The Bad Art Friend and the Real Art of Revenge
If you are done talking about the Bad Art Friend, you should probably close out this post and move along. If you don’t know about the Bad Art Friend, you can read the full article in the NY Times here, which asks you to pick which woman you think is more in the wrong— Dawn Dorland or Sonya Larson. But I warn you, you must read the whole thing before you form an opinion, because you will change your mind throughout the article and the worst offenses come at the end.
Let me try to give a brief synopsis for those who have no idea what I’m talking about. Dawn and Sonya were both part of a writers community called Grubstreet. It seems Dawn considered Sonya a friend and maybe Sonya reciprocated at one point, but then grew increasingly tired of her. Still, they operated both socially and professionally in the same circles. Sonya started getting more success in the literary world while Dawn remained unpublished. Then Dawn became passionate about another subject entirely— living organ donation. She decided to donate a kidney to a stranger and set up a facebook group to share her experience and encourage others to do the same. Now this is where you can believe one of two things:
a) Dawn set up the group and donated a kidney because she wanted very badly for her good deed to get “likes” and validation from her more accomplished friends.
b) Dawn set up the group because she wanted to share her experience only with people who supported her choice and opted in, rather than share it with her facebook friends at large, and had a genuine desire to create a ripple effect of altruism from those following her journey.
Both probably are true.
This is where it gets dicey. As the Times describes it, Dawn noticed that Sonya wasn’t liking her kidney group posts and emailed her to ask her why not. This action has become a major reason why readers turn on Dawn in the beginning of the story. How could someone do something so unselfaware and needy??? Or as Gen Z would call it— SO CRINGE.
But Dawn had a more nuanced explanation for that email, which she told other media outlets after the Times article came out. Dawn said that she could see in her facebook analytics (data available to anyone who runs a facebook group) that Sonya was spending a lot of time in her group looking at the posts, but wasn’t liking or commenting on anything publicly. Dawn found this behavior suspicious so she emailed Sonya to ask her what was up.
As cringey as it is to email someone to ask why they aren’t liking your posts, Dawn was right to be worried, because Sonya was indeed up to no good. Ultimately, it is revealed that Sonya was lurking in Dawn’s facebook group to use her posts as fodder for mockery and ridicule within a private text chain among other writers in their community (called the Chunky Monkeys), including famous author Celeste Ng, and using Dawn’s posts as inspiration for a short story about a woman with a white savior complex who donated a kidney to a stranger and then gets upset when the recipient isn’t as thankful as she thinks she deserves.
When Dawn finds out about the subject of the story through a mutual friend, she emails Sonya to ask if she is the inspiration. Sonya says no. Then with a little prodding, she says that while Dawn’s kidney donation inspired her initial idea, the character has nothing to do with her. Dawn lets it go. She even decides not to read it. But a few years later, while Sonya is busy raking in accolades and speaking engagements for the story, Dawn finds out that in an earlier iteration of the story recorded for audible, the character (named Dawn in this same early version) uses a note she had posted in her facebook group almost verbatim. Dawn accuses Sonya of plagiarism. Sonya still won’t admit to anything wrong or that she has any obligation to tell Dawn about a story that wasn’t really based on her. Sonya goes to her chat group for support and gets it in spades, with Celeste Ng telling her not to back down. Because she is getting nowhere by communicating with Sonya directly, Dawn starts contacting the various entities supporting Sonya’s story and asking that it be removed from their consideration. Sonya sues Dawn for “tortious interference,” which basically means trying to sabotage her career. Dawn countersues for plagiarism.
So. Who is the bad art friend?
If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you know I am solidly on Team Dawn. To be clear, I would have rolled my eyes at Dawn’s kidney donation facebook page and probably participated if someone else had started a “Can you believe this woman???” text chain, but that doesn’t mean it would be right. In my mind, Dawn did something possibly worthy of mockery, but she definitely didn’t set out to hurt Sonya. Meanwhile, Sonya specifically went after Dawn, because the story was too juicy to resist, and included specific elements in her story (like the addition of the “Kindly” signature Dawn always used) so that either Dawn would know it was about her, or as a wink to her chat group friends who she knew would be impressed with her ballsiness. As Sonya said to them privately about her story, “It literally has sentences that I verbatim grabbed from Dawn’s letter on Facebook. I’ve tried to change it but I can’t seem to— that letter was just too damn good.” Dawn said after finally reading the story, “I felt like I was being trolled.” I think that’s accurate and exactly what Sonya set out to do.
In short, Dawn’s actions might seem cringey and self-serving, but they are also altruistic. She did save a life, after all and perhaps it says something more about us if we view this action cynically. Meanwhile, Sonya’s actions were mean spirited, unethical and possibly illegal, if the plagiarism charges hold up.
Here are a few takes from Team Sonya supporters that I’d like to debunk:
1) Sonya is in the right because as a writer, she is allowed to take inspiration from someone else’s story in the name of art.
I agree that Sonya is entitled to use whatever she wants as inspiration, but that doesn’t mean that her writing is free of consequences. There are plenty of writers who end up alienating themselves from the people they know and love because they couldn’t resist a story. Writers might feel justified as artists, but it also means they view their art as more important than the feelings of their subject, which is pretty shitty from a human standpoint. Sonya absolutely knew her story would hurt Dawn and proceeded anyway. When Dawn asked her if she was the inspiration, Sonya lied. Sonya also could have done any number of things to better disguise who her story was about, but she chose not to, which tells me that part of Sonya’s pleasure in writing the story was everyone in her writing community (including Dawn) knowing exactly who the story was about.
