AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
As accusations of sexual harassment and abuse playout in the court of social media, the context for Lynn Coady’s “Someone is Recording” changes daily, possibly hourly. The story is hyper-relevant — torn from the timelines, one might say — but written with the jaunty askance of fiction.
Gary, a middle-aged professor, becomes infamous when his ex, Erica, takes her grievances about their decade-old relationship online, where she is particularly skilled at skewering Gary’s behavior to her growing cache of followers. From what the reader can gather from the one-sided correspondence — Gary emails, Erica doesn’t respond — Gary vengefully badmouthed Erica to their mutual mentor back when he was her TA. But the details, as represented by Gary, are murky. What had he done to make her wrath still so fresh, 15 years later?
An alternative title for this story might be “His Own Rope,” because Lynn Coady gives Gary plenty. As Erica’s attacks become more attention-grabbing and gleeful, Gary digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole from the depths of which, it seems, he will never ascend.
With “Someone is Recording,” Coady transcends the culture’s impoverished vocabulary.
Though it’s apparent where Coady’s allegiance lies, this is not a clear-cut story. Gary’s “misconduct” fits under the taxonomy of the #MeToo movement but falls somewhere on the mudslide between atrocious and benign. “Misconduct,” that pervasive catchall, makes me bristle for its feeble generality as it flattens and conflates everything it describes. But with “Someone is Recording,” Coady transcends the culture’s impoverished vocabulary. The details around the “misconduct” in question are obfuscated; by telling the story from a unilateral perspective, Coady kneecaps the question of fairness and replaces it with an interrogation of the very nature of subjectivity.
Like any great satire, “Someone is Recording” is deft in its critique, brilliant at forcing the reader to make unwitting assumptions. Depending on the direction of those assumptions, some readers will find their own behavior justified, others will find it called into question. That latter reaction, which I hope every reader will embrace, makes for a superbly discomfiting read.
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
How Many Emails Does It Take To Not Apologize?
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“Someone is Recording”
by Lynn Coady
I don’t know if you were expecting to hear from me or not after you posted your piece — but here I am. It does feel a bit strange to be getting in touch after all this time and under these particular circumstances. I often thought of dropping you a line in the years after I left Ottawa. I wanted to so many times. But honestly, I assumed you wouldn’t be thrilled to hear from me and it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. Now that I’ve read your essay, I can’t help but think that, despite your very clear irritation with me, you were, in your way, reaching out. If that’s so, I’m glad you did.
And I’m glad you’re giving us this opportunity to hash out what happened. I’ll admit to being a little blindsided that you chose to do it in quite this way, and in this particular venue. My wife tells me thepinkghetto.soy is sort of a DIY, Millennial-centric version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s website — Goo? — with a sprinkling of personal essays. But I suppose a Millennial audience is the only one that matters these days, at least when it comes to those all-important “clicks.” Anyway, I’m very happy to know you’re still writing — it brought me back to the days when we used to comment on each other’s work. And to be honest I’m grateful to you for taking initiative to re-establish contact in such a decisive and — let’s face it — attention-getting way. I understand how important it must’ve been for you to write that piece. I do wish you had contacted me before taking it online — honestly, my delight in hearing from you again would’ve overrode any defensiveness or hostility if that’s how you were expecting me to respond. But the important thing is it’s out in the open now, and we can finally talk about it. It’s bothered me over the years, especially after how we left things. And you know what? I’d be lying if I said I haven’t missed talking to you. We had some great conversations back then.
Let me start by saying I was young and dumb. I’ll to cop to that a hundred percent. And insensitive, and kind of pompous and up my own ass, absolutely — a white, male Ph. D candidate in full plumage. Yup. The only thing I really take issue with in the piece is what you call our “power dynamic.” Erica, what power? I was a TA. Hollister barely knew my name; it’s not like I somehow maneuvered him into hiring me so I could be the one overseeing your grades. Not to mention that our relationship had run its course long before you signed up for the class. And I was fine with that, despite what you assert in your essay. (Relationship is maybe too polite a word for it, but we were definitely involved, I think you’ll agree. I think you’ll also recall who made the first move. I certainly do. And it’s a very nice memory, by the way.)
