Reprinted from The Comics Journal #276 (May 2006).
Along with our actual climate, the climate of sexual politics has changed significantly since this article originally appeared in 2006 in TCJ #276. Today we've grown accustomed to reading about highly regarded public figures (and some not so highly regarded) being accused of sexual harassment and worse, but back in those pre-#MeToo days, it could still come as something of a shock. Maybe it shouldn't have been so shocking, and readers today may find the tone a bit naïve or otherwise discordant.
The traumatic experience suffered by a female comics creator had been circulating on message boards, if only in outline form, but without a name attached to the alleged sexual harasser. The posting and publication of this article exposed the identity of the accused for the first time, and one of the questions I wanted to raise was how the public narrative of this personal abuse might shift if the shadowy anonymous aggressor were to be given the human face of the well-respected head of a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending freedom of expression in the comics industry. It was an early hard lesson that has since been relentlessly repeated: that sexual harassment of women in subordinate positions is not limited to the odd lecherous creep, but has been institutionalized to such a degree as to involve even people and organizations we had every reason to think were above such behavior.
I endeavored to report the full facts of the incident and what followed, but beyond the facts, I felt the best way to come to grips with the chain of events was to humanize as much as possible each of the individuals involved. I wasn’t aiming to be completely impartial; I was trying to be equally partial to everybody. Some will object to this, feeling that the woman’s attacker has forfeited his right to a perspective. I tried to present all the possible readings of the story from the least charitable (the accused is a sexual predator and a threat to women at any con he attends) to most charitable (the accused committed this single act under the influence of alcohol and now regrets it). Many today will have little patience for the charitable side of this spectrum and will be disinclined to entertain any excuses on behalf of the perpetrator. Fair enough. Ultimately, we each choose our preferred reading. But I would argue that the best way to understand what makes such actions possible is to approach them, at least initially, from multiple perspectives.
The appearance of the term “witch hunt” in the article may set off warning bells for a reader now that it’s being tossed around by a paranoid president and invoked as a dismissal of #MeToo. I would stand by the article’s use of the term, though, because it has been carefully worded to apply specifically and literally to the language used by outraged message-board posters when news of the incident first began to spread. (There’s really no other word for posts like “Burn him at the stake,” and “Light the spark, start the fire, and smoke out the deviants,” than “witch hunt.”) Just because certain prominent public figures misuse the term, doesn’t mean we have to surrender it to them.
Nevertheless, if there is one sentence in this article that made me cringe as I reread it 12 years later, it’s the final one. I only meant to suggest that Charles Brownstein’s actions had resulted in tragic consequences all around, but this concluding line inadvertently implies a kind of equivalence between aggressor and victim. Aside from the fact that Brownstein had only himself to blame for his own consequences, whereas his victim had done nothing to deserve hers … aside from the fact that, as it turned out, there were no visible consequences for Brownstein, who retained his high-paying job … no two people’s experiences are ever equivalent, no matter how much a journalist may want to tie a story up in a neat bow at the end.
I also regret my headline choice: It would have been better to use “Sexual Harassment Scandal” than the more salacious-sounding “Sex Scandal.” It’s true that “sex scandal” is exactly what we think of when we hear about a public figure’s misconduct in a hot tub, whereas “sexual harassment” suggests sexual improprieties in the workplace. But in this case, for both these individuals, the comics convention was an extension of their workplace — which made Brownstein’s behavior all the more egregious.
Update: Charles Brownstein survived the scandal and continues to labor on behalf of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to this day. (See ongoing coverage of the Cody Pickrodt civil suit and related criticisms of CBLDF for an example of how the organization continues to be haunted by this episode from its executive director’s past.) The Friends of Lulu Empowerment Fund was judged by its administrators to have been insufficiently thought through, for reasons outlined in the article, and it was soon abandoned. Taki Soma has continued to work in comics (Bitch Planet, Sinergy, and others).
— Michael Dean, September 2018
The story of a young comics creator who could not muster the strength to break the grip of a prominent industry figure’s hand on her left breast has been circulating through the comics community and formed the basis of a new “empowerment” fund announced April 7 by Friends of Lulu. The fund is intended to give victims of sexual assault or harassment in a comics-industry context the strength to fight back legally if not physically. But the very case that inspired the fund — an alleged incident in a hot tub at the November 2005 Mid-Ohio Con — hints strongly at some of the pitfalls Friends of Lulu may run into with such an undertaking.
