Duke Chronicle article on Jay O’Berski.Posted: May 23, 2023 Filed under: Uncategorized 2 Comments
Here is the full text of the Duke Chronicle investigation published on May 19, 2023. The investigation was prompted, in part, by my blog post of February 9, 2023.
Thank you to reporter Nadia Bey. Thank you to the students who spoke on the record.
Alumni say former theater professor behaved inappropriately with students, emails show administrators aware of allegations
May 19, 2023 | 2:05am CET
Editor’s note: This article discusses a relationship between a former faculty member and a former student and contains other sexual references. Reader’s discretion is advised.
Walking down the corridor in the Bryan Center where the theater studies department hosts classes and rehearsals is a glimpse into the department’s history. On the wall are posters advertising the department’s productions — among these are posters for shows directed by Jaybird O’Berski, an assistant professor of the practice of theater studies until 2018.
O’Berski was on the faculty at Duke for 19 years, going from lecturing fellow to assistant professor of the practice. He directed three mainstage productions and 10 “extracurricular shows” throughout his time at the University, he wrote in an email. He acted as faculty advisor for the student group Antic Shakespeare and occasionally traveled to China to teach there.
He has also been accused of behaving inappropriately with students. One alumnus said O’Berski made them feel uncomfortable while directing a student production. Another told The Chronicle that she was in a relationship with O’Berski while she was his student, a violation of faculty policy.
People who knew O’Berski told The Chronicle that this alleged behavior with students was the reason for his departure. However, the University declined to release any records concerning alleged misconduct between students and faculty.
Kimberly Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity, declined to comment on whether the Office of Institutional Equity had ever opened an investigation involving O’Berski, citing privacy reasons. However, emails obtained by The Chronicle show that the University was aware of allegations against O’Berski and that Title IX officials had communicated with multiple people about him.
O’Berski wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the terms of his separation agreement prevent him from discussing his departure. However, a letter from O’Berski’s legal counsel to one person who published allegations against O’Berski characterizes the departure as “voluntary.” Neither O’Berski nor his legal counsel answered when The Chronicle asked them if the departure was voluntary.
Jeff Storer, who was chair of the theater studies department in O’Berski’s final years at the University, declined to discuss personnel matters with The Chronicle. Paul Grantham, assistant vice president for communications, declined to say whether it was typical for former employees to be unable to discuss their separation agreements.
Aside from basic details about his time at Duke, O’Berski directed inquiries to his legal counsel, Michael Pelagalli of Minc Law. However, after receiving a list of questions from The Chronicle, Pelagalli declined to comment, stating that the questions were either “inappropriate and irrelevant” or based on false assumptions. He also asserted that O’Berski was never found responsible for misconduct by the University.
It’s not clear how frequently faculty are accused of, or found responsible for, inappropriate behavior with students. A new report released by OIE says 15% of reports filed in the 2021-2022 fiscal year were filed against faculty, but it’s not specified how many of those reports were by students. It’s also not specified how many of those reports related specifically to sexual misconduct or consensual relationships between faculty and students.
‘Felt like his world revolved around me’
A former student of O’Berski, who requested anonymity because she feared professional repercussions and who The Chronicle will refer to as Jane Doe, said that she became romantically and sexually involved with O’Berski while she was enrolled in his class. The relationship continued after the student graduated in 2018.
At the time of the relationship, faculty were prohibited from pursuing relationships with any student under their authority, such as a student in their class. As of May 2018, faculty are prohibited from pursuing relationships with any undergraduate student. Doe said she never reported O’Berski to the University because she was afraid of personal and professional repercussions, but that she is now ready to share what happened.
“I had a good time while it was happening. It felt like his world revolved around me.” Doe said.
“He was very close with a lot of students, and that really worries me,” she added.
During their relationship, Doe said she and O’Berski often spent time with O’Berski’s wife, Dana Marks, and an unnamed professor who O’Berski “encouraged” the former student to befriend. Marks was also a faculty member in the theater department at the time.
Doe eventually realized there was a power imbalance in her relationship with O’Berski when he sent her a “threatening letter,” she said.
Doe shared a text thread from 2019 in which she and O’Berski appear to discuss the contents of a Facebook post by Adam Schultz, a former member of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, the theater company where O’Berski worked.
That post described Schultz’ experience at Little Green Pig as well as allegations about O’Berski’s conduct in the theater community. It was updated multiple times with information others shared in the comment section on the post.
On Oct. 10, 2019, Schultz posted on Facebook a message he reportedly received from an anonymous person, in which the person described their relationship with O’Berski.
“It was intoxicating and felt amazing at the time. Completely consensual and lovely. From where I stand now, I wish he had loved me enough to stand firm on an important boundary,” the message read. “Despite our feelings, we should not have engaged in a romantic/sexual relationship. I was his student. Now I’m left in a confused place, where I’m not sure where relational boundaries should stand.”
The text exchange between O’Berski and Doe, which took place on Oct. 24, two weeks after Schultz’ second post, suggests Doe was the original author of the anecdote Schultz shared. Doe confirmed that she was the original author of the anecdote.
Below is a subset of the messages exchanged between O’Berski and Doe. Conversation has been shortened for clarity and missing messages are denoted with […]
10/24/19, 3:46:51 PM — Now it’s your turn to be honest
10/24/19, 3:58:03 PM — Please send me your email before you share it with Adam
10/24/19, 4:08:34 PM — I have his phone number.. I was going to text him.
10/24/19, 4:09:57 PM — I need you to edit the post. Add a line at the top that says, “I AM NOT A VICTIM. I was not coerced into doing anything.” I would not like to be further contacted by you or Monica [Byrne]. Please respect my decision and privacy.
10/24/19, 4:10:01 PM — Is that okay?
10/24/19, 4:11:01 PM — I’d like this to be addressed from the Duke student and explain further why you shared this
10/24/19, 4:11:16 PM — What?
10/24/19, 4:11:47 PM — You should say that you are the Duke student who shared a text with Adam
10/24/19, 4:12:17 PM — Can you write out exactly what you want me to say to him.
