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

Ted Genoways

On July 30, Kevin Morrissey, the 52-year-old managing editor of the small but acclaimed literary journal the Virginia Quarterly Review, shot himself in a coal tower near the University of Virginia, which publishes the journal. At first, the suicide reverberated only among his shocked and sorrowed colleagues, friends, and family. Then, in mid-August, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article called “What Killed Kevin Morrissey?” The piece reported that, according to Morrissey’s family and “people close to the review,” he had complained to UVA about “workplace bullying by his boss,”VQR editor Ted Genoways. 

The narrative of a suicide caused by a workplace bully was off and running. A week and a half later, the Today Show reported that Morrissey’s suicide note blamed Genoways. In an e-mail to VQR contributors, Genoways himself said that Morrissey’s family had told him this was so. The Hook, an alternative weekly in Charlottesville, Va., quoted psychologist Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute saying that Genoways used “classic tactics employed by bullies” that “are not completely unlike torture.”

What does it mean to be a workplace bully? For kids, bullying is defined as repeated acts of verbal or physical abuse in a situation where there’s a power imbalance between the bully and the bullied. But in the workplace, there is almost always a hierarchy; power imbalances are necessarily part of the equation. That doesn’t mean bad behavior can’t be policed. Sexual harassment suits do just that. But bosses and employees aren’t peers the way school kids are. The leaders of companies and departments have to dictate rules and give orders and occasionally reprimand employees who are falling short on the job—they have to be bossy. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which a boss (or a group of co-workers) deliberately persecutes an employee—sabotaging his work, playing nasty pranks. But is every demanding, gruff boss a bully? Where is the line between mismanagement and harassment? And can a boss ever be held responsible for an employee’s decision to kill himself?

A closer look at what happened at VQR, informed by conversations with Genoways and most of his colleagues and by examining internal e-mails sent in the run-up to Morrissey’s death, suggests that while the VQR staff was unhappy with their boss, bullying may not be the right label for his behavior. The accusation that Genoways is to blame for Morrissey’s suicide is even more questionable. Genoways has been branded as a workplace bully in part because a small band of advocates, which includes Gary Namie, saw in Morrissey’s death an opportunity to spotlight their cause and jumped on it. In contrast to the black-and-white story of villainy they’ve promoted, what happened at VQR is complicated, and several key details have not yet been told. 

A year ago, John Casteen III announced that he would retire as UVA president. This was a big deal for VQR. Casteen had hired Genoways in 2003 when he was a 31-year-old poet and an editor at a small press in Minnesota. Genoways reported directly to Casteen, and the president twice renewed the editor’s contract and was his steadfast champion. VQR is tiny. It had a staff of six, including Genoways and Morrissey, and a circulation of less than 5,000. But under Genoways’ leadership, it became enormously ambitious editorially. Genoways sent contributors all over the world. He ran gritty war reportingalongside well-received fiction and poetry. The latest issue, which hasn’t been published and which was finished amid the turmoil following Morrissey’s death, is titled “The Price of Paperless: Inside the Mines that Feed the Tech Revolution” and features reporting and photographs from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Congo, India, Kosovo, and Peru. VQR’s new ambition—and the high quality of its journalism—was recognized by the industry. In 2006, the journal earned six National Magazine Award nominations. It carried off two trophies that year and has earned two more since.

But despite its editorial success, VQR is hardly a moneymaker. In the fine tradition of small literary magazines, it relies on the kindness of a university to stay afloat. Strangely, in the aftermath of Morrissey’s suicide, several Genoways detractors have blasted him for spending money to send reporters to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, accusing him of mismanaging the journal’s finances as well its staff. But Genoways was able to pay for this reporting because he’d inherited an $800,000 slush fund, money that the previous editor had squirreled away over more than 20 years. Genoways says he could not sit on those funds. “The university told me, you have to spend it fast, or we will reclaim it,” he told me. So he invested the money in the writing and photography that placed the once-staid journal in the literary limelight.

