In the groups I co-facilitate for men who have chosen battering behavior in their intimate partner relationships, occasionally I have an individual complete an "empathy letter" activity. It is made very clear that this letter is not designed to be given directly to that man's victim/partner, but rather is an exercise to work to increase ability to make repairs and amends in that relationship. I tend to choose that activity for men who are still in a relationship with the woman they hurt, who want to perhaps make things better and continue their relationship. It's not necessarily a great idea to force empathy building onto someone who is not interested in doing so, or for someone who is no longer in a relationship and doesn't care about repairing anything directly. It's also an important point to emphasize that empathy is a PROCESS, not a destination - that no one thing will instantly or completely heal damage that often is done as a pattern over a long period of time.
For the sake of explaining this activity, and in analyzing the places where CK's letter is a good start toward repairs and where it falls short, let's read through what he wrote and discuss the four aspects of empathy work we look at during battering intervention class sessions. The goal is always to look at what someone comes up with and add to it, nuance it, make it a living document where the individual might have conversations with his partner in one way when a topic comes up, and in another in a different circumstance. CK has given us all a place to analyze, and some have eaten it up and been happy to see him admitting his wrongs, while others have been disgusted and found his letter to be pure bullshit, disingenuous, and simply a cover-your-ass statement. For the sake of the analysis in this article, let's consider that both perspectives might have some weight (I will be quoting his letter out of order to emphasize these different sections).
The first section to discuss in an empathy letter is does it demonstrate responsibility? Since I believe words hold power, and understanding words helps with clarity, I think it is important to name responsibility as the act of admitting to behavior. Plenty of people avoid ownership of harms they have caused others, and I find that most men entering into battering intervention classes have a hard time doing so at the start. Some might admit to some things, but even in someone who is interested in making repairs it's impossible to admit to full responsibility - particularly in places where the individual is blind to the experience of others. Responsibility, like all the sections is a process, and when the activity is done in the class, I hear someone admit to things and when we offer feedback we ask for more specific detail, for larger patterns, for how things went downhill in a relationship and why. We look at things like poor self-care and how that can damage a relationship, or irritating and alienating behavior that often are dismissed as being too low a threshold to mention (yet can be a huge problem for victims/survivors who experience this irritating and alienating behavior as a foundation to so many other harms).
Louis CK says the following in his letter, which I have put together as a section where he attempts to work toward responsibility:
When considered separately from the rest of the letter, when thinking about ways CK could have taken more responsibility, there is a lot that could be added here. In a class session, some feedback and discussion here would be to have him specifically name how he was sexually inappropriate, to be more explicit in how he placed women in impossible predicaments, how he understands his power as a producer and history of that power, and even in naming women he has harassed beyond these five that are bringing the accusations against him currently, perhaps even discussing any sexual aspects that contributed to the end of his marriage years before. He could speak to how in his comedy routines he has made his thinly veiled sexually abusive behavior into a humorous tale. He has long incorporated masturbation gestures in his sets, has discussed sexual behavior very directly, has named the impact and ability of power in different ways. He has the ability to name his responsibilities more directly, and his letter gives him an opportunity to expand on what he has listed and continue a dialog about his behavior - or to leave it where it is at and hope public attention goes away. Responsibility is an ongoing process of reflection, insight, and removing of layers. If he is truly working toward repairs, he will need to consistently name these behavior, and do so without blaming or excusing things by focusing on others. Since he said "I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want," he needs to use that power to do so here and now. Several people have been angered by his letter, and he needs to validate their anger. Several have been willing to let him off the hook due to his letter, and he needs to admit that his initial letter was a start but is not going to be enough. Make this section an process, not an end point."I want to address the stories told to The New York Times by five women named Abby, Rebecca, Dana, Julia who felt able to name themselves and one who did not. These stories are true. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly. [I've] run from [my actions]. I also took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community. I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want."
Next, we discuss how to admit to motives behind hurtful behavior. This section can get ugly, and it should. Abuse doesn't happen because someone feels positive things about the person they hurt, and they don't happen with consideration of other's rights and needs. This is a very difficult section to write, and it is very difficult for men who have been abusive to discuss. Louis CK is no exception here, as his description of his motives is minimal:
"At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. I didn’t think that I was [using other's admiration of me to silence others] because my position allowed me not to think about it."He has an opportunity here to say why he did not care about boundaries of professionalism, personal space, sexual limitations, power dynamics, or the humanity of those he violated. He did not. He vaguely discusses his power, but also justifies his actions by saying he asked if he could violate these women before doing so. This is probably the most difficult thing that he will need to do if he wants to make repairs, and much of the heavy criticism of his letter seems to be due to him not explaining motives. This makes any attempts at empathy disingenuous. In intimate partner relationships, think of someone working to make repairs. They admit to harms, seem to understand impacts, say what they need to do to change, but never really say WHY they chose to hurt, chose to cause pain, chose to cause fear. This leaves the person victimized to think in their own minds why this happened. It pushes that responsibility onto someone who will never be able to know the answer, because motive is internal to an abuser's own thoughts and self-talk. In classes, I will speak to the need to be vulnerable as a part of a healthy and respectful relationship. Abusers block off vulnerability, and it makes it impossible to connect with another person, and impossible for them to be able to call you on your faults as well as support you when you need it. In this case, admitting to motives creates vulnerability in others knowing what was going through thoughts and values that allowed a choice to abuse. Louie CK, you need to improve this section dramatically, talk to why you waited several years to finally admit to your abusive behavior, speak to why you abused your power when you are so aware of power dynamics as demonstrated by your work. Why you chose that specific violation, and why you thought you had the ability to get away with such behavior.
