Is Redemption Possible In The Aftermath Of #MeToo?

Oct 5, 2019
Originally published on October 6, 2019 11:36 am

Updated at 11:35 a.m. ET Sunday

It's been two years since the #MeToo movement erupted, toppling many powerful men accused of sexual misconduct.

Some guys who were ousted for alleged sexual misconduct started talking about their comebacks practically nanoseconds after they were accused. But the pace of those actually doing it seems to be picking up, with comedian Louis C.K. returning to headline comedy shows, former U.S. Sen. Al Franken launching a new podcast and a radio show, and onetime TV political pundit Mark Halperin offering commentary on radio and publishing a new book. Their alleged offenses run the gamut, as do their expressions of remorse, fueling questions about what a road back should look like and who should travel it and when.

"We have to grapple with this question of who can come back and who can't," says Tarana Burke, the activist who coined the term "Me Too" years before it went viral in 2017. She says her focus remains on supporting survivors, and she doesn't much like being asked so often these days about perpetrators' comebacks. But, she concedes, society must also focus more on rehabilitation, not so much for the perpetrators' sake, as for the sake of real, lasting change.

"We can't move to a culture that eliminates sexual violence if we're not dealing with how harm-doers become harm-doers and how they undo that," she says. "Leaving them in a heap on the side of the road is not the answer; allowing them to sneak back in through the back door [...] and acting like nothing happened [is not] the answer. There should be an expectation that there's real rehabilitation and that [offenders] have seen the light and want to make dramatic shifts in their behavior."

Indeed, some are suggesting that the road forward for the movement depends on a road back for the offenders. Joan Tabachnick, an expert on sexual assault prevention, says enabling women to say "me too" is a critical first step, but in order to be sustainable, she says, the #MeToo movement needs "to also go beyond that, to create opportunities for someone to say, 'Yes, I did this.' " It's not about "letting them off the hook," Tabachnick says. It's about "creating the space for people to take responsibility for what they've done and to figure out what they need to do differently."

Halperin is one who has tried. About a year and a half after he was fired amid multiple allegations of aggressive sexual propositioning, forcible contact and lewd behavior, and a few months before he announced his new book, he reemerged on The Michael Smerconish Program on SiriusXM, reiterating his apology "to the women that I mistreated and who were hurt by me." He described his volunteer work helping ex-inmates reintegrate into society and his "hundreds" of conversation with women "to really understand why [sexual harassment is] so painful."

"I know I need to continue to grow. I wasn't a perfect person when I made these mistakes. I'm not a perfect person now, I'm happy to be judged by perfect people," he said. "But I want to be someone who can work."

Activist Tarana Burke speaks during the during the TIME 100 Summit in April. While her focus remains on supporting survivors, Burke agrees that more focus is needed on how to rehabilitate the perpetrators.
Mary Altaffer / AP

Contrition, however, is in the eye of the beholder. And some don't see it.

"It feels like he is just checking boxes and that all he seems to care about is reestablishing his career," says Dianna May, one of Halperin's accusers.

Halperin declined to comment for this report. In the past, he has admitted to the bulk of the allegations, including "outrageous," "aggressive and crude" misconduct, but has denied some of the worst of it, including physical assaults and threats.

To May, he failed the first critical steps on the road to redemption, which is fully owning what he did and making a direct, personal, specific and sincere apology to all those he harmed. It's not that she's opposed to the idea of redemption, May says, she actually forgave another man for sexual misconduct after he owned it and apologized sincerely.

"I'm not just continuing to kick the guy in the teeth because I'm a mean, vengeful person," she says. "It's hard work to be forgiven and [Halperin] is not there."

But others, like his publisher Judith Regan, president of Regan Arts, argue that Halperin's apology, and the price he has paid, should be enough.

"He was humiliated. He lost all his jobs," Regan says. "I think that we cannot as a society just take all of these men, condemn them to a life of unemployment and perpetual shame ... Maybe we don't put them in positions of authority over women, I can understand that, but in the case of Mark Halperin, writing a book in his apartment, I don't see what harm there is."

