This March 6 Report from the Field is a post by a collective of anonymous writers and artists regarding the developing controversy concerning noted literary figure Thomas Sayers Ellis.
We are a collective of writers and artists who stand in solidarity with women who have been subject to harassment, threats, and assault by an artist in our creative communities. In light of an article posted on Feb 29th, many stories about the named individual began to be shared.
We have collected testimonies of women who have had these experiences, and wish to remain anonymous due to fear of backlash that is almost certain in the current climate which distrusts women. We want to note that this is risky work for all involved. We salute the bravery of those who have decided to share their stories. Our goal for them is to heal and get free of the shame and trauma caused by their experiences.
The following sample of de-identified disclosures are from women who have experienced traumatic interactions with a respected literary arts community member. In the recent weeks, we have learned the extent of his violations — a system of disturbing sexual and professional misconduct within and beyond learning spaces. The damage reaches back much longer than one decade and stops today. The community is late in its action but will be dutiful in affirming those impacted by his behavior, firm in its response, and swift in ending his access to spaces where safety is demanded. We begin our efforts with these disclosures of interactions with Thomas Sayers Ellis. We appreciate these women’s strength in putting their stories in strangers’ hands.
TRIGGER WARNING: This piece contains depictions of sexual assault and other violence which may be triggering to survivors.
I met him at Bread Loaf. I thought he was real cool. I liked his pro-black vibe. Like many people, I got trapped in his “white people are the enemy” game. I thought, wow, he’s so bold, so brave, I want to be part of that orbit. He was saying: I’m nominating you for this, I’m recommending you for that, but a lot of it was lies. You think he’s a mentor, a friend, we used to write together, and then I realized a lot of it was lies. He was not helping me in any way. Even after I ended things, he would continue to be predatory. He just would never stop, even despite the fact that I was engaged or married. Whenever I see that he’s teaching at a conference and I’ve often been invited to teach at the same conference, or read alongside him, I always say no. I don’t want to have to deal with his energy around me.
I let Thomas into my apartment and immediately after putting his bags down he started spanking me, slapping me across the face, kissing me, positioning and re-positioning my body around my living room. He lay me on the floor, pulled out a condom, said “Let’s see what this is about” and got undressed. I asked if I could get some lube, that I had some in my bedroom, because I wasn’t aroused enough for penetration to be pleasurable. “No, not the first time.” Up until this point, in the almost two years we were intimately involved, we never had penetrative sex. I found myself face down, in his lap, on my side, on my knees. It was unbearable, regardless of the position. I couldn’t have been more tense. My entire body was like a closed fist. And after a few minutes of telling myself that the discomfort was temporary, my perception shifted and then I couldn’t feel anything. I was aware my body existed, it just didn’t belong to me. I was aware that he wasn’t finished thrusting. I told myself that he would be finished soon. I told myself he would be finished soon. I told myself he would be finished soon. I asked for lube and again he said “No.” I felt like I was being broken in. I didn’t have an orgasm. Eventually he did.
I never dated or was romantically involved with him but ever since I’ve known him he’s terrorized and harassed me, a lot of unwanted attention. He’s threatened to discredit me professionally and personally with people in positions of power that would affect my job and position as a poet. He’s been physically— I guess you would say he was playing, but it was made clear to him that I didn’t want him to put his hands around my throat, corner me, push me up against walls, bend my arm behind my back. He’s tried to take advantage of me very aggressively when I have been drinking around him. I have seen him try to take advantage of other women when they were inebriated. Every now and then I’m on his radar and he sends weird emails, calling and hanging up. It’s intimidation. At least half a dozen people have pulled me aside to tell me he’s made unprofessional comments about my body. He’s lied to people about our relationship. He would just fuck with me all the time.
He always wanted me to call him daddy when we were in bed. Then when I was close to orgasm, sometimes he would choke me. I lost consciousness more than once. Then he would praise how beautiful I was, how he loved me, how he wanted to marry me. He had me so overwhelmed with his constant contact and presence and control, I didn’t even realize the sickness of it at the time. It was like he was taking over my whole entire self.
