Jackie Richardson ’21
Assistant Arts Editor
The Me Too movement blew away, at least in part, the air of inherent dignity and importance of The Great Male Artist. Before the movement, the perceived brilliance of their movies, books or television shows would blind a public already willing to look away from wrongdoings — alleged or buried. Now, an unforgiving light shines on some of the men themselves: their excited breathing over the phone, the sets in which they cornered people and the hotel rooms where they, wormy, potbellied and jerky, revealed their true selves to those they had temporarily silenced.
One could read J.K. Stein’s memoir The Director as an attempt to reveal a powerful man’s perverse nature. It would be perfectly correct to do so. By the end of the first chapter, The Director’s identity is obvious; lines detailing his sexcapades, thoughts on Jewish identity and unsavory quirks (in the middle of a conversation, he spits on the floor) comprise a clean bulk of the book. But beyond the initial prurient interest this character inspires in the reader, he is far from the most interesting person in this book. Most fascinating — and the character who raises the most pressing questions — is the diarist herself.
Although Stein set The Director into chapters, the book is actually a series of unedited journal entries. Chapters 0, 15, and 16, as well as the Foreword and the Epilogue, gaze in hindsight at her experience. Chapters 1–14 detail the experience itself. After meeting Stein at a Starbucks, The Director claims he needs her for his next film. Although wary of his motives, she does want to be in one of his movies, and begins a relationship with him which while never fully consummated, is always lewdly sexual.
Before exploring what this book accomplishes, there are a few stones to clear from my shoe. As advertised, this book is a series of unedited journal entries, and reads as such. Because of this, her language can veer both confusingly (she describes feeling like a “wet dog” after her first session with a new therapist) and dangerously (she calls the Me Too movement a “frenzy”) into the realm of imprecision. The occasional typo gnarled her prose (“it’s” instead of “its,” “ancestors” when she meant “descendants”). And finally, though this may speak more to how the absurd can quickly become mundane, I felt that too much of the book was devoted to the logistics of their meetings, and some editing could have trimmed away the tedium.
But the flaws in the book do fade somewhat in light of what it does — probing at the gray areas of consent. Where less honest writers may have tried to simplify the complex, Stein looks squarely at her own conflicting feelings. She feels contempt for The Director but fears him too; she finds his presence unbearable yet initiates meetings with him. She enjoys the way her sexuality arouses him but feels profound disgust towards it as well.
None of this seemingly paradoxical behavior seems to conflict, however, because of Stein’s portrayal of what I think is the most important aspect of this book: her own self-hatred. She continues her relationship with The Director not in spite of her disgust towards him but because of the contempt she feels for herself; indeed, for every unspoken insult she lodges at The Director, there is a time in which she purges, blames herself for her boyfriend’s abuse, and goes back to The Director. This isn’t to say The Director doesn’t manipulate her. If she refuses to perform a sex act, he says early in their relationship, innocently exploring a hypothetical, then he has failed as a director. But being both physically larger and more powerful than she, he almost doesn’t need to charge her possible refusal with guilt. “No” is not really an option. However, The Director’s sway over Stein stems not solely from his power as an individual, but from a world that taught Stein to hate herself so profoundly that when a man like The Director entered her life, he just needed to exert the slightest pressure to walk right over her.
But where each story voiced in the Me Too movement usually ends in phone calls, corners, hotel rooms or, at best, in courtrooms, The Director offers its reader a quieter, perhaps more hopeful end. In the epilogue, she writes about her inability to set firm boundaries, her shame, the ways the Director made her feel deficient and the work she needed to do to heal after this and other destructive relationships. She concludes the book with a reflection on the word Karuna, which means both sadness and compassion — both the sadness with which this experience left her and the self-compassion it took to heal. It was a good note to end on.