Like many of you, I imagine, the news about Jean Vanier reminds me of my own experiences with weighty, spiritual men—one especially. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but I think about him all the time. I am still trying to make sense of the multitudes he contains.
He was charming, thoughtful, and intelligent. He crossed boundaries and watched for a reaction, and if there was one, he waited patiently before trying again—a true predator. He was also wounded and emotional, did attention-seeking things like walk into the room with “Poison & Wine” playing loudly on his open laptop.
There are days when I still feel manipulated by his charm, and I have to remind myself of the other women he harassed and spiritually abused, and of all the times and all the ways he made me feel like I couldn’t trust my instincts. Because otherwise, I’ll get caught up in little things, little moments of almost-grandfatherly tenderness that haunt me.
They really are little things—like the day I admitted that I was hungry in the middle of a meeting, and he pulled out an apple and washed it for me by rubbing it gently on his sleeve. Or there’s the evening he saw me wearing glasses for the first time and told me he liked them. I explained that I was only wearing them because I had to and that I felt self-conscious, so he had people come up to me and compliment them all night. He orchestrated this faux-secretly, whispering his instructions just loudly enough so I could hear.
I’m not surprised to hear about Jean Vanier, not really. I feel sick and angry, but I know too many people who would attest to the depth, insight, and kindness that their abusers are capable of to feel surprised. What do we do with their multitudes?
I hesitate to admit that I don’t really mind what we call cancel culture. At least, I see a marked difference between, say, John Piper attempting to cancel Rob Bell for asking some theological questions and cancelling the prestigious and powerful for things like sexual abuse, racism, or unrepentant transphobia. Too often, these people remain securely in their power positions, so the rest of us do what we can with the power we have: our attention.
As I consider critiques of cancelling, I am reminded of the episode from the second to last season of The Office where Todd Packer is fired. Nellie declares dramatically to the room, “Fire the employee, yes, but not the man. You may not cancel his soul.” And while I don’t really want to align myself with either of these characters, Robert California speaks my mind when he responds: “…That was never on the table.” Likewise, I don’t believe the general public intends to cancel anyone’s “soul” or to assert that they no longer have intrinsic value but to remind all of us that no one deserves a good reputation, or any reputation at all.
Fame is power, and wanting to reduce someone’s power after they have abused it, to not only sully their reputation but to mute it, seems right to me. If these men were unable to recognize sooner that they were incapable of using their power well and to take the appropriate action, then we have both the right and the responsibility to do that for them. Of course, this doesn’t quite work with Jean Vanier. Aside from condemning his actions and praising the women who came forward, which L’Arche did beautifully, there’s not much to do.
Except, we can do more of that, and more often. I keep coming back to this line from “Praying” by Kesha: “When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name.” That is the goal of cancellation, in my estimation and in contexts like these: to empower victims and decenter abusers. Jean Vanier cannot be fired or removed from any actual power position, but we can cancel his power by turning our attention elsewhere, or by quieting his voice. We can do this without ever forgetting how common he is, or how common it is for the “best,” deepest, and weightiest among us to secretly abuse their power. Let him teach us that lesson, but then, let us focus on elevating the voices and stories of others.