2) Dawn’s kidney donation was done for accolades and validation from her friends and possibly as part of a White Savior complex and thus deserving of ridicule.
As different as Dawn’s behavior might be from our own, no one can say what Dawn’s true motivations were for giving away one of her kidneys to a stranger. I think it’s much more generous to give her the benefit of the doubt. The kidney recipient seems very happy about it, as he gets to remain alive, which is really the most important thing. I also heard that Dawn’s selfless gesture inspired the recipient’s wife to donate a kidney to a stranger as well, so Dawn’s hope of creating a ripple effect of extreme generosity was successful. Living organ donor organizations (and pretty much every charitable organization) encourages people to promote their donations on social media because they know this kind of publicity is impactful. I don’t think we want to live in a world where white people question their motivations for charitable giving, because I’m sure the charities and who they benefit don’t really care.
Another argument I would make is that Sonya criticizing Dawn for seeking validation is hypocritical. While Dawn was hoping for “likes” in her facebook group, Sonya was continually seeking validation from her mean girl chat group, with Celeste Ng, the most famous author in the group playing the role of Queen Bee. It’s a fairly common mean girl dynamic for the most popular girl of the group to encourage bad behavior in others instead of committing the acts themselves. Sonya clearly knew she was in the wrong in many of her texts, but her famous friends gleefully encouraged her. If those women hadn’t validated her choices or if Sonya didn’t enjoy her more famous friends validating her choices, I doubt Sonya would have been so brazen on her own.
3) Dawn was justified in feeling upset about how she was depicted in Sonya’s story, but then she took it too far by trying to destroy Sonya’s career, crossing over into stalker territory.
Here’s the one that’s most interesting to me. The idea that Dawn’s reaction and the persistence within which she went after Sonya was too much. I think to take this position we have to consider that when you are wronged, and the person who wronged you refuses to right the wrong or even admit that they were at fault (aka gaslighting), you have one of two options. You can let it go or you can go after them with everything you have. There is no middle option for a person truly seeking revenge.
Case in point, when Home Polish destroyed my apartment and squandered all the money we paid for the renovation, I was livid. We tried and failed to get them to right the wrong over and over again. Mike even tried to go to their offices to talk to their CEO Noa Santos and got thrown out. My only recourse was to take it to social media. After I showed pictures of what happened on Instagram, Noa Santos agreed to speak with me. He promised he would fix it, sent a team to assess the damages and then ghosted me. I was even angrier than before. I wanted my money back, I wanted his business shut down and I thought he belonged in jail. The stress of the situation was much more than I let on publicly, mainly because I am a self aware person and didn’t want to come off as crazy, no matter how much Noa deserved my wrath.
Everyone said I should sue. That’s what I thought we should do too. But after talking to several lawyers about it, we realized we would spend more money fighting him than we would ever get back to fix our place. If Home Polish claimed bankruptcy, we wouldn’t see a dime but still have to pay the lawyers on top of paying to redo the renovation, putting us out way more financially than we were already. Plus it could stretch out for years. It was an incredibly tough decision, but we decided to forget the lawsuit and focus on creating the happy home for our family we were seeking in the first place. I thought I could still take Noa down on social media, but after a few more posts about it, I realized that continuing a vendetta would get annoying to my audience and hurt my ability to work with brands. Also, it would require me to continue living in a very dark angry place. When I really thought about it, I realized destroying Noa Santos would mean sacrificing myself. He wasn’t worth it.
This is the choice Dawn made. And maybe because of the kind of person Dawn is (whether it’s because she’s already miserable or because standing on principal means more than anything to her), she has decided that taking down Sonya is worth the sacrifice. Maybe she doesn’t care what people think of her nearly as much as anyone thought. If she was any less invested, if she had been reasonable in her actions, if she had backed down years ago when no one seemed to care, none of us would be talking about this right now or taking her side or knowing what Sonya had done. So, yes, you can think Dawn is crazy and took things too far. But that’s because taking things that far is the only way revenge works. Dawn was willing to live in the dark place and sacrifice herself and as a result, she succeeded. She stood on principal, she was right, and now finally, after years of banging her head against the wall, other people are starting to see it. This is why Sonya is currently having her story skewered in the New Yorker (possibly the thing what would upset her the most), why Grubstreet is launching an investigation into the writing community’s conduct and why at least one member of the Chunky Monkeys is finally apologizing to Dawn and dropping out of the group, all while Noa Santos was able to sell Home Polish to a respectable firm, start a new interior design company and just had his Hamptons house profiled in the NY Times (all of which made anger wash over me anew). I have to give Dawn respect for her thorough and satisfying takedown.
Especially since Sonya knew exactly the kind of person Dawn was when she used her words and actions in her story. Relentless in her kindness, relentless in her need for validation and relentless in revenge.
It’s why a chat group full of famous authors dedicated so much time and energy to talking behind her back.
It’s what made Dawn such a compelling subject in the first place.
So. What do you think? Who is the Bad Art Friend? And if you pick Dawn, do you leave room for the possibility that maybe she wasn’t really that cringey or crazy in the first place? That maybe our perception was clouded by how the Times portrayed her in their article?
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