Carolyn McGourty (center) tells her story of sexual harrassment, as panelists Dianna May (left) and Addie Zinone, show their support, at the Press Forward launch event in March 2018. Press Forward is an initiative created to end sexual harassment and assault and create lasting culture change in American newsrooms.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

So, how do we decide who gets to come back? And under what conditions? When it's criminal, we have judges and sentencing guidelines. Is it possible, outside the legal system, to come up with some way to measure the egregiousness of the offense, the sincerity of the apology, the risk and all the intangibles to determine who has earned a second chance?

"I wouldn't be waiting for that," says New York University ethicist Arthur Caplan. "There's no snap algorithm or formula. The ethics here are pretty complex."

Attorney Ari Wilkenfeld agrees.

"It's going to be subjective," says Wilkenfeld, "but I really do feel we're going to know it when we see it."

Wilkenfeld has been representing harassment victims for 20 years, including one whose allegations brought down former Today Show co-host Matt Lauer. Working with activists from Press Forward, a nonprofit aimed at eradicating sexual harassment in newsrooms, Wilkenfeld has been trying to conceive some kind of road map for the road back. Or at least a rough guide. A sincere apology is just a first step, he says; offenders also need to engage in a process of restitution, so those who were part of the problem can become part of the solution.

"We're two years out now. It's very disappointing because as much as we need to get people out of the workplace who are dangerous, we should also be looking to get people back into the workplace who have learned their lesson and are willing to teach it to others," Wilkenfeld says. "That's more valuable than expelling somebody for life."

To many others, however, the very suggestion of redemption is both premature and misguided.

Leigh Gilmore, distinguished visiting professor of women's and gender studies at Wellesley College, says people should be more worried about helping victims recover what they lost.

"How do you come back from having your mentor destroy your career? How to you come back from having your boss ask for sexual favors?" she asks. "Those are the questions I think we should be taking up, not how guys get to come back and have the next stage of their careers."

"I don't even know where to begin with the trauma it brings up for me and many other people," says model and actress Zoë Brock, one of the many who accused former film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

Movie producer Harvey Weinstein (center) leaves the courthouse after appearing in criminal court on sexual assault charges in July in New York City. In his first comments after the scandal broke, he said he was hoping for a "second chance" and "we all make mistakes."
Kena Betancur / Getty Images

She worries about sending the message that "guys can just take a short timeout and then come back to the table." That, she says, could have a chilling effect on reporting and could erode the progress made by #MeToo.

"I think we're in a massive amount of danger of having all this stuff continue," she says. "I beg anyone listening out there: Don't ever be complacent about it."

But even some of staunchest survivor advocates insist that a road back for offenders is not at odds with what most victims want.

"Survivors are rarely seeking vengeance ... or the utter destruction of the life of the person who harmed them," says Kaethe Morris Hoffer, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

"Overwhelmingly," she says, what they want is "accountability for the pain they caused and a commitment to changing so they don't harm others."

Such a path may not be possible for serial predators. But most sexual harassers are at the other end of the spectrum and can be rehabilitated, according to a burgeoning industry of consultants, coaches, counselors and therapists now being called in to work with them.

"The people that I work with are people who are crossing lines and not handling the power they have appropriately," says Amy Oppenheimer, an employment lawyer in Berkeley, Calif., who also does coaching. "But they can be turned around."

Oppenheimer recalls one particularly arrogant executive she worked with who showed up angry that he even had to be subjected to training sessions. He started going on a rant, demeaning and insulting her at their first session and only stopped when she started letting him know how much his behavior made employees dislike working for him.

"He started to cry," she recalls. "And obviously, some of these habits are really hard to change. But the fact is, there is something there I can work with."

Ultimately, it's up to employers to monitor their employees and make sure that his behavior has really turned around and that the workplace is safe for everyone. But that's where the roadblock tends to be.

"Employers are not quite prepared for how much work it takes to actually integrate someone safely, responsibly and with sensitivity and care," says Shira Berkovits, founder of Sacred Spaces, an organization that consults religious institutions on how to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct.

