Anna March, disability exploitation, and AWP

CW: mentions of abuse, CSA, suicide

Last week, Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg published a disturbing expose in the Los Angeles Times about literary grifter Anna March.

Or is it Nancy Lott?

Or Delaney Anderson?

Or Nancy Kruse?

So many writers — mostly marginalized — are tweeting stories about how Anna did them wrong: bullied them into editing for her magazine; bailed on payments; canceled retreats with no notice; threatened them.

Other writers are blaming Anna’s victims, calling them “fame hungry” or “lazy.” They are wrong.

The blame lies 100% with Anna March.

And yet, there is a reason Anna March targeted marginalized writers, mostly writers of color. And there is a reason Anna March — a white, able-bodied woman — got away with it for years. Anna’s cons never could have succeeded without the very injustices she claimed to be fighting as a pink-haired Feminist Killjoy.

I want to share a perspective that’s been left out of the narrative, but has been on my mind since Anna March first came onto my radar in September 2014: how she built her entire career on exploiting her then-boyfriend’s disability.

And how you all celebrated her for it while staying silent in the face of disability discrimination.

___

November 2014, two months after adding Anna March on Facebook.

I have just published a viral essay — Strange Flowers. (CW: CSA) My writing has never gotten this kind of attention. I am overwhelmed by friend requests, emails from strangers about childhood abuse stories, and accusations that I made it all up.

Like this comment on The Manifest-Station (since removed), attempting to discredit me by way of discrediting my medical experiences:

I have mixed feelings about this piece, and the related earlier piece about her brother which I just read. Here’s what I feel: she should simply be writing fiction. This purports to be essay as if strictly autobiographical but there are differences in the earlier story and this. In addition, much poetic license is taken. Its unlikely a routine extraction even with big and even deformed tooth roots would take three hours. An oral surgeon cuts a tooth when roots are in different planes. Even a difficult extraction doesn’t take three hours. And the likelihood the dentist or oral surgeon would, after some record breaking impossible three hour extra action, walk the tooth like an animal etc, is probably nill. That’s just one tiny example of why I have mixed feelings. This work is more like magical realism inspired by some real events but woven into a fictional and surreal landscape. So my mixed feelings come from using the shock value of a supposedly true first person narrative. I am not denying abyss happens including terrible abuse but this writer’s work reads more to me like a work of imagination based on some real experiences but turned into fiction. I call it fiction if its not simply fact. Its very interesting how she uses visuals to express some of the story. She’s very talented. My other critiques are not critiques, its just personal. She successfully blends pain with Eros. This seems honest but I feel the heebie jeebies when I read of erotic pleasure hinged to physical and emotional pain.

Even years before #MeToo, Coco knows it’s not a good look to attack the facts of my abuse story. Instead, she homes in on my dental extraction. It could not have taken that long. The dentist could not have been so weird.  It’s easy to discredit disabled people this way because the machinery is already in place: doctors also don’t believe us. They gaslight us, abuse us, and disregard our experiences in favor of whatever some outdated medical textbook written by a white, cis man says.

Just for laughs, I recently asked my mother — who drove me to the extraction and waited in the lobby — if she remembered the weird elephant tooth:

me: Do you remember in Iowa City when I got some wisdom teeth extracted and it took hours for one tooth to come out? mom: Yes I remember that. Roots were wrapped around the bone. me: Alan remembers, too! And the dentist was so weird and called the tooth an elephant. It did look like one! Mom: yes, it was huge, too.

Yes, that extraction really happened, and it took so long for two reasons: I went to a discount college town dentist, not an oral surgeon, and my genetic connective tissue disorder (not yet diagnosed at the time) makes dental work excruciatingly complicated.

I could show you records of other extractions, too — all many hours long. But I won’t. Because I don’t owe you anything.

But Coco also goes after my physical pain, too, calling it “honest” but wrong.

Here is the thing: I don’t remember a day without pain. I have Chiari-Syringomyelia and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, amongst other conditions. I live in pain every day of my life, and that pain — plus my epilepsy — formed the basis for why I was an easy target for childhood sexual abuse. Epilepsy, a developmental disability, carries a 90% risk. I also have learning disabilities, am part deaf, have central auditory processing disorder and am bipolar.

For me, there is no eros without pain. Sex hurts. Like anything else in my life: it hurts.

Coco wants to disembody my sexual experiences–remove the pain, remove the trauma. But the trauma is inextricably linked to the pain, and the pain to the trauma.

Combine those issues with complicated grief + mania (I was manic when some of the events in Strange Flowers went down) and you get that “surreal landscape” that put Coco at dis-ease.

___

Then the agents start contacting me. They like the surreal landscape and the magic. They like my voice. “I’ve never read anything like this,” an agent says.

Except, they don’t want me to be disabled — only to write like I’m disabled.