10/24/19, 4:12:40 PM — No, THAT’S coercion
10/24/19, 4:13:05 PM — Write what you’d want me to write if I were you
10/24/19, 4:13:34 PM — You really don’t care what happens to me, do you?
10/24/19, 4:13:40 PM — Yes, I do.
10/24/19, 4:13:53 PM — Can you write what you would write to Adam if you were me, so I can be most helpful,
10/24/19, 4:14:23 PM — I’ll take that as legally binding permission?
10/24/19, 4:15:15 PM — I am the Duke student who shared my story with Adam. I’d like to add that I was not coerced into doing anything. I shared this because I was scared and confused, but now I understand my responsibility in the matter.
10/24/19, 4:15:20 PM — ?
10/24/19, 4:16:17 PM — Yes. Please add that you were pushed to make a statement and now regret doing so
10/24/19, 4:16:53 PM — I am the Duke student who shared my story with Adam. I’d like to add that I was not coerced into doing anything. I shared this because I was scared and confused, but now I understand my responsibility in the matter. I was pushed to make a statement and now regret doing so.
10/24/19, 4:17:28 PM — That sounds like the truth to me. Do you agree?
10/24/19, 4:19:54 PM — I lied to my wife and best friends to protect you and myself
10/24/19, 4:20:27 PM — I loved you and took care of you
10/24/19, 4:20:40 PM — And you think I’m a predator
10/24/19, 4:21:10 PM — I can’t control what other people say now that that’s out there. But, I will not talk to another soul if you promise me never to contact anyone?
10/24/19, 4:21:12 PM — You’re a rotten judge of people
10/24/19, 4:21:24 PM — I agree
10/24/19, 4:21:40 PM — Thank you.
10/24/19, 4:21:51 PM — Your voice was the only one I ever cared about and you betrayed me
10/24/19, 4:28:56 PM — What happens if [Schultz] doesn’t respond right away?
10/24/19, 4:35:10 PM — I’m not concerned with right away. It was only ever about you escalating a concentual [sic] relationship into a rape case
10/24/19, 4:38:44 PM — Okay. I won’t, because it wasn’t.
10/24/19, 4:40:16 PM — But you teamed up with people who need a scapegoat for their own disappointment. One day you’ll see how much damage you did.
10/25/19, 6:52:50 AM — Posted. Thank you for helping me fix this.
In the exchange, O’Berski told Doe that it was “[her] turn to be honest” and asked her to send him what she planned to say to Schultz in response to the message being posted.
The former student shared her response: “I need you to edit the post. Add a line at the top that says, ‘I AM NOT A VICTIM. I was not coerced into doing anything.’ I would not like to be further contacted by you or Monica [Byrne]. Please respect my decision and privacy.”
Doe then asked, “Is that okay?”
O’Berski then told the former student to include certain details in her message. When Doe asked O’Berski to write out exactly what he wanted her to say, he responded, “No, THAT’S coercion.”
Throughout the exchange, O’Berski made several emotionally charged statements, such as accusing the former student of betraying him.
“You really don’t care what happens to me, do you?” O’Berski wrote.
“Yes, I do,” Doe responded. She then sent O’Berski another draft of her response to Schultz.
“Please add that you were pushed to make a statement and now regret doing so,” O’Berski wrote. Once the former student did so, he wrote, “That sounds like the truth to me. Do you agree?”
“Yes,” Doe responded.
O’Berski then wrote that he was saving their conversation and that he would contact Doe’s parents and employer if “anything else comes up.”
On Oct. 25, 2019, Schultz shared Doe’s new statement: “I am the Duke student who shared my story with Adam. I’d like to add that I was not coerced into doing anything. I shared this because I was scared and confused, but now I understand my responsibility in the matter. I was pushed to make a statement and now regret doing so.”
The same day the new statement was posted, Doe texted O’Berski, “thank you for helping me fix this.”
On March 12, 2023, O’Berski sent Doe an email with the subject line “Apology.”
“I regret not respecting my role as your teacher and elder at the time,” O’Berski wrote in the email obtained by The Chronicle. “I have no excuses beyond the fact that I lost all clarity due to the love I was feeling from you and for you.”
Theater studies encounters
A Duke alumnus, who requested anonymity because they were previously doxxed for an unrelated matter, said they worked with O’Berski in Antic Shakespeare and eventually grew uncomfortable in that environment.
O’Berski tended to be very hands-on as a director, the alumnus said. Antic Shakespeare reportedly did not have any fight choreographers or intimacy coordinators, which are common in acting to ensure safety, but the alumnus did not push back because of “the pre-existing pressure of whatever the director says goes.”
“If things went too far, went scary, there was no way to stop the scene,” the alumnus said. “You were seen as being the character, but it was like, ‘no, I actually can’t breathe.’”
R. Darren Gobert, chair of the theater studies department, wrote in an email that all department-affiliated productions have had fight and intimacy coordinators since his arrival in 2019.
The alumnus said they started feeling uncomfortable around O’Berski after they were cast as one of two leads in an Antic Shakespeare production. The two leads were doing “light making out,” the alumnus said, but O’Berski kept pushing them to go further.
“At one point he was like, ‘Be louder when you cum,’ and I was like, I didn’t know that was what I was supposed to be doing,” the alumnus said. “He was basically asking me to fake an orgasm.”
O’Berski also allegedly called in another student to give the cast tips on having lesbian sex, the alumnus said.
“I think he’s brilliant and great at teaching theater,” the alumnus said. “But he’s also very attached to the idea of ‘the real,’ and he would trash talk students and faculty that weren’t ‘real.’”
The alumnus claimed that O’Berski believed other theater studies faculty were mounting a campaign to push him out of the University, and that it felt like “siding” with any of those faculty members ruined a student’s chances of working with O’Berski.
“There was definitely an element of isolation,” the alumnus said.
Scene Shop Supervisor David Berberian said that while his firsthand knowledge of the allegations was limited, he had witnessed O’Berski treat people “pretty poorly” while at the University. He said that a student he worked with in the Scene Shop frequently approached him in tears while working with O’Berski.
Berberian also said that when O’Berski left, the reason for his departure was not immediately clear.
