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'Bad Art Friend' fallout: Boston's GrubStreet writing center launches investigation into events in viral article

Rarely does a longform magazine article published in The New York Times trigger an existential crisis at a nonprofit in Boston. But that is exactly what happened this week, when the writing center GrubStreet announced it would launch an investigation into the events described in a New York Times Magazine article that went viral earlier this month.

The article in question, “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”, concerns a legal dispute between two writers who once ran in the same Boston-area literary circles. Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, who met at GrubStreet eight years ago, have been fighting in court since 2018 over a short story written by Larson titled “The Kindest.” The story was inspired (to what degree is up for debate) by Dorland’s decision to donate her kidney to a stranger as part of a living donor transplant chain. Dorland accused Larson of plagiarizing, in the story, a letter she (Dorland) wrote to the final recipient in the donation chain.

In an email sent to the GrubStreet community, the organization’s board announced that it is "engaging an independent expert" to conduct the review. It has not yet selected the investigator.

"We are in process of identifying the best resource to conduct the third-party review and are not able to provide further details," GrubStreet board chair Kathy Sherbrooke wrote in an email to WBUR.

“Bluntly, we are appalled by the disconnect between GrubStreet’s stated values and the alleged behavior by some that has come to light,” the organization wrote in its original statement. “GrubStreet is meant to be a nurturing and supportive environment for all, a place where our creative work can thrive, and where we are each treated with care and respect. The events described in the article do not describe the environment we strive to create for everyone in our community.”

In response to WBUR's emailed questions, Sherbrooke declined to comment on whether any GrubStreet employees had been disciplined as a result of the article, or say what the investigation would focus on.

However, Sherbrooke added that the organization "intends to conduct a thorough review of our processes and functions," including how it ensures inclusivity and "how we can better articulate our values around things such as ethics and empathy, which are core to community building as well as good writing."

Though the years-long legal dispute between the two writers primarily concerns Dorland’s accusation of plagiarism and debate over what constitutes intellectual property, it was the murkier moral questions brought up in the article that set the internet ablaze.

The Dorland-like character in “The Kindest” — which Larson has said was only partly modeled on Dorland — is portrayed as an entitled egotist with a white savior complex whose altruism contains hidden motives. Whether this seemingly thinly-veiled takedown of the real-life Dorland was warranted was hotly debated online. Some saw Dorland as a desperate narcissist who only donated her kidney for praise and adulation. Others saw Larson as a cruel opportunist who exploited a friendship for personal gain. Some found fault in the actions of both women.

It was unclear precisely what alleged behavior described in “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?” most alarmed the GrubStreet board.

Larson is currently in charge of GrubStreet's annual Muse and the Marketplace conference, and helps run the organization's Boston Writers of Color affinity group. (Larson is Asian-American; Dorland is white.) Court filings show that, in 2018, Dorland emailed a detailed complaint of professional misconduct against Larson to GrubStreet's executive director, Eve Bridburg, accusing Larson of plagiarism and alleging that Larson treated her in a "petty and unprofessional" manner at the 2017 Muse conference, where Dorland was a presenter and Larson was the assistant director.

The documents show Bridburg eventually responded that after "a thorough investigation," GrubStreet considered the matter "closed." She made no indication in her response to Dorland that the organization found any reason to take action against Larson as a result of Dorland's complaint.

Of possible interest to the independent investigator are messages between Larson and members of Larson's writing group, which were released as discovery evidence in the writers' legal battle. The writing group, which calls itself the "Chunky Monkeys," is made up of professional writers, including several GrubStreet employees and others with ties to GrubStreet. The messages reveal a sometimes gossipy clique that repeatedly mocked Dorland’s social media posts about her kidney donation and characterized them as attention-seeking. Some GrubStreet staff members made disparaging remarks about Dorland in the exchanges.

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Still, other legal filings uncover arguably questionable scorched-earth tactics by Dorland that some commenters said veered into the realm of harassment.

GrubStreet occupies a central place in Boston's insular literary scene. The nonprofit, which recently moved into a 13,000-square-foot space in the Seaport, offers a range of workshops to writers of all ages and levels. It also has paid hundreds of professional writers to instruct its courses.

"We have an obligation to impart and model what appropriate writing practices are and should be," Sherbrooke wrote, "as well as to expect that from our instructors and staff, many of whom have professional writing careers that sit outside the GrubStreet organization."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated to whom Dorland addressed her letter. It was addressed to the final recipient in a kidney transplant chain Dorland participated in as a nondirected donor, not the recipient of her own kidney. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on October 12, 2021.

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Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.

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