On the message boards, some have praised the establishment of such a fund, while some have warned that the idea seemed rushed, half-baked. As much as organizers have worked quickly to research the legalities of the fund and place it on firm ground, it’s hard to deny that it has come about out of desperation; it is the result of a profound wish to have something good come out of the sordid misery that in tiny increments and one unretractable leap has overtaken the lives of at least two people.
One of these people is Taki Soma, a 30-year-old Minneapolis-based beginning comics artist (Silent Forest for Silent Devil Productions, The West Side for Redoubt Studio). The other person is Charles Brownstein, who as the devoted and energetic executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, is a highly respected figure in the comics industry. Even after the information was leaked (in Ronée Garcia Bourgeois’ Buzzscope Web column) that the man who allegedly victimized Soma was the “current leader of … a group which works diligently to help creators in need,” Brownstein’s name took a long time to rise to the top of an extremely short list of suspects. The reluctance to identify Brownstein’s role in the scandal was so great that it was only after a detailed investigation, including questions directed to Columbus, Ohio, police officers, the CBLDF Board of Directors and each of the principals of the case that the Journal was able to obtain enough information to report unequivocally that he is the alleged aggressor in Soma’s account. Most of those questions were greeted with “No comment,” and the bulk of the answers that were allowed to slip out were off the record. The story that follows, including Brownstein’s role in it, which was confirmed by police, has been pieced together from information obtained on the record from multiple sources.
Friends of Lulu Vice President (of Industry Issues) Ronée Garcia Bourgeois was responsible for bringing the incident to the public’s attention Dec. 26, when she posted an angry-if-abbreviated account on her Buzzscope blog, What a Girl Wants. The details were skeletal: An industry professional — the head of an organization aimed at assisting comics creators — had taken an unidentified novice comics creator under his wing and betrayed her trust by groping her.
The reactions provoked by the post among followers of Bourgeois’ column were predominantly compassionate but further subdivided into two categories: 1) the avowed desire to wreak Batman-like vengeance against the perpetrator, and 2) perplexity as to where to direct that vengeance or even what exactly was to be avenged. Referring to the alleged perpetrator as a “pervert” and a “leech,” Bourgeois said, “I think he should burn. And as soon as I can, I will [identify him and his organization].”
Posters on the site took up the cry, using phraseology disturbingly redolent of an archetypal witch hunt: “Fire the bastard! Burn him at the stake!” (Posted by MiserableRainGod.) “Go to it Ronée! Consider my matches added to the fire …” (Posted by Psychoweasel.) “Light the spark, start the fire, and smoke out the deviants, Ronée.” (Posted by Joe Illidge.) The occasional posters who questioned whether enough of the full story was known to adequately judge it were generally shouted down. A police report had been filed, supporters were assured, and further details would be forthcoming. At the beginning of April, Bourgeois made good that promise, identifying the alleged victim as freelance artist Taki Soma and doling out a few more details of the incident — this time in the words of the victim.
Some the Journal spoke with referred to the multiple perspectives on the events of the evening in question as a kind of Rashomon scenario, but in fact, the accounts the Journal has heard are much more compatible with one another than they are divergent. Soma was quoted as saying, “The incident happened late in the year of 2005 during pre-convention prepping and partying.” Though she didn’t identify the location or exact date, it wasn’t hard to figure out that she was talking about Friday night, Nov. 25, at Mid-Ohio Con. At the end of the evening she would end up alone in a hot tub with two men she described as “my friend Ken” and “a person I had met during a convention a little over a year ago and had developed an acquaintanceship from seeing him around at all the conventions I attend.” Ken was Ken Lillie-Paetz, Canadian founder of Monkey Pharmacy Productions (which publishes Elsinore and other comics) and volunteer con assistant for the CBLDF. It was Lillie-Paetz who had introduced her to her year-old acquaintance: Charles Brownstein. “He knew everyone,” Soma said in her online statement, “and [had] introduced me to the Editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, given me advice on my art, shared amusing tales about the industry, etc. — I thought he was definitely someone I’d want to keep within networking relations, or so I thought …”
Those who know Brownstein can picture him earlier in the day: clean-shaven, conservatively groomed, probably wearing a suit and tie. At 27, he’s been called the youngest 40-year-old in comics. But as the socializing phase of working the con circuit kicked in that evening, he began drinking — first beers and later mixed drinks. It was Soma who was invited by friends to a hotel pool party and who convinced Brownstein and Lillie-Paetz to accompany her. “I was invited down to the pool in the hotel I was staying at by friends,” Soma said, “but I turned the invitation down per I didn’t have a bathing suit with me, but after some coaxing, it was decided that it was okay to go in my clothes — But instead of swimming, there was an attached hot tub sectioned off in the pool, where everything is wide open and we all gravitated towards the hot tub to sit and just talk about comics and movies etc. I was thrown into the pool area by surprise a couple of times by this one man, which made me quite unhappy and uncomfortable.”