“He was let go from Duke and it was all very hush-hush. We didn’t really know why,” Berberian said. “And then things started to come out.”
Title IX involvement and O’Berski’s departure
In March 2018, Monica Byrne, a former member of Little Green Pig, contacted University administrators about O’Berski.
“I’m approaching you–officials at the highest level of administration–because I know firsthand of his abusive behavior specifically toward those who have confronted him at Duke about his treatment of students; subsequently, those people fear reprisal for speaking out,” Byrne wrote in an email to President Vincent Price, then Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek and then Dean of Trinity College Valerie Ashby.
Byrne was motivated in part by her own experiences at Little Green Pig, where she says O’Berski made inappropriate sexual comments toward her. The company shut down in 2019 after multiple members left following allegations against O’Berski, according to former member Caitlin Wells.
A January 2019 email from Little Green Pig to company members obtained by The Chronicle references “departures by valued ensemble members” and “criticism of Jaybird that has at times been disruptive to Little Green Pig.”
“Little Green Pig often infuses its work with eroticism, sex, and dark humor,” the email reads. “In light of recent misunderstandings and miscommunications on our part, we are doing better to keep our cast/crew in the know, up to date, and safe while continuing to make work of this nature. If this sensibility makes you feel too uncomfortable, our recommendation is to work with a company whose work does make you feel comfortable and safe.”
Emails obtained by The Chronicle show that Wasiolek referred Byrne to former Provost Sally Kornbluth, who connected Byrne with the Office of Institutional Equity.
On March 5, 2018, Byrne met with Howard Kallem, former assistant vice president of Title IX compliance, and Cynthia Clinton, assistant vice president of harassment and discrimination prevention and compliance.
Six days after that meeting, Kallem emailed Byrne, noting that “a few other folks” had reached out to the Office of Institutional Equity but were “still thinking about whether they will share information.”
On March 27, Byrne and Kallem spoke over the phone, emails show. In a later email from Byrne to Kallem, Byrne claimed that Kallem told her over the phone that several people had come forward about O’Berski but declined to go on the record because the office could not guarantee confidentiality. Hewitt wrote in an email to The Chronicle that under the Policy on Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment, and Related Misconduct the office cannot guarantee confidentiality during formal investigations. Reporting to OIE does not automatically trigger an investigation.
In April 2018, Kallem notified Byrne that the office was still gathering information.
“Thank you for letting me know. I know that at least one former undergraduate has told you their story, name attached, and I was very glad to hear that,” Byrne responded on April 24, 2018. “But I was distressed to find out from a friend that not only is Jay not tenured, but his contract at Duke is up for promotion next week.”
As O’Berski was a regular rank non-tenure-track faculty member, he would have been subject to periodic reviews either to renew his current title or receive a promotion. The criteria for those reviews would be set by the theater department, according to the faculty handbook.
Since O’Berski was an assistant professor of the practice, he was required to be considered for promotion after eight years in the position according to theater studies bylaws. Given that he appeared to have held that title as early as 2010, this would align with Byrne’s statement that O’Berski was up for promotion in 2018.
If an assistant professor of the practice is not promoted to associate professor of the practice after eight years, department bylaws stipulate that the faculty member is to be dismissed. Pelagalli declined to answer a question about whether O’Berski was, in fact, up for promotion prior to his departure.
In June 2018, Byrne emailed Kallem, asking, “Are you aware that Jay has been let go?”
“We have been in contact with the department,” Kallem wrote back. He did not respond to emailed requests for comment from The Chronicle.
O’Berski wrote in an email to The Chronicle that he left the University in August 2018.
Erin Bell, Trinity ‘10 and Fuqua ‘11, and former webmaster for Little Green Pig, said that O’Berski told her his contract was not being renewed due to “not having enough international publications.” Pelagalli, O’Berski’s attorney, did not answer questions about whether this was the reason given for O’Berski’s termination or if O’Berski had told anyone that this was the reason.
According to the theater department bylaws, assistant professors of the practice that are up for promotion must show excellence in scholarship and creative research, which includes productions, performances and creative writing. Work with international impact is taken into consideration, but does not appear to be required.
Byrne believes that the University should have been more transparent about the allegations surrounding O’Berski and the reason for his termination.
“One would hope that institutions like Duke University, with their vast resources, would do the right thing by communicating the reasons for Jay’s termination to future places of employment and education,” Byrne wrote in a blog post.
Editor’s Note: Nadia Bey, Trinity ‘23, is a former reporter and managing editor for The Chronicle. Reporting for this story began in February 2023, when Bey was a senior.
If you have additional information about this story, here are ways to contact us.
On Jay O’Berski.Posted: February 9, 2023 Filed under: Uncategorized 5 Comments
UPDATE, February 10, 2023: I’ve been notified that the clinic that had employed Jay as an intern has cut all ties with him. Therefore, I’m removing their contact information from the post, though still naming them for the sake of public record.
I’m writing this public, searchable account about Jay O’Berski’s history so that no one can claim in good faith any longer that they “just didn’t know.”
To summarize: Jay O’Berski is a former professor of theatre at Duke University, and the founder and former Artistic Director of the now-dissolved Durham theatre company Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. As of February 9th, 2023, he is training as a therapist at Wake Forest University and practicing at Art of Wellness in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, specializing in sex addiction.
To those of you who don’t know me: my name is Monica Byrne. I’m a novelist and playwright. I was a friend and collaborator of Jay’s for ten years (2007-2017), a member of Little Green Pig, and a Resident Playwright of that company. Jay directed two of my plays (Nightwork and Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo), and directed me as an actor in two (Fistful of Love and Richie), among countless other smaller-scale gatherings over a decade—readings, consultations, cabaret shows, auditions, company dinners, and so on.
At a reading of my new play in January 2017—then called Wild America—Jay, who was slated to direct, was triggered by the subject material (women’s responses to the recent election of Trump). He demeaned and belittled me at length in front of everyone present, repeatedly speaking over me and anyone who tried to intervene. Though I’d seen him treat others this way, I’d thought that our friendship somehow made me immune. (I regret this deeply and have made apologies for it. Some folks in the community are right to be, and remain, angry with me.) Afterward, via email, I asked that Jay step down as director, and that a woman in the company direct instead. He responded by canceling the production. I responded by leaving the company.
