Whenever a male celebrity’s name trends online, my immediate reaction now would either be “Oh no, is he dead?” or “Whom did he sexually assault?” And when it’s the latter case, it no longer hurts to find out that a male celebrity I used to really like turned out to have sexually harassed, attacked, or abused someone.
I crossed that line last year when a blog post written by a woman named Tchiya Amet gained traction. In it, Amet accused Cosmos and StarTalks host and the rock star of astrophysics, Neil deGrasse Tyson, of drugging and raping her back when they were both graduate school students in the ‘80s. At first I was shocked to read that news, but after a few seconds, common sense hit me: The academic setting is definitely not immune to cases like this, especially at a time when there wasn’t a lot of awareness about consent and respect for physical and psychological boundaries. Plus, no woman would risk her neck going after someone as popular as deGrasse Tyson just for nothing. #YesAllMen, including everyone’s favorite scientist.
He didn’t address the accusation then, and he probably never would have until two other women came forward recently through the website Patheos to state that deGrasse Tyson had acted inappropriately toward them.
Physics and astronomy professor Dr. Katelyn N. Allers alleges that in 2009, the astrophysicist had grabbed her, ostensibly to see the fuller view of the solar system tattoo she has on her arm. The other woman, meanwhile, was his former assistant Ashley Watson, who says that the Cosmos host had attempted to seduce her after work this past summer and also inappropriately touched her, on top of the other misogynistic behavior he had demonstrated throughout her employ; she felt forced to quit her job due to his unwanted sexual advances.
This past weekend, deGrasse Tyson put out a long-ass statement on his Facebook page, addressing all three allegations in a statement he had titled “On Being Accused.” For the TL;DR crowd, here are some key (but still pretty long) quotes:
“For a variety of reasons, most justified, some unjustified, men accused of sexual impropriety in today’s ‘me-too’ climate are presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion. Emotions bypass due-process, people choose sides, and the social media wars begin.”
“In any claim, evidence matters. Evidence always matters. But what happens when it’s just one person’s word against another’s, and the stories don’t agree? That’s when people tend to pass judgment on who is more credible than whom. And that’s when an impartial investigation can best serve the truth – and would have my full cooperation to do so.”
“She was wearing a sleeveless dress with a tattooed solar system extending up her arm. And while I don’t explicitly remember searching for Pluto at the top of her shoulder, it is surely something I would have done in that situation.”
“She is a talented, warm and friendly person…I expressly rejected each hug offered frequently during the Production. But in its place I offered a handshake, and on a few occasions, clumsily declared, “If I hug you I might just want more.” My intent was to express restrained but genuine affection.”
“I invited her to wine & cheese at my place upon dropping me off from work. No pressure. I serve wine & cheese often to visitors…She freely chose to come by for wine & cheese and I was delighted.”
“Afterwards, she came into my office to told me she was creeped out by the wine & cheese evening. She viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her, even though she sat across the wine & cheese table from me, and all conversation had been in the same vein as all other conversations we ever had.”
“I never touched her until I shook her hand upon departure. On that occasion, I had offered a special handshake, one I learned from a Native elder on reservation land at the edge of the Grand Canyon. You extend your thumb forward during the handshake to feel the other person’s vital spirit energy — the pulse.”
“Over this time I had a brief relationship with a fellow astro-graduate student, from a more recent entering class. I remember being intimate only a few times, all at her apartment, but the chemistry wasn’t there.”
“More than thirty years later, as my visibility-level took another jump, I read a freshly posted blog accusing me of drugging and raping a woman I did not recognize by either photo or name. Turned out to be the same person who I dated briefly in graduate school….”
“For me, what was most significant, was that in this new life, long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, she was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets.”
“….The drug and rape allegation comes from an assumption of what happened to her during a night that she cannot remember. It is as though a false memory had been implanted, which, because it never actually happened, had to be remembered as an evening she doesn’t remember. Nor does she remember waking up the next morning and going to the office. I kept a record of everything she posted, in case her stories morphed over time.”
“I’m the accused, so why believe anything I say? Why believe me at all?”
Sooooo, where do we start?
Why not with that title? “On Being Accused”—how Alain de Botton of him. Sure, that’s his call to make as he defends himself, and given that he’s an academic, it’s not surprising that his defense comes off sounding like a school paper, with a title and a “Respectfully submitted” at the end. I guess I’ve just gotten used to reading celebrity statements that were typed up on the Notes app, and that’s why this level of formality sounds pompous and patronizing to me. But the more of his statement that I read, the more I realized that the title was just the gateway to more arrogance and posturing.
He doesn’t deny having had interactions with all three women. Except for the accusation that he had drugged and raped the woman he went to graduate school with, deGrasse Tyson basically acknowledges that the events his accusers have stated did happen; they were just simple matters of misunderstanding that he can explain away.
And explain he sure did, because he has a belabored explanation for why he overstepped his boundaries and touched these women inappropriately every time.
