AVR and WP

Feb 13, 2009 by     24 Comments    Posted under: Culture, Internet, Life, Media

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez by David Shankbone.jpg

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

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.

24 Comments + Add Comment

  • After googling her. I just get the impression she is an over rated conspiracy theorist on a social level. She demonstrates a diluted sense of tact in her commentary and when called upon the carpet. She either changes her view or claims others are “tampering” with the facts. You can only go in circles so many times before someone catches on.

    I think she is playing a game for the benefit of gaining notoriety, to sell books, or get noticed for the possibility of a better job.

    Not surprisingly there seems to be a negative characterization of her amongst her peers in the world of writing. Either she is a real fucking moron, or she is so superior that others feel theneed to defame her so they can feel as if she has been brought down a level or two.

    I do not understand the woman. Thankfully….

  • Hi. A Google alert pointed me over to your blog, so I thought I’d take a minute to leave a comment…

    I used to work with Alisa at the Globe. I have absolutely no idea why she’s fixated on me. The only time I’ve had contact with her in the past decade was a few years ago, after a friend told me she had, out of the blue, posted a horribly racist, religiously intolerant rant about me and my family on her blog. I emailed her to ask her to delete it (which she did, but not before other sites picked it up — it’s still out there somewhere) and haven’t had any contact with her since.

    Frankly, I have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with or monitor her craziness, on Wikipedia or anywhere else (though the link to her entry’s history was amusing, thanks for sharing it). I will say this, though: Bobby, it’s the former. And Mr. Shankbone, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    • Since she is actively trying to remove this information from Wikipedia, still, I don’t know if it is negative attention she is after. In particular, when you have a base of readers, as Alisa clearly does, much of their identification with you is based upon some sense you relate to them or connect with them in some way. To flip flop all over the place on her personal history is problematic for a writer. Look at James Frey. I fail to see Alisa’s rather bold, in-detail declaration of bisexuality–she evenly asserts she discussed it with her parents, and attributed their reactions to their ethnicity–only to take it back once she is no longer talking to a lesbian website, is any different than what Frey did.

  • I know this is a trite thing to say, but to some any publicity is better than being ignored. So changing her “positions” on things, etc. may be a way of getting more attention than if she did not do that.

    Look how much space you’ve given her, Dave. But I find it very interesting and I’m glad you wrote about it.

  • But don’t you make my point by pointing out that she says one thing when talking to the lesbian website and then “takes it back” when she’s elsewhere, thereby causing controversy and discussion about what the real truth is?

  • Thanks for this illuminating expose. I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered the likes before.

  • Interesting, and level headed (and I’ve read way more about this today in her ‘apology’ with a reidiculour title for an apology, and on AE)

    She sounds a lot like someone I once knew who would change her mind so fast I couldn’t believe she wasn’t some character in a book or something, that she was real

    e.g. being really nice, teaching me to use a program, lending me and telling me to keep video games, then when I’d say “hi” on msn she’d reply “f*** Off” (except without the asterix’s) being totally serious, and then apologise the next time, yet do exactly the same thing in the next.. or ask ‘why with all the questions’ when I politely ask her about the pretty colour she dyed her hair (and it was purple, so its not like she would have been insulted that I thought it wasn’t natural) SO F***ing weird!! I steer clear of her now!

    Anyways this woman sounds worse than my friend. If you’re flaky about everything, then how is your life any different from fiction? you can’t be believed either way, what a pointless thing to do – euughh, hate flakes!

    • Well…I have. I’ve lived in 17 cities and I have come across a wide range of strange.

  • Not sure if you’ve seen this:

    Thanks for blogging this. Interesting.

  • [...] issue, but I will try to recap it briefly to not repeat what is already out there.  This week I wrote about AVR trying to whitewash her history on Wikipedia, and in particular, her efforts to remove her bizarre resignation from the L.A. Times and her [...]

  • I’ve been reading the back and forth. Alisa has now retracted her statement (as linked by Rachel above) and has said indeed she is bisexual. I’m glad she said something because after her attack and defamation of AfterEllen and Sarah Warn, I was about to get all angry. All I’ve seen is decent reporters just trying to get to and understand the truth, and merely trying to protect themselves when someone calls them a liar (I’m including you David). Thank you.

  • Hi Mr. David, while I support your actions in this matter, I must say that I am very disappointed to read that you are sucking donkey dicks with communist straws. I feel this is totally sending the wrong message and detracting from the rest of the blog. Why would you even publicize this? “Oopsies” indeed. But otherwise, great job.

  • I copied and pasted the following of off Alisa’s blog:

    I suppose there’s a bit of narcissism in my love of Johnny. After all, we have a lot in common. He’s Cuban American, a Globe writer, a novelist. I’m Cuban American, a recovering Globe writer, and a novelist. He’s gay, I’m bisexual.

    This last bit might surprise some of you, because I don’t talk about it much. I don’t talk about it much because there is so much ignorance and hatred out there, I can’t bear to be thought of as some kind of pervert by idiots. Bisexuality is a hard thing to talk about in our culture, because straight people hate you and gay people hate you; both groups think you need to just “make up your mind,” which, if you are somewhere in the middle like me, is impossible. But I figure it’s important to be honest about it, because the ignorance of others is nothing for me to be ashamed of and because I can’t leave folks like Johnny standing there all alone. Plus, it it’s good enough for Angelina Jolie and Frida Kahlo (and many others) it’s good enough for me.

    That said, I’m in a committed relationship with the same man I’ve been with for the past ten years, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever live as a lesbian. But if I’d met someone like this or someone like this or this or especially this (and if by some weird chance any one of them had dug me in the slightest) instead of the right man things could have ended differently. (For the record, I have met Rebecca Walker and Nelly Furtado both. Neither knew I was bi or interested, which is probably good considering I was interviewing Furtado and Walker was involved with Me’Shell NdegeOcello, who definitely looks – and sounds – like she could kick my ass.)

