What Mayim Bialik got right

She had to apologize. Really, she did. Whether she meant to or not, she made it sound like she believed that the way women dress an affect whether they get sexually assaulted or not. In the wake of Weinstein scandal and the ensuing flood of #metoo social media posts, this would have been a particularly bad time to write such a thing in the New York Times.

But was it really necessary to pillory her for what she wrote, to demonize her for an unfortunate mistake? It seems to me that the flood of outrage against her was a particularly perverse and mean-spirited failure of empathy if you read what she actually wrote in her piece before she mentioned anything about how women dress. It was a painful, personal confession about her relationship with her own appearance:

“I grew up constantly being teased about my appearance, even from members of my family; my nose and chin were the main objects of discussion. As a teenager I started obsessing over the possibility of a nose job so that I would look more like Danica McKellar, with a chin job to balance things out. Soon I wondered if I should get breast implants to look more like Christina Applegate, who got so much attention for her curves. I consistently felt like a troll compared to many of my contemporaries. A “TV Guide” critic described me, in a review of the pilot episode of “Blossom,” as having a “shield-shaped” face of “mismatched features.” I never recovered from seeing myself that way.”

Her words make painful reading for me, and, I’m sorry to say, have resonance with painful parts of how I grew up. The task of a columnist — at least of the kind of columnist I and, I think, Bialik, strive to be — is to take elements of our personal experience and search for ways they point to something more general about human experience, something that society as a whole should pay attention to. The personal sharing is a necessary part of this both for the writer and the reader. For the writer, it helps us find what we really want, and can, say to others; for the reader, it gives power to the story to see it has real personal meaning for the writer.

But, it’s a risky pursuit, especially when we are writing about emotional events in our lives that are still a bit unprocessed — where we aren’t really sure yet what they mean to us as a person because they are still emotionally overwhelming, not to mention what they might mean to others. The power of our own emotions tearing at us can temporarily disable our capacity of empathy for others, and, we can, for example, lose sight of how our words might be hurtful. That’s what I think happened to Bialik.

Will she grow to become a better columnist, one who is more capable to making this transition from the personal to the universal? I don’t know. But I do know that our hearts should be broad enough that this mistake should not be enough to destroy her chance to find her way as a writer. I know that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge her as either a bad or a good person.

And, why is my personal feelings about what I see as an unfairness to one particular person worth my writing about? It’s not because of Bilalik and her career; I really don’t care about that (and have never been a big fan of her work). No, it’s the universal implications of all this kind of condemnation. How many other people who were trying to share something about their personal experience have been painfully slapped down like Bialik was will be discouraged from pursuing their dreams and from speaking their truth?

We need more love, people. Yes, the world has to change. Yes, we have to find a way to do something to stop the Harvey Weinsteins and the date rapists. But what will we be left with if it all only comes out of rage? When Abraham, in this week’s parasha, received the great call “Go!”, “לך לך” from the Holy One, he was certainly called to leave something abhorrent behind (the Midrash, famously, imagines this was his father not only being an idolater, but making money off of it by selling idols). But he was also called to move towards something that he would love, the land of Canaan. What are we moving towards in the age of #metoo? And how do we make sure we get there?

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.