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:
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 They gaslight us, abuse us, and disregard our experiences in favor of whatever some outdated medical textbook written by a white, cis man says.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:
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 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:
I am a patient at NIH because of my spine. Imagine seeing that on a Twitter feed run by — who? Doctors there?
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
I take to Twitter, eager to see writers who have gaslighted me for years finally getting it. They don’t.
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?