“This one man” was Brownstein. The nature of his work frequently put Brownstein in socializing situations and Lillie-Paetz as a CBLDF volunteer had often seen him with a drink in his hand, but this evening he seemed to drift into an alcoholic fog deeper than any Lillie-Paetz had observed before. According to Soma’s account, Brownstein (this individual)’s state of inebriation manifested itself in prankish roughhousing directed at her, much to her annoyance. “After a while,” Soma continued, “most others went to their rooms and the remaining people were this individual, my friend Ken and myself …”
Lilllie-Paetz told the Journal he climbed out and swam in the adjacent pool until he noticed “something weird happening” in the hot tub.
In her Buzzscope narrative, Soma said, “I excused myself and started to leave, but before I succeeded in getting out of the tub, this man grabs my shoulders from behind and started to massage me there, then slip his hands under my shirt, felt around my back and then slipped his left hand toward my left breast. He had his hand cupped on my breast when I pried him off of me. Ken, who was swimming, must have noticed what was happening and came in from over the ledge. I then stated, again, that I am leaving and started to get out of the tub when he grabs onto my shirt with his right hand and attempted to remove it off of me.”
Lillie-Paetz told the Journal, “He was not letting her go and I had to pull his fingers back from her shirt without losing her shirt and without breaking his fingers. I had to kind of guess at how far I could pull his fingers back without breaking them.” Asked if an attempt was made to reason with Brownstein, Lillie-Paetz said, “He was totally out of it.”
Soma continued, “Ken grabs the man’s offending hand to try to remove it while I grabbed the shirt down to keep it on me. I kept warning the attacker to let go, don’t do this, etc.; and all 3 of us struggled for maybe 10 seconds, it was an awkward struggle because Ken and I are both trying to remove this man’s hand away without having my top ripped or slipped off of me. Ken overpowered him and got his hand off of my shirt. Ken then told me to run back to my room.”
The immediate aftermath saw Soma locked in her hotel bathroom, as Brownstein, gradually realizing the seriousness of his actions, attempted to apologize. The severely upset Soma refused to speak to Brownstein and he was walked back to his hotel room by Lillie-Paetz. No one was willing to talk about that walk on the record. All Lillie-Paetz would say was that “He was very shocked at the extent of what he had done and very shocked that the police were called.”
The incident allegedly occurred around 3 a.m. A couple of hours later, police filed a report on the matter. Lillie-Paetz said he waited “around the corner” while Soma recounted the incident to investigating officers. He expected to be questioned, but instead, police left without speaking to either him or the accused. Little can be learned from the report available to the public, virtually all information having been redacted, including the victim’s identity and the incident narrative. The offense comes under the category of “molesting” and is described in the report as a “sexual imposition,” making it a misdemeanor. The alleged perpetrator’s name doesn’t appear in the report because Columbus Police elected not to make any arrests, one of the biggest initial mysteries in the case.
“This is where it gets complicated,” Soma said in her Buzzscope statement; “the incident happened in Ohio, I’m in Minnesota, my witness, Ken is in Canada and the individual in question is in yet another state — these factors have made it very difficult for me to obtain legal representation or to seek legal advice. I have made countless phone calls, researched, and all I get is the runaround and speculation as to what to do. Every single attorney I spoke with, civil, pro-bono, even the D.A.’s office in Ohio were unsure of how to advise me confidently — I’ve also contacted various organizations, including those who give support to sexual violence victims, artists in need of legal advice, and even their contact attorneys — and still, no solid legal advice.”
Of course, as the victim of an alleged crime, Soma shouldn’t be the one in need of legal counsel. And despite Soma’s suggestion that the case was dropped by authorities because the principals in the case were all out-of-state residents, the state commonly extradites defendants across state lines, according to the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, with one recent felon coming from as far away as Afghanistan. Detective David Phillips of the Columbus Special Victims Unit told the Journal, “There was a specific reason the case was closed and that is not it. If it’s a misdemeanor, the defendant might not be extradited, but he could be arrested if he came back to Ohio. That is not a reason charges will not be pursued.”
