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

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; C01

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.

"I feel unspeakably saddened by Kevin's death," he wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The Post, "but I do not feel responsible."

His lawyer, Lloyd Snook of Charlottesville, said there is scant evidence to support a claim that Morrissey was bullied to death.

"There were basically no complaints to Ted or about Ted to the university" until this spring, Snook said. Genoways and Morrissey communicated mostly by e-mail toward the end, Snook said, and "the e-mails I've seen don't seem to be particularly nasty."

Snook said that July 30, the day of Morrissey's death, was the unofficial deadline for him and the journal staff to hand over accounting and personnel records, part of what Casteen called "a quiet and orderly transfer" of the magazine from the president's office to another university department. In a May 21 e-mail to Genoways, Casteen wrote that the incoming president "expects me to leave a blank desk for her."

University officials say there was no such deadline.

They have closed the offices of the Review, founded in 1925 and housed in a campus building designed by Thomas Jefferson, pending the outcome of the investigation. The fall issue is in production. Most of the staff have had their names removed from the masthead, angry that the university chose to publish the proofs submitted by Genoways. University officials say the issue will include elements from both of the competing submissions.

"The university decided that it was in the best interests of the VQR staff for them to be able to take a much-needed break once the fall issue had been sent to the printer last Thursday," said university spokeswoman Carol Wood. "The goal is to give them the time they feel they need."

Wood said the closure is temporary. Sullivan, she said, "sees great value" in carrying on with the journal.

Success, then tension

Genoways and Morrissey became friends in 2000, when they met at the obscure Minnesota Historical Society Press. Genoways had penned several slim chapbooks of poetry and was bound for national recognition. Morrissey lacked a college degree but was hardworking and intelligent; he had scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT.

The ascendant poet took over the literary journal in 2003, at 31, hired by a search committee to raise the Review's currency. He hired Morrissey a year later. The meticulous deputy had the tools to realize Genoways's vision. Together they expanded the journal from poetry and short stories into progressive politics, covering the war in Iraq and drug cartels in Mexico, adding graphics and comics and attracting such noted authors as Joyce Carol Oates and Isabel Allende. In 2006, the 3,500-circulation publication earned two National Magazine Awards.

By 2009, the journal's budget had swelled to more than $500,000 and Genoways's salary reached $134,000.

The Review was Casteen's "baby," one employee said. Its ascent brought acclaim to U-Va. from the literary establishment. Genoways had even arranged for the 2009 publication of a book of poems by Casteen's son, John Casteen IV, as part of a poetry series. (University officials said that the elder Casteen was traveling and unavailable for comment for this report.)

Working at the journal was "the best job I ever had in the world," said Sheila McMillen, its associate editor. "We were all incredibly happy."

The staff was happy in part because Genoways had put his managing editor in charge. Genoways often worked from home or the road, tending to his authors and leaving Morrissey to run the office. Morrissey, though single and out of touch with his family, became close to his journal colleagues.

Last winter, the office climate began to sour. Casteen was leaving, and there was no telling how the pampered publication would fare under his replacement. Genoways had spent heavily to build up the journal, drawing down one investment fund from $800,000 to $204,000 to cover hefty article fees and international travel.

One colleague said Genoways trained much of his angst on Morrissey, shouting at him behind closed doors, subjecting him to a daily pattern of "insidious harassment, undermining, casual erasure of the person."

Genoways made a fateful decision. He hired Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, 24, a U-Va. graduate from a wealthy Silicon Valley family who had given $1.5 million to the university's Young Writers Workshop. Though she started as a volunteer, Levinson-LaBrosse was put on the masthead and given space in Genoways's office, where she effectively supplanted Morrissey as his deputy. Together they began fishing for new funding sources and seeking a new home within the university for the magazine after Casteen.

Colleagues bristled at the newcomer, who now seemed the only Review employee with Genoways's ear. The top editor was away more than ever, off on a Guggenheim Fellowship to study Walt Whitman. Morrissey and some of his colleagues perceived the young fundraiser acting as liaison to senior university officials, marshaling sensitive data "and, to some extent, giving orders," Snook said.

"There is no question that her coming gave a lot of people heartburn," he said. "My own belief was that they were treating Alana as Ted's spy."

Nowhere to go

Resentment peaked at a July 14 staff meeting. Levinson-LaBrosse told colleagues she would be meeting with a senior university official about the magazine's future. Sources say Waldo Jaquith, the online editor, challenged her: "Don't you think Kevin should be there?" He sarcastically offered to chip in gas money so the benched managing editor could join the trip.

Levinson-LaBrosse offered no comment on the incident, except to say that meeting they discussed was merely "logistical" in nature.

Jaquith has declined to comment, saying he had been criticized after speaking against Genoways on NBC's "Today" show. On that Aug. 23 broadcast, Jaquith said, "Ted's treatment of Kevin in the last two weeks of his life was just egregious, and it just ate Kevin up."

A few days after the meeting, Genoways informed Jaquith and Morrissey by e-mail that they had committed "unacceptable workplace behavior." He ordered them to vacate the journal offices for a week and not to speak to their colleagues.

"If you are already at VQR office," Genoways wrote, "leave immediately and do not return to the office until July 26."

Morrissey felt isolated and anxious, his sister said. He prepared a letter of resignation. But as a 52-year-old man with an esoteric literary job and no college degree, he felt he had nowhere to go. Morrissey placed calls to the university president's office, its ombudsman and the faculty and staff relations office to complain about Genoways, Maria Morrissey said. Telephone records confirm at least 11 such calls.

Genoways called meetings with Morrissey and Jaquith on July 26, a Monday. The president's chief of staff sat in. Jaquith resigned on the spot. Genoways was later admonished for exiling the two men and ordered not to retaliate, a belated concession to Morrissey's fears.

But by the end of the week, Genoways had sent officious e-mails to at least two Review employees. One, associate editor Molly Minturn, went to the president's office in tears and was told she might be suffering from post-traumatic stress, colleagues said. Minturn could not be reached for comment for this story.

Another missive went to Morrissey, taking the managing editor to task for a perceived lapse in management.

A Mexican newspaper editor with ties to the journal had sent a note saying he had been beaten and his family threatened -- although his e-mail did not specifically ask for help. Morrissey had forwarded the note to Genoways nine days later.

Genoways asked Morrissey, "Why did it take you ten days to forward a message from someone asking our assistance with saving his life?"

Genoways sent the message at 9:47 a.m. Within two hours, Morrissey had set out for the coal tower.

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