Imagine — just imagine — the feeling of waking up one morning to see choice snippets from your bitchiest group chat, chopped up and sprinkled throughout a splashy story in a national paper of record. Imagine, if you will, that the subject of said texts was a mutual acquaintance who put a vital organ up for blind donation, for no tangible reason other than human kindness. Aaaagh! It’s not looking good for you; indeed, it’s looking like a waking nightmare, one that (in a cruel twist) somehow allows you to empathize with Ted Cruz’s wife. Horrible, simply horrible. How did we get here?
Well! On Tuesday, the New York Times magazine ran a nearly 10,000-word feature on perceived betrayals in literature, which really took off among media types on Twitter. Entitled “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” it dissects the minutiae of an approximately six-year beef between unpublished writer Dawn Dorland, and published writer Sonya Larson. If you want to spend the next hour wincing into the neck of your sweatshirt, I suggest you read it yourself, but in brief: Ca. June 2015, Dorland decided to make a non-directed donation of her kidney, meaning she made it available not to a specific person, but to any old stranger on a transplant list. Around this time, she also decided to make a private Facebook group updating a small circle of friends, relatives, and members of a writing group who called themselves the “Chunky Monkeys” (I know and I’m sorry but we don’t have time to stop here; eyes on the prize) on her altruism.
For some people who found themselves among Dorland’s confidants, her performative handling of an ostensible act of charity undercut its selflessness; this camp did not engage with the posts as much as Dorland thought real friends should. She singled out one guilty party — Larson — in a series of emails, which escalated to a full-blown lawsuit when Dorland, who is white, learned that Larson used the donation as a jumping-off point for a short story about an oblivious white savior, despite never even commenting in the Facebook group. The story would go on to accrue accolades, and though Larson denied stealing Dorland’s life material for personal gain, she appears to have pulled a saccharine letter Dorland wrote to her unknown kidney recipient straight off of Facebook and plopped it in her narrative. That’s according to a series of subpoenaed text messages between Larson and various Chunky Monkeys, ripping on Dorland over a period of years.
What did the texts say? Wow, you love the drama; here we go. When a friend and fellow Chunky Monkey texted, in 2015, to say, “I’m now following Dawn Dorland’s kidney posts with creepy fascination,” Larson reportedly responded: “Oh, my God. Right? The whole thing — though I try to ignore it — persists in making me uncomfortable. … I just can’t help but think that she is feeding off the whole thing. … #domoreforeachother. Like, what am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS?”
The chatter didn’t stop there. In late summer 2016, Larson wrote: “Dude, I could write pages and pages more about Dawn. Or at least about this particular narcissistic dynamic, especially as it relates to race. The woman is a gold mine!” Trust, there is more, but arguably the most damning exchange came in January 2016, when Larson allegedly texted two friends the following:
I think I’m DONE with the kidney story but I feel nervous about sending it out b/c it literally has sentences that I verbatim grabbed from Dawn’s letter on FB. I’ve tried to change it but I can’t seem to — that letter was just too damn good. I’m not sure what to do … feeling morally compromised/like a good artist but a shitty person.
For about as long as Dorland has been feuding with Larson, I have been joking with members of my own group chats that, one day, our texts will be read aloud in court, and naturally, this hearing will be hilarious. Now the possibility makes me feel all barf-y. Who among us has not waggled their eyebrows at an attention-seeking tweet, or a praise-courting post, in the assumed confidence of like-minded friends? Who among us has paused to consider that our pettiest quips might one day become fodder for approximately 8.5 million Times subscribers? That a time-stamped history of talking shit might become a matter of public record, the first thing that surfaces should anyone bother to Google our names? That we might forget our stupid, offhand jabs but our data networks never will?
Hmm yeah, ouch. A moment of silence while I feed my phone to the sea.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Dawn Dorland as a member of the Chunky Monkeys. She was not.