I feel compelled to comment on what happened with Malcolm Harris in August of 2017 due to repeated emails, suggestions that I do so from friends, and a still-ongoing public conversation about what went down. The basic details of what happened, from my perspective, are here, along with an apology in which I acknowledge what I did and accept responsibility for it. This has proven to be inadequate to satisfy the demands of a lot of people, almost all of them strangers and most of them anonymous, and so I am going to write about what has happened in my life since that night and my feelings on where things stand. I hate having to take up time and space to do this instead of working on the kind of long, researched work I am here for, but I feel I have to. This post will likely satisfy no one, but oh well.
After it all happened my brother came to take care of me and we went to a hospital with a psychiatric emergency room. This was the start of some misadventures with the American health insurance system. I’ve written about this all before and it’s boring. The bottom line is that I was diagnosed as having an acute psychotic episode due to bipolar mania, I got a long-term psychiatrist who I still see today, and I began on the most aggressive medication regimen of my life. In the months and years that followed I saw a social worker, I did group therapy, I did cognitive behavioral therapy, and I did psychoanalytic therapy. I got sober for 18 months (after which my doctor approved me trying social drinking) and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings off and on for a year. I attended an online mental health support group. I did meditation and yoga until Covid intervened.
I discontinued my education blog project, canceled my Patreon, and largely stopped attempting to freelance, turning down invitations to pitch over the following three years. I deleted Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I did nothing socially for over a year. I got fat off the meds. I worked at Brooklyn College until they let me go. I tried to dig out from under the pile of rubble that I had brought down on myself. And I took the pills. An agent reached out and encouraged me to write a book. With no freelance money my income had dropped by more than a third and I was broke so I did. None of this is noble or a sacrifice. I’m just trying to give you the context of how my life went.
Beyond apologizing and removing myself from the forum where I acted so terribly, it hasn’t always been clear how to make up for what I’ve done, at least in terms of outward behavior rather than the type of internal work I’ve done through therapy and introspection. When I’ve been able I’ve donated what I can to rape and sexual assault-related charities, such as these recent donations:
It isn’t much but I intend to do it more often now that I’ll have a little more financial security. I had no intention of ever making these meager attempts at amends public but since I joined Substack the angry email has been so relentless that I feel I have to.
The problem is that to many people what I do now makes no difference. There’s nothing that I could do to assuage people who think my conduct, and their perception of how I have defended it, are beyond the pale. Which itself would be fine, except they pretend like there’s something that I could do, some atonement ceremony I could take part in that would cleanse myself in their eyes, and… there isn’t. I don’t know why they maintain that clearly false pretense. The won’t even accurately represent my own statements on my culpability. The most often expressed complaint is some version of the claim, “you just blame what you did on your mental illness and dismiss it.” When I’m frustrated enough to make the mistake of replying, I always ask them: show me. Link please. Show me where I have ever said, or suggested, that I don’t bear responsibility for what I did. They never respond, because they can’t. Because I haven’t said that. The idea that I have ever said it has been invented by people who had animosity towards me long before that incident happened. You are free to hate me because of what I did to Malcolm or for any other reason, but to say that I deny responsibility for what I did is simply a lie. It always has been.
You think it’s a coincidence that I linked to my apology in the very first post on this new blog? I want people to know what they’re getting into, who they’re supporting. Because I am responsible. I have always said I’m responsible. I wrote that apology post as abjectly and without qualification as I knew how because I didn’t want to give some bullshit half apology.
What people are looking for me to say is what I haven’t said because I can’t: that my mental illness played no role in what happened. I can’t say that because it isn’t true.
Untangling what is and is not my responsibility when manic is a personal responsibility and an emotional challenge that I will live with for the rest of my life. I think about it every day, and I have been engaged in answering it going way back to the first manifestations of my disorder. Because I’ve hurt people before, some worse than I hurt Malcolm. I have to sort this stuff out not to satisfy Joe Journalist or Tammy Twitter but because that’s part of the basic work of my life. I am compelled to ask not just why I made a false accusation but why I cyberstalked, why I harassed, why I made wild accusations against friends until they turned away from me. It is not possible to figure that out while pretending I didn’t have a severe psychological crisis. The fact is that I was diagnosed as experiencing a psychotic episode by a qualified psychiatrist. Would it make any sense for me to just literally ignore that when assessing the events that happened? I told my doctor at my intake appointment that I was being pursued by the railroad police and that an ex of mine had altered my bank records. How could I do what’s necessary to ensure that what happened never happens again, if I am forbidden from considering how my severe mental illness impacts my behavior? Is it remotely rational to forbid consideration of an illness that changes behavior when trying to understand my behavior?
