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Graduation Speaker Switch Over Comments on Women

Daniel Handler, the children's author known as Lemony Snicket, will no longer speak at Wesleyan commencement, amid furor over his comments about women.

March 2, 2018
 
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Daniel Handler

Wesleyan University announced recently that Daniel Handler, an alumnus and the children's author who writes under the name Lemony Snicket, would be this year's commencement speaker. But on Thursday, the university announced a different speaker, Anita Hill, best known for raising charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings. (Hill had originally been scheduled to receive an honorary degree but not to be the main speaker.)

Handler withdrew amid anger by many Wesleyan students and alumni as they learned of his history of making rude comments to women, and at least one case where he made a racist comment, joking about watermelon right after Jacqueline Woodson had become the first black woman to receive a National Book Award for literature for young people.

Critics said it was inappropriate for Wesleyan to be honoring Handler -- he also would have received an honorary degree -- given his treatment of women.

While reports about Handler's comments to women over the years have apparently been known in parts of the literary world for some time, this history is getting more attention now, amid the Me Too movement and scrutiny of the conduct of many prominent authors.

A recent article in Pacific Standard detailed Handler's history of comments to women. Many of the comments were sexually charged and demeaned or belittled the women. In one instance, riding on a bus with fellow authors at a literary festival, when Handler heard a woman say she was from the Midwest, he shouted, "Are you a virgin, too?"

As the article and various reports circulated, many Wesleyan students and alumni criticizing the invitation to Handler on social media.

One tweet, referencing Michael Roth, Wesleyan's president, said, "Again and again and again, @wesleyan_u and @mroth78 demonstrate that they prioritize Wesleyan's Brand™ over pain inflicted upon actual people. Do not put @DanielHandler up on that stage with Anita Hill. She, and all of the survivors at Wesleyan, deserve so much better."

Posters on campus featured a photograph of Hill at the Thomas confirmation hearings and focused on the irony of having a man accused of demeaning women appear with Hill, a hero to many for sharing her views of Thomas -- years before the Me Too movement brought support for women making such accusations.

"Time is up for workplace harassment," said the poster. "It is an insult to survivors, women, people of color and Dr. Hill to give this honor to Handler. We call for the removal of Handler as commencement speaker."

Roth sent an email to students Thursday, posted to Wesleyan's Facebook page, that said, "Daniel Handler has chosen to withdraw as Wesleyan’s Commencement speaker this May. We’ve agreed that the focus of the event should be on the Class of 2018, their families and the celebration of graduation."

In a comment on a blog, Handler acknowledged the criticisms of his comments.

"It’s come to my attention, far too late due to my own flaky logistics and lack of an internet life, that a number of women are coming forward to address remarks of mine, at various points in time, that have caused them hurt. It has never been my wish to insult any of my professional colleagues. I sincerely, if tardily, apologize," he wrote. "My whole life my sense of humor has not been for everyone, and my books continue to be regarded, by a segment of the population, as inappropriate. As someone who’s been a struggling author, I take seriously the responsibilities of my visibility, and have always thought that treating all of my colleagues the same was the best way to dispel the unease that can come from a competitive or self-conscious environment."

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