What Do We Do with the Art of Men Who May Be Monstrous?

On 12 October 2017, Chelsea Tadros posts to her public Twitter account to allege that she and a friend, RaeAn Medina, had been drugged and raped by William Bensussen more than four years earlier, on 05 July 2013. In her letter, Tadros recalls meeting Bensussen one afternoon at the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles, CA-USA; being dropped off in front of the same building one day later; and “a few sharp but at the same time, blurry, memories” [sic] in between. She explains that she has come forward to help herself heal, to prevent the repetition of similar events among other women, and to demand that Bensussen face what she and RaeAn have faced for four years.

On 13 October 2017, when contacted by several web publications for comment, Bensussen circulates a short text asserting that “Chelsea’s version of this story is not true”. He does not deny having had any kind of sexual encounter with either woman, but claims that he had accepted an offer, and that consent had existed between the three people involved. He thanks his witnesses and roommates for their support and affirms that he is taking it all very seriously.

News broken, fallout ensues. The Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival cancels a performance in which Bensussen is scheduled to participate that same evening. Low End Theory, a weekly party series he co-founded in Los Angeles in 2006, issues a statement to say it has “parted ways” with Bensussen. Brainfeeder observes that it has not released his music for over six years, and that he is not currently signed to the label. Tadros, meanwhile, expresses her own thanks for the support that she and RaeAn have received, as well as her admiration for the women that have confided in her. Neither of these sentiments is broadcast by the digital outlets that have thus far shed light on the as-of-yet at-odds accounts.

On 14 November 2017, Bensussen files defamation lawsuits in the Los Angeles Superior Court that together seek at least $5million in damages from Medina, Tadros, and Tadros’ boyfriend, Jack Wagner, claiming that all three disseminated “malicious and fabricated rape allegations against William Bensussen on the Internet, based on a consensual sexual encounter.” A judge promptly relieves Medina from the case but allows that against Tadros to proceed; no news record makes any mention of Wagner, though his name is will continue appearing in the “Defendants” header of successive court documents.

On 20 November 2017, The Paris Review publishes an essay by Claire Dederer entitled “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” in which she asks if she has a responsibility either to reject great works made by condemnable people or to subsume her disdain of their histories to encounter the possibility of their oeuvres’ Sublime. She writes operatively and often, though not always, from an “I”, rather a “we”, in order to personalize her consideration of the merits – aesthetic and ethical alike – and render her assessment “a moral feeling”. She is deeply affected by Annie Hall, and she likewise is familiarly disgusted by Woody Allen’s biography. The way in which two senses color one another implicates her singularly, qua Claire Dederer, and she is not sure what then to do.

On 13 March 2018, a judge at the Los Angeles Superior Court dismisses the litigation against Medina on the basis of an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute, which the state has encoded to stymy retaliatory lawsuits brought by entities to censor, intimidate, or silence their public critics. The judge then green-lights a portion of the legal action against Tadros. Barring an out-of-court settlement or a dissolution on procedural grounds, the motion will produce a discovery phase, an in-court argument over the presented evidence, and, eventually, a decision by a seated jury. Remember that those assembled before the bench will not contemplate whether or not Bensussen is a rapist, but whether or not he is a sufficiently public figure for Tadros to assert that he is. Recall as well that the Governor of California signed a measure in September of 2016 rescinding the state’s 10-year statute of limitations in instances of sexual assault, explicitly in response to the cascade of publicized, date-expired cases that might have been brought against Bill Cosby.

On 15 May 2018, the court documents of William Bensussen v. Chelsea Tadros are released, permitting both parties – presumably bound by lawyerly counsel or law itself to silence in the face of pending litigation – to speak publicly on the narratives and meta-narratives seeded by their run-in at the Standard pool party nearly five years beforehand. Both take to social media, Bensussen writing that he wants to open a dialogue, not impose a silence, and Tadros then inviting him to tell her with 100% certainty that their encounter was consensual and that she is “not a ‘real’ victim of sexual assault.” Their respective lawyers join the fracas with a litany of descriptive hyperbole: frivolous, ignorant, repugnant, fabricated, vile, malicious, hoax, actual malice (admittedly, part of the technical lexicon of defamation jurisprudence), impossible, 100%, forever, everything, the facts, the facts, the facts.

