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What Killed Kevin Morrissey?
August 16, 2010 2:25 PM   Subscribe

"It was two final actions in the weeks before Mr. Morrissey's death that his family and friends believe pushed him over the edge. First, Mr. Genoways sent an e-mail message to Mr. Morrissey in mid-July, 10 days before his death (a copy of which The Chronicle has obtained), telling Mr. Morrissey that he had "engaged in unacceptable workplace behavior." [Second,] On the morning of Mr. Morrissey's death, Friday, July 30th, Mr. Genoways sent Mr. Morrissey another e-mail message, says Mr. Morrissey's sister, accusing Mr. Morrissey of ignoring a plea for help from a man who had worked under dangerous conditions to help VQR with a recent story. Ms. Morrissey says Mr. Genoways wrote that in ignoring the man, Mr. Morrissey had put the man's life at risk." A look into the death of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey. (Previously)
posted by geoff. (45 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
[start over without the Morrisey jokes, please]
posted by jessamyn at 2:52 PM on August 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


I have a problem with classifying suicidal triggers as "the events that killed so-and-so." An analysis of a toxic work environment is A Good Thing, but to imply that Kevin Morrissey would not have killed himself if he did not work for Mr. Genoways demonstrates a common myth about depression - that people with good lives don't get depressed or commit suicide.
posted by muddgirl at 2:53 PM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


muddgirl: I agree with you, but having been through my own bout of workplace bullying a few years back, and seeing within myself the despair and depression which it created, I can reasonably project that Morrissey's situation likely augmented whatever other depression he may have been living with.
posted by hippybear at 2:57 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whatever this has or hasn't to do with Morrissey's suicide, the godawful workplace environment the article describes at VQR sounds like a perfect emblem of everything that's wrong with the corporatized university — the young-Turk editor cozying up to the president's son, the ultra-rich donor's daughter being insinuated into the editorial hierarchy, the whole story's framing suggesting that literary or intellectual merit ultimately run a distant second behind having the right connections to the right oligarchs, no editor being worth anything without a patron. It's not a great bit of journalism when it comes to the circumstances around the death itself, but the incidentals are still nothing short of horrifying.
posted by RogerB at 3:00 PM on August 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


What muddgirl said. Pointing fingers doesn't help, and is a common (and not particularily helpful) coping mechanism for the bereaved. Suicidal people will usually find a way regardless.
posted by CynicalKnight at 3:01 PM on August 16, 2010


but the incidentals are still nothing short of horrifying.

I also couldn't believe a lot of the things that were reported. A 24 year old girl sharing space in the boss' private office? How is that not a sexual harassment case waiting to happen? The article stopped short of insinuating the obvious, but putting a just out-of-college rich kid in a position of authority in itself should be a fire-able offense.
posted by geoff. at 3:09 PM on August 16, 2010


but the incidentals are still nothing short of horrifying.

Agree with this. It's sad that such environments are usually only brought to light by a tragedy of one kind or another.
posted by muddgirl at 3:13 PM on August 16, 2010


Suicidal people will usually find a way regardless.

As a former EMT who treated more than my share of attempted and successful suicides, they come in a real variety of shapes and sizes.

Some suicides are a product of terrible circumstances.

Some suicides are a cry for help.

Some suicides are inevitable. I've brought people back to life, only to be asked by the patient to "please let me die."

Some suicides are preventable with treatment.

If there is a common thread in what I saw, I'd say it is the devastated people left behind. The presence of depressants (particularly alcohol) was common.

On a 'brighter' note, know that EMTs and Paramedics will spend all night talking about how they would do it after cases like these. Every single one of us has a plan.

I'm really glad to be surrounded by loving friends and family and quite distant from suicide these days. (knock wood)
posted by poe at 3:45 PM on August 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


... putting a just out-of-college rich kid in a position of authority in itself should be a fire-able offense.

i really wish you'd rethink this opinion. i've known plenty of 20-somethings who think they know way more than they know & are worth way more than they're paid, but some of the most successful businesses in this country are led by 'kids' barely out of diapers (so to speak). i think you're extrapolating a bit much.
posted by msconduct at 4:33 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ted Genoways sounds loathsome, a terrible boss. But I suspect very much his siblings' motives. Maria describes herself in a blog comment as "Kevin’s only sister, who just lost her dear, sweet, sensitive baby brother to a self-inflicted gunshot wound after years of workplace bullying."

This from a woman who had been estranged from him for years. I'm not saying the family's looking for a cash settlement here; it's equally possible that the fury is motivated by its suppressed knowledge of its own failures. I'm thinking of someone I knew whose outrage and passionate action over the circumstances of their father's death were in sharp contrast to their contentious, chilly relationship when he was alive.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:37 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


agree that it looks contrived, countess elena, but i also know that the only way some people know how to relate to each other & to show each other love is through a contentious, chilly relationship. that doesn't make the loss any less genuine.
posted by msconduct at 5:05 PM on August 16, 2010


The article stopped short of insinuating the obvious

Yeah, the article was a surprisingly trashy bit of gossip-mongering for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was nothing but a pile of insinuations and anonymous backbiting. I don't know how to take any of it seriously.
posted by fatbird at 5:08 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


fatbird: Hasn't the Chronicle always had a bit of a trashy gossip-mongering side? Their opinion pieces in particular are often really bitchy.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:46 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


msconduct, you make a good (and sobering) point.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:51 PM on August 16, 2010


It was nothing but a pile of insinuations and anonymous backbiting.

Yeah; if they're going to write a story about this they should at least have the courage of their convictions. The boss installed a recently hired 24 year old woman in his office? The rest of the staff resented her? Morrissey was sent home for (what the boss called) "unacceptable workplace behavior" after clashing with the boss' "protege" in a meeting?

The Chronicle knows full well that people are going to draw the inference that the boss was sleeping with Alana and that the reporting in this story makes such an inference inevitable. They've also gone out of their way to leave themselves plausible deniability on the topic. Which is crap; either have the stones to say that they were screwing (or at least that the other employees believed that to be the case) or don't sling the mud in the first place. Slinging the mud but only in such a way that you can wash your hands of the whole affair is ridiculous.
posted by Justinian at 7:49 PM on August 16, 2010


If the CHE article conveyed the impression of a sexual relationship I think it was probably just inept framing. FWIW, as someone at UVA who has heard a couple of grapevine accounts of this whole situation (secondhand at best, so I'm still suspending some judgment pending more testimony), I haven't heard anyone talk about that as an issue. The discussion has been much more about a hostile workplace environment and the lack of helpful response (so far as anyone can tell) from HR/ombudsman/President's office. Ted Genoways is well known nationally for his genuine accomplishments in ratcheting up VQR's eminence, and many of the defenders in the CHE comments reflect that; the other VQR staffers are generally well known, respected, and considered trustworthy around UVA and the C'ville community. Which is why you won't find many (maybe any) of the locals talking about jealous "disgruntled staffers".
posted by Creosote at 8:16 PM on August 16, 2010


For me the most telling bit came in comment 94:

I have no idea where to assign blame here, but, to S. Thatcher @ #79, let me say *I* question Genoways's editing ability. Look, for example, at a revealing article of his in a fairly recent issue of *Mother Jones*. How could anyone who writes so badly himself possibly do a good job editing other people's work? Also interesting are some of the readers' comments and Genoways's responses to them.

Genoways (together with his colleagues) certainly increased the visibility of VQR; it is now more colorful, more topical, but the quality of the writing is no better than it was during the long tenure of the previous editor (the fiction, in fact, is often mediocre).

Not long ago, the VQR blog posted a series of mocking responses to writers who had contributed to the so-called slush pile. I don't remember who was responsible for the mockery (an apology, perhaps by Genoways, is, I believe, still posted on the blog), but it wasn't even funny and it caused a minor scandal. It was an early warning of something not quite right at VQR. ...


A sensibility that could belittle such innocent hopefuls in public like that marks a person who should not have power over human beings, including himself.
posted by jamjam at 8:51 PM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Man that article looks like really thin gruel. Playing the blame game after a suicide is ridiculous.
posted by empath at 9:00 PM on August 16, 2010


I was once a 20-something woman hired for a top position at a magazine (editorial, not marketing), and also encountered unsurprising resistance and resentment. I'm sure that people said that I was sleeping with the boss (which, of course, I wasn't). My situation turned right around as it became clear that everybody's work situation became better and better because of my organization and decisions... so, I proved myself, became quite popular, in fact — and office gossip and politics moved on to other arenas.

But in my experience, there is always marked tension between editorial and marketing, and there is always a figure who is the main face of the publication, and responsible for establishing, renovating, or rejuvenating its public perception and reputation, usually by dint of personality combined with overall creative direction. Sometimes that person is a/the "publisher," sometimes it is the editor in chief, and in the former case, he or she can have either a marketing background, or editorial background, or both. In any case that person will have internal battles — many of them, and usually with editorial, which is concerned with the integrity of the product/content, and whose staff always view themselves as compromising on this at the behest of marketing/advertising. It's the eternal struggle, and people who've worked perfectly happily together for many years can fall prey to the erosion of friendship and camaraderie as they are pulled in opposite directions by equally important priorities. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's unusual if this doesn't happen.

From what I can see from a very superficial view of this situation, it seems like Genoways has been rightly concerned about constructing some level of financial security for the VQR during these times when even objective excellence does very little to ensure a publication's survival, and that an atmosphere of resistance and mistrust built up over the apparent divergence of goals between him and Morrissey, and perhaps others. Morrisey and his supporters would have been perfectly right in guarding the integrity of the editorial content and direction, and Genoway would have been perfectly correct in seeking creative (and, inevitably, personality-infused) solutions for guarding the financial viability of the magazine. Not many working friendships could weather the resulting tension, and in this case there was also the aspect of Morrisey's depression at work. The result is tragic, but just from what I can glean here, putting the responsibility for his suicide at Genoway's doorstep seems ridiculous.
posted by taz at 2:51 AM on August 17, 2010


Oh, I'd like to add one more thing: in my situation, we also had a young (mid-30s), attractive woman from the local upper-crust/aristocracy/whatever in our organization, who was a "publisher" and vice president. She was quite important as an inroad to the normally closed/incestuous group of elite investors our publication hoped to court, but she was also one of the most intelligent, level-headed, articulate, fair, logical and impartial people I've ever met. In addition to many other contributions, she was very sensitive to a host of human-resources issues in a time before it was typical to have a person hired for this position, and someone I would always trust to make a good decision.

I don't know about the role the donor's daughter played in the VQR atmosphere, but I do want to say that any various combination of young/rich/attractive/female shouldn't necessarily equate to poor decisions. Also, in my story I put "publisher" in scare quotes because in our organization, there were many associate publishers: some of them were related solely to financial support and some of them had to do with tenure and performance. In her case, I think it was both.
posted by taz at 4:44 AM on August 17, 2010


A 24 year old girl sharing space in the boss' private office? How is that not a sexual harassment case waiting to happen?

Are you kidding me? This is a 24-year-old woman with a masters' degree and a lot of high-level contacts hired for a development position. The insinuation that she may be "second in command" was just that. Moreover, you don't think women should be allowed to share office space in the workplace with men? Maybe they should just stay home? Or only work as secretaries?

On topic, I agree that the article was pretty thin. Clearly the university HR department can't comment publicly on internal HR matters, since they are confidential; thus the suggestion that their actions in response to Morrisey's complaints were inadequate is irrefutable but shouldn't, therefore, be assumed to be true.

It's just as possible that Morrissey didn't have justification for his complaints, and the U. found that in its investigation. We simply can't know.
posted by miss tea at 5:27 AM on August 17, 2010


A few data points, since I am one of the three people still in the VQR office.

1. Kevin has a wonderful family, one that I'd only heard bits about from him, but who I have gotten to know well in the past few weeks. They had a terribly difficult childhood, a result of a bullying father, and they are only now healing from that. Kevin admired his sister, and told me so.

2. Playing "the blame game" with suicide is not "ridiculous." It is perfectly fair to say that suicide is complicated, frequently caused by many factors. But it's not fair to say that, therefore, none of those factors can be considered. If you're standing at the precipice, and I give you a final nudge, I am among those to blame. As Kevin's friend and coworker, I inevitably bear some responsibility in his death.

3. We have long been very well funded by UVA. That funding is secure and permanent. I'd wager a great deal of money that, with the exception of Poetry magazine, there is no academic journal of our size that's better funded.

4. Unhappy with how I (and others) had been treated by our editor, I resigned from VQR on July 26, four days prior to Kevin's death. I remain here now because my friends need help producing our Fall issue. Without Kevin to shepherd it through to publication, we need all the help we can get.
posted by waldo at 6:06 AM on August 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh, and one more point, in response to miss tea: the university's investigation is ongoing. No conclusions have been drawn yet, nor were they at any point in response to Kevin's efforts to get help over the past couple of years, unfortunately.
posted by waldo at 6:08 AM on August 17, 2010


i've known plenty of 20-somethings who think they know way more than they know & are worth way more than they're paid

You just described every 20-something.

…but some of the most successful businesses in this country are led by 'kids' barely out of diapers (so to speak)

Please name some.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:21 AM on August 17, 2010


Thanks for your comments, waldo, which of course are far more informed than what we can hope to reasonably extract from news stories. I'm so very sorry about the death of your friend and co-worker.
posted by taz at 6:44 AM on August 17, 2010


Moreover, you don't think women should be allowed to share office space in the workplace with men? Maybe they should just stay home? Or only work as secretaries?

That's ridiculous. I'm surprised by the responses here. Apparently I'm the only one who thinks it is improper for executives to share offices with much younger subordinates? The sex of those involved is absolutely not the issue.

The article is a roadmap of bad managerial practices, this is definitely one of them.
posted by geoff. at 6:50 AM on August 17, 2010


Apparently I'm the only one who thinks it is improper for executives to share offices with much younger subordinates?

Was it wrong in this particular case? No idea; perhaps. Is it always wrong? I can't see that.

Disclaimer: when I was in my mid-20s I shared an office with my boss, who was a good 15 years older. He was the editor-in-chief; I was the assistant editor. If it makes you feel better, he's gay and so am I (and female).
posted by rtha at 7:06 AM on August 17, 2010


Apparently I'm the only one who thinks it is improper for executives to share offices with much younger subordinates?

Why would it be?

Waldo, thanks for your info. Very interesting.

I do, however, find it hard to believe that the funding is 'permanent.' In my experience with university budgets, there is almost no such thing unless funded by a restricted endowment or a legislative appropriate. Of course, Virginia may be different.
posted by miss tea at 7:46 AM on August 17, 2010


p.s. Waldo, I am sorry for the loss of your friend.
posted by miss tea at 7:48 AM on August 17, 2010


I do, however, find it hard to believe that the funding is 'permanent.' In my experience with university budgets, there is almost no such thing unless funded by a restricted endowment or a legislative appropriate. Of course, Virginia may be different.

VQR has two generously funded, restricted endowments that are many decades old.

FWIW, I recognize that it's really weird to try to have a useful conversation about this with me involved in it. Surely some people fear that any reasonable questioning of the circumstances could implicitly be questioning of my integrity. Even if I stopped participating now, y'all know that I'm reading. I'm sorry about that. Observer effect and all that.
posted by waldo at 8:10 AM on August 17, 2010


Apparently I'm the only one who thinks it is improper for executives to share offices with much younger subordinates?

Apparently. I've seen and heard of lots of cases where a young subordinate sits in the same office as the executive to whom they're attached. Generally it's considered an excellent position to be in: You get constant access to someone who's supposed to mentor you; you get to see them being an executive and learn from it. In many businesses it's quite typical.

That doesn't change the appearance of scandal that many people will imagine to happening, but it's not uncommon.

Waldo, speaking broadly, how accurate was the article in drawing the battle lines among the staff? Was its characterization of "Genoways and his slutty assistant vs. everyone else" a fair representation of the atmosphere at the office?
posted by fatbird at 8:17 AM on August 17, 2010


Waldo, speaking broadly, how accurate was the article in drawing the battle lines among the staff? Was its characterization of "Genoways and his slutty assistant vs. everyone else" a fair representation of the atmosphere at the office?

Nobody's told me not to talk about that sort of thing, but I get the sense that I should keep quiet about specifics like that. I'm sorry.
posted by waldo at 8:26 AM on August 17, 2010


Nobody's told me not to talk about that sort of thing, but I get the sense that I should keep quiet about specifics like that. I'm sorry.

Fair enough. You certainly shouldn't risk your current position to inform us. I'm just trying to get a sense of how accurate the article was in terms of suggesting that there was a really abnormal level of tension in the office vs. normal office politics.
posted by fatbird at 8:33 AM on August 17, 2010


I'll say these two things: 1. It's the most bizarre office environment that I've ever worked in. 2. My three co-workers—Sheila, Molly, and Kevin—are (were) like family, and working with them has been my best employment experience.
posted by waldo at 8:37 AM on August 17, 2010


It's the most bizarre office environment that I've ever worked in.

As someone with several friends working in various university areas, this doesn't surprise me in the least. Maybe this is why I'm so suspicious of the gossip-rag tone of the CHE article: university offices seem to be eccentric by nature. Breathless reporting on who did what creates an appearance of abnormality where (I suspect) none really exists.
posted by fatbird at 8:45 AM on August 17, 2010


Came to this late. Just want to say: I know Ted Genoways. Not well. Probably last had contact with him 10 or 12 years ago. He wasn't an asshole or a narcissist then. Maybe he's an asshole and a narcissist now, but I'm inclined to think not. I don't think the CHE article is so bad, because I don't think it says very much. It says there was a bad workplace culture and (at least) Morrissey and Levinson-La Brosse were victims of it. It says Genoways was working to secure funding for VQR, which was funded by a discretionary line on the President's budget (i.e. was completely insecure. (This seems to be in contradiction with what Waldo says above, so who knows what's true.) It says Genoways reprimanded Morrissey for putting a source in danger, and gives us no reason to think the reprimand was unfounded.

I don't think it says Genoways is a tyrant. I don't think it says Genoways slept with his co-workers. I don't think it says Genoways killed a guy. I think it says working in a toxic workplace is stressful and you can die of stress.
posted by escabeche at 11:16 AM on August 17, 2010


VQR has two generously funded, restricted endowments that are many decades old.

That's interesting. Makes the info in the Chronicle article seem kind of limited, then, doesn't it?

BTW sorry for typing "appropriate" instead of appropriation. I do know the difference, although apparently my fingers don't.
posted by miss tea at 12:55 PM on August 17, 2010


civil disobedient: how about bill gates? the kids who started facebook? google? the kid who brought us netscape? if i'm not mistaken, these kids were either 1) dropouts, 2) fresh out of college, or 3) still in college when they started their little billion dollar enterprises. exceptions to the rule? hellyeah. but kids in their 20s are still young enough to believe they can do anything & haven't spent enough time in the working world to be jaded. dismissing someone automatically based on their tender years is somewhat ill-guided, i think.
posted by msconduct at 5:13 PM on August 17, 2010


oh. and i haven't even begun addressing the fact that the comment referred to 'A 24 year old girl sharing space in the boss' private office.' i've never met the woman, but i'll bet she is. a woman, that is.
posted by msconduct at 5:19 PM on August 17, 2010


oh. and i haven't even begun addressing the fact that the comment referred to 'A 24 year old girl sharing space in the boss' private office.' i've never met the woman, but i'll bet she is. a woman, that is.

Well, maybe she's the second coming of Mary McCarthy and Clare Booth Luce all rolled into one, and then again maybe she's just a fairly bright spark whose primary qualification for her position was her ability and desire to drop a million and a half cold ones into the coffers of whatever darling little writing program she happened to like. We do not know. Many successfully companies have been started by young geniuses; many cushy patronage jobs have been less-than-capably filled by little Daughter and Sonny Boy Warbuckses. Whatever her talents, neither her nor her mentor seemed to have grokked the rather obvious resentment-generating effects of bringing a young outsider into a position of prestige and authority in quite a small organization, after the existing staff had worked their asses off for years to get the joint to where it was. This blinkeredness makes me less inclined to rush to the barricades on her (or her boss') behalf.
posted by Diablevert at 7:53 PM on August 17, 2010


Well, maybe she's the second coming of Mary McCarthy and Clare Booth Luce all rolled into one, and then again maybe she's just a fairly bright spark whose primary qualification for her position was her ability and desire to drop a million and a half cold ones into the coffers of whatever darling little writing program she happened to like. We do not know.

Well, yeah. But we do know that 24-year-old female humans are not "girls" - they're women, which is the point of the comment you quoted.
posted by rtha at 10:21 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's another, better-reported and more detailed story on VQR and Morrissey, from The Hook (linked from the Chronicle comments). Well worth a read: this seems like a much better article all around than the Chronicle's, and it's also packed with links to related blog posts and articles.
posted by RogerB at 11:02 AM on August 18, 2010


The Hook article is much better. Sorry for my use of "girl," I'll try to be more conscious when using that word for people older than the age of 8.
posted by geoff. at 4:01 PM on August 18, 2010


I wish there was a female equivalent of the word "guy" besides "girl" or "gal" since the latter is right out and the former is problematic in a bunch of contexts. I realize "you guys" is often used to address mixed groups but the singular form "guy" is pretty strongly gendered.

Is there a good analogue to the word guy where woman sounds too stilted or formal?
posted by Justinian at 4:37 PM on August 18, 2010


Update from this morning's Richmond Times-Dispatch / Charlottesville Daily Progress.

"The untimely death of Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, has caused a great deal of pain for his family, friends and colleagues," Sullivan said in a statement. "It has also raised questions about the university's response to employees' concerns about the workplace climate in the VQR office. I therefore am announcing that we will be undertaking a thorough review of VQR's operations."

Sullivan added that the investigation "does not in any way presume that any members of the VQR staff have been involved in improper conduct." It will be used, she said, to "provide a factual basis for understanding this workplace and deciding what corrective actions, if any, the university should undertake."

posted by emelenjr at 3:41 AM on August 20, 2010


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