Once, he introduced me to someone as his “cousin.” I don’t know now if it was to be funny, or to avoid explaining my age. We had a romantic relationship when he was twice my age. I was an undergraduate in college.
He preys on the vulnerability of young women. It’s something I tell people. I say he’s damaged and he’s dangerous. He’s like a psychological terrorist.
Once, I made a statement that I suppose Thomas Sayers Ellis found upsetting, during an online chat in which I thought we were having friendly banter; he quickly turned and said that I better watch out, that he could ruin my career. This from someone who, during our first meeting at a writer’s conference years before, asked me if I was schizophrenic and when I said no, he insisted that I must be because there were at least two separate voices in my work. Over the years, I’ve supported him, his work, have encouraged him, to avoid any potential face-to-face conflicts with him. At the same conference where I witnessed him get right up in a student’s face, an older woman seemed visibly unsettled by his unorthodox teaching. He saw this, too, and focused his attention on asking her questions. When she responded ‘no’ to his final question (“Awwww you know you like it, don’t you?”), he rushed from the board, to the table where the students were sitting, bent down from the waist so he would be face-to-face with her, so close he could have opened his mouth and laid his tongue on her, and began asking her over and over again “yYou like it don’t you don’t you don’tyoudon’tyoudon’tyou”. When I saw him in a different teaching environment, and saw similar erratic and inappropriate behavior towards women students in that class—one also elder—I put him in a space in my head as just another guy who is unprofessional, inappropriate, badgering, bullying who would be accepted as eccentric.
I hope someone is talking about how TSE has used photography to lure victims, catalogue them, revisit things done to them after direct interaction ended, or used it as a more hands-off form of violation. This really enrages me and makes me feel a certain level of powerlessness.
He said it was an accident.
We made love in my sister’s house, in the guest room. She was in Europe. We took care of the cat. A weekend, midday? The sun still lit through the window sheers. My child played video games in the living room.
He didn’t like a certain nickname I called my child. He wanted that nickname for himself. He wanted to pound his want into me. He didn’t want me to forget. He started to get too rough. I said that hurts.
He said let me fuck you there. One day I will fuck you there. I said from there, on my body, things go out, not in. I said no. He said you are mine. He said I worship you. He is not small. I screamed. He said it was an accident. You know it was an accident. Right? I kept silent. After the scream. My child came to the closed door. Are you all right, mom? I had to say I’m okay, dear, while I was bleeding, while I was crying. An accident? Blood on my sister’s sheets. I got into the tub shaking. I bled in the tub even though I had first tried to wipe myself clean. I watched him rinse my blood from his body. More than you might think. Then. He paced barefoot in his accident speech in his unzipped khaki pants. Words bled from his mouth. Accident, accident, accident. I love you. I bled and cleaned and shook. I think it was late fall. Bald trees and pale gray sunlight. I bled in my silence and it became a flat rage. I put up my hand and he finally shut. Up. I went silent except to grow cold over days to let him go. He said I love you. I had nothing to do but try to reconcile love and bleeding. What was real? What could I feel? The pain of my own scream. What could I say? You have to know he said, kept saying, you have to believe me. Accident. Accident.
How did I forget? How did I go back to him later? Thinking I was ruined for anyone else. Right. The I love you. He kept telling me, never stopped telling me. The accident. We never spoke of it again.
I will start at the beginning of what I am starting to understand now as inappropriate behavior. I met Thomas in 2008 in a workshop with four or five other women poets. In that workshop two things come to my mind. There was a moment where he asked all of us whether we were in therapy. He told us he had been in therapy, and after he admitted that, we felt comfortable telling him we had been. Then he said he lied, that he hadn’t been. You could see the shame on everyone’s faces. Another woman told me she didn’t like the way he talked to me, but it was not quite clear to me. I’m a survivor, and I have to check the ways I accept inappropriate behavior.
It was actually the first workshop I had ever taken, so I had a lot of questions. After the workshop, he kind of grabbed me. He positioned himself to slow dance with me in the room while I was trying to ask him this question. It was confusing because he was my teacher, and I wanted an answer. Everyone was packing up to leave on the other side of the room, and he had my hand in his as I was talking, and I tried to extract myself from that. I was 26, 27. Then emails started to come that seemed supportive, then became flirtatious. Anytime I responded with any kind of praise or thanks, he would take the opportunity to be even more inappropriate. He also asked me for photos. He said he was going to teach me everything I needed to know. He completely took advantage of how young and how new I was to writing.