That’s that my only quibble. Otherwise I just want to say bravo. It could not have been easy to put something so personal out there — although one of the things I always admired about you was your fearlessness when it came to “just letting it all hang out” in both your writing and your life. As you know, I tend to be a little more circumspect in my own work, more about ideas than feelings, but maybe that’s why your stuff is striking a chord with the kids on thepinkghetto.soy while mine remains a favorite of today’s hottest academic journals, ha ha. So, yes, the essay threw me at first. But ultimately it was good to think about those days again and consider another perspective, even if I don’t agree with that perspective one hundred percent. It shook me up, but we all need shaking up from time to time.
Anyway, it was great to read your work again — your way with a wry turn of phrase is as devastating as ever — and I’d love to hear more about what you’re up to. The bios on thepinkghetto are pretty scant, but exciting to hear you’ve been making a go of things in New York. Gatineau girl makes good! On my end, I finally landed a tenure track post at a liberal arts college down here in the wilds of Illinois. I have a daughter now who is — if you can believe it (I can’t) — ten years old as of last April. She’s called MacKenzie — Kenz for short — and is currently obsessed with, of all things, mushrooms. If you’ll indulge a doting dad, I can’t resist attaching a photo. This was taken by Kenz’s mom at the Grand Canyon earlier this year.
Please let me know how you’re doing. And thank you, Erica. It’s been genuinely illuminating to read your piece, to see things through your eyes and think about those days again. Thank you for giving me the opportunity, and the opening, to be in touch and to renew, I hope, our friendship.
all the very best,
I just turned 43, so if memory serves, that makes you around 38? Which strikes me as a little old (sorry) to be hanging out in obscure corners of the internet, posting your personal correspondence alongside teens girls sharing their diary excerpts and selfies and (this is the first thing I saw when I called up the site, FYI) compilation videos of blindfolded people spraying shaving foam into their mouths after being told it was whipped cream. When I didn’t hear back from you, I thought — Fair enough. I reached out, you turned away — that’s your prerogative. We don’t have to correspond. You’ve said your piece — said it to all the world, or at least to your snark-addicted young chums on thepinkghetto.soy — whereas I restricted myself to keeping my feelings about your essay between us. That was my intent anyway. Until you posted them.
It’s clear you’re not interested in hearing my side of things, and you’re welcome to post whatever you like, but I think it was a little offside to cherry pick the excerpts of my letter that you did and then embellish them with your own disparaging commentary. I’m sorry if I sounded at all condescending previously (“douchey” in your words — okay, I’ll own it), but I think you’ve spent enough time around humanities profs to know douchey is something a hazard of the trade. So ok, now I look douchey in front of your delighted teenybopper fanbase, but is that a fair way to win an argument? Is that “what the kids are into”? Maybe you’re no longer interested in what’s fair. Is it possible, Erica, this brief spate of online attention has gone to your head a little? Because this is not the woman I remember you to be.
I remember you as a passionate debater, obsessed with clarity and drilling down relentlessly in every argument to get to the truth. This thing you posted wasn’t worthy of that person. Look: I know I was a bastard at times back then. But you have to admit your part in all this too. There’s the matter of your hero-worship of Hollister, which I have to say your essay glossed over. You sneeringly call him “the great male author,” as if that’s not how you actually saw him back then. You were desperate to impress him. (I even warned you about that, about coming off as too abject. Remember?) But when you didn’t, you blamed me.
And, fair enough, I was a jerk about it. I was defensive and I’ll admit, it was hard to maintain my objectivity after all your accusations. But let’s not pretend all this wasn’t a two-way street.
