By Eric F. Coppolino
The Power of a Digital Recorder and a DictionaryJOHNNY DEPP won his defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard for an article she published about him in the Washington Post during the Me Too movement in 2018. How that article got in the newspaper is a sordid tale of what passes for social justice, though I have my own.
So do a lot of other men. Thanks to Depp, we may now ask: what happened to them? Were those claims true? Was the story so simple? Or was there more to it? And while we’re here: is anyone considering the problems that false or trivial accusations cause for real survivors? This problem is bad for everyone. That is why I called out the issue in early 2018 — to my own peril.
Based on what happened as a result, unable to find an attorney who would take my case, I wrote my own libel lawsuit — though chose not to serve the complaint. In its moment, the issue got a ridiculous amount of press coverage, all of it actionable. Reading the complaint puts it into perspective.
My decision to stay out of court was made in late 2019, and as a result, I had my hands free to take on an urgent story that would emerge in Wuhan, China just a month later.
Take a Step Back
In early 2018, I wrote an article called Take a Step Back. It was a comprehensive look at the Me Too movement, which called for equal treatment of male and female survivors, and raised concerns about the no-proof-necessary standard of accusation (commonly called, “believe women,” which is an insult to the honest ones).
My team and I worked hard on the article. It went through five rewrites. It was expressly approved by Brian Mahoney, then my editor at a regional magazine where it ran, called Chronogram, who was also named as a defendant — and who describes himself in his bio as “the resident editorial genius.” Of his shop, not mine.
In that article, I wrote:
“In my theory of the universe, women, as the source of life, are the teachers. Whether one is right, wrong, or somewhere between, teaching happens by example. If men are being presumed to be in some way ignorant or in need of correction, it will presumably be women who do the teaching — and that will not happen with their words. It will be conveyed by women demonstrating what they believe is correct, through their actions.”
The investigator, named Ryan Poscablo, left it to me to decide where the meeting would happen. They were probably expecting a lawyer’s office. Since the situation called for therapy, I chose my therapist’s office, with him present.
The microphone goes to the public
Soon after, I was the subject of a fraudulent, retaliatory Me Too campaign. In the aftermath of that, I prepared a libel suit but chose not to bring it. This was under the precept, choose your battles.
I was originally accused of having had some kind of unspecified, consensual sexual encounter with someone in 1996 (which never happened, but that was the claim). The accusation came by way of an associate of the person, who planted a letter-to-the-editor in a magazine I wrote for at the time, Chronogram.
The magazine I’d served for 22 years hired an investigator — a former Assistant United States attorney (or AUSA, the fancy name for a federal prosecutor) — who had recently gone into the misconduct business. Here is the full transcript of my conversation with him.
Through their attorney/investigator, my employer asked me private questions about my most intimate life, having nothing to do with violation of anyone’s consent. Had a woman been asked by her boss, “Did you have consensual sex with…?” that would have been (and would rightly be) considered an outrage.
In the climate at the time, anything could be used to invoke a star chamber where any meekly “accused” man — but no women — had to answer any question whatsoever. I agreed to the meeting, prepared carefully, and took the occasion to set the record straight.
The investigator, named Ryan Poscablo, left it to me to decide where the meeting would happen. They were probably expecting a lawyer’s office. Since the situation called for therapy, I chose my therapist’s office, with him present. When the investigators walked into the room, I announced I was going to be recording the conversation.
New York is a one-party state: anyone in any conversation may record it secretly, including the subject of an interview with the FBI. I didn’t need to say anything. I placed my broadcast-quality recording rig in the middle of the small space.
I told the investigators that our conversation would be a public event — not a secret or private one. I am certain this was the first time that ever happened to them. I was supposed to be shitting my pants, ashamed of something and wanting to get this overwith. But I was treating it like any other adverse interview. We would all be on the record.
After 90 seconds, he and his team angrily walked out, refusing to be recorded. My M.O. subverted theirs, which was to claim whatever they wanted about me, no proof available. The rest of their approach involved attempted embarrassment, intimidation and bullying.
“I attended several meetings, the purpose of which was to get Eric fired from all of his jobs. There was no attempt at restorative justice. The goal was to destroy his career.” — Li Wojehowsky
A Protest Against an Article
To those who doubt writing a single article could trigger such a fuss, one of the organizers of Me Too Kingston explains for us.
“Like other locals who identified as feminists, I was angry about his article, ‘Take a Step Back’, published in Chronogram. This article called for equal treatment of male and female abuse survivors, and called out the potential false accusation problem in the Me Too movement,” wrote Li Wojehowsky in a statement she made Dec. 18, 2019.
“My anger at the article was based mostly on its premise, as I perceived it, rather than the content” — in other words, what she imagined I said, not what I actually said.
“Everyone involved in Me Too Kingston was angry about the article. In many ways, Me Too Kingston was a protest against a piece of writing. I joined the Me Too Kingston movement against him (there were no other targets), and offered my services as an organizer.”