An agent wants to know if I “still have seizures” and he is worried about my mental illness.

“I don’t want to work with someone who might commit suicide,” he says.

He wants my neurodivergent, disabled narrative, except can it come without a disabled body attached?

He is just like Coco.

___

Enter Anna March.

I seek advice in a Facebook group for women-identified writers, and Anna March comments that this agent is just concerned, maybe a little paternalistic. Anna is a new Facebook friend. We met through her New York Times Modern Love piece a few months ago, about which I have mixed feelings because, in it, she erases her boyfriend’s disability:

Here’s the thing about Adam and me. Despite all appearances, with him being disabled, I actually consider myself to be the less “able” person in the relationship. People may assume that Adam is dependent on me, but I think it’s the other way around: He’s the stronger one, and I rely more on him.

Right down to the quotation marks around “able,” Anna simultaneously erases Adam’s disability and wants it to be the center of their love story: Look at me, she says. I love a man in a wheelchair!

But also: My boyfriend isn’t disabled at all! 

Even the illustrations are erasure:

Anna and Adam seated in a wheelchair made of bricks. Anna is poised on the armrest and Adam looks up at her.

Anna literally occupies his wheelchair. Except it’s not an actual wheelchair. It’s made of bricks, a symbol of their new, 3-story cottage:

One evening after the contractors left, Adam, trying to help, picked up a heavy box of discarded bathroom tiles and other trash and headed for the pile outside. As he rolled toward our mudroom, the box slipped off his lap, sending dozens of filthy tiles crashing to the floor along with someone’s leftover Big Gulp cup, which splashed soda over freshly painted walls.

I didn’t know whether to scream, cry or run away. Instead, I said: “Leave me alone! I don’t need your help.”

Adam disappeared, and I cleaned up alone, crying.

“I can’t do this,” I whispered as I swept and scrubbed. Not this house or this man.

Abled readers probably do not pick up on it, but this is abusive. You can’t buy an inaccessible house and get mad when your disabled boyfriend experiences … access barriers. In fact, disabled people face a much higher risk of domestic violence in part because abled partners can wield access like a weapon.

“You would never do that,” I say to my husband. “When I drop things or make messes, you always offer to clean it up and tell me it’s no big deal.”

Anna takes it one step further: She steals Adam’s disability — his spinal cord injury — for herself, as metaphor:

That’s why people who think Adam would be lost without me have it backward. After his world fell apart at 16, he rebuilt it, year after year, and now he is a fortress. My world was also blasted apart when I was a child, but I’m just getting a handle on it now. In many ways, it’s as if I’m trying to escape from a crushed minivan of my own and having to remind myself, just as he once did, that I’m O.K., that I’m alive.

I have scoliosis, cervical instability, and a spinal cord injury (in my case, caused by a birth defect in collusion with a genetic connective tissue disorder), and every single day, I grind my teeth as people use my Jenga Tower spine as a metaphor for cowardice and even evil:

Twitter account: Paul Ryan’s Spine with an illustration of a backbone and Paul Ryan

Even Alt_NIH:

ALTNIH Twitter account using #spineless hashtag to refer to POTUS

I am a patient at NIH because of my spine. Imagine seeing that on a Twitter feed run by — who? Doctors there?

Scientists Baffled by McConnell and Ryan’s Ability to Stand Upright Without Spines by Andy Borowitz

I have trouble standing upright. I am not a metaphor for Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.

And Adam’s body is not a metaphor for Anna’s trauma or her “messes,” as she alludes to her shady past.

And besides, some of us carry both physical disabilities and psychological trauma: using one as a metaphor for the other erases our complex experience. My abuse — my childhood “crushed mini-van” to use Anna’s metaphor — was because of my disabilities.

Anna ends the piece by essentializing Adam as “Prince Charming in a Wheelchair,” listed along with “a yard full of trash” as the elements of her life.

When it’s convenient, poof! He’s disabled again.

And she was praised for this. She got into the New York Times for this. While I am called a liar about my childhood trauma because of my disabilities.

See the problem yet?

___

Anna messages me privately to ask who the agent is, and I spill the beans. Anna seems to know her way around the lit world, and she seems to genuinely care about my writing. I’m confused and overwhelmed. I don’t know what else to do.

She writes back:

Anna March: I had a feeling it was ____he’s great. He’s TOUGH but he’s great. I’m sure he’ll get back to you soon. I think telling other agents you are in conversation with him will open some doors for you but I’d talk to at least 3 to get a feel. REALLY. Have you read the interview with [blacked out] they did a roundtable. it’s insightful. I’d reach out to some of his clients (current and former) and ask about him. “I’m talk to [blacke dout] in early stages, just wanted to know if you had any insights you’d be willing to share, 1005 confidentially
But here is the thing.

