Last week, in a published excerpt from his recently released memoir Then It Fell Apart, Moby detailed his relationship with Natalie Portman, recounting when he met the actress backstage at a concert in Austin, Texas, when he was 33 and she was 20. According to his account, the two dated briefly before Portman ended the relationship because she had met someone else: “I wanted one thing: for me to be alone … nothing triggered my panic attacks more than getting close to a woman I cared about.”
The revelation was the type of tabloid bait specifically formulated to go viral and garner Moby press for his new book, which was of course precisely the point. There was, however, just one problem: no one bothered to run the detail about Moby’s relationship with Portman to Portman herself. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, the 37-year-old actress denied that she and Moby had ever dated: “I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me,” Portman said. She also pointed out basic factual errors with his recollection in the book, saying that she was not 20, as he claimed in the excerpt, but instead had just turned 18.
Rather than dig a hole in the middle of the desert and stick his head inside it until the next solar eclipse – as most men in his situation would have done – Moby went a different route: he doubled the fuck down. In a (now-deleted) Instagram post, Moby expressed befuddlement as to why Portman would insist that this relationship had not occurred. To bolster his claims, he posted a series of photos that he thought served as incontrovertible evidence that he was not, in fact, a creeper, all of which featured him shirtless and flashing a grin that was clearly intended to come off as beatific, but looked more like the terrified rictus grin of a subject in a proof-of-life photo.
After battling rancor on social media for days, Moby finally issued an apology on Instagram. Fittingly titled, “Moby, an apology,” Moby acknowledged that “many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then It Fell Apart are very valid” and said that he should have sought her permission before including her in his book. He also added that “given the dynamic of our almost 14-year age difference I absolutely should’ve acted more responsibly and respectfully when Natalie and I first met almost 20 years ago.”
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As some time has passed I've realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then It Fell Apart are very valid. I also fully recognize that it was truly inconsiderate of me to not let her know about her inclusion in the book beforehand, and equally inconsiderate for me to not fully respect her reaction. I have a lot of admiration for Natalie, for her intelligence, creativity, and animal rights activism, and I hate that I might have caused her and her family distress. I tried to treat everyone I included in Then It Fell Apart with dignity and respect, but nonetheless it was truly inconsiderate for me to not let them know before the book was released. So for that I apologize, to Natalie, as well as the other people I wrote about in Then It Fell Apart without telling them beforehand. Also I accept that given the dynamic of our almost 14 year age difference I absolutely should've acted more responsibly and respectfully when Natalie and I first met almost 20 years ago. Moby
To be fair, Moby’s apology did address one particularly common criticism of his book: that he did not tell Portman beforehand that he would be writing about their relationship. As any writer who uses first-person on a semi-regular basis would tell you, this is a pretty egregious oversight; not only is it just a decent thing to do, but it also has the effect of covering your ass legally should your subject take issue with your account.
But the most glaring aspect of Moby’s apology is that it did not retract the original claim made in the book, the one that inspired so much controversy to begin with: that he and Portman had a relationship in the first place. There are, of course, a few potential explanations for this, chief among them that Moby is telling the truth, or at least believes he is. (Which makes sense, considering he’s been telling the press about his purported relationship with Portman for well over a decade.) But whether or not the couple actually dated is less interesting than why Moby, after facing a flurry of criticism and becoming the dreaded main character on the internet, is so seemingly invested in promoting the idea that he slept with Natalie Portman. And in reading , the answer to this question is that Moby wrote about sleeping with Natalie Portman because Moby thought that sleeping with Natalie Portman made him cool.
In his book, Moby recounts meeting Portman after a show in Austin. Though he describes their initial encounter as flirtatious (seemingly because, as he writes, Portman “smiled at [him]”), it seems fairly pedestrian: she compliments his album Play, he makes anxious small talk and they make a plan to meet up when they realize they will both be in New York for the VMAs. He describes their meeting as “confusing”: “I was a bald binge drinker who lived in an apartment that smelled like mildew and old bricks, and Natalie Portman was a beautiful movie star,” he writes. “But here she was, in my dressing room, flirting with me.”
