After facing intense scrutiny – most notably a lengthy, brutal and widely circulated takedown on Breitbart – Lena Dunham and her publisher are reportedly editing a passage in her bestselling "Not That Kind of Girl" regarding her account of a college sexual assault. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to believe that if a publisher is doling out $3.7 million for a book, it would have done a more thorough job running it through fact-checking and legal before publishing it. Then again, if you'd told me a month ago the venerable Rolling Stone would run a lengthy feature on campus rape without a thorough investigation into the account of the person at the center of it, or would shruggingly state that its trust in its subject was "misplaced," I would have had my doubts. RIP, editorial oversight. You will be sorely missed.
Aaron Minc, an attorney for the man known in Dunham's book as "Barry," told the Hollywood Reporter Monday that he "has been in contact with Dunham's lawyers at Ziffren Brittenham in Los Angeles who assure him that future printings of the book will come with a disclaimer that 'Barry' is not the real name of the man who raped Dunham." In the book, Dunham -- who also admits she's an "unreliable narrator" -- describes a nonconsensual encounter with a man who she says was Oberlin "campus's resident conservative." She describes his mustache, his cowboy boots, his college job and the year he graduated. But it wasn't until a man who not only fits the description but happens to be named Barry set up a legal fund and threatened a lawsuit that Dunham and Random House went into active damage control mode. A representative from the publisher said Monday that "The person many in the press have presumed was Barry the rapist is, in fact, not the person Dunham describes." Minc adds, "We were also looking for an edit to be made to the book, and it's my understanding that they are going to comply with that — to note that the name 'Barry' is a pseudonym." Not to split hairs here, but, shouldn't that have been noted in the first printing? Kind of like how writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her Rolling Stone editors should have done some more independent checking into the story of the woman known as "Jackie" before publishing it. Would have saved everybody a lot of trouble.
Checking facts takes time. Having someone or more than one someone read over your work, ask you questions about it, hold you accountable for it, also takes time. And time and questions and collaboration are increasingly rare commodities in publishing – which is damaging and dangerous for everybody.
Information is no longer doled out twice a day – once from the morning newspaper and once again from the evening newscaster. There are plenty of situations in which a rapidly developing story has to be written as the facts are still being determined, with the understanding that corrections and updates will be necessary. There are also plenty of stories that require only a light touch for accuracy. That's the way most news gets out there now, and that's fine. But if you're doing a deep, long-form feature, or writing a whole book, you're talking about a process that by its very nature is supposed to be working with far greater ethical rigor and within a much bigger system of checks and balances. So why are we asking how these kinds of things could happen? Why are serial plagiarists getting away with it? Why are editors not asking for stronger supporting evidence on explosive stories?
I didn't go to journalism school, so it's not as if I've spent my career clinging to generations-old ethical tenets parceled out in some intro to writing class. On the contrary, I started out in the free-for-all world of zines, where you could pretty much say whatever you wanted because only 12 people were ever going to read it anyway. I also, as an essayist and memoirist, respect that memory is mutable and one person's honest account of events may run contrary to someone else's. But it really shouldn't be an issue for a publisher to be looking at its content and asking, "How can we tell a story in a way that doesn't potentially hurt innocent people, that doesn't damage our institutional credibility?" Stuff like that.
As an author friend noted to me Tuesday, it would be surprising if Dunham's book hadn't gone through a serious read by her publisher's legal team – it's a standard process. As my pal says, "More likely they felt they were shielded by her statements (a legal clause in front and then in the text of the book itself) that she had changed names of guilty parties and didn't expect this level of scrutiny." Which is either hubris or ignorance. You don't roll out a rape anecdote in your book you paid a few million for and not go over that with a fine-tooth comb. A casual, well, hey, you know me, I'm an "unreliable narrator" doesn't cut it. I would really love to know if at any point any human actually sat down with Lena Dunham and asked, this guy you're talking about? Did he really host a radio show? Did he wear cowboy boots? Was his name Barry, by any chance? Did you know someone else who was named Barry, and would there be any confusion about that?
I believe that the Jackies and the Lenas of the world – every person who says he or she experienced sexual assault or abuse – deserve to be given a fair and respectful hearing. And that fair and respectful hearing should come from the writers and editors they collaborate with, doing the work of making sure facts check out and other people aren't unwittingly hurt in the telling. Anything less is careless and cowardly. And maybe it makes the job of publishing easier, but it makes the road harder for the next person, the one who actually wants to be a reliable narrator.