A Q&A with Courtenay Martin about Bryce Milligan: The Lecherous Literary Man

Black and white photo of girls reading in swings in the 1900s

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS: Women and girls reading near swing set where younger children are suspended in hammock like swings (July 1910, NYPL)

A note: This Q&A is a follow-up to this essay: Bryce Milligan: A Lecherous Literary Man

 

WHY ARE YOU SPEAKING OUT NOW?

 

I am speaking out for two reasons:

1/ I read Hailey Layne Johnson’s account of her experiences at the hands of Bryce Milligan and it saddened and enraged me. 

At that point, I knew I was going to write to her, if nothing else.

2/ Shortly thereafter, I read Bryce Milligan’s imperious and absolutely fallacious public statement. That sealed the deal.

 

I hope Bryce has felt the Sword of Damocles hanging by a single gnarled thread over his head for the last week.

He had to have known I’d be coming for him. I never put up with his **** then, and I won’t put up with it now.

 

But remember—I’ve been telling my story for 20 years to anyone who would listen.

While I’m an incredibly private person in many ways, the thought of Bryce Milligan getting away with doing to some other woman or girl what he had done to me in that hallway angered me so thoroughly that I made it my mission to speak up.

And when it happened again (to Hailey Lane Johnson), I spoke up about that too. (But most people already knew.)

 

WHY DID IT TAKE A WEEK FOR YOU TO SAY SOMETHING AFTER HAILEY LANE JOHNSON’S HEARTBREAKING STORY?

 

Let me be honest: I am not happy to be telling this long story to you all.

Normally, I’m pretty circumspect about these sorts of things.

 

Reading Johnson’s harrowing account and her loss of agency thanks to her peers, her parents, the administrators and teachers of the school, and others really hurt me deep down in my gut.

Being disbelieved on that scale can do serious damage to your ability to trust your own impressions of the world as well as your desire to trust and engage with people on anything more than a superficial level.

Because of the magnitude of what happened to her, I wanted to write something that might allow her to see that what Bryce Milligan tried to do to her was not all that different than what he tried to do to me in intent and trajectory, if not size and import.

 

I talked to friends of mine privately on FB and outlined the difficulties of writing about my Bryce Milligan saga, as well as my hopes for this piece in terms of clarifying the kind of things Bryce was prone to do. A large concern for me then and now is the lack of diversity in the way people have responded to his dangerous choices over the years.

As always, I am grateful for my friends’ insight and input.

 

In addition to speaking my truth, I wanted people in San Antonio to start ruminating about other ways they had, by their inaction, given this predator plausible cover with which to continue ruining young girls’ dreams.

Bryce Milligan was able to operate the way he did for as long as he did because individuals and communities offered him the VENEER of RESPECTABILITY.

 

There’s no way I was the first girl he tried to harass and coerce into a sexual relationship.

And I really don’t think Hailey Layne Johnson was the last.

The standard M.O. of a molester is to continue his crimes until he is caught. Period.

 

HAVE YOU SPOKEN TO HAILEY LAYNE JOHNSON?

 

No, but I would like to touch base with her—that is, if she feels like talking to me. She’s been through a lot in the last week.

 

WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SOMETHING TO OTHER PEOPLE / TRY TO GET AWAY FROM HIM BEFORE HE ASSAULTED YOU?

 

First of all, people knew. He said weird and inappropriate things to a lot of women and girls.

Long before I met him, Bryce Milligan had developed a reputation for being creepy.

So much so that people joked about it, which of course normalized behavior that was gross even by the standards of the times.

Every time I went somewhere with Bryce Milligan and there were other people around, they saw—and sometimes noted out loud—that Bryce appeared to be giving me a weird amount of attention.

What they did not say (or need to say) is that his attention was not being returned by me one bit.

But it’s also important to remind everyone that this kind of behavior towards women and girls was still considered somewhat alright within the then current social contract.

 

In fact, Bryce was not even close to the first teacher or adult who made comments about my physique alongside some sort of patter about my so-called talents.

The unspoken rule 20 years ago was that I would be expected to hold the line of decency to the best of my ability—and hold that line I did.

To complain or speak up was to have every opportunity snap shut in your face, never to return.

Plus, Bryce Milligan would have made it his mission to see to it that I never got writing work in San Antonio with anyone.

I had seen him be vindictive to other people who he felt had crossed him.

He enjoyed gossip and he liked to know people’s secrets.

He really liked to have power and it made him happy to feel as though he had the upper hand in most work and social situations.

 

But he’s not special in any respect when this subject comes up.

Men still run the writing world—everywhere.

The stories I am telling you now are alarming not because of their audacity—they’re alarming because only a few months ago no one knew (or admitted) that this is the way writing by women gets published in the media, by literary houses, in tech writing departments—all over the place.

