Lena Dunham’s BuzzFeed Op-Ed Illuminates the Difficulties of Telling Rape Stories

After Random House announced that it would change the pseudonym Lena Dunham used to describe the man who assaulted her in college— due to his similarity to a real person with the same name — Dunham penned an op-ed for BuzzFeed, recounting the aftermath of writing about assault. She explained that revenge and outing her rapist were never on her agenda.

Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather, it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun. I did not wish to be contacted by him or to open a criminal investigation… That is my choice.

This week of all weeks, reading Dunham’s essay is almost like encountering a primer on all the different and thorny issues that come up with written narratives of assault.

First, we confront the dilemma of how far publications are obligated to go to verify the details of an assault or to obscure the accused person’s identity.

If “Barry’s” resemblance to an actual living person is purely coincidental, as Dunham claims, is there any way Random House could have predicted that his life would be affected by the publication? Yet, as they now acknowledge, editorial staffers should likely have made the fact that this was a pseudonym, a stand-in for the real assailant’s name, clearer. In cases like these, transparency about the process is key. It’s unjust that stories of rape and assault inevitably receive an extra few levels of scrutiny, mostly from rape-denying quarters. But unfortunately, this reality has to be considered when stories are being prepared for publication.

Going deeper, Dunham has asked us to consider how the effort of “seeking the truth” and the attendant process of interrogating a victim’s story for holes and inconsistencies can echo, or even reinforce, victim-blaming scripts.  As Dunham wrote:

I have a certain empathy for the journalists who asked me questions like whether I regret how much I drank that night or what my attacker would say if he was asked about me. These ignorant lines of inquiry serve to further flawed narratives about rape, but these people are reacting to the same set of social signals that we all are — signals telling us that preventing assault is a woman’s job… that lying about rape is a way for women to enact revenge on innocent men.

Finally, Dunham’s piece raises the question of whether an “unassailable” rape narrative is even theoretically possible, given the nature of trauma, time’s effect on memory, and the gauntlet survivors must run through in telling their stories.

Survivors are so often re-victimized by a system that demands they prove their purity and innocence. They are asked to provide an unassailable narrative when the event itself is hazy, fragmented, and unspeakable. They are isolated and betrayed by people close to them who doubt their reality or are frustrated by their inability to move on. Their most intimate experiences are made public property.

Where can we find the line between due diligence around publishing and reporting on Dunham’s story and plain old harassment and re-vicimization of Dunham? Does such a line even exist? All I can say is that I’m very glad she’s written this account, which itself is already being predictably pilloried by her legions of critics.

As it happens, there’s one silver lining to Dunham’s painful experience: the courage she says she drew from other survivors of assault who have spoken out. Now, because her voice has been added to theirs, we can hope that as a result, someone, somewhere is preparing to tell her story for the first time. As she writes, “I am angry but I am not alone.”