Updated: Jul 7, 2020
Few artists have had as profound an effect on my life as Louis C.K.
I watched his special “Shameless” when I was 13 years old (ten years ago, Holy Christ!) In January, I saw his show "2017" live in Portland. His stand-up - the mechanics of his delivery and his unique yet conversational way of turning everyday life into comedy - changed the way I think and inspired me to do stand-up comedy as a hobby.
That’s what makes the revelations of his sexual harassment of several women so personally hurtful.
Now, the first thing we should all do when an accuser comes forward is to really listen to them, even if we don’t want to believe it. In a world as lopsided as ours, our reaction shouldn’t be to assume that someone would come forward with an allegation of sexual assault just for slander, kicks or fame.
I wish I could say that was my first reaction. But, in reality, because the man means so much to me and who I consider myself to be, my knee-jerk reaction was to look for ways to forgive rather than rebuke. And that made me feel even worse.
It’s hard to lose a hero, but that’s no reason to be a part of the problem.
The accusers, whether their abuser admits to the misdeeds or not - as Louis C. K. finally did on Nov. 10 - deserve our support. That’s the only way to fix the toxic, male-centric reality of our society and our institutions.
That said, I’m still left with this hole in my chest that a personal hero of mine - someone whose art shaped who I am - could have done these things.
Does this mean I shouldn’t watch his comedy anymore? Should I not take cues as a writer from the influence he had on me?
Well, that’s complicated and I think it’s a distinction that varies from person to person.
I don’t think it’s possible or right to completely eschew his influence on me or on the world of entertainment.
While I came to admire the man through his art, it was his expertise at his craft that truly influenced me. I may never look at the man or his work in the same way again, but that doesn’t mean that his comedy’s fingerprints aren’t still all over my formative years.
The heroes in our minds usually are not indicative of the fallible and imperfect people they really are.
I don’t mean that as an excuse for an abuser’s behavior, just a remark on the fact that we humans live - and have always lived - in an unequal world, where people are allowed to be assholes without suffering consequences, immediate or otherwise.
Call it ironic, but one of Louie’s bits comes to mind: “You know when you say to someone, ‘You’re being an asshole’ and they say, ‘No, I’m not!’? Well it’s not up to you! It’s up to everybody else.”
To forsake one reality for the other is to intentionally misremember, and that’s all too tempting to do for our heroes, no matter if it’s ignoring their abuse or ignoring their influence.
What's equally important is how we’re each individually willing to remember both sides of that legacy.
Sure, I’ll continue to watch his stand-up, his films, his TV shows, but they’ll be viewed through a different lens than how I watched them before, as they should be. The same jokes about masturbation that once caused guffaws may inspire a grimace now.
I’ve been guilty myself of being a dumb man who's pressured, persisted and made advances instead of taking “no” for an answer.
It doesn’t matter if I intended that behavior to be innocent or that it didn't cross the line into criminality - not to the person who may have felt harassed or humiliated by it.
I’ve since educated myself and changed my actions and my thinking, but I’ve long promised myself that I wouldn’t consider my prior mistakes to be those of a different person. I may have changed, but that’s still a part of who I am. I did those things. Forgetting that is to give in to the mentality that allows such behavior to thrive in the first place.
And even still, that’s the privilege I’m bestowed with as a man in this society. I don’t have to live with the trauma or the damage that I may have caused. I get to choose to change or not and move on.
The hardest thing I have to reconcile is my own attachment to a man who's been proven to be an abuser. I don't have to imagine what that abuse would be like directed at me.
That’s why I feel the least I can do is remember how bad that makes me feel and not shy away from my red-faced guilt at doing so.
If these last few months prove anything, it’s that we should all remember that we too are shaped by this abuser’s world we live in.
To the question of whether we can or should separate the person from their work or an artist from their art, I honestly don’t claim to have the right answer.
But I think I know what the answer is for me.
I could stop watching Louis C.K.’s work. Or, I could embrace the fact that the difficulty in watching his material now is precisely what’s difficult about changing the patriarchy we live in.
It’s a reminder of what seems so insurmountable about speaking out against an abuse, of holding powerful people accountable for their actions, and of realizing that it shouldn’t take a personal experience for us to be personally offended that abuse is so prevalent.
We live in a world where great artists and entertainers can do horrible things and still be successful, even adored. That’s the truth that will play over and over again in my mind while I watch his work now.
For me, that’s the right thing to do.
For others, it may be too painful. And that’s okay, too.