Phillips said he could not divulge the reason for the case’s closure without permission of the victim, but, asked what kinds of circumstances under standard operating procedure would result in police dropping a case, he named only two possibilities: Either the victim has chosen not to press charges or there is a lack of evidence. “In the case of a misdemeanor, in our code, we are required to have corroborating evidence in order to prosecute,” Phillips told the Journal.
Based on Soma’s account on Bourgeois’ blog, her molestation has the corroborating evidence of a witness — her friend Ken, who helped wrestle her free from the groper’s clutches. But Phillips said no witness was reported to police. Without a witness, he said, such incidents make for “hard cases. If somebody says, ‘He put his hand under my top and tried to pull it off,’ how in the world do you prove that before a jury?”
Though police told the Journal only the victim could give permission for redacted information in the report to be released, Lillie-Paetz said he and Soma were told the case was closed and its contents could not be revealed even to them. (In another odd discrepancy, Soma, who was 29 at the time, is identified as a 20-year-old in the report filed with Columbus Police.)
As a result, Soma reported on Buzzscope, “I felt overwhelmed and powerless … how can I not have any answers? — I’ve been told to move on, I wasn’t raped, it’s no big deal, by a few … but it is a big deal to me. I understand fully what occurred, and I’m not here to say that my experience was as horrendous as rape cases are, but I was nonetheless wronged.”
If Soma was feeling frustrated, Lillie-Paetz was also in an awkward position, torn between his loyalty to Soma and his loyalty to the CBLDF, of which Brownstein is the public face. With Lillie-Paetz as the intermediary, Brownstein made further apologies and offers of penance to Soma in the form of a donation to the charity of her choice and a promise to stay away from conventions where she was in attendance. From Soma’s point of view, however, the man she had struggled with was a threat to other women like herself. “I also know that my incident was not an isolated case by this person,” she told readers of Bourgeois’ column, “but repeated behavior that has been escalating each time. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I remained silent and just hoped it wouldn’t happen again to someone else.”
Lillie-Paetz’s faith in the CBLDF was such that he convinced Soma to seek a solution through the organization’s board of directors. From the beginning of the Internet speculations about the identity of the sexual predator at the head of an organization “to help creators in need,” the CBLDF had maintained an understandable silence. When approached by the Journal, however, and told that this article would identify Brownstein as the individual in Soma’s account, CBLDF President Chris Staros gave the following response on behalf of the board: “Certain allegations were brought to the Fund’s attention. The board of directors has been dealing with the issue since the day after the incident and has taken the matter very seriously. The board retained an outside investigator to conduct a thorough independent investigation, which has concluded. Appropriate actions have been taken based on the results of the investigation, but to protect the privacy rights of all the parties involved we cannot comment further.”
The board handled the matter very carefully and by the book, refusing to divulge any details of its investigation to either the complaining victim or the accused employee. All that is known is that an outside attorney was brought in who questioned some of the women that Soma alluded to with her reference to “repeated behavior.” What kind of repeated behavior? Nothing the Journal was able to discover, even among the worst hearsay and online gossip, amounted to more than instances of overly familiar touching and one unwanted backrub allegedly given to a volunteer. The board evidently concluded there was no reason to believe that whatever had transpired between Brownstein and Soma was likely to recur. If Soma had hoped her story would lead the board to permanently dismiss Brownstein from his post, that goal was not achieved. In fact, it was hard for her to see exactly what she had achieved since the board could not tell her what actions it had taken without illegally violating the privacy of its employee. From Soma’s point of view, the board’s response must’ve boiled down to: We conducted an investigation and handled the matter internally. Now go away.
Having come up against what seemed to be unsympathetic brick walls in the bureaucratic responses of the police and the CBLDF board, not to mention a string of unhelpful lawyers, Soma turned to Friends of Lulu, the comics-industry support group for female professionals and readers. If the police and CBLDF had been impassive in their responses,, Soma encountered the opposite extreme in FoL Vice President Ronée Bourgeois. The next thing Soma and Lillie-Paetz knew, even before the CBLDF had completed its slowly grinding investigation, Bourgeois had posted an outraged protest of Soma’s alleged sexual harassment and subsequent stonewalling by “the powers that be.” Bourgeois stopped short of naming names but professed herself eager to do so: “I just want this organization and the man behind all of this to be warned. This WILL come out and I am gunning for him.”
