I stared at the ceiling the entire night after reading “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” ― an article published last month in the The New York Times Magazine about a writer who pilfered and fictionalized her colleague’s kidney donation. I was mulling over my own bad art friend, or, in my case, my bad thought leader friend.
In the morning, before coffee, I went searching for the email exchange to the male colleague who included some ideas I’d shared with him in his book, without attribution. I found that my attempts at confronting him surprised me almost as much as when I discovered my ideas in his book.
In 2014, I had a leadership blog and a modest Twitter following. I was in a career transition from therapist to executive and organizational consultant. I was developing some ideas ― known in my field as thought leadership ― around using leadership principles in intimate relationships.
I was using these skills in my own relationships with great success, and also with some straggling couples that found their way to me as I migrated careers. I had gathered my ideas into a four-part model and written a book proposal when a male colleague found me on Twitter.
He was a New York City sex therapist who had just sold his own proposal to a major publisher and it appeared he had been told that, in order to sell books, he would have to blog and do social media. He tagged me in his posts, which I shared. I invited him to read and share my stuff in return. I liked his style. We met for lunch.
Over Le Pain Quotidien quiche, I told him of my ideas about using leadership in intimate relationships. His eyes widened. Encouraged by his enthusiasm, I walked him through my four-point model. He made me feel “onto something,” and hopeful about getting my book published. He told me about his work helping long-term couples stay sexually vital. We went our separate ways.
I eventually abandoned trying to sell my book. It seemed like an outrageous amount of work for little reward. I was told by editors I needed a larger following, but I didn’t want to take the time and energy away from my consulting work to build one.
But a few years later, I received a personalized form letter from the colleague, inviting me to pre-order, read and review his book. Three emails into that exchange, after I’d congratulated him, he came back with the line: Especially eager to hear whether you like the chapter ... on leadership and power.
Um, what? He hadn’t mentioned anything about themes of leadership and power in his work in our lunch. Sure enough, the chapter contained some ideas and exact phrasing of mine. His book quoted principles from other thinkers, whom he credited. Since I was unpublished, perhaps he felt he didn’t need to. I felt sucker-punched.
In my consulting, I witness how men take credit for women’s ideas all the time. I’ve been on the receiving end of women’s rants about how frustrating it is to have an idea rebuffed only to later show up in a presentation by the same man who rebuffed it.
Voicing complaints, though, does not generally bring more power or visibility but rather the reverse: The woman gets called a whiner. To prevent this phenomenon, otherwise known as “bropriating,” the women on President Barack Obama’s staff came up with a method called amplification, in which ideas put forth by women are repeated by their female colleagues to reduce their chances of being stolen. But what happens when you don’t have a group of women around to amplify you?
Much of my consulting work centers on helping people recognize and step into their professional authority. Conscientious leaders, who are often women, tend to shy away from the authority that their role carries. Many are afraid of seeming egocentric or hurting a colleague’s feelings, even when delivering critical feedback is an essential part of their job. I am quite skilled at delivering tough messages for my job. So I was shocked ― no, horrified ― to reread how sticky-sweet and nice I was when confronting my own bropriator.
I started by complimenting his book. I love how it weaves together mindfulness, psychology and the true challenges of connection in this day and age, without being jargon-y or preachy. I went on: And yes, per an earlier email exchange, I did appreciate the well-framed leadership references, and the use of [my term which I am not including here as it would require a whole extra explanation]. I wondered if you had been using that term before we talked, and I secretly hoped that I had some influence there ― though of course, if I had, it also would have been nice to be acknowledged for it.
I ended as if practicing the “sandwich technique,” sliding a harsh comment in between two positives: Regardless, you have made a ... wonderful contribution to the body of sexual intimacy literature and I hope the book does for you everything you hoped it would.
Well, if it was a sandwich, it was pure baloney.
How I protected his ego! The fawning! And why? Was I scared, like women I’d counseled, of being branded a whiner? Of creating conflict? I knew I didn’t want to get into litigation; I didn’t have the time or resources for that. Since I work for myself and my reputation is my brand, I am careful not to burn bridges or overreact emotionally. But to let him off the hook with such exaggerated benefit of the doubt turned my stomach sour.
As I looked back on it, I felt I’d let down the women I’d worked with who suffered the same slights.
The colleague said he didn’t remember the idea from our Quotidien lunch those years before, but instead thought he came up with it on his own. I sent him a link to a post of mine we had once discussed. He offered to credit me in the paperback version, then claimed the publisher wouldn’t let him, so he made other hollow offers for collaboration that were only ever meant to mollify, not materialize.
A driving factor in my obsequiousness was that I believed him. I’d just seen a pre-Me Too episode of the show “Louie” depicting a somewhat fictionalized, yearslong feud between comedians Louis C.K. and Marc Maron, in which Maron was angry that C.K. had stolen a joke from him. C.K. defended himself, pointing out that there is so much data coming at us from all angles, we’re bound to think we invented some of it. That’s pretty undeniable.
But the deeper reason I believed him is because I believed that I was a nobody. My thoughts did not need to be fought over, because they didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to have the power to truly take them to market anyway, so they might as well have been donated.
I’ve grown and learned and trust that if this happened today I’d make my point and hold a bold mirror up to his motives. But reading about other women’s stories of appropriation in the Times article, I saw women conflicted about both owning their stories and wanting credit.
In retrospect, I believe my colleague knew what he was doing, and stole out in the open, knowing there would be no consequences.
The good news is that back then, when I complained to my good friends about the incident, they encouraged me to keep writing. I took their advice, and two years later unexpectedly ended up writing a memoir about living in an ashram in my 20s. But even having made creative lemonade, I feel compelled to note that while story, idea and joke stealing may never stop, this power dynamic in which men steal and women silence themselves should.
I invite the men reading this to be more aware, to reflect on their tone and motives when responding to women’s contributions, and to make a conscious effort to champion ― not steal ― women’s thoughts. But to focus too much energy on controlling men’s behavior is a path of endless frustration.
As women, when we can’t amplify each other’s ideas in person, we need to do so in spirit, and find creative ways to stop putting aside our hard-earned work to placate others. We need to support each other in owning and sharing our ideas and stories. They matter.