And it’s happening somewhere right now in America as you read this sentence.

Should anyone be blamed for Bryce Milligan actions at the time, it would most certainly have been me—which is asinine and backwards—but this attitude lives on in the outline of rape culture (“How short was your skirt, miss?”), Matt Lauer’s well-oiled auto-lock button, and Harvey Weinstein’s hotel bathrobes stretching for miles and miles with no end in sight.

 

What made Milligan slightly distinct as a predator was his persistence in contacting me and his insistence on inserting himself into every single aspect of my development as a writer—whether he was invited to do so or not.

To be clear: I spent the entire duration of our mentorship telling him where to get off.

It was especially awful because his abilities as a mentor were considerable, up to a point.

He could be quite generous with his knowledge and his time—but everything had its price tag.

 

Seriously though, it wasn’t until I began writing my essay that I realized that just being around Bryce Milligan all those years made me feel as though I was constantly balancing on the edge of a knife.

Dredging all of this up has been exhausting.

 

WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL THE POLICE THAT DAY?

 

Here’s the scenario I expected to happen to me because it had happened to so many people I knew who had gone through a great deal more violence than I did at the hands of Bryce Milligan:

“MA’AM, are you SURE you want to REPORT this man KISSED YOU? It looks to me like YOU INVITED HIM TO YOUR APARTMENT and LED HIM ON. Maybe YOU KISSED HIM and now YOU’RE REGRETTING IT. I’m sorry, but there’s NOT ENOUGH INFORMATION HERE with which to take a report. You need to think carefully before you call police again for a MATTER that SOUNDS LIKE A SPAT BETWEEN LOVERS.”

So, no. I did not call the cops.

 

YOU FREELANCED FOR THE EXPRESS-NEWS AT THE TIME.

WHY DIDN’T THEY RUN A STORY ABOUT BRYCE’S ASSAULT?

 

No one in their right mind would have considered Bryce’s assault newsworthy at the time. Not even me.

Newspapers then (and now) don’t really take the assault of young women with much seriousness because someone is sexually assaulted in the United States every 98 seconds.

Also, Bryce Milligan’s name meant something in a lot of places. Even though people believed me, accusing Bryce of assault or impropriety would have put me—and whomever wrote about what he did that day—over a splinter-filled barrel—not him.

Plus, the only evidence of the assault I had was an email Bryce wrote to me that same afternoon in reply to the “cease and desist” I wrote earlier that day.

(But I did tell people at the E-N. )

 

Not a single person I ever told anywhere thought I was lying, by the way.

 

WHAT DID BRYCE’S EMAIL SAY?

 

The usual nonsense.

He apologized for his actions in my hallway. . . to my boyfriend (as if I was some piece of property that Bryce tried to borrow without permission).

The reason for his apology? Bryce really hoped that [my boyfriend] wouldn’t show up to his house and beat him senseless—a notion he underscored a few times.

He then went on to say something along the lines of “I hope you don’t think the thing that happened in your hallway [note the passive phrasing] reflects my opinion on your talents and writing abilities, etc., etc.”

 

DO YOU HAVE A COPY OF THAT EMAIL NOW?

 

I kept a folder with a smattering of nine years’ worth of correspondence with Bryce Milligan that included the (sort of) self-incriminating letter just in case something came up.

While it’s possible I still have that folder somewhere, it’s more likely that I purged it when I moved to the place where I live now because it dredged up too many bad memories.

At the time, I believed that there must have been NO WAY Bryce Milligan would be invited to teach preteen/teen girls after his firing from NESA.

Every overlapping writing and literary community in San Antonio knew a about his behavior as a teacher at NESA. (How do I know that? Because people from many of these communities tried to tell me the story, thinking I didn’t know.)

These communities obviously didn’t know the full story that we know now, but the details we did know should have been quite enough to keep him out of local classrooms, writing outreach programs, and free library workshops.

 

I’m not sure what Bryce did work-wise in the last 20 years, but I would be definitely interested to find out if he was allowed to teach young people again and who made that possible.

 

HOWEVER, I have plenty of witnesses—friends and acquaintances—who can speak to Bryce’s lecherous vibe and creepy actions when he was around me in public. No one who knew me liked that man.

 

ONE MORE IMPORTANT DETAIL

 

While I was in graduate school (1999-2001), I heard he had been offered a job to teach writing at a high school arts magnet school full time.

I panicked and rang a bunch of people for advice about what to do. Should I call somebody at the school and warn them? Would they listen to me, take me seriously?

The consensus was: No, they would not. Whoever you speak to is going to think you have some personal vendetta against Bryce Milligan.

So I didn’t call.