At Cave Canem in 2012, after one of the fellows’ readings he was wandering around with his camera. And the way he was doing it was very aggressive. At one point, I remember this moment like it was yesterday. He turned to me and he said very quietly and calmly, you have a nice ass. There were a lot of people in the room, but they didn’t hear it. He said: You know it’s true. You know you have a nice ass. A fellow saw my face when I left the room and was like what’s wrong? She sat with me. I was so distraught. Because he had so much power and authority, I didn’t know what to do. I went and locked myself in my room for a while, but the fellow was really supportive during that time. I told older women, other teachers, but they would not listen.
I wanted to go back to Cave Canem in 2013, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to deal with Thomas. It’s scary to think that I’ve been trying to navigate space in order to avoid this person.
People want to know why I don’t have a man to help me and such. But unless you’re f’ing him or he wants you to, it’s rare to find one who will help. I’m actually cool with that. Dudes – even like TSE – who think I’m gorgeous limit things to admiration. No one gets really involved. I have to wonder now that I reread all that negativity. Is it me? Am I too intimidating, off-putting, suspicious?
Went to TSE’s reading. We had fresh cider and rice and turkey chili and cornbread and salad. He spent a lot of time talking about how his book came to be, which I appreciated. He mentioned the word love, though, which is a little bit terrifying. I can’t tell what his motivations are. I can only assume that men just want to get in my pants. He is also very smart. I have to be careful. Curiosity killed the cat. Very careful. I do also though want to be true to me and brave. So am I even really interested in or attracted to TSE? Maybe a little. But mostly just curious. Curious to see how long it might last, where it might take my writing, my heart. So, I pray for discernment, wisdom, the right balance of freedom and restraint. He is so known. I can’t worry though. Just be me and get to know him and see. That’s all. Be in each moment without the layers.
TSE TSE. I wonder if he’s thinking of me. I wonder if he’s doing this chat thing with a multiplicity of babes in poetry land. I know what men see in me and I know some want to possess it. But I am self-possessed. Someone who can respect that would be really great.
TSE. Hmm. He wrote me more emails last night [about] how he loves my poems and loves looking at me. He is really trying to romance it. But keeping it very respectful, which is good.
He’s not my usual type. Kind of short, a little soft-voiced, unkempt, older, not-so-good teeth. His breath smells like my dad’s. But I’ll give it a shot. We shall see. I do like – okay love – his poems and his mind. He also has nice eyes and hands.
I have access to you
but do I have access to who
I would be if I didn’t allow you access
I am initially suspicious always. But – although the flirtation has lasted the year – he is known to have been out and about. So here it is, almost October, and he is still interested; throws love around and all that. It’s flattering, exciting. I didn’t know if I could be excited again. Though, admittedly, it’s a low key excitement. It’s a spark of interest, a curiosity born of respect for his work, his artistry. So. Let me just see; not uproot anything or fantasize or create expectations. See.
9/28 6:30 am
Oh shit. I am caught up in it. Actually beginning to like this dude. Damn damn. He is just too brilliant and attentive.
Distracted by thoughts of what Thomas’ intentions might be. I am also considering my own. If my fears are about what other people think, then I need to work through that. It doesn’t matter in the least really, if I do or don’t get talked about. I believe it is time for another chance at living a full, honest romance minus the fear. I must move past the fear, though I do still pray for wisdom and discernment.
I am rather annoyed at my sense of expectation. I wait for his responses and I wait for them to stop. There must be a better way. Enjoy what comes, move on.
TSE is getting to me even though I hadn’t wanted to date another poet. Actually, he said pre-date and wtf does that mean/could mean ease up on the expectations, which is thankfully not a problem. My intent is to get to know him. Therefore, to keep my legs closed. He’s got to be an old school player and I am not out to get played. I’m in it for the human connection to a fellow artist, nothing more. The only way the physical pollutes is if there’s no buoy of deep feeling and that takes time. I appreciate TSE’s attention.
