2015 has been a rough year for sacred cows. The revival in the public interest of multiple rape accusations against Bill Cosby, triggered by an offhand remark from comedian Hannibal Buress at a stand-up show last October, grew until it reached a fever pitch with July’s New York magazine cover story featuring 35 of Cosby’s accusers; now, America’s estranged dad is back in court, facing depositions for sexual abuse for the first time in a decade. Then, just last month, Lou Reed biographer Howard Sounes revealed the proto-punk icon’s history of abusive behavior against at least two girlfriends and wives (and, uh, David Bowie), telling the Daily Beast, “the obituaries were a bit too kind, he was really a very unpleasant man. A monster really; I think truly the word monster is applicable.”
On the surface, it would be hard to imagine two men less alike than Cosby and Reed: the former a pillar (or so we thought) of the African American community, known for his aggressive positions on family values and respectability politics; the latter among alternative rock’s most debauched and acerbic figures, who once described himself unflatteringly (and not entirely inaccurately) as a “fuckin’ faggot junkie.” Today, however, they can be said to share at least two things in common (or three, counting their apparently mutual interest in Quaaludes): towering influence in their respective fields, and histories of egregious behavior toward women. So why does the shift in public opinion about Cosby feel to me like a victory, while the corresponding one for Reed feels like, at best, a missed opportunity for empathy and understanding?
Before we answer that question, it is of course important to note that this kind of change in the discourse around famous-but-problematic men–to whose ranks we can also add Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly, and a depressingly high number of others–can only be seen as good news overall. Much of the reason Cosby in particular was able to prey on women for as long as he did was because we live in a culture that does not respect those women’s voices; a culture that will value the public reputation of a man like Bill Cosby over the private traumas of literally dozens of his victims. The most critical part of Buress’ now-infamous stand-up routine was that he wasn’t telling us anything we shouldn’t have already known: rumors and accusations of Cosby’s predatory behavior had been in the public knowledge since at least the mid-2000s, but few paid attention because they’d simply rather not have believed it. Even now, one gets the sense that the tide turned against Cosby only because of the sheer number of his accusers; seemingly for every expression of disenchantment and disgust with the venerable comic patriarch, there have also been–and continue to be–handwringing defenses of his cultural “legacy,” by everyone from former Cosby Show castmate Phylicia Rashad to Public Enemy‘s Chuck D. So, let’s be clear: any change in cultural priorities that results in women’s voices being taken more seriously is a change for the better.
But part of the problem with the outrage over Reed is that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with women’s voices at all. Since Sounes’ initial, publicity-grabbing interview, we’ve heard from Sylvia Ramos, Reed’s ex-wife and manager during the 1980s, who said the man described in Sounes’ book was “not a person I recognize.” Nor has Laurie Anderson, his partner and then wife from 1992 until his death in 2013, spoken up with any evidence of what Sounes called his “clear” pattern of misogynistic behavior. Of course, none of this can or should erase the violence Sounes describes in Reed’s earlier relationships, with first wife Bettye Kronstad–who he “one time” gave a black eye–or with the unnamed girlfriend he publicly struck during his college days. Yet it seems like the real story of Lou Reed, the one worth remembering, isn’t that he was a “monster,” but that he was a man who, by the last few decades of his life, managed to tame his most monstrous impulses.
Maybe the reason–okay, definitely the reason–why this story troubles me so much is because it resonates with me personally. I’ve never given a woman a black eye, but I’ve exhibited behavior in past relationships that came uncomfortably close to what Kronstad described when she said Reed would, “like, pin you up against a wall… Tussle you… shake you.” It’s also no coincidence that these episodes came during a time when I, like Reed, was struggling with mental illness: Reed, as Sounes himself notes, was diagnosed as bipolar, and even subjected to electro-shock therapy after a mental breakdown during his first year of college (the same time, incidentally, when my most serious symptoms emerged). His emotional problems were compounded by a near-lifelong battle with substance abuse–this detail he and I thankfully don’t share–including serious addictions to heroin, methamphetamine, and alcohol. Obviously, none of this excuses Reed’s past violence against women–or mine, for that matter. But it does suggest that Reed, and other men like him–like us–suffered less from an endemic and irreversible misogyny than from the personal demons that, in our society, almost inevitably manifest themselves in the form of toxic masculinity.
