Virginia Quarterly Review staffer died by his own hand, but he reached out first

Kevin Morrissey
Kevin Morrissey (Courtesy Of Maria Morrissey - Courtesy Of Maria Morrissey)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Charlottesville offices of the Virginia Quarterly Review are dark. The locks have been changed. Most of the staff have resigned or taken leave. There were two competing drafts of the fall issue, one assembled by the journal's editor, the other by members of his estranged staff. The winter issue has been canceled.

There are two divergent accounts, as well, of why the managing editor of the University of Virginia's esteemed literary journal walked to a lonely coal tower on a July morning and shot himself in the head.

Surviving relatives and some co-workers portray Kevin Morrissey, 52, as the target of a workplace bully. Their narrative has an unlikely villain: Ted Genoways, 38, a decorated poet who led a transformation of the Review from a low-budget black-and-white journal into a colorful, edgy magazine that is cited among the best literary publications in the country. According to Maria Morrissey, Kevin Morrissey's sister, a caustic e-mail from Genoways was on her brother's computer screen when he died.

Genoways and some of his supporters say Morrissey's death was simply a suicide: a man choosing to die and blaming no one, leaving a note that said, "I can't bear things anymore."

The investigation has divided the literary community. Some have vilified Genoways as the archetypal bad boss, a symbol of the dysfunctional workplace. But a letter submitted to several publications last month and signed by 30 Review contributors defends the editor-poet as "professional, tactful, and respectful."

After weeks of mounting scrutiny, the university is questioning its own role in the affair. Teresa A. Sullivan, who assumed the presidency of Virginia's flagship public university two days after Morrissey's death, said in an Aug. 19 statement that the suicide had "raised questions about the university's response to employees' concerns about the workplace climate" at the journal. She announced "a thorough review," led by Barbara Deily, the university's chief audit executive, with a Sept. 30 deadline. University officials said there is no criminal investigation.

'He asked for help'

Morrissey died on a momentous day. July 30 was the last official work day of John T. Casteen III, the 20-year president of U-Va. The magazine and its top editor had reported directly to the president. That would end with Casteen's exit, and the future of the Review and its six-person staff lay in question.

That morning, Morrissey walked from his Charlottesville condominium to a nearby coal tower that is an industrial landmark. He called 911 to report gunfire. Then he shot himself.

His siblings and some colleagues portray the cluttered offices of the Review as the scene of a tragic workplace drama. Genoways was hired as an artist, not as a manager. Some say he managed badly, alternately distancing himself from his staff and harassing them with abrasive e-mails.

Kevin Morrissey "was the primary target," said Maria Morrissey, "and the one least able to deal with it," because of a lifelong battle with depression. She and most of the staff cast the university as a negligent employer, unable to break a cycle of verbal harassment. Kevin Morrissey placed at least 11 telephone calls to U-Va. officials in the final two weeks of his life, phone records show. Two colleagues said they had told administrators they feared for Morrissey's well-being.

"Nobody killed Kevin but himself," said a journal staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisal. "But there are many people who could have helped. And he asked for help."

Genoways has made little public comment. In a private e-mail to friends, two days after Morrissey's death, the editor acknowledged a "poisonous" tension inside the journal in recent weeks. He mostly blamed Morrissey, an old friend who, he said, had "cut himself off" and withdrawn into a brooding private space as his depression darkened. Much of the staff sided with Morrissey, Genoways said, even as his work product and professional demeanor declined.

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