I want you to know I shared your latest post with my wife, Andrea. I let her read the first one too, as she and I don’t keep secrets from one another. We stayed up late after Kenz had been tucked into bed, talking about everything that happened, and with Andrea’s help I was able to put my hurt feelings aside and really come to grips with the role I played back then, and why, after all these years, you are still so angry about it. And so dead set, it seems, on making a fool of me online. Andrea asked me if, in my previous email to you, I ever said that I was sorry. I was sure that I had, but reading it over again I realize that, while apologetic in tone, the email doesn’t contain a genuine apology. So I apologize for that and — Erica? I apologize for everything. I’m truly sorry I hurt you. I understand if that’s not enough. I won’t write to you again.
With only good wishes,
You know, Erica, everything you said in that interview on YouTube, you could have said to my face. Is it that you think I won’t hear the things you have to say? Is that why you don’t bother? Because I’m telling you, I will. I have been. Can we actually talk? You can Skype me — my handle is IsntitByronic — or call my cell, the number of which has been at the bottom of every email I’ve sent you so far.
We need to work this out between us. I’ve had to lock my Facebook account thanks to your fan base, who think it’s hilarious to post memes they’ve fashioned from the sections of my emails you made public. The images accompanying this is not the woman I remember you to be were in particularly bad taste. My students contact me on there, or they used to. I also had a Twitter account I hardly ever looked at and yesterday a colleague hinted that I should. I saw I had over 100 mentions, all linking to your interview. I read a handful — I can’t imagine how empty a person’s life must be to spend all their time trawling the internet looking for strangers to mock and scold. Then I just shut the account down. These are your people, not mine. But maybe it’s time we take the dirty laundry inside, what do you say?
You should know I’ve had one or two people contact me wanting to hear my side of the story. I don’t know who these individuals are — honestly the fact that they even care about something that happened 15 years ago in Ottawa of all places strikes me as ludicrous. And splashing my private life across the internet isn’t my way of doing things. But if the harassment continues I’m not sure what option will be left to me.
Or we could just drop all this nonsense and talk like two old friends. The friends I thought we used to be.
Please just call me. Give me a chance to show that I hear you, Erica.
From: Burnam & Pace Law Group
To: Erica Shaffner:
RE: Cease and desist from online harassment
Dear Ms. Shaffner:
This CEASE AND DESIST ORDER is to inform you that your continued actions against our client Gary Weiland, including but not limited to:
1) Publishing false and defamatory assertions in various online venues including but not limited to thepinkghetto.soy
2) Inciting harassment of Mr. Weiland by publishing mocking and disparaging posts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Facebook Live, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit, WhatsApp Tumblr, LinkedIn and Flickr (where you posted images of Mr. Weiland that had been altered in various unflattering ways, including but not limited to: dressed as a mime, fashioned to resemble the cartoon-duck character Baby Huey, and with face superimposed on renderings of both Catherine the Great and her horse).
3) Giving online interviews wherein you characterize Mr. Weiland with disparaging and nonsensical language which we can only conclude is geared toward inciting the public’s hostile interest in him, including the epithets: “assbucket,” “shitsplat,” “chickentits,” and “knob.”
We insist you cease these activities immediately. You are to stop discussing Mr. Weiland online and in public and we require that you forward written confirmation to us affirming that you will do so (please see attached template). Severe legal consequences will ensue if you fail to comply with this demand. Your activities against Mr. Weiland constitute harassment and incitement to harass and have had an increasingly deleterious impact on our client’s quality of life. Mr. Weiland is prepared to pursue criminal and/or civil legal remedies should these activities against him continue.
This letter is the first and only warning you will receive.
Amanda Cowan, Esq.
