I’m angry at the world’s eagerness to see Tony as your rock instead of seeing you as the rock—for yourself and for all women. And I wish we were doing a better job of thanking you for it, Asia.
Dear Asia Argento,
Like millions of people far-flung across the globe, I am a rabid fan of Anthony Bourdain, the only celebrity to whom I’ve written a genuine fan letter. This, my second fan letter, is to you.
When I saw the Rome episode of Parts Unknown, a cinematic achievement I now know was a collaborative vision, I thought, “Asia Argento is so Tony’s type.” I knew it the moment we saw you slurping spaghetti at a small table with a red-and-white checked picnic cloth while male and female boxers bloodied each other just feet away. It was a scene written by David Foster Wallace—this absurd, macabre dinner theater happening in the background of your conversation, which was as strangely intimate as a Woody Allen first date.
Many years ago, when we were still dating, my husband and I played that game hopelessly monogamous, heterosexual couples play where we made lists of the five celebrities we could sleep with should the 0.003% chance arise. Tony was on my list. I like the silverfox look (John Slattery was also on there), but Tony’s greater appeal was his writing. What he made on No Reservations and Parts Unknown, as well as in his memoir Kitchen Confidential, was brilliant narrative, and that’s what I longed to do, too. I didn’t want his globetrotting, marrow-supping job as much as I wanted his ability to render perspective so powerfully—artfully, incisively, unforgettably—that it changes others’. He certainly changed mine on many things: street food, The Wire, the conservative places in my own country that I once feared and mocked.
But there’s a moment in the episode when it was you, Asia, who changed Tony’s perspective. Sitting on the Palazzo Dei Congressi, a place that still harbors the muscular ghost of Mussolini, and is therefore a place hardly visited by Italians today, the two of you spoke about the politics of the architecture. Tony used the palazzo’s intimidating ambience—reminiscent of Lincoln Center, he said offhand—to comment on Donald Trump and the worldwide resurgence of fascism. The whole Rome episode now seems motivated by Trumpism (even though Tony did not speak Trump’s name, he loomed as large as Mussolini’s obelisk), the thesis being that “rationalist” places like the Palazzo Dei Congressi (unlike monuments to Hitler that have been torn down in Germany) keep alive the virus of totalitarianism; it may lay dormant, but it is never extinct. Tony said, “We’re always looking for a man on a horse to make everything better.” A classic Bourdainian insight.
But the moment wasn’t over yet. “That’s what happens with all of your idols,” you answered. “You create them so you can destroy them.”
Now that I’m older and search less for the “man on a horse” than the woman with her fist in the air, I’m ashamed to become acquainted with your filmography—and discography, directorial credits, and activism—because of Tony’s death. I wish I’d have come to your work sooner. I am so sorry for the ways you’ve suffered to make it.
When Tony died, you issued a plain-spoken, but anguished statement calling him “my love, my rock, my protector.” I thought back on the posts he’d shared in the weeks and months before his death—a video of your Cannes speech, which he admiringly called a “nuclear bomb”; taunts at Harvey Weinstein about prison Jell-O that used the word “rapist” without qualification; a photo of you receiving a standing ovation after speaking at the European Parliament. Tony was, it seemed, an unfailingly supportive lover, and his vocal support of the women coming forward with allegations against Weinstein offered me protection, too—even my most macho guy friends loved Tony, so his amplification of #MeToo registered with them.
But Tony admitted in interviews that what got him involved in the movement (and caused him to look back with regret on his own perpetuation of misogyny in kitchens past) was his relationship with you—because of your own and so many other women’s stories of sexual assault and harassment in everyday environments like the back of the house, as well as in the 4-star hotel suites of notorious film industry moguls.
I was relieved that I still had one male idol I did not have to destroy. But lately, as I follow the twinned stories of your assault and your grief, I am angry that you, or I, or any other woman still needs the legitimation of a man’s “support” in order for her story to be believed. I’m angry at all the ways women need men to protect them—walking us home, defending our reputations, intimidating all those other men (from predatory colleagues, to electricians on a house call, to the guy in the upstairs apartment who blasts his music at 4am)—because there’s no such thing as protecting ourselves in a patriarchal society built on keeping women in need. I’m angry at the world’s eagerness to see Tony as your rock instead of seeing you as the rock—for yourself and for all women. And I wish we were doing a better job of thanking you for it, Asia.
I have no interest in repeating the stupid and vicious things the worst of the Internet has leveled at you in the year since you went public with the truly hideous and terrifying story of your rape. I do want to underscore the courage it took to tell the whole story, not just of the rape itself, but of the years that followed when Weinstein, who now had the dirt he needed on you, insidiously sought to deepen your dependence on him by trading his power for your body. To me, the dynamic he set up rendered any sexual contact you had with him in later years non-consensual.
There was the time, back when I worked as a waitress, that I needed a ride home from the restaurant at 3am, and the cook who offered that ride drove me out to the sticks until I gave him a blowjob so he would take me back to my apartment. There was the time a professor forcibly kissed me and then wrote me a letter of recommendation. There was the time, later in college, when I was dating a man who had once groped me without consent. One day, we were hanging out in his dorm, listening to music, and he reached over and grabbed my breast. Furious, I swatted his hand away (the only time I felt capable of physically fighting back because his roommate was there). He began to cry. He was in love with me, he said, and my rejection was killing him.
My college roommate, a tiny former cheerleader, was so incensed by this guy’s behavior that she yelled at him at a party until he kicked a door and fractured his own toe. And still, I dated and even lived with him for over two years because somehow he’d convinced me that I was unfairly hurting him by withholding my body from him.
I imagine friends from that time could hold up a photo of us holding hands or kissing in a stairwell and say, “You don’t look miserable to me.” And they’d be right that I had happy times in the relationship. In my experience, it is not hard for women to treat men who have assaulted them with politeness and even affection. Nobody realizes that that is how we’ve been trained to survive.
(Look at Mary Karr, the prolific writer and once-girlfriend of David Foster Wallace, who tried to save his life even after he attempted to push her out of a moving car, broke her coffee table, and stalked her son. Look at Dylan Farrow, who thought of her father, Woody Allen, as a hero years after he molested her as a child.)
Even less do I want to summarize the attacks you’ve endured since losing Tony in June. The cruelty online became so pronounced that you recently disabled comments on some of your Instagram posts, particularly photos of you and Tony where his “fans” have faithfully followed the Sexism 101 playbook, resurrecting such timeless slurs as gold digger, whore, and succubus. The lack of creativity in these tired narratives would have brought on one of Tony’s more caustic tongue lashings about the weakness of the human meat-sack. But your turning off comments broke my heart because, in order to protect yourself from the trolls, you had to erase so many of Tony’s own words to you—the many times he expressed awe at your artistic gifts (#MakeArtEveryday), and said he loved you, and called you “my A.”
Five years ago when my father—a popular bar owner with many loyal customers—died suddenly at 63, I, too, became a lightning rod. In my case, the attacks were publicly-aired criticism over my handling of the bar’s management and sale (a task that caused me countless sleepless nights and exacerbated my pain tenfold). Grieving people who had hugged me at my father’s wake later shared disgruntled posts about me on Facebook. They wrote damaging reviews of the bar on Yelp. The friend of a male employee I had to fire because he repeatedly undermined the female manager wrote that he hoped I “ended up penniless and freezing, homeless in the street.” Worst of all, they said my father would be disappointed in me.
Because of this, visiting my hometown still causes me anxiety attacks.
Tony, whose goal as a travel writer was to complicate our notions of the world and our place in it, would call instant bullshit on the trolls who’ve reduced the story of his death to a set a photographs. He’d also call bullshit on the old cliché these trolls love: Images don’t lie. Except they do; images tell the biggest lies. In a modern sense, they do this with Photoshop and FaceTune, but the photograph has always been a liar because it offers the narrowest of views—moments we can judge without information, context, complexity. A woman hugging a man = she’s sleeping with him. Even if it’s true, it still only ever tells part of a story we have no right to hear.
Fitting it was Playboy that finally interjected. Recognizing the pattern of attack on your social media as the “Courtney Love Phenomenon,” Leigh Kunkel calls out the misogynistic blaming of women for the suicides of famous men. “A more nuanced understanding of suicide and addiction, along with continuing the work done by movements like #MeToo…could help to prevent the next woman from being unfairly targeted,” Kunkel concludes. I’d add to this that we need a more nuanced understanding of grief, as well. The pervasive myth that grieving a lover should be a graceful exercise in chastity, purity, and ritualized pain only serves to exacerbate one’s grief by telling the survivor she must prove her devotion to the deceased by becoming the walking dead. Share a photo that shows a still-living, still-smiling, still-making-art grieving woman, and here come the admonitions that you’re not properly devastated.
The surprising thing about grief—and what makes it survivable—is the way it magnifies everything else, including joy. Tony knew this; he recorded this magnification frequently on his shows. Remember Beirut. Remember New Orleans. Remember Libya, Congo, and Jerusalem.
But while Tony may have taught many of us about this kind of survival, he didn’t teach you. You had to teach yourself a long, long time ago.
You know that the only way to survive is imperfectly.
“Through what other people may see as mistakes, there is a search for beauty and immediacy,” you said of the experience directing the truly stunning Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown. “The only way for me to create something new nowadays is through these unpredictable events that force your senses to be on alert at all times.”
Asia, I can only imagine what your senses have revealed to you since June 8th. And I can only hope that you will keep making art every motherfucking day to share with us the beauty and immediacy of survival, the heart inside of you a beating fist.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her most recent collection of essays, How to Euthanize a Horse, won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize and can be purchased directly at amymonticellowriter.com. Other work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and Brain, Child Magazine online. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.