I am looking at a hanging
Sheet of hammered copper
And also a plot of earth
Muddy slick irregular
Hills puncturing the winding flats
Or a magnified section of
Burned flesh, scored for examination
My time at the museum yesterday yielded fragments, beginnings of poems, inspiration for art and performance. Then, when I was leaving and about to eat, Thomas called and I met him at Grand Central Station. We waited in front of BB King’s for half an hour for a guy who was supposed to change the marquee for the Go-go band visiting. The guy never showed, but we did get a chance to dance briefly on the sidewalk, then walked around looking for a place to eat. We overstayed at a restaurant. Then walked to Columbus Circle and searched futilely for a dessert place before settling into Bouchon in the big Borders building on the 3rd floor. He sat next to me at the restaurant and whispered into my hair. We held hands walking down the street. He hugged me and it felt right, fit. Then we took the A together, squished in a crowd on the train. He kissed me, [a] very light, sweet goodbye. I can hardly wait until Monday. We’re going to see a movie at the Angelika. I have a man again. I have a man who is taking me to a literary awards ceremony on Oct. 27. I get to dress up and errthang. He is really nose-open enamored of me. I find it incredibly charming and it’s reeling me in, I must say.
Loveliest email exchanges with TSE. He’s reading tonight at Studio Museum of Harlem. I’m willing to fall for him. Why? He’s fallen for me but is also pursuing. [He] chose me, enjoys me, is very attentive and a gentleman. I love this unfolding.
How could I be this full of emotion so quickly? Our emails – dozens and dozens by now – construct the space between us gently, but masterfully. TSE has serious game. I am liking the game serious. He is good. I am a daydreaming fool, man. He said he would treat me right and so far he is. I’m going to accept this and enjoy this even if I have to talk myself into it every single day.
Trying to maintain a sense of comportment and distance just seems silly in the face of so much vulnerability, strength, and gentleness from a man. I know though that I won’t give all my power away. I know what my boundaries are and I know he’ll respect them. It’s good to feel so cherished and pursued and wanted. However long it lasts, I appreciate it fully.
We’ve had more and more and more exchanges – email and phone. He is damn good and I am falling. I never thought I could/would again. I have to make up my mind that I’ll be okay regardless of what happens, who talks, who don’t, et cetera.
I felt a blanket of chill this morning, change in the season deepening. I am so ready. As the sun came up the city’s old buildings silvered in the rising light. I AM IN LOVE. I can see us as Us, he helped me see, showed me the beautiful us possibility. I am determined this will last awhile, but not obsessed or consumed. I am curious but not insecure.
Had a lovely g-chat w/TSE last night. We are totally falling in love. Feels grand. A perfect mix of intellect and passion and soul. I love being romanced this way. We have such fun. I’ll wait to tell my friends until after the 27th. Man, I can’t even write. I’m just in the daydreaming vibe, marveling still.
I’ll leave Thomas be awhile I guess – he didn’t respond to my emails. He said he couldn’t open a song I sent. Whatever. I guess I can’t do what he does. I’ll just make sure he’s for real before I fork over $350-$500 for the evening on the 27th, because that’s what it’s going to cost. Hair, nails, transportation, shoes, dress. I don’t have anything to wear right now. Surely there must be a clue to his sincerity. I guess I can just be like, if you ever come to a point where you feel you can’t act right, let me know ahead of time.
I am starting to feel insecure for two reasons. 1) He hasn’t responded to my email even though he was on Facebook and 2) he said I used excessive –ing words in my book, then said psych. I guess I have done that – not responded to songs he sent, and who doesn’t have –ing words. But just to have fun, I’m wearing tall boots tomorrow.
Well, going to DC this weekend w/TSE. Looking forward to tonight. He has been Googling me. But one thing about his intense attention is that I am like, okay, let me just let him know me. He seems to like it, love it even. So, I am still guarded up, but slowly melting the iron wall.