On the 2009 incident: “As we all know, I have professional history with the demotion of Pluto, which had occurred officially just three years earlier. So whether people include it or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me.” See, the massive boner he has for Pluto gave him the right to grab Dr. Allers and push or pull up her clothes so he could see her full tattoo, even when she didn’t give him her consent. Oh and yeah, he’s such a massive star who had only been so gracious to her request for a photo with him.
On the 2018 incident: “Practically everyone she knows on set gets a daily welcome-hug from her. I expressly rejected each hug offered frequently during the Production.” So Watson, his former assistant, would basically open herself up to everyone, and deGrasse Tyson was the sole rogue gentleman who refused her hugs with the creepy “clumsy” deflection, “If I hug you I might just want more.” A totally normal statement, right? I mean, it works better than a simple, “No, thank you.” And when Watson told him that their “wine & cheese evening” the night before felt like an attempt at seduction from his side, his view of that evening was innocuous: “…she sat across the wine & cheese table from me, and all conversation had been in the same vein as all other conversations we ever had.” He could read her mind and emotions, and she was behaving the same way she always had! It was just a totally normal “wine & cheese evening,” okay? You know, one between an older male celebrity with a pull on the industry and a younger female employee who is much, much lower on the production hierarchy. Totes normal!
As for that creepy handshake? It’s just a traditional gesture he’d learned from a Native American, which he, deGrasse Tyson, now appropriates practices among people “with whom I’ve developed new friendships”—in this case, a very young woman who had just admitted that he creeped her out.
DeGrasse Tyson’s defense isn’t just a means for him to clear his name. In the process, he’s telling the women that they’re wrong. That what they think happened didn’t really happen—even though he basically admits they did happen—because they misread some things, i.e. his intentions. He’s just a “friendly and accessible” guy who took the opportunities they presented with enthusiasm, regardless if they were comfortable with his actions or not.
Now, gaslighting is infuriating enough, but the smarmy manner in which he gaslights their stories is doubly infuriating. With his statement, he isn’t just discrediting them; he’s also talking down to them, probably because he’s so used to receiving only applause and accolades.
He reserved his most vile counterargument for Amet who says deGrasse Tyson had drugged and raped her. He doesn’t deny knowing her and even admits having had a relationship with her (which Amet denies), and he goes the predictable route of remembering things differently. But deGrasse Tyson makes an even deeper dig at her by expressing bewilderment at the turn her “new life” took after she had dropped out of graduate school: “As a scientist, I found this odd.” But whatever alternative beliefs the woman has now, no matter how far removed from the principles of astrophysics, shouldn’t have any bearing on whether she’s telling the truth or not. For all we know, she might have gotten so traumatized and demoralized by what had happened between her and deGrasse Tyson that she had to leave her previous ambitions behind and go in a totally different direction.
Sharing time: When I was working in a Spanish cultural institution in 2008, during a work event, a Spanish superior repeatedly thrust his pelvis at my hip while chanting, “Toro! Toro!” That happened two weeks before I was supposed to renew my work contract and two weeks before I was supposed to take a Spanish language competency exam, because I had dreamt of applying for a scholarship to study in Spain. But after that incident and aaaaalll the other bullshit I had to face after filing a complaint, I threw away more than a year of tri-weekly Spanish classes and any plans I used to have that were adjacent to them. Sure, I could’ve failed the exam anyway (I doubt it, I’m great at languages), but I’d rather have my plans get derailed by my own inadequacies instead of by a disgusting, disrespectful asshole who terrorized me, first with his lewd actions and then his and his colleagues’ attempts to intimidate and discredit me. To this day, I’m fine with never ever setting foot in Spain and never ever having any interaction with any Spaniard.
Back to deGrasse Tyson: Delving into what the woman now does is such a sly way of presenting her as a liar. It wasn’t enough to hound on the fact that she doesn’t remember the specific details of her rape—probably because she was drugged—but he had to drag in her esoteric practices, and yes, throw in his opinion that this accusation is part of a propaganda organized by some journalists. He basically painted her as an opportunistic liar who couldn’t hack it in graduate school and, 30 years later, is now angling for something by working with people who are out to get him.
Funny that among his lengthy explanations of what “really” happened, the persecution angle he presented got only a throwaway sentence. Doesn’t evidence matter, as deGrasse Tyson himself wrote?
It’s not wrong to defend yourself against accusations; it’s a natural reaction. But this? For all its lengthy preambles? Not the right way to do it. From dragging in the Me Too movement to the often cited “court of public opinion,” deGrasse Tyson’s statement fills the bingo card of victim blaming. Also, you know what? A lot of times, the court of public opinion is all a victim has, because god knows when real justice will get served to them. To the ones who find the courage to speak up, public opinion is the only space where they could get heard—but as deGrasse Tyson demonstrates here, it’s not an arena that guarantees their protection.