Rodin, Woody Allen, Rabbis, and Victim-Blaming

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Columbine killer Eric Harris wrote in his diary that he was angry that he would find himself in legal trouble for stealing from a van. He argued that the idiots who had left their cars unlocked were just asking for it, and that he could not be blamed for just taking what was right in front of him. Eric Harris was later diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (colloquially known as sociopathy or psychopathy).

To blame a vulnerable woman for her own exploitation is a psychopathic way of thinking. And yet, it is all too common. I know because I had a “fact-gathering-team” of two rabbis and a lay person conclude that nothing that happened to me was without my consent. It didn’t matter how many times I had said “no,” or how much manipulation was involved, apparently being over 18 means that a woman has no vulnerabilities to be exploited and that a rabbi can just do what he wants as long as he doesn’t hold a gun to her head. And the rabbi said in his defense, in essence (not direct quoting): “she was pretty and she let it happen” and “she was so mature for her age, you cannot think of our age difference as a power differential.” Like Eric Harris, he was angry about being caught and losing control, and not at all reflective of the fact that he had done something really, really damaging.

Victim-blaming is so pervasive and normalized. I hear it all of the time when famous male artists are discussed along with their female “lovers.”

Forty-something year-old sculptor Auguste Rodin had a clandestine sexual relationship with one of his ~18-year old students, Camille Claudel. I read that he told her that he would leave his ~wife for her, but then never did. After 10 years and at least one pregnancy/abortion, the relationship ended. She then spent 30 years in an asylum, although she wasn’t crazy (her family insisted upon keeping her there against medical advice).

Camille has long been described as Rodin’s “inspiration” — in other words, continuing her marginalization and objectification, aggrandizing the exploitative male artist, and perpetuating the sexist mores of the time (and irritating me to no end). She was an artist in her own right, and perhaps a better one.

In my opinion, this could not have been a consensual or otherwise non-abusive/non-exploitative relationship due to its strong power differential, psychological destructiveness, and other characteristics apparent in the stories I’ve read. It sounds to me like Rodin’s “love” for her was not love at all, but a manifestation of a deep selfishness. Had he really “loved” her, he would have kept his pants on and been a guide, teacher, and mentor to her without messing up her life and causing her reputation to become forever conflated with her role as *his* object and inspiration. He would have respected her and guarded her innocence more carefully. Too often, men see innocence as a thing to exploit, to take advantage of, as a sort of novelty.

This dynamic is not a thing of the past. More recently there is Woody Allen. My words cannot do justice to the story, and the woman speaks for herself here. It is quite clear that she was neither respected, nor truly loved, nor valued by this man. I agree with the experts who contend that this was an uneven, exploitative relationship.

And there are so many more stories like it…

This relationship dynamic is not unheard of in rabbis: GafniKirschner, Siroka, Bach

Society is just beginning to wake up to the fact that these relationships are damaging, marginalizing, and that powerful people need to be held accountable rather than excused. We blame the mistress for her own naive vulnerability and exploitation. But vulnerability does not result in exploitation unless exploitative men (or women) do the exploiting. We need to place the responsibility back where it belongs, which is with the more powerful person in the relationship, the criminal, not the one with the unlocked doors.

For Camille, finally, she has her own museum.

About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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