The Amnesia Defense Isn’t an Apology — Four Ways Celebrities Fuck Up “I’m Sorry”

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As Claire Underwood’s presidency ends I can’t help but think of how many industry veterans have lost their jobs because of someone else’s sexual misconduct. “The long shadow” cast by Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, even deceased, seems inescapable. And the casualties of some celebrities’ deviance, criminal or otherwise, seems unfair.

One of my best friends is a communications specialist. Her mastery of the written language is surpassed only by her mastery of reading people and reading between the lines. That is to say that her observations are largely beyond reproach.

When she texted me last year to ask if I had heard about Kevin Spacey we lamented his slimy decision to use that moment to come out as well. His exculpatory sidestep undermined decades of suffering, sacrifice and advocacy of the gay community — especially their tireless efforts to extricate themselves from the ignorance of those who conflate homosexuality and pedophilia. I’d actually never read the word “conflate” so many times in one week.

“His handler should be fired,” she said unequivocally.

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As my friend is someone who communicates for (read: handles) major clients and elected officials I’m inclined to agree with her expertise.

It’s been a year since then. We need to ask ourselves if we’ve made any progress. The short answer is not enough. With every celebrity “apology” since Spacey’s I lament two frequent tactics.

1.) Handlers
Celebrities only speak for themselves in moments of professional accomplishment or gushing gratitude, like winning awards, but hide behind the shield of handlers in moments of personal fuck-ups.

2.) Claiming amnesia
Celebrities often invalidate these already diluted apologies by saying they don’t actually remember whatever offense their handler is apologizing for.

As the celebrities dominos fell throughout a year unlike any other it was only a Michael Oreskes, a “celebrity” I’d previously not heard of, who did not hide behind a handler, a denial or a passive apology. He even quit amid allegations. One of extremely few celebrities who showed themselves to the damn door when their private misconduct became public.

“I am deeply sorry to the people I hurt. My behavior was wrong and inexcusable, and I accept full responsibility.”

I’m not wholesale discounting the possibility of forgetting. The human mind is a dense ecosystem. But if you truly do not remember something then perhaps that is all you should say? Otherwise what the hell are you apologizing for?

I got the same amnesia apology eight months after I was assaulted. He called me late on a Thursday night. Though it seemed out of the blue at the time, his irritable and dismissive apology now makes more sense when I think of it in terms of others who got caught. Except he never ‘got caught’, per se. Outside of my innermost circle I never talked about it until many years later. Maybe his conscience caught up to him? Maybe he went to confession. Whatever the reason, it felt obligatory, insincere and ever hopeful that I would suddenly relent and say I had imagined it all.

He said something along the lines of, I’m really sorry if I did any of the things you said I did but I don’t remember doing any of those things. But if you say I did then I’m sorry. He offered a mangled olive branch about not thinking I had any reason to make it all up. He then went on to tell me that back then he had just found out that one of his brothers had molested their younger brother and his family was going through a lot of pain.

At that stage in my life I assumed all apologies were sincere. I didn’t yet have any reason to believe otherwise. Especially since this one, though testy and defensive and basically rude, was unsolicited. I was young. And I had already decided I wasn’t going to be defined by someone else’s violence. Until now I had always called that conversation closure. I had actually always considered myself quite lucky that I got an opportunity to say my piece and to have gotten an apology at all. Because, of course, by the time we were all starting college, most of my girlfriends had been harassed, assaulted or raped. I don’t remember any of them getting apologies.

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But in reading about Anthony Rapp’s accusations against Kevin Spacey last November the publicity statement immediately made me knot up. This Anthony Rapp got the same bullshit apology I did all those years ago.

And it is absolutely not good enough.

The word “if” should not be used in an apology. Apologizing for something that may or may not have happened is a way of haloing yourself as the kind of angel who would apologize “if” he had done anything wrong while simultaneously positioning yourself as someone who couldn’t be bad enough to have done the thing in the first place.

If you are innocent then don’t apologize for the runaway imagination of someone who is falsely accusing you. But if you did what you’re accused of and attempt to slide yourself off the hook you are actually running the risk of adding insult to injury. You introduce doubt. Whoever you wronged begins to question themselves, their memory, and the event(s) now in question. Which is of course the point. Shape-shifting the collective memory of what (by design) happened only between two people is an unmistakable act of selfishness. The Good Guy™ goes on record for apologizing that someone else misunderstood his perfectly innocuous behavior — if it had actually happened. Someone compassionate enough to apologize for something that didn’t even necessarily happen is surely too compassionate to be the kind of person to have done that very thing. Right?

It’s like walking through a house of mirrors where every truth is just an alternate reflection of a potential truth.

Spacey’s tweet was a failed act of contrition where nothing mirrors the truth and every “apology” deflects it.

“… I honestly do not remember the encounter … But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for all the feelings that he describes having carried with him all these years.”

Because he “does not remember” it he is basically apologizing for a hypothetical. Spacey’s homosexuality does not excuse him for preying on Anthony Rapp when he was a minor. Gay people aren’t predators. Predators are predators and pedophiles are society’s most reviled breed. And the emerging overall pattern of predatory behavior that Spacey’s colleagues, and more victims, are coming forward to describe certainly make it seem like this was not a one-time mistake.

He used his coming out, and his deliberately circuitous syntax, to avoid admitting any substantive guilt for the simple facts of his actions. And he seemed genuinely surprised he didn’t get a parade with penis-shaped balloons to celebrate his announcement. Coming-out party or not, not even the compassionate tone of his tweet excuses the four not-so-hidden daggers in his statement.

1.) Just because you don’t remember it doesn’t mean you didn’t do it. And it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. In fact, it might mean that you’re further in the wrong for being so incapacitated you just uncontrollably “turn into” a pedophile. And don’t expect science to corroborate your alcohol-induced involuntary pedophilia.

2.) “If”. Either you believe the accuser or you don’t. If you do then apologize for what you did. Active voice. If you don’t believe them you should be outraged by such odiously false accusations.

3.) What “would have been” is a conditional. It introduces a secondary layer of doubt. And it is not inadvertent.

4.) Drunken behavior is still your behavior. Own it.

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