I. In Bed
III. Tortured Genius
IV. The Reckoning
Over the last six years of contributing to Berfrois and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, I have openly thanked and vouched for editor Russell Bennetts online and in person multiple times. In some ways, I allowed my reputation and work to become intertwined with his, because the two publications had become a literary home base for me.
“No one else would give me five thousand words and then agree not to change a single comma,” Charles D’Ambrosio writes of Seattle’s weekly The Stranger in the preface to his collection Loitering. “While the pay wasn’t fancy, the freedom was absolute, and at that time in my life the liberty to think and write as I pleased mattered far more than money.” When I read that line a few years ago, I immediately thought of Berfrois, which was game to support my writing wherever it led me, during the time after my book sped was published, when I hadn’t climbed the next rung on exactly the schedule I thought I should.
What started as Russell’s idle suggestion I write “a climate piece” based on my nonprofit work and activism turned, over several years, into an eleven-part film essay series co-written with my partner, including a contribution to the print anthology published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Its release last year coincided with AWP coming to our chosen town, and we hung out with Russell over beers after a reading in a strange but charming half-renovated space in North Portland.
He seemed like the nexus of a community I felt lucky to belong to.
On Thursday, a contributor publicly revealed that Russell had sent her a series of sexual DMs on Twitter. He was the first editor to publish her. The magazines have a massive social media reach. She felt not only subjected to abuse but also trapped into silence for fear of retaliation.
As the information came out over the course of twenty-four hours, Russell publicly apologized, stepped down from both magazines, announced the indefinite closure of QMT, ceded editorial control of Berfrois to former QMT music editor Medha Singh, stepped away from social media, and said he would get counseling. He has subsequently also emailed an apology to contributors.
In the interim, before QMT officially folded, I publicly pulled my support of and participation in guest-editing a special print issue, #46, which was slated to come out in November and which I’d hoped might herald a post-Trump world. A week earlier, I’d sung the praises of Russell and the magazines and garnered a commitment to contribute from one of my poetry idols, someone older than me and far more widely published who had not previously appeared in either publication. The night I found out what had happened, just two days after this poet had agreed, I emailed her to walk it all back.
After years of hearing about misconduct ranging from harassment to assault and “casting couch” situations with writers, editors, and professors who received no consequences, it was both refreshing and astonishing to this situation unfold so swiftly and decisively. In less than a day, an accusation went from being unknown to admitted, the perpetrator no longer in the positions of power he’d abused and his conduct denounced by his colleagues, who, like me, had not been aware of it.
I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to lend my confidence and goodwill to someone who misused them. Russell harmed the contributor who came forward, first and foremost, and I’m glad she spoke out. His choices have also caused a lot of collateral damage to other unsuspecting writers acting in good faith. Reading Reb Livingston’s thread on her experience of the demise of QMT and her Misfit Docs column in particular, I had a flash of recognition at her anger over Russell fucking up what had been a soul-feeding situation for her. What I thought of as a touchstone evaporated in a day, and I also didn’t see it coming.
Medha taking over Berfrois is a necessary change. I wish her the best and am still following Berfrois on Twitter in support of its new chapter.
As for the magazines themselves, I think they are and have always been much bigger than any one editor. They represent the work of people all around the world, independently conceived and executed. Running the sites conferred power Russell abused, but he’s lost it, and I don’t see the contributions of the associated writers and editors as corrupt.
To me, both Berfrois and QMT represent a constellation of unpaid artists doing the work for the love. I participated precisely because I and everyone else had free rein over the writing. Maybe, unlike The Stranger, Russell threw in a comma or inconsistently switched a word to the British spelling without consulting me, but that was the extent of it. The content was mine and my collaborator’s, period.
Because the individual editors and guest-editors as well as the magazines writ large did not stand behind the misconduct—because they quickly came out against it and Russell stepped down within hours—I have made the conscious decision to leave my work on both sites. If I thought they had participated in, enabled, or covered for abuse, it would be a different story. No fewer than three of the pieces I’ve published in the magazines deal directly with personal experiences of men abusing positions of power. That doesn’t make Russell a “good guy” for running them—it just makes them my stories that are true and relevant to the systemic issues at play.
A number of writers have made the decision to pull their work, and I 100% support and understand that choice. I thought about the issues at stake for a couple of days before picking this course. What I’m choosing for myself is not a renunciation of their choices, and what I’m writing here is not meant to persuade anyone to do what I’m doing. Rather, it’s an attempt at full transparency. Anyone who knows me knows I endeavor to stay rooted in my values and do not make decisions lightly.
As a former union organizer, I take solidarity seriously, too, knowing full well it’s a messy, multivocal process. People have said of the pandemic, we are not all in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm. I think something similar is true of the current reckoning in publishing. In my experience, progress takes a range of tactics and beliefs evolving and intersecting over time.
I’ve also written at some length, in Berfrois and elsewhere, about believing in restoration over retribution. A family member was wrongfully imprisoned for almost seven years. My father was killed by a teenager, and my mother and I persuaded the DA not to try him as an adult. With clear sight, I’m still in relationship with people whose issues with addiction and untreated mental illness have had detrimental impacts on my life.
If I can stay hopeful and engaged in the world despite those experiences, I can stay connected to two publications that I see, at heart, not as temples to abuse or complicity but testaments to art and collaboration in an economy whose only currency is ideas. I lent my blood and sweat to those collaborative spaces, and I’m okay with my work being part of the ruins that remain.