In the year afterward, I began reaching out to other company members who’d left. I expected stories of bullying, as well as racist, sexist, and sexually suggestive comments (especially to women of color). I’d experienced it also—this is a text he sent me, just before the reading of Wild America, to which I did not respond. I generally laughed it off and maintained boundaries and thought that was enough. I wanted to continue the production relationship, which are very hard to come by in theatre.
I did hear the stories I expected.
But I also found out that Jay had been grooming, pressuring, sexually harassing, and sleeping with his undergraduate students in the theatre program at Duke University, and also in his theatre workshops in Durham and abroad; specifically in China, where he used sexualized direction as a way to “open [them] up.”
I know this because I talked to these students; talked to those who talked to these students; was forwarded emails between him and a student he was in a sexual relationship with; was forwarded sexual pictures and video of him with a workshop student; and was forwarded email exchanges where he admitted to the relationships. I’m not at liberty to share the pictures or video, both to protect privacy, and for legal reasons (doing so could constitute a felony).
Given the extent of these abuses, one would think that there would be public record of them, from academic, journalistic, and/or legal sources. I’m now going to explain why this is not the case here.
In March 2018, I wrote to the President, Dean, and Associate Dean of Duke University with my concerns. They referred me to the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), which oversees Title IX compliance (i.e. gender equity and sexual harassment). I met with Howard Kallem and Cynthia Clinton. They immediately informed me that they couldn’t guarantee the confidentiality of anything I told them, nor could they guarantee the confidentiality of any student who told them anything. I was stunned at this. However, I’ve since learned this is common practice: this study in Nature, while focusing on the sciences, details how universities like Duke circumvent Title IX protections by constructing policies that first protect themselves from legal liability—at the expense of students’ safety.
This is why almost none of Jay’s former students spoke to the OIE, though many expressed to me and others that they would have, if their confidentiality had been guaranteed.
From what I understand second-hand, Duke still did not renew Jay’s teaching contract, which (coincidentally) was up for review shortly after this. However, they did pay him a large sum of severance money, presumably in exchange for not pursuing a lawsuit. This is why the reasons for Jay’s contract at Duke not being renewed are not public—not “Google searchable,” not appearing on a background check, and not available from Duke as his former employer. There are several Facebook posts by his former collaborators (e.g. here from Adam Schultz, here from Caitlin Wells, here from me), but those are also not searchable.
Two reporters at IndyWeek worked on a story for over a year, but came up against similar issues to Duke: none of his former students wanted to go on record. The reasons were:
- They feared retaliation, and rightly so. Jay threatened the employment of at least two whistleblowers (which is illegal), including one of the women he’d had a sexual relationship with;
- Jay had conditioned them to believe that there was no abuse of power involved, that they were equally responsible for the relationships, despite his having power over them, as their professor;
- They were recently out of college, beginning to build their careers, and didn’t want to be known for being whistleblowers;
- They were traumatized by their experiences and didn’t want to revisit them.
Again, I know this because I spoke to the students, or spoke to people who spoke to them.
However, word did spread among members of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, especially when Jay admitted to sleeping with students in an email exchange with an LGP member. He shut down the company in December 2019. Before the website was shut down, the webmaster changed the homepage to this image.
As for legal records, there’s only one that I’m aware of: in September 2019, Jay threatened to sue me for defamation, for nonspecific “statements made on social media.” My lawyers asked his lawyer to name a single instance of a defamatory statement (i.e. one that was false and malicious). They could name none.
I’m happy to provide that email exchange upon request.
To reiterate, those who are unfamiliar with #MeToo cases are often under the impression that if someone has a history of abuse, that information must be public. This is not true (to put it mildly). As the last five years have shown, there are many obstacles particular to #MeToo cases that prevent histories of abuse from becoming public.
But because nothing has been published—because of institutional cowardice and abdication of responsibility, especially on the part of Duke University—Jay was free to leave quietly and enroll in a graduate program in Santa Barbara, and then another at Wake Forest University. I’d heard rumors that Jay was studying psychology, but not more than that. I learned that Jay was actually training and practicing as a therapist specializing in sex addiction three weeks ago. I was horrified, and remain horrified, that someone with such a history was allowed to simply start over again—in the same community. (I also reject the suggestion that Jay’s becoming a therapist constitutes a “healing journey” on his part. Accountability begins by reaching out to those you’ve harmed and taking responsibility for your actions, and having the humility to step away from power. Not immediately placing yourself in another position of authority where you have even more intimate access to even more vulnerable people. I’ve never heard of Jay taking responsibility for any of the above; on the contrary, as with me, only that he becomes belligerent when anyone suggests that he does.)
One would hope that institutions like Duke University, with their vast resources, would do the right thing by communicating the reasons for Jay’s termination to future places of employment and education. But as I’ve described, this is rarely the case.
Which means that, again, all of the legal risk and responsibility falls on individuals. Usually the same few individuals.
This is not sustainable.
It cannot keep falling to the same handful of people to do this work. It takes a community.
If you’re part of that community—past or present—and you have concerns, please consider expressing them.
Here is the contact information for Art of Wellness, the clinic where Jay is currently practicing:
Update February 10, 2023: I’ve been notified that this clinic has cut all ties with him.
Therefore, I’m removing their contact information from this post.
And here is the contact information for the director of the Graduate Program in Counseling at Wake Forest University, where Jay is enrolled:
Dr. Nathaniel Ivers
And here is the contact information to file a complaint with the North Carolina Board of Licensed Mental Health Counselors, which is the state body that would eventually be responsible for issuing him a license:
And here’s where to read more accounts of Jay O’Berski’s history from his former collaborators.
A dramatic reading of my one-star reviews.Posted: February 27, 2022 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment
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The Valentine candy incident.Posted: February 14, 2022 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment
Every Valentine’s Day, I think about this story about my Dad.