In a subsequent column, Bourgeois revealed, “At the age of 15, I was a victim of sexual assault. No tit grabs, no harmless flirtation … I was raped. And I was lost. The few people I told either did not believe me or told me it was my fault for letting him drive me home. Like I should have known that meant he would want to take my virginity as the price of the ride”.
The hints dropped by Bourgeois’ column, however, had an unforeseen consequence. The growing swarm of rumors and suspicions flew right past Brownstein and settled on Jim McLauchlin, director of A Commitment To Our Roots. A.C.T.O.R., which is aimed at helping indigent comics professionals, fit Bourgeois’ description as well as the CBLDF, and its leader, who was not as familiar a public figure as Brownstein, was apparently more easily imagined as the villain in Bourgeois’ scenario. McLauchlin was glad to be able to report that he’d been nowhere near Ohio at the time of the alleged incident.
Horrified by the extremity of some of the online responses and the fact that innocent people were being targeted for vengeance, Soma and Lillie-Paetz determined to set the record straight by posting a statement via Bourgeois’ column identifying themselves and the alleged perpetrator. At the last minute, however, it was decided that the accused should not be named until Soma had gotten solid legal advice on the matter, and instead, Soma posted the account of her experience described above.
By that time, Brownstein’s name was no longer above suspicion, but no one, not even his alleged victim, seemed to want to acknowledge his role in the incident in public. It was as if as long as the story remained on an abstract level — brutal harassment, heartless industry cover-up — the silhouette of the man who had allegedly clutched Soma’s breast could stand in for every rumored industry harasser, every unreported assault on a comics creator who was too afraid to make trouble. And there are many such anonymous stories, though they seem to evaporate as one gets close to them. If the online bloodlust that followed Bourgeois’ initial column seemed over-the-top, it may be because the posters weren’t directing their rage at Brownstein, at a single accused harasser, but at a figure that stood as a symbol of all sexual violence and industry injustice. If they had only known it, the same people vowing to “stick his nuts in a blender,” had probably earlier sung his praises as a tireless First Amendment crusader on behalf of the industry. But denied a name, Brownstein could take all the sins of the industry onto himself. He could even, for a minute, be the man who drove the 15-year-old Bourgeois home one night.
Now that he has become Charles Brownstein, the difficult job begins of weighing what we’ve been told of Soma’s suffering and the ugliness of an unconscionable act one night at Mid-Ohio Con against the flesh-and-blood reality of who Brownstein is as a human being and what he has done for the comics industry. Is he a potential serial molester who’s only begun to show his true predatory nature? Is he an unpredictable alcoholic set up with a per diem expense account and sent by the CBLDF to one convention party after another? Is he a hard-working, dedicated fundraiser who one night happened to drink the wrong combination of whiskey and forget himself? What is his side of the story anyway and how might it vary from Soma’s? Does he need help? Does he deserve to be forgiven or banished from the industry? Can he live down the scandal and continue to do good work for the CBLDF or will the fundraising ability of a valuable organization be hampered? People will undoubtedly draw different conclusions about these questions, but at least those conclusions will be based on people’s impressions of a real, live person, not a faceless bogeyman.
To some, the knowledge that Brownstein is the accused individual will cast the crime itself in a different light. Posters on Buzzscope speculated about what might have happened in the hot tub if a third party hadn’t intervened, suggesting a worst-case rape scenario, but how plausible is that if Brownstein is identified as the offender? Even if we can countenance him being a molester, do we believe him capable of rape? Uncertainty can cut both ways. The account recorded that night by police described the “sexual imposition” as an “attempted fondling,” but what do we really know of Brownstein’s intentions? It wasn’t a rape that was interrupted, after all, in Lillie-Paetz’s account, but a threatened stripping of Soma’s torso. Did Brownstein in his drunken state think it would be an amusing prank along the lines of pushing Soma in the pool to threaten a flash of her breasts? Did he even intend to carry out the threatened flash? Not even Soma can know what was in Brownstein’s mind at the time, (and given his then-inebriated state, Brownstein himself might not be able to tell us with certainty) but his potential intentions as she imagined them must’ve been so terrifying to Soma that they still haunt her nearly six months later.
Weighing the seriousness of what she suffered versus the reputation of Brownstein and perhaps more importantly, the reputation of the CBLDF is a dilemma that Soma has been faced with from the beginning. Ultimately, she is the only one who can know how much or how little she has been damaged by her experience and what will be necessary to give her a sense of resolution.