As of yet, no date has been set for plaintiff and defendant to step on stage and dialogue under oath and penalty of perjury, though Bensussen has made a return in the interim to the limelight of live performance.

What, then, is to be done?

Years of ad hominem salvos have muddied the public factbase, if ever it were clear. And even prior to the on-record name-sullying, the claims and counterclaims on both sides were, short results of ongoing stone-turning, not granular enough to stand alone or sufficiently buttressed by witness depositions to clear the pole-vault of an evidentiary bar and win over a bloodless judge. Moreover, while is true that the Los Angeles Superior Court is up to something in parsing this riddle wrought of sparse evidence, it will not itself address the question of whether or not William Bensussen raped Chelsea Tadros and RaeAn Medina.

What, then, are we to do?

Of course, for us, there is neither a bloodless judge to convince nor a Latin maxim to recite re: an alethic incumbency and attendant presumptions of civil and criminal innocence until ______. That said, this has not always been the scenario at hand. In her essay, Dederer ticks through a rolodex of proven geniuses and criminals (not to be confused with criminal geniuses, and certainly not with genius criminals): Sid Vicious helped propel the Sex Pistols to fame and was charged with the murder of Nancy Spungen; Roman Polanski begat Chinatown and was convicted in absentia of the statutory rape of Samantha Gailey; William Burroughs authored Naked Lunch and was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Joan Vollmer. These are histories to lean on and into, names to remember, lodestars to palpate.

William Bensussen made “Nissim”, which will probably wind up in the YouTube algorithm equivalent of a mothballed record crate (this is the beside the point), and was neither arrested nor, from a little Google perusing, questioned by the Los Angeles P****e Department (as is this, at present). We are left instead with a few pole-scattered cut-outs bereft of texture, laden with our calcifying biases about gender and power, enmity and empathy, survivorship and slander, that a solvent of common reason and judicial epistemology would be hard-pressed to disrupt. What would cut into our evaluative visions of ourselves as ethical thinkers with elegant sense of credibility? Instagram DMs and CCTV footage? DNA forensics? A confession or rape or libel? It’s sensible to believe that nearly every mind concerned with the wellnesses of Chelsea Tadros, RaeAn Medina and William Bensussen – and, reflexively, with the integrity of every mind itself – was already made up in mid-October 2017.

Again:

What, then, are we to do?

Claire Dederer insists there is hardly a “we” to do anything, and I believe her.

What, then, am I to do?

On 11 April 2019, I was given two tickets to go as a critic and listen to William Bensussen here in Berlin, at Gretchen, from 23:00CEST this coming Thursday. I was asked as well to announce that this site is raffling off two pairs of tickets to those interested that send a message to win(at)indieberlin.de. (What is the difference between testimonies and ads…)

The club is very close to my home, next door to the grocery where I typically buy my tea. I need to be at work by 10:00CEST the following morning, but there has not been a lot to do with any urgency of late, and there is plenty of coffee in the office and warm sun in the forecast. I am sure that I can find a friend or an acquaintance or a stranger who would take my plus one, and I would likely tell them as much as I can remember of what I have written above, hopefully mostly about the relevance/resonance of Dederer’s essay, and I bet we would still have a decent time. The show is supposed to be phoneless, which I support, and Bensussen will share the stage with other artists about whom I feel no qualm or question or queasiness. We might even like his set of musics: others will be moved or have fun or recognize in hindsight that it beat other ways to pass the hours that we must, or all of the above. I won’t resent the thousand or so that do, and none of this was meant to talk anyone into another Thursday.

But I’m not going. I presume that Chelsea Tadros won’t either, and the same for RaeAn Medina, though, admittedly, our motives are inscrutable, and if anything is clear it is solely that it is as up to them as it was to up me, as it will be up to you.

***

Thank you, if you’ve made it here, for making the time. If you have comments, questions, or other sundry feedback of any stripe to offer, I encourage you to reach out to me via my e-mail, ptkurth(at)gmail.com.

In the interim, take care.

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