    Anyway, after getting an email from Johnny not too long ago, I sent him a list of questions and asked him to answer them for my blog readers. He fired back answers the same day. This is what I mean. He’s fast. Anyway, here’s the Q&A. Please, if you haven’t read the book yet, go out and buy it. It’s wonderful.

    • I don’t know why she keeps going on about this. I don’t think many people care about her sexuality. I think they just want her to be honest. The exception is the LGBT community that is curious how her personal experience has effected her work and characters. That’s completely valid from an academic examination of her oeuvre. Acting with honesty and consistency is the only way you can respect your followers, since you can’t always communicate with each one individually.

      I really wish Alisa the best – we all have stuff we are trying to figure out personally, and she’s no different. Revealing herself, and her struggles, to the world will only help her career. Second-guessing herself, and then trying to cover up what she said before, will only hurt her. Sometimes revelation is scary and painful (trust me, I know); however, the reward is that people connect with you – and those are the people you focus on. Not the haters.

      Alisa, if you are reading this: just stay true to yourself, and don’t worry about the consequences. You’re not the poster child of all that is wrong with our society, and my posts were more that you were another example. My writing “voice” tends to be overly-strident, and I have been unsuccessful in toning that down so I have to live with the consequences. That’s the only way to go. You’re too smart and intelligent to screw up your career by coming across as disingenuous, when you don’t mean to do so. I wish you the best.

  • As a woman who *actually* has bipolar disorder, I find it incredibly offensive that she not only attempted to claim it for sympathy and/or attention (I find it difficult enough to tell people I know about it offline, and the ones who do know are either immediate family or know because they’re a medical contact in case of an emergency) in order to sell more of her books, but that she then tried to claim that someone just made that up to slander her.

    On the bright side, at least I know whose books to avoid now.

  • She sounds like a mentally unstable nutcase – as well as totally unprofessional. Not the sort of person to be taken seriously.

  • Just reading about her newest controversy over at Gawker and was sent here for this backstory. I find this fascinating. Her wikipedia page looks for have been cleaned up to her taste with no mention of these controversies. She’s also listed as still married to her ex-husband. I wonder if it’s time for another edit?

  • Seems she finally conceded, new picture. Let’s see how the rest plays out, with her new movie company and magazine

  • I agree, Bobby. AfterEllen’s 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. Alisa has…once again…removed the blog post about her heterosexuality. She’s really toying with her readers in very bad ways. People don’t like to feel they are being lied to, and that they can’t trust someone. Readers less. It’s difficult to understand how she thinks any of this is helping her book writing; her credibility as a journalist is nil.

    It seems like she uses opportunistic declarations to further her career, and that is wrong. In the age of the Internet, it makes no sense.

  • Hi Lylah, thank you for taking the time to comment. I sat on writing about this for a month and a half, because I considered the ethics of blogging about someone who seems to have some clear emotional/mental issues. What immediately jumped out at me was that you both have titled your blogs almost exactly the same. Alisa’s is “Write. Live. Repeat.” (since taken down, but still in Google’s cache) and yours is “Write. Edit. Repeat.” You have been writing your blog under that title much, much longer.

    I don’t like to ambush people, so I always let them know when I am writing about them. I e-mailed Alisa this post yesterday, with no response. Today, she once again tried to remove the L.A. Times information, but it was restored. Unfortunately for Alisa, she is certainly violating the guideline for conflict-of-interest.

    Lylah, from an outsider perspective, and having read some pretty mean-spirited posts on Alisa’s blog that she wrote, I imagine there are quite a few people who have a desire to ensure the “real Alisa” is presented on her article. She seems to be a very angry woman.

  • I’ve had people in my life like that, too, and in the end I could not trust them. Their emotional state or the words they said. I need some degree of consistency in my relationships. You ask questions of these people that are innocuous, and they act defensive, etc.

    Purple Squrrel, your e-mail addy is really cool!

  • Thanks Janna. And I have attempted to make a bigger point about all of this, that it happens far too often in our culture. It may seem like my focus is on Alisa, and I understand why it seems that way, but really my focus in this instance, and generally in other posts on this blog, is that the problem is widespread. AVR happens to just be the latest, and was an example I hoped that a community for which I have a lot of respect would see in a larger context in our society. To take a comment on my other post about the AVR issue:

    I read Graydon Carter’s editor’s letter in Vanity Fair, and in it this stuck out to me:

    The absence of shame (and its corollary, accountability) appears to be a uniquely American problem.

    That really sums it up for me. Carter was talking about far greater problems from this issue than AVR that have plagued us these last eight years:

    When U.S. intelligence ignored warnings of 9/11 and incorrectly assessed the W.M.D. situation in pre-invasion Iraq, C.I.A. chief George Tenet was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a $4 million book contract from HarperCollins. By comparison, when terrorists stormed Mumbai in November, killing nearly 200 civilians, India’s home minister resigned, saying that he took “moral” responsibility for the massacre. After the Zurich-based investment bank UBS announced huge first-quarter losses last year, its chairman and four members of its board of directors tendered their resignations. The top three executives at France’s Caisse d’Epargne stepped down last year in the wake of steep losses. And the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland offered his resignation when its losses caused its stock to decline by 91 percent since 2007. Nowhere in all the malfeasance on Wall Street this past year has the senior officer of a major bank publicly accepted responsibility for his actions and tendered his resignation. Even the man who was the official Wall Street watchdog through these troubled times, Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox, still has his job.

    I see all of this, including AVR, connected into the bigger issue that was mentioned in Graydon Carter’s first quote.

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