“Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” the viral New York Times Magazine piece that charts the increasingly messy interpersonal and legal battle between two writer “friends” (frenemies?), has sparked myriad conversations, debates and (hopefully) a little soul-searching.
The topic of one of those debates is the group text. And for me, one question lingers above the rest: What shame would we each carry if our own private, catty correspondences were made public?
Because of its many layers of low-grade bad behavior on the part of all parties, the essay set off Big Internet Discussions.
For those unfamiliar with the Bad Art Friend mania, here are the broad strokes of the winding, lengthy story: Dawn Dorland, a writer, donated a kidney to a stranger — an unquestionably generous act — and then proceeded to post in a Facebook group an emotional letter written to whomever her kidney would ultimately go to. One of the “friends” in this Facebook group was Sonya Larson, an arguably more successful author, who Dorland knew from a writers' workshop. After Dorland, who considered Larson a friend (a friendship that does not seem to have ever been reciprocated) reached out to Larson to inquire why she had not acknowledged her posts about the kidney donation, Larson was inspired to write a short story about white saviorism and organ donation that, at least in an early version, excerpted from Dorland’s original Facebook post. Lawsuits were filed. Countersuits were filed. Group texts and emails, in which Larson and her writer friends gossiped about and criticized Dorland, were made public through discovery. (And as a new trove of legal documents shows, the chats explicitly acknowledge that Dorland was the target of Larson’s fiction.) Allegations of bullying and harassment abounded. No one comes off well.
Because of its many layers of low-grade bad behavior on the part of all parties, the essay set off Big Internet Discussions — about art, about plagiarism (and to be extremely clear — lifting text from another writer’s posts for your story is not OK), about the ethics of real-life inspiration for fiction, about friendship, about mean girls, and, yes, about group texts. Specifically the horror of them being poured over by a legal team and published in the paper of record.
Throughout the pandemic, group texts have become a social lifeline for many of us; a paltry but essential replacement for the real-life gatherings we used to have easy and frequent access to. My own group texts are a constantly active space for daily life updates, outfit consultations, horror at the state of the world (climate change induced floods, Texas’ abortion ban, etc.), work complaints — and, absolutely, some pettiness. If I’m being brutally honest, I can see myself mocking Dorland’s self-congratulatory Facebook posts, even though I also believe that her decision to donate an organ deserves to be lauded.
I’m not proud of these moments of social smallness, but I also can’t pretend they don’t exist. Or that they may never occur again.
Research about gossip has shown that it is a morally neutral and deeply human habit. It’s also, despite being coded culturally as a distinctly feminine habit and thus mocked accordingly, quite genderless. Gossip serves as a vehicle for spreading and enforcing social and cultural norms, as well as strengthening interpersonal bonds. And it can be deployed in equal parts for good and ill. As the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who has spent years studying gossip, told The Atlantic in 2014: “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.”
Who among us hasn’t let off some steam about a person’s insufferable behavior on social media in a text message? Or denigrated a friend’s ex or their new partner? Or spoken ill about a person we love and cherish during a weak or emotionally impulsive moment?
In one of the many vibrant listserv discussions about this piece that I am privy to, someone brought up the oft-repeated advice that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Her takeaway was essentially that Larson and her friends, who did not consider Dorland a friend, should not have been cruel about her privately. In a simplistic sense, I agree — unnecessary cruelty is objectively bad, and we should all aim to move about the world in a way that does our community members as little harm as possible.
But harm is the operative word here. Is there any harm if the gossip stays private? Sometimes the expression of the feeling is all we need to release its hold on us. The key here — one that the latest round of Bad Art Friend revelations suggests that Larson did not follow — is to avoid letting those unkind feelings and impulses hold you hostage.
I empathize with Dorland’s position. Most of us spend our lives suspecting that someone, somewhere — maybe even someone we care for or admire — is probably saying something crappy about us behind our backs. The times in my life that I’ve had access to those private thoughts, it has been deeply painful. But I respect the right of people to speak about me and text about me in petty ways, it would be hypocritical not to. And I accept that it is fundamentally human to do so. I also hope to never have to confront those comments.
But judging from Twitter (which is, of course, only a half-measure at best), many writers, if forced to choose a side, have found themselves drawn closer to Larson than Dorland. Maybe this is because so many in my corner of the internet are storytellers by nature; trained by the Nora Ephron adage, “everything is copy.” Stories are how we make sense of the complicated, often cruel world we all inhabit. Sometimes the stories we tell have clear and positive social value. But often they do not.
Our love of good stories — and gossip — is most likely exactly what drew journalist Robert Kolker to this conflict in the first place. (Along with the fact that Dorland apparently pitched it directly to him.) After all, the major players are not famous, and their legal battles are small, in the grand scheme of things. But Bad Art Friend needles deep under our collective skin, forcing us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask if we’re the Dawn or the Sonya — or, perhaps more realistically, if we are both in different ways at different points in our lives and social development.
What was once the provenance of unrecorded verbal exchanges is now a matter of digital record. The group chat lays bare our worst human impulses; the emotional releases we need but also hope to never be shared more widely. They are a lifeline and also a record of things that we’d never want recorded.
This is why so many of us read about the Bad Art Friends and transport ourselves into one — or both — of their shoes.
This is why so many of us read about the Bad Art Friends and transport ourselves into one — or both — of their shoes. We join the conversation both to telegraph our own empathy, but also to distance ourselves from Dorland and Larson’s twin fates. As journalist and podcaster Michael Hobbes wrote in a blog post: “They have… achieved the worst kind of fame, the kind where people on the internet boil your entire life down to your most regrettable relationship and argue about whether you are a bad person or a terrible one.”
We are not like them, we tell ourselves. At least our group texts remain “safely” buried in the tiny computers we carry around all day in our pockets.
In this particular story, there are no winners. All parties have lost precious time and spent precious energy and money dealing with the fallout. And now thousands of people are gossiping about all of them: on Twitter, on Facebook, over dinner, and in their group texts.
Dawn and Sonya have burrowed deep into me and I can’t stop thinking about them; the way we treat each other, the way we make art, the way we connect with our friends and those who fall outside of those tightknit, precious, social circles. Am I the Bad Art Friend? Are you? Are all of us?
I don’t have any neat answers, but what I do know is that I’m not alone in asking these questions. All the people in my group texts are, too.