Last spring, during my first week as a janitor at a Dave & Buster’s, I struck up a conversation with a co-worker who served 17 years in prison. Swapping life stories, I sheepishly divulged that I used to work for The Washington Post, that I had a book published by HarperCollins, and that I had been the editor of a popular website.
He fixed a look at me. “So what are you doing here?” he asked.
For the life of me, I couldn’t begin to explain how I went from having a life and career I felt proud of, to being publicly shamed by my peers and punished for things I didn’t do.
In October 2017, I was one of roughly 70 men included in the Sh-tty Media Men list, a crowdsourced spreadsheet of anonymous, unvetted allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. No words can describe my astonishment at finding myself accused of “harassment,” “stalking” and “physical intimidation.” Even more agonizing was seeing this supposedly private listing swiftly leaked to the public via several major online media outlets as well as social media.
The damage to my career seemed equally swift. In the decade leading up to the list, my work was regularly published by more than a dozen outlets. After the leak, that work screeched to a stop. Today, I write for only one outlet I previously contributed to; income that covers only a few smaller bills. I’ve applied for hundreds of office jobs in an effort to avoid a bankruptcy that could hurt family members whose finances are linked to mine.
Most days, it’s difficult to envision a path back to a decent life.
More than two years later, the media continue to embrace #MeToo’s powerful personal narratives as a reliable source of content and controversy. Now a cornerstone of liberal orthodoxy that few dare to challenge, there has been surprisingly little effort to dig into its complexities, unless the accused is someone powerful and prominent like Al Franken.
Hard-line supporters of the movement shrug off its more extreme tactics by noting that some #MeToo’d celebrities have inched back to prominence. Nonfamous casualties remain swept under the rug.
My story is noteworthy only because I’m one of the least powerful men to have been publicly accused in the #MeToo era. What makes this event intolerable isn’t just that the allegations against me are false. It’s that I have no idea who made them.
When the list was created, I’d been freelancing exclusively for two years. Of all media jobs, freelancing may be the least powerful. It’s extremely easy, and far from uncommon, for the editors on whom freelancers depend for their livelihoods to brush them off without explanation. Not one editor asked me about the list’s allegations. I just stopped getting work.
Almost immediately after the list’s release, a close friend of 10 years cut me off and hasn’t spoken to me since. Day after day, I’m tortured by the thought that even more people will learn of the allegations. Too often, I’ve found myself hanging out with friends as the discussion turned to celebrities being #MeToo’d, and been incapable of revealing what happened to me.
It’s been more than a year since I’ve dated. Working three low-paying jobs means I’m always busy — and broke. Plus, any woman who does the usual, predate research online could stumble upon the list. How could I explain it away?
It suggests those who ended up on the list merited comparison to Harvey Weinstein — a man accused of raping and assaulting scores of women.
Moira Donegan, the woman who started the list, wrote in New York magazine months after its dissemination that she was “naïve because [she] did not understand the forces that would make the document go viral.” Donegan is currently being sued by another listed man, Stephen Elliott, for libel and emotional distress. Perhaps surprisingly, I disagree with the lawsuit.
I see the list as a net positive for having removed some extreme offenders. Attacking Donegan for creating the possibility of false claims ignores the failures of established power structures that shielded abusers and made the list necessary. Additionally, Donegan had no power to force anyone to take it seriously.
Yet she can’t be immune from criticism. The lack of security for such a sensitive, unvetted document was irresponsible at best.
In a more recent Vice profile, Donegan recalled wondering with friends in the days before the list’s creation, “How many Harvey Weinsteins are there in our industry?” To my admittedly biased ears, the question suggests that those who ended up on the list merited comparison to a man accused of threatening, raping and assaulting scores of women.
A side note to the accusations leveled at me was the claim that an “HR file at The Washington Post,” where I was an editorial aide from 2005 to 2008, existed that presumably backed up the accusations. The Post keeps scanned personnel files on all employees, so a file on me does exist. But when I called the newspaper for verification, I was told my file contains no mention of accusations, investigations or disciplinary actions.
(Ed. note: The Washington Post declined to verify this.)
Baffled, I reached out to the former co-worker I had assumed was my accuser, a female reporter in my office whom I felt sure had at times found me rude or inconsiderate. She said she didn’t write my entry and didn’t know who did.
Obviously, I’m drawing attention to the list now. I’m tired of trying to hide in plain sight, of feeling psychologically broken for actions I never took. The top of the Sh-tty Media Men spreadsheet admonished readers to take the allegations with a grain of salt because its charges are uninvestigated. But in my experience, more than a few people have equated inclusion on the list, regardless of the alleged offense, as proof that a man is undeserving of ever being hired or heard from.
Weeks after the list surfaced, I felt desperate enough to tweet — without mentioning the cause — that I was having suicidal thoughts and couldn’t afford counseling. A number of friends and associates offered commiseration and emotional support.
I was told my [Washington Post] HR file contains no mention of accusations or investigations.
A year later, I felt hopeless enough to call a suicide hotline. Briefly, it felt cathartic, explaining to the stranger on the other end the accusations I faced and the distress they were causing.
I still haven’t mustered the courage to tell my family. Though I assume they’ll be supportive, I’ve imagined how excruciating this news will be to my parents, who’ve never worked in media and aren’t well-versed online. But I can no longer avoid it.
We live in an age in which we are inundated with misinformation, argument and provocation. As a result, many of us are stressed beyond belief. Yet in the decade since I worked in an office, that same culture has made some incalculable strides — including a marked increase in the seriousness with which women’s views are considered.
Societal change is seldom achieved neatly. Though I welcome the culture coming down hard on those who’ve acted reprehensibly, the truth is too large and complex to always fit neatly into a slogan, however well-intentioned.
Everybody wins when the women who once were summarily dismissed are taken seriously. But “believe women” shouldn’t necessarily mean “disbelieve men.”
Everyone deserves better than to be assumed guilty of unsubstantiated charges from anonymous sources. Justice, and journalism, demand more.
This is a condensed version of a story that originally ran on Medium.com.