Being Accused of Plagiarism Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
I’ve worked for so many crazy people over the past decade that when I found out at my last job that I was going to be taking orders from someone in prison, I didn’t even blink.
Working in and around the recovery industry can really screw with your perception of what’s acceptable. I wrote a recovery memoir for an actor who threw phones at me when he didn’t like what I was asking him. I was the Managing Editor at a recovery site where the Editor-in-Chief would get wasted and “top edit” my stories until they were so riddled with errors that most of my work became correcting what he’d done and apologizing to our writers for what had happened to their stories.
Why did I put up with this?
Because I thought I had to.
I Was the Common Denominator
“When you point a finger, there are three pointing back at you”
It’s easy to tell people that that they should love themselves enough to not work for crazy or immoral or abusive people.
The problem is if you’re going to be employed in any sort of a creative field, you’re going to have to at some point work for crazy or immoral or abusive people.
But, as the saying goes, if it happens once, shame on them. If it happens more than once, shame on you.
It’s happened to me more times than I can count.
When You Find Out The Boss Is Incarcerated
“The time is always right to do what is right”
-Martin Luther King, Jr
It would be easy enough to say that when I discovered that the owner of the magazine I was going to edit was in prison for embezzlement, I extricated myself from the situation.
It would also not be true.
The truth is that I’d never been an Editor-in-Chief of a print magazine and wanted the experience. The greater truth is that I didn’t have faith that I would be able to support myself without a steady gig. The even greater truth is that although these people seemed unbelievably sketchy from jump, it didn’t stop me from moving forward with them.
I first met them after being recruited for the job by the magazine’s publisher—a kind woman who was in over her head with this crew. I had a very strange lunch with the group of them at a recovery conference, where the adolescent looking “boss” felt more like someone we were babysitting than an actual person of authority.
A few weeks later, one of his lackeys asked if they could fly me out to Florida to meet with the team. When I got there, this lackey explained that the actual boss was the father of the guy I’d met at lunch but since he was in prison, the son had to act like he was in charge until Dad was released.
If this had been a movie, this is where the music would have kicked up a notch.
“Prison?” I would have asked. “Did you say prison?”
The music would have gotten louder as Lackey nodded seriously.
If the movie were cheesy enough, I would have stormed out right then.
Instead I asked, “What’s he in for?”
Embezzlement, I was told.
I shrugged. At least, I figured, it wasn’t murder.
What Happened After I Took The Job
“Hope springs eternal”
A few days into the gig, back in LA and assigning stories, Lackey called to tell me that the celebrity we were planning to have on the cover was going to be replaced with a dog.
It’s the boss, he said.
He explained that the boss really had a soft spot for this certain rehab that gave everyone a puppy.
We both laughed. Jesus.
Then Lackey said that maybe it would be better if I communicated with the boss directly.
And thus began a month of me learning how to communicate with prisoners. Yes, plural. Because, as it turned out, the boss wasn’t the only person I was taking orders from. There was also a man we can call Gary. It was never clear to me who Gary was in relation to the boss—a lover, a prison mate, the guy he’d embezzled with? It clearly didn’t matter. I grew accustomed to getting two prison-sent missives a day, always filled with terrible ideas that I always acted like I thought were great.
One day, one of these messages from Gary explained that he’d written a book and wanted me to write the forward to it. He attached it.
Unsurprisingly, said book was unintelligible.
But I needed this job, I told myself.
I wrote him back that of course I would write the forward.
A therapist would call my agreeing to do this subscribing to a “scarcity mentality.” I thought of it as just doing what I had to in order to remain employed.
Prisoners Play to Win
“If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers”
A few days later, after thinking it through and talking to my sponsor, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t been hired to add my name to illiterate books written by the incarcerated. I wrote Gary that I was very sorry but I couldn’t write the forward.
I went back to finishing our September issue. I continued to work long days, forwarding stories and ideas to Lackey and his lackeys. But suddenly, they had all gone MIA.
Two days later, I woke up to an email from Lackey saying that he was “beside himself” because he had received the galley for the September issue. The email accused me of hiring writers who were plagiarists and then listed a series of inadvertently hilarious accusations about editing stories badly and promoting my podcast on other sites. It concluded, “It is obvious we need to hire a forensic researcher to determine the extent of plagiarism, recycling, and exposure to claims of copyright infringement.” He asked for my resignation, saying that this, “together with a crafted message, mutual release and confidentiality/non-disparagement would obviously be in your best interests well as ours, and we could all avoid a public discussion about your departure.”
Now I’ll admit I cried when I got this. It doesn’t matter how untrue someone’s accusation is; it doesn’t matter how illiterate the email; it doesn’t matter that you know it’s written by a pathetic lackey answering to the demands of a friend of his boss, who happens to be in prison.
It sucks to be told you suck.
I let myself cry for a day.
Do The Right Thing?
“The reason most of us go to the movies is to be involved in someone else’s moral dilemma”
A few days later, I had forwarded the email to several people who are far more intelligent and litigious than I am, and all of them pointed out that these people had a hell of a lot to lose. It’s illegal, of course, to run a company out of prison.
For several weeks I received emails from someone at the company asking me to sign an NDA. The more I refused, the harder he pushed. I just kept saying no—that they were free to tell anyone they wanted that I hired plagiarists. Then a friend pointed out that since they had everything to lose and I had nothing to lose, they probably would be willing to pay me to keep quiet. My responses to the business affairs guy began to hint at the fact that I would keep mum on the way they were doing business if they paid out my contract.
The guy in business affairs didn’t bite. He did, however keep asking me to sign something.
One day he stopped asking. Our correspondence ended.
Shortly after that, I realized what a blessing this was. If I had taken money to keep quiet about their criminal activities, wouldn’t I be as bad as them?
What’s Happened Since
“Live life like it’s rigged in your favor”
The day I let go of this debacle is the day I decided I would never again work for crazy and abusive people.
But a crazy thing happened when I made that decision. My little side hustle—a company actually called Light Hustler, where I help people share their dark to find their light, through books, workshops, coaching and more—took the f off. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something I’d always considered an adjunct income started bringing in more than editing the prison magazine did—by a landslide.
I guess I needed a really loud message to begin to actually believe in myself and take that terrifying step off the ledge that was required for me to stop thinking I need other people to pay my salary.
I’m not sure what will happen next. But I’ve been reminded yet again that the universe rewards us when we embrace our power.
I say if you can get there without missives from prison and plagiarism accusations, you are—as another well-publicized crazy person would say—winning.
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