What Dunham's defenders are missing: Her story about her sister could have been a teaching opportunity

The National Review piece is vitriolic and offensive. But it should still be a starting point for more conversation

Published November 3, 2014 9:09PM (EST)

Lena Dunham                  (AP/Arthur Mola)
Lena Dunham (AP/Arthur Mola)

After the National Review’s Kevin Williamson wrote a scathing review (behind paywall) of Lena Dunham’s memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl," in which he skewers her for her Manhattanite privilege and indulgent upbringing, a website called Truth Revolt took it one step further, focusing on a section of Dunham’s memoir that Williamson’s review refers to in passing and that has since set off a firestorm on social media: what Williamson and Truth Revolt refer to as Dunham’s sexual abuse of her younger sister, Grace. In the now-infamous passage, Dunham describes looking inside her 1-year old sister Grace’s vagina, when Dunham was 7:

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.

Many of the defenses that have been marshaled in Dunham’s favor against the right’s charges of sexual abuse have been somewhat disappointing. Some of them, including Mary Elizabeth Williams’ piece in Salon, take note of the many reasons why Dunham’s tale is disturbing – but nevertheless expend the most words excoriating the right wing for attacking Dunham as a sexual predator.

As a mother of one daughter, my own reaction to Dunham’s revelations is utter confusion. One-year-old children are fairly adept at putting things into their mouths, and baby girls are as fond as baby boys of playing with their genitals. But a 1-year-old generally lacks the fine motor skills to insert multiple small objects, like pebbles, into an orifice that is not exactly easy to get to – especially since, as Williams notes, children of this age are generally still in diapers.

It's hard to deny that the language Dunham uses to describe this scene is lurid. Luvvie Ajayi went so far as to say that the way Dunham described the scene – “carefully opened her vagina” and noting that the 1-year old Grace “didn’t resist” – smacked of erotica:

Even the way it was written makes me terribly uncomfortable .’…And I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist.’ If you didn’t know she was talking about her sister, you’d think it was from an erotica. Reading that made me wince because that is about her baby sister! That ‘she didn’t resist’ piece gave it extra gross factor.

According to Dunham, instead of using the moment as an opportunity to talk about touch and boundaries, her mother merely removes the pebbles while Grace “cackled” about the success of her “prank.” What prank? The notion that a 1-year-old put pebbles in her vagina, in expectation that someone (Lena, perhaps?) would look in there and find them, simply makes no sense. The fact so many publications gave this book such fawning reviews without so much as mentioning this anecdote should give plenty of people pause, because the excuses being made for Dunham seem more attributable to her celebrity than any plausible interpretation of the events she relates.

In fairness, Dunham’s story reveals what was, at the very least, a missed teaching opportunity that might have spared the sisters some pain down the road. In a New York Times interview, Dunham said, “Basically, it’s like I can’t keep any of my own secrets. And I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn’t handle the fact that she’s a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things.”

Dunham’s remarks sum up what is really wrong with the controversial passages from Dunham’s book: it’s not so much that they reveal Dunham as a child molester, it’s that they reveal her as a woman who is troublingly averse to adult reflection on her life, her upbringing, or the effect that her actions may have had on the people around her.

Williamson’s review is vitriolic, and much of it rankles. But while Williamson may have been wrong to characterize Dunham’s behavior as sexual abuse, feminists are just as wrong to turn a blind eye to – or go through hoops to justify – behavior that may require further exploration. It's probably unfair to call Lena Dunham’s touching her little sister “sexual abuse.” Still, asserting that an older child exploring a younger child's genitals does not amount to sexual abuse is merely the beginning, not the end, of the analysis.

By Carolyn Edgar

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Lena Dunham National Review Not That Kind Of Girl