It Doesn’t Matter If You Like Shia LaBeouf—You Still Have to Listen When He Says He Was Raped

Our response to celebrities’ traumas says a lot more about our culture than it does about the entertainers who experience them.

(Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

Dec 4, 2014· 6 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

Last week actor Shia LaBeouf alleged that he was raped by a female visitor to his Los Angeles art installation #IAMSORRY in February. The performance art project had LaBeouf sitting in a room wearing a paper bag over his head, inviting participants to interact with him while he remained silent.

In an interview with Dazed magazine, he described how an unnamed woman at the installation “whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me.” Word of the incident spread through the waiting line to his girlfriend, and when she sought an explanation, LaBeouf said, “I couldn’t speak, so we both sat with this unexplained trauma silently. It was painful.”

The revelation sparked damaging assessments of LaBeouf across social media that will be achingly familiar to many male rape victims. Rape can’t really happen to a guy—who wouldn’t love that sexual attention? If it didn’t involve penetration, it doesn’t count. Some even insisted that without witnesses, it couldn’t have happened—this despite LaBeouf’s artistic collaborators subsequently confirming his account.

CNN’s Piers Morgan joined the lathering crowd with a series of venal tweets that implied it was all a PR stunt and an insult to “real” victims. He tweeted, “A Hollywood actor sitting with a paper bag over his head who did nothing as he claims a woman ‘raped’ him has not been raped.” Despite all the challenges to LaBoeuf’s masculinity, the ones assailing his sanity—he stayed put throughout the assault, ergo, he’s nuts—have been some of the prickliest.

True, the past year has not been one of LaBeouf’s best. After admitting to plagiarizing the work of graphic novelist Daniel Clowes in a 2013 short film, the actor hired a skywriter to write the messageI am sorry Daniel Clowesabove Los Angeles in January. He also retired from “all public life” via Twitter, only to walk a red carpet with a paper bag on his head that read "I am not famous anymore." This summer LaBeouf’s volatile behavior during a performance of Cabaret in New York got him kicked out and arrested for disorderly conduct.

It’s odd stuff, but none of it matters when it comes to an alleged sexual assault. Rape hinges on consent. LaBeouf didn’t give his. That’s rape. Case closed. His mental state has no bearing on the veracity of the claim and can’t be known anyway. Besides, as Lindy West pointed out in an excellent piece on the actor in The Guardian, “mental illness makes a person more likely to be the victim of sexual assault, not less.”

Once again, too many in the American public—and Morgan, a broadcaster from the U.K.—are incapable of talking about rape without breaking out an imaginary socially approved yardstick of victimhood. Just look at the long list of requirements defenders of rapists have for victims in comments sections: It could only have been rape if it was physically forced—you know, rape rape; the women can’t have dated the rapist nor accepted professional help or money from him at any point; they should have immediately reported the rapist to the police. But what LaBeouf proves is that the abject dismissal of “imperfect” victims is gender-blind. The public doesn’t really want to hear from people with anything less than a bulletproof story, spotless credibility, and righteousness to spare.

LaBeouf has none of those things. He’s not even likable by actor standards, neither a lovably dumb ox with rippling muscles nor a dashing, Clooney-type wit. But that’s never been him. This is important, particularly if people seek to discredit his rape allegation based on his temperament.

I spent about an hour with LaBeouf eight years ago. I know, that’s hardly a significant amount of time, and it was nearly a decade ago at that. It was during a meet-and-greet, an industry term for the dog and pony show budding stars are required to go through with editors and producers in advance of a big project. As an entertainment editor with a teen magazine, I had dozens of these informal interviews with no-names each year. Most were so forgettable that it’s only years later that you remember, “Oh yeah, I did meet an apple-cheeked Channing Tatum and Megan Fox way back when!”

LaBeouf was different. Unlike wannabes following publicists’ scripts to a tee, the 20-year-old actor was intent on presenting no facade. He was there to shill for Disturbia, his first mainstream adult film, released just before breakout roles in Transformers and Indiana Jones. He was affable when asked inconsequential what’s-on-your-iPod questions yet circumspect when I asked about his motivation for acting.

The reason wasn’t fame or money—no kid would admit that—but art. The why rang pretty true: LaBeouf explained that his parents were hippie artists, his father a drug addict who was absent during much of his childhood.

“My thing has always been because my parents, my dad mainly, I never really had much of a relationship,” he told me. “The only thing he’s ever respected or responded to is artwork that he respected. That became my whole goal in life, for more reasons than just the artwork but for a family. That’s where I went. I’m kind of fortunate in that regard, that I wasn’t bred in a place where I had constant attention. The only way I could get it was through art.”

It’s an old story: a son desperately seeking approval from dear old Dad. But it makes so much more sense in the context of his current celebrity. A Disney star from age 12, LaBeouf already knew the demons that might await him. He consciously chose a purer path based on art, one he believed would insulate him. His commitment and self-possession were something you couldn’t help rooting for.

In the years since, family history or Hollywood life must have trumped those good intentions. Because so many child stars have gone off the rails before him, it was hard to muster more than a shoulder shrug when he disclosed this summer that he was getting treatment for alcohol addiction after the Cabaret incident.

In spite of the isolating properties of fame, LaBeouf has continued to seek an artistic connection with the public. Yes, he can come off as a massive douche at times, but other times he’s pretty self-aware about his self-confessed existential crisis, drug use, and alcohol addiction. In a sit-down with Interview magazine this fall, he talked about why he felt compelled to go full method acting and take acid for a role: “I wasn’t evolved enough to be able to control my commitment. And because I was so scared of being a bad actor, there was no limit to the commitment.”

These may be the words of a bloviating addict justifying his self-destruction. Or worse, a derivative poseur. But #IAMSORRY was LaBeouf’s way of reconnecting to the humanity that made him want to create art—however he defines it—in the first place. As he told Interview, “I’ve given up so much control over myself to this industry.” Maybe the only recourse he saw was opening himself to audience members in person, even if they meant him ill. That still doesn’t mean he deserved to be violated, though.

In writing about why LaBoeuf’s claim should be taken seriously, Jill Filipovic of Cosmopolitan recalled the words of performance artist Marina Abramović, whom many accused LaBeouf of aping with #IAMSORRY. Speaking of her Rhythm 0, a piece wherein some audience members physically assaulted her, Abramović said that creating art can exact a toll: “Through the process I realized that if you give total freedom to the public, they really can kill you.”

The same could be said of the modern entertainment industry. Young performers who would do anything for art (or money or fame) are much more likely to be ensnared in Hollywood’s culture of sexual assault and drug addiction, two experiences that can potentially destroy souls from the inside out. They’re both commonplace in L.A., yet they’re not discussed much beyond slide shows of child stars gone wild, or worse, to their graves. It’s a rare star who reveals a rape, as Lady Gaga did on Howard Stern’s show Tuesday, and its brutal aftermath from a place of apparent peace and recovery.

We need to talk more about that in-between stage, when our entertainers feel or are deemed too crazy, too damaged—too real—to perform. Usually we substitute their private traumas as a new form of entertainment, becoming more invested in their downfall than in the talent that appealed in the first place. It’s sick, especially when the industry possesses limitless resources to help. But when it’s so common to silence traumas, as many have done to LaBeouf, some stars may believe they’re better off suffering in the shadows.

Reminiscing on meeting LaBeouf reminded me that I interviewed another bright child actor that same year. A talented comedic actor who broke out of Nickelodeon into a solid early film career, this 20-year-old distinguished herself from the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of Hollywood at the time by remaining out of the hard-partying fray. I asked her her thoughts on her peers’ drinking and drugging to excess. She responded, “It’s sad, because [fame] is so appealing and everybody thinks it’s so great. But then five years from now you feel used, and everybody’s sort of taken every bit of goodness from you and you’re sort of left with nothing.”

The star was Amanda Bynes, a young woman whose erratic behavior and relationship to fame have also been mistaken for performance art. Her words are awfully eerie in light of her apparent struggles with mental health and subsequent exclusion from Hollywood. Shame on all of us for not paying attention when she was speaking out.