Not, of course, that Reed would ever say so much out loud. Unlike, for example, John Lennon–another Boomer-era “sacred cow” whose public image has recently grown tarnished over his self-confessed violence against women–Reed never issued any mea culpas, but was all too willing to let his dour public image speak for itself; as another former manager, Danny Fields, reflected to the New York Times after leafing through the Sounes book, “Poor Lou, his act worked too well.” Still, the evidence of Reed’s struggles are right there in his lyrics. On “My Old Man,” from his uncharacteristically confessional 1980 album Growing Up in Public, he describes idolizing his father as a child, until he grew up and got “sick of his bullying and having to hide under a desk on the floor / And when he beat my mother it made me so mad I could choke.” The song’s climax is as self-aware a description of the intergenerational cycle of abuse as I’ve ever heard in a pop song: “A son watches his father being cruel to his mother, and makes a vow to return only when / He is so much richer, in every way so much bigger that the old man will never hit anyone again.”
None of which is to say that Lou Reed was a saint–or even a great person, for that matter. Mining the lyrics from 1984’s New Sensations also gives us “Endlessly Jealous,” a deceptively bouncy snapshot of the narrator’s internal monologue in a moment of domestic violence: “I feel my fingers tightening / Tightening, please don’t break her arm.” And “Don’t Hurt a Woman,” from Mistrial in 1986 (you’re forgiven if you missed out on that one), is about as self-explanatory a title as it gets. But the image of Reed that I, at least, perceive in these frankly self-lacerating songs isn’t an inhuman “monster” with contempt for women, but an almost excessively human being at war with his own emotions. For someone like me, who’s spent a good amount of time in a remarkably similar state of mind, it’s almost comforting to see an artist of Reed’s stature grappling with his worst tendencies–especially considering that he was, by all appearances, fully at peace with himself in his last days: living happily with his partner of 21 years, even doing tai chi, for Christ’s sake, which seems a lot less funny when you consider how much more balanced it seemed to have made him as a person.
Again: we live in a rape culture that is hostile toward women who have been victimized by men–never more so than when those men are rich, powerful, and/or culturally revered. That much is not in dispute. But the backlash against Lou Reed in the wake of Sounes’ biography doesn’t feel like a victory against rape culture, so much as an example of “call-out culture“: a low-stakes, seemingly righteous pillorying of a problematic but complex public figure, for which, writer and activist Asam Ahmad writes, “the act of calling out is seen as an end in itself.” What do we gain, really, from branding Lou Reed as a “monster” two years after his death? His victims don’t seem to need our support; even Kronstad, who has a lot more right to hold grudges than any of us, recently wrote of being “blindsided by grief” when she heard of Reed’s passing. And, unlike Cosby–or Lennon, for that matter–Reed doesn’t even have a spotless public persona to dismantle in the name of hypocrisy: we already knew he was addicted to hard drugs for much of his life, and that he was vitriolic and even cruel to many of the people around him; does knowing that he also hit women during this same period really make him any worse a role model than he was in the first place?
On the other hand, by recognizing Reed for who he was–a troubled and difficult human being who, by the end, had learned to live both with himself and with women–we productively acknowledge the potential for monstrous behavior in all of us; and we maybe even offer a positive example for men, like me, who have struggled with similar behaviors in our own lives. Because, if the great sacred cow slaughters of 2015 have taught us anything, it’s that the real “monsters” don’t struggle with themselves, and they aren’t so easily called out: they are, more often than not, people we trust–people who don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, even when the evidence is staring them in the face. So let’s save our call-outs and our opprobrium for those men, and let the redeemable ones have their redemption. If we want men to change–and I, for one, certainly do–then we first have to allow that such change is possible.