This show, you guys. Please, I beg of you, if you haven’t, read the books. So much better than whatever this has become.
You can find the file here, press play when the HBO sound and logo fade.
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Every time I think, “You know, I’m going to run out of Handbook For Mortals shenanigans before we get to the end of the recaps,” I am proved wrong. So, this installment brings us…
Awesome tweeter Aron alerted me to this press release, tweeted by an account called ADA IT Solutions. Since Handbook For Mortals has nothing at all to do with either the Americans with Disabilities Act or improved access to technology as outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s pretty clear that Cision PR Newswire’s strategy seems to be “throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.” Which falls right in line with Handbook and Lani Sarem, who both receive a generous re-branding as we steam toward the release of the movie.
Author Lani Sarem, whose initial offering Handbook for Mortalsdebuted at No. 34 on the USA Today Bestseller list, continues promotion on the national Comic Con circuit alongside American Pie, Rookie of the Year star Thomas Ian Nicholas. The film is scheduled to shoot later this year, based on the book. In a year of empowering females within the industry, it’s important to note that the film is not only very female-driven, but also includes a strong female protagonist, female director, female line producer and Sarem herself as the author.
No longer billed as a New York Times bestseller, this bulletin is content to celebrate the (also scammed) success of the book as a USA Today bestseller. I mean, who needs a big flashy label when you’re suddenly, out of absofuckinglutely nowhere, a juggernaut of feminist power? I mean, a female director (probably Lani Sarem), a female line producer (also probably Lani Sarem), and a strong female protagonist who never has to work to get anything she wants because her daddy gives it to her? Hold onto your pussy hats, ladies, we’re going to the theater!
Handbook for Mortals is about a young woman with supernatural powers who joins a Las Vegas magic show only to find that love is more dangerous than magick.
It certainly is for the girl at Hot Dog On A Stick who’s covered in broken glass and lemonade.
Sarem and Nicholas took an interesting approach to find an early audience for the franchise. Nicholas was booked as a celebrity guest at many conventions including Motor City, Alamo City and all the Wizard World Comic Cons starting early in 2017. They promoted the story and pre-sold Handbook for Mortals all across the country before the book even had a cover. In fact, it was at Wizard World Comic Con Philadelphia where they met comic book artist Ryan M. Kincaid, who ultimately drew the cover art.
If I’m ever accused of a crime, I’m going to use that line. I didn’t burn that house down. I “took an interesting approach” to building redesign. I didn’t murder that guy. I “took an interesting approach” to interpersonal conflict resolution. I didn’t steal that loaf of bread. I “took an interesting approach” to capitalism.
You know. Just the same exact way Ryan M. Kincaid “took an interesting approach” to drawing the cover art by literally tracing another author’s work.
On creating a story centered around a female lead, Sarem notes, “That was always the idea. Even at a young age I noticed what was going on.”
According to the feature on her on Vulture, the thing she noticed that was going on was that she couldn’t get parts as an actress, so she wrote this one specifically for herself. This isn’t empowering to women. It’s empowering to one woman.
About the comic conventions where she allegedly sold one book every forty-six seconds, per the math done by commenter Maths GCSE Graduate on the last recap, Sarem says:
“It’s a great place to meet fans looking for the next source of entertainment,” Sarem explains. “They’re excited to find something new and there’s nothing like watching them walk away clutching the book like it’s the most valuable thing they own.”
Nobody has ever felt that way about this book. And most people don’t go to conventions looking for “the next source of entertainment.” They go to see the people who are already making the entertainment they like. They want to meet the artists and illustrators and celebrities they already know.
You might be thinking to yourself, “How did Lani Sarem get this far into the press release without namedropping?” Well, don’t worry. Thomas Ian Nicholas is there to do it for her:
Nicholas also says, “It’s fun getting this project off the ground by connecting directly with people in the right environment. Plus, spending the weekend with other guests like Gregg Sulkin, Jason Momoa, Holly Marie Combs, Bonnie Wright, Sebastian Stan, Ian Somerhalder– it’s starting to feel like one big supportive family.”
Okay, but they’re no Carrot Tops, are they?
The press release goes on in an attempt to tie Sarem and Handbook to Disney via Thomas Ian Nicholas and John Heder’s Disney trivia panel that Sarem moderates and that a Disney artist showed up to hand out prizes for. One thing you can say for Lani (who absolutely wrote this press release herself, as no one who does this as their job would write a press release that included so much information completely unrelated to the main point), she sure knows how to starfuck in public.
