When Women Gather
I met Stephen Elliott only once, very briefly, at a national writers conference in 2016. I was with a friend who knew Elliott very well, and she introduced me. Elliott looked me over, nodded, and continued to speak conspiratorially to my friend.
Because of a nomadic childhood and a job-hopping adulthood, I’ve met a lot of people in my life. I formed a thumbnail impression of Elliott based mostly on the looking-over I gave him as he did the same to me. He seemed jumpy, squirmy: a body with abundant energy and few outlets. He had some magnetism. I could tell that his way of interaction was persuasive, confederate – I could see it from the way he held his body, from the way he smiled at my friend and kept his head down as he edged closer to her. He looked like a stay-up-all-night-discussing-Nietzsche guy, but he did not look like a straight-talking guy.
This miniature encounter has no significance to anyone but me. I can’t really judge Elliott’s character based on a few minutes of observing him. His conversation sounded like he was trying to run weird circles around my friend to obligate her to spend time with him, but I was surely biased by the tales of horrendous interactions with him she’d previously told me. I hold myself out as a pretty good judge of character, but I’ve been wrong before; what I saw that day was negligible. I might have forgotten my impression of him altogether if not for what’s happened this week.
Today I’m remembering this thumbnail only because his photo has shown up a few dozen times among my acquaintances. I follow these acquaintances partly because I’ve written for The Rumpus several times, with more to come. My brush with Elliott is nothing compared to the interactions my editors have had with him, since he was affiliated with the magazine from the time he founded it in 2009 up until 2017. But I trust them, not him. And it isn’t merely because I know them better. It’s because what Elliott has done, the legal action he has taken in the New York district court system, renders him untrustworthy. Whether or not he is guilty of the accusations made about him in the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet, he is guilty of a preposterous bad-faith action in filing this lawsuit.
1. The List
We could back up as far as consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s, a moment when women gathered to share with each other the radical, unverified notion that there was something wrong with the way the world treated them. We could back up to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, or even to Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies in 1405. Or further. But let’s be reasonable and back up only to 2017, when Moira Donegan created the Shitty Media Men document. I say “document,” and not “list,” because that was all she created – the document, not the list. I mean no insult to say that she was the stenographer, not the creator, of this list. It was a collective effort, and its intention was, as Donegan has stated, not to ruin lives or destroy careers or get anyone fired. It was to warn. To pass the word. To electronically record a whisper network that had already been in place, but was not accessible to every woman who might, in the future, come into contact with Lorin Stein or Sherman Alexie, for instance. It was a modern version of those consciousness-raising groups: this is my experience, and I don’t want to feel alone anymore.
A group document like the SMM list is one of many women’s gatherings in the creative writing field I’m aware of or involved in, and let me say for the record that misandry, direct hatred of men, is never the purpose of any of them. It is no surprise to me that men think women have nothing else to talk about but men, but remarkably, we do. We talk about our careers, our lives, our experiences, our opinions. Sometimes the subject of men (individually or as a group) comes up in these gatherings, but mostly it doesn’t. I’ve read accounts of some gatherings as a sort of voodoo circle intended to stamp out the whole idea of men, but these accounts are as unrealistic as the all-girl slumber parties depicted in teen movies scripted by men. We don’t have pillow fights, and we’re generally wearing clothes.
I understand that men who are inexperienced with women might have no notion of what we talk about when we get together. I remember this issue from grad school – it was pointed out that the majority of authors in the Western canon were male, and thus, the majority of authors in the Western canon had no idea what women said to each other when no men were in the room, and thus, the majority of the Western canon did not depict women’s interactions realistically. (All those slumber party scenes made sense to me when I heard that.)
The Shitty Media Men list was a rare gathering in that it was explicitly about men, but even so, the way it has been interpreted by men is largely wrong. It was not a revenge document, not a Burn Book. Women tell each other what they know to keep each other safe. Don’t walk too close to open doorways on the street in case you get yanked inside; X kind of mace isn’t illegal in Y states. The ugliness the world inflicts on us due to our gender may be at epidemic levels, but documents like the SMM list are antibiotics. You can’t load antibiotics into a gun and fire them at someone. It’s not the point of the thing.
Part of the legal basis for Elliott’s lawsuit is libel: that someone wrote something venomous about him that is not true, a false and harmful thing that he deserves to have retracted and the harm done by it repaid. For example, in the 1970s, Carol Burnett sued the National Enquirer for libel after it printed an item about her being drunk in a restaurant. She was not drunk, and the item fabricated her mood and actions. She won. One of the many questions on the table about this lawsuit is whether the SMM list constitutes libel: whether the allegations on it were false (truth is an absolute defense to libel), and whether material harm resulted from the existence of the document and its allegations.
As a writer, Elliott has been drifting away from prominence for some years now. His lawsuit alleges many lucrative opportunities that were lost to him as a direct result of the SMM list, but the timing of his misfortune doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (This sad, appalling essay appeared in 2016, airing Elliott’s personal and professional problems over a year before the SMM list.) In fact, the lawsuit rests on a number of tottering, complex assertions:
First, that the SMM list is more responsible for Elliott’s essay rejections, ostracism, and downsloping career than is the alleged bad behavior reported on the list. Believing this requires believing that the SMM list had an outsized influence on decision-makers who could torpedo Elliott’s career. It also requires a belief that bad behavior never catches up with those who perpetrate it. If Elliott is not guilty of those bad behaviors – if the list is libelous – then he must believe that quite a lot of women are lying, on an anonymous document that no one intended to be public.
