about her body and that of her baby sister, Grace. I feel like we’ve all read it by now, but still, here it is, in its entirety (note: it is often not included in its entirety). From pages 120–121:
“Do we all have uteruses?” I asked my mother when I was seven.
“Yes,” she told me. “We’re born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren’t ready to make babies until we’re older.” I look at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte’s Web, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.
“Does her vagina look like mine?”
“I guess so,” my mother said. “Just smaller.”
Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked. My mother came running. ‘Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!’ My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.
The freak-out has been about whether grown-up Dunham was cheerily recounting a tale of seven-year-old Dunham sexually molesting her sister. The freak-out has been augmented by “concern” over Dunham’s other revelations about her behavior toward her sister: she craved her sister’s affection, sometimes bribing her with candy for kisses and closeness. As they grew, her sister would beg to sleep in Lena’s bed every night. Sometimes, when her sister was asleep, Lena would do what kids sometimes do in bed and masturbate.
O-kay. It bears mentioning that these events happened with knowledge by Duham’s parents, and fell under a spectrum of behavior that, based on Dunham’s telling, was shared with a thorough assortment of mental health professionals from the age of eight on. It also bears mentioning that the recounting of these events was read by numerous professional book reviewers, experienced in assessing memoir as a genre, including the elements of storytelling contained therein. None of them flagged this passage as noteworthy. (One even said he was buying the book for his sister).
It also bears mentioning — and rarely have I seen it mentioned — that this passage was taken from the chapter called “Who Moved My Uterus?” in the section of the book called “Body.” This, perhaps, is the context that resulted in all the above-mentioned readers and reviewers not thinking twice about it. I certainly didn’t.
But! There are still so many people with questions! Questions like, “I am not a psychiatrist or a police officer or an expert of any kind, and yet I am still convinced that Lena Dunham must be a child molester! Could I possibly be wrong?” Okay that’s a joke, most of these people don’t actually stop to wonder if they are wrong. But when the public is so torn about a question relating to matters they know almost nothing about, we owe it to ourselves to search thoroughly for the answer.
And so, our quiz! It’s very simple. So simple in fact that it can be presented in this easy flow chart:
Answer key below:
1. Are you Lena Dunham? (a) Yes (b) No
You’re not Lena Dunham, because we know Lena Dunham thinks all of this is offensive and ridiculous. If you’re not Lena Dunham, then you are not an authority on what Lena Dunham was thinking as a seven year old or an adult in sharing this story, nor are you an authority on the full circumstances and/or context described. But you’re kind of gross for reading about the actions of a seven-year-old and imagining sexual intent.
2. Are you Lena’s sister, Grace Dunham? (a) Yes (b) No
You’re not Grace Dunham, because we know Grace Dunham has rejected the victim narrative imposed on her by Williamson, TruthRevolt et al. She tweeted, “As a queer person: i’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.” She also suggested this was a moment to “think about how we police the sexualities of young women, queer, and trans people.” We can infer that Grace is supportive of Lena and the book because she is her sister’s tour manager and has apparently approved all content relating to her in her sister’s book. We can also infer from Grace’s known actions (seeking to sleep with her elder sister throughout her childhood, managing the book tour, co-starring in Dunham’s movie “Tiny Furniture”) that she is not afraid of her sister Lena Dunham.
3. Are you Lena Dunham’s parents? (a) Yes (b) No
You’re not Lena Dunham’s parents, because to the best of our knowledge they did not institutionalize her, punish her or otherwise remove her from access to her sister. According to the book, they didn’t even send Dunham to a therapist because of anything related to childhood sexuality — it was because young eight-year-old Lena was afflicted with paralyzing fears for her own health and safety (pg. 205). A related question here might be, are you some kind of decorated parenting expert and/or recipient of the Greatest Parent Ever award? Let us assume for the purposes of this quiz and general common sense that this answer is also “no.”
4. Are you a therapist who has treated Lena Dunham? (a) Yes (b) No
You’re not a therapist who has ever treated Lena Dunham, because by Dunham’s account she saw many therapists, none of whom saw fit to commit her. We also know from Dunham’s account that she talked with her therapists about a wide range of things, including masturbation and sexuality. In fact, her longest-serving therapist not only did not recommend Dunham be institutionalized, she was cool with Dunham becoming best friends with her daughter.
5. Are you a behavioral psychologist specializing in children or some other expert with specialized training qualifying you to opine on what is “normal” for children? (a) Yes (b) No
It’s probably safe to assume that Dunham’s actual therapists knew as much or more about Dunham than do readers of her book (or context-free excerpts of her book). But since the question of whether seven-year-old Dunham’s behavior was concerningly abnormal has been raised, let’s see what other relevant experts think. Oh look, Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory interviewed three highly-qualified child therapists, all of whom found the behavior cited by Dunham to be well within the limits of “normal” childhood behavior. Plus, Judy Blume blurbed the book. I’d say that pretty much clinches it.
As you can see, the answer to all of these questions is almost certainly “No” — which coincidentally is the answer to the fundamental question of this piece: “Is Lena Dunham a child molester?” But still, you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re right. So here’s a bonus question:
Are you a frustrated creative who is sure you’d have a hit TV show if only your parents were successful artists who knew famous people? Have you caught yourself grumbling that Lena Dunham isn’t that talented, and “Girls” isn’t that good, and her particular artistic vision reflects a clear narrow-mindedness and privilege? (a) Yes (b) No
Trick question! The answer is irrelevant.
You can have opinions about what creeps you out and you can have opinions about what you would publish and you can have opinions about how you would parent. But you can’t opine someone into being a child molester 20 years after the fact. Speaking of privilege, that one’s not yours.
BUT — You clearly have strong feeling about protecting vulnerable children, and that’s great. Here are three excellent organizations working tirelessly to help them: GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services), Lauren’s Kids & ChildSafe. You can donate (here, here & here) or tweet to spread awareness about their great work. Kevin Williamson, I’m looking at you.
Rachel Sklar is a writer and editor in New York. She is the founder of Change The Ratio & TheLi.st. You don’t want to know what kind of seven year old she was.