Lest you think the entire thing is about the famous people Sarem and Nicholas sometimes stand next to, oh no, dear reader. We haven’t forgotten that this is a work of fearful and staggering feminism:
For several years, she was one of the youngest female band managers with two platinum selling, Grammy award-winning acts nestled in her roster of bands. Music is another area of the entertainment business that is typically a boys club. Sarem is no stranger to breaking down those walls and says, “It’s always an interesting challenge to find your place as a woman in a male-centric business. I hope I’m one of the many people that bring about positive change to the film industry. I want to inspire young girls to know they can dream big and achieve whatever their heart desires.”
Yes, young girls, you can dream big and achieve…wait, what the fuck has Lani Sarem ever achieved, aside from being fired from the bands she managed because they apparently grew tired of her schemes and going on to expose herself as a clumsy fraud in the literary world? Watch out, film industry. Lani is on her way to fix you the way she fixed publishing. Sit down, women in Holywood who have been fighting for equality! Lani Sarem has it handled.
Obviously, now that Handbook For Mortals is burning its bra, everyone is going to stop mocking it, right?
Nope! Sorry, Lani Sarem, but your scam has never been about “empowering women.” It’s been 100% about you getting famous by any means necessary. It’s been about empowering you. Now you’ve been slightly sort-of kind of notable in a fully non-important way for almost a year. That’s all people are willing to give you in all of this, which is honestly more than you deserve.
Anyway onto the blistering female empowerment of Handbook For Mortals
I had planned to sit down today and give you guys the Handbook For Con Artists recap you crave, but a Twitter conversation prompted me to write this post, which has been coming for a while. I’ve talked on social media (and maybe here) about the fact that my teenaged son is autistic. And I’ve finally got the courage to say that I am, too. I am autistic.
This might have been why I didn’t consider the possibility that my son was autistic until he was seven years old and someone suggested it to me. A lot of the things he did at a young age, like flapping his hands and walking on his toes, melting down when he was overstimulated, becoming passionately engrossed in specific singular interests that could change in an instant, and other behaviors I won’t go into just, you know, because it’s not entirely my stuff to share, were things I had done when I was child, and I wasn’t autistic, so it never occurred to me that he was anything other than neurotypical. Even after diagnosis, I assumed that those were things neurotypical children all had in common and that other things “made” him autistic.
Now, I look back at my own childhood, much of which I don’t remember accurately due to my inability to recall what parts were real and what parts have been obscured by the elaborate fantasies I’d constructed. I was the weird kid in middle school, so I retreated into my head. While I sat at my desk physically, in my mind I was in my “head house,” a space that I constructed after learning about something called the method of loci (not to be confused with the genetics term loci). To this day, when I’m stressed almost to my breaking point, bored to the edge of literal tears, or caught in a situation I don’t want to be in, I fully check out of reality and go there. It’s not a case of idly daydreaming; I am completely immersed in that world and fully absent from this one. It has evolved over time, the decor has changed slightly, and there’s a big giant button on the wall that turns off intrusive thoughts if I push it. It’s a great self-preservation strategy that had a disastrous effect on my education. Teachers asked me why I wasn’t paying attention, why I wasn’t turning in my homework, why I wasn’t completing tests. I couldn’t give them an honest explanation. I told them what they wanted to hear because I already knew I was “a handful,” but lying to them because I thought I was giving the right answer made me even more of a handful, and I couldn’t figure out why.
“Jenny’s a wonderful girl. So imaginative. But she’s a handful.” I’d heard that so many times. Once, back in my elementary school days, I was playing with my cousins after Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. Seemingly out of nowhere, one of my uncles became furious at me. I didn’t know why; his kids and I had been playing a game where I was a mad scientist, one of us was an Igor, and one of us was a zombie creature that didn’t have a brain. To this day, I have no clue what I did wrong. Maybe I was too loud and obnoxious. Maybe I hurt one of my cousin’s feelings and didn’t notice, which I was prone to do because I didn’t understand which actions resulted in which reactions. What I do know is that one second we were playing and having fun, and the next my uncle stood up and said, “I’ve had it with that god damn kid!” and stormed out. Everyone sat around stunned. I was humiliated, but I didn’t feel like I deserved to cry, though I wanted to. My mother was furious with my aunt and uncle for weeks. My grandmother fielded hours of mediation phone calls over the incident. That became kind of a hallmark of my otherwise happy childhood: somehow, I would do something wrong, an adult would shout at me in front of people, and I would go off on my own away from the other kids because I saw how much my badness hurt the relationships in my family.
