The Rising Costs of the Trauma Industrial Complex

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The Rising Costs of the Trauma Industrial Complex

Ian Parker’s takedown of bestselling thriller writer Daniel Mallory in The New Yorker reads like a grocery store paperback: handsome writer dupes the world by spinning fictions as elaborate as those of his literary hero, Tom Ripley. Gains fame and fortune only to be foiled in the end by lies that finally grew big enough to consume him.

It’s a good story, and it delighted the writers I follow on social media who discussed it in terms of outrage, but consumed it with the same horrified fascination with which we watch Ted Bundy talk about murder or some doctor who pops zits for our amusement. Everyone likes a horrible story well told. Especially if it’s true.

Which is exactly why Mallory’s deceptions won him admittance into prestigious spaces, six-figure jobs, and an eventual multi-million dollar book deal in the first place. He was simply taking advantage of the trauma industrial complex, wherein writers’ sad stories are the raw materials that can hopefully be molded into a sellable product. Parker calls Mallory’s lies “gothic personal fictions.” As a gothic novel writer, enthusiast, and occasional apologist, I like the sound of it, but perhaps a more apt term would be “personal gothic sales pitches.”

Everyone likes a horrible story well told. Especially if it’s true

While Mallory never directly earned any money for his sad stories, they were always transactional. His mother had stage five breast cancer when he was a teenager and his parents temporarily separated. That much appears to be true. What also appears to be true is that Mallory got all the benefit he could out of that tale—admittance to Duke and then Oxford—before the truth was stretched so thin it could no longer pick the locks on the ivory tower. Then he had to outright lie.

In his application to New College to pursue his doctoral studies, Mallory used his thesis proposal to mention a fictional dying mother, disabled brother, and a brain tumor, all to explain away his own mediocre performance in his master’s program. It was a sad story well told. It worked. And he learned that it would work when he used another, truer, version of it to get into Duke. An essay Mallory wrote for the Duke student newspaper called “Take Full Advantage of Suffering” exhorted his readers to “Make suffering worth it. When the silver lining proves elusive, when the situation cannot be helped, nothing empowers so much as working for one’s own advantage.”

Here’s the thing: that’s the exact same advice that’s given to women and POC working on their own personal statements all the time.

Deena ElGenaidi, an editor for the arts website Hyperallergic, recently riffed on the shittiness of being forced to sell a sad story for a leg up with selection committees in an essay for Electric Literature. When she was applying to Ph.D. programs, her academic advisor told her to do much the same thing that Mallory wrote about in the Duke newspaper. She wrote that when she revealed to her advisor her plans for grad school, the advisor asked about her “background,” which was code for ethnicity. ElGenaidi revealed that she’s Egyptian, to which the advisor replied:

“I probably shouldn’t say this… but play that up. Ph.D. programs love hearing about that. Talk about it in your personal statement.”

Writers are always applying for something: fellowships, highly competitive spots in Ph.D. and MFA programs, academic jobs, a 20-page portion of just 40 available pages in a literary journal. We write cover letter after cover letter. “Dear Hiring Committee,” “Dear Editors,” “Dear Famous Literary Agent’s Assistant With Hundreds of Other Manuscripts to Sift Through.”

We’re always begging. For money, space, time. But mostly attention. There’s a reason toddlers scream until they puke. No one notices quiet kids. It’s the one with the problems that get comfort.

Three years ago, I had a novel my agent said was brilliant and had a string of near-but-not-quite brushes with publishers who very nearly bought it. The editors couldn’t say exactly what was wrong with the book: the beginning was too long one said, too short said another, the nature writing was dull but the POV shifts were interesting, the POV shifts were confusing but I was a born writer. My agent recommended I get more Twitter followers, which suggested the problem didn’t lie in the fact that my book wasn’t good, but that I personally hadn’t garnered enough attention for publishers to waste their resources.

What I got instead was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 minutes before I helped my father make the decision to take my stepmother off life support on my 33rd birthday, which in the world of the trauma industrial complex, where we were still talking about a ball of cat hair in someone’s vagina two years after the fact, was even better than Twitter followers. When I could think again after my mastectomy and chemo, before my eyelashes had even grown back, I sent out a half dozen pitches and the same number of fellowship applications wearing my shitty year like a badge of honor:

“In March of 2016, I found out I had breast cancer the day my father and I made plans to take my mother off life support and two days before my thirty-third birthday. Unable to process so much grief at once, I simply didn’t try. Instead, I worked,” began one of my own fellowship applications.

It was the same story every time with a slightly new angle: how makeup helped me through chemo, how, as a millennial, I couldn’t afford rent, much less cancer, how much I loved The Great British Bake Off, even when I was too sick to eat

I pitched articles to the highest trafficked, most respected personal essay mills I could find. It was the same story every time with a slightly new angle: how makeup helped me through chemo, how, as a millennial, I couldn’t afford rent, much less cancer, how much I loved The Great British Bake Off, even when I was too sick to eat. After years of trying to get my work published, acceptances now came within minutes. My stories were all true, but that’s the only difference between me and Mallory. I needed something to set me apart from every other Ph.D. holder with a pretty good novel, and the only raw material I had to work with was a dead mom and some cancer.

In my agent’s office, we discussed a possible memoir based on all the weepy essays I’d been selling. That might finally get editors interested in the fiction I actually wanted to sell. “And keep posting pictures,” she told me. “Your pictures are really good.” She didn’t mean my bread baking Instagrams, and I knew it.

