“Who is the Bad Art Friend?” The viral New York Times Magazine article that documents the ever-changing interpersonal and legal battle between two writers (“friends”) (frenemies)? has inspired many conversations and debates, as well as some soul-searching.
One of these debates’ topic is the group text. One question stands out for me: What shame would each of us carry if we were to make public our private, catty correspondences?
If you are unfamiliar with Bad Art Friend mania then here are the main points. Dawn Dorland, a writer donated a kidney for a stranger. Then she posted in a Facebook Group an emotional letter to whomever her kidney would eventually go. Sonya Larson was one of Dorland’s “friends” from the Facebook group. Larson is an author who Dorland met through a writers workshop. Dorland considered Larson a friend, but it is not clear if this friendship has ever been reciprocated. Larson reached out to Larson inquiring why Larson had not acknowledged her posts regarding kidney donation. Larson was then inspired to write a story about white saviorism, and organ donation. Larson’s original Facebook post is a partial excerpt. Lawsuits were filed. There were countersuits. Through discovery, Larson’s group texts and emails in which Larson and her writing friends gossiped about Dorland were made public. (And as a new collection of legal documents indicates, the chats explicitly admit that Dorland was the subject of Larson’s fiction. There were many allegations of harassment and bullying. None of them come off well.
The essay triggered Big Internet Discussions due to its layers of poor behavior by all parties. It was about art, plagiarism (and to make it very clear, copying text from other writers’ posts is not okay), the ethics of real life inspiration for fiction, friendship, mean girls and yes, group texts. Particularly the horror at their being reviewed by a legal team before being published in the newspaper of record.
Group texts became a social lifeline during the pandemic. They are a paltry, but necessary replacement for real-life gatherings that we once had easy and frequent access. My group texts provide a constant space for updates on my daily life, outfit consultations, and horror at the current state of the world (e.g., Texas’ ban on abortions, climate change-induced flooding, etc. There are work complaints, pettiness, and a few other things. If I’m brutally honest, it’s easy to mock Dorland’s self-congratulatory posts on Facebook, even though I believe her decision to donate an Organ deserves to be praised.
These moments of social smallness are not something I am proud of, but they do exist. They may never happen again.
Research on gossip has revealed that it is morally neutral and deeply human. Despite being culturally coded as a feminine habit, it is actually quite genderless. It can be used to spread cultural and social norms and strengthen interpersonal relationships. It can be used for good or ill.
One of our favorite ways to vent about someone’s social media behavior is via text messages. Or denigrated a friend’s ex-partner or new partner? Or used a weakness or emotional impulsive moment to speak ill of a friend we love and cherish?
One of the lively discussion lists about this piece, I was privy to, brought up the old advice that “if there is nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.” Larson and her friends did not consider Dorland a close friend. They should have not been harsh about Dorland privately. In a simple sense, I agree that unnecessary cruelty is bad. We should all strive to do the best for our communities.
However, harm is the key word. What harm is there if gossip is kept private? Sometimes, all that is needed to let go of the negative feelings is the expression. This is the key — and one that Larson’s latest round in Bad Art Friend revelations does not suggest — to not let unkind feelings or impulses hold you captive.
I sympathize with Dorland. We spend most of our lives believing that someone, somewhere, or even someone we love, is saying something awful about us. It has been very difficult for me to have access to my private thoughts at times in my own life. However, I understand the right of others to talk about me or text me in petty manners. It would be hypocritical to not. It is human nature to do this. I hope that I will never be confronted with those comments.
However, Twitter is only half the story. Many writers have been drawn to Larson more than Dorland, according to some estimates. Perhaps this is because many people in my corner of internet are storytellers, trained by Nora Ephron’s adage “everything you copy”; stories are what help us make sense of the complex, sometimes cruel, world we live in. Sometimes, the stories we tell have clear and positive social benefits. Of course, they don’t always have clear and positive social value.
Robert Kolker was most likely drawn to this conflict by his love for good stories and gossip. Dorland also pitched the idea directly to Kolker. The major players aren’t well-known and their legal fights are relatively small in the grand scheme. Bad Art Friend gets under our collective skins, forcing us all to examine ourselves and see if we are the Dawn or the Sonya.
Digital records now allow us to track what was once unrecorded oral exchanges. The group chat exposes our worst impulses and the emotions we hope will never be shared with more people. They can be a lifeline, but also provide a record of the things we don’t want to be recorded.
Many of us will read about Bad Art Friends to transport ourselves into the shoes of one or both of them. Dorland and Larson’s twin fates are why we join the conversation. In a blog post , Michael Hobbes, journalist and podcaster, wrote that “They have… attained the worst kind fame. The kind where people on-line boil down your entire life to your most regrettable relationships and debate whether you are a good person or bad.”
We tell ourselves that we are not like them. Our group texts are “safely” stored in the small computers that we keep in our pockets all day.