In second grade, I was diagnosed with ADD, like so many kids of my generation, and fed a steady diet of Ritalin. I’m not anti-pharmaceuticals as they’re used today––for god’s sake, take your pills, no matter what indie movies say––but I do believe that Ritalin was over-prescribed in the 1980s as a sort of “make your kid a behave” pill, based on anecdotal evidence from other people my age. Though Ritalin was supposed to make me focus, it did basically nothing. I ended up in some kind of group therapy situation where we all learned coping skills, and that worked better than anything. It was like a guidebook on how to be a normal kid. All I had to do was painstakingly imitate the way other people were acting? I could do that! I loved acting! It didn’t fix everything, but adults stopped yelling and I didn’t get into trouble as much, except where education was involved.
Again, this is stuff I still do. I recently told a friend about one of my most secret desires: to successfully say, “Don’t eat that, it’s horrible,” as a compliment. You know, the way people will tell someone, “Oh, don’t eat any of that, it’s just horrible,” in a joking way that implies they don’t want anyone else to eat it because they want it all? If you’ve never botched the landing on this particular phrase, trust me: there is no coming back from it. I’ve tried it on a few occasions and it did not go over well. I end up replaying it over and over like a gymnast watching themselves on video to see where they made a mistake in their routine. I spend a lot of my time studying neurotypical humans and their interactions as though I’m a complete outsider to the entire species, trying to figure out how to best camouflage myself. It’s just as much work and just as alienating as it sounds. I’m always woefully behind by a decade or so of social development, it seems like. But one day, I fully believe I’ll be able to pull off a chuckle and a “don’t eat any of that, it’s just awful.” I was gently informed that most people don’t practice these types of easy social interactions with the goal of someday doing them correctly.
When my son was diagnosed, I began to seek out other parents of autistic children, because it was something I was told would be very important in helping me “deal” with my child. I didn’t see what I needed to “deal” with; as far as I knew, he was growing up exactly the way I did. I mean, how could I really be sure he was autistic? He was just like me and (all together now), I wasn’t autistic.
One of the things I noticed very early on was that “autism warrior mommies” (and yes, there are people who call themselves that) were easily sorted into three camps. One type became so obsessed with their child’s autism that having an autistic child became their identity and the kid was kind of an afterthought if they were a thought at all. Or, they suddenly started diagnosing their neurotypical children with autism in a sort of Munchausen-by-proxy-by-proxy kind of deal; when the kids would be evaluated and deemed neurotypical, whoever administered the evaluation didn’t know what they were talking about, didn’t listen to parents, shouldn’t be in that profession, had a personal vendetta, etc. Then there was the third kind of parent: the self-diagnosing autism mom.
A note here: Some parents do have to fight to get their kids a diagnosis when resources are denied by schools and government programs. Some parents are autistic and don’t know it until their children are diagnosed, specifically because healthcare providers and educators weren’t as familiar with autism in previous generations as they are now. But as someone who has spent a lifetime carefully studying humans, I feel I can say with confidence that some people are just insistent on being the center of the universe. And that’s pretty evident with some of the self-diagnosing autism warrior mommies. I became highly suspicious of some mothers who would self-diagnose, then start speaking with authority on their children’s’ experiences, even if those children were able to communicate their ideas, feelings, and opinions themselves. They asserted themselves as experts on autism and would become intensely defensive if another autistic person contradicted them or suggested they not share intimate details of their child’s life online. One self-diagnosed woman in a Facebook group graphically described her seventeen-year-old son’s toilet accidents and admitted that he didn’t want her to continue doing it, but she asserted that she was “far more autistic than him,” and therefore had the right to do so. I began to see self-diagnosis as fake and selfish, an attempt by a parent to center themselves when their child was getting too much attention or starting to rebel in the ways children are supposed to rebel.
I wondered why any of these “autism warrior mommies” couldn’t understand that their kids were people. That no tragedy had befallen their families. That they had never been guaranteed a neurotypical child, and that the idea of an autism “cure” was abhorrent when there were already constructive therapies and special education programs that could improve the quality of life for autistic people living in an unforgiving and aggressively neurotypical world. So much of their “activism” was performative and self-pitying. It was never about autistic people at all, but all the ways neurotypical people were burdened by the existence of them. Why couldn’t they see that?