I still don’t think that would have made a difference:

“WHO is this? You’re Bryce Milligan’s WHAT? WHY are you calling me?” (A pause.) “I see. Well, I’m very sorry, MISS MARTIN, but Bryce has an EXCELLENT REPUTATION in this community. Thank you so much for calling. GOODBYE.”

 

WHY SHOULD I BELIEVE YOU?

 

*Sigh* The last thing I ever wanted was to have my good name attached to Captain Weird Beard for the rest of my life.

Because that’s what happens to women who come forward about men who assault and/or harass them—they lose their public names, careers and reputations.

Just look at recent headlines.

The women who outed Bill Cosby will be forever known as “BILL COSBY’S ACCUSERS.” Actresses who stood up to Weinstein are now “WEINSTEIN’S VICTIMS.”

That’s one problem. Here’s another:

Let’s examine at a recent headline closer to home:

“BRYCE MILLIGAN ACCUSED OF INAPPROPRIATE CONDUCT BY FORMER STUDENT”

Bryce Milligan doesn’t stand accused by his former student: Evidence in the form of emails and eyewitness accounts were put forward by Hailey Layne Johnson and her family to the school. The school accused Bryce Milligan themselves.

Also, an accused man faces no repercussions for being accused.

It’s only when evidence is produced that there are repercussions.

That evidence was presented and verified.

There were many witnesses in that room who allowed Bryce to “leave” his job after reviewing that self-same evidence.

In essence, he was fired.

That is a concrete repercussion for his known actions.

The hed should have read:

FORMER STUDENT MOLESTED BY BRYCE MILLIGAN BRINGS NEW DETAILS TO LIGHT

 

I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?

 

Oh, honey—I have way better things to do that fret over a bee in somebody else’s bonnet. Go eat a taco somewhere and cool off.

 

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE #METOO MOVEMENT?

 

I hope people keep coming forward and institutions and communities keep trying to do the right thing. All of this is positive stuff.

But I have been studying the intersection of feminism, racism, and totalitarianism at close range since the summer of 2014 for a long-term writing project.

(You should see my bookshelves right now—I’ve managed to find some amazing things.)

What studying these movements has taught me is that some things move forward abruptly, changing the framework with which we view civilization as we know it, while many other things are cyclical, tightening inward when there’s a backlash and expanding outward when new technologies or old ideas presented in new ways provide the impetus for a possible zeitgeist.

I’m not sure whether #METOO falls under the first category or the second, but I really hope it’s the first.

 

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING FOR ALL THESE YEARS AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?

 

THE SHORT VERSION:

Let’s see: I finished graduate school, and moved back to the city of my birth because I found L.A. beautiful but exhausting. What I really wanted was to write in peace and spend my grandmother’s last years with her (as we had become quite close), so that’s more or less what I did.

 

THE LONG VERSION:

Within weeks of returning home, I resumed freelancing.

Six months later, I picked up some great adjunct teaching work. I continued to revise the novel that had started out as my MFA thesis and I started photographing my next collection of works for a small gallery in Southtown.

With two of my best friends (one is a wonderful fashion designer and the other was  my fashion editor at the Express-News), I DIY’ed my tiny wedding to my sweetheart back in 2002.

 

It’s one of my favorite moments because all of my friends and family looked blissed out and happy in every photo because I designed our wedding to celebrate the people we love.

 

Within a year of being married, I physically collapsed.

My family took me to doctors and specialists, one after the other. First, locally, then statewide.

A diagnoses was put forth—then another and another and another and. . . I spent 2004 to 2011 bedridden with multiple (genetic) health issues that should have been addressed at the onset of puberty.

 

For at least half of those years, my cognitive functions and memory were so affected I couldn’t even read a book, much less write one.

It was hard for my friends and colleagues, many who were in their 20s and early 30s, to relate to what was happening to me. Plus, I was so different from who I had been before out of necessity.

 

Most of my life, I’ve been ambitious, energetic, and curious about the world. I loved working. I loved cheering on my friends’ projects and accomplishments.

Due to my health, my life became much smaller and more focused on quality versus quantity.

 

I resumed writing in autumn of 2011. But I have had to take breaks of several months to a year at a time when my health has gotten worse. (Medications stop working, new conditions reveal themselves, once resolved problems rear their heads again. Thank goodness I see some great doctors.)

When I’m doing well enough to think, I write. I take photographs. And I do what I can where I can to live with love and appreciation and my sense of wonder still intact.

 

ARE YOU SURE YOU NEVER SPOKE TO BRYCE MILLIGAN AGAIN?

 

In all this time, I only contacted him once—this year—on the FB page for Wings Press—when I found bootleg digital copies of the Bryce Milligan-altered text of my book all over the place.

To have them taken down from the internet requires the person who has ownership of the work to fill out a form. (I hated the thought of having to talk to him.)

He never replied.

Seven Cigarette Story is mine once again.