Amber Tamblyn: Inside a #MeToo Advocate’s Novel About Male Sexual Assault
Three years ago, actress-turned-writer Amber Tamblyn had the idea to write about a serial rapist. A “truly ugly, villainous, almost apparition-type creature” who commits unspeakable crimes, but is never punished. After all, she thought, predatory men, both in literature and in real life, never seem to pay for their bad behavior. So imagine Tamblyn’s surprise this past fall when Harvey Weinstein started to see the repercussions for his alleged sexual misconduct. “One of the most extraordinary revelations about the #MeToo movement is that men are experiencing consequences for the first time ever,” she says over the phone from the Brooklyn apartment she shares with husband, comedian David Cross, and their one-year-old daughter. “And that’s really disorienting for both men and for women.”
The #MeToo movement forced the world to have the same kinds of conversations about sexual assault and rape culture that Tamblyn wanted to have in her debut novel, Any Man. Now that these discussions were playing out every day on Twitter and at family dinner tables, Tamblyn, a founding member of Time’s Up – an initiative led by women looking to end workplace sexual misconduct in Hollywood and beyond through legal support – noticed there were topics that still weren’t being covered. It’s why in her book, Tamblyn puts the focus on men not as perpetrators, but as victims of sexual violence. It’s a discussion that not everyone’s ready to have, but one she thinks needs to happen. “It was really important to explore this idea of de-gendering violence and showing it as something that is systemic and pervasive,” Tamblyn says. “It primarily afflicts women, that’s true. But it afflicts all kinds of people, non-binary people, men. It knows no race, it knows no class, it knows no gender.”
With Any Man, Tamblyn’s female serial rapist is an antagonist known only as “Maude,” who’s given a handful of pages to explain herself, but doesn’t bother to. She gives no reason as to why she brutally and horrifically attacks six men in ways that range from sodomization with a broom to penis removal through rough sex to using a cat to perform fellatio. “She’s never really caught and she’s also never really identified,” Tamblyn says. The only piece of evidence Maude leaves behind is a six-foot-long piece of white hair that brings back no matches, which only helps to mythologize her in the press. The truth is, there’s no reason behind what she’s done. She isn’t getting revenge on a father, a husband, or a john, her actions are “really seeded in being a sociopath. It was rooted in power,” Tamblyn says, “I can do it because I can, because I have the privilege to do so.”
Tamblyn didn’t want to give Maude an excuse for her actions that would lead readers to sympathize with her and turn her into an anti-hero. It’s why the majority of the book’s 269 pages focus on Maude’s victims coming to terms with their trauma through poetic prose, OkCupid messages and a transcript of a program with a Nancy Grace-like host that’s taken nearly word-for-word from an actual transcript of Grace’s show. (Tamblyn says she just switched the pronouns.) In one section, Tamblyn covers the sexual assault of a transgender man named Michael Parker entirely through the tweets from celebrities like Katy Perry, Kanye West and Bill O’Reilly, who turn the tragedy into a hashtag. He’s the only character who isn’t given the opportunity to tell his own story, a commentary on the silencing of trans people. “Just to see on paper what it looks like when you take someone’s life away, take someone’s narrative away so radically,” Tamblyn says. “That was really a stomach churning writing process.”
Even now as more women declare “me too,” the sexual assault of men and male-identifying individuals hasn’t gotten much coverage, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, female sexual assault happens at much higher rates – one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape – but one out of every 10 rape victims are male. There is evidence that this number could be higher, given that two out of every three sexual assaults of both genders go unreported, according to RAINN. The nonprofit 1in6, which supports male survivors of sexual abuse, reports that one in six men have been sexually abused or assaulted in their lifetime. “It was important to humanize the experience [of Maude’s victims] as much as possible so that any given reader would read it going, ‘Well, shit I’m one of these people,’” Tamblyn says. “‘And if I’m not one of these people, I definitely know one of these people.’”
That realization is important, especially since there are still people who believe the myth that men can’t be raped – they can, but the U.S. federal government’s definition of rape, which focuses on penetration of a non-consenting individual, doesn’t define male sexual assault committed by women as rape. In the CDC’s ongoing National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, “made to penetrate” cases – a term referring to when a man is forced to perform vaginal intercourse, receive oral sex, or perform oral sex on a woman – are classified as “other sexual violence.”
Throughout their lifetime, men report they were made to penetrate at a higher rate than rape, yet there are no clinical studies examining large groups of female perpetrators of sexual assault, which downplays the problem. And it is a problem. While still not as prevalent as male perpetrators of sexual assault, a 2016 peer review study for scientific journal Aggression and Violent Behavior found evidence that female perpetrators of the sexual assault of men are more common than any previous data shows, but “stereotypical understandings of women as sexually harmless” has led professionals in mental health, social work, public health and law to take these cases less seriously. The result is that male victims of female perpetrators have also been taken less seriously and received less sympathy for what they experienced.
Tamblyn hopes that Any Man “re-sensitizes” the world to the stories of male sexual assault survivors, which isn’t an easy sell to women who are just starting to feel as if their voices are being heard. Tamblyn told Marc Maron on a recent episode of his podcast WTF that she’s gotten some pushback from women who think she’s “not helping anything by taking our pain and suddenly trying to give it to men.”
“They’re totally entitled to their opinion,” Tamblyn says of those who say Any Man is bad for the movement. “But, I maintain that in order to change culture we have to have big drastic difficult conversations in our art, in the things that we’re creating. It’s not enough to leave certain kinds of people out of the conversation.”
