Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.
(Not my circus, not my monkey.)
For Hailey Layne Johnson, who loved words once, and who may yet love them again: as swords, as solace, as fire, as beast, as an arrow that strikes true.
A few notes about this text:
All of the dialogues here are approximated from conversations that did take place. (Unfortunately, I did not walk around with a tape recorder from 1991 to 1999.) To make sure there is no confusion, these dialogues have been written without quotation marks, except in one moment towards the end, where it made sense to do so.
Some scenes have been compressed or glossed to provide better flow, but every single event discussed in this story is absolutely true. To repeat: All of these incidents did happen, some in front of witnesses, some with witnesses after the fact (people who read his letters at my behest), and a few other situations took place in which other people should have been there, but were not.
The impetus to write this story comes from an account written by Hailey Layne Johnson, a former student in a high school arts magnet program who was molested by Bryce Milligan nearly 20 years ago.
After you read this story, you may want to read this Q & A, which has answers to common questions that are typically brought up when discussing a person’s account of sexual assault / harassment. (Note I didn’t say they were good questions, just common ones.) I’ve tried to provide more detail in the Q&A about my particular encounters with Bryce Milligan as well.
1. THE PARTICULARS
Every city with a writing community has at least one Bryce Milligan.
He’s the man who has spent years crafting connections with all professional and preprofessional writing outlets.
A man who has made it his business to try and shape the unwieldy forms of local literature and media to suit his standards.
A man who has worked in many capacities throughout the years, over time creating a persona of indispensability in all matters writing related.
A man who elicits gossip and traffics in iffy tales, and thus knows where the most decrepit bodies are buried.
A man who—under the knowing eye of all in his circle—preys on young women.
People knew Bryce Milligan fawned over young female writers. They knew that he made inappropriate comments to girls, insinuating himself with a sure and steady hand into their preprofessional lives by wearing the mantle of mentorship.
They also knew he published works by these same persons—some of whom had not yet had the opportunity to be engaged by a small respectable publishing house.
Young women didn’t seek out Bryce. He used his paid position as a visiting writer in the local public schools to engage with them under the cautious gaze of their writing teachers, and his lecherous behavior was so transparent that students and teachers took it as some sort of strange joke.
While Bryce could not hide his predatory habits, he could and did do a lot to soften the appearance of his behavior, which made him come across as a person with a peculiar quirk, harmful to no one but himself.
Of course, everyone knows now that this isn’t true.
It’s not true of Bryce Milligan and it’s not true of hundreds of other men who act as gatekeepers for prized professions in the arts: even the seemingly benign act of fawning over a young woman designs its own collateral damage to her prospects and her reputation.
Yet Bryce Milligan did not stop with public clownery. He was (and still is) the kind of person who will always attempt to transgress the boundaries (social and personal) set before him.
And people knew about that too.
Why? Because I told them.
I told them that Bryce Milligan tried to force his tongue down my throat in the hallway outside of my apartment in August of 1999.
I told them that he rushed at me, backed me into a corner, and attempted to kiss me against my will.
I told them that I instinctively clamped my mouth shut, and Bryce Milligan loomed over me and licked my face in the process of trying to force open my mouth.
I told them that it lasted only a second but it felt like an hour.
When Bryce Milligan decided to stop assaulting me, he turned his heel on the landing and ran downstairs—slamming the common door of the fourplex behind him.
After he left, I went to meet a friend at Earl Abel’s. With shaky hands around my coffee cup, I told her what he did.
I made a decision then and there that I would tell everyone I knew who knew him or might meet him in the future—and decided that I would ask people to repeat that story to everyone they knew— because I wanted to make sure that no girl or young woman was ever assaulted by Bryce Milligan again.
That day, I told my story to at least 10 people.
But the next day, I left for graduate school in Los Angeles.
While in L.A., I kept speaking to people who worked in the arts in San Antonio because I had a long-time freelancing gig with the Express-News.
Everyone knew everyone in the arts scene of San Antonio at that time.
That means when I told those people what Bryce did to me and asked them to repeat it to others to spare any other female writer the same fate—those people knew hundreds of other people to whom they might tell.
In 2001, I received my MFA and moved back to San Antonio, where I continued to freelance and began to pick up adjunct teaching work through several different colleges and universities. I repeated my experience to numerous academic professionals about Bryce’s assault of my person.
Two years later, I was standing on the campus of a local university with a writer-professor I had known since my teens (but had not seen for years). I recounted Bryce’s assault.
This woman took this information in for a moment and then replied that she had figured something like that had happened because she hadn’t seen me around.
