When Men Decide It’s Time to Say Sorry

In December, Mario Batali apologized for spilling wine down a woman’s chest at a holiday party — and then rubbing her breasts to help “clean it up” — by sending off an apology via email newsletter. “I have made many mistakes,” he wrote, “and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team. My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.” He signed it ‘mb,’ spaced two lines down, and added this coda: “ps: in case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.” It was a bizarre twofer of an apology: a brief mea culpa, followed by a large photograph of glazed rolls.

Though not all of them have included baked goods, a number of the last year’s apologies by disgraced famous men have landed similarly wide of the mark: They’ve sounded insincere, clueless, self-serving, obligatory, or some combination thereof. “That was the culture then,” offered Harvey Weinstein, before going on to compare himself to Jay-Z. “To the people who I have hurt, I am truly sorry,” said Matt Lauer. And then, quickly: “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized.” Ne-Yo released a song called “Apology”: “Sorry to that one sexy model chick / one I used to pop bottles with / I know I did you wrong / Girl I know I did you wrong.” All those apologies made me aware of my own growing cynicism. It’s hard to be moved by an apology when it is (a) followed by a link to preorder the apologizer’s album, and/or (b) arriving so, so late — prompted by a public shaming, or the fear of public shaming, or an eagerness to look like a good, self-aware man in the sea of bad, shamed men.

Then, in January, an email showed up in my in-box. “I’m Sorry.,” read the subject line. It was from an old boyfriend — someone I dated when I was 15 years old.

That someone had just returned from a Vipassana meditation retreat where, apparently, he’d spent ten-hour stretches of meditative silence reflecting on the #MeToo movement. And on our high-school relationship. He was sorry, he said — for pressuring me sexually, for being insensitive to my past experience (or lack thereof), for treating me thoughtlessly and carelessly and cruelly (his words!) when he left for college. For assuming in the years afterward that we were on good terms. For never apologizing before. He ended the note with this summation: “I’m sorry for how I treated you. And I’m sorry for pretending it wasn’t a big deal. It was a big deal, and for me too. And I’m sorry it took me so long to realize that.” I stared at the screen, utterly unsure of what to think.

In the nine months since the New York Times published its first Harvey Weinstein article, the messaging of #MeToo has reached men whose bad behavior doesn’t run them the risk of appearing on TMZ, whose worst-case scenario likely involves public shaming by way of Facebook. They too, it seems, are taking stock of their own pasts, and struggling to figure out the right way to handle their wrongs in 2018.

And like their celebrity counterparts, many of these men are failing to get it right. Or even close. In November, somewhere between Kevin Spacey (“I choose now to live as a gay man”) and Charlie Rose (“I thought I was pursuing shared feelings”), a classmate of my sister’s, a senior in college, got a long text message from an man who groped her on numerous occasions and once forcibly unzipped her shirt — exposing her breasts — at a party. “You have every reason to dislike me,” he wrote. “What I did was unforgivable, and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life. Knowing that I not only treated but hurt someone in the way that I did to you will always bear a cost on my conscience. I do not want to speculate on the amount of damage I did, because I believe you are the only one who gets to decide that, but knowing that I did hurt someone from the kind of actions that I committed is enough to instill guilt that I might not ever be able to get rid of.”

That’s ten ‘I’s’ in three short sentences, plus the apparently selfless decision not to think back on the harm he’d caused. “It gave me an indescribable sadness,” the recipient told me. “I can’t imagine the pain of others who have endured much worse.”

A former classmate received a similarly unsatisfying, egocentric text from a man who once hit her with a belt without her consent: “I am so so so so so sorry,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s anything else I can say that’ll express how sorry I am. If I could take back that night, I would, even if it meant sacrificing the fun parts — the texting jokes, that special feeling when you meet someone and just connect — I would give it all up if it meant not hurting you, I am sorry.” This left her shaken: she’d asked him not to contact her, and the apology struck her as ridiculous. “How generous,” she said, “that he’d be willing to give up all of the fun texts we exchanged if it meant he’d never have assaulted me.”

A friend of mine received an even sparser apology text in the days following the Harvey Weinstein news, from an ex who harassed her continuously after they broke up. “I miss you,” it read. “And I’m sorry I was such an idiot.” It arrived at two in the morning.

The bad apologies didn’t particularly surprise me; even with the best intentions, it’s easier to simplify, ignore, or gloss over mistakes. But the good apologies — the ones that demonstrated real thought, and growth — did.

Take this exchange I watched play out on Facebook a couple of months back. A friend of a friend — a recent college graduate — posted a status reflecting on her past experiences with consent. “One night, I had sex with someone new,” she wrote. “In the morning, he wanted to do it again and wanted it so bad that he made it happen even though I said no a dozen times. In another recent case, after he penetrated me, I knew I didn’t like it or want it for the entire time it was happening, but I carried through with it anyway.” I scrolled through the comments; friends wrote notes thanking her for sharing, some left hearts. And then came a comment that struck me as — well, out of the ordinary. It came from a man, someone who this woman had slept with once in college.

