Tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

The new world of online cruelty.
Sept. 27 2010 5:26 PM

Tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review

The suicide of its managing editor has been blamed on workplace bullying. New details suggest the real story is much more complicated.

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's  series on cyberbullying

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With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear how life at the magazine soon became dysfunctional: The boss had a bold and urgent plan for change, the basic premise of which four of the five members of his staff rejected. Levinson-LaBrosse became the only person in the office who trusted Genoways and shared his vision for VQR's future. So he increasingly turned to her and put her in charge of the transition to the VP's office. This only exacerbated the office tensions. Morrissey had been Genoways' second in command since coming with him from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, where they'd been colleagues for two and a half years. "We were close friends, in Minnesota and early on in Virginia," Genoways says. "Kevin was with my wife and me whenever we did anything—movies, hiking together. He and my wife took cooking classes." But in the two years before last summer, they'd grown apart. Now it seemed to the staff that Levinson-LaBrosse had taken Morrissey's place. "She became really kind of the co-editor, working in Ted's office with the door closed," McMillen says. "Kevin really felt like Ted was getting ready to push him out." Minturn adds: "It was pretty demoralizing to be shut out of things myself, but also very upsetting to watch Kevin being shut out of meetings and plans about the future."

In June, Genoways went on leave for three months on a Guggenheim fellowship, to study Walt Whitman's Civil War period (the first years of which he has published a book about). The timing turned out to be terrible. Genoways says that a deadline of July 31 was set for getting the information needed for VQR's transition to the VP's office. He also says he found out about that timing only 10 days before his leave was to begin, but that the president's office told him to go ahead; their people would help see the transition through.UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood says that July 31 "was not a hard and fast deadline" and that she can't find anyone in the president's office who recalls making an assurance of help to Genoways.

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In any case, to take VQR under its wing, the VP's office asked to see the magazine's financial statements for the previous year. Morrissey kept those accounts. But a couple of weeks before July 31, he said he hadn't prepared the numbers for the previous six to nine months and couldn't provide them in time.

To Genoways, who was trying to show that VQR's affairs were in order at what he viewed as a key juncture, this was infuriating. He asked Levinson-LaBrosse to gather the materials. Around the same time, in mid-July, Genoways copied Morrissey on an e-mail to Jeffrey Plank in the VP's office regarding the academic center he hoped to make VQR a part of. "I understand and support the desire to eliminate redundancies at staff levels and to create coherence within the new center as it develops," it read. "I would ask only that I continue to have a role in how those decisions are made." Genoways says he wasn't talking about firing anyone on his staff. But Morrissey brought the e-mail to Levinson-LaBrosse, she says, with that sentence underlined and asked what it meant. Levinson-LaBrosse told him she didn't know. Morrissey didn't follow up by talking to Genoways—a sign, perhaps, of how far communication had broken down.

By this point, Genoways wasn't in the office.For most of his Guggenheim leave, he was working in Charlottesville, though not at the VQR office. At the time he sent the staffing e-mail to Plank, though, he'd gone to Nebraska for his grandmother's burial. In his absence, Morrissey and Jaquith argued with Levinson-LaBrosse over whether Morrissey should attend an upcoming meeting she had scheduled with Plank to discuss the transition to the VP's office. In addition, Genoways says, Morrissey made substantive editorial changes to VQR's upcoming issue—deciding to kill certain articles, for example—without consulting him. This was not the arrangement Genoways had worked out when he went on leave, he says. "I hadn't ceded any of that editorial authority, and it wasn't our usual practice," he told me.

From a distance, Genoways got angry. In an e-mail to UVA's human-resources department, he said he planned to ask Morrissey and Jaquith to work at home for a week, until he could return to Charlottesville. "As I've had a report both of intimidation and willful insubordination, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask the parties involved to separate until I have a chance to return to the office and mediate," Genoways wrote to the HR department. The HR manager he consulted instructed him to look at UVA's guidelines for Corrective & Progressive Disciplinary Action. Genoways did so, sending Morrissey and Jaquith an e-mail in bureaucratic-speak, telling them not to come into the office because of their "unacceptable workplace behavior," a phrase he adapted from the guidelines. To the staff, McMillen and Minturn say, it was baffling and devastating. (Jaquith, who has taken a new job, didn't respond to my e-mail requesting comment.)

By this time, the staff had already gone to the president's office for help in dealing with Genoways. "I wouldn't use the word bully, but he was belittling to us," says McMillen. "Treating us with contempt, not giving us feedback, not responding to e-mails." Now bewildered and outraged by the order for Morrissey and Jaquith to stay home, the staff went to the H.R. department as well, complaining about Genoways' management. At the time, Genoways didn't know that. He was still in Nebraska, focused on the July 31 transition.

In the last few days before the transition deadline, Levinson-LaBrosse succeeded in pulling together the materials requested by the vice president's office. That was a relief to Genoways, but it may have made Morrissey feel even worse about his diminishing role at the magazine. Then, on the morning of July 30, Genoways sent Morrissey the e-mail that Maria Morrissey, his sister, has pointed to as evidence that her brother was cruelly bullied. Morrissey killed himself shortly after he received it. The e-mail regards a Mexican writer for VQR who had contacted Morrissey to say that he'd been held up and badly injured by gunmen who'd come to his home in Ciudad Juarez. The writer didn't directly ask for aid, but he sounded scared and said the police had refused to help him. Morrissey eventually forwarded the message to Genoways, but not until 10 days had elapsed. When Genoways realized the e-mail was 10 days old, he wrote to Morrissey, "Just so I'm clear: Why did it take you ten days to forward a message from someone asking our assistance with saving his life? A period during which you sent or forwarded twenty other e-mails to me?"  

That same morning, Genoways wrote an e-mail to Morrissey and Minturn telling them to issue a contract to the writer Nir Rosen, who was about to leave for Iraq on assignment. "This is the second unanswered e-mail from Nir Rosen this week," Genoways began. He laid out the specifics of the contract and ended, "This needs to be taken care of immediately."

Minturn wrote back, "Dear Ted, I am confused about the tone of this e-mail." She said she had not previously been given the specifics and in any case did not handle contracts—that was a task Morrissey took care of. (Genoways says Minturn was trained in executing contracts.) In his e-mailed reply, he asked Minturn again to sort out the details for Rosen by calling Morrissey if she needed to. And he wrote:

As for the tone of the last e-mail and this one, I would describe it as officious. It is not my preferred mode of communication; in fact, I hate it.

But after what I've been hearing from HR this week—the word that the staff has threatened to quit en masse—my collegiality is a little threadbare.

So let me rephrase: Please see to it that one of our authors has the money he needs to travel on our behalf. Please do whatever it takes to accomplish that task today. (Read the whole exchange.)