When I Was Cancelled by Cancelled Author, Stephen Elliot.
(I did not try to get this published; I don’t desire to befoul anyone’s name, or kick them when they are down. This is simply a culturally-relevant diary entry.)
I met The Cancelled Author (CA) years before the world cancelled him. I’d read two of his quite good books before having dinner with him in San Francisco one night. His literary efforts mostly detailed his brutal childhood, bouncing between foster homes where he was physically and psychologically abused, leading to an adulthood as a sexual masochist. I myself had an objectively easy life with OK parents who beat me only a little, and I feel super fucked up because of it. So, I felt for the guy, and connected with his work.
He seemed to successfully be turning his own madness into productivity, I admired, when I ended up in a booth with him in a brightly-lit 24hr Mexican diner drinking great coffee, following a California bookstore reading by my dear friend Jonathan Ames. CA ignored unknown me at the diner, in favor of trying to impress Ames. Our only moment of connection that night came when I mentioned being from New Orleans, and CA let me be very impressed by his anecdotes about sneaking into my neighborhood in the days after the Federal Flood named Katrina, and sleeping in his car.
I flew home to New Orleans and a couple years later, writer Claire Vaye Watkins published a very good essay criticizing CA’s sexist behavior when he came to her town to read. “There is probably an entire teeming sub-subgenre titled ‘[CA] Comes to Town,’” she mused, detecting a pattern. She claimed he’d inflicted upon her, “professional dismissal…sexual entitlement…[treating her] as property…gaslighting.” Though she did add, “[CA] did not rape me, did not attempt to rape me.”
I later read a second piece by another female writer, criticizing CA’s sexist (but not abusive) behavior, which I can no longer find on the web beneath the waves and waves of press about his #MeToo downfall, and the horrible lawsuit he filed in its wake…
I’ve focused on trying to fix my inherent white supremacy since age 13. By now, I score a solid B-. But I didn’t begin actively dismantling my own learned sexism until…around the time I read this woman’s essay. 2005 (yikes). Reading it, I knew I would have acted just as Watkins describes, were I in CA’s position a decade ago. I’ve never felt entitled enough or desperate enough to force myself on anyone, but I sure have waged some inappropriate verbal campaigns. I was taught to do so. Up until fairly recently, men and boys were brazenly taught in a million mainstream ways — even via supposedly smart, sensitive literature — that women existed mostly as the trophies of our manly successes. The jock assholes were taught that, and us artists and musicians were taught that too. When today I hear men deem rape culture a hoax, I remember my teen years watching super-popular movies like Porky’s (parts 1–4) and Revenge of the Nerds (parts 1–4, with a reboot shelved in 2007), and a 100 other popular rape-tastic “comedies” whose names I can’t recall — all while listening to 2LiveCrew and the rape fantasies of Easy E.
All influences considered, I think I escaped OK. I’ll forever work to remove those influences though. And I still love 2 Live Crew and Easy E.
Watkins’s essay about CA didn’t make him look like a monster, just a garden-variety, entitled white man like me who couldn’t spot his own (relatively mild, but still fucking gross) sexism. Reading her essay again while writing this, I feel genuinely grateful that I never found the success or power I always craved, since I would have definitely used it to get (consensual) sex. I often wonder what types of writers, filmmakers and musicians will now come forth in this new society that punishes people who attempt to trade talent and status for sex. Were that motivation removed, I’d guess that at least half of all male artists would beg out. Motley Crue certainly woulda never played a note in that world, for starters.
But then, I don’t dread a world without Motley Crue.
My own sexist crimes have remained limited to bad words and thoughts, and so I remain grateful to’ve learned of my own toxicity without the aid of a new-fangled public shaming. As such, I could image how guilty CA must have felt while reading Watkin’s very well-written essay. I hoped that both he and I could feel momentarily foolish and regretful, then act cooler going forth.
CA then ended up on the world’s most famous google doc, the “Shitty Media Men” list, accused of, among other things, rape.
He protested like a motherfucker.
The Shakespearian quote, “though doth protest too much” acts as a cudgel forcing people not to defend themselves aloud — even though, it turns out, both guilty people and innocent people feel the need to defend themselves aloud. So I took seriously CA’s self-defensive essay published on provocative, centrist literary website Quillette (mainly a platform for de-platformed men). There, he convincingly explained how his own rape accusation made no sense. “I don’t like intercourse, I don’t like penetrating people with objects, and I don’t like receiving oral sex,” he wrote. “My entire sexuality is wrapped up in BDSM. Cross-dressing, bondage, masochism. I’m always the bottom. I’ve been in long romantic relationships with women without ever seeing them naked. Almost every time I’ve had intercourse during the past 10 years, it has been in the context of dominance/submission, often without my consent, and usually while I’m tied up or in a straitjacket and hood. I’ve never had sex with anyone who works in media.”
Cancel culture is a rock, almost too big to fit in your hand. Because The System failed women for hundreds of years, when the internet came along they all picked up this rock and out of frustration just fucking threw it. And holy shit, it worked! Though it surely has put some innocent people out of commission, it nonetheless worked better — one could even say more fairly — than The System. As a writer for Slate put it, “The Shitty Media Men spreadsheet was not a perfect system, but a perfect system does not exist.” All massive social upheavals come with overcorrections, but the real problem remains The System, not the Rock. CA didn’t see it that way.
While I don’t believe CA raped anyone, I never believed him an innocent guy whom the rock just accidentally clipped.
Instead of writing, ‘Clearly I was fucking up out there in the world, acting disrespectful to women. I am sorry and I’m working on fixing that. But I never raped anyone,’ CA left out the first part, and over-amped the second part. He fixated also on the unfairness inherent in anonymous accusations. “The truth is, all of us have wronged someone at some point,” he wrote. “But I don’t think it’s a good reason to accuse someone of misconduct on an anonymous list.”