“Back in school, we’d been flirting for a while,” he wrote. “And one night we started hooking up. I pushed it to penetrative sex and you said stop. I did stop and leave, but it is clear to me that I hadn’t clearly asked for your consent at any point along the way. That moment was certainly very jarring for me, as I completely changed my mindset of what I had been doing right then and leading up to it. I think it took a lot of guts on your part to say something as it’s hard to know how someone might react at that moment.” And then he apologized. “I really hope that our experience was not negative for you in any way of making you more fearful of saying no for the future. I remember afterwards feeling very ashamed and looking in the days afterward for someway to make it up to you.” She wrote back almost straight away. “It’s ok. I think we were both pretty drunk. I definitely was into it, but again, penetration is a big step. You did make me feel a little bad about stopping in the middle. but you allowed us to stop immediately and I never felt unsafe in your presence, then or afterwards.”

I was struck by the smallness of the moment in question (not to mention how publicly their conversation played out). They flirted, went home together. He moved quickly, she said no, he acquiesced, and they moved on. But still: Women often shoulder the discomfort at the memory of these moments, of saying no and feeling guilty. Seeing a man not just take responsibility for his part — but also admit to being uncomfortable, unsure, and mixed up— felt like progress. Or something like it.

The woman who first posted felt the same way. “I was actually thinking about him when I wrote the post in the first place,” she told me. “So I was pleasantly surprised that he felt like he hadn’t done exactly the right thing as well. Because we never talked about it afterwards, at all. And we’d been friends. That he still remembered after all this time, the same way I did — I think in a lot of these cases, you don’t know if the guy realizes what he’s doing or not. I’ve had encounters where the guy seems to think there is nothing wrong with what they’re doing or making you feel. So hearing him recount it, and hearing that he did feel badly about it was really validating.”

Their back-and-forth reminded me of a similar, even more public exchange, which also played out on social media back in January. Megan Ganz — a former writer for the TV show Community — tweeted out a request for an apology from her former boss, Dan Harmon, who she claimed harassed her continuously at work after she rejected him. Instead of writing a standard-issue Public Apology (I’m sorry if my actions caused harm, I regret if I caused any pain), he took a different route: On an episode of his podcast, he recounted his own bad behavior for seven straight minutes. “The entire time, I was the one writing her paychecks and in control of whether she stayed or went, and whether she felt good about herself or not,” he said. “And I said horrible things, and treated her cruelly. I’ll never do it again, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it if I had any respect for women.”

Ganz seemed fairly stunned by his response. “It’s only seven minutes long,” she tweeted. “But it’s a masterclass in How to Apologize. He’s not rationalizing, or justifying, or making excuses. He doesn’t vaguely acknowledge some general wrongdoing in the past. He gives a full account. And yes, I only listened because I expected an apology. But what I didn’t expect was the relief I’d feel just hearing him say these things that actually happened. I didn’t dream it. I’m not crazy.” It was the acknowledgment that made the apology effective.

A couple of weeks after I got my apology, my sister got one of her own. It came by way of Instagram DM, from a childhood friend she hasn’t seen or spoken to in almost a decade. He was vague, but alluded to an incident in which he’d apparently said cruel things to her. She called me after she read it. “It’s the strangest thing,” she said. “I’ve been thinking and thinking and have no idea what he’s referring to.” A couple of weeks later, I heard a similar story from a woman I went to college with. “This may be really out of the blue,” her friend texted her early one morning, “but I’m really truly sorry for how I treated you when we hung out in the city. I was disgustingly aggressive and disrespectful. I’m sorry if I made you feel badly in any way, and I truly regret hurting our friendship.” She was overwhelmingly confused, she said, because she had no memory of the night he mentioned. “Maybe I’d been drinking,” she said. “Or maybe this was just one of the many times I’ve experienced aggression and disrespect from men, and this one didn’t even stick out in my mind.”

Both men, of course, could have been apologizing to the wrong woman. But they also both could have been prompted by the #MeToo movement to dig deeply into their pasts. It’s possible the incidents they remembered felt so devastatingly routine to the women who experienced them that they had hardly registered. If it’s the latter: Well, it’s nice to have tangible evidence that men are thinking, dissecting, remembering.

My #MeToo apology was a sort of gold-star exemplar of the format: He took responsibility for his actions, acknowledged the harm they’d done me, admitted his role in causing that harm, and said he was sorry, six times over — the rules of any good apology, according to Harriet Lerner, who wrote a book on the subject. Still, it made me scoff. I’d thought a lot about our relationship in the ten-odd years since — fumed, occasionally, when I reflected on condescending phone calls and dismissive remarks. He, on the other hand, had texted me occasionally over the years to say happy birthday and to ask me about my love life. I assumed this apology, delivered conveniently in the Time of Many Apologies, was just a ploy to make himself look like a good guy. It was selfish to remind me of the ways he’d hurt me, I thought, just so he could wipe his conscience clean, so he could continue to think of himself as Woke with a capital W.

But I found myself returning to the email. And returning again. That he said he was sorry (times six) didn’t make me feel much of anything. But his clear-headed, straightforward account of his wrongs — hearing him recount our shared experience in a way that clocked with my own memories — despite myself, that felt good.

And suddenly, I was voracious for more. I wanted a corroboration of events from the man (boy, then) who wrote a song about a slut that he met at a party and sang it in front of my classmates, who knew the slut was me. I wanted one from the group of boys who watched me change through a window and then gossiped about the shape of my unclothed body. From the stranger on the street who followed me for blocks, leering at me until I broke into a panicked run. Because confirmation that you’re not crazy, as it turns out, can be a terrific, addictive relief. Even if it comes ten years too late. Even if it takes a meditation retreat.

When Men Decide It’s Time to Say Sorry