As we’ve learned this past year, the publishing industry, like all industries, has its share of sexually abusive men. But certain factors make our field unique: A famous author can be the most powerful person in the room without actually being anyone’s boss. Because there’s so much subjectivity when it comes to writing—unlike, say, in math, where two plus two always equals four—that fame confers even more clout than it does in other professions. Talent and tenacity are paramount for a writer, but there’s no doubt that contacts help one’s career. A famous author is often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a gatekeeper to editors, agents, and publishers.
So, if a famous author is a sexually abusive man, those who are harmed are often afraid to confront him or to tell others for fear of damaging their careers. And, of course, some people ignore abuse because they’re profiting off the abuser.
Recently, I learned firsthand from some female authors that my longtime friend and onetime paramour Sherman Alexie had been sexually harassing them. I believed them because their details were specific to Alexie, and because before I became an author and essayist, I was a domestic violence victim advocate for the King County, Wash., prosecuting attorney’s office. I know from training and experience that women almost never lie about sexual harassment or abuse.
I was deeply saddened but couldn’t look the other way. I confronted Alexie privately via email, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he immediately removed contact information for his agents and assistant from his website, took down his Facebook fan page, and canceled all of his upcoming public engagements.
After I spoke out publicly via Twitter in February, I was contacted by dozens of media outlets. I relayed what women had told me and disclosed my consensual affair with Alexie whenever I was quoted on the record at length. I knew I would get clobbered in some circles, but there was no ethical way to discuss his harassment without disclosing our affair. It would have been grossly amoral for me to stay silent; I would have confronted him no matter what. But because I never asked Alexie for his contacts, because my own career is established, because I’m white, and because no editor or agent ever urged me to tolerate Alexie’s sexual misbehavior, I was in the extremely fortunate position that he had no power over me.
Many women started telling their stories of Alexie’s sexually harmful behavior. And it turned out that several female Native authors already knew of his misconduct but were reluctant to speak out because of the possible repercussions in a white-dominated industry that had anointed Alexie as the Native author with whom they unfairly had to play ball. NPR told our story on All Things Considered.
I’m glad I came forward. Here’s what I suggest if you choose to do the same:
● Stay safe. If you live in an apartment or condominium, consult with building management and change your name at the front door. Goons will flood online comment sections and your inboxes; make sure they can’t find your home. If you live alone in a house, ask a loved one to stay with you. If you trust your neighbors, ask them to keep a lookout for suspicious behavior. Tell your friends what you’re about to do, and take them up on their kind offers of physical and emotional support.
● Document everything. You’ll need ample proof. Contrary to what detractors say, no one credible approaches these situations as a witch hunt. There is and should be a reasonable standard of proof.
● When media contact you, take notes and set parameters. Most journalists understand these stories are about justice; a few wrongfully view them as salacious. Should the latter portray you as obstinate, your contemporaneous notes will show that they crossed the line. Let their editors know they’ve got a problem.
It’s a large industry, and you will keep working. Ignore anyone who says otherwise.
When you’re exhausted, remember that you’re making it easier for the next person to come forward. You have a viable chance to stop the abuser and to help dismantle the system that allowed him to thrive. I’d come forward again in a heartbeat.
Litsa Dremousis is the author of Altitude Sickness (Future Tense) and is an essayist with the Washington Post.