In her essay, ElGenaidi writes about feeling a little bit dishonest playing up her story for admittance to grad school, even though the story she was telling was true: “I didn’t want to talk about my personal life. I didn’t want to exploit myself or tokenize myself for the sake of admission. My advisor’s words rang true in my head. “Play that up,” she’d said. But I could only play it up so much.”

She adds that this pressure to have a story is “not something asked of white men,” which is perhaps why, when Mallory wrote his own advisor about his mother’s cancer, he got into Duke and New College. When he told his colleagues a completely false story about a mysterious, debilitating tumor, he got time off, better-paying jobs, promotions, a six-figure salary, long after his personal gothic had metastasized from the realm of the merely gloomy and seeped into the territory of the grotesque. A woman or a POC with a sad story gets marginally more consideration. A white man with a sad story is, apparently, unstoppable.

Like ElGenaidi, I started feeling a little gross about the checks I cashed in lieu of my missing breasts, my mom, and a book deal. Marie Claire offered me just $250 for pictures of my mastectomy scars. I actually considered selling them purely for the exposure (pun intended); it might be the final push I needed to actually get noticed, I reasoned. My memoir became more gothic as it became more personal, and I wrote essays that incorporated fiction into my trauma: in one, I told Hannibal Lecter about taking my stepmother of life support, in another, Miss Marple helped me investigate my childhood abuse. The story got complicated, and editors stopped liking it. My agent suggested I start at the beginning and try something a little more “linear.” I gave up instead.

At the end of her essay, ElGenaidi finds herself unwittingly giving the exact same advice to a young woman of color that her advisor gave to her: mine your lived experience for a story of hardship, something that will make your essay stand out among a sea of white men’s accomplishments and everyone else’s suffering.

“Even if you didn’t have any obstacles, make something up,” ElGenaidi tells the young woman. “They love that.”

They really fucking do.

So much so that last year, a poet was able to sell a collection comprised mostly of other people’s stories. As I reported for Jezebel, an up-and-coming poet named Ailey O’Toole was busted for lifting another poet’s trauma and selling it as her own lived experience. Chicana poet Rachel McKibbens wrote a poetry collection, blud, that the Poetry Foundation says “reminds us why poetry as testimony is so necessary.”

O’Toole, a white woman, saw the testimony of a Chicana woman and stole it, knowing how saleable it would be if she passed it off as her own raw material.

One of McKibbens’s poems, “three strikes.” reads: “Hell-spangled girl / spitting teeth into the sink, / I’d trace the broken / landscape of my body / & find God / within myself.”

Here is O’Toole’s version from a poem titled “Gun Metal”: “Ramshackle / girl spitting teeth / in the sink. I trace the / foreign topography of / my body, find God / in my skin.”

The theft worked exactly the way it was intended. O’Toole’s poems got published; her collection got picked up. And McKibbens’s beautiful, violent imagery wasn’t the only trauma O’Toole lifted, dumbed down, and said was her own. All told, more than 14 poets came forward to say that O’Toole had scavenged their stories for parts and sold the stitched-together monster as her original product.

But the thing about the O’Toole case, much like Mallory’s, is that the scam wouldn’t have worked if the machine wasn’t hungry for it. A friend of mine who is a former teacher at a charter school tells me that every semester, he’d help students mine their trauma for college admissions essays just like he was instructed to do by an administration that needed to launch disadvantaged kids into the Ivy League in order to keep raising money. A fellow writer was told by a mentor that writing about their rape would make their collection more saleable, another had an ex steal their story of childhood sexual abuse and sell it as non-fiction to a prestigious literary journal. The list goes on and on. Being a good writer isn’t good enough. And sometimes, a sad enough story will get a bad writer a book deal, even if that story isn’t true.

In an interview with The Rumpus, which, full disclosure, has also published an essay of mine, the interviewer is nearly giddy about Ailey O’Toole’s remix of other poets’ trauma in the weeks before the shit hit the fan and that remix was revealed to be a fraud:

She recounts her dark struggles with sexual abuse in “Gun Metal,” which speaks to overcoming and recovering from her suicide attempt, learning how to allow herself to enjoy life again: “I have felt the living heat of things / most likely to kill me and decided / not to stay.” Ailey’s collection swept me under like a tidal wave and refused to release me. My heart knew I wanted to champion this work and bring it for the world to see.
sometimes, a sad enough story will get a bad writer a book deal, even if that story isn’t true

Tianna Hansen, who interviewed O’Toole for The Rumpus, was also the publisher of her since-canceled collection. Hansen’s not a bad person for trusting O’Toole to tell the truth about trauma any more than the advisor who believed Mallory’s narrative about a dead mom and missing father is bad, or the places that published my cancer essays are bad. And writers who genuinely use their work to process their own personal horror stories deserve to have those stories taken seriously and the praise they get for a job well done is absolutely merited. But somewhere, someone decided that those are the only stories that bear telling, especially when the voices are female and even more so when the voices aren’t white. That decision makes for a system that’s easily, almost comically manipulated by Tom Ripleys peddling Brontë yarns.

As Mallory’s book was being auctioned under a pseudonym and the bidding reached a fever pitch of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Mallory’s identity was revealed. Based on his reputation, several publishers dropped out on the spot. But his employer, William Morrow, held firm, eventually winning the novel which would go on to top the New York Times bestseller list and be made into a film starring Amy Adams.

“One joke in New York was “The call was coming from inside the house!” Parker writes. It’s a funny riff on an old horror movie trope, where the monster has been within all along. I think Parker means for Mallory to be the monster on the line in this scenario, but Mallory wouldn’t have had such an easy transition from a cancer-peddling charlatan to a bestselling author if the system wasn’t so sick in the first place.

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