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So Here We Are: The Langauge of Talking About Abuse in the Theater

You guys, I’m still really struggling with this New York Times article by Patrick Healy about Marin Ireland, and the proposals in front of Actor’s Equity for improving “protocols for registering and handling grievances about harassment in the theater.” I’m struggling with it, because it’s a good thing, and I want (need) to support good things, but it’s also… It doesn’t really feel right. It’s a little hard to celebrate.

Because here a The Craptacular we’ve known, for nearly three years now, about the incident between Ireland and Scott Shepherd. And the story we’ve heard (time and again, from sources that we cannot name) is much fuller and more disturbing than what the New York Times reported. The incident involves Shepherd striking Ireland, yes. But it also involves more than just a black eye, and it involves him forcibly refusing to allow her to leave his presence after he gave her that black eye, intimidating her while she was isolated an ocean away from home.

And I know. I know. That some of this is just… issues of journalism and ethics and the rules at the New York Times. That in a story like this, the Times can likely only report things that their fact-checkers can confirm with both parties. And that, on top of that, the story is really supposed to be about the proposal in front of Equity, more than the incident that inspired Ireland to take action. The article isn’t actually about Ireland. It’s about the proposals. And I also know that publishing any detail about the incident that is even remotely questionable would create doubt for some readers and ultimately distract from the larger point of the article.

(Lucky and I have certainly learned the hard way that the technical details of someone’s behavior and/or conviction and subsequent legal status can very easily distract from the real argument at hand. A fact that seems especially prominent in discussions of gender, sexism and misogyny, but I digress.)

But I keep coming back to this one fact: As a reader, and a woman, I hate how the Times article portrays the incident. Because it makes it sound like it’s sort of… not a big deal. And worse, like it’s something Ireland kind of asked for.

Stripped of additional context, and boiled down to a series of only three events that Shepherd and Ireland both agreed upon, the situation is presented as thus:

1. They had been ‘arguing about their relationship.’
2. Ireland slapped Shepherd.
3. Several days later, Shepherd struck Ireland, knocking her over and giving her a black eye.

And because the events are presented in isolation, and in that specific order, the first two facts color the readers’ perception of the third fact. They allow you to view this behavior as the natural progression of a set of arguments that had gotten a bit out of control. So as a reader, you’re allowed to think, “Well, they were fighting. And she hit him first! So I mean, obviously he hit her back. And that’s bad because he hit her worse, and she had a black eye, so yeah, bad. But really, she hit him first, so…”

It allows you to think “she was asking for it.”

Which is maybe my least favorite phrase in basically all of the world. We see it in the discussion of rape and sexual assault all the damn time. (What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Did she flirt? Has she slept with other people before?) And here we’re seeing it in the discussion of physical abuse. Ugh. Just… ugh. We have to stop talking about abuse this way.

As if there isn’t a right and a wrong. As if a man — who is much larger than his opponent, and who has training in how to fight — didn’t know he shouldn’t be violently laying his hands on someone smaller and weaker. As if the other details of this story are not publishable because the perpetrator won’t agree to that particular description of how he made his victim feel.

I don’t care that Scott Shepherd says he’s sorry. Abusers always say they’re sorry. It’s part of how they keep their victims around, so they can continue to abuse them. Abuse is a cycle.

And maybe Shepherd is sorry. Maybe that was an isolated incident and he’d never done it before and he’ll never do it again. But it is also possible to make decisions, as adults, that we can never fully recover from. And there is a right and a wrong. There’s wrong and there’s more wrong. And the world is a pretty fucked up place if we can’t report on an incident of abuse without getting full agreement from both parties.

Because we always report on all crimes that way, right? We always make sure we only include the details both the perpetrator and the victim agree upon. We report on muggings and beatings and murders that way, right? Because usually murder victims have asked for it. Same goes for people who’ve been mugged, right? …OH WAIT.

So yeah. I feel shitty about the reporting in this Times story. I’m glad — so glad — that it’s being reported on at all. Glad that the Times used their audience to shine a spotlight on this bit of news that could easily be taken as like… inside-baseball industry stuff and thus, be completely ignored.

And I’m fucking floored by Ireland. Awed by the bravery it takes to share a deeply private piece of her deeply private personal struggle and use that to fuel the fight for real, valuable social change. There is a courage in that which I am very seriously unable to articulate.

But that article was a bit difficult for me to swallow. And it felt important to talk about that here. Because it’s important to see the ways in which the world makes these kinds of battles so difficult to fight. The ways in which this world makes it difficult for women to stand up for themselves, to protect themselves, and to help the women around them, too. And jesus, don’t even get me started on intersectionality, and how this would have been different or worse or a thousand other things if Ireland (or Shepherd, for that matter) hadn’t been white.

Or maybe do, I don’t know. The point is, I want us to talk about these things. But I want us to talk about them in real ways. Ways that don’t massively fail victims and protect perpetrators. And the only way I know how to start anymore is just to… do it. So here we are.

[Article originally published on 3/18/2015, updated on 4/27/2015 to clarify descriptions of the domestic abuse incident between Ireland and Shepherd and the surrounding circumstances.]

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