As a kid, I had a sweet tooth. (As an adult, I have a sweet tooth too, but let’s leave that for now.) And when I was eight or nine, I was just starting to figure out where my parents kept the candy before holidays.
Valentine’s Day was coming up and I just REALLY wanted some candy. I knew Dad was hiding the stash he was going to give us in the old cabinet at the end of the hallway. I thought I could just open it up, take something small, and no one would notice. So, my ambition outpacing my moral faculty, I messed with the cabinet until it opened. There was the candy—foil-wrapped chocolate hearts and all! But there was nothing small I could easily take, and now I felt kinda guilty about the whole business, so I closed the cabinet door.
Except…it wouldn’t close.
There was something wrong with the lock. I couldn’t get it the key to stick! Something was gumming it all up! I struggled with it a bit more, and then got bored and thought “well, this is good enough, no one will notice anyway,” and went off to do something else.
An hour later, Dad found me and told me to come follow him.
He seemed pretty angry. We stood in front of the cabinet. He explained to me that it was an antique, and I’d broken it, and now I was going to stand there while he tried to fix it.
I did. It was awful.
The longer I stood there, the worse I felt, watching him get out his whole toolbox and struggle to fix the lock, nothing working, angry and silent the whole time.
And he could see it on my face. After ten minutes, he relented and said I could go. I did. I went straight to my room and, instead of sitting on my bed, crawled *under* my bed because I didn’t feel worthy to sit *on* my bed. I just felt terrible. I lay there and kept feeling terrible.
Eventually I felt like I had to do something. So I crawled out from under my bed, got a pen and paper, crawled back under my bed, and wrote a note to Dad: that I was SO sorry, that I felt SO bad, and that I was under my bed “breathing dust” because I felt so bad.
Then I folded up the note and put it in an envelope. And who should happen to walk by my door just then, than Abby, the sweet family dog. (This is Abby. I still dream about her. She was such a very good girl.)
I pulled her into my room and asked her to wait. I got out a hole puncher and some yarn, and then hung the note around her neck, and told her to “go find Dad.” She ambled out of the room.
I waited. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Twenty.
I began to lose faith in Abby.
Then, just as I was about to give up hope…she ambled right back into my room. And this time, she had a new note tied around her neck.
I opened it up. This is what it said:
Here’s the text:
Of course I know you felt pretty bad about it, and I presumed you were sorry. And I was glad to get your note, via Abby (who seemed sorry, too), and now I know you are sorry and accept your apology. We are still friends, and I never stop loving you even when you are naughty and I am angry.
You must admit, it is good for the soul to say it face to face. It is also very difficult because SO much emotion is near the surface. Work on that next time you offend someone or me; take the initiative, go to them and tell them you’re sorry. It’s not a sign of weakness, but of strength, and if the person doesn’t accept your apology, that’s their problem then, not yours. But you’d be surprised how good it feels after you say it. And how good the hug feels after, too. Why don’t you give me one, after you read this?
I’m sorry there was dust under your bed. Is it time to clean your room?
I crawled out from under the bed and went straight to my Dad’s study and gave him a hug. And I cried, and we talked a little, and we were okay again.
When Valentine’s Day arrived, we enjoyed all of the candy, at the right time…plus Dad had gotten me something extra:
I’m going to resist tying this up by making huge extrapolations about who he was, who I am, or how we influenced each other. But, just: this is what I mean when I say my Dad was also my best friend. And why I miss him. Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad. I love you.
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The Durham Arts Funding Reform Proposal: what happened two years ago?Posted: February 5, 2022 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment
First things first: here is the proposal itself, now posted for public access.
Second: I’ve been meaning to write this summary for a long time, and I apologize to the Durham community for not doing so sooner. I’m writing it now because members of DCAB (the Durham Cultural Advisory Board) are meeting with Durham County and City officials next week to advocate for a new Cultural Master Plan, partly using the proposal in their presentation, so I thought it would be a good time to finally sit down and get this out.
Here’s what happened:
In early 2018, I and two fellow artists (Monét Noelle Marshall and Ashley Melzer) became dismayed at how quickly we were losing treasured independent arts institutions around Durham, due to rising rent; how the city was benefiting so much from its “arts scene” but doing very little to protect or nurture it, especially in comparison to its peer cities; and how long this had been a problem, with artists raising alarms and no meaningful response from the city. We spoke at a City Council work session that spring, but again, nothing happened. So in the summer of 2019, after we lost The Carrack, I started organizing local artists to speak at every City Council work session for the next four months.
This series is archived in its entirety here, with many artists volunteering to speak, and many artists showing up to support them (dressed in purple!). I remain forever grateful to everyone who came. Thank you.
That October, midway through the speaker series, three of the artists who’d spoken–myself, Akiva Fox, and Marshall Botvinick–sat down to draft a proposal that would distill the artists’ expressed concerns into a workable proposal. We aimed to submit it to City Council for consideration for its 2021-22 budget. (How this working group crystallized is detailed in the Appendix C of the proposal–again, link here.)
To summarize very briefly, the proposal asked the city to allot $1.325 million dollars–an amount comparable to investments made by our peer cities, to their artists–to a new direct granting program for both artist organizations and individual artists. The three keystones of the proposal were: (1) racial equity, wherein at least half of all monies would dedicated to artists of color and artist organizations of color; (2) a living wage for all labor done (e.g., no one would be asked to “volunteer” for evaluation panels); and (3) a hybrid lottery system, to eliminate evaluator bias. We met with and obtained statements of support from our proposed administrative partners, Hayti Heritage Center and the Durham Arts Council; and also gained full support from the Durham Cultural Advisory Board, which advises City Council on the arts.
After rounds of staff and community feedback, we submitted the final version of the proposal to City Council in February 2020. We believed we had enough support across City Council for at least partial funding of the proposal, even after the departure of Council Member Alston, who had been a valued collaborator from the beginning.
Then two major crises came to the fore: McDougald Terrace and Covid.
You can listen to the full City Council discussion of the proposal here, starting at 1:55:13. What we hoped for was true–that several members of Council, possibly even a majority, supported at least partial funding of the proposal. However, Council Members Freeman and Middleton argued that the McDougald Terrace emergency was more important, that this arts movement was much more “recent,” and that it would look bad to fund any part of the arts proposal in light of that crisis.