Hi Erica, me again. Whew, this whole thing has sort of blown up, hasn’t it? I’m sure you were as dumbstruck as I was to see the segment on MSNBC last night, however brief it was. It’s amazing what passes as news these days, but I guess that’s the age we live in now. I know you never intended for it to go this far. I’m not totally lacking in a sense of humor (you’ll remember, I’m sure, that brief but intense limerick writing phase I went through back in Ottawa) and as difficult as this process has sometimes been for me, I do see the joke. The other day I even caught Andrea chuckling at your Instagram feed. It took me a minute, but pretty soon I was chuckling right along with her. So believe me, I get it. The culture is going through some kind of catharsis right now I guess, and catharsis isn’t always a logical or intellectual process — sometimes it just involves venting. Society needs its whipping boys and when I consider how easy I’ve had it up to this point as white, male etc., I realize there are worse things than being made the butt of a joke — even a joke that’s gone viral.
So I’m trying to be sanguine about all this. But I realize sending a letter from my lawyer was not a particularly sanguine move, and I’m sorry about that. Amanda isn’t even really my lawyer — I mean, she is a lawyer, but she’s Andrea’s sister (they’re twins). She advised me the letter might not be a good idea (let that be a lesson to me: believe women!) but I was feeling a little at my wits end last week, so I asked her to put her own spin on some boilerplate language and stick on her firm’s letterhead. It struck me, reading it over afterwards, that maybe she’d had a little too much fun with it, but then I thought that was probably okay — really the letter was meant to be nothing but a friendly warning and I hoped you would take it in that spirit.
As I said, things were stressful last week. There’ve been a few crank calls and I had some students walk out of my class. There was even an impromptu sit-in outside the Chair’s office so, you know. It felt like maybe not everyone was getting the joke.
Anyway, now that we’ve had our designated fifteen minutes of fame, I’m looking forward to getting back to my life, as I’m sure you are too. This has been a real learning process for me, and I promise you I’ve taken a good hard look at myself since your essay was published. As difficult as it’s been at times, I’d like to think the experience has made me a better man, husband and father. On that note, Kenz is in the next room, calling for me to tell her a story before bed, so I’d better sign off. She’s been a real ray of sunshine throughout all this — I like to think we’ve done a pretty good job of shielding her from it so far.
I wish you all the best, Erica. Eager to see what you’ll do next with your new high profile. It’s so impressive how your sensibility seems to have sparked with this new generation — perhaps you’ve been ahead of your time all these years! Is a book in the works? (I was such a fan of your poetry back in our Ottawa days — would love to see you get back to that.)
Erica, I don’t know if you’re checking email, but listen I had no idea who this Rand-o guy was when I agreed to the interview and I am truly, truly horrified by what’s happened. Rand-o’s been in touch on and off for a while now and he came across as sympathetic and thoughtful in his emails. I guess I was just feeling frustrated after your appearance on Good Morning America as I honestly assumed you would have gotten all this out of your system by now. Plus, I was floored that any respectable news organization would hold up our personal internet dust-up as something “emblematic” of the “cultural moment” — that had me doing an actual spit-take (which Kenz found hilarious). So, yes, I acted rashly when it came to Rand-o. I didn’t do my due diligence.
Certainly, all I had to do was type his name into Google (as Andrea has constantly been reminding me) but who would have dreamt this guy had such a massive following? I was astounded by what they said on the news — three hundred thousand plus followers on Twitter? Conferences, a book deal? He was charmer, absolutely, but when we Skyped I thought — Oh Christ, he’s just some kid in his basement, right down to the vintage movie posters on the wall behind him (guy has a major fixation on Ghostbusters). Not to mention the toys — actual toys — on the shelves. I’d felt so ridiculous for having agreed to the interview — he looked barely out of braces. Anyway, I hope your mom is ok. Andrea tells me this swatting thing is a pretty common tactic of the “Randovians”, but I promise you I had no idea. I read she was taken to the hospital after the incident but released a few hours later, which hopefully means she wasn’t injured? And I dearly hope the damage to the house was minimal.
I know you need to keep a low profile right now, but I’d encourage you to get in touch once the dust settles. I think our only option at this point is to present a united front. We should release a joint statement saying that you forgive me for my part in all this and I forgive you for yours and that we’ve reconciled our differences. It’s the only way this ends.