Map the skin of a continent
In copper, abrade the shorelines
And sketch the rivers in, hard
A tattoo is a call for blood
A prayer for the right color / to last
As long as the body
The addiction to violence among men
Had the loveliest TSE evening last night but he felt we stayed out too late. Some irritating people were at the gate to the bus, yelling rude crap, cursing. He talked about a colleague and her crush on him, how weird she is. He is reading with her soon and best believe I will be there. He just called and told me he loved me, for real this time, because he said it also when he put me on the bus at 11:30 last night. It’s his birthday today. It’s fantastic euphoria being in love. He’s telling me how he feels before we do anything physical, making a commitment now, treating me, considering me, romancing me. It’s so grand. But then it’s only the second date. My feeling/hope is that it only gets better though, and I’m excited. We have fun. We like a lot of the same things.
I’m feeling tired, the lack of sleep getting to me. I am glad I didn’t fight Thomas on not going out tonight. He’s so gentle with me, so solicitous. It’s hard to talk about anything else! Part of me wonders sometimes how serious and for real he is. If not, it’s a hell of an illusion.
I keep wanting to call TSE but I don’t want to wake him. I feel an energy shift. Like something cleared the air. Maybe the lie to my friend that I was not in love. Or maybe the lie to myself that I have control. What is the wise course? Simple surrender can be foolish. But what’s better than giving love and receiving it?
Today was good. Thomas came to see me, movie and dinner. He wrote me later and said he’d brought a bag with clean shirt and toothbrush just in case he ended up crashing on the couch. I didn’t have the heart to tell him hell naw, that ain’t happening. I don’t think he remembered that I have a roommate. Also he wants to go to DC this weekend. I’m just not sure. And I feel it’s going a little faster than it should. I want a commitment first.
Took me a long time to wake up this morning. Really stiff and tired. I feel like I should go to the Dodge Poetry Festival, but I’d have to go for the love of the word, and right now it’s just too much on my plate. My body’s tired. We’ll see if I feel better later.
My relationship with Thomas has reached a different level overnight. I’m still very attracted but I don’t want to be another notch. I mean, he talks a real good game. Really really good. Saying he’s there for me, down for me, talking future plans. But until I see the reality playing outside of fantasy, my kooch is closed.
I go back and forth sometimes when I talk to him, or make out with him. But I have got to stand firm this time. I don’t want to transform this into a fling. My friend told me some more names and a deeper insight about this other woman and that TSE was way more into her than he said. But I’ll show up at Tuesday’s reading and see if I’m out of my league, my comfort zone, et cetera.
I told Thomas how I felt about him, about us, about sex, about me. He seems to understand and appreciate that I want to get to know him. I feel like he saw that easing the pressure is the best way. Being my lover is a privilege earned through time. I’m proud of my-our restraint. I feel good about being with him. I love how he loves me.
Should I or shouldn’t I go to DC this weekend? It feels soon. I’ll call a friend and if she’s available, we’ll go. If not, not. I’ll call today.
Thomas spins an irresistible fantasy. The leaves are just beginning to turn – red edges, yellow centers, some few curled into brown. I am a writer. Reality becomes fantasy, and vice versa. Which is this? Where do his hands, his mouth take me?
I want to be alone again, free of pressure, expectation, speculation, doubt. I have no room for errors in judgment, and I feel heavy with responsibility. I don’t want to feel like that. I am crying into the sunlight. What do I do? Is there room in this for me to be loved and love and live? I feel so confused and unsure how to proceed. It’s funny. As soon as I felt settled and wise, TSE sweeps me off my feet. Off-kilter, wide-eyed again. But this weeping – I’ve been holding in more than this. His banter challenges, and at times stings as much as soothes. No, I cannot allow even little cuts. Every one kills a piece of my wholeness.
I don’t want to say goodbye to him. I don’t want to say yes either, too soon. I want to succeed at not being reduced to tears. Reduced. Tears reduce you? Or tears as a state of reduction. Maybe it’s a good thing to shed weight. Tears as a stripper of mental burdens. Heart cleansing. Vulgar as beautiful. Hard. The heavier the burden, the longer the weeping. I am so built up. All this needs is a way out. I couldn’t see a way out through the tears. Maybe there is too much talking, too much to read into. Maybe I listen too hard. If I could smoke I would light one that tastes sweet. I am in a funk. Feeling powerless. But that’s also a relative reality. I’ve wept enough for now.