Earlier this year, someone tweeted a link to a diagnostic tool being developed to evaluate adults for autism. I’m not entirely sure about all the specifics about it, but from my understanding, they were looking for both neurotypical people and people on the spectrum to take an online test to…I don’t know. See if their test worked? I’m not a scientist, so I have no idea. I thought, “okay, I’ll bite,” and took the test. When I say “online test,” I’m not talking about some kind of thirteen question, Buzzfeed-esque “design your dream wedding and we’ll guess how autistic you are” quiz. I recognized a lot of the questions from the tests administered to my son and the exhaustive questionnaires my husband and I’d had to fill out during the process. When the results were displayed, it didn’t say “YOU GOT: AUTISM!” with a twee description and a gif from The Gilmore Girls or anything. It just suggested consulting a professional and showed me that my final scores were about a hundred points over the threshold they were using to describe neurotypical people in their diagnostic criteria.
I called my friend Bronwyn Green immediately. “Do I seem autistic to you?” I demanded, and she said yes. I asked why she didn’t tell me: “If I thought you seemed autistic, it would have been the first thing I said to you! I would have been like, ‘hey, you seem autistic!'” She said, “Jen?” and waited silently for me to make the connection. And then the connections kept coming. I showed my husband the scores and he said, “Yeah? You’re autistic.” It was some kind of open secret I had never been in on. And soon, I was a self-diagnosing autism mommy. And I hated it.
Here’s where things really go sideways to me: I believe it when autistic people tell me they’re autistic, even if they’re self-diagnosed. If someone is suffering from anxiety, depression, OCD and they self-diagnose it? It makes perfect sense to me. But it picks away at me to think that maybe I’ve gaslighted myself into becoming self-diagnosing autism mommy. Occasionally, it occurs to me that maybe there’s such a thing as autismdar. Like gaydar, but for autism. I maintain that LGBQA+* identifying people have an innate ability to tell if other people are straight or “one of us” after years of painstakingly pretending to be heterosexual while we’re closeted. Is the same true for autism? Is the reason I resent and doubt the mothers who use their self-diagnosis as both a weapon and a shield because I’ve spent so many years studying neurotypical people as a means of protective camouflage that I can now spot them from a mile away? I’ve met parents who self-diagnosed and thought, “Yeah, sounds about right,” while others I’ve rolled my eyes at and thought, “Yeah, right.” What creates the difference? I can’t diagnose them, so why do I doubt some people but not others?
At this point, you might be rolling your eyes at me and thinking, “Yeah, right.” Because a lot of the times, I’m doing that, too. Despite all the evidence, despite it seeming absolutely natural and right to me to think, “I am autistic,” I worry that those moms who say, “Well, I’m autistic and I support Autism Speaks!” or “I was autistic, until I started focusing on my gut health,” feel like it’s natural and right, too. I’m not the gatekeeper of autism. I don’t know who is. Do I have the right to doubt some self-diagnoses but believe others? Do I even have the right to diagnose myself?
In the middle of all of this soul-searching, two books have been hot topics in the literary world. One of them, written by a woman referred to as the Elmo Mom, details all the ways she’s using “exposure therapy” (i.e., dragging her screaming, terrified child into situations that traumatize him) to right the wrong the universe did when it saddled her with an autistic son. In it, she daydreams about abandoning her son to have a new and better life with her neurotypical daughter. She expresses open hatred and abusive, neglectful behaviors then tries to justify them by imploring the reader to consider her own pain. She relates “and the whole bus clapped”-style anecdotes about kindly strangers coming to her rescue and praising her for her saintliness. She recently wrote an online essay about bystanders cruelly judging her for bodily wrestling her resisting, screaming child into a Sesame Street Live performance, asserting that her son has every right to be there. She never considers that he has every right to not be there, as well. In the end, he does sit through the performance, and she receives her reward: an hour or so of being able to deny that her son has autism.
Another book, the title of which I’ve forgotten, is the memoir of a woman who has no qualms about stating that she plans to have her autistic teen sterilized, lest he impregnate someone and she’s forced to deal with it. You’ll have to forgive me for not looking up this title and author; I just can’t handle reading her sickening garbage, yet I’ll still find myself compelled to.
Several readers of this blog have contacted me about these books, wondering if I would write a post about them or bring attention to them on social media. Like a coward, I ignored those emails. If you were a person who contacted me and didn’t receive a reply, I apologize for my rudeness, but this is all fresh and raw to me. It’s not that I’m struggling with the tragedy of finding out I’m autistic. That part of the experience is very much like the time I found out I have a deformed blood vessel in my brain. It was a thing I didn’t know, then I knew it, but ultimately it hasn’t demonstrated any impact on my life, so it’s just a thing that is. Realizing that I’m autistic was just a moment of, “Oh. Okay, that actually explains a lot of stuff.” It didn’t change who I am as a person or how I view myself. But it very much changes the way I view the people in my life during my childhood.