Moby’s depiction of himself as hipster schlub and Portman as staggering ethereal beauty is a fairly generic one; the encounter calls to mind countless Woody Allen films and mid-aughts-rom-coms. This dynamic is cemented by Moby’s account of accompanying Portman at an MTV VMA afterparty. After breathlessly describing the “perfectly fitted beige dress” Portman was wearing at the time, as well as her resemblance to Audrey Hepburn (presumably no one reading Then It Fell Apart has access to Google Images), Moby and Portman attract the attention of the paparazzi. Portman is visibly irritated, but Moby is awestruck, recounting his desire to “soak up the flashes” of their camera bulbs. He then meets Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, one of his childhood heroes, and tells him about how he had his first kiss to “Dream On,” after which Tyler “stared at me blankly and asked, ‘Are you with Natalie Portman?’ ‘I guess so,’ I said. ‘She’s so hot,’ he said, and walked away.”
The intended effect of this anecdote is not immediately obvious, though it’s clear that Moby finds Tyler’s remark comically boorish. (Considering Portman was 18 at the time, and considering Tyler’s demonstrated alleged predilection for young girls, it’s also pretty damn creepy.) But in the context of the chapter, which is written as some sort of early-aughts-era Cinderella story, its very inclusion is, in itself, telling; Moby didn’t necessarily have to include Tyler’s comments, unless he wanted the reader to think of him as the kind of guy who gets high-fives from elder statesmen of classic rock for bringing a hot chick to a party. In the context of his memoir, the anecdote reads like a surreptitious fist bump one frat boy gives to another for scoring the cutest freshman at the party, with the implication being that they’re celebrating what will happen later after all the guests leave.
Moby’s account of the relationship ends with Portman dumping him for another man. While getting dumped is obviously a tremendous blow for most men’s egos, most men, apparently, are not as indefatigable as our dude, who writes that actually, he was grateful when the relationship ended, because he’d wanted to break up with her all along. “I was relieved that I’d never have to tell her how damaged I was,” Moby writes. Even if we buy that Moby and Portman did, in fact, have a relationship, it’s this aspect of Moby’s story that most strains credulity: remember, this is a guy who recalls the color of the dress a girl wore at a party nearly 20 years ago.
This Moby guy thinking he dated Natalie Portman in 1999 because he has a bunch of pictures of him awkwardly putting his arm around her is like…the female experience in one story.
— Carina (@carinabeeeee) May 24, 2019
Ultimately, the tale of Moby and Portman’s quasi-relationship is not a he said/she said, as tabloid headlines have suggested; nor is it useful in terms of providing us with much-desired psychological insight into Moby’s character. It is, however, a reflection of a larger, disquieting phenomenon of men constructing elaborate narratives around the actions of women, and using these narratives to bolster their own self-image. If nothing else, the two had fundamentally different interpretations of their relationship, and in the larger dating universe, this is far from uncommon: most women have had the experience of meeting a man and giving him a modicum of personal attention, only to have them misinterpret basic politesse as sexual interest. In a culture where women are instructed to respond to catcalls and dick pics with a smile and a nod – where rejecting a man’s advances can often come at a steep price – it’s not surprising that this particular story would resonate with so many women, many of whom responded on social media by sharing their own experiences with “creepy” older men.
Some have pointed out that it’s also not surprising that Portman would be particularly vulnerable to men constructing such narratives; her introspective, wide-eyed persona the focal point around which many fragile male artists’ egos have orbited. Portman has been referred to as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a character trope aimed at stoking the carnal fires of a certain type of intellectually inclined, Knausgaard-toting, Dogfish Head IPA-swilling male. The idea is that proximity to an MPDG offers spiritually bereft men some promise of salvation. Even though the film widely credited with establishing Portman’s MPDG bona fides was released 15 years ago (the poorly aged Garden State); even though Portman has actively disavowed this aspect of her persona; and even though she is an Oscar-winning actor and mother of two who likely has neither the time nor the energy to promise anything to anyone, it’s clear that for some men — specifically, middle-aged DJs trying to boost book sales — she still holds this promise.
In a piece for the Guardian, writer Arwa Marwahdi characterized Moby’s initial response as a “masterclass in nice-guy misogyny,” pointing out his various progressive credentials, such as his veganism and his very public 1999 callout of Eminem’s misogynistic lyrics, to build his case. But whether Moby and Portman dated or not, there’s really nothing “nice” about publicly discussing an alleged decades-old relationship with a woman who has not consented for you to divulge those details; there’s nothing nice about using women as a blank canvas on which to project your insecurities; and there certainly isn’t anything “nice” about touting an 18-year-old girl’s youth and beauty as a way to bolster your faltering ego. That’s just plain old misogyny, and not even a particularly unique or interesting strain of it at that.