I’ve been trying to decide what to do with this story since last October 5, when the New York Times published the longest damn article about a relatively insular ethics and legal dispute that I have ever read. The issues raised by the episode are well worth considering on an ethics blog, but the effort required to describe the facts adequately enough to examine those issues is prohibitive. The Times piece, by novelist Robert Kolker, is over 9,600 words long, and the tale, though interesting from an ethics perspective, just isn’t that interesting.
To fully understand “What’s going on here?” requires reading the whole thing, but I am going to attempt to summarize the main features of this weird story and flag the ethics issues.
Here goes nothin’…
1.Dawn Dorland is an aspiring writer and, according to her friends, an aggressively kind and empathetic person. In 2015, she donated one of her kidneys in a so-called non-directed donation, where her kidney was not meant for anyone in particular but was part of a donation chain, coordinated by surgeons to provide kidneys to recipients desperate for the organ.
Good for her. Kind, compassionate, generous. Obviously ethical.
2. Several weeks before her surgery, Dorland started a private Facebook group, inviting family and friends, and some fellow writers from the Boston writing center that Dorland belonged to. After her surgery, she posted the letter she had written to the final recipient of the surgical chain, whoever that may be:
“Personally, my childhood was marked by trauma and abuse; I didn’t have the opportunity to form secure attachments with my family of origin. A positive outcome of my early life is empathy, that it opened a well of possibility between me and strangers. While perhaps many more people would be motivated to donate an organ to a friend or family member in need, to me, the suffering of strangers is just as real. … Throughout my preparation for becoming a donor … I focused a majority of my mental energy on imagining and celebrating you.”
Okay, this is substantially virtue-signaling and self-celebratory, but…okay. There are good reasons to let people know about such an altruistic gesture: it might inspire others to do the same thing. There isn’t anything unethical about letting others know what a great and generous person you are when you really have done something good. Am I more impressed with those who make such contributions and don’t feel the need to broadcast it to others?
3. After the surgery, Dorland was struck by the fact that some people she’d invited to join her private Facebook group hadn’t reacted to her posts. One of them was a writer named Sonya Larson, with whom Dorland had become friends years before and had since, unlike Dorland, become a published author of fiction, rising in the field. After email exchanges between the two initiated by Dorland and some typical catching up chatter, Dorland wrote, “I think you’re aware that I donated my kidney this summer. Right?” Larson responded: “Ah, yes — I did see on Facebook that you donated your kidney. What a tremendous thing!”
Kolker writes, “Afterward, Dorland would wonder: If she really thought it was that great, why did she need reminding that it happened?”
Who cares, and so what? This is narcissism on Dorland’s part, and a symptom of advanced social media disease. Nobody has an obligation to respond the way one wants to any news, especially a distant friend.
4. The following spring, we learn, Dorland was troubled that few of the members of her writing group in Boston mentioned her kidney donation. She is quoted as saying, “I left that conference with this question: Do writers not care about my kidney donation? Which kind of confused me, because I thought I was in a community of service-oriented people.”
This is what I call a “pre-unethical condition,” and all of us need to learn to recognize them. She had lost perspective and proportion, and was obsessing. Her mindset make her vulnerable to unethical impulses.
5. Then she learned from another Facebook friend that Larson had written a short story about someone donating a kidney, and had read it to a gathering at a book store. Larson was troubled: why would her friend write a story inspired by her life, and not tell her?
Stipulated: the polite and fair thing to do would have been for Larson to tell Dorland. Any time one withholds information from someone who figures to have a justifiable interest in it, the omission creates a reasonable presumption that a) the individual is hiding something, b) that he or she is hiding something because they feel guilty about it, or c) they think the person they are keeping the information from will react emotionally or irrationally if they are told the truth. Given what we already know about Dorland, c) seems like a reasonable possibility.
6.Then the two had a tense exchange, in which Dorland criticized Larson for not being candid about her story, accusing her of being evasive and deceptive, Larson concluded the back and forth by writing, “Before this email exchange, I hadn’t considered that my individual vocal support (or absence of it) was of much significance.”
Well, that sets off my ethics alarm. She’s changing the subject from “Why did you use my experience to create a story and not mention it?” to the separate issue of her “support.” Hmmmmm…
7. Dorland would not let the matter go, writing a month later, “Am I correct that you do not want to make peace? Not hearing from you sends that message.” Larson answered, “I see that you’re merely expressing real hurt, and for that I am truly sorry. I myself have seen references to my own life in others’ fiction, and it certainly felt weird at first. But I maintain that they have a right to write about what they want — as do I, and as do you. For me, honoring another’s artistic freedom is a gesture of friendship and of trust.”
This is a long-standing controversy in writer ethics. In the Mike Flanagan re-imagining of “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix, a Stephen King-type writer is estranged from his family for using their traumatic experiences in a fictionalized account. “You’re an eater,” his angry wife says in one scene. “You eat other people’s lives and shit them out.”
8. Dorland then discovered that Larson’s story had been published, and that it contained this letter from the fictional kidney donor to the recipient:
“I myself know something of suffering, but from those experiences I’ve acquired both courage and perseverance. I’ve also learned to appreciate the hardship that others are going through, no matter how foreign. Whatever you’ve endured, remember that you are never alone. … As I prepared to make this donation, I drew strength from knowing that my recipient would get a second chance at life. I withstood the pain by imagining and rejoicing in YOU.”
Dorland felt that this was too close to the letter she had written to her then-unknown organ recipient, and was furious. She was justified. Larson’s evasiveness, coupled with the discovery that the writer had appropriated Dorland’s letter with minimal changes, smacked of dishonesty and betrayal.
9. Surprise! Dorland sued her ex-friend for copyright infringement. Then she discovered an earlier version of Larson’s story, recorded on-line by a voice actor. In that version, the fictional letter was almost identical to Dorland’s.
There’s no way to excuse Larson’s conduct. Even if it isn’t legally punishable plagiarism, her use of Dorland’s words and deliberate efforts to keep the writer in the dark were unethical.
10. Did I not mention that Larson is Asian-Amercan, and thus a “person of color”? Trapped, she decided to play the race card, because that’s what unethical people do now to duck accountability. She wrote a statement to The Boston Globe, which had been covering the dispute, saying in part, “My piece is fiction. It is not her story, and my letter is not her letter. And she shouldn’t want it to be. She shouldn’t want to be associated with my story’s portrayal and critique of white-savior dynamics. But her recent behavior, ironically, is exhibiting the very blindness I’m writing about, as she demands explicit identification in — and credit for — a writer of color’s work.”
Verdict: Ethics Villain.
11. When she’s not race-baiting and alleging “privilege,” Larson argues that her conduct is “standard conduct” (aka. “Everybody does it.”) She tells Kolker,
“There are married writer couples who don’t let each other read each other’s work. I have no obligation to tell anyone what I’m working on….I read Dawn’s letter and I found it interesting. I never copied the letter. I was interested in these words and phrases because they reminded me of the language used by white-savior figures. And I played with this language in early drafts of my story. Fiction writers do this constantly.”
Then there is the complex issue of what is a “transformational” use of copyrighted material, and what is plagiarism. I can’t summarize that adequately: read the last thousand words of Kolker’s opus on that topic.
To answer Kolker’s question that serves as the title of the Times essay, “Who is the bad art friend?,” Dawn or Sonja, however, the verdict of Ethics Alarms is: “Both of them”