Last night, amid rumors of an impending revelation about a leading figure in the restaurant industry, Anthony Bourdain posted this cryptic and reflective tweet:
This might be the question that is haunting all of us news-watchers these days. Every day there is a new story breaking about someone famous who turns out to have an off-camera life that’s littered with cruelty and misdeeds. Al Franken. Matt Lauer. Louis C.K. Harvey Weinstein. Donald Trump. And lurking like shadows from a not too distant past, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby.
Today, the name is Mario Batali.
These are are people we have “known” for decades, our psyches conflating their images on our screens with real relationships. The mind cannot always separate real friends from fictional. This is why old grammas ask for prayers for their favorite soap opera characters in church.
But, be the friendships real or something more imaginary, the point here is really the one Anthony Bourdain made: where do we stand when people we love and admire do terrible things? And what debt do we all owe the people they have harmed?
I think I’ve told this story before but it’s been a while. Bear with me if you’ve heard it before.
A number of years ago, a family friend was found murdered. Her husband – also a close friends of my family – strangled her to death. He had intended to kill their dog and then himself. He failed to kill the dog. He lost the nerve to kill himself. Instead, he called the police and told them what happened.
This was not a couple that ever would have raised eyebrows. There was no undercurrent of abuse or power imbalance in their relationship. This was not a man with a history of cruelty to humans or animals in his past. These were two loving, gentle people whose greatest joy in life was music. To say this incident was a shock to everyone in the community would be an understatement.
There has been endless speculation about why this happened. I won’t engage in any more of that because it doesn’t even matter now. It’s an act in the past and no words will change it. Instead, I want to talk about the nature of friendship and justice when a friend commits an atrocity.
The husband in this story is still serving out his 16 year jail sentence. That was the deal he took for pleading guilty to the crime to which he had already admitted. Speaking as a person who knew him, who sang beside him, who laughed with him, I can say without a doubt that prison is where he belongs. That is what justice demands. He needs to atone for what he did to another beloved member of our lives. He took away my friend and nothing will bring her back and he has to pay for that. I have no mixed feelings about his punishment.
Meanwhile, for most of the prison term, my mother has been in contact with him. They exchange letters. She buys him a magazine subscription. She feels this is her responsibility as a long-time friend. Because that’s what they are. His atrocity doesn’t wipe out the very real history of him as a gentle, funny man who loved to make music.
Does friendship mean forgiveness? No. I don’t think any of us have forgiven him. We certainly haven’t forgotten what he did. None of us are agitating for him to be released. He is where he belongs. But should be be friendless in prison? My mother says no. She had to look atrocity in the eye and balance friendship and justice. This is what she decided was right.
Which brings us to the present day and the men from our world, men for whom we have carried a strange affection built only on one side, men who we are finding are not what we thought. We now have to look their atrocities in the eye and decide how we balance friendship – or fandom – and justice. We have to ask ourselves how to balance the history of our feelings with new facts about these people and, most importantly of all, how to serve the needs of the people they have harmed.
We disregard the victims of these famous men all too often because we don’t have the relationships with them. They are faceless and voiceless except as instruments to disturb our feelings about these men. But the scales of justice need to be balanced for them. Not for the men. Not for us. It needs to be about what is fairest to them as the ones truly hurt by all of this.
The story of my friend the murderer is somewhat simpler than these stories are. He admitted to his crime and the criminal justice system took the matter of punishment out of the hands of those who loved him. We never had to question whether he did the horrible thing nor did we have to be the arbiters of justice for his act. However, as Anthony Bourdain is now finding out, as Savannah Guthrie alluded to on the day Matt Lauer was fired, with these men accused of sexual misconduct toward many, many women, we, as the friends and audience, are forced to act as judge and jury ourselves, because there is no system in place to implement clear cut justice for us.
Is it justice enough for the victims to know Harvey Weinstein is a branded a monster who lost his movie empire? Can we now watch his films anyway, like sending letters to a murderer? Is the disgrace justice enough to leave us room to maintain the friendship?
What about Al Fraknen? He has lost his office, can we still acknowledge the good he did while he held it or does that do disservice to the women he harmed?
What about Woody Allen, who has lost nothing despite the accusations leveled against him? Is abandoning his art the only means we have of getting justice for the child he hurt?
Can there be justice for Donald Trump or Roy Moore when only half of the audience built around them seems willing to acknowledge their crimes at all? Many of us would mete out justice by shunning them but they exist in a realm that doesn’t allow that. We pay their salaries, quite literally, and their choices affect us directly, their actions a legacy on our country. Their accusers will never be served.
How do we tread this line between friendship and justice when our friends are still the people they always were but are also people we would never have befriended had we known? I only know the process of taking two truths about a person and doing the work to live with both of them. A person can be a good person and a terrible person all at once. That is not a comfortable notion. It’s easier to forgive or condemn than it is to live with the dichotomy.
But really, justice isn’t about us, is it? It’s not about our discomfort and it’s not about our friendships. Justice needs to be about the accusers. What do we owe them in all of these scenarios? What will balance the scales for them?
I don’t know how to answer this looming question. I just know the question and maybe that’s the way to begin.