There are few figures in popular media that I find less interesting than Lena Dunham.
It has always seemed to me that the absurdly copious acclaim she receives from moribund institutions of spent cultural relevance like The New York Times were inversely proportional to her observable significance. She was a useful totem for the cultural left; unconventional, counter-cultural, a writer and performer on a modestly popular show that exalts lasciviousness, and, most importantly, an activist progressive. As such, she needs to be aggrandized even though her commendations are not entirely earned and her vast influence cannot be independently confirmed.
I never begrudged her success, nor did I find her penchant for tastelessly invoking her sexuality as a metaphor for just about everything as anything more than prurient foolishness. I suppose we all need ways to explain the complex world around us. I never saw her as either the voice of a generation or the harbinger of a looming cultural decline. She was just another quirky performance artist, and my opinion of her largely began and ended there.
It is, however, something else altogether for Dunham to apparently determine that, for the sake of a racier narrative, she would accidently libel an innocent individual and smear an entire political ideology. That may be exactly what she did.
Conservative columnists have performed exhaustive investigations into the figure Dunham called “Barry” in her book; a rather crude Republican whom the reader is led to believe took violent sexual advantage of the author in college. National Review’s Kevin Williamson and Breitbart’s John Nolte did some traditional shoe-leather reporting on the subject earlier this year and determined that the easily discovered Oberlin alumnus “Barry” was a real person who was genuinely harmed by Dunham’s casual libel.
But Gawker’s J.K. Trotter, who seemed to have set out to discredit the conservative fact checkers that took an interest in learning the truth of the narratives in Dunham’s book, discovered a few inconvenient facts himself when digging into the inconsistencies between Dunham’s book and the proposal she submitted to her publisher.
Trotter observed that Dunham’s proposal characterized the encounter between her and “Barry” an “ill-fated evening of love-making” and not rape, though she did call her partner the college’s “resident conservative.” Dunham also said that the conservative, an aspiring radio personality, was also the son of a former host of NPR’s All Things Considered.
Following up on a lead originally investigated by Breitbart’s Nolte, Trotter determined that “Barry” wasn’t “Barry” at all. He is most likely a young man named Phillip (his full name and biography are reproduced in the Gawker piece, but will not be printed here). What’s more, it turns out that this individual never registered as a member of any political party until 2012, when he filed paperwork to register as a Democrat. Trotter noted that Philip had no records indicating any affiliation with conservatism whatsoever, but conceded that he might have been a secret conservative before he registered Democratic.
So what explains the significant evolution of the alleged rapist’s description between the proposal and the published text? Random House and Dunham, through her attorney, both declined to comment. It seems possible that the publisher asked her to remove the more identifying details to close off the possibility of a libel lawsuit—only to blunder into another potential suit thanks to the “surreal coincidence” of giving the rapist character the same name as a real Oberlin alumnus.
It’s possible, also, that [Philip] is not the person who raped Dunham—that, for reasons unknown, she used certain details of [Philip’s] life in her description of her sexual assault, and decided to remove them upon publication of the memoir.
[Philip] did not acknowledge multiple and detailed requests for comment via email; his current whereabouts are unknown. His Facebook account, before he deleted it, listed his current city as Washington D.C., but his last known address there belongs to a house his parents sold in 2011, according to public records.
Or, maybe, Dunham just did not want to lie about someone with whom she had a consensual night of sex, a person who she regarded as a friend and with whom she shared similar political views, and thought that it would make a better story to turn him both a violent criminal and a Romney voter. That would, after all, be the simplest explanation. While it is morally repugnant, for someone who makes a living as a creative writer, it is a course of action that is not especially not difficult to envision.
Of course, the joke is now, “Sure, Dunham’s Republican rapist turned out to be nothing of the sort, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the Larger Truths about rape and Republicans exposed by her confession.” That larger truth is, as ever, the faith-based claim that American culture is also “rape culture,” and that sexual violence and repression are both embraced and advanced by conservatives. As with the collapse of the fabulist tale that has robbed Rolling Stone of much of its waning credibility, the implosion of this narrative, too, has dealt those who are married to ideological preconceptions about their own victimhood quite the blow.
The genuine victims of sexual violence should be horrified by their supposed allies who would profit from their abuse by falsely claiming to have shared in it.
This post has been updated since its original publication.