Tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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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The e-mails are a Rorschach test: Are they the words of an abusive bully? Or of a justifiably frustrated boss? To Maria Morrissey and the Workplace Bullying Institute's Gary Namie, the e-mails are definitive proof of Genoways' tyranny: He had made Kevin Morrissey miserable by isolating him and reducing his role at the journal, and these e-mails pushed him over the edge. Most of the staff has subscribed to that take. "Ted would never think of himself as a bully. I would say, though, that the e-mails he sent out that week, the e-mails to Kevin and to me, it was a bully move," Minturn said. "They were meant to intimidate, meant to make us feel like we were incompetent."

Genoways says that's not what he intended. And on its face, the e-mail he sent to Morrissey about the Mexican writer consists of the straightforward questions a boss might be expected to ask confronted with news about a frightened and desperate-sounding writer (and with the fact that the writer's call for help was not immediately addressed). In the exchange about Rosen's contract, too, Genoways begins by giving a straightforward order. He does conclude by complaining about the state of affairs at VQR, but he sounds more exasperated than abusive—like a boss who sees that his working relationships with his staff are unraveling and doesn't know how to fix them.


Morrissey, though, was clearly distressed by the way Genoways was treating him. After Genoways asked him to stay home, Morrissey repeatedly asked the HR department and the president's office for help. Minturn says she told HR managers that she was afraid Morrissey might be suicidal and that they kept promising to mediate but didn't come to a meeting at which she expected them. (She also says that HR manager Alan Cohn told her she had post-traumatic stress syndrome—a diagnosis psychiatrists reserve for people who have been exposed to a terrifying event involving death or grave harm or the threat of one or the other.)

It's clear the office strife at VQR had reached a point that was begging for outside intervention. One of the saddest aspects of Morrissey's death is the timing: The university says it was about to step in. "There was a lot of communication between Kevin and HR and I know they were on the brink of mediation beginning," UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood said. "It was so close."

Levinson-LaBrosse says she told Genoways that he needed some executive coaching to work on how he communicates with the people he's managing. Looking back, he can see that weakness, too. "The point of contention that Kevin always had was that he didn't feel like there was enough communication from me. It's taken me all this time, and the story playing out in the press, to understand that the staff really meant they didn't feel they were being included in decisions enough."

What role did the dysfunction in the VQR offices play in Morrissey's suicide? The initial reports that Genoways was mentioned in Morrissey's suicide note turn out to be false. In the note, Morrissey referred to a former girlfriend but not to the VQR editor. He wrote simply, "I'm sorry. I know she won't understand this, but I just couldn't bear it anymore." When the idea that Genoways was to blame for Morrissey's death began to take hold in the media, Minturn wrote on Facebook, "This is a horrible situation for everyone involved and for the love of God, no one on staff is blaming Ted for Kevin's suicide." In the comments section of an article on the suicide posted on the Web site of Charlottesville's Hook, even Maria Morrissey denied blaming Genoways. "AT NO TIME DID I ACCUSE TED OF BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR KEVIN'S DEATH," she wrote.

I called Maria Morrissey to ask how she squared this comment with a quote from her in the Hook story she was commenting in response to: "Our family is convinced by all that we have learned since Kevin's death that, were it not for Genoways' relentless bullying, Kevin would be alive today." She said, "I should have been more precise in my language. I didn't mean to imply that Ted was the only reason for Kevin's suicide. He was definitely a significant factor. But granted, Kevin was depressed." This is true: Morrissey had struggled with clinical depression for long time, according to his sister and his colleagues. Maria hadn't spoken to her brother for three years before he died. Nor had their two brothers. She says she doesn't know why he cut off communication but that the family had a history of violence and dysfunction. After his death, one colleague from the 1990s wrote of Morrisey, in response to the announcement of his death, "It seemed like he just wanted life to be less difficult—the constant struggle with depression drained him, even then. Another said, "I worked with Kevin many years ago in Seattle. He could be the nicest, kindest person and then go the other way if in a depression. I will always remember the good things, though."

Is it possible to disentangle Morrissey's depression from his distress about work and his eroding relationship with Genoways—to blame the last few weeks of his life at VQR as opposed to all the other steps along the way? The temptation is understandable. "Suicide has such a terrible weight. It leaves everyone to search for why did this happen. And then someone must be to blame," says Robert King, a psychiatry professor at Yale who has written extensively about suicide. "But it's always tremendously complicated."

This complexity was largely lost in the media firestorm that kicked up in the wake of Morrissey's death. Much of the coverage—in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Hook, on the Today Show—states or insinuates a link between Morrissey's death and the accusations against Genoways. Morrissey's depression is mentioned, but it's not explored. That's understandable. In a perceptive column about the VQR coverage, Washington and Lee University journalism professor Ed Wasserman points out that journalists usually stay away from suicides because they are painful mysteries that are virtually impossible to solve. But in the VQR case, the link to workplace bullying made speculating on the causes of this one irresistible. "The result is a suicide that's now legitimately newsworthy," Wasserman writes, "but only if the reporter skirts the messy personal stuff: How serious was Morrissey's depression, was he being treated, when did he buy his gun, had he threatened suicide before, how many years since he last spoke to his family, had he clashed with bosses elsewhere, what was that cryptic final note to an old girlfriend about?"

I tried to find out when Morrissey bought his gun, but the police wouldn't tell me, and Virginia doesn't require record-keeping for gun permits (or gun permits at all). (Clarification, Sept. 28: For clarity, I've added that the state does not require gun permits.) Wasserman's other questions are the right ones. They're also extremely difficult for a journalist to answer. In my reporting about the death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who committed suicide in January after being bullied in school, I spent months talking to people who knew her, and I had access to court documents that helped paint a more complete picture than the one that had appeared in the press. But in that case, six teenagers are facing serious criminal charges in connection with Phoebe's death; understanding the reasons she decided to take her life are crucial to determining whether it makes sense to send the defendants to prison for it. There's no similarly compelling rationale for digging into Morrissey's past, at least for me, when neither the authorities nor Morrissey's family and colleagues are blaming the suicide on Genoways.

As to the question of whether Genoways was a bully, UVA, which has also suffered terrible press this year because of the death of lacrosse player Yeardley Love at the hand of her classmate and ex-boyfriend, has hired a company called WorkBest Consulting to investigate the events at VQR leading up to Morrissey's death. The workplace bullying world hasn't waited for the results to pass judgment. Gary Namie, whose Workplace Bullying Institute showcases research conducted by him and his wife, has been especially vehement. "A Prototypical Bullying Case, Let Me Count the Ways," he wrote in the Hook's comments section. On his institute's blog, Namie attacked Wasserman for standing up for Genoways, publishing the journalism professor's office number and urging readers to "tell him the legacy of Kevin Morrissey sent you." "I don't have to be nice every stinking moment," Namie said when I said this smacked of, well, bullying to me.

Namie's goal is to convince employers to put in place anti-bullying policies. "Forget trying to change the Genoways of the world—we need a systemic institutional response," he told me. He's part of a group that's trying to win passage of a bill called the Healthy Workplace Act. The bill, which no state has enacted, is based on the concept of a hostile work environment as delineated by sexual harassment law. Except there's no sex. Under such a law, workers could sue for damages based on a claim that they have suffered "abusive conduct" at work. To win, they'd have to prove that the abuser acted with malice—the desire to cause pain, injury, or distress. The preamble to the bill claims that workplace bullying is epidemic, though the numbers aren't precise: "Between 37 and 59 percent of employees directly experience health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse, and harassment." And the definition of abusive conduct is broad. It includes, among other things, "derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets" that a reasonable person would find hostile.