Now, when I read the disgusting thoughts of the autism warrior mommies who write their memoirs about how sad and tragic their children have made their lives I see myself in the role of that child, rather than as a parent criticizing another parent. I read about Elmo Mom fantasizing about abandoning her child for a better one and wonder if my mother had those same thoughts. Being the consequence of an unintended pregnancy had already put those seeds of doubt in my mind with regards to whether my mom ever regretted having me because of the life she might have had otherwise. It never occurred to me to worry that she might have regretted having me due to me not coming out as advertised. It never once crossed my mind to view my family with suspicion, to think that they might not have been annoyed or disdainful of my behaviors because I was a handful, but because of circumstances that were out of my control. And never in my life have I ever considered that I might have been in danger from the adults who had to care for me. All of this has made me think things about people I love that I don’t want to think. And for that reason, I’ve been unable to write about or think too deeply about these horrible, abusive women who have monetized hating their children.
This post might be super ableist. I can’t tell. It might be unfair of me to opt out of autism activism when other people can’t. That’s a valid criticism. Right now, I’m not even entirely comfortable labeling myself as autistic without some kind of paperwork or certificate to prove it, but I’m unable to separate myself out as an ally, either. I’m interested to hear from those of you who are actually autistic if you’re comfortable sharing your thoughts on self-diagnosis in the comments, whether you’re formally diagnosed or self-diagnosed. It’s a strange experience to be the same person you were yesterday, yet doubt everything about the narrative of your life story today.
*The “T” in LGBTQA+ was removed because I was speaking specifically about sexuality and I don’t know if transgender people have a gaydar equivalent. I excluded the T from the acronym so as not to make assumptions or erase heterosexual transgender people.
There is a story that has been developing rapidly in the romance world, about author Santino Hassell. Hassell has been accused of conspiring to hide their true identity and using their false persona to gaslight and catfish readers. People began to investigate the author’s personal life and background and making various information public, resulting in initial defenses of Hassell’s privacy. As more details have come to light, one publisher has canceled the author’s contracts after the allegations gained traction. This story is still unfolding, so I’m not going to try to explain everything going on. But I am going to write about some aspects of it in a post that has been a long time coming. Because Hassell isn’t the first to do this, and definitely won’t be the last.
Many of the repeat questions I get in the Big Damn Writers’ Question Box are about pseudonyms. Why do you need one, how do you pick one, how do you hide your tracks if you need to? It has never occurred to me to ask the question, “Where is the line with regards to an author persona, and a pseudonym?” So, I’m going to go ahead and lay out what should be common sense when building your author brand. Not all of these apply to the Hassell situation, and not all of these have happened within the romance genre, but they are things people have done and will probably continue to do until we as consumers and professionals make it clear that there is no room for this kind of behavior.
The Dos And Don’ts Of Pseudonyms:
Do: Use a pseudonym to protect your identity if you’re more comfortable doing so. If you don’t want your family or employer to find out about your writing career, a pseudonym is a perfectly ethical way to maintain your privacy.
Don’t: Use a pseudonym that will mislead publishers and readers into believing you’re a member of a marginalized group. For example, Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski fostering his early career under the name Akira Yoshida despite not…being…Japanese. Cebulski’s work as Yoshida leaned heavily on Japanese themes and style, leading many readers to believe they were supporting a Japanese writer and not, you know. A white guy hiding, branding himself as a Japanese man.
Exception: Many writers of color who find that their names are “too ethnic” use pseudonyms that sound “white”. Many women write in male-dominated genres under initials or with male-sounding pen names. This is not a case of appropriation, but a means of protective camouflage to help an author succeed in a sexist, racist industry. Cebulski could choose to be Akira Yoshida because he could become a white man again when an opportunity for advancement presented itself. Meanwhile, a Japanese author might find themselves forced to use a “whiter” sounding name to open those doors already flung wide for a white man like Cebulski. In a society where Cebulski can afford to be Yoshida but a Japanese person cannot, there is no equivalency between privileged writers hiding their privilege and marginalized authors hiding their marginalizations.
Do: Chose select details about your life to share with your readership on social media, within your own comfort zone. Maybe you don’t want to mention that you’re a teacher, but you have no qualms about publicizing your passion for building ships in bottles. It’s up to you what to reveal or not reveal about your private life.
