November 4, 2014 / News

Lena Dunham’s Troubling Memoir

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The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

I’ve been hearing buzz about Lena Dunham’s new memoir Not That Kind Of Girl for a while. It started with the revelation that she was raped in college, and creatively revealed it in the book in two parts – one as a straight story, and one exposing herself as an unreliable narrator in the first story.Lena_Dunham_TFF_2012_Shankbone_2
But the book buzz changed tone over the weekend when Truth Revolt published an article titled Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister where they shared a passage from her new book that described an interaction betweenLena, who was seven, and her sister Grace, who was one.

One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. 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.

In a string of tweets, Lena defended her book and herself.

 

I can’t say with absolute certainty that Lena was or is a predator, but I can tell you that classifying this as just a story about a “weird 7 year old” is not enough of an explanation. This interaction goes beyond normal childhood curiosity. The age difference alone catapults the situation into a different category than childhood exploration. And the fact that Grace was only one year old removes it from any possibility of being a case of children exploring together. At one year old, Grace was not able to consent, or to participate. The story, as Lena describes it, is a child who was old enough to understand her actions, touching and spreading open her baby sister’s vagina.

The way Lena describes it, her words sound exactly like the words of a predator. “I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist…” She didn’t resist. As if that means Grace was somehow giving consent to this action.

And later, as Lena describes her mother removing the pebbles, she says, “Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.” It is as if we should assume Grace had planned this all along. Grace is the one who put pebbles in her vagina (although that seems highly unlikely given her age), and Grace is happy to have Lena discover them so her prank can be a success.

Lena’s account gives all the power in the story to a one year old who clearly had no power. Not this this instance, or in instances described later in the book.Here’s another story about Dunham and her sister from Not That Kind Of Girl:

 

As she grew, I took to bribing her time and affection: one dollar in quarters if I could do her makeup like a “motorcycle chick.” Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just “relax on me.” Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl, I was trying.

I’m not sure what “relax on me” means, but in the context she is presenting it, it paints a very troubling picture.
And if doing “anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl” to her sister wasn’t enough, she also recounts masturbating as she lay in bed next to her.

 

I shared a bed with my sister, Grace, until I was seventeen years old. She was afraid to sleep alone and would begin asking me around 5:00 P.M. every day whether she could sleep with me. I put on a big show of saying no, taking pleasure in watching her beg and sulk, but eventually I always relented. Her sticky, muscly little body thrashed beside me every night as I read Anne Sexton, watched reruns of SNL, sometimes even as I slipped my hand into my underwear to figure some stuff out.

To hear Lena and her champions talk about it, this is all some right-wing conspiracy to paint her in a bad light, because the excerpt was first published on a conservative site. (Dunham has since sent a cease and desist letter to this site.)

This is not a question of conservative or liberal political beliefs, though, and making it such only serves to dismiss a serious story, and somehow make Lena the victim.

Grace seemingly responded to this situation on twitter Monday afternoon with this series of tweets:

 

 

 

Grace seems to have missed the point of the outrage as surely as Lena did.

In the past, Grace has been quoted as saying, “Without getting into specifics, most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.” The response fromLena being, “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.”

It seems to me that Grace should be more concerned with her sister than the state or media. Lena is the one who is publicly narrating Grace’s experiences. Lena is the one who has been engaging in a battle for control of Grace’s body and Grace’s stories since she was an infant.

I wasn’t there when Lena spread her sister’s vagina. I wasn’t there when she bribed her for prolonged kisses and groomed her like a sexual predator. I wasn’t there when seventeen year old Lena masturbated while sharing a bed with her young sister. I can’t quantify what has or has not been harmful in Grace’s life.

But the fact I wasn’t there is no excuse to brush this story away. Now that Lena has put it into the public sphere, it has far-reaching consequences.

We can not, as a society, read the story of a one year old’s vagina being spread open, and brush it off as childish weirdness. We can not stay silent as Grace seems to portray this incident as one that is being challenged on the grounds of the state and media’s need to promote only heteronormativite behaviors as normal.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I must reply to Grace Dunham that I am committed to the rights of children to not be abused, assaulted, or sexualized in any way. I will always defend the practice of policing what is done to innocent children. Taking the focus off of what is surely a question only of child sexual abuse and making it about homosexuality versus heteronomative behavior is disgusting. What constitutes normal experiences between adults is something that can be discussed and torn apart all day long in a separate conversation. Consenting adults can do as they please.
This is not a story of consenting adults.
This is the story of a one year old girl who could not give consent to having her vagina spread open by her older sister. This is the story of a little girl who was bribed and groomed by an older sister. This is the story of an eleven year old girl whose presence was made a part of her older sister’s masturbatory routine. And with these as the stories Lena chose to share with us, I have to wonder what happened to Grace in the stories is she not sharing.

Even if we were to accept that all three of these stories are embellished or fabricated as part of Lena’s intention to be an unreliable narrator, as people have said in her defense (which is strange in light of the fact she has billed this book as a memoir), I have to wonder – why these stories? What is this obsession with her sister? In what realm is it okay to fabricate and then disseminate stories about your sister being sexually abused when she was a child? Would that not be its own type of abuse?

Lena’s own tweet points to her standing by this story as true.

 

Not that the story as she described it in her book was as simple as a child looking at another child’s vagina in an innocent way. And, let us all remember that this was not an isolated incident. Lena has given us the description of a pattern of inappropriate and systematically predatory behavior towards her sister.

While there are many questions surrounding this situation and this book, what is not at question is the fact that the story, as described by Lena, is a narrative of a child being sexually abused. We can not give Lena Dunham a pass because she has a hit show, she is a woman, or she and her family are artistic. We must not make allowances for any “normalization” of sexual abuse. We must always stand up in the face of child abuse and predatory behavior, and call it exactly what it is.

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