Speaking for myself, though I respect their decisions, I was frustrated with Council Member Middleton’s assertion that discontent in the Durham arts community was a recent phenomenon, rather than the capstone of a decade of sounding alarms that had gone unheard by Council. I’ll also note that Council Member Middleton was the only Member who did not reply to repeated requests for meetings (emails from me alone dated 20 March 2018, 21 October 2019, and 3 February 2020). All other Council Members had met with us and given us valuable feedback, for which we are very grateful.
In any case: the McDougald and Covid crises wiped out the city budget for that fiscal year. And everyone went into lockdown. And Akiva, Marshall, and I were completely burned out. And that was that.
However, I’ve been really encouraged to hear from colleagues on DCAB that they’ve used our proposal as a basis to move forward on related projects. If anyone wants to use the proposal as a template for advocacy–in Durham, or anywhere–please do. We believe it outlines a vision for a progressive relationship between artists and their city. One last time, here it is. Thanks, Durham.
Nominate The Actual Star for the Hugo and Nebula Awards!Posted: January 17, 2022 Filed under: Uncategorized 4 Comments
Hello friends. Nominations are now open for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the two biggest honors in science fiction. If you’re eligible to nominate for either award–which means being or becoming a member of WorldCon (in the case of the Hugos) or a member of SFWA (in the case of the Nebulas)–
I’d be honored if you considered nominating The Actual Star for Best Novel.
If you can’t nominate for either, no worries! Just spreading the word–especially to your science-fiction-reading friends–helps enormously. Feel free to pass on my homemade “highlight reel”—tweeted here, Instagrammed here, and embedded here:
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THE ACTUAL STAR: A conversation with Hal Stern.Posted: September 27, 2021 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment
I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with Hal Stern about The Actual Star. By day, Hal is a technology executive with a pharmaceutical company, and by non-day an avid consumer of sci-fi, music and good sandwiches. He writes on Medium and Substack. And, well, he asks damn good questions. See his intro and the conversation below.
TL;DR version: I got to interview Monica Byrne about her new book, The Actual Star, which is one of the most thought-provoking and hope-filled books I’ve read in a few years. If Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt and Remember is the scientific template for our long-term survival, then The Actual Star is its future hagiography.
Full backstory: I’ve been asked a few times “How do you get to interview writers?” It’s basic business networking–I ask a question about their themes or ideas (usually via Twitter or Instagram), the conversation turns to an application or interpretation of their work, and it expands from there. The same pattern played out after I read Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road last spring–I read it as a hajj or pilgrimage story, and asked her about some references, ended up joining her Patreon (please support writers), and then received an early copy of The Actual Star. Our email threads after I raced to finish the book covered religion as a startup, symbolism that puts F. Scott Fitzgerald to shame, acrostic clues in the text, threads I missed and those I interpreted through the weave of the three parallel storylines. In addition to being an exciting and daring book, it’s crafted with care so you can easily, stealthily, breathlessly follow what took nine years–and the merging of three book ideas–to complete.
Stern: First up, thank you for sitting down at parallel keyboards to talk about The Actual Star. I absolutely loved the book as it integrated so many approaches I treasure: parallel storytelling, our feelings of place and space, how and why we create myths and their pageantry, and a post-climate apocalypse future where the kids are remarkably alright.
Can we start with the basic structure of the book? It’s told as three parallel stories set 1,000 years apart. The past is set in the late stages of the Maya people in Belize in 1012; the current timeline follows a young woman from Minnesota as she searches for her roots in 2012; and the future is in a nomadic, highly fluid society where only eight million people have survived economic and climate disaster.
Byrne: If you can believe it, I originally imagined it as a trilogy of three separate books. That’s how we first tried to sell it in 2016. We submitted the first book (the 1012 era, called The Nameless Days) and an outline of the other two. Editors were intrigued, but just couldn’t visualize the whole picture. One editor, in his kind rejection, suggested combining all three books into one. So after a period of mourning, I went to a coffee shop, made color-coded index cards for every scene, and spent a whole day just arranging them on a big wooden table. I eventually settled on a structure of 1012-2012-3012-repeat, because with so much to keep track of, a chronological order imposed some sense of familiarity.
Stern: Once I found the first link between the three timelines, I was reminded of the “ah ha” moment I had during the This Is Us pilot episode. Your parallel storylines are elegantly crafted with Easter eggs dropped forward through time and sometimes space. I’m going to have to read this at least one more time to find and cherish them and their reflections.
Byrne: That makes me so happy! This is a weird book, because once you read how each timeline ends, it changes the way you read the other two. So ideally, it’s meant to be read twice–once to see what happens, and then again, to see all of the foreshadowing seeded throughout. That happened with me, too!–every time I revised, I found new threads to connect.
Stern: I first described The Actual Star as the evolution of pageantry over 2,000 years, rooted in religion and our social views of religion. An old boss used to joke that religions are the worst startup because they take 1,000 years to get their models right–but you jumped right into that evolution of belief systems. So much of the book resonated with me around aspects of storytelling, myth creation, and our interpretation and personalization of those over long periods of time.
Byrne: I definitely thought a lot about how religions evolve. I saw a beautiful statue of John the Baptist recently, and thought about how he was just this filthy skinny guy in the desert two thousand years ago, wearing goat skins and yelling at people; and now there are statues of him all over the world, carved in marble and gold. How did that happen! It’s mind-boggling. Why him, and not some other skinny guy in the desert? (That’s why I put in Niloux’s line, “History is so arbitrary. Let that be recorded.”)
In terms of evolution, of course the religion I know best is Catholicism, which has done a terrific job of upending everything Jesus ever stood for. But no religion or ideology is exempt from this: the founding feeling, that sets a generation afire, becomes rigid dogma; and worse, it becomes the excuse for abuses of power. You definitely see that happen in the 3012 timeline, when both sides are so convinced of their rightness.