Don’t: Fabricate details about your life to share with your readership on social media as a means of creating a “brand.” I knew an author once who talked about her cats nonstop on social media, even posting pictures of them. Then an author friend visited this person’s home and found no cats at all. No hair or scratches on the furniture, no food or water dishes, no litter boxes, no cats. Even though lying about having cats is harmless in comparison to, say, lying about being Japanese or having cancer, it’s still a lie. And it’s really creepy. It’s one thing to say, “I really love cats.” It’s another to make up imaginary cats and post status updates and pictures about them.
Exception: Some authors adopt personas which are clearly not based in fact. For example, Chuck Tingle, who writes parodies of M/M romances, is clearly not a widowed man whose ghostly wife torments him from beyond the frozen lake where she drowned. And Lemony Snicket is, unfortunately, not a shadowy figure investigating the many maudlin tragedies of a family of orphaned children, but is, in fact, a racist and serial sexual harasser. Both of these personas are clearly affectations to set a tone for the reader and are employed as such. Daniel Holder doesn’t deny being the man behind Snicket, and Tingle has built such an outlandish and muddled backstory for himself that he simply can’t be assumed to be real by any reasonable person.
Do: Feel free to use your author platform to speak about issues you are passionate about, even if you’re using a pseudonym.
Don’t: Use your pseudonym to Dolezal your way into conversations you don’t belong in. Whoever Hassell was not only presented themselves as a bisexual man within the book community, but they also gave interviews, quotes, and even wrote articles about living as a bisexual man. New details are emerging by the hour, so I’ll shift back over to C. B. Cebulski. If Cebulski had given interviews or written articles as Akira Yoshida, claiming to be a Japanese man and offering the perspective of a Japanese man on issues that affect Japanese people, it would have been a reprehensible action. It should go without saying that if you’re not a member of a marginalized group, be honest about it. You can be passionate about the rights of marginalized people. You can’t pretend to be a marginalized person.
Exception: I’m not talking here about being closeted in some way and wanting to speak your truth without revealing yourself. That’s a tricky area that a lot of us navigate constantly. But we need to be careful that when we do that, we’re not adopting a persona that harms other people. As a bisexual woman, it wouldn’t be okay for me to present myself as a bisexual man, write nonfiction articles about being a bisexual man, give interviews about what it’s like to be a bisexual man because I’m not a bisexual man and all genders experience prejudice and biphobia differently. It would be okay for me to be Erin Stevens, bisexual woman. It would not be okay for me to be Aaron Stevens, bisexual man.
Do: Be transparent about your pseudonym or author persona with readers, authors, and publishers you befriend in real life. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal your real name to them, but they should know what is and isn’t real about you.
Don’t: Maintain your author persona in private conversations where people are revealing real life, personal details to you. Be honest that you can’t reciprocate on that level. Saying, “Oh, I write under a pseudonym to protect my job,” isn’t something an author or a reader or a publisher is going to look askance at, and people learn to form personal relationships within boundaries all the time. Bonding with someone over your difficult childhoods while they think you’re their good friend Leslie from Pawnee but you’re really Derek in Cincinnati (who had a lovely childhood, thanks for asking) is dishonest, creepy gaslighting. You’re presenting a false reality that will cause irreversible psychological damage should that illusion shatter. Hassell engaged in this type of manipulation more than once with their readers. Another particularly terrible author I knew was outspokenly anti-LGBTQA+ in her private life (up to and including suggesting conversion attempts on a mutual friend’s sister, attending a church that preached anti-gay rhetoric, and voting for politicians who supported anti-gay legislation), but who had no qualms about writing as a M/M author, attending LGBTQA+ literature conferences, and befriending queer authors and readers under the guise of being an ally. These people trusted her when she was actually a threat to and actively working against their rights and safety.
Do: Ask for help from readers and friends should financial or personal catastrophe occur. If I found out tomorrow that I donated to an author’s GoFundMe for their cancer treatment but I didn’t realize they were using a pseudonym, I probably wouldn’t care. They still have cancer. Likewise, when a popular blogger who received financial support during a lawsuit was revealed to be a bestselling author, some of us weren’t angry that we’d made donations to her fund. The woman was still being sued, and the lawsuit still affected the romance community at large (although it should be noted that she also catfished some readers).
Don’t: Falsify a financial or personal catastrophe as part of your author persona to bolster sales or solicit donations. This is another big issue in the current revelations about Hassell, who claimed to be a single father struggling to pay for cancer treatments. Readers not only supported Hassell by buying books and encouraging others to do so, but they sent direct financial donations, which the person or people behind the Hassell identity accepted. Now, someone behind this persona has made a statement to say that they did, indeed, have medical bills, but they did not confirm that they had cancer. Cancer survivors especially are saying they feel cheated and manipulated.