As the Journal was going to press, contact was made with Columbus Special Victims Unit Detective Eric Wooten, who had been more closely connected to the molestation case than previous sources at the police department. The information Wooten provided solved the mystery of why the case had been closed and no witness reported but raised an even bigger mystery. According to the un-redacted report, at the end of Soma’s account of the incident to police, her last words were that she did not want to pursue criminal charges. To police, that meant the investigation was over. There was no need to talk to a witness, no need to talk to the accused.
Was it possible that Soma was so drunk herself that she didn’t remember telling police she didn’t want to press charges that night? According to Wooten, “If she was in that condition, it would’ve been noted in the report and we probably wouldn’t even have interviewed her at that time.”
Why would Soma call off police, then later express public frustration at the lack of official response to her molestation? Did she think that police procedure would have allowed for some satisfactory action short of criminal prosecution? Did she later find that the incident had done her more psychic damage than she had initially realized — that she needed resolution more than she had thought? Soma is again the only person who can answer those questions, and for the time being, she is not talking on the record.
At the conclusion of her statement on Buzzscope, Soma said, “I am still searching for legal advice and I’m finding tremendous support from Friends of Lulu and I would love to be involved in their mission. I don’t want another victim to ever have to face what I am facing. It is my hope that through greater awareness that people will be able to find the resources, answers, confidence and support if and when they ever need it.”
Lillie-Paetz told the Journal, “We weren’t happy with Ronée’s first post and what happened afterward. Taki has tried to work with Ronée to help fix that. The idea came up: What if there was help for a woman who is in this situation, a fund to help the industry deal with something like this? A ‘Take Back the Con’ kind of thing.”
If ever a thing was built from scratch and good intentions, it is the Friends of Lulu Empowerment Fund. Details were scarce in the initial press release headlined “Friends of Lulu to Start New Fund at CAPE.” The fund itself was described in a single sentence: “The fund will be for women in the industry who wish to pursue legal action in sexual assault cases, by helping to provide money for representation and also emotional support when needed.” It was to be jump-started in Dallas at the Comics And Pop Culture Expo May 6 via the raffling of a Sin City Prize Pack donated by the Florida comics shop Gotham City Limits.
The news was greeted online at first with a round of cheers and support. But then the sobering questions about how the fund was to be implemented began coming up. Some questioned the propriety of raffling Girls of Sin City action figures to raise money for a sexual harassment fund. Bourgeois, who was the driving force behind the fund, as she had been in bringing Soma’s case to public attention, followed up the announcement with an April 17 What a Girl Wants column, filling in many missing details:
- Victim must be at work in some capacity in the field of comics. (i.e. retailer, creator, publisher, journalist, freelancer, etc.).
- The accused must also work in this field in some capacity OR the incident must take place at a comic-related activity (i.e. conventions, auctions, fundraisers for groups, etc.).
- Victim must divulge all details to Friends of Lulu, including police reports and actions taken due to incident so that the Executive Board can determine eligibility.
- Award will be given out by FOL after The Executive Board chooses recipient by majority vote. Depending on the need, this can be awarded in one check or several throughout the duration of the case.
- Recipient must provide receipts for all monies needed or spent out of fund totaling the amount of award.
- Recipient agrees if monetary damages are awarded to donate the amount given from the fund back to FOL for future cases.
- Promotional costs and related expenses for the fund itself may be taken out of fund account but must have receipt of such for every dollar spent.
- This fund is a part of Friends of Lulu but kept separate from general monies at all times.
Some questioned whether the new fund fits into the goals of FoL’s charter mission statement. As a tax-deductible nonprofit organization, FoL is legally bound to function within the parameters of those goals. Bourgeois responded by citing the goals outlined on the organization’s FAQ page: 1) to increase female readership of comics 2) to promote the work of women in comics 3) to offer networking opportunities and general support to women in comics, and 4) to facilitate communication among women and men who share the organization’s purpose. Specifically, she pointed to goal number three, asking, “Is this fund not providing support to women in the industry?”
That support was invited in the form of Paypal and other monetary donations, as well as artwork or merchandise.
“At this time,” Bourgeois said, “all monies given to the fund will be used in Taki Soma’s civil case, paying for legal advice, representation and any other associated fees that may arise.”
