I don’t care if now-former White House staff secretary Rob Porter is innocent or guilty of the domestic violence alleged by his ex-wives. As I am neither Sherlock Holmes nor the Mentalist, I cannot prove it either way. Besides, if I’m going to engage in a thought experiment, I’d much rather imagine what Halloween costumes would look like if women had always been in charge than try to ponder the alleged brutality of Rob Porter’s marriages.
I don’t care if Rob Porter is innocent or guilty because his innocence or guilt probably does not matter to you, either.
What matters in the story of Rob Porter is what the story proves about us: We, as news consumers, process stories of abuse through a lens of narrative manipulation that is designed to exonerate men and decimate women. The narrative goes a little something like this: First, he didn’t do it. Second, even if he did, he’s a great guy who made a terrible mistake. Or, alternatively: First, the women are lying. Second, even if they’re not lying, they’re just plumb unreasonable.
You’ll know you’re in the midst of the “Great Guy, Terrible Mistake” narrative when you read articles about accused abusers that give significant space to his accomplishments, potential and community ties.
When you read about Rob Porter’s alleged abuse of his wives, the first decision you have to make is whether you believe that he did it. I’m still not a detective and chances are neither are you, so you rely on your intuition to decide whether Rob Porter is capable of abusing two women. Is he cute? Does he have kind eyes? Do you like religious people? Are the ex-wives too eager to tell their stories? Are they hard up for cash?
You read news stories to glean telling details and you form a picture in your mind, not of the man Rob Porter actually is, but of the man that someone else has decided Rob Porter is. For example, I’m writing this piece to wrap up in about 1,000 words; I can’t tell you who Rob Porter is in 1,000 words, but I can curate details from his known life in order to paint a picture of a wrongly-accused dreamboat:
Rob Porter, a Harvard student leader, devout member of his church and current beau of powerhouse communications director Hope Hicks, quietly resigned from public service after a London tabloid published claims that he had abused two ex-wives.
Or I can use other details to paint a picture of a cold-blooded sociopath:
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Rob Porter, a well-connected political operative with close ties to the current administration, resigned from his role as White House staff secretary, even as he claimed to be innocent of recent allegations of years of domestic abuse of multiple women.
You decide the content of Rob Porter’s character. If you come to the conclusion that he’s innocent, then you believe that the women are lying and you’re done making decisions. If, however, you decide that he did abuse these women, then you have a second decision to make: Do you care?
Women are the baddies, the stumbling blocks thrown down in the story of Porter’s redemption.
Welcome to the Myth of the Great Guy who made One Terrible Mistake. Or in the case of Rob Porter, The Myth of the Great Guy Who Made Two Terrible Mistakes. You’ll know you’re in the midst of the “Great Guy, Terrible Mistake” narrative when you read articles about accused abusers that give significant space to his accomplishments, potential, community ties or (as in the case of Stanford rapist-who-can-swim Brock Turner) super-fast swim times.
One recent profile of Porter, written after the allegations surfaced, called him a rising star, then detailed the Harvard educated Rhodes Scholar’s “Years of experience,” and “Family ties,” before finally dropping about 200 words on the abuse allegations at the bottom of the piece.
You’ll read about unspecified treatment programs and plans to pray for this great man’s recovery from his terrible mistake. Senator Orrin Hatch tweeted, “I am praying for Rob and those involved,” and Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock released a statement that included the line, “Senator Hatch spoke to Rob about his next steps and urged him to get help so that he could possibly serve the country in some capacity down the road.”
This myth of a nice guy who took a wrong turn somewhere lies at the heart of how the cultural narrative seduces us into believing that malicious women file false reports constantly.
Note the absence of the abused women in these statements. Note the way we simply do not exist. We are the baddies, the stumbling blocks thrown down in the story of Porter’s redemption. This is the story of Porter, great man who made a terrible mistake. And the women he hurt? The women who spoke out about their abuse at his hands? Well, a man’s private life is none of our business. Great guy. Terrible mistake. Prayers. Treatment. Great guy. The greatest. I hope he’s doing okay. He’s really taking a beating.
This myth of a nice guy who took a wrong turn somewhere lies at the heart of how the cultural narrative seduces us into believing that malicious women file false reports constantly. Apparently, women love character assassination more than they love Greek yogurt and letterpress stationery combined.
We are afraid of false accusations in the same way that we are afraid of shark attacks. The threat feels immediate because rare instances receive exhaustive attention, but these attacks are not common. Sharks only take out about five people a year. That’s barely one annoying We didn’t make a reservation but maybe you can push two tables together party.
Take a step back and realize that this narrative of a good guy who did a bad thing twice but isn't a bad person comforts you because on some level you know it’s a fabrication.
We shouldn’t be scared of sharks: It makes a lot more sense to be afraid of mosquitoes, ubiquitous critters that account for 725,000 deaths per year, across the globe. But if you start getting scared of mosquitoes, the world is a far more dangerous place. If you’re scared of mosquitoes, you realize how many people around you are at risk.
The Department of Justice reports that an average of 967,000 Americans suffer nonfatal abuse by an intimate partner each year — more than mosquitoes kill worldwide, and nearly 200,000 times more people than the five we may lose to sharks this year in every ocean on earth. Sharks are not the problem.
Are you scared? Me too.
What matters in the story of Rob Porter is what the story proves about us: We, as news consumers, process stories of abuse through a lens of narrative manipulation that is designed to exonerate men and decimate women.
Take a step back and realize that this narrative of a good guy who did a bad thing twice but isn't a bad person comforts you because on some level you know it’s a fabrication. You believe Rob Porter could hurt women and on some level you can’t care. Whether that’s because you value Porter more than you value these women, or because you’re terrified by the idea that a man embraced by lawmakers and power players could also be a violent abuser, the result is the same: You know and don’t care. You exonerate him and decimate them.
The statements of such figures as Senator Orrin Hatch, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Chief of Staff General John Kelly exist to sell the story that the most obvious reason for Rob Porter’s current predicament is that two vengeful man-haters are engaged in a character assassination, after having plotted for more than ten years to create a fiction of Porter’s abuse, and for some reason they decided that now was the moment to strike.
But the most obvious conclusion is that Rob Porter abused his ex-wives emotionally and physically. The most obvious conclusion is that he hopes that we will prioritize his career over women’s lives. The most obvious conclusion is that he’s been right.
Katie Anthony writes about feminism, family, and other f-words at KatyKatiKate.com, and co-hosts the podcast Mouthy/Messy/Mandatory with Ronit Feinglass Plank. She lives outside Seattle with her husband and two sons.