An essay by Karina Maria Cabreja for The Glow Up.
I was pissed.
I read Zinzi Clemmons’ tweet yesterday accusing Junot Díaz of sexual misconduct and thought, “Why the fuck would she do that?” I was pissed at her for putting down such a renowned public figure in the Dominican community. Then I felt an immediate pang of deep shame and guilt for thinking that way. I was so disappointed in myself and in him, especially after I’d forgiven him for being so rude to me when I interviewed him in 2016.
I’d read his essay in the New Yorker where he admitted to being raped as a young boy, causing him to be guarded and later affecting his romantic relationships. Díaz addressed the piece to a fan who’d asked him if he’d also undergone sexual assault, and apologized for his snide response. Since he specified that they’d met in Amherst, I knew it wasn’t about me, but I accepted the apology anyway because he hurt me in the same way.
I, too, was a bright-eyed 26-year-old anxiously waiting to interview one of my idols, yet he was reluctant to answer almost every question that came out of my mouth. My plan was to ask him personal questions because I wanted to get to know the real him—the him that inspired his complex works of art. But as soon as I let him know that we were going down the personal path, he closed up. He adjusted his “mask” and I felt the tension right away. To this day, I cringe when I revisit that interview. However, I felt closure after I read his bold admission because I understood why he’d treated me with disdain, and I empathized with him.
Hurt people hurt people.
But suddenly I had to re-evaluate my anger toward Clemmons and examine why I wanted—for even a brief second—to justify Díaz’s actions. I told my mom about wanting to write about my reaction; she metaphorically clutched her pearls and said, “No. Don’t do that! If you do, you better say he was very respectful towards you. Don’t add flames to the fire.”
That’s when it clicked: The root of the issue is in the way women are wired to think. It is a systematic modus operandi that has been passed down to us from generation to generation.
Junot Díaz was not respectful to me. He was condescending, sarcastic and mean; that’s the truth. More importantly, I blamed myself for his behavior. I chalked it up to biased questions and proselytization when, in reality, people are a reflection of their own demons. He was angry and annoyed throughout the entire interview and, I automatically felt responsible for his actions—similar to the way I’ve dealt with every one of my romantic relationships.
Even now, I feel partially responsible. That’s why I’m openly speaking about this; because the true enemy here is our mindset. Not all women think like me, but if you were raised in a Caribbean household, chances are that patriarchy was a predominant theme in your family dynamic. The craziest part is that my father was absent for most of my life; but still, here I am, trying to find the “other side” of Díaz’s wrongdoing.
I’m still trying to fix the way I think about men. And it’s really hard, but the first step for me was realizing where it came from: my heritage. Machismo in the Dominican Republic is as alive and powerful as the ocean that surrounds it. The femicide rate in the country is one of the highest in Latin America; women are treated as second-class citizens, and what’s worse is that most of them believe they deserve to be treated as the inferior party. My aunt’s eye was knocked out by the ex-husband she’s still in love with. She wears a glass eye and still can’t see that he was no good for her. She is a product of her environment, the same environment that constructs their laws to protect men—just like our minds do.
In the Dominican Republic, domestic violence is punishable by a maximum sentence of 30 years—but only if it results in death or an injury lasting more than 90 days. Rape victims are usually hesitant to report cases because of the lack of legal backing they receive. They are usually urged by police to get help from nongovernment organizations. Abortion is still illegal in the Dominican Republic, even in rape and incest cases. There’s an interesting saying in DR: “los primos se priman,” which loosely translates to “cousins get it on—all the time,” normalizing incest. Not to mention that women are paid 44 percent less for equal work and employers discriminate against women who are pregnant. And this is only scratching the surface of the DR justice system.
The events that take place in the household are far worse. Women are taught to serve, respect and revere the man of the house. Infidelity is tolerated and even expected in many cases—at least, for the men. My father has 17 daughters and two sons with 16 different women. Each of my uncles has three different families. My mother has raised two daughters on her own, climbed the ladder of corporate America and is generally progressive. Yet I remember like yesterday when she told me that the reason my cheating/abusive ex-boyfriend broke up with me was that “I partied too much.”
It’s not her fault. It’s how we’re taught to behave. It’s how women are programmed to think. “We deserve the way we’re treated,” is the message we continue to send and the cycle we keep perpetuating through our daughters.
Clemmons’ tweet triggered so many emotions: anger, shame, guilt and pain—in that order. Why do we keep protecting and excusing men for the way they exercise their male privilege? Why do we want to sweep these actions under the rug? How will we ever move forward as a society if we keep acting as if these actions and dynamics are normal?
In fact, during our interview, Díaz admitted to me that he didn’t believe men could overcome their male privilege individually. Ironically, he exclaimed that there has to be a collective shift in society in order to create this type of change:
I don’t think men can transcend their masculine privilege. I don’t think that happens. The only thing they can do is manage it. No man in the world stops being a vector for this most horrific of all dominant ideologies. These things are infections of the mind that we’ve not found a way to cure because they cannot be cured on an individual level. The only way this thing called patriarchy can be cured in me is collectively. We have to collectively dispel this horror … this constant turn to the individual masks the way these things function. Everybody’s belief that you can abjure this just by an act of will is the reason this shit is so powerful and continues to grip us all cause this shit isn’t (about the) individual!
Well, Díaz’s reckoning is proof that the #MeToo movement is collectively dispelling this horrific ideology. Instead of anger, I now feel hopeful. There is hope that things will change; because as Díaz predicted, this is way bigger than him. This is the beginning of the end of a vicious cycle, and I’m happy to see it go.
It was not my fault that Díaz was angry with me for asking questions that stemmed from obsessing over every piece of literary work he’d ever published. It is not Clemmons’ fault that she wanted a Pulitzer Prize-winning minority author to speak at her workshop. It is not Carmen Maria Machado’s fault that Díaz publicly berated her for asking a question about his main character’s unhealthy relationship with women. I understand what it’s like to be sexually assaulted, and I know what it’s like to feel like you can’t overcome the effects of that experience. But I also know that there is a personal accountability that has to be taken before the collective change can be made.
“I take responsibility for my past,” Díaz said—and I am pleased that he did. We can get over the heartbreak of idolizing an imperfect person, but we cannot get over the generational fears and concepts that keep us bound if we do not stick together.
As a child, I did not always feel protected, because we were taught to “save face.” But I want my daughter to feel protected, and I want her daughter to feel empowered, and I want her daughter to feel invincible. If that means going against the grain and saving ourselves instead of saving face, then that’s exactly what we should do.
So, against my mother’s wishes, I am no longer saving face. I am saving myself.