Editor’s note: This item, which was originally published on April 16 and updated on April 17, has been restored to its original version to eliminate assertions that had not been subject to appropriate editorial review. We regret the lapse.
A new documentary on the suicide of an editor at an esteemed University of Virginia literary journal illustrates how complicated human relationships can appear when examined in depth.
Kevin Morrissey shot himself to death inside an old coal tower in Charlottesville in the summer of 2010. His relatives and some co-workers linked the death to a difficult working relationship between Morrissey, 52, and his boss, Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
The label “workplace bullying” was affixed, and eventually the case was embraced as a textbook example of a manager’s verbal and psychological abuse of an employee.
That reading is far too simple, argues Beverly Peterson, a filmmaker and educator who has just completed a documentary on Morrissey titled “What Killed Kevin?” She says she plans to submit it to festivals.
Genoways resigned this month to pursue a writing career. A U-Va. statement notes he led the publication to an unprecedented six National Magazine Awards in a nine-year tenure.
Colleagues joined with Morrissey’s sister in alleging that Morrissey’s toxic relationship with Genoways was a central factor in his death. Genoways asserted that he and Morrissey had, in fact, been close friends. He attributes Morrissey’s death to a history of depression and other personal and professional demons.
“Kevin’s mood could be dark for days, weeks at a time, in ways that weren’t always visible to the rest of the staff,” Genoways says in the documentary, which I viewed on Peterson’s Web site.
People have argued back and forth for two years about the merits of the “bully” label in Morrissey’s death. Peterson came to believe it doesn’t really fit; she said she reviewed copious documents portraying Genoways’s behavior toward Morrissey and found few, if any, incidents that struck her as clear cases of bullying.
Her film makes a case that the “bully” characterization drowned out the nuances of an exceedingly complex narrative. (And that, at least, is a characterization with which others close to the story would undoubtedly agree.)
“I want people to stop looking for easy answers, to stop looking to point fingers,” she said, in a telephone interview. “Once you use that bully label, that becomes what it’s all about.”
Journal employee Waldo Jaquith, speaking on “Today,” excerpted in the documentary, makes perhaps the most direct accusation against Genoways:
“Ted’s treatment of Kevin in the last two weeks of his life was just egregious, and it just ate Kevin up,” he says.
Later in the documentary, he says, “There was no question what had happened. He’d had the worst week of his life, is what had happened . . . That morning was the worst it had ever been.”
Genoways had banned Morrissey from the office over a conflict with another staffer. And on the morning Morrissey died, he had read a caustic e-mail from Genoways about journal business.
Morrissey complained repeatedly to university administrators. Here is a synopsis of that correspondence.
But Genoways said Morrissey had a history of problems with authority. He said Morrissey himself had predicted he would have a falling-out with Genoways if he went to work for him in Charlottesville.
Uncertainties over the journal’s future in 2010, as the university prepared for a new president and the publication readied for a move, fed Morrissey’s concerns about his own place in the organization.
“Kevin was sinking into a deeper and deeper depression because of false assumptions,” Genoways says.
Peterson says Morrissey’s colleagues were never happy themselves, with the “bully” tag. At one point in the film, Jaquith states enigmatically, “There aren’t clear bad guys; there aren’t clear good guys.”
The film ultimately portrays Genoways as a victim — of overhyped reporting, and of exploitation by advocates of workplace-bullying legislation, who have used the case as a national exemplar.
“For the rest of my career, anybody who decides they don’t like me, all they have to do is say they’ve been bullied by me and it’ll be one more mark against my name,” Genoways says.
I should note, though, that former journal employees have repeatedly asserted that they feel as strongly as ever that Genoways bears some responsibility in Morrissey’s death. One of them, Molly Minturn, wrote this in an e-mail last May:
“I have avoided using the term ‘bully’ publicly in the past because I think it is a catchphrase. I think ‘created a toxic work environment’ is more precise. But for Genoways to say, ‘No one with first-hand knowledge of events — not former staff, not university officials — now describes what happened as “bullying,”’ is not true. I hope it will become clear to Ted that I absolutely consider him a bully and many others do, as well.”