Tamblyn, 35, is the daughter of West Side Story and Twin Peaks star Russ Tamblyn, and has been an actress most of her life, starting out as a tween on the soap opera General Hospital and later starring in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants and its sequel. She’s a successful poet, whose 2015 collection Dark Sparkler looked at the tragic deaths of Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Brittany Murphy. She made her directorial debut in 2016 with the indie Paint It Black. She’s also a women’s rights activist and has been since her teens. But, for many, that didn’t become entirely apparent until last year when she unknowingly teased the Hollywood reckoning-to-come in a piece for The New York Times.
Less than a month before the paper dropped its bombshell report on Harvey Weinstein, Tamblyn wrote an op-ed called “I’m Done With Not Being Believed” about her own experiences reporting sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. Specifically, the piece was in reference to actor James Woods calling her a liar after she shared a story on Twitter about him trying to pick her up at Mel’s Diner when he was in his 50s, and she only 16. (Woods tweeted that Tamblyn’s story is “a lie.”) In the op-ed, Tamblyn urged other women to come forward with their stories of assault and harassment. “We are learning that the more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir,” she wrote. “And the more we are a choir, the more the tune is forced to change.” Tamblyn is now one of the loudest voices in this choir, writing about her own sexual assault on Instagram after Donald Trump said he could do anything to women, even “grab ’em by the pussy” – something an ex-boyfriend, she wrote, actually did to her – and why mothers need to share their stories of assault with their daughters. Now when she tweets, people listen, and it’s forced her to take a closer look at herself as an intersectional feminist, “both really dirty words in the universal lexicon right now,” she jokes.
“It’s always important for me to lift up women to make sure they’re being heard. If there’s someone not being heard, to do everything that I can to amplify them, to put them in a position that they can be,” Tamblyn says, which is why she’s “seeking women writers of color, trans, disabled and queer identities” to read with her on her current book tour. “And at the same time,” she adds, “to constantly look at what’s being left out.” That includes men, even those who are part of the problem. “In my experience with problematic men, and I know several of them,” Tamblyn says, “having a conversation with them is eye opening. I know that women don’t want the burden of having to teach predominately white men, but all men, most men. But if we want change, we have to do what we know we’re good at.”
What Tamblyn is good at is facilitating discussion. Jessica Chastain, a founding member and a vocal leader of Time’s Up, says it’s Tamblyn’s enthusiasm that draws people in. “There is no pretense and she is not putting on an act. She says what she feels,” Chastain writes in an email. “Not only is it her passion and dedication, but also her belief to the cause of equality that becomes contagious when you’re around her kind of authenticity.” Janet Fitch, who wrote the 2006 novel Paint It Black, which Tamblyn adapted for her directorial debut, puts it this way: “Her energy and her commitment is pitched at such a high level that you either go along and do what she wants you to do, or you just get off the bus.”
Those who’ve disagreed with Tamblyn’s politics or her opinions on the #MeToo movement have no problem letting her know it. Over the past year, Tamblyn says she’s gotten death threats and she’s stopped checking her Twitter mentions. Still, she hears people questioning her friendship with Quentin Tarantino, who she encouraged to talk to the New York Times about what he knew about Weinstein. (“I knew enough to do more than I did,” the director would admit.) “I hear when women are screaming at me on social media to tell me the conversations I have with my husband about his stupid comments,” Tamblyn says. “I hear them, I hear it, but only I know my own work and only I know what I can bring to the table privately. You should also value and respect the conversations I’m having behind closed doors and believe me, I’m having them every second, every single day with every man I know and even some women and it’s never not disheartening. But that’s where we’re at.”
Whether she wants to or not, Tamblyn’s expected to have those private conversations in public. When Cross was accused by actress Charlyne Yi of making racist comments or when he, and the rest of the male cast of Arrested Development, were criticized for downplaying Tambor’s verbal harassment of Jessica Walter in a New York Times interview, people wanted a comment from Tamblyn. In both instances, Tamblyn gave one, siding with the women, while also offering some advice to the Twitterverse: “Do not hold women accountable for the actions, decisions or words of their partners. Don’t. Do it.”
The fact she has to say anything is upsetting to Cross. “I feel terrible that she feels she’s put in a position where she has to defend something I said that she may not even agree with,” says Cross, who has since apologized to both Walter and Yi. But, it doesn’t mean he’s going to start caring what Twitter thinks about his marriage. “Personally, I don’t give a shit what Tomboy63 thinks,” he says, referring to no account in particular. “Amber and I have a very healthy strong relationship. We respect each other, we love each other. We are different people and we’re very opinionated, and I think she’s enlightened me and edified me and I think vice versa.”
Enlightenment seems to be the goal for Tamblyn. Whether it’s Any Man or her work with Time’s Up, she wants to get people thinking and speaking differently about sexual assault and harassment. “I think it’s been a big shift,” she says, “a lot of men are resistant to [#MeToo] and scared but then also, wonderfully, there’s a lot of men who get it.” That includes her husband. “As much as he fucks up,” she says, “he’d be the first one to own it. He’d be the first one who would figure out how to do it differently and better for the next time and to see where the mistake lies.” Getting others to do the same won’t be easy, she knows that. “It’s a slow process,” Tamblyn says of enacting real change. “And I’m betting on my patience. I’m betting on my ability to outlast them and outlast their attempt to squash this movement and this work.”