Sometimes I feel too noticed. I miss my anonymity. Something comforting about unaccountability for one’s hairstyle, fatigue, punctuality or lack of. But possibility – it’s so rarely resistible.
I love how quick Thomas is. I loved our movie date. I love how he loves me. I love how he holds my hand. I love that he thinks about what I’m writing. I catch notes of criticism at times though. I’ll stay alert to nip that shit.
I am trying to process so much feeling right now. We had such a glorious weekend until Thomas started:
- Imitated the noises I make during lovemaking
- Seemed to be making digs/critical when I said I could turn off my emotion if my well-being was threatened
- Kept playing even when I said it bothered me
- Has terrible driving skills. Terrible. Terrifying. I couldn’t relax
So now, I don’t know about him. If that’s the way he is, he ain’t changing at his age. He’s also very critical of others. I shouldn’t listen to it and that’s why it’s coming back on me. It’s very hurtful.
I haven’t communicated that to him yet. But he knows I’m wounded. I’m wounded physically and emotionally. I’m exhausted all around. It sucks because the weekend was so damn beautiful. We went to meet friends at the Lincoln Memorial. Saw/stood at the spot where MLK gave the dream speech. Thomas took photos, we all talked. Then we went back to Fred’s apartment. We worked a bit – he romanced me, I got a massage, lovemaking was good, so tender and attentive. Then he went overboard trying to pick me up and move me around and shit and I tore. And for him to act all icky afterward just fucked it all up.
He emailed me but I don’t know what to say back. I feel weepy. I could totally end it now, as abruptly as it began. I can turn my heart back inward. I could say it’s not worth it, after this first hurt, walk away. I could go back to my productive solitude.
Thomas was a little weird tonight, I think. I wonder if my fears are eroding things. I hope not. He seems to want more of me though and I wonder how much more I can realistically give. I’m having a hard enough time juggling everything as it is. But I wonder if I’m not putting enough effort to get to know him, if I’m being too selfish and not as much wondering/asking about him, complimenting him and so on.
11/15 6:35 am
I lay in bed all day yesterday and did not write. Did laundry, cleaned the kitchen twice, read, researched. Talked and talked on the phone to family and friends. Anyway, Thomas. He was out in the wind last night because his phone kept accidentally dialing me and I heard the wind, the shuffle of the phone in a bag or pocket. I heard him arguing with someone. “I told you why I don’t have it.” I am worried about two things. First, his well-being. Second, that he keeps saying he wants to marry me at least partially out of a desire/intent to con me. He is extremely smooth and charming. I am not interested in being smoothed and charmed out of my stuff, however.
He has not replied to my emails, voicemail or called me back. I wonder what his story will be. He better tell the damn truth.
Thomas sent me lovely emails last night and is meeting me in the city. Not even two months together yet. I’m not trying to keep count. I feel so happy with him.
Thomas came around 12:30 yesterday and we argued because of another miscommunication, but fixed it by talking through and making out, and later, me writing a letter. He’s learning not to assume and I’m learning to be clearer. Maybe he can finally meet my family. I miss him.
Some issues I don’t want to explore even here: him saying crazy stuff like he should treat me like a ho. But I’m proud of my refusal to accept that, my real clarity and assertion. He is understanding that he can’t just talk to me all crazy like that. One should treat loved ones with love.
Tired after a long day. TSE tried to trip but he checked himself. I really like this dude, but boy is it work I had not planned on doing.
TSE hurt me kinda yesterday, rushing. Then he couldn’t go for round two because he was tired. Am I selfish for trying to get him to give me some consideration? I cannot let his criticisms and teases enter me. I deflect and reflect. My desire not to have a fight is part conflict avoidance. I want it to be easy because it is easy to love. TSE’s concept of earning feels unnatural to me. I’m going to ask him to explain it. I’m grateful for lessons in emotional articulation, but he acts like he knows every doggone thing because he went to Harvard. I know some shit, too. Namely me.