She couldn’t know who the agent is. The agent told me that he normally doesn’t rep writing like mine, but he fell in love with my voice – had never seen anything like it – and he couldn’t help but ask if I had representation.

If he didn’t normally rep my kind of writing (and he really didn’t; I checked out his clients), how would Anna know?

I ask a trusted former grad school mentor instead. He says, “Your disabilities are not the agent’s business.” Run.

This sounds like good advice, and I take it.

___

 

Looking back almost four years later, I see what I didn’t then: Anna wanted to look connected. Maybe she was even fishing, but mostly, I think she wanted to look omniscient. So connected she knew everybody and everything.

 

___

2016.

I am boycotting the AWP conference in Los Angeles after they rejected every single disability panel.

Imagine you are me: Your “social justice” MFA alma mater is sponsoring a conference that systematically shut out disabled writers, and all your colleagues are gaslighting you about it.

“I don’t know how to make them accept your panel,” a friend says. As if all my anger were just sour grapes?

I had hoofed all over Salt Lake City to get this writer’s books into stores, and she couldn’t speak up to get my foot in the door at AWP: I won’t ever forget it.

“I don’t know what to do with that much anger,” another says.

Now imagine this:

Anna March announcement for her Hello Los Angeles AWP 2016 kickoff party

Your friends are all there, in Los Angeles, partying with a woman who exploited her boyfriend’s disability to get famous — LOOK AT ME, I LOVE A GUY IN A WHEELCHAIR —  and not a single one of them has spoken up for disability inclusion.

___

The year before — when all the disability panels got rejected — I filed a Department of Justice complaint against AWP, and I got a right to sue letter in January 2016:

January 28, 2016: U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section – NYA 950 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. Washington, DC 20530 Re: Associates of Writers and Writing Programs Dear Ms. Higgins: This is in response to the complaint that you filed with this office alleging a possible violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After carefully reviewing the information that you provided, we have decided not to take any further action on your complaint. Unfortunately, because the Section receives thousands of ADA complaints each year, we do not have the resources to resolve all of them. It is important to note that the Justice Department has made no determination regarding the merits of your complaint or whether it could be redressed under the ADA or another .statute. Moreover, our decision not to take further action does not affect your right to pursue your complaint in another manner. You may wish to contact an attorney or legal service provider to determine what remedies may be available. In addition, a number of other options are available to you, including consulting state or local authorities or disability rights groups. Enclosed is a list of such organizations serving your area. These listings come from various sources, and our office cannot guarantee that the listings are current and accurate. We suggest that if you contact any of these organizations, you let them know that you have received this letter from us, so that they will not forward your complaint to our office. The text of the ADA, the Department’s regulations, and many technical assistance publications are provided on our ADA Home Page at http:/ http://www.ada.gov. If you have specific questions about Title II or Ill of the ADA, or want copies of technical assistance publications sent to you, you may call the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY). We regret that we are unable to further assist you in this matter. Enclosures (These are just lists of Utah disability organizations since I lived there at the time)

On Facebook, abled writers tell me I should have sued.

I say: With what money? Why can’t you protest and speak up? Why don’t you do the work, too?

They don’t. But they party with Anna March.

 

___

2017.

AWP is in D.C. I will be at NIH at the same time, lying in the MRI tube for hours right up the street from where all my friends are partying.

I get interviewed in ROAR and have a great experience with my interviewer, Ashley Perez.

Anna is good to me about the interview. I have no complaints.

But then Anna starts asking for writing. Message after message, even offering a column and payment.

Anna MarchSunday, July 30, 2017 at 8:27pm MDT i’d love it. Anna MarchSunday, July 30, 2017 at 8:27pm MDT we pay the second month after — meaning, june we pay aug 15, july we pay sept 15, etc. Anna MarchSunday, July 30, 2017 at 8:27pm MDT for more $ — 2x a month for $100? Anna MarchSunday, July 30, 2017 at 8:26pm MDT do you want to be writing for us more? Anna MarchTuesday, May 16, 2017 at 9:24pm MDT hi there — ok, when you have something, holler at me directly? (don’t submit through the regular channels, come to me, please? thanks! i’m glad to give you any kind of lift…………..i’m sorry things are, well, so hard. my ankle is meh. but ok. thank you for asking! my workload is hell. and so it goes. xoxoxo Karrie HigginsMonday, May 15, 2017 at 10:51pm MDT Hi Anna! I don’t at the moment, but I am working on some things. (Everything is in the dreaded “hot mess” stage-ha). Agggh so slow these days. Thank you so much for thinking of me! That actually kinda lifted me a bit and that’s no small thing. ❤️❤️How is your ankle? Anna MarchSunday, May 14, 2017 at 8:56pm MDT hi there — do you have any fiction you have any interest in publishing with roar? i have one spot available in our next 8 week block — and wanted to invite you…………thanks heaps for considering us. xo anna Anna MarchTuesday, January 10, 2017 at 10:51am MST karrie — shall we talk sometime next week? i’d love to get you to write a piece for roar at some point. thank you.

