Amber Tamblyn's debut novel expands the #MeToo conversation
Walking her dog on a mid-May morning, Amber Tamblyn is reflecting on “I’m Done With Not Being Believed,” an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times last September. The piece alleged that actor James Woods flirted with a then-16-year-old Tamblyn at a restaurant — and that, when he learned Tamblyn’s age, he responded, “Even better.” Woods, via Twitter, had called Tamblyn’s story “a lie,” which only enhanced its resonance. “I went to some party with my husband, and all these women — network executives, heads of studios, actresses I’d never met — were coming up to me almost in tears,” Tamblyn recalls. “For them, not being believed has always been part of the zeitgeist.”
Weeks after the op-ed’s publication, the #MeToo movement would begin shaking the industry to its core, a reckoning for its mistreatment of women. Over the next year, Tamblyn would emerge among social media’s most prominent #MeToo voices. Now the actress-writer is turning to a new medium to deliver her message: fiction. Her debut novel, Any Man, feels explicitly made for this cultural moment. Blending prose with poetry, it gives voice to the victims of a serial rapist as they wrestle with trauma and fend off a media frenzy hungry for sound bites. The book, Tamblyn notes, was in development years before #MeToo. “Just because the movement itself happened six months ago doesn’t mean [a lot of us] haven’t been feeling it for, like, 600 years,” she says. “It’s the same reason why I wrote about [James Woods]: It’s been there.” But as far as getting attention goes, the timing is serendipitous for Tamblyn — a chance to contribute to a vital ongoing conversation in a bold new way.
Indeed, Any Man provocatively subverts expectations: The book’s victims are all men; the predator is a woman named Maude. “I wanted to degender the conversation around sexual assault,” Tamblyn says. She depicts men as vulnerable, emotional beings in a way that pop culture rarely does, while also nodding to the way women tend to be “mythologized.” She explores the role of media in transmitting dominant (and problematic) narratives about abuse and power. No one in the story eludes complicity: “The novel for me really felt, even as I was writing it, like an indictment of our culture — including myself and most readers — for how we are either complicit or complacent when it comes to the culture of rape.”
There’s a beating heart to Any Man — it’s the empathy with which Tamblyn, also a published poet, draws her characters that renders the book so politically potent. The first man featured, Donald, is loosely inspired by Emily Doe, from the trial of Stanford student Brock Turner, who was found guilty of felony sexual assault; we bear witness to the character’s “fracturing,” the aftermath of a life-changing and nationally dissected trauma. But no two experiences are the same. “Sexual assault knows no race, it knows no gender — it knows nothing, and everyone processes it in a different way,” Tamblyn says. Cleverly, she also gender-flips the pervasive culture of victim-blaming; in Any Man, it’s male-centric questions like “Why are men getting drunk at bars instead of being at home with their wives?” and “How could he possibly get raped if he had an erection?” being asked of victims. “It’s akin to what women hear all the time,” she says.
Any Man likely won’t be as widely read as Tamblyn’s Twitter feed; it can’t generate viral clips the way the TV series and films sharply commenting on #MeToo can and do. But Tamblyn believes that fiction can reach people and provoke thought. “Our minds are powerful — when you’re there alone by yourself, absorbing information, you can’t open your mouth and disagree,” she says. “You can’t get in an argument with someone about the way that they think.” Rather, she continues, the book inspires a different response — one that’s essential to the movement’s longevity: “You have to listen.”