And then she said something that floored me:
Did you hear that Bryce Milligan emailed inappropriate letters to a 14-year-old girl at that [somewhat] new arts magnet school?
Her mother found the emails and went to the school administrators about it.
Bryce was offered the option to quit instead of being fired because he didn’t want his wife to find out.
Who knows? I said.
A pause stretched between us.
Everybody, she replied.
Then she corrected herself: Everybody but his wife.
To this moment, I don’t recall my response.
I recall that wide sky and its light curl of clouds.
I recall the green campus grass wore a chemical perfume.
I recall this story and that woman and the innocent young girl.
I recall my heart snapped in two clean pieces.
And I know I said something because I always say something.
Yet I don’t remember what.
2. AN ASIDE
Repeating this story over the years has not been a pleasurable experience.
Although I am a writer by profession, I am quite private about my personal life.
It was a constant embarrassment to admit this known idiot got the upper hand on me. (Or the upper lip. Shudder.)
My entire reason for talking about the assault was to make sure what happened to me didn’t happen to one more girl.
Often, I would start to tell people what I knew about Bryce and the 14-year-old student.
But soon they would stop me.
They already knew.
3. MEETING THE MAN
For nine years, Bryce Milligan pushed his way into my writing studies. He proclaimed his intent to “mentor me” when I was 16 and he was a writer in the schools.
So far, so normal, right?
The day he walked into our creative writing class (in 1991), all the juniors and seniors leaned back in their seats and took the correct measure of the man.
That first hour he made jokes and sang songs. He listed his writerly accomplishments. He told us about Wings Press. He may have given us a writing assignment. We may have written it and turned it in.
Then he left, with plans to return the following week.
So, what did you think? Our teacher smiled, beatific as you please. (Everyone loved her.)
A collective pause drifted through the room and lingered.
Finally, a boy spoke: Did everybody see how he was looking at Courtenay?
Everyone cracked up, including the teacher.
Me: You guys saw I was trying to hide behind B—, right?
B.: I was trying to hide behind L—!
L: I just raised my notebook. Y’all are on your own!
Okay, okay, said the teacher. He’s a little weird. But he has wonderful teaching skills. You’ll get a lot out of this, I promise.
[SCENE: The same time, the same place, a few weeks later.]
A boy: He only wants to talk about Courtenay’s writing.
Another boy: And Courtenay!
Me: Seriously, y’all—I’m sorry. I swear I’m not trying to take up all of his attention.
My friends: (In unison.) WE KNOW! HE’S A LECH!
Our teacher rolled her eyes, still smiling.
(We roared again.)
Something did happen though.
I gave Bryce Milligan (through my teacher) a story to critique and he brought it back covered in a smattering of notes.
At the end of the class, he stood by the teacher’s desk and walked me through the standard editorial marks and the written corrections.
They were typical things like take this comma out; this sentence could be tighter without losing the rhythm; the alliteration here is a little too precious; and my personal favorite:
I see what you’re trying to do here with your coinage from the word cacophony—
He paused for effect.
But when you read it out loud it sounds like CA-CA-PHONIC.
(I died from laughter on the spot.)
First rule of writing, Courtenay: Always read your drafts out loud.
It was a revelation. A freaking revelation.
You plan to be a writer, don’t you? He asked.
Yes, I answered, grave and 16 and small and tired.
That’s my plan.
He smiled—and for once, it wasn’t terrifying.
4. THE “MENTORSHIP”
Bryce stayed in contact with me by phone. He told me he wanted to nurture my talent and that he had great hopes for my future.
It’s the sort of thing anyone who wants to write with any seriousness hopes to hear.
But I was lucky—I had been mentored since grade school by some wonderful teachers. My mother paid for me to take poetry workshops, starting my freshman year of high school.
I wrote all the time and everywhere: after dance class, walking to piano lessons, while swinging my legs on the 92 bus going downtown (and again on the way home).
In my head, in my heart, in my sleep.
But all of this, I offer to you without pride. There were plenty of better young writers than me. I knew this then as I know it now: without malice. (Great writing is such a thrill.)
My point in bringing any of this up is to make plain the fact that I was not dazzled by Bryce Milligan. I did not think the writing world began, or ended, with this one man.
(But he certainly did.)
Notice what’s missing from this story so far?
Well, here you go!
A brief and by no means exhaustive synopsis of Bryce Milligan’s attempts to coerce me into a sexual relationship, starting in my junior year of high school all the way through college and one year beyond:
— No, I don’t want to be your “muse.” I’m my own muse.