Then: “I attended several meetings, the purpose of which was to get Eric fired from all of his jobs. There was no attempt at restorative justice. The goal was to destroy his career.”
They did some damage. I was fired from all five of my freelance gigs, including a radio program, being a writer and faculty member at the Omega Institute, and my new column in The Mountain Astrologer.
Daphne Merkin, critic and columnist at The New York Times, was quoted extensively in the article. “Your piece on Planet Waves about Me Too is so well-written and thought-out. I am signing up immediately,” she wrote to me recently.
“In September 2017, Francis approached her again as she sat at an outdoor table and asked to pet her dog.”
It Didn’t Take Much
The #metoo movement claimed to be about serious stuff — sexual assault, workplace harassment, domestic abuse, and games of casting couch. But in 2018, it didn’t take much to be called an abuser. What were the claims that I read about myself? I was:
— Accused of misbehavior in a Greek restaurant, which involved politely asking whether the French fries were indeed gluten free (the gluten often seeps in through the deep fryer). I had no idea this was a feminist issue. Are all male celiacs supposed to eat gluten?
The server did not notice — he answered my question. In her Facebook post, the fake “accuser” then rallied other women to support this “woman-owned business” because “the food is duuuuuhlicious.”
— Accused of making a woman uncomfortable by wearing sunglasses sitting at the bar in a dark rock music club — she was about 10 feet away, and I was speaking not to her but to my friend Trevor (who owned the establishment and was tending bar). She tried to insist that I remove my glasses. Follow the pattern of criminalizing normal, socially acceptable conduct.
— Accused of laughing at someone’s breasts during a crowded street fair. Not saying something inappropriate or off-color; merely (allegedly) laughing nearby. This was the girlfriend of the woman who planted the letter in Chronogram.
— Accused of being friendly to dogs. Yes, this much is true. From the libelous newspaper article: “In September 2017, Francis approached her again as she sat at an outdoor table and asked to pet her dog.” She then “wrote an email to the café’s owners asking that Eric be banned from the establishment for harassing her and other women.”
As a scholar of the topic, it is difficult to take this seriously as an expression of feminism. It’s easier to follow as women who need to read classic works like The Second Sex and A Room of One’s Own.
Most of this didn’t get into the investigator’s interview. Since these are not such good specific claims, he took a more general approach.
‘Anybody Would have Gathered’
— Finally, I was accused of being in an open relationship. In a libelous newspaper article, another “victim” claimed that, at a dinner party, I told her I was in an open relationship. That is all she said that I said. (I am well-known as a presenter at polyamory conferences; I have written about this locally and nationally many times.)
My then-girlfriend Dani was at the claimed dinner party. I do not speak for her. If you knew her you would know what a ridiculous notion that was. But in the middle of a movement about “believing women,” nobody contacted her to ask her version of events.
This particular “victim,” who we identified despite having spoken anonymously, told a newspaper, and they actually quoted her: “I really felt like he was implying that they wanted to have sex with me, which I feel anybody would have gathered from that conversation.”
She “really felt like he was implying”? Is that a fact?
“Anybody would have gathered” that we were suggesting three-way sex? OK let’s assume that’s the only possible interpretation of what she said I said. The #metoo movement was supposed to be about issues around lack of consent. Isn’t adults having a discussion at a dinner party the very manifestation of seeking consent?
How else would she like it to happen? By bicycle messenger?
“I don’t know. You’re asking the question,” I replied. I reached for the dictionary on my therapists’s mantle, there to settle such disputes when they came up in counseling.
‘I asked you a very simple question’
Most of this didn’t get into the investigator’s interview. Since these are not such good specific claims, he took a more general approach. He admitted he had not interviewed anyone, and had not even heard any of the claimed recordings about negotiating consent for dog petting and gluten in Greek food.
Toward the end of our conversation, Poscablo said: “I asked you a very simple question, which is whether you believe that, in the last five years, or ten years, you’ve made women uncomfortable in your interactions with them. You still haven’t answered it. So I think we’re good, and we have all the information that we need from you.”
I asked, “Tell me, can you define the word ‘uncomfortable’? Do you have a dictionary?”
“You tell me,” Poscablo said.
“I don’t know. You’re asking the question,” I replied. I reached for the dictionary on my therapists’s mantle, there to settle such disputes when they came up in counseling. At that point, he thanked me, and along with his associate counsel and paralegal, walked out of the meeting for a second time.
In his final report, he tells his client, Chronogram: “There’s nothing here.”
Chronogram’s Brian Mahoney then writes in a published editorial that the results of their investigation will be kept confidential — but announced they had fired me anyway, after 265 consecutive months of printing my articles, claiming they did not agree with my values. Whatever on Earth that meant, in a time when nothing means anything.
I would propose we have a good reason to re-open the cases of all men who found themselves without a job and without a reputation based on claims that may have been much worse, but still went unsubstantiated in that toxic environment of 2017 and 2018 — and every day since.
— Additional research: Cindy Tice Ragusa