I struggled to see his picture. Nowhere in his essay did he address Watkins’ and others’ older public accusations. “No one is truly innocent,” he instead wrote. “The accused can either refuse to engage, or try to maintain their specific innocence from a position of more general guilt.”
Knowing this fact, CA did neither. Like a man who believes himself almost spotless.
To many writer’s I’ve spoken with, CA’s greatest crime remains not these anonymous allegations (which peeled away the first layer of his career, his connections, his agents), but the lawsuit he then brought against Moira Donegan, the Shitty Media Men list’s creator, in order to forcefully uncover his accuser’s name. The lawsuit burned up the goodwill of even his supporters. “Well, he is a masochist,” one writer friend commented about the lawsuit.
His lawsuit stirred up further allegations against him, most notably from perpetually-hysterical journalist Liz Lens, who claimed that, at a literary event once, CA groped her, and also hounded her so incessantly with invitations to his hotel room that she finally hid under a table. “Since your name was on the [Shitty] list,” Lens publicly typed to CA, “I have gotten so many emails from women talking about the harassment you put them through. I’m talking so they don’t have to.”
Though Lens’s anonymous accusations also felt puffed up…clearly CA was doing something wrong.
Something that he still didn’t seem aware of when I met up with him at Markey’s bar in his new New Orleans neighborhood. See, following his cancellation, he moved from land-of-opportunity Los Angeles, to land-of-little-opportunity New Orleans, where I’ve lived in blissful poverty since 2000. Like so many post-Katrina gentrifiers, CA had purchased a house in the Marigny, and was now renting half via Air BnB. Locals hate this type of person; Katrina knocked the wind out of New Orleans, but then Air BnB provided the death blow to our city’s fragile housing situation. Because of Air BnB, the country’s oldest Black neighborhoods have gone lily white. Still, I didn’t judge CA, since he’d fucked up and lost his real livelihood.
CA doesn’t drink. But in loud-ass Markey’s in the Marigny I swilled three gin-and-tonics as he and I chatted on New Orleans and the nature of false accusations and such. He still showed seemingly no concern for whatever he had done wrong to put himself in that position. I loved Louis CK so much that it took me a year to stop saying, “That thing that happened to him” and switch over to saying, “That thing he brought upon himself.” My impression was that CA seemed to only think, ‘I can’t believe this happened to me’ and never, ‘I can’t believe I did this to myself.’
It’s natural to focus on one’s self. To ask otherwise of a human being is to set a trap for them. If a woman complains to a man about men in general, that man will immediately begin thinking of himself, just as any and all human beings would. Generalization is rhetorical poison. That’s why we teach our kids not to generalize about whole groups of people. It never works, no matter how many adult justifications or funny hashtags we apply. So, I don’t blame CA for focusing on his own defense as the media and his former friends tore him down.
I did find it strange though, that he never expressed a single word about his own flaws. Not in his essay. Not on Twitter. And not that night at Markey’s.
A little tipsy as we parted, I invited CA to an upcoming literary party at the home of author and teacher Thomas Beller. When I told another great New Orleans writer and friend, whom I’d invited to the same lit party, that I’d also invited CA, he backed out and wouldn’t attend. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep myself from punching him in the face,” my dear writer friend explained, adding that he didn’t think CA raped anyone, but that his lawsuit against that poor woman definitely earned him a punch in the face. This local writer whom I loved more than I liked CA demurred, and I just hoped that my real friend would not cancel me for my overwhelming desire to observe a Cancelled Author up close.
Sometime later, CA published another Quilette article about the loneliness of cancellation, featuring photos of his very recognizable pink car, sitting outside of his Marigny home, his address clearly displayed. I saw local anarchists sharing it on social media. Within days, someone had spray-painted “SCUM” across his house, and “RAPIST” on his car. Considering how thoroughly he’d already ruined his life, and dashed his own writing dreams, I personally felt the graffiti unnecessary, but.
Since then, I’ve watched from afar as CA has dedicated every word of every social media post to his war against what he seems to consider 2020’s most important enemy: cancel culture. Cancel culture seems to him worse than The System that failed women for centuries, because he can no longer publish books or sell screeplays.
Actually, I’d bet that is not case, and that’s not what CA feels, but that is definitely the message that his new essays and tweets send, even to empathizers like me.
This pandemic keeps me on my computer too much. And sometimes after a couple glasses of wine, I’ve found his social media “cancel culture” crusade absurd enough to gently push back. At first I timidly responded, ‘Focusing on cancel culture when rape culture still exists is like fixating on AntiFa while Donald Trump is America’s president.’
I’ve also tweeted back soft opinions like, ‘I don’t consider it a culture. It’s just the internet’s now an option, and if it keeps men in check, especially at work, then I’m for it.’
In the back-and-forths that followed, he and I were clearly discussing him, without ever coming out with it. When he’s moaned again and again to the world about the threat of anonymous accusations, I’ve reminded him, “Anonymous accusations have thankfully not become a huge trend. #MeToo seems to have actually reduced the number of anonymous accusations, by removing some of the need for them. Women now seem to feel slightly more empowered to attach themselves to their accusations.”
He said I needed to read more about fascism. He told me this McCarthy-esque “cancel culture” was ruining innocent lives. When I finally admitted aloud to CA (and both of our online audiences) that I didn’t think many truly innocent people had yet been cancelled, he finally blocked me.
I wish him well. I do feel for him. Toxic masculinity is a fucking burden. The only advice I have for CA is the same advice I give my two daughters: Everyone screws up, but “I’m sorry” goes a lot further than it costs to apologize.