— I appreciate your email, Bryce, and I love to talk writing with you, but could you quit with the compliments? You’re making me uncomfortable.
—Please stop talking about my legs, Bryce. Can we talk about my poem? Does my poem have any legs, Bryce?
— You called up my advisor and arranged to be my playwriting professor for my independent study? Without asking me. Well, that’s just wonderful. An entire semester of you.
— No, I don’t want to have an affair with you. Ever.
— DO NOT touch me on the shoulder. I DO NOT like to be touched.
— No, I plan to shop around that collection of poetry. I made a list from Poets & Writers.
— Please stop asking me to make love with (to? at?) you. You’re my mentor. I want you to be my mentor. That’s what makes you special to me.
— I agree it would look good on my MFA applications to have a book published by a respected small press. (A sigh.) I won’t send it out then.
— Thank you for publishing my collection of poetry. I can see that you decided to rewrite the poem I worked on for two years the night before it went to press. What do I think of it? (Silence.)
—You don’t have to come to my apartment to pick up the signed books. When my boyfriend gets home, we’ll bring them over to you. I don’t want you to throw out your back.
— Thank you for showing up with 10 minutes notice at my apartment to pick up the books. You did not know my apartment building had stairs? Let me help you carry those boxes down. No?
—Well, I appreciate you coming by, Bryce—but I planned to meet my best friend for coffee. You know I’m leaving for graduate school tomorrow.
— Dear Bryce: I cannot believe that you tried to stick your tongue down my throat this morning. Please don’t ever speak to me again.
— Bryce, I don’t care what you do with my printed books. I don’t care that I won’t be doing any readings in L.A. now. Just get out of my life. Don’t contact me anymore.
5. WHAT CAME AFTER
Life does what it does: continues forward with a lurch and a screech and a screaming of wheels.
Did I ever see Bryce Milligan again? No. The last time he attempted to speak to me was to determine where to send any royalty checks from the book he published. (He sent my mother a $7 check at some point in the last decade, and if I remember correctly, another check for $13 sometime after that.)
But it wasn’t the royalties I wanted.
With some friends, I made a spoken word and music version of Seven Cigarette Story to go with my book of poetry and photography that would be published by Wings Press.
Bryce offered to place the CD on his publishing imprint—a project he had no hand in creating, producing, compressing, or printing—because he “could get an ISBN number.”
Of course, I acquiesced because I didn’t know any better, and as I was in the middle of hanging the photography show that would accompany the book and CD release, I didn’t even think to verify this information elsewhere.
When he came to my apartment to “pick up the signed books” over a month later, he stole the masters for this project off of my desk, a space that sat just off of the living room and was in the process of being dismantled as I packed up my life to begin my next chapter, in the luscious mirage of Los Angeles.
I didn’t notice that he had managed to steal one last thing from me until I unpacked all of my belongings in our one room dingbat apartment in Van Nuys. By then, I couldn’t bring myself to go through all of the stress of trying to figure out a way to get the stolen masters back.
It was disheartening to watch people I knew for half of my life choose to openly dismiss Bryce’s disturbing and illegal behavior to my face—not because they didn’t believe it, but because they knew it to be true and it presented an obstacle to their own wants and desires.
To that end, responses to my story had a tendency to come in two nasty flavors:
1/ Bryce’s behavior was normalized to the point of banality for so many years that people considered his cross over the threshold from of saying and writing inappropriate things to actual physical force (of me) and the heartbreaking pursuit of a much younger girl (Hailey Lane Johnson) as an absolutely natural progression.
Or, more succinctly—
“Yeah, that’s Bryce.” Shrug.
2/ Equally as often, people would listen to my story, believe me, but then start to provide strange excuses for his behavior, tales of their own happy recent encounters with Bryce involving their publishing career, or, in one case, approach me a year later in the middle of a grocery store to let me know Bryce Milligan told her that he had actually given me a “European kiss.”
What’s a European kiss? I asked.
She paused. —friendly. Like between friends. He flirts with me all the time. It’s just how he is.
Look, I grew up around people from Europe. I can’t think of a single culture in which cornering someone and lunging at their face with their tongue out would be considered “friendly.”
We stood there and stared at one another.
Well, she said. (The sparkle in her voice gone dark and flat.) I just thought I would tell you.
You sure did. You definitely told me.
Our carts clattered in different directions.
Neither of us looked back.
Here’s a Q&A I wrote about Bryce Milligan, myself, and sexual harassment/assault that I hope will answer any other questions you may have.