Detailing an understanding of impact on others is in many ways one of the most direct and "easiest" parts of an empathy letter. The challenge is in deepening understanding, looking beyond the obvious. In some ways it is not a surprise that the bulk of Louis CK's letter is focused on impact. It's what people often expect. Others LOOK for impact, but SENSE when there is a lack of details in motive. Let's look at what he detailed and consider ways he could improve on understanding impact:
But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. Now I’m aware of the extent of the impact of my actions. I learned yesterday the extent to which I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position. [Using other's admiration for me] disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it. [My needing to reconcile my abuse with who I am as a person] is nothing compared to the task I left them with. The hardest regret to live with is what you’ve done to hurt someone else. And I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them. I’d be remiss to exclude the hurt that I’ve brought on people who I work with and have worked with who’s professional and personal lives have been impacted by all of this, including projects currently in production: the cast and crew of Better Things, Baskets, The Cops, One Mississippi, and I Love You, Daddy. I deeply regret that this has brought negative attention to my manager Dave Becky who only tried to mediate a situation that I caused. I’ve brought anguish and hardship to the people at FX who have given me so much The Orchard who took a chance on my movie. and every other entity that has bet on me through the years. I’ve brought pain to my family, my friends, my children and their mother.I have seen criticisms of his letter which talk about CK trying to garner sympathy, sort of the "pity me" request behind his words. This is where that all comes out. Rather than just naming impacts, he laments that he just learned, is finally aware, that he can't wrap his head around the impacts. Think of how selfish such statements can be in identifying impact on others. If you use your understanding of impacts to validate, any statements that refocus on you and your process of how you understand take away from that validation. To say, "now I'm aware of the extent of the impact of my actions," takes it away from a process and makes it an end point. This is not helpful in any way, and cuts off communication. Empathy and repairs are about establishing and expanding open and transparent communication, not closing it off after an initial discussion. He fully spends half of his understanding impacts by focusing on people he has hurt professionally due to his sexually abusive behavior. This moves away from being able to talk about impacts on individuals into hurts on community. In some ways, this can be important, but if it is not combined with explicit and deep understanding of impacts on those directly violated it can remove the ability of empathy to repair. In fact, his focus on community over individuals almost seems to dismiss the impacts to them. He could speak to how his behavior might have changed their comfort around men in general, impacted their own relationships, caused potential trauma, reminded them of trauma they experienced in the past, made them question themselves, perhaps even blame themselves, how they may have been forced to continue working with him and pretend the abuse did not happen. There is a lot Louis CK needs to add here, and during group sessions, there is often a lot of discussion that broadens the ability to validate harms experienced.
Finally, the empathy letter focuses on accountability. I discuss how responsibility may be owning up and admitting to hurtful behavior, but accountability is about working toward changing it. It's about making goals, and about consistently reaching them. It's about considerations for measurable, realistic, specific, and wanted changes. It's about being vulnerable to others in a way that can allow them to hold you to account for those changes. Here is what Louis CK added in his letter on accountability:
I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. I wish I had reacted to their admiration of me by being a good example to them as a man and given them some guidance as a comedian, including because I admired their work. I will now step back and take a long time to listen. Thank you for reading.Saying you are remorseful is not enough. Why is what you did not okay? Why do you want to stop doing such abuses to others? Not how you are "trying" to learn, but how you plan on learning more and on an ongoing basis. Empathy has little to nothing to do with forgiveness, and more to do with active change. When adding detail about needing to reconcile, how does he plan on doing so? How, despite his destructive patterns, can he work to BE a good example for others, how can he provide guidance in making up for such atrocities? Stepping back and taking time to listen is perhaps helpful, but how? What is listening going to provide, actively, for his ongoing work on empathy and repair? There are many things he could add in here, and during groups, that is where the discussion goes. Accountability, like every section is a PROCESS not an end point.
Overall, I tend to think Louis CK's letter could potentially be a good starting point. His sincerity is in question, and the only thing that will answer that question is his sincerity to the process, and details of any ongoing work he is willing and able to do. His listening is directly in his letter - but can he listen to criticisms without becoming defensive. Can he listen to the pains caused in others without going into how hard it is for him? Can he be more explicit about his motives to reveal to himself and others how his abusive behavior built as a pattern over time? Can he add to his responsibility by naming more hurtful behavior beyond the things he is being accused of. Ultimately, I have hope, and maybe it is because this is the first time I remember an individual taking accusations of sexual assault and at least simply admitting it is true. Some have called it a low bar, but in some ways, I think it's good to start somewhere. Let's continue to pressure those who choose abusive behavior to raise the bar for themselves and others. Let's keep the dialog going on methods of repairs and work toward health, respect, and amends.