How I became my own Ronan Farrow
UPDATE — Sept. 24, 2:21pm. A previous version of the following update alluded to an unnamed site. I can now confirm that site was BunnyEars.com, which has partnered with Modern Rogue in the past.
Brian Brushwood of the Modern Rogue released a statement clarifying that John Cheese has been severed completely from the site and his pieces unpublished. Brushwood also apologized for his behavior and said MR would be holding an emergency staff meeting to address urgent concerns about the workplace’s environment. This is due in part to what is outlined below, but I believe additionally due to BunnyEars.com, which shares several contributors with MR, cutting off all ties to MR for Brushwood’s handling of the situation.
A statement from BunnyEars editor-in-chief Shawn DePasquale announcing their hardline stance and ending their partnership with Modern Rogue is included below. Tremendous thanks to Shawn and the entire BunnyEars.com team for their support and allyship amid news of these allegations.
However, it’s clear that Brushwood’s “come to Jesus” moment came as the result of increased financial threat, not as a natural response to a moral crisis. I still do not trust Modern Rogue to be a safe space for female writers and still assert that it should be avoided at all costs until they can provide significant evidence of improvement.
UPDATE — Sept. 24, 6:42pm. Cracked has completely removed John Cheese’s posts. However, articles and “Staff Writer” bylines that link back to his account still remain as the server is processing the cache. Modern Rogue has removed all of John Cheese’s posts. Jason Pargin/David Wong has set up a streamlined way for people to report inappropriate behavior from writers/mods/members and to request content from other former writers to be removed from the site.
I want to say up top that over the course of the last few days, I received information from several women — some of whom have stated their claims publicly and some who have asked for total anonymity. As things developed beyond myself and my experiences, I exercised due diligence in examining the veracity of claims. Some of these claims I’m still working to verify. Additionally, there are some who have firsthand knowledge of my situation who have asked to remain anonymous. I will denote pseudonyms with an asterisk and I have chosen to withhold identifying details of both women who came forward as well as people who helped me. This in no way should imply that the stories below haven’t been verified or vetted, and that there aren’t more on the way.
1. Going public
On Friday morning, I wrote a post on Facebook going public about how John Cheese (Mack Leighty, hereafter “Mack”) sexually harassed me in 2014. At least 3 staff members at Cracked can vouch that this occurred and that corrective action was taken, despite the repeated failings of Demand Media’s HR team. The people I went to were supportive — one even contacting me months later hoping that I felt as comfortable and safe as possible in working with Cracked. However, the best that could be done (and again, this I attribute to the HR team that was with Cracked at the time, not the staffers I worked with) was to remove Mack from his column. The issue, by HR standards, was settled. But he continued to work for the site. The gross objectification I felt over him using his relative success to intimidate me into not speaking up sooner or shutting him down more immediately did not abate. I would later discover that Mack has a long history of using his job and title to prey on women.
A friend asked me last night what prompted me to say something. Truthfully, it’s the news cycle. At the height of Weinstein allegations, I reached out to Mack’s wife and told her what happened. She was very sympathetic and apologetic and noted that he’d gone to therapy and that as far as she knew, he’d simply talked to women. End of story. That set off alarm bells: His wife thinks it’s just talking. Women. In the plural. I let this sit, uneasy in my stomach. Until this week.
I wrote a long post on Medium detailing the entire saga — who I spoke with, exact dates, how everything evolved. I saved it as a draft and reached out to two people — Robert Evans, who is the editor I originally told my story to, and a second former staff member at Cracked who, for reasons both legal and personal, has asked not to be named. I sent the draft to Evans, who confirmed the timeline of events was accurate with his memory of the situation. I asked both him and the second staffer if they would vouch for my story, should the need arise. Both agreed without hesitation.
But I shelved the draft. Having their confirmation and approval, I suddenly didn’t feel that a lengthy dissection of the specifics was necessary. If someone asked for more information, I could provide it. I had done the legwork and was ready to lean on it if needed — say, if Mack attempted to contradict my coming forward.
On Friday morning — a day after reaching out to Evans and the other Cracked staffer, I posted on Facebook a brief summary. I shared it on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. I felt nauseated and overwhelmed to have finally come forward. I was shaking. I then went to work and spent half the day in a haze of anxiety. I’ve been through the public humiliation, the harassment, the questioning and undermining and character assassination before. I knew I could handle it again. But, was I ready? Would anyone even notice? Or care?
When I went public Friday, support streamed in. Friends and family, shocked and sympathetic reached out. In the afternoon, I received a text from a friend telling me that they knew someone else he’d done this to, but couldn’t tell me who it was. I asked if I could screenshot their text to share. They agreed. This, I believe, is what set everything in motion.
Shortly thereafter, I received a message from Donna* who is a mutual friend with the person who’d texted me. She detailed how Mack had spent years grooming and manipulating her. Telling her if she stopped talking to him, his wife would kill herself. Making her feel like maybe she was a bad writer. That the only reason she’d been courted by Cracked wasn’t because she was a good writer, but because Mack wanted to string her along and flex his power.
“I had friends at Cracked that would always ask why I didn’t submit anymore and I just told them I was busy,” Donna explained to me. “I thought I was a shit writer because he was only interested in sending me unprompted sexual messages. I didn’t write again for a long, long time.”
As soon as I posted that screenshot from a friend, it was like a bomb went off. I was receiving texts, Facebook messages, emails, DMs, and replies on Twitter all sharing experiences with Mack. Their stories vary in intensity, but one common thread was that he was using his “celebrity” status, during his time on Pointless Waste of Time (PWOT) and on after as an editor and columnist at Cracked, to seek out women and wield his authority to intimidate them into giving him sexual attention on-demand.
Emily*, a longtime friend of mine who had previously told me that Mack was a “creep” said he would randomly message her to compliment her:
“He DMed me several times just to tell me I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and it was uncomfortable because I didn’t know him or why he was doing it.”
Ashley*, who was 15 at the time of her interactions with Mack, outlined a similar experience. “I thought it was cool at first because he thought I was funny and I looked up to him as a writer, but after he commented on my looks I thought it was pretty weird,” she told me over DM. He would message her after she posted a selfie, which felt “creepy,” she notes, “considering I looked very young and just followed his twitter because I thought he was funny.”
Theresa* said similar, again: “He would message me compliments and immediately delete the conversation… Tame I guess but made me uncomfortable… The deleting of the DMs made me super uncomfortable. I was brand new to twitter and honestly not funny or interesting yet [so] it was pretty obvious why these guys started following me.”
A pattern — albeit not technically harassment — began to emerge. A pattern where Mack sought out women who are fans or follow him, without any justifiable explanation as to why, to strike up conversation about their looks. In Ashley’s case, the messages stopped when she stopped responding. Theresa, however, had told Mack he was being creepy. His response? “This isn’t sexual. I