Louis C.K. Has Clearly Learned Nothing — and I'm Done (Guest Column)

Maureen Ryan: Once the industry has stopped enabling toxicity and begun prioritizing the needs of survivors, we can talk about paths to rehabilitation for abusers. Hard pass on Louis C.K. though: He used his comeback to do more damage.
Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

I'm done with Louis C.K.

Yes, that's right — I'm done with him forever. No more chances. No more second and third and 97th chances. I'm fresh out of chances. No.

All of you out there trying to engage me or other fed-up women regarding what Louis C.K. needs or why his professional career should be salvageable — nope. After what's come to light about his recent actions, if you're defending him, do it somewhere else. If you read this piece to the end, and you think what he did this week is OK, we're never going to agree. Good luck with those conversations about everything except assisting survivors and changing toxic power dynamics. If you bring up what abusers need right out of the gate, I'm opting out of those discussions. 

There are roads to restitution, reparation and change for those who have violated others, broken the law and ignored codes of ethical, compassionate and moral behavior. Those who do the hard work, those who do what they can to improve poisonous institutions and communities, well, I can be patient with those folks, even when the process is messy. Up to a point. As a woman once said, "Compassion without accountability and boundaries is a form of enabling." Yep.

That said, I no longer care about whatever road Louis C.K. is on. At this point, I'd be happy if I never see his name again, anywhere. This wealthy, famous, connected man had so many chances — more than most people will ever get — and he fucked them all up.

For the 87 millionth time, if you're frothing at the mouth to talk about what he might require, what you're actually doing is consistently de-centering survivors and what they might need (again). Survivors of abuse, assault and harassment are often at risk for depression, PTSD, anxiety and other mental and physical issues, and there's every chance their ability to pay for treatment is hampered by a lack of resources and support. Especially if survivors' ability to work was affected by what they went through (and it usually is).

If you're standing for the unrepentant powerful and not for the powerless who were mistreated and sidelined, you are part of the problem. Let the millionaires who hurt people figure out their own roads to redemption — there are thousands of works of moral philosophy and ethics out there. Let the well-connected abusers who actually want to change read all the #MeToo reporting from the past year, hire consultants, Google "restitution," pay therapists and life coaches, read the Wikipedia entry on "restorative justice." Let the consistent abusers and transgressors enact a small, or large, percentage of the suggestions in the hundreds of think pieces that people — many of them survivors of harassment, abuse and assault — have written not just this past year but for decades.

If you want to defend an unrepentant man who didn't just make women feel unsafe but who has proved that he's learned nothing over the past 10 months, if you want to prioritize the ability of a rich man to do comedy over the safety of every human being in his path, do you. But you are not helping.

If there's one thing I wish people (many but not all of them men, judging by my Twitter mentions) would understand, it's that the mental health repercussions of harassment and assault are bad — but the career repercussions can be just as insidious, long-lasting and damaging. It's the same story with so many harassers and abusers, not just those harmed by Louis C.K.: The survivors who came forward were shamed and blamed into silence, and those who attached their names to their stories — and I do not judge the ones that don't — have been derided, bullied, threatened and terrorized. The women Louis C.K. hurt — and he admitted he harmed them, they're not mere "allegations" — continue to suffer serious professional repercussions.

That's on him. He hasn't informed the world of sincere, ongoing efforts of any kind to right a years-long pattern of wrongs. He may have taken private actions. But he should have told the fan army that hangs on his every word what he did wrong, why it was wrong and how not just he but the whole culture needs to change. He didn't. That's his choice, and he has to live with the consequences of it.

Let me be absolutely crystal clear about what's brought me to this moment of pure rage. One word. On top of all the chances he's squandered.

I was taken aback when I learned he took the stage at a comedy club a few days ago (and I'm not mentioning that club, because its management team is reprehensible for putting patrons and staff in that situation). I was angry when I found out that he took the stage without warning, which meant that workers and patrons didn't get a chance to decide whether they wanted to be present when a man who admitted to terrorizing women got on a stage a few feet away from where they sat (or served drinks).

In one sense, this almost didn't surprise me, because that is Louis C.K.'s thing: Having control. He made comedy specials and an entire TV series on his own and dropped them on his website. He had total mastery of those rollouts. Creative control is something a lot of artists long for. I don't have a problem with that.

Here's what I do have a problem with: He controlled, in a monstrous way, the manner of his professional return — and then he used the word "rape" in his set. For laughs. For a "joke" about how rape whistles are "unclean."

What the fuck? What the FUCK?

He's not done narcissistically inflicting pain on unsuspecting people. This past week proves that beyond a doubt.

It's not as though these issues — shitty behavior, performative self-flagellation and a frequent lack of actual repentance — haven't bubbled up in the past.

Long before the New York Times account came out last November — the story in which it was confirmed that he talked about whipping out his dick and masturbating in front of women over whom he had professional power, or went ahead and whipped out his dick and masturbated in front of women whose careers he could make or break — there were media accounts of his behavior that seemed to mesh with things I saw on screen. I was thoroughly skeeved out by the dynamics in some storylines on Louie. There are a couple moments that stand out in my memory: On two different occasions in season four, the Louie character would not let a distressed woman exit the door of the apartment Louie and the woman were in. He loomed in front of the door, blocking their exits.

