The Sex Pariah’s 6-Step Guide to Rehabilitation
Flushed into public view by journalistic investigations and official probes, at least six dozen notables now stand accused of rape, sexual harassment, sexual abuse or sexual misconduct. Each day, it seems, another alleged offender joins their number.
The accused hail from almost every major field in American life: Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor); journalism (Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin, Hamilton Fish); music (R. Kelly, Russell Simmons, David Sweeny); Capitol Hill (John Conyers, Al Franken, Blake Farenthold); VC/tech (Shervin Pishevar, Steve Jurvetson, Robert Scoble); public broadcasting (Michael Oreskes, Charlie Rose, John Hockenberry); commercial broadcasting (Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Roger Ailes); theater (Israel Horovitz); magic (David Blaine); food (John Besh); academia (John Casey); comedy (Louis C.K.); sports (Jameis Winston); comic books (Eddie Berganza); opera (James Levine); and soccer (Sepp Blatter). The adult film industry, too, gained representation on this roll call in mid-November as actor Ron Jeremy attracted accusations of rape and sexual assault.
Oh, and then there are the longstanding charges of abuse directed at President Donald Trump, the Access Hollywood perpetrator who brought the once taboo topic out of the shadows.
So many accusations, so much shame. Most of the accused have either lost their jobs or face suspension pending deeper inquiries. Shunned and ridiculed, they have lost friends and social standing. Strangers who might once have approached them for a selfie and an autograph now cross the street to avoid them.
Everybody agrees the guilty should be punished, so I’ll leave it to wiser columnists to determine their proper sentences. But once they’ve done their time can we, should we, allow them to return to public life and their careers? And by what avenue?
It’s not a specious question. After all, murderers have been known to earn a second chance after serving their time, so why not sex pariahs? Here follows Shafer’s Pariah Rehabilitation Playbook for tossing off the pariah yoke, no matter what the transgression:
Step 1: Confess your offense without qualification
If you’re guilty of sexual harassment, your rehabilitation will begin with a confession and an apology. Don’t blame it on alcohol or some bad patch that caused you to skid off the highway of life. Don’t blame it on the ‘60s and ‘70s, as Harvey Weinstein did. Don’t blame it on being in the closet, as Kevin Spacey did, pretending that he was the real victim. If you litigate the issue—as Matt Lauer did by saying that “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized”—be prepared to delineate between the cases in which you’re innocent and those in which you’re guilty, with details and specifics. No vague half-denials.
You might be innocent of all the charges and totally undeserving of your pariahhood. If so, fight, but fight fair. And hire the best lawyer available.
Step 2: Retreat from everyday life
After you confess, disappear from the public eye for at least six months. This serves two purposes. No matter how sincere your confession and apology, you disgust normal company too much for anybody to want to consider your case. They don’t want to see you; they don’t want to hear you. They want a physical signal from you that you agree what you’ve done should exclude you from polite company. Banish yourself. Find a cabin in the mountains or desert. Move to a small town or a foreign country and lie low so people don’t have to think about you (it’s the least you can do), but also so you can think about what you did.
Step 3: Submit to a credible sponsor
DIY rehabilitations happen now and again. But most fallen human beings need a way-finder. During your retreat, see if you can enlist a sponsor. NFL star Michael Vick was lucky to recruit former NFL coach Tony Dungy, a man of impeccable morality, to guide him back into our good graces after a dogfighting conviction and trip to prison. A credible sponsor gives the fallen a way to signal the sincerity of his efforts at rehabilitation and restitution.
So far, none of the high-profile accused has taken this step. But it can work. In Hollywood, Jodie Foster helped cure Mel Gibson’s pariahhood. Robert Downey Jr. relied on his wife, producer Susan Levin, to do the same. Mark Halperin’s journalism partner John Heilemann would be the obvious candidate for Halperin’s restoration. Brian Williams could intervene with Matt Lauer (remember Lauer’s interview with Williams when he was shamed for his fabulist turns?). Tina Fey could work with Al Franken. I don’t know how credible a sponsor I would be, but I’d be humbled to be part of the reintegration of my friend Michael Oreskes into professional life.