Second, that the SMM list was a conspiracy cooked up by man-haters to ruin the lives and careers of innocent men. Believing this requires staggering self-centeredness, a troubling level of misogyny, and a failure of empathy for the lived experiences of, potentially, every woman who has ever said #MeToo. It requires directly disbelieving Donegan’s account in The Cut. It also requires a belief that women are at all motivated to lie about nonconsensual sexual encounters.
Third, that Donegan is the perpetrator of this whole conspiracy, and thus the author of Elliott’s troubles.
Along with libel, the lawsuit alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. This is a risky move. Intentional infliction of emotional distress is extremely hard to prove, in part because intention and distress are difficult to codify. Per Bender v. City of New York, the tort requires “(1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) intent to cause severe emotional distress, (3) a causal connection between the conduct and the injury, and (4) severe emotional distress.” Negligent infliction of emotional distress is a bit easier, but according to the New York City Bar website, “the threshold of injury is higher.” In short, Elliott will have to prove that Donegan, and/or her co-conspirators, acted “outrageously” and deliberately to hurt him, and/or that he was badly, concretely hurt by her actions.
I don’t see it happening. Even if Occam’s razor didn’t hold and his career decline wasn’t caused by his long-term bad behavior, the burden of proof for the emotional distress tort is just too high. During my years of work in torts as a paralegal (admittedly in Maryland, not New York), I only saw emotional distress brought in a complaint once. Oddly enough, it was a case where a young woman in a mental hospital, a teenager at the time, was repeatedly forced to give oral sex to a custodian. That was considered rape.
Attempted rape is the allegation that Elliott seems most upset about. He insists, in as many ways and forums as possible, that he cannot be guilty of that allegation. I posit that Elliott – who is a writer, after all, a smith of words – is being purposefully obtuse, in his complaint and on the internet, about the loose, multifarious manifestations of rape. Rape can be hundreds of acts that are not traditional man-to-woman sexual intercourse. To say that he cannot be a rapist because he doesn’t enjoy penetrative sex is like saying that he can’t eat lasagna because he doesn’t enjoy semolina pasta. It is falsely naïve, factually improper, and maliciously evasive.
None of the women who have publicly called Elliott out for manipulative, coercive, line-crossing behavior – which he does not seem to have denied – have indicated his behavior rises to rape. I don’t really care whether he’s a full-on rapist or not. He has consistently behaved like a creep, and a lot of women have said so. I believe the women who have declared this, again and again, but I also believe that his actions in filing this lawsuit demonstrate it more clearly even than Claire Vaye Watkins and Lyz Lenz and Marisa Siegel have.
The complaint specifies the complainant’s intention to obtain the names and addresses of all the women who contributed to the SMM list via IP addresses and other internet records. This is nothing more or less than a doxxing threat, presented like a shotgun blast, intending – in my calculation – to ferret out the names and addresses of every woman who participated in documenting their whisper network, and to hand them over to a known perpetrator of the behavior that necessitated the whisper network in the first place. I think the filing of the lawsuit is not intended to restore to Elliott something he lost – the purpose of tort law – but is merely a pretext for emotional manipulation of Donegan and the unnamed contributors. It’s also a warning to any women who might dare to speak (privately or not) against men who have hurt them in secret. It is a power play of the most contemptible kind: a move to invade the privacy of dozens of women simply to prove that he can.
And in case he cannot recognize it: this is the same power play that rapists make. I am doing this to you because I can. Your personhood is secondary to my whims.
3. The Loss
Alexander Chee’s tweet from Thursday clarified a thought I’d had a couple of times since Elliott’s self-defense went live on Quillette in September. “Whoever told you to do this is not your friend,” Chee said. Exactly, I thought. The influences working on Elliott right now are an important element of all this, though I don’t know what form they take. I myself tweeted to Elliott for the first and only time in response to the Quillette piece, saying that he might want to consider what it means that he’s surrounded by such a different class of people than he used to be. I was thinking of how close he once was to the friend who introduced us back in 2016, of her exceptional wit and profound intellectual resources, of her beauty and quicksilver humor. I was comparing her to the people who responded positively to Elliott’s essay in the comments on Quillette. The comparison was not favorable to his defenders.
I was actually sad thinking about this; I felt sorrow that somehow, a man who has added so much to the world had sunk into a pit filled with men’s rights activists and conspiracy trolls. Had convinced himself that they were right, that the world had handed him a raw deal, and it was probably the fault of the bitches. It’s sad to lose a man in this way, for him to give over to people who affirm self-centeredness and revenge thinking. The man is still technically there, but his virtues are gone. What remains is a shell, or a ghost.
It’s a common phenomenon in this era. The internet whispers in the ears of the fearful that blame is easier to shove onto others than oneself, that self-examination is hard and shouting is fun. That exploiting the vulnerability of others is much faster, much more rapidly profitable, than exposing and shoring up the damaged self.
Strength is born when women come together. The Puritans knew it, and broke up women’s gatherings with the label of witchcraft. Stephen Elliott knows it, and he’s attempting to use the legal system to break the circle of anonymity that keeps safe the women who contributed to the SMM list. I can’t even calculate the ugliness of his action, especially coming so soon after two weeks of Kavanaugh left so many women raw and furious. But I recognize this move for what it is, and a great many women, whether they know him or not, do too. I can only hope that the New York district court does as well, and throws his case out.
In the meantime, Moira Donegan’s defense fund continues to grow. Women continue to speak. Think pieces like this one will roll out, and Elliott will either listen or not. The strength of women, our capacity to gather and endure, remains unaltered.
header image: larry d. moore / wikimedia commons