There are a number of organizations devoted to supporting victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse by providing shelter and counseling, but they don’t tend to provide funding for civil suits. There are undoubtedly reasons for that, among them the fact that taking sides in a civil suit can be like negotiating a minefield. Add to that the obligations of a 501-c(3) non-profit organization in order to maintain its tax-deductible status and there would seem to be a number of hard questions remaining. Bourgeois and FoL President Katie Merritt were kind enough to respond to some of those questions in the midst of the whirlwind of fan and media attention surrounding formation of the fund.
Because the fund is not something that Bourgeois could whip up out of thin air and unilaterally launch under FoL’s auspices, the Journal asked if there had been debate or hesitation on the part of FoL’s board before committing to the idea. Bourgeois and Merrit responded, “As with anything Friends of Lulu undertakes, there was a great deal of discussion and brainstorming concerning this fund. The executive board unanimously approved the idea, as it will provide a positive service to the industry.”
When the CBLDF dispenses funds to support a legal case, there are certain strings attached. Because the first aim of the CBLDF is to defend First Amendment rights in the comics industry, recipients are generally required to see their cases through to the end rather than take the Fund’s money and then cop a plea. In the case of civil suits, which end more often than not in financial settlements, that would seem to be an even more important issue. The Journal asked if FoL would require recipients of the Empowerment Fund to pursue their cases to judgment. Bourgeois and Merritt explained that FoL would not be directly involved in a recipient’s civil suit. The Empowerment Fund would simply exist to help make financial concerns less of an impediment to such suits. “One of the reasons why this fund is being started is the understanding that legal actions can become costly,” they said. “However, the extent to which the individual would like to pursue the legal matter will be that individual’s own decision. We do not provide any legal counsel or advice. Our primary role is to provide financial assistance as a means to help offset the rising cost of legal action and the allocation of funds will be determined carefully on a case-by-case basis. We would also like to make clear that the granting of assistance does not imply that Friends of Lulu has passed judgment on any accused party.”
Asked if any other women besides Soma had sought the Empowerment Fund’s assistance so far, Bourgeois and Merritt said, “Amazingly, there have been a number of women and men who have personally approached us concerning this widespread issue of harassment. There are many individuals out there who have expressed that if there had been a fund like this out there or an organization that was providing this type of support, they would have come forward and spoken out earlier. This alone is enough incentive for us to provide support. There are concerns of this issue present in most industries, and they have been addressed seriously. The comics industry should not be an exception, which is why we are taking the step forward to be advocates and build awareness.”
Because the sexual harassment the fund is meant to counter is, by its nature, generally perpetrated by people in positions of power, the Journal asked the organizers how much support they felt they could count on from corporate sources. Bourgeois and Merritt responded, “By speaking out against this type of behavior, it should make those in the industry that have acted inappropriately think about their actions. If everyone remains quiet, it is just like saying that it is OK, and it is not OK. Everyone who is in this industry wants to make sure they are being respected and treated as a professional. It is unfortunate that situations have come up that have made people feel threatened or afraid. This is the not what we signed up for when we entered into the comic-book industry. The backlash we may have to endure from those who are in power and want to protect themselves or their inappropriate behavior is worth the satisfaction of helping someone in need at a time when they feel most helpless.”
Reaching out to help people in the industry who are “threatened or afraid” is certainly a worthy goal. Ironically, it is one to which Brownstein has devoted most of his career. But the Fund that Brownstein directs has the advantage of an absolute principle that stands behind its every action: the First Amendment’s right to freedom of expression. Given the steadfastness of that principle, it doesn’t matter how distasteful or problematic a defendant and his or her expression may be. If it is an expression in the context of the comics industry and the First Amendment, it is worthy of defense by the CBLDF. If the CBLDF loses a case, it just means the First Amendment lost that time. Civil suits, however, tend to have two sides, the respective merits of which can be less than certain. If the plaintiff in an FoL-funded suit loses, the question has to arise as to whether the Empowerment Fund may have empowered the wrong side, helped to perpetrate an injustice rather than redress one. A civil suit, after all, is not a defensive action (as in the case of the CBLDF) but an offensive one.
Bourgeois and Merritt told the Journal, FoL has no intention of judging the merits of a case against the accused, but at the same time, the Empowerment Fund’s rules require an applicant to supply FoL with all the details of a proposed claim, “including police reports and actions taken due to incident so that the Executive Board can determine eligibility.” An eligible case, of course, is not the same thing as a just case, unless justness is made an eligibility requirement and the Empowerment Fund does not appear to have done that. The board will vote on whether to grant awards, but its vote will apparently be based on an applicant’s eligibility, which according to the fund’s rules, is entirely a matter of whether or not the alleged incident, victim and accused are all connected to the comics industry.
FoL’s position, and it may be a very practical and sound one, appears to be that it is worth the risk of helping to fund the occasional frivolous or unfair suit if it means that victims of real sexual harassment and assault in the comics industry will have access to the Empowerment Fund’s resources when they need it.
But even if every case the Fund supports is a just one, there remains the question of how much of a resource it can afford to be. Nothing Friends of Lulu has done in the past approaches the potential costliness of pursuing a civil suit. When the Journal asked if FoL had a fundraising goal that would bring the Empowerment Fund to an adequate fighting strength, Bourgeois and Merritt simply noted that FoL had no responsibility to guarantee the funding of a civil suit from start to finish. The Empowerment Fund is there to provide whatever financial support it can to augment the costs of legal action by a victim of industry-related sexual harassment. It requires that funds be spent appropriately and accounted for, but it has no say in the recipient’s legal decisions. That could prove to be a serious flaw, however, since the Fund will not be doing anyone any favors if it encourages a victim to launch a lawsuit that neither the victim nor the Fund can afford to see through to the end.
One would expect the incident that inspired the foundation of the Empowerment Fund to be a textbook case of exactly the kind of injustice the Fund hopes to take on, and on the face of it, Taki Soma’s experience is just that: a beginning comics creator whose trust in a high-ranking figure in the industry was allegedly repaid with sexual aggression and who was apparently stymied at every turn in her attempt to obtain justice. Although it might not be a classic case of harassment in that Soma was not employed by Brownstein, the extent to which she felt his position and contacts could help or hurt her career could be seen as a coercive pressure to stay in his good graces and accept whatever attentions he might pay to her.
But at the same time, Soma’s case points to much that can go wrong in the actual implementation of the Empowerment Fund’s good intentions. FoL requires access to the victim’s police report, but as we’ve seen in Soma’s case, such reports, since they are about sensitive crimes, are often so redacted as to be useless. The distributors of the fund will be largely at the mercy of the applicants’ version of events, and while FoL may disavow any intent to judge the merit of a case, there is a limit to how thoroughly they can wash their hands of it, at least in the eyes of the public. For example, what is FoL to make of the discovery that Soma apparently declined to press criminal charges? A victim, after all, is not expected to need legal counsel, because it is the job of law enforcement officials to be his or her advocates. Soma was represented as a victim whom those officials had failed, a victim who had exhausted every other recourse besides litigation. If that turns out not to be the case, then either there was a major misunderstanding between Soma and police or Soma misrepresented her circumstances to FoL. If there was a misunderstanding, then there is nothing now to stop Soma from re-opening the case and pursuing its prosecution, in which case she will have no more need of an Empowerment Fund. (Police told the Journal she can change her mind up to six months after the incident.) If she misrepresented herself to FoL, that can’t help but cast a degree of doubt over her entire account — not a comfortable position for FoL to be in with respect to the Empowerment Fund’s inaugural case.
Though Soma has been identified as the sole initial recipient of the Fund’s support, there is no guarantee that she will pursue a civil suit. As Lillie-Paetz told the Journal, “We’re trying to find Taki a lawyer, and we may not proceed beyond that.” That in itself may be a worthy accomplishment for the Fund if it succeeds in granting Soma the peace of mind that she has exhausted every avenue of resolution. But the people who are donating to the Fund today are doing so with Soma in mind. If she decides not to pursue a legal resolution and no other alleged victims are willing to give up their anonymity to go to court, the Fund may be in the embarrassing position of offering a charitable resource that has no beneficiaries.
The Empowerment Fund is founded on the faith that there are other victims out there, threatened and afraid, and that the Fund will encourage them to come out of the dark of rumor and become flesh-and-blood reality. Unlike the CBLDF, the Empowerment Fund can’t cloak itself in an absolute abstraction like the First Amendment. If it succeeds, it will have to wrestle on a case-by-case basis with that reality in all its gory, messy details, and it will have delivered to the comics industry an important — if ugly truth.
Case in point: Taki Soma and Charles Brownstein. As they each spoke with the Journal about the trail of events that began at Mid-Ohio Con five months ago, it was hard to say which of them sounded more “threatened and afraid.”
Charles Brownstein's statement at the time of this article's publication can be found here.