Kevin Morrissey (center)

When Casteen announced his departure, about $150,000 was left in the slush fund, Genoways says. For him, the prospect of a new university president meant uncertainty about the magazine’s future. “There was a kind of pressure mounting,” he said. “A bunch of these university-sponsored journals have shut down in the last two years, and, of course, plenty of commercial magazines are in the same straits. We’re at a complete transition point in publishing history, and the last thing you want is someone who doesn’t know anything about the business to come in and judge you outside of that context.”

Casteen told Genoways that with his departure, VQR would have to find another place in the university’s organizational structure—it would need to have a base outside the president’s office. Genoways started making calls and found a potential new home with UVA’s vice president for research. With the help of Jeffrey Plank, the second in command in that office, Genoways came up with a plan he hoped would tie the magazine more closely to the university’s academic mission. Genoways had tried before to do this by getting a tenured position in UVA’s English department. But that hadn’t worked, so now he looked elsewhere. His new plan was to create a center comprising VQR, a photography festival called LOOK3, and the university’s Young Writers Workshop for high-school students. “I’d been trying to build an academic component for VQR, and that’s what this would bring us,” he said.

Genoways also wanted to raise money for VQR on his own. He hoped the new center would make it easier for VQR to compete for outside grants, and he wanted to attract individual donors. He set a goal of $3 million. To help in this effort, he hired Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, a 24-year-old UVA graduate.

Levinson-LaBrosse is young. She is also wealthy. Her father, Frank Levinson, a Forbes 400 fiber-optics entrepreneur, has been a major UVA donor—in 2000, he and his wife committed $20 million to the university. Levinson-LaBrosse has given $1.5 million of her own money. In some of the coverage of Morrissey’s suicide, Levinson-LaBrosse has been cast as a pampered interloper. I came away with a different impression after talking with her. She was thoughtful about what had gone wrong at VQR and smart about trying to make it attractive to donors, in part because she belongs to a network of them (though she didn’t plan to give money to the magazine, she says). I could understand why Genoways hired her.

But the rest of the VQR staff did not. Associate editors Molly Minturn and Sheila McMillen told me that along with Morrissey and Waldo Jaquith   (the journal’s Web editor until he left last summer), they didn’t believe that Genoways needed to raise money or worry about VQR’s future. “I went to a couple of lunches with Kevin and the head finance person in the president’s office,” Minturn said. “She assured us numerous times that our operating funds were part of the permanent budget no matter who the new president was, and we really shouldn’t be concerned about losing our jobs or VQR shutting down.” Genoways counters that this reassurance was meaningless, since it would be the new president, not the people who worked for the old one, who would decide VQR’s fate. But the staff wasn’t and isn’t persuaded. “We couldn’t understand why Ted was in a panic even though the president’s office kept telling us not to worry,” McMillen says. “It was like he was having a paranoid psychotic episode.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear how life at the magazine soon became dysfunctional: The boss had a bold and urgent plan for change, the basic premise of which four of the five members of his staff rejected. Levinson-LaBrosse became the only person in the office who trusted Genoways and shared his vision for VQR’s future. So he increasingly turned to her and put her in charge of the transition to the VP’s office. This only exacerbated the office tensions. Morrissey had been Genoways’ second in command since coming with him from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, where they’d been colleagues for two and a half years. “We were close friends, in Minnesota and early on in Virginia,” Genoways says. “Kevin was with my wife and me whenever we did anything—movies, hiking together. He and my wife took cooking classes.” But in the two years before last summer, they’d grown apart. Now it seemed to the staff that Levinson-LaBrosse had taken Morrissey’s place. “She became really kind of the co-editor, working in Ted’s office with the door closed,” McMillen says. “Kevin really felt like Ted was getting ready to push him out.” Minturn adds: “It was pretty demoralizing to be shut out of things myself, but also very upsetting to watch Kevin being shut out of meetings and plans about the future.”

In June, Genoways went on leave for three months on a Guggenheim fellowship, to study Walt Whitman’s Civil War period (the first years of which he has published a book about). The timing turned out to be terrible. Genoways says that a deadline of July 31 was set for getting the information needed for VQR’s transition to the VP’s office. He also says he found out about that timing only 10 days before his leave was to begin, but that the president’s office told him to go ahead; their people would help see the transition through.UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood says that July 31 “was not a hard and fast deadline” and that she can’t find anyone in the president’s office who recalls making an assurance of help to Genoways.

In any case, to take VQR under its wing, the VP’s office asked to see the magazine’s financial statements for the previous year. Morrissey kept those accounts. But a couple of weeks before July 31, he said he hadn’t prepared the numbers for the previous six to nine months and couldn’t provide them in time.

To Genoways, who was trying to show that VQR’s affairs were in order at what he viewed as a key juncture, this was infuriating. He asked Levinson-LaBrosse to gather the materials. Around the same time, in mid-July, Genoways copied Morrissey on an e-mail to Jeffrey Plank in the VP’s office regarding the academic center he hoped to make VQR a part of. “I understand and support the desire to eliminate redundancies at staff levels and to create coherence within the new center as it develops,” it read. “I would ask only that I continue to have a role in how those decisions are made.” Genoways says he wasn’t talking about firing anyone on his staff. But Morrissey brought the e-mail to Levinson-LaBrosse, she says, with that sentence underlined and asked what it meant. Levinson-LaBrosse told him she didn’t know. Morrissey didn’t follow up by talking to Genoways—a sign, perhaps, of how far communication had broken down.

By this point, Genoways wasn’t in the office.For most of his Guggenheim leave, he was working in Charlottesville, though not at the VQR office. At the time he sent the staffing e-mail to Plank, though, he’d gone to Nebraska for his grandmother’s burial. In his absence, Morrissey and Jaquith argued with Levinson-LaBrosse over whether Morrissey should attend an upcoming meeting she had scheduled with Plank to discuss the transition to the VP’s office. In addition, Genoways says, Morrissey made substantive editorial changes to VQR’s upcoming issue—deciding to kill certain articles, for example—without consulting him. This was not the arrangement Genoways had worked out when he went on leave, he says. “I hadn’t ceded any of that editorial authority, and it wasn’t our usual practice,” he told me.

From a distance, Genoways got angry. In an e-mail to UVA’s human-resources department, he said he planned to ask Morrissey and Jaquith to work at home for a week, until he could return to Charlottesville. “As I’ve had a report both of intimidation and willful insubordination, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the parties involved to separate until I have a chance to return to the office and mediate,” Genoways wrote to the HR department. The HR manager he consulted instructed him to look at UVA’s guidelines for Corrective & Progressive Disciplinary Action. Genoways did so, sending Morrissey and Jaquith an e-mail in bureaucratic-speak, telling them not to come into the office because of their “unacceptable workplace behavior,” a phrase he adapted from the guidelines. To the staff, McMillen and Minturn say, it was baffling and devastating. (Jaquith, who has taken a new job, didn’t respond to my e-mail requesting comment.)

By this time, the staff had already gone to the president’s office for help in dealing with Genoways. “I wouldn’t use the word bully, but he was belittling to us,” says McMillen. “Treating us with contempt, not giving us feedback, not responding to e-mails.” Now bewildered and outraged by the order for Morrissey and Jaquith to stay home, the staff went to the H.R. department as well, complaining about Genoways’ management. At the time, Genoways didn’t know that. He was still in Nebraska, focused on the July 31 transition.

In the last few days before the transition deadline, Levinson-LaBrosse succeeded in pulling together the materials requested by the vice president’s office. That was a relief to Genoways, but it may have made Morrissey feel even worse about his diminishing role at the magazine. Then, on the morning of July 30, Genoways sent Morrissey the e-mail that Maria Morrissey, his sister, has pointed to as evidence that her brother was cruelly bullied. Morrissey killed himself shortly after he received it. The e-mail regards a Mexican writer for VQR who had contacted Morrissey to say that he’d been held up and badly injured by gunmen who’d come to his home in Ciudad Juarez. The writer didn’t directly ask for aid, but he sounded scared and said the police had refused to help him. Morrissey eventually forwarded the message to Genoways, but not until 10 days had elapsed. When Genoways realized the e-mail was 10 days old, he wrote to Morrissey, “Just so I’m clear: Why did it take you ten days to forward a message from someone asking our assistance with saving his life? A period during which you sent or forwarded twenty other e-mails to me?”  

That same morning, Genoways wrote an e-mail to Morrissey and Minturn telling them to issue a contract to the writer Nir Rosen, who was about to leave for Iraq on assignment. “This is the second unanswered e-mail from Nir Rosen this week,” Genoways began. He laid out the specifics of the contract and ended, “This needs to be taken care of immediately.”

Minturn wrote back, “Dear Ted, I am confused about the tone of this e-mail.” She said she had not previously been given the specifics and in any case did not handle contracts—that was a task Morrissey took care of. (Genoways says Minturn was trained in executing contracts.) In his e-mailed reply, he asked Minturn again to sort out the details for Rosen by calling Morrissey if she needed to. And he wrote:

As for the tone of the last e-mail and this one, I would describe it as officious. It is not my preferred mode of communication; in fact, I hate it. But after what I’ve been hearing from HR this week—the word that the staff has threatened to quit en masse—my collegiality is a little threadbare.

So let me rephrase: Please see to it that one of our authors has the money he needs to travel on our behalf. Please do whatever it takes to accomplish that task today. (Read the whole exchange.)

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.

Would a law like this be workable? Would it give bosses the leeway to operate freely—which surely includes sometimes acting sharp, blunt, and impatient? I talked to a few labor-law professors who were skeptical. “The risk is that everything gets defined as bullying, and that makes the workplace much less productive,” said Michael Selmi, a professor at George Washington University Law School. “Courts are worried about the implications of recognizing a tort generally in the workplace, because they imagine a certain amount of authoritarian and even abusive behavior is par for the course,” said law professor Catherine Fisk of UC-Irvine “You don’t want to open the door to the classic disgruntled-employee suit.”

One of the bill’s drafters, David Yamada, who directs the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk Law School, said that such concerns remind him of the doubts that greeted the first sexual harassment cases. But Jessica Clarke, a fellow at Columbia Law School who writes on this topic, worries about the implications of appropriating the civil rights framework. “It shifts the focus away from discriminatory behavior in the workplace toward these other sorts of nebulous harms, which there are better ways to deal with then litigation,” she said. Yamada acknowledged that bullying could prove more difficult for courts to grapple with. If judges have been “clueless” about sexual harassment suits, he said, workplace bullying could present even more of a challenge for them. “It’s hard even for some of us who have been interviewing people for 10 years who claim to have been severely bullied.”

Did Genoways act with malice—the bar set even by the bullying advocates—or did he just act clumsily or unfeelingly? And does it make sense to use the bullying framework to look at dysfunctional work environments? One sad irony of this story is that now everyone is out of a job, at least for the time being. After the TV coverage and the blaring headlines, UVA closed the office of the Virginia Quarterly Review, pending the results of the investigation of Morrissey’s death, and canceled the journal’s winter issue. The university has placed Genoways, McMillen, and Minturn on leave and ended Levinson-LaBrosse’s one-year contract. (So much for special treatment for wealthy donor alum.) All of the staff members I talked to sounded in limbo and unhappy. It’s hard to tell how much of this unfortunate outcome is the result of VQR’s complicated internal strife and how much is the result of the bullying label being applied where it doesn’t fit.

Corrections, Sept. 27, 2010: This article originally misspelled Waldo Jaquith’s last name. In addition, due to a production error, the first photograph accompanying this article was originally captioned with Kevin Morrissey’s name instead of Ted Genoways’.

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