Stern: When working on “The Clock of the Long Now,” (a clock that will run for 10,000 years), Danny Hillis told me that anything we intend to survive for a long time becomes a religion. As you explore the rise and fall of religious practice, with the central era–the Age of Emergency–dominated by capitalism, I have to ask: Is capitalism our current religion? Is hoarding an extreme (fanatical) form of capitalism?
Byrne: Those in Laviaja would consider us all hoarders. Me included. I have a whole apartment full of Stuff–even that is grotesque to viajeras. But of course, they’d think far worse of those who accumulated far more. They consider billionaires psychopaths, and honestly, so do I.
There are many aspects of capitalism that have the feeling of incontrovertible gospel; for example, the idea that growth is only ever good. I was shocked when I found out they don’t even teach degrowth in business schools; then again, I shouldn’t be. How would business schools continue to exist without the endowments of the high holy elders of capitalism, who won the game, by exploiting laborers for decades? These are not bastions of truth or ethics. There are rules about what you can and can’t say, what you can and can’t challenge. That definitely has commonalities with fundamentalist religion.
Stern: Threads of loss–of family, of belief systems, of totems–are so carefully woven through the story. Your discussion of the Maya diaspora–not disappearance–is equally lovely, as seen through modern-day Leah’s eyes. The story of the Maya people is told indirectly through Leah and then amplified in the future timeline. There is longevity in those stories even if there is no direct lineage; it made me think of your essay, “The End Of My Line.”
Byrne: Absolutely. There are so many ways to be a mother. I think I learned that early, when I lost my own mother, and so many other kinds of mothering filled in the vacuum–self-mothering, sister-mothering, aunt-mothering, mentor-mothering, father-mothering, future-generation-mothering. All of those roles feel far more important to me than actually birthing a child from my own body, and I’m grateful for that clarity, especially as we enter such a time of global uncertainty.
Stern: There is this continuous balancing act between what is real and what is not that amplifies the religious themes. It was most obvious to me in the future era scenes where psilocybin is taken in efforts to discover the “god of a place.” There are shades of everything from ritual wine to Carlos Castenada in there, and it’s a fantastic way to push on the question of “what is actual?”
Byrne: Totally.One of the hallmarks of the psychedelic experience is the “noetic quality.” That is, you have no doubt that the truths you’re experiencing are real, actual, timeless. That’s how I tried to describe the gods in the ancient Maya timeline: when you see the gods, you know they’re gods, because you have no doubt that they’re gods. You just know. And that certainty stays, even when you come out from under the influence.
Stern: I want to explore this idea of a “god of a place” a bit more. You and I have strong connections to certain geophysical locations–for me it’s Prague and Kiev. The first time I walked through Prague, horribly jet lagged, at 5am, I felt that I was retracing the footsteps of my family going back three generations. I didn’t even have to get into the Slivovitz to feel that I had some personal history there; on the other extreme I was a slobbering mess after visiting the Babi Yar memorial in Kiev. I felt like I was walking on the remains of relatives of that same Prague-grounded generation.
Byrne: Yes, yes, yes. That’s real. I’ve felt it many times too, and that’s the feeling I was trying to codify into, well, a whole book. Why do we feel so drawn to some places and not others? Even if we don’t have ancestry there? Belize draws me back over and over–and I feel similar callings back to Kerala and Iran–but other places, like Costa Rica or San Francisco, feel barren. For a materialist or atheist, maybe that feeling can be explained as the resurfacing of some subconscious memory. But for me as a theist, it feels like evidence of reincarnation, possession, and/or ancestral memory. It’s no coincidence that I first went to Belize because my mother had taught there in 1963. She loved it and always wanted to go back, but never was able to before she died. Even then, I felt like I was going “for” her–I just had no idea how strongly I would feel once I got there.
Stern: Against this backdrop of religious evolution, you’ve created this incredible future world with a gender and work identity system that eludes our preconceived or biased notions by simply starting from the ground up.
Byrne: The gender system was a long time evolving. Originally, I used the word “gender” to encompass the entirety of a person’s identity. But then I hired an amazing consultant who’s the head of the Transgender Health Program at UNC, who patiently educated me on the fact that gender, orientation, and penetrative preference are all distinct from each other. For example, she said, a kid generally knows what they are (girl/boy/nonbinary/agender) by a very young age; and later in puberty, usually a general preference develops toward one mode of sexual action (penetrative/receptive/both/neither). So that’s how the genéra/manéra/preféra system came about. It’s based on the most current science!
Stern: Add in to that mix the idea that a profession is selected, trained through osmosis and then practiced with guidance from the all-seeing, resource-balancing ai. In “The End of My Line,” you describe writing out a future family map of names of professions, and your sister questioning this planned family, “How will you control what they’ll be?” I think you answered the question with your gender and vocation fluidity; it’s not just what, but who they will be.
Byrne: Right. The idea is that everyone performs certain essential tasks as needed by the local collective–maintenance, cleaning, repair, companionship–that ensure everyone’s basic needs are met. But the rest of the time is free to pursue your vocation. That could be anything–observing wildlife, making art, taking care of children, studying supernovae, and so on. That’s an extreme version of what people hope would happen with UBI–that anyone would be free to pursue what they love, and the world would be a better place for it. (I should also say that I got this model from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which illustrates these principles in action more beautifully than anywhere else I’ve seen.)
Stern: There’s a lot of sci-fi that speculates about children being raised in communal creches, freeing the adults for more critical roles piloting ships or blowing things up. Your world separates children and their birth parents to eliminate temptations of selfishness (which would lead to hoarding again) and to emphasize the global village raising the child. I’m reminded of the synthetic families created in the Rwandan Agohozo-Shalom Youth Village for children orphaned by the genocide in that country. In both cases the synthetic family model–your zadres–provides structure to move past exceptionally difficult times of loss like your Age of Emergency.
Byrne: I didn’t know about the Rwandan models! That is fascinating. I also got the idea of shared, detached parenting from The Dispossessed. It seemed important to me to specify “Esta ninx es tu ninx” and not “Cada ninx es tu ninx”–we can’t care for every child, world over; we can only care for the child in front of us. But if everyone does that, (and is ensured by algorithm wherever there are gaps), then theoretically, every child would be taken care of. It’s a utopian vision, but….that’s the point, as Niloux says during the dinner in Persia. “This is as close as we’re ever going to get. And we’re still unhappy!”