Really? You’re just going to issue random communiqués from your underground internet bunker from here on in? How long do you think you can keep this up? Some of us, here above ground, have lives we’d like to get back to. I’m off work for the remainder of the semester thanks to all this. Students have started boycotting my classes en masse. The administration would dearly love to get rid of me at this point, especially after my impromptu speech in the quad — maybe you caught it on Facebook Live? (I had no idea someone was recording me, by the way — but then again someone’s always recording these days, aren’t they?) I was actually pretty impressed it got so many views. Good Morning America didn’t exactly come calling in the aftermath, but a few other people did, and I am weighing my options.
All right, stay underground if that’s what you want, Erica. And pop your head up like a feral gopher to bare your teeth at me online whenever the spirit moves you. Just know that you can come out anytime. You can end this. We can end this together — all we have to do is tell the world that I am sorry and you forgive me. And that I forgive you, too, for making such an outlandish stink about all this. (Sorry but I think that needs to be said as well, since it’s become a major issue in certain circles — as I’m sure you have noticed. If we genuinely want to de-escalate, those circles will have to be appeased).
So why the hell don’t we?
PS — I don’t suppose you’ve noted all the renewed interest in Hollister? A former classmate sent me a link — apparently some publisher is reissuing Psalms of Kanata. So congrats! It would seem the “great male author” is ascendant once more, all thanks to your efforts.
Okay so if I’m interpreting your latest post correctly, the sticking point seems to be that you don’t believe I’ve actually been sincere in anything I’ve said thus far about what happened FIFTEEN FUCKING YEARS AGO back in Ottawa. And that I’ve “glossed over” what you call my “actual wrongdoing.” Oh my god. This is amazing to me. As thoughtful, careful and abject as I’ve been in the absurd amount of emails I sent to you — emails you haven’t even dignified with a response — and for all my self-flagellation and prostration at the altar of your fathomless feminine rage, nothing I’ve said has been good enough. Cool, cool. Good to know. Guess I can get up off my knees now.
It’s been good to have this time off work and really think about this crusade of yours and the toxic pathology behind it. Andrea and I discussed it at length but she got weary of the subject after a while, which I can’t blame her for — unfortunately, unlike her, I don’t have the luxury of tuning all this out. It’s helped a lot to talk about it online — there are a stunning number people out there who are quite happy to chat with me about it deep into the night. There are wingnuts, sure, like some of Rand-o’s boys, but there are a great many more generous, compassionate individuals on the internet than I originally gave it credit for. I’ve explained to them that even though I’m not teaching right now, I’m still getting paid, but they can’t seem shake the idea that I’ve been kicked out of my job (that’s why 4chan posted your boss’s phone number and your work address if I’m not mistaken? Which I did not encourage btw). Anyway, they insisted on raising money. The level of support has been really staggering, not to mention clarifying. To know I have so many people on my side in this. You’re just one person, Erica. One person who interpreted my actions a certain way, many years ago. I remember things differently. And I have as many people on my side in this as you do on yours. Maybe more, I’m starting to realize.
So I’ve decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. I have lots of time on my hands right now, especially with Andrea and Kenz taking a break down in Florida with Andrea’s parents, so I’m thinking it might be time to put together a book, maybe using the last couple of speeches I gave as a jumping off point. (Don’t know if you caught the most recent one — over 200k views!) As you may recall from our Ottawa days, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at something book-length. A crossover book — every academic’s dream, as Hollister used to say. Poor old Hollister — he always used to wax a little melancholic about his reputation whenever we got together for drinks back in the day. Too bad he didn’t live to bask in the attention he’s getting now. Then again, I’m not sure he’d know how to handle it. In a way, I’m grateful for my crash course in all things internet these past few months. It’s been painful at times, but it was a wakeup call. I really do feel more equipped than ever to embrace a wider audience. I guess I just never had the material before now.