"Right now it's very in vogue to say that we want to give people a second chance," Berkovits says. "But it's not for human beings to determine when and if somebody's repentance is sincere," she says. "That's between a person and God."

An employer's priority must be on "standing up for the victim," she says, "to create a space of safety for that person."

But when they realize how much work is involved, Berkovits says, employers often balk, including even those religious institutions that hold redemption as a core value. Her team usually spends months meeting with all parties, including therapists who've assessed an offender's risk, and writing up an extensive plan for reintegration. And often, she says, when the clients read it, "They say, 'We don't have the capacity to deal with this,' or 'Well, we thought we wanted to do this but [...] never mind. It's too hard.' "

Dan Guliano spent several decades heading large corporate human resources departments before becoming a director at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, where he does consulting and training. He says the philosophical questions of who deserves redemption usually take a back seat to companies' more pragmatic concerns about their liability and reputation.

"The employer doesn't have lot of leeway here. You can't say to rest of workforce: 'Give the guy a chance.' It just doesn't work. 'I'm going to let that person go,' " he says. "Is it the right thing? The moral thing? The ethical thing? That's a whole 'nother ball of wax."

Even as a practical thing, Guliano says with a sigh, it's problematic, since those who are let go, obviously, don't just disappear. They're still among us — mostly not famous — and likely to land in a cubicle across town, next to someone else who has no idea.

Berkovits has seen it happen. One client recently called her to say it had kicked an offender out of the community. "I said, 'Where did he go?' " Berkovits recalls. "And they said, 'Don't worry, he went' " to a nearby town.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today marks two years since the #MeToo movement burst into plain view with The New York Times reporting Harvey Weinstein. #MeToo has brought down hordes of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct. Many of them are now attempting to make a comeback. So today, we begin a series of stories looking at this phase in #MeToo and asking questions about rehabilitation, redemption and reentry. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some say it's time for more focus on the road back for offenders.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Some guys who are ousted for alleged sexual misconduct have been talking about comebacks since the day they were accused. But the pace of those actually doing it seems to be picking up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Louis C.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL FRANKEN: Hi, this is Al Franken. I have a new podcast, and it's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MICHAEL SMERCONISH PROGRAM")

MICHAEL SMERCONISH: Now, this is Mark Halperin. Hey, Mark. Thanks so much for coming back to the program.

MARK HALPERIN: You're nice to invite me. I really appreciate it.

SMITH: From comedian Louis C.K. to former U.S. Senator Al Franken and once-TV political pundit Mark Halperin, their alleged offenses run the gamut, as do their expressions of remorse. And it's all fueling questions about what it should take to be worthy of a return.

TARANA BURKE: We have to grapple with the question of who can come back and who can't. We can't move to a culture that eliminates sexual violence if we're not dealing with how harm-doers become harm-doers and how they undo that.

SMITH: Tarana Burke, the activist who coined the term #MeToo, says her focus remains on supporting survivors. But she says society should also focus more on rehabilitating the perpetrators, not so much for their sake as for the sake of real, lasting change.

BURKE: Leaving them in a heap on the side of the road is not the answer. Allowing them to sneak back in through the back door is not the answer and act like nothing happened. None of those are the answer, right? There should be an expectation that there's real rehabilitation and that they have seen the light and want to make dramatic shifts in their behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MICHAEL SMERCONISH PROGRAM")

HALPERIN: I'd like to again apologize to the women that I mistreated and...

SMITH: Halperin tried to jump-start his comeback on "The Michael Smerconish Program" about a year and a half after he was fired amid allegations of aggressive sexual propositioning, forcible contact and lewd behavior. It was also a few months before announcing he's got a new book coming out.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MICHAEL SMERCONISH PROGRAM")

HALPERIN: I know I need to continue to grow. I wasn't a perfect person when I made these mistakes. I'm not a perfect person now. I'm happy to be judged by perfect people, but I want to be someone who can work. I have...

SMITH: But contrition is in the eye of the beholder. And some, including accuser Dianna May, don't see it.

DIANNA MAY: It feels like Mark is checking boxes and that all he really seems to care about right now is reestablishing his career.