Step 4: Perform acts of penance
By now you’ve confessed, made yourself scarce, and found an ally. Now comes the Catholic part: penance. On the chance you don’t draw jail time for your wrongdoing, you should still submit to some kind of voluntary self-punishment to show humility, an idea endorsed by various Christian denominations. Think in terms of exposing yourself to a sensible form of hardship—literal self-flagellation, penance experts agree, is too showy. Perform an act of pilgrimage like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in winter. Give up your worldly things—your cars, planes, vacation homes and fine wardrobe. Devote yourself to the poor or the homeless. Don’t just join a charity board: Scrub floors and toilets. Clean their oozing sores. Volunteer at a rescue animal kennel. Use your imagination. It is, after all, your penance.
Acts of penance don’t wash away sin. To give credibility to the sinner’s plea for forgiveness they must convey a message that is genuine, heartfelt and meaningful. Weinstein proved himself unworthy of forgiveness when he proposed in his letter of apology to give the NRA his “full attention” and donate $5 million to a program for female directors at the University of Southern California. Fighting the NRA and supporting female filmmakers does not begin to ameliorate his alleged rapes and assaults. This wasn’t penance, this was bad public relations.
Nobody expects the shamed to devote their lives to a department store of good works like Mother Teresa. Just a boutique should be enough, if it’s the right boutique.
Step 5: Perform verbal acts of contrition
In the Catholic Church, prayers of contrition follow the repentance of sins after confession. To our modern ears, verbal acts of contrition often sound hollow. When Leon Wieseltier writes, “I am ashamed to know that I made any of [my accusers] feel demeaned and disrespected,” he adds enough distance between his shame and his accusers’ feelings to justify our speculation that what he’s ashamed about is getting caught.
Expressing sorrow and remorse does not come naturally—even to wordsmiths like Wieseltier—so let’s not send to the guillotine everybody who makes a botch of it in their first gesture. Do-overs are not only allowed, they’re encouraged. Do it until you get it right. Verbal acts of contrition that connect to the reflections formed during penance usually sound the sincerest. And sincerity is key in making apologies. (Never mind the joke about being able to fake sincerity.)
Depending on the act of transgression, transgressors must be prepared to express their regrets over and over. It’s a little like having to take immunosuppressants for the rest of your life after accepting an organ transplant. I’m sure that Michael Vick is still apologizing somewhere for abusing dogs. Not everybody has the facility to remain forever rueful for their bad choices. If you don’t, you probably will never be rehabilitated.
That said, your apology need not be the topic sentence to every paragraph you ever speak again. At some point—everybody’s mileage varies—you can let it go. So, feel free to include your apologies in your speaking tours, television appearances and the books and articles you write. Just don’t let it become the new story of your life once you’ve been forgiven.
Oh, and be prepared to be judged. For the rest of your life.
Step 6: Restitution
Restitution is a sticky business. If you’ve achieved pariahhood by credible allegations of rape or assault, there’s no way to make things right short of going to jail. (If you’re reading, Harvey, you can stop here.) “I’m sorry” just isn’t enough. “I’ll be better in the future” doesn’t cut it, either. Giving money to a good cause can help level things, but the gesture must be proportionate to the size of your estate; that’s why Weinstein’s $5 million offer was laughable.
Rich transgressors can afford to give away loads of money and should. Matt Lauer was making $28 million a year before NBC fired him. Presumably, he could afford to donate millions to good causes to offset a tiny bit of the harm he has inflicted and still have enough money to live like a king. But remember: There’s a fine line between making an act of restitution and attempting to buy your way out of a jam. Give generously or don’t bother.
Restitution through good works done right can become as big a story as the original transgression. Convicted Watergate conspirator Charles Colson threw himself into prison ministries for decades after leaving jail, defying cynics who thought his new cause was window dressing.
There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for reintegration into society. You can’t expect everybody to accept your apologies right away—or ever. Someone will always be there to say that you should have gone off the grid for a year instead of just six months, or that you should have started a new career where your reputation was untainted instead of returning to your old career where you got into trouble, or that you need to donate even more money to their cause.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that the human capacity for forgiveness rivals the human capacity for transgression. For that reason, ditching pariahhood is not impossible. As long as you can accept that you might never rise to your pre-pariah status and don’t mind living life with a lowered head, you’ll be fine.
Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories