AVR and WP
Updated February 15, 2009. Wikipedia editors come across bizarre aspects of humanity, notoriety and conceptions of what is the truth and what people want to be the truth. Case in point: writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez and her public declarations that she stunningly recants later. Valdes-Rodriguez has taken her fight to Wikipedia.
Valdes was a writer for The Los Angeles Times, until she tendered a letter of resignation that became known in L.A. journalism circles as exemplary of career self-destruction. According to Catherine Seipp:
Among the letter’s complaints: The Times was guilty of attempted genocide for using the term “Latino” to describe what Valdes-Rodriguez insisted are really Native Americans, and that, furthermore, this kind of genocide is worse than “old-fashioned murder and relocation efforts.” One memorable grievance was that Valdes-Rodriguez’s editors hadn’t allowed her to publish a commentary comparing the animated children’s film The Road to Eldorado, set during the Spanish exploration of the New World, to the Holocaust, even though “by some estimates the Spaniards killed 10 times more people than the Nazis did.”
This reliably-sourced information about the letter was removed from Alisa’s Wikipedia article by an I.P. address claiming it as “untrue info and irrelevant, biased info” and an “unsubstantiated rumor“. Yet according to the St. Petersburg Times, which printed the letter, Valdes-Rodriguez acknowledged its existence and said it was, “an intensely personal document that I never wanted the world to see.” The I.P. address claimed on the talk page, repeatedly, to be Valdes-Rodriguez:
Unless you can produce a copy of said “letter,” there is no proof such a thing exists, other than blogs. Repeated reference to something nearly a decade old and never proved to exist shows only that certain bitter people would like to do whatever they can to damage the author’s (my) reputation through the anonymous and cowardly means of wikipedia. Unless a copy of such a document is proved to exist, you engage in defamation by purporting it to exist.
I do not know Valdes-Rodriguez, I have never read her work and I have no personal animus toward her. She was on a panel at the 2007 Brooklyn Book Festival where I snapped a photograph of her, which she does not like (above). It certainly is not my best work and I do not have a problem with its removal. I invited Alisa to upload one that she likes better. However, because of the photo, I came in contact with a war that she is having. If you have ever wondered how people at Wikipedia keep tabs on article changes, it is called a “Watchlist” – a list of articles people have recently changed that is updated to the second. Because of my photograph, Alisa’s page was on mine and it kept popping up (each one of those dates signifies a moment it would pop up on my watchlist).
An I.P. address that claimed to be Alisa said that Lylah Alphonse was behind the shenanigans at Alisa’s article. The first was over her letter of resignation, which essentially shot the credibility of her journalism career in the face. The other two claims that bothered I.P. Alisa stuck out as a far more worrisome pattern for her credibility: that she is bipolar and that she is bisexual.
The reason I take issue with these claims and their subsequent recantation is because of their timing. Both claims were made at moments where such emotionally-charged revelations might have helped her career as a book writer.
Claims of bisexuality
On September 25, 2008, Teresa Ortega published an interview with Alisa for one of the most highly-regarded lesbian-oriented websites in the United States, AfterEllen.com. The interview was conducted over e-mail, so ostensibly AfterEllen and Ortega had little room to misquote Alisa, whose words were unequivocal:
AfterEllen.com: The Dirty Girls Social Club and Dirty Girls on Top center on a diverse group of female characters, including Elizabeth Cruz, who is a lesbian. What were some of the sources, personal or documentary, that led you to create this character?
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez: As a bisexual woman (who, as it happens, is faithfully married to a man and therefore living a “straight” life) I feel it is important to include homosexual or bisexual characters in my work. I am living proof that such things are not “choices,” but innate.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I once did a story on “coming out” in traditional Latino societies, and I was shocked by some of the stories I heard. Horror stories. A man being thrown through a plate-glass window by his own father; a woman beaten by her relatives.
Luckily, I never faced that in my own family ― well, my mom did tell me she had hoped to have “normal” kids, but she was the non-Latino parent. I should say I never faced it with my dad, who, when I told him what I was, hugged me and said, “the greatest secret in humanity is that inside every person is a gay person.”
Anyway, my point being, I think it is incredibly important in work for Latinas in particular to discuss lesbianism openly. Too many traditional Latin cultures view women as sexless beings whose only function is to please a man, so the idea of lesbianism is completely incomprehensible to many.
On the talk page, an I.P. address made the following statement after removing the information from the article:
The author does not identify as bisexual, though she often includes GLBT people in her books in an effort to be inclusive. She is married to a man and has been for 12 years. Please check her statement on this before attempting to put this in her profile again. Again, this information is unsourced and libelous. There was a Q&A interview with the After Ellen website which claimed the author was bisexual, but the author’s official response to this (on her blog) is that she told the Web site she believed everyone to be somewhere on the Kinsey Scale, and that she herself was probably 95 percent straight, and 5 percent curious. This is not unusual, but it also does not merit a classification of “bisexual,” especially if the author herself is married to a man and does not self-identify in this way. Toying with libel to post it.
In response I flat out asked, “Is Valdes-Rodriguez claiming this was made up?” to which I.P. Alisa responded:
Yes. This is Alisa. I’m not bisexual. Stop posting this garbage unless you wish to see me in court.
I contacted AfterEllen.com to see if they stood by their Teresa Ortega interview, but I received no response.
Claims of bipolar disorder
One of the most heart-breaking suicides in the literary world was that of author David Foster Wallace, who was described in the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years” and whose writing the New York Times described as “prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary….” Wallace suffered from depression, and at the age of 46 he hanged himself after numerous attempts to treat this ailment. From the literary world came an outpouring of heartfelt mourning. It was at this time that Valdes-Rodriguez wrote on her blog, under the title of “Farewell to David Foster Wallace”, the following declaration:
To me, that sounds like the manic phase of bipolar disorder, something I am quite familiar with. Spurred by David’s death, I am, today, here, going to go public with my own struggles with the disorder, which I have finally begun to treat and get a handle on.
I have bipolar disorder/depression. I don’t like it, and I’m not proud of it. But this very same monster that spurs me to ridiculous behavior in my personal or professional life (up to and including bulimia, and serious thoughts of suicide now and then) has also enabled me to pen entire novels in six days. Or it did, in the past. Talk about a double-edge sword. I have writer friends who, once on antidepressants, feel like they can’t write anymore.
Valdes-Rodriguez removed the blog post at some point, and has since declared that she is not bipolar. I.P. Alisa, after removing the bipolar claim, also said the same thing:
Again, this is Alisa. I have never been diagnosed as bipolar. I am not bisexual. This is pretty clear. Want to discuss it in court? Keep “publishing” lies.
So she is not bisexual and bipolar; what is the problem?
The problem I have is that, on the surface, it appears that when Valdes-Rodriguez is talking to a lesbian website, she panders to that site’s readers with claims of bisexuality, only later to take it back. When a famous author dies of depression, she appears to want some of the spotlight for herself by claiming that she is bipolar. Later, she thinks that might not be the most helpful admission to make, so she takes it back. She does so through strong-arm “I’m going to sue if you repeat words I say myself” tactics.
I wrote about the difficulties with using Alisa as a source about herself in her article. This is not uncommon (for example, Michael Richards claimed he was Jewish after he shouted anti-Semitic remarks). Some people simply make contradictory statements about themselves so often, or do not like their own personal histories enough that they want them changed. Because Wikipedia can only rely on outside sources, this sort of nonsense can make it difficult to write a biography with accurate information.
Alisa writes me
After I wrote about Alisa’s conflicting statements on her article’s talk page, she wrote me (via the e-mail address listed on her blog) to say, “I hastily wrote in a blog post that I thought I had bipolar disorder, but it turns out that I do not. I deleted that post, and corrected it. Yet you continue to insist that it was accurate. It is not. If I post on my blog that I killed JFK, will you put that on wiki too?”
I wasn’t the one inserting it; I was the one trying to reconcile the issues that she created with so many contradictory declarations. I explained this to her, and added:
Any serious artist is going to know that what they say about themselves in public adds to the lens through which their work is examined. You may not be bipolar, and you may not be bisexual, but that you have made these claims and then shortly retracted them later becomes a notable fact that would be relevant to someone researching your work, and your personal history and characteristics that helped shape that work. You’re much too smart not to know this, but it bears repeating given the circumstances.
I know nothing about you except for that photograph which, if you don’t like, you are welcome to upload one that you feel suits you more. Otherwise, I am a neutral observer who only did a search for you to try to figure out what the conflict is about. I am happy to work with you and help you out, but may I suggest you will attract more flies with honey than vinegar, and try to not feel this is some kind of personal conspiracy against you. Wikipedia isn’t the place where you “set the record straight” – it’s a place that simply collects information from around the Internet and published worlds.
Alisa took such exception to these statements, that in response she wrote this about me (as if I wrote it myself):
You are a tremendous fucking bitch, and I suck donkey dicks with communist straws. I was hired by the Cuban government to “fix” your wiki page, but they asked that I never tell you this. Oopsies! I have to remember not to promise Fidel anything when I’m high on peyote. My bad.
Strange times on Wikipedia, indeed.
In the end
In the end, what I wanted was to remove the bipolar and bisexuality issues from her article, but also to figure them out. Why? Because it is out there, and because Wikipedia aims to clear up misconceptions and untruths. In that process we often decide to explain where such issues came from in order to articulate why they are not true, or why there is confusion. I have no personal animus with Alisa, but as an artist I do take exception to how she handles herself in the context of her writing. A writer can not be separated from their work, and I have come to feel that she is a textbook example of disingenuous treatment of her craft when she tells a lesbian website (that later gave her a “Visibility Award”) that she is bisexual. Not only does it affect an interpretation of her writing, it would also have an effect on whether AfterEllen’s readers purchased her novel. I made the source of my problem clear to Alisa not as a Wikipedia editor, but as a fellow artist. In particular, that she never explains the discrepancies. In the AfterEllen instance, I.P. Alisa claimed that Ortega made up the interview. For someone who threatens to sue so often, her time would be better spent: 1) taking up the problem with AfterEllen.com (which ostensibly stands by the interview as it is still up); and 2) thinking before she writes.
*Update February 14, 2009: Sarah Warn, AfterEllen’s Founder and Editor-in-Chief , wrote me yesterday to say they most certainly do stand by their interview as published, and that they were actually surprised she came out as bisexual in her e-mail response. Alisa has now removed the blog post about her heterosexuality.
*Update February 15, 2009: Sarah Warn writes a strong denunciation of Alisa’s characterization of the interview.