Stern: You seem to have spent considerable energy on naming people, creating linkages across the timelines and suggesting all sorts of interpretation. There are acrostic identity clues, much like the strange initial-named siblings in Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.
Byrne: Well hell, I need to read that. And yes, I took the naming convention straight from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, with a slight change–instead of the reincarnated characters’ names beginning with an I, B, K, or S, my reincarnated characters’ names each contain an X, a J, and an E.
(Tanaaj’s name was actually “Saraaj” for the majority of writing, and if I’m honest, that’s the name I still think of her by. I changed it because I was so frustrated with how I was writing her–passive, reactive–that I thought if I gave her a “stronger” sounding name, it’d be easier to write her as a more active character. It did help a little, but now I want to go back and change it back to Saraaj. Oh well, too late!)
Stern: Your post-capitalism world is managed by a true invisible hand–the aug and the ai that powers it. There are so many subtleties and the number of things left ambiguous was wonderful–you let your readers think about what makes sense for them, and in doing so we end up at different views of the future era. I found myself questioning the actual creators of the ai (who runs it? where is it? how is it powered? how much bias was infused into it, or how is the bias removed as the Age of Emergency came to an end? Or is it post Emergent?). What kind of germline editing was necessary for pelt creation? Why do pelts only manipulate secondary sexual characteristics? I thought this was an elegant way of marrying the gender and sexual preference into the story without needing four sexes or explaining how reproduction would work.
Byrne: I’m somewhat chagrined to admit that I got the idea for decentralized computing from HBO’s Silicon Valley. The only computing I ever learned officially was binary in seventh grade, so I’m probably going to use very clunky and inexact language here, but my idea about who “runs” the ai is that it’s a distributed decentralized network. So everyone carries a little bit of it in their implants; or even further, there are processing nodes planted everywhere in the landscape, like seeds. It’s just such an integrated software-hardware world that we have a hard time imagining it.
As for the ai aspect–yeah, I left that ambiguous partly because it’d be such a vast subject, and I wanted to create only as much of the history as I needed to to write the story. (One of scifi novelists’ favorite ways to procrastinate is endless, compulsive worldbuilding. In some cases I had to catch myself and just say, you know what? I’m not trying to invent these damn technologies. I’m just showing how they work in my characters’ daily lives.) And as for bias–the character Keira in Kaua’i mentions that she mostly gets assigned algorithm maintenance, meaning, bias weeding. As if bias were a weed that sprouts up and needs constant identification and pulling out, both on a local and global level.
Stern: In our early discussion of The Actual Star you mentioned the privacy aspects of the ai, the panopticon that records reality for global review, including criminal action. The first places my brain went were the Amish concept of shunning, the social capital whuffie accrued in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom, and aspects of shame. And likely Cory Doctorow’s views of privacy and pervasive monitoring and mine diverge here: I didn’t see the ai as endangering privacy because you challenge the notions of privacy with your future state: money, healthcare, sex, even religious views are lived out loud, publicly and communally. There’s a neat balance of healthy agency versus directed action from the ai. It’s a stark contrast to Shoshanna Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, because in a post-capitalist (and significantly smaller) society, the value of surveillance isn’t about directing action. If the aug provides relative assurance that the equitable distribution of attention and resources works to my advantage, then it’s significantly preferable to the panopticon that makes me an advertising target in our current system. It also bumps into this tenor of shame and vulnerability around religious practice; it’s been wrapped in the concept of confession whether it’s with a priest or the public Jewish confessional on Yom Kippur. It starts with teenaged Leah and carries forward into your “scrupes” who once again manage to pull shame from the vulnerability introduced by the aug.
Byrne: Right. A political scientist friend once explained to me that the original concept of the panopticon wasn’t just the guards monitoring the prisoners, but also society monitoring the guards. So it was less a one-way totalitarianism than a system of communal accountability. Can it still be abused? Absolutely, especially when there’s money to be made. But what if there isn’t? What value does privacy continue to have if there is no (or very little) discrimination and everyone’s needs are met? I don’t pretend to answer this question definitively, but I definitely pose it in the book. (I know that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and the other tech titans would say, they agree on privacy being overrated–but that’s because they enrich themselves and their stockholders from its exploitation. Different thing.)
Stern: The final comment I’ll offer is a bit of a reading guide. Once I got about six chapters in I found it very helpful to consume the vocabulary guide in the end matter. Sounding out the Kriol slowly helped read it more quickly, which is important as the current timeline story evolves, and don’t be afraid to translate some of the high Spanish so you don’t miss the subtleties of naming. I loved the fact that I had to work at understanding the book, and even a few weeks after my first read, I’m continuing to turn it over and find new facets. It’s definitely going on the holiday gift list, and thanks again for making us think.
Byrne: Fantastic. And yes! If you can’t figure something out from context clues, the glossary and Google Translate are your friends!
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Want me to visit your book club? Just ask!Posted: August 24, 2021 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment
The Actual Star comes out on September 14th, and trust me, it’s the kind of book you’re going to want to talk to other people about. If you’re part of a book club and you choose to read it, let me know, and I’ll be happy to come visit on Zoom! Just drop me an email at monica at monicabyrne dot org.
Remember to pre-order from your local indies, whenever possible!–but if you can’t, you can pre-order here. And again, if you want to pre-order SIGNED copies, order from one of my local indies:
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Back to the future.Posted: August 20, 2021 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment
So remember, waaaaaay back in 2015, when I announced that the title of my next novel would be The Actual Star…?
It’s here. Publication date is less than a month away, and the blurbs and early reviews have been glowing. Much more to come, but for now, here is the gorgeous cover. And here’s where to pre-order.
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Hello loves. It’s been awhile.Posted: August 16, 2021 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment
…since Covid started, as it turns out.
But the good news is: I’m back. With lots of juicy things to share.
Stay tuned. I missed you.
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