Do: Form friendships with readers, if you want to! In this day and age, it’s not unusual to have online friends and not know their legal names. I was friends with one author for years before I found out that he was writing under a pseudonym. He didn’t hide it, he just thought I knew. But I don’t need to know his real name. I’m not buying him a plane ticket, and he’s not lying about his life. He just can’t have his employer knowing what he writes.
Don’t: Form friendships with readers under a false persona in order to research your books. Another accusation against Hassell is that the person or people behind the persona used the Hassell character to court long-distance friendships and even romantic relationships with readers, then later used private information about these readers’ pasts and sex lives in Santino Hassell novels.
Do I really need to elaborate on that one? These people are psychologically wounded now because someone used their personal struggles and experiences for financial gain.
There’s a lot more tied up in this debacle and I’d wager more will be forthcoming. But as the several examples here show (as well as prior controversies that I didn’t touch on), this isn’t a new phenomenon. Yet when another of these situations arise, the conversation will once again prioritize author privacy over the safety of readers and authors. Hopefully, this has been a helpful primer on how you, too, can maintain your privacy as an author without causing massive amounts of psychological damage on the people around you.
Unless you just don’t give a shit. Which is probably what’s happening in every single one of these incidents. Because people are gross.
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I’m cutting this chapter into installments, as the recaps will be long. Because there is…a lot.
When we last met, Lani Sarem had just clearly purchased five-star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads in some kind of weird bid to…I don’t know. I have no idea what she felt a hundred or so five-star reviews were going to do for her clumsy scam six months after the fact, but she did it.
At least one of those five-star reviews was real, though, and author Heidi Heilig (The Girl From Everywhere, The Ship Beyond Time) happened to notice something…interesting about two books that were reviewed by the same account:
Since you can’t read the entire glowing review from the screencap, this is what Hendricks has to say about Handbook For Mortals:
I loved this book! It’s such a fun read. The characters are well written and the story is unique. I don’t want to give anything away but I love how the magician is tied to story. She’s a strong female protagonist and I love that about it but it’s just a cool story. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book and I’m also stoked for the movie. The chapters being based off of tarot cards is also fun and if you are into tarot and magick this is your kind of book. It’s cool that it’s set in modern day. I like fantasies but get overloaded with complicated lands and names and I really don’t like dystopian. I know there was also this hubub about if it is or isn’t YA…seriously? who cares…It’s clearly meant for girls who are teenagers to read and have someone to look up to and if you are older you can still relate…I think it’s weird the only ones that care about that seem to be actual adults who aren’t “YA” either if we are saying that’s 13-18 year olds…I think this is a great book and if you are into THIS kind of thing you will love it…if you aren’t then of course you might not love it but stop hating on those that do.
So what. Lisa Hendricks has bad taste, right? That’s nothing to do with Lani Sarem. After all, they are two very different books and not everyone is going to like every single thing, right?
Except, you may remember from, oh, this entire fucking time that Lani Sarem has had it out for Angie Thomas ever since Handbook For Mortals was removed from the New York Times bestseller list and The Hate U Give was returned to its rightful spot. From the legendary “It’s not my fault that Angie is black!” comment to the fact that she has continually alleged that forces behind The Hate U Give have sabotaged Handbook For Mortals out of jealousy, Lani Sarem cannot stand to see Angie Thomas authentically achieving something that Sarem feels should have been handed to her just because she wanted it.
Still, how is Lisa Hendricks connected to all this?
She’s thanked in the gargantuan and self-congratulatory acknowledgments section of Handbook For Mortals:
To Lisa Hendricks for being my second mom, and for more things than I could ever write into words. Some girls need more than one mom, and lots of guidance, and I would probably be curled up on the side of the road somewhere if it weren’t for you. Thank you for letting me make your home mine, for being the voice of reason, for just being awesome, and for showing me who I should always strive to become.
Lisa Hendricks one-starred a book about a black teenager who sees her best friend shot by the police as “depressing” and it just happens to be the book that was knocked out of and later returned to the coveted #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list during this fiasco, and she’s the person who shows Lani who she should strive to become? Checks out. Your work here is done, Lisa.
In case you remain unconvinced that this is a personal strike on Sarem’s behalf, Hendricks has only reviewed three things on Amazon: The Hate U Give and Handbook For Mortals on February 14, 2018, and then a camera tripod four years ago.
