Civil Liberties

Gawker Outs Lena Dunham's Alleged Republican Attacker—As a Democrat


Lena Dunham / Youtube

Gawker's J.K. Trotter recently made the decision to publish the name of the person he now presumes to be Lena Dunham's alleged rapist. That was irresponsible of him. Several journalists have dedicated considerable time to investigating the sexual assault that Dunham chronicled in her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl; their reporting, and all information made available by Dunham in response, suggests that the attacker in the story may be a composite character based on her impressions of several dfferent people. Indeed, the person Gawker outed was not even a Republican activist—the key identifying detail attributed to the attacker in the memoir.

In Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham recounts a specific instance of sexual assault during her time at Oberlin College. The book identifies the perp as "Barry," the campus's resident conservative, who wore cowboy boots and worked at the library. There's no suggestion that the name "Barry" was a pseudonym, though the book comes with a general warning that "some details and identifying details have been changed." Still, it's billed as a memoir, and the expectation is that the events depicted actually happened.

And in fact, there was a campus Republican named Barry at Oberlin at that time: one that many interested readers were able to dig up on the internet with ease. But this man never had sex with Dunham, or even met her—facts that conservative critics of Dunham were eager to prove, given how specific she was about her rapist's party affiliation. Earlier this month, Dunham apologized for inadvertently (according to her) impugning the real-life Barry. Any similarities between the rapist she described in the book and the actual man named Barry were purely coincidental, as she had indeed used a pseudonym. The previously mentioned "identifying details" were changed in order to obscure the real identities of certain people, including the perpetrator, according to Dunham.

But if not Barry, then who? Enter Gawker. Trotter's post is titled "Who Is Lena Dunham's Rapist?" It then purports to answer that question:

Dunham didn't invent a rapist character out of thin air, as the conservative writers have implied. The 2012 proposal for Not That Kind of Girl recounted the same night of unwanted unprotected sex—and supplied enough specific biographical detail to identify the man being described.

His name is Philip Samuel Ungar, a 2006 graduate of Oberlin. Now 30, he's the son of formerAll Things Considered host and retired Goucher College president Sanford J. Ungar. Dunham has never explicitly named him, but his biography closely aligns with her characterization of her alleged rapist—"His father was actually the former host of NPR's All Things Considered"in an early draft of the chapter where she describes being assaulted.

Trotter attempted to reach both Ungar and his father, receiving no response. The gossip journalist is in some sense well-qualified to evaluate the changing narrative of Dunham's attack, given that Gawker obtained and published the original book proposal for Not That Kind of Girl, which included a better description of the rapist than the one that made it into print.

Still, naming Ungar at all strikes me as a terrible move at this point. For one thing, while he does match many of the given details—he had a mustache, was the right ethnicity, and graduated late, like Dunham's rapist—the one factor that positively does not match up is his party affiliation. Trotter admits that Ungar was not formally registered to either party while in college. In 2012, he registered as a Democrat. It's hard, then, to see this man as Oberlin's resident Republican activist.

To his credit, Trotter readily admits this:

So what explains the significant evolution of the alleged rapist's description between the proposal and the published text? Random House and Dunham, through her attorney, both declined to comment. It seems possible that the publisher asked her to remove the more identifying details to close off the possibility of a libel lawsuit—only to blunder into another potential suit thanks to the "surreal coincidence" of giving the rapist character the same name as a real Oberlin alumnus.

It's possible, also, that Ungar is not the person who raped Dunham—that, for reasons unknown, she used certain details of Ungar's life in her description of her sexual assault, and decided to remove them upon publication of the memoir.

But then why spell out his name, if there is a good possibility that Ungar never raped Dunham, but rather, details of his character were synthesized with the actual perp? Why write an article essentially saying, who knows if this person did this, but here's his name, anywayThis does not strike me as categorically different than bloggers deciding to leak the last name of "Jackie" from the Rolling Stone rape story (along with a picture of the wrong woman), something I criticized on Twitter. Dunham never actually named Ungar, either directly or indirectly, in the memoir, so Gawker is on fairly shaky ground, considering that the man Trotter is accusing is not actually an Oberlin Republican activist. The reporting itself is solid, but leaving out Ungar's name would have been the wiser thing to do.

It seems very possible to me—nearly proven, even—that Dunham's memoir is not a memoir. Details were altered, events were discounted or embellished, characters were dropped or merged together, etc., in service of crafting a better story. There would be nothing particularly wrong with this; plenty of good writers use their own life experiences as a jumping off point before arriving at a more compelling plot. She should have noted, however, that Not That Kind of Girl is merely based on a true story. The warning that "identifying details" were changed doesn't quite cut it.

Given all these reasonable assumptions, Barry is very probably a composite character, or a specific character whose key traits—like his party affiliation—were altered to make a more convenient villain. It's no secret that Lena Dunham is a standard-issue liberal Democrat who likened voting for President Obama to losing her virginity. Her HBO show, Girls—which somehow manages more self-awareness than Dunham seems capable of—even parodied her Republicans-are-Hitler approach to party politics. It's not hard to imagine Dunham writing her rapist as a conservative Republican, both to conceal the identity of the actual perp and also to castigate Republicans.

Trotter defended his decision to name Ungar as the maybe-sort-of-possible-rapist initially described by Dunham in her book proposal on the grounds that he is really just trying to critique the conservative media reporters who dispute that Dunham was raped at all:

I think the article is clearly, though carefully, framed to "refute conservatives who believe she made it up." It's become conventional wisdom in right-wing spheres that Dunham simply lied about being raped; that she invented her rapist; and that her various responses to these assertions merely confirm them. Why would we withhold evidence directly contradicting that? Gawker is supposed to gather and tell the story behind the story—especially if it's one that other outlets won't or can't tell.

I don't know whether that notion is conventional wisdom in right-wing circles or not, but Breitbart's John Nolte—who conducted the investigation that prompted Dunham to clear the real Barry—explicitly stated it was still possible she was raped by someone else:

Maybe Lena Dunham's rapist is out there, and maybe this man voted for George W. Bush, and maybe this man did indeed hurt two other women. …

Lena Dunham might have been raped at Oberlin College, but the "Barry" she describes in her memoir is a ghost.

If other conservatives are insisting that Dunham wasn't raped at all, then yes, they deserve criticism. But Gawker deserves criticism for showing so little regard for a real person whose relationship to the literary character "Barry" is highly suspect. Many of Gawker's commenters, at least, have taken Trotter to task. One commenter, MiloMinderbinder, writes:

What's the value of this information? At its most compelling, this is the person who committed the act that is described—something that his victim went through significant effort to keep unreported at the time and away from public scrutiny. At it's worst, this is a person—just like "Barry"—who was the inspiration for a character in a story who may (or may not) have had anything to do with what was ultimately written.

Of course, it looks to me like most criticism should actually be reserved for Dunham herself—either for altering key details of her story to paint her political enemies as literal monsters, or for failing to disclose that her story is an embellishment. If the person who attacked her in real-life is significantly different from the person who attacked her in the story—as Gawker's reporting implies—then conservatives were not merely justified in questioning her narrative, but also in criticizing the political agenda that accompanied it.