By the end of May, I know this is not a real offer. I’ve heard some things but kept quiet because more marginalized friends are afraid of what Anna might do.

Then, after an exchange about inaccessible retreats, she sends me this:

Anna MarchSaturday, August 12, 2017 at 8:23am MDT also — you know, i tiink, i grew up in deaf culture/disability rights (my grandfather came out of deaf culutre (he has his own character sign in the hall of fame at galludent, working thre to take the deaf census before it was galludet as we knwo it know — he was prouder of that then even of us grandkids, of whom he was very proud, mom and aunt worked in deaf culture, grandfather was big part of fighting for the rehab act of 1973 and then mom was a lobbyist for various things in the wake of the rehab act of 1973, including the ada which was written by my next door neighbor, tony. and 843 other things in my childhood and then i worked in college full time tutoring physically disabled kids and then of course later was with adam for many years, who is a paraplegic, blah blah. so i’m not a stranger to the world of disabilities, though of course i’m not expert, but i’ve been sick on and off the past couple years and people are horrible about my inconsistency as a result and it’s made me think, a lot, about disabled folks and that angle of it and the chronically ill. also, it’s made me dislike a lot of people. anyway — i’d LOVE IT if you’d write a piece about inability to be consistent and why and reaction to that. and if you do, i’ll maybe write a little intro to it or side bar or something? we’ve never done a sidebar, but seems like a good time to try. Anna MarchSaturday, August 12, 2017 at 8:16am MDT hi there -yeah, the “sue” thing was inane from her, i know. i love your blunt. how about this — when you want to write for us, reach out to me and we will work them in– “guest columnist” or “occasional columnist” or whatever. in fact, maybe your first piece could be about that — anna asked me to do this and here’s reality, kids.

 

She is cloaking herself in disability as cover for her cons:

so i’m not a stranger to the world of disabilities, though of course i’m not expert, but i’ve been sick on and off the past couple years and people are horrible about my inconsistency as a result and it’s made me think, a lot, about disabled folks and that angle of it and the chronically ill. also, it’s made me dislike a lot of people.

The thing is, chronically ill people do feel awful about our inconsistency and lack of productivity. We hate backing out of events & letting down colleagues and friends. I want to be sympathetic, except I know too much about her now, and I sense a pre-emptive excuse.

I sense she wants to use me, get me on her side using disability. Look how she lays down her Gallaudet street cred (is it even true?) and even mentions Adam again — by then, long since broken up. Maybe she thinks a white disabled woman coming to her defense will drown out allegations from women of color. I can’t know what she’s thinking, but something feels wrong.

The worst part? In the wake of the LA Times expose, writers are tweeting “red flags” for scammers, including — you guessed it — someone talking too much about their chronic illness. Because Anna did it.

Chronically ill people already face stigma when we talk about our illnesses. Now we will look like cons. Because Anna stole that space from us–just like she stole that space in Modern Love for a physically disabled writer to tell a love story.

 

___

 

2018.

I have two panels at AWP in Tampa, but I can’t fly because of blood clots. AWP says Skype will net “bad reviews.” My panel lead wants me to stay quiet for fear of retribution. (Oh, how many of us stay quiet for fear of retribution.) I back out.

When I finally leak AWP’s email to DisDeafUprising on Twitter, abled writers don’t care. Again.

One able-bodied writer calls it “shenanigans,” as if violating my civil rights were just like dropping a water balloon or shooting a spitwad.

But then AWP Executive Director David Fenza gets canned, and I feel hope. 

Conference Director Christian Teresi resigns amid allegations of discrimination,  bullying and retaliation against women employees, and I feel hope. 

I take to Twitter, eager to see writers who have gaslighted me for years finally getting it. They don’t.

Nobody cares.

In June, The New York Times resurrects Anna March’s Modern Love story and hires Mandy Moore of “This is Us” fame to read it.

Anna March says, “I want people to think and understand about what they’re saying about ability and disability when they say that someone who’s able-bodied is somehow doing something noble by dating someone with a disability.”

But that is exactly what she banked her entire career on.

By July, the LA Times unmasks Anna March.

By August, Anna March has a panel for the 2019 AWP.

The topic? Endings in End Times: How to craft final notes that imply light and dark, open and closed, emotional and intellectual complexity? We discuss struggles and strategies for endings that feel satisfying for readers, and yet true to the work, the moment, ourselves. 

Meanwhile, there is a panel that lists disability along with murder and natural disasters as “traumas.” My backbone is not your forest fire, I keep repeating to myself. My backbone is not your forest fire.

I want to be true to this moment. How does the story end? Will you finally include disabled writers, or are you always going to party with the people who use us?