TV & Movies

Lena Dunham Is Not a Child Molester

The author lands in the middle of a controversy after a salacious headline goes viral—is click-bait “journalism” killing the personal essay?

2014 Bookexpo America - Day 3

Dunham at the 2014 Book Expo America (Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Sister

This nonsense headline, which appeared on the website Truth Revolt last week, reveals how the Internet’s predominantly reactive culture is destroying the genre of confessional writing. Which is to say that it willfully exploits the genre’s long tradition of sharing private, complex human behaviours for trumped-up click-bait “controversies.”

Dunham is just the latest victim in the battle to reduce all cultural conversations to indignant rants in which no one seems to keep a cool or critical head. The article takes a passage in Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl as evidence that the Girls creator sexually abused her baby sister.

Here’s the passage cited:

“Do we all have uteruses?” I asked my mother when I was seven.

“Yes,” she told me. “We’re born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren’t ready to make babies until we’re older.” I look at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte’s Web, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.

“Does her vagina look like mine?”

“I guess so,” my mother said. “Just smaller.”

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.

Take Dunham to task for failing to set up the episode as well as she could have—that’s valid criticism. But to characterize it as an example of sexual abuse is irresponsible. It also just plain misses the point of the piece. Dunham’s tale is not an admission of abuse; it’s an example of the innocence that characterizes childhood. Its power is derived from the fact that a seven-year-old wouldn’t know or understand that looking at her sister’s vagina is kind of creepy.

Within the context of childhood curiosity, Dunham’s anecdote, squirm-inducing or not, is pretty much par for the ‘kooky kid’ course and is the kind of ‘I-can’t-believe-you-did-that!’ story that becomes part of family folklore. Any adult who either has a child or who accurately recalls being one understands this fact immediately.

Truth Revolt’s sensational headline and the reaction it generated—Dunham not only went into a “rage spiral” on her Twitter page, but she may have even cancelled some appearances on her book tour as a result—is really the more disturbing piece of writing.

Who knows what kind of self-censorship goes on now among writers and would-be Dunhams out of fear of provoking the seemingly inevitable unthinking backlash? That’s bad news for writers and readers. And if we don’t stop taking the click-bait we’re going to strip the personal essay of its power and lose a generation of provocative voices. If that happens, we’ll lose yet another essential avenue through which we are able to connect with each other and forge a more complete understanding of who and what we are.