Both moments involved women Louie was interested in romantically who wanted to escape his presence. I didn't write about how fucked up I thought these scenes were at the time, because six months before these scenes played out on TV, I was assaulted by a TV executive. For a while there, the whole thing made me unable to write about sexual violence on TV, which has been a huge component of my job, unfortunately.

But those two moments stood out as red flags, and made me feel that he was trying to not just excavate, but excuse a tendency to say and do dark, scary, controlling things. Whatever you think of the intention or execution of those storylines, speaking more broadly, we were supposed to sit with his character every week, for years. On some level, we were being asked to like Louie — or to at least care about who he was and what he wanted. It worked, for a while. Then it didn't. I stopped watching Louie not long after those scenes aired. I just couldn't do it anymore.

The fact is, a lot of the TV of the last couple decades has been designed to make us feel sorry for monsters and sociopaths. I have zero regrets about my choice of profession, and a lot of those shows were good. But one thing I and other critics have had to point out an infinite number of times is that these stories of predation, exploitation, assault and rape are usually told from the point of view of perpetrator — or maybe the (male) white knight whose motivation is saving or avenging a woman who is attacked.

The survivors of the violence? Eh, who cares about them? So few do. So few.

What a smart, cleverly arranged long con Louis C.K.'s career has been. He skillfully built a world in which he — via Louie or his stand-up routines — "excavated" faults and "examined" the shittiest parts of various attitudes, impulses and actions. But it was all really part of a long-term effort to get us to think, "Hey, at least he's trying. He's giving it some effort." He adopted a pose of brutal honesty so that he could seem like a good bro, a man who's working on being better than his worst moments. I bought it. For a while. I don't believe it anymore. And it's not just about what five women were brave enough to tell the New York Times not even a year ago.

Just this week, he failed to act as a role model for the men in our society who are grappling with the challenge of trying to be better, who are trying to rise above the sexist, racist, size-ist, homophobic and transphobic programming we were all raised with. Men — including some men with toxic tendencies — might have listened to him.

Even after everything, I'd held out a bit of hope that Louis C.K. might be the one who would actually come clean, who would use his formidable intelligence to delve into what he had come to understand about how his choices affected the women he hurt. Maybe he would show other perpetrators how it's done — the process of change, the active and sustained effort of trying to be truly better, the attempt to put good into the world, not more pain and humiliation and disrespect.

Where is the interview in which he sits down with someone who would really challenge him and not let him off the hook — not just for heinous actions, but also for the way the women he harassed and hurt were mistreated for years, by him, by those with whom he worked and by his fans? What has he done to change a comedy community and a wider culture that is deeply misogynist, biased and unequal? How has he atoned for a pattern of harmful actions, and how has he modeled that sincere atonement in order to make the entertainment industry just one tiny bit better?

I'm done with his "edgy but honest" act. I'm not buying it. Just last year, he wrote, starred in and almost released a movie that involved middle-aged men and sexual entitlement. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz said in his review that it "is not a film about individuals who have lost their moral compass, but a movie that lacks one, by a director who also lacks one but for many years did a convincing impression of a man who never lost sight of true north."

In the process of watching and assessing I Love You, Daddy, Seitz wrote that he "realized [Louis C.K.] been playing the entire world for a bunch of suckers." I know the feeling. But a year ago, C.K.'s film was pulled and his TV career went away because his actions caught up with him. He said he'd go away and listen. What a crock.

He could have released a comedy special on his site. It could have been an hour of real excavation. It could have been, just possibly, with the right approach, painfully tinged with humor, as he grappled with his history and damage. Damage done to multiple women and their careers, absolutely. But to the world, too. Because people looked up to him. People — myself included — at one time thought he was doing fine, vigorous work as he examined what it was like to be a father and a man and a citizen of the world at a weird time.

But this week, I feel like a rube. At that club, he appeared to just want 15 minutes of glory. How small and shabby. How disappointing. And ultimately, how infuriating.

He could have given advance warning to the comedy club patrons and staff (which, going by statistics, almost certainly included survivors of sexual assault), so that they could have chosen whether to stay in the room with him. But whether anyone liked it or not — and how some folks cheered! — he made sure he was calling the shots. He obviously just wanted to soak up the glory and the applause again as he made an unearned return to the stage.

Even then, even then, he could have made a different choice when it came to his material. But no, all the audience got was average comedy club bullshit, as if nothing had happened. Like the last year was a waking nightmare that had no impact on anything. He didn't take even one step down the road to a new chapter. Instead, he twisted the knife.

He told a joke about rape whistles. He actually invoked sexual violence in that set.

Louis C.K. menaced and hurt the careers of women in real life, he exhibited creepy and questionable attitudes about women in his work, he didn't do jack to reckon with any of that (aside from releasing a self-aggrandizing letter that is an object lesson in how manipulative narcissists cover up their sins while pretending to claim them). And then he told a "joke" involving the word "rape."

I'm not going to explain how fucked up that is any more, to anyone. I'm over the conversation. No more debates.

When it comes to Louis C.K. and all his works, I am done.