SMITH: Halperin declined to comment for this report. In the past, he's admitted to outrageous, aggressive and crude behavior, but he's denied some of the worst allegations. To May, it proves he still doesn't get it.

MAY: I'm not just continuing to kick the guy in the teeth because I'm a mean, vengeful person. It's hard work to be forgiven, and Mark is not there.

SMITH: Others, however, like his publisher Judith Regan, insist Halperin's apology and the price he's paid should be enough.

JUDITH REGAN: You know, he has been humiliated. He lost all of his jobs. And I think that we cannot as a society just take all of these men and condemn them to a life of unemployment and perpetual shame.

SMITH: When pressed about the risk to others, Regan sighs.

REGAN: You know, maybe you don't put them in positions of authority over women. I can understand that. But, you know, in the case of Mark Halperin writing a book in his apartment, I don't see what harm there is.

SMITH: So then how do we decide who gets to come back and when? When it's criminal, we have judges and sentencing guidelines. Is it possible here to come up with some way to weigh the egregiousness of the offense, the sincerity of the apology, the risk and all the intangibles to determine who's worthy?

ARI WILKENFELD: It's going to be subjective, but I really do feel like we're going to know it when we see it.

SMITH: Attorney Ari Wilkenfeld, who represents harassment victims, has been trying to conceive some kind of roadmap for the road back. Even the most sincere apology, he says, is just a start. There also needs to be a process of restitution, so those who were part of the problem can become part of the solution.

WILKENFELD: We're two years out now. And it's very disappointing because, you know, just as much as we need to get people out of the workplace who are dangerous, we should be looking to get people back into the workplace who have learned their lesson and are willing to teach it to others. That's more valuable than, you know, expelling somebody for life.

SMITH: To many others, the very suggestion of redemption is both premature and misguided. Wellesley College women's studies professor Leigh Gilmore says we should be worrying about victims recovering what they lost.

LEIGH GILMORE: How do you come back from having your mentor destroy your career? How do you come back from having your boss ask you for sexual favors? Those are the questions I think we should be taking up, not how the guys come back and get to have the next stage of their careers.

ZOE BROCK: I don't even really know where to begin with the trauma that it brings up for me and, I'm sure, many other people.

SMITH: Model and actress Zoe Brock is one of the many who accused former film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. She worries about sending the message that guys can just take a short timeout and then come back to the table. That, she says, could have a chilling effect on reporting and erode the progress made by #MeToo.

BROCK: I think we're in, you know, a massive amount of danger of having all of this stuff continue. I beg of anyone listening out there, like, don't ever be complacent about it.

SMITH: But even some of the staunchest survivor advocates insist a road back for offenders is not at odds with what most victims want. They say survivors are usually less interested in punishing perpetrators than they are in preventing them from doing it again. For serial predators, maybe not, but many sexual harassers can be rehabilitated, according to a burgeoning industry of consultants, coaches, counselors and therapists now being called in to work with them.

AMY OPPENHEIMER: The people that I work with are people who are crossing lines, who are not handling the power that they have appropriately. But they can be turned around.

SMITH: Attorney Amy Oppenheimer recalls one particularly haughty executive she worked with who showed up angry that he even had to be there until she started letting him know how much his employees hated working for him.

OPPENHEIMER: And he started to cry. And obviously, some of these habits are really hard to change. But the fact is that there's something there I can work with.

SMITH: Ultimately, it's up to employers to monitor employees to ensure conduct is turned around and the workplace is safe. But HR consultant Dan Guliano says that's where the roadblock tends to be. Companies are less concerned with philosophical questions of redemption, he says, than they are about pragmatic ones of liability and reputation.

DAN GULIANO: The employer doesn't have an awful lot of leeway here. You can't say to the rest of the workforce, give the guy a chance. It just doesn't work. I'm going to let that person go. Is it the right thing? Is it the moral thing? Is it the ethical thing? That's a whole other ball of wax there.

SMITH: And even as a practical thing, Guliano concedes, it's also problematic since those who are let go obviously don't just disappear. They're still among us, mostly not famous, and likely to land in a cubicle across town next to someone else who has no idea.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.