But the people who still email or complain about me elsewhere don’t care about the complex and messy and unsatisfying work of understanding culpability and mental illness. They don’t like me and they want a cudgel and that’s as far as it goes. If I was ever approached by sincere people who had a genuine interest in trying to work through what happened and who had a modicum of sympathy regarding my illness, I might engage. But that never happens. It’s all people who have a predetermined conclusion they want to reach, so what’s the point? Where’s the upside? Trolls have outnumbered the sincere 100 to 1 on this issue. After almost four years of that, would you be particularly interested in talking?
Everyone has a right to their opinion on me, and I accept that many of those are negative and always will be. I accept that many or most people won’t forgive me for what happened. I also accept that you can agree that I was not in my right mind and still believe I should bear full responsibility, and that I deserve the social shunning and professional consequences that have come with that. That is a right you have. You might not even be wrong. Malcolm Harris, of course, has every right to dislike or hate me, to disparage me if he feels like, or tell people not to engage with me or publish my work, in the event that he thinks about me at all, which I’m sure is rare. I can never make adequate restitution to him. The best I can probably do for him is to leave him alone. He was completely innocent, my false accusation was a terrible crime against him, and I am and will remain terribly sorry. And yes: I stopped taking meds before it all happened. Again. I did that. I will regret it for the rest of my life.
To the rest of you… what is it that you think I owe you?
Next year marks 20 years since my first psychotic episode and hospitalization for bipolar disorder. That’s two decades of living with this shit and two decades of feeling shame and guilt over who I am and what I’ve done. I will go on feeling that way. When they brought me to the hospital in 2002 they gave me a shot of Haldol and I sat there, shoulders somewhere up above my ears, and felt myself come back to myself. And even though I was still badly deluded at that time I saw clearly what I was, which was broken and unclean, and I knew I would be that for the rest of my life. That feeling will never leave me. Soon I will have lived more of my life with that shame than without it. I know what shame is. You haven’t got what it takes to inflict it on me.
I will never live down what happened in 2017, and I accept that this is because of the things I’ve done. My life will never be the same, and I accept that’s because of my own conduct. The silver lining is that now I am fully resigned to medication, including the antipsychotics I have always rejected, for the foreseeable future. The downside is that I have to live with the medications. Is that punishment enough? I don’t know. It’s not my place to say. But either way I promise I won’t do the dance for you. I will not waste one moment of my mental energy worrying about what some random drive-by internet asshole thinks about the immensely complex relationship between my mental illness and my responsibility for the things I’ve done. It’s got nothing to do with you. I will never bend the knee to strangers over this. Sorry.
There is a certain amount of ethical, psychological, and therapeutic work that I have to do because of what I did to Malcolm, work I am morally obligated to do. It can only happen internally and it can’t be seen by or shared with anyone else. I have been doing it and I will go on doing it and the only person who can function as the arbiter of whether I’m doing it well enough is me. If that’s unsatisfying to you because you can’t see what’s going on in my head, well, sorry. You’ll just have to live with the suspense.
If you’ve got more questions than this, go ask your priest. I’m done talking about it.
I don't have any questions to ask, but I just want to make a comment: props out for holding the L on this issue. I remember first learning about it on your blog (the initial statement), and it seems to me that from that moment forward, you've owned what you did in a way that many others wouldn't have the courage for.
As you say in this piece, you can never undo what you did; all you can do is try to be the best you can be--morally and otherwise--in the wake of it, and it seems to me that you're doing just that. The journalism-bashing is part of your thang--your beat, your beliefs--and it's always going to complicate the repentance issue in some people's eyes, but, again, as far as I can see you're doing as much as you can in the impossible-to-conclude process of redeeming yourself.
As far as the maddening process of disentangling what, of your behaviour, was due to mental illness and what was due to your personality: I can so, so relate! I suffer from bipolar type II disorder and OCD (at least, those are the official diagnoses--they're probably more than a bit reductive), and I've done and said awful things, both under the influence of illness and otherwise. Guilt gnaws at me every day; at first, it was instrumental to my changing for the better, but now it seems mostly like a dark residue, impossible to scrape out. I have to live with my awful speech and actions, and the autopsy-like splitting and parsing is part of that reality. As with you, this is all unlikely to change. All I can do is try to live with the meds, with their side effects, with my guilt, and with the changes I've made for the better. To put a cap on it: this piece was personally validating for me. Thanks for it.
You write that your post will satisfy no one. But as you'll see from <a href="https://twitter.com/NGruen1/status/1378550882250317834?s=20">this Twitter thread</a> I ended up here after someone warned me off you. FWIW what you've said satisfies me as far as words possibly can. And this in a world where so many apologies somehow become their own kind of self-justification.
As I said in the Tweet, of course, you could still be faking it, but then that's the situation we're always in when words is all we have to go on – which is mostly the case.
Anyway, as someone who donates a lot of my own attention to the blogosphere, I'm very loath to donate to others doing the same. In fact I've never signed up to anyone's substack or Patreon before, but there you go – there's always got to be a first time.
And then there's the ruthless marketing those Substackians are helping you with. I've just paid 50 bucks to make this comment ;)