Though Sarem didn’t offer an explanation as to why these reviews suddenly started popping up (and she didn’t disavow a relationship with Hendricks, which to be perfectly honest, I thought she would do despite the overwhelming evidence that she does know her), she did make it very clear that Heidi Heilig’s grasp on reality would not be tolerated:
Making things up to get tweets is really bad. Making up sales, reviews, celebrity connections, that’s all totally okay. But taking screenshots that clearly show the truth is really bad.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier installments, a lot of my issues with Cathy involved my spirituality, which I’m a bit guarded about. As a result, I’m setting this part out on its own. If you’re the type of person who rolls your eyes at hauntings, spells, curses, any of that stuff, this will probably not be a post you’re going to enjoy. If that’s the kind of stuff you’d like to skip, you can do so without missing any big revelations that are crucial to the story overall.
If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who runs toward stuff like hauntings, spells, and curses, this is going to be right up your alley.
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Hello, everybody! Things are still hectic over here at the Trout House, but I’ve been stealing bits of time here and there to work on my true passion, which is, surprisingly, not calling and canceling accounts for a deceased person. Who could have guessed? No, I’m talking about my passion for ripping bad books to shreds. It soothes me.
Before I go too far, I want to thank everyone who has donated money to us in the wake of this unexpected death. I won’t go further than that because Mr. Jen wants to thank you guys directly via video (when he’s able to do it without choking up) and I don’t want to steal his thunder. But you guys have really saved a huge chunk of our asses. Disposing of someone’s body and material life is expensive, even when you go super basic.
As of right now, posts here are going to be thin on the ground. I’ve got two novels I’m trying to get out while also doing death-related responsibility. But I’m so glad to at least give you guys this, and thanks for sticking around!
Okay, so, in Lani Sarem news, someone was very, very busy. Or, the people someone hired on Fiverr to write five-star reviews for Handbook For Mortals. From February 12 to February 14, over fifty unverified reviews flooded into Amazon for Handbook, all proclaiming it a wonderful book, a great read, that it should be made into a movie, or, in one case, just “A,” which fifteen Amazon customers found helpful. These reviews are being called out and roundly mocked on social media (and in the comments on my previous recap), as they’re clearly purchased. Next time, Sarem should consider writing a better book and getting good reviews that way.
But what do I know?
Over at Switzy Thoughts, Amanda J. Surowitz describes her experience in Sarem’s “How I Navigated The New York Times List” session at the Agile Writer’s conference in Virginia earlier this year. Sarem apparently spared some time to slam Phil Stamper, one of the key figures in uncovering Sarem’s scam, and continued to insist that because the world of publishing isn’t run like the far superior music industry, it’s broken.
With that, let’s go see what Shitbook For Shortles has in store for us this time.
I promised I’d be returning this week. I did not realize that my husband would find his mother dead in her apartment on Thursday afternoon. She hadn’t been feeling well, so he’d gone by after work to check on her. She’d died in her sleep the night before. She was only sixty-nine years old.
If you’ve been reading my “Worst Person I’ve Ever Met” series, this may interest you: “Sam’s” father was the medical examiner who showed up. One might have thought that would be the cherry on this shit sundae, but alas, it is a mere sprinkle. The complications that have been left behind are numerous. There is the time, money, physical labor for the monumental task of funeral costs, closing accounts, or cleaning the apartment. Mr. Jen and I have found ourselves the beneficiaries of several new full-time jobs.
The costs associated with even a modest funeral are astronomical. Some of you who heard the news on Twitter sprang into action and raised $600.00 to help us with the cost. We are so incredibly thankful for those contributions, as we are finding ourselves wiped out.
The worst part of all of this seems to be the numb practicality. Of course, my husband is grieving. But I feel nothing. Nothing but irritation and anxiety at the situation and at the number of things that require our urgent attention…later. Because everything waits on offices opening on Monday, death certificates arriving, signatures obtained from uncooperative parties. Hurry up and wait builds a wall between grief and the people who are supposed to be processing it.
I’m not going to promise that I’ll be returning next week. I have no idea if that’s possible. At the moment, we’re sifting through a lifetime of disorganized paperwork–here, a vital record from the retirement office, there a printed-off email joke from 1998–and sorting through useless brick-a-brack we feel guilty disposing of because it was precious to her in life. And the one person who should be allowed to step back and just not have to deal with anything other than his emotions is my husband, who absolutely will not get a chance to do that until all this other stuff is done.
For now, I’ll just say that updates will be sporadic and I’m sorry. Hopefully, it will only be in this immediate aftermath and not for weeks.