How can Louis C.K. be honest and awful at the same time?

Image: Mashable. Including a very strange choice of ad.

Five women accused comedian Louis C.K. of sexual abuse. Unlike most people in this situation, he denied nothing and took responsibility. So how did he still get it wrong?

According to the New York Times, since 2002, Louis C.K. has on several different occasions asked women he worked with permission to masturbate in front of them, or appeared to masturbate while on the phone with them. (It disgusts me to have to write that sentence, but we need to get the facts straight here.) The article cites accounts from five women, four of whom were quoted by name.

Unlike most abusers and harassers, Louis C.K. begins his apology with “These stories are true.” This level of honesty in an apology is disarming. As a result, some analyzing his statement have praised it. On Quartz, Thu-Huong Ha said “Given that his career is premised on candor about his uncontrollable depravity, his response is in line with what his fans expected: An admission of his failings, which implicitly include the decades he spent inadequately addressing them.” There’s plenty of criticism, as well; Mashable pointed out “everything wrong with it.” and three other writers on Quartz actually edited the statement.

What’s right and wrong about the Louis C.K. statement

Here’s the full statement. Read this (if you can) and then ask yourself, if you were a woman who experienced this behavior, how would you feel? I’ve added bold italics — after you read it I’ll explain that part.

I want to address the stories told to The New York Times by five women named Abby, Rebecca, Dana, Julia who felt able to name themselves and one who did not.

These stories are true. At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And run from them. Now I’m aware of the extent of the impact of my actions. I learned yesterday the extent to which I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position. I also took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community, which disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t think that I was doing any of that because my position allowed me not to think about it. There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with. I wish I had reacted to their admiration of me by being a good example to them as a man and given them some guidance as a comedian, including because I admired their work.

The hardest regret to live with is what you’ve done to hurt someone else. And I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them. I’d be remiss to exclude the hurt that I’ve brought on people who I work with and have worked with who’s professional and personal lives have been impacted by all of this, including projects currently in production: the cast and crew of Better Things, Baskets, The Cops, One Mississippi, and I Love You, Daddy. I deeply regret that this has brought negative attention to my manager Dave Becky who only tried to mediate a situation that I caused. I’ve brought anguish and hardship to the people at FX who have given me so much The Orchard who took a chance on my movie. and every other entity that has bet on me through the years. I’ve brought pain to my family, my friends, my children and their mother.

I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen. Thank you for reading.

Here are a few things I noticed about this this statement:

  • It is written in simple, honest, personal, active-voice sentences. This is why it is disarming — it comes from a place free from lawyers and PR practitioners, obviously written directly by Louis C.K. himself with only a minimal amount of self-editing and reflection. Starting with “These stories are true” is shocking in a piece like this — I’ve never read anything like it in another apology.
  • It honestly addresses the people that he hurt. Most apologies shy away from that recognition. Louis C.K. cites the five women and the smoking crater that is all that remains of his career, leaving devastation in its wake for all the movies and television shows he is involved with and the hundreds of people who work on those projects.
  • It reflects the fact that this man thought that it was acceptable to ask permission from a woman with whom he had a professional relationship to masturbate in front of her. The thought process is both obvious and disturbing. “I like masturbating. I like women. I think I would like masturbating in front of women. These women respect me, so this is an opportunity. I will ask their permission, so this is ok.” This is fundamentally screwed up, and reflects how Louis C.K.’s ideas about sex are completely in touch with his animal nature, a characteristic of his comedy. But it also completely perverts the idea of a normal nonsexual relationship between colleagues, and of the fact that the power dynamic makes this abuse. The parts that I put in bold italic are the sentences that reflect Louis C.K. coming to the belated conclusion that, yes, this was abuse.
  • It expresses regret without saying “I’m sorry.” Perhaps Louis C.K. felt that “I’m sorry” is a cliche. It’s not. Say it.
  • It is written completely in the first person. Here are the only two sentences that are not about Louis C.K.: “These stories are true.” “It’s a predicament for them.” That’s it. The whole rest of the statement is about Louis C.K. himself — who he is, how he feels, how sorry he is, what he did, and how he hurt other people. The personal statements of regret and responsibility are admirable. The explanations are horrifying. The constant repetition of “I” “me” and “my” is indulgent and ultimately, offensive in a statement about the impact on other people.

Yes, there are thing you can learn from here

Of course, the first thing to learn is “No, it’s not ok to show your genitals to others that you work with, even if you ask permission first.” That ought to be obvious, and if you don’t understand it already, I can’t help you.

But just because what Louis C.K. did is incomprehensibly wrong, doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from what he wrote.

If you need to apologize, and I sure hope it’s not for anything like this, do honestly admit what you did wrong, as Louis C.K. did. If you start with “What I did is this, and it was wrong,” you’re on the right track.

Do address the people you hurt, directly.

Do write some sentences that start with “I” and take direct and personal responsibility for your mistake.

Do not go into detail explaining why you thought it was ok at the time.

Do not make every sentence about you.

And do explain what you or your company are going to do to fix the problem.

Please stop

I care about women and it pains me to read these constant accounts of how people have taken advantage of their power over women in the workplace.

My cross to bear — analyzing these flawed and awful apologies — is nothing compared to what these victims have gone through. But I’d really like it if you all would stop behaving like asses and then apologizing. Just stop, ok. It makes me sick.

I’d like to get back to analyzing normal corporate and political malfeasance, rather than plumbing the sewer of the worst of male behavior.

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  1. Great post, Josh.

    One thing I’m struck by is the astounding level of narcissism these so-called apologies bring to light. I knew some of these perpetrators were flawed but I just didn’t realize how much. It’s certainly helping me understand more about what happened to me all those years in the car business.

    This part was especially compelling to me: “It also completely perverts the idea of a normal nonsexual relationship between colleagues, and of the fact that the power dynamic makes this abuse.” I have lived this scenario many times and I hope to never encounter it again.

  2. How much can you ascribe LCK’s private persona to the public persona? If I remember correctly, LCK says in his routines and other performances that he likes to masturbate in front of women and has problems with women. Why would folks expect him to be different in private? I think he is less of an actor than a revealer.

    What is the real power of admiration? It was not clear from the apology or the news reporting if LCK had any real power of the women other than admiration. If that is the only power, do we look at my question one differently?

    What do you make of Courteney Cox and David Arquette’s confirmation of a 2005 incident that does seem to be coworker sexual harassment case? (Yes, I realize that contradicts the admiration statement in his apology.) I wonder if they handled it properly?

    How does one translate a work relationship into a personal relationship? Work is a prime place for adults to find folks for personal relationships. Is the power dynamic the key to the answer?

    1. You’re full of questions today, Norman.

      The topic is Louis C.K.’s apology, not what he did in 2005. He’s already admitted he did what these women have accused him of doing.

      In show business, successful people have the power to help less successful people. This is the established power dynamic.

      And while there are shades of grey in the workplace, I don’t think “I’d like to masturbate in front of you” is in a grey area. It that how you would turn a work relationship into a personal relationship? I hope not!