Death of a Hero
For twenty-three years, David Bowie was my hero.
I idolized the man. Whenever I had to answer one of those inane ice-breaker questions asking who would be the one person I would want to take to dinner, my answer was always him.
I grew up on a steady musical diet of David Bowie’s records. Thanks to my mom’s Brit-leaning taste in music, she kept our household in abundant supply of all the albums he produced over his astonishingly long career. I remember countless Saturdays of my parents bopping around their suburban home to Bowie’s latest. At least a third of their small vinyl collection consisted of Bowie, and his albums crowded out the others on our CD rack. I used to ask my mom to recount the time she saw him in concert, one of my favorite stories of hers. She was a fifteen-year-old fan chaperoned by her older brother’s girlfriend, and the Thin White Duke she saw onstage mesmerized her entirely.
Even though I was too young to fully appreciate his music when I first started listening to David Bowie, something about the strange sounds moved me. It was nothing like what I heard on the radio or at my friends’ houses. My attraction to his music was similar to my preteen crush on him as Jareth the Goblin King in the cult classic film Labyrinth: bizarre and inexplicable, yet undeniably magnetic.
As I got older and learned to understand (most) of Bowie’s lyrics, his importance to me only deepened. My early teen years were shaped by undiagnosed social anxiety and depression, and I often felt like an outcast among my peers. Listening to Bowie’s music didn’t make me feel less weird, but it did make me feel less alone—like perhaps there were others out there who felt the same way, including, unbelievably, one of my favorite musicians. In my late teens, when I realized that I am not 100 percent straight, David Bowie’s gender-bending self-expression and fluid sexuality made me feel more comfortable in my own skin. In my early twenties, when I first started taking psychiatric medication for my suicidal depression, I sang along to the track “Afraid” off the Heathen album:
If I put faith in medication
If I can smile a crooked smile
If I can talk on television
If I can walk an empty mile
And I won't feel afraid
No I won't feel afraid
I won't be, be afraid anymore
In other words, it is difficult to overstate how much David Bowie influenced my younger self. His music got me through the lowest points in my life, and for that I worshiped him.
The problem is that the music and the man are not the same thing.
Ashes to Ashes
One month before my 24th birthday, David Bowie died. When I checked Twitter the morning of January 10, 2016, all the air rushed out of my chest. I had never experienced the death of a celebrity as a personal loss before. I called my mom while still in bed and we shared our mutual disbelief that Bowie, celestial superstar, was gone.
In the days following Bowie’s death, friends who knew that he was important to me sent me their condolences. I devoured news of tributes organized around the world and listened to his latest album, Black Star, on repeat, listening for clues that he knew his time was coming. I even organized a party at my house to mourn him. I created a playlist of my favorite tracks, put Labyrinth on the TV, and gave a wine-fueled speech about how much David Bowie meant to me. Later, I posted a photo from the party on Facebook with a similarly adulatory caption. I was basking in the glow of the evening—that is, until a friend commented on the photo, saying that she was surprised and disappointed to see me celebrating a rapist.
I had heard whispers of Bowie’s “problematic” (to put it lightly) sexual history on the Internet after his death, but I am ashamed to admit that I largely ignored them. Bowie had sex with a fifteen-year-old girl named Lori Mattix in Hollywood in the early ‘70s, which amounts to statutory rape given that the age of consent in California was (and is) eighteen. Additionally, a woman named Wanda Nichols accused Bowie of sexually assaulting her in a Dallas hotel room in 1987. I skimmed the stories but rationalized them both; Mattix speaks of her experience with Bowie fondly and seems to describe it as consensual, though she could not legally consent at the time, and a grand jury refused to indict Bowie on Nichols’ allegations due to lack of evidence. I used these pieces of information to justify the lack of nuance in my celebration of David Bowie the artist while refusing to acknowledge the crimes of David Bowie the person.
Regardless of my attempts to overlook or excuse Bowie’s behavior, the fact remains that he committed statutory rape against one person, and possibly sexually assaulted more. This was not a truth that I, a die-hard Bowie fan, wanted to accept. How could an artist who helped save my life, who offered lifesaving solace to countless others, have committed this kind of violence? I had never heard these stories before. I couldn’t believe them only because I didn’t want to believe them.
I wish that I could say that I gracefully accepted my friend’s comment and took it as an opportunity to reflect on the complicated past of my personal hero, and the damage I was doing by publicly admiring a known abuser. As freelance writer Britni de la Cretaz explained on Medium the day after Bowie’s death, “[W]hen you celebrate or excuse rapists, you tell people like me that I don’t matter; you tell all survivors that they don’t matter. You tell survivors that their rapists matter more because of what they contributed to the world, regardless of what they took from them.” My friend, a survivor herself, tried to gently point this out to me.
Defensiveness. I didn’t want to talk about that part of Bowie’s past because I perceived it to be irrelevant; the good he did far outweighed any bad, I thought, and I said as much. In short, I was a total jerk. Several weeks, if not over a month, passed before I got my head on straight, processed what my friend had said, and apologized to her. She had always been right.
And now that I too have been sexually assaulted, I understand exactly how she felt.
With the victim-blaming train wreck of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings this week, sexual assault has been at the forefront of my mind (and everyone else’s) for the past several days. I originally was inspired to write this post last month, however, when Senator John McCain passed away and I saw people lionizing him in much the same way I did with David Bowie in the wake of his death. A friend suggested I write about what it means to mourn problematic public figures, since so many people are tempted to wash their heroes’ pasts clean with the tears of their grief. We hesitate to give an honest assessment of their lives for fear of speaking ill of the dead.
The truth is, though, that any celebration of a public figure’s contributions must be accompanied by an unflinching account of their flaws as well. Without this reckoning, any praise they do deserve rings hollow, a half-truth.
Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I do not equate David Bowie and John McCain. I allow McCain’s friends and families their grief, of course, and I do not wish the pain of loss on anyone. They have their right to mourn. I, however, did not mourn McCain, a racist, misogynistic war hawk who I believe did more harm than good. Unlike Bowie, McCain was an elected official tasked with representing and protecting the body politic of this country, and so had a greater moral responsibility than an artist whose aim is to make music. And unlike Bowie, McCain had a say in the actions of the U.S. military, arguably the most violent institution on the planet. I would never call McCain a hero, though many have.
That said, Bowie was perhaps no less powerful than McCain, though his power was of a different nature. Widely recognized as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, David Bowie had a duty to be good to his fans, including fourteen-year-old self-described “baby groupies” like Lori Mattix. He had a duty to be good to his fellow human beings, as we all do. And on at least one very important occasion and probably several more, he failed.
So, what do we do when a cultural giant dies? Our knee-jerk reaction, as proven by the deaths of David Bowie and John McCain, is to erase their sins entirely. We react this way because we fear that to acknowledge the terrible things that someone has done will conversely dismiss their positive contributions to the world. In some cases, as in McCain’s, this is true. There are some people who have committed too much destruction in the world to deserve a public fanfare on their way out. In others, as with David Bowie, the reality may be more complicated than that. As media professor Dr. Rebecca Hains wrote, “Calling out artists’ abuse of others doesn’t necessarily negate the cultural value of their bodies of work,” (though it definitely can—looking at you, “feminist” comedian Louis C.K.).
I cannot say that David Bowie’s art is worthless because he committed rape. The value of his work is undeniable, given how many people he soothed and inspired. But is his art worth more than the bodily autonomy, the safety and security, that he took away when he committed rape? Is it worth more than the sense of betrayal many of us felt when his ugly past came to light? I don’t know. I think that’s a question that we each have to answer for ourselves.
I Can’t Give Everything Away
I kept listening to David Bowie’s music for a while after his death. I have always turned to him on bad days, when I feel more like the weird outcast of my teen years than the confident woman I am most of the time. Then, little by little, I just stopped. I don’t remember the last time I queued up a Bowie song. When I think about listening to his music, I am equal parts nostalgic, sad, and nauseated. I miss the simple joy I used to feel headbanging around my bedroom to “I’m Afraid of Americans” or writing a love letter while “Cactus” played in the background. That joy is gone now, though, or perhaps instead it is living in a different time in my life. There is no doubt in my mind that David Bowie helped make me who I am today. But who I am today cannot listen to his music without feeling sick with betrayal. I did not give up David Bowie as a political statement, but rather as a means of survival.
Whenever someone dies—be they a politician, a musician, or a member of our own family—everybody only wants to talk about the good that the person did in the world. We want to forget that they were human and capable of terrible things. Maybe we do this because we fear being held accountable for our own actions when we die. If we don’t mention the harm caused by our dead, then perhaps the next generation won’t remember the harm we cause.
Someone always remembers.
We must then choose: stick our heads in the sand in willful ignorance of the person’s flaws, thereby silencing those who were harmed by them, or engage in an honest reckoning. Choosing the truth has many ramifications, depending on who the person was and what they did. We may acknowledge their failings and admire them still. We may decide their legacy is not worth preserving. We may land uneasily somewhere in between, loving them and rejecting them at the same time. The most important thing is that we bear witness to those who remember, and that we honor them as much as we want to honor the dead.
Some will feel nothing. Some will feel everything. Some will wail and some will cheer. As long as we have a clear and accurate account of the person’s life, all of those feelings will be true.