I call it the Frank Lloyd Wright axiom: sometimes geniuses are horrible human beings.
Most of the time, I can separate the person from their creation: I can look at the Robie House and admire its beauty. The fact that Wright was an arrogant SOB (the model for Ayn Rand’s protagonist in Atlas Shrugged) who ran off with the wife of a client does not in the end figure into any assessment of his work.
Sometimes, though, I cannot in my mind divorce the awful things someone has done from what it is I admire them for.
I am not a scientist. While I know Richard Feynmann for being an important figure in physics, I’d be lying if I said I understood what his accomplishments were. My admiration for Feynmann had always come from his seeming attitudes towards the world, his willingness to be provocative and outrageous, and his ability to capture lyrically the essence of what is magnificent about the world. Until today, one of his quotes was listed on my sidebar.
That changed with the accounts I have read recently about how Feynmann treated women. That women continue to be mistreated and marginalized in science and academia today is not Feynmann’s fault, but the willingness to excuse his behavior sends troubling messages. As I am n0t a scientist, and my admiration is based mainly on his nonscientific attributes, I cannot divorce his humorous writing from his willingness to prey on women, in a manner that would make a PUA proud. I cannot read his eloquent defense of the magnificence of stars set apart from any creationist mythos without also recalling that he thought the young women he targeted in bars “worse than whores” if they wouldn’t have sex with him. I can’t let go of the fact that he likewise sought out the wives of his graduate students. As the wife of a Ph.D., who remembers how much power your advisor can hold over your future (especially one as notable as Feynmann), had I had to face it, being sought after for special attention by a husband’s advisor would have made me sick with fear. Coercive does not even begin to describe such a situation.
He cannot be a hero any longer.
He is not the only person whose work I cannot encounter without revulsion for reasons totally separate from that work: I gave up on Orson Scott Card a long time ago. The good that John Edwards or Anthony Weiner did for progressives is drowned by my disgust and horror at their other activities.
And then there is Marion Zimmer Bradley. The disclosures about her behavior make Feynmann look like a feminist.
I have read all the Darkover novels. I loved The Mists of Avalon. I discounted the disturbing aspects of her novels (the status of women on Darkover, the incest and sexual violence towards women and young girls in Avalon) as being simply parts of her convincing world-building. It’s not as though she approved of those things, I thought. And on Darkover, she created a world where homosexuality was acknowledged, and accepted.
Recently, her daughter has come forward telling of the severe physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother. ( A good summary of the fandom coverage by Jim Hines can be found here.) In addition, MZB’s husband, Walter Breen, was a serial molester of young boys, and Bradley covered for him to the point where she can be seen as facilitating the molestation. By her own admission, she had no problem in Breen sexually assaulting minors.
After first reading about the abuse, I reread one of her Darkover novels. I was struck by its treatment of children and women’s sexuality, among other things. What sort of mind creates such a place? And excuses it? And then there is Avalon, which includes the following description of a fertility rite:
“The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.”
Good Lord in heaven. Child rape painted as an “irresistible force of nature.”
I can no longer read MZB’s work. Art is the result of the artist. She committed, and excused in others, horrific acts of predation on children. Nothing she can write can overcome that: all of her work is tainted.
There are differences of opinion on this, clearly. A writer at Entertainment Weekly who discovered Mists of Avalon after hearing about the allegations against MZB finds the book brilliant. And the comments on any post about this will include some by people who clearly find the works “feminist,” although rethinking what she wrote about Darkover makes that a questionable assessment. (Yes, she had the Guild of Renunciates who were independent women; they were however, considered outside society and scorned because they forfeited the protection of men — most women were destined for marriage. Or to work in the Towers.) In her Darkover Landfall, her Darkover origin story, she creates a world in which women go overnight from being independent scientists to baby machines. Because of MZB’s unquestionable gifts as a writer, I have read that book probably six or seven times, and only on the last read did it bother me. Not to mention that, as one commenter I read pointed out, in her books telepathy signals a person’s desires, sexual and otherwise, so “no” really can mean “yes.”
I have lost a literary friend. I have read the all of the Darkover novels, many of repeatedly. The only thing I can think that would be worse, as far as reading, would be if a horrible revelation came to light about Jane Austen.
Great writers and scientists are people. Sometimes that means they do horrible things. Looking the other way, excusing their actions because they are great artists, merely denigrates and belittles their victims.*
It’s a matter of who you want to stand next to, emotionally. I choose to stand next to the powerless.
*For me, one of the most painful statements by Moira Greyland, MZB’s daughter, who has come forth with the details of her horrific treatment at the hands of her mother, was that she waited so long to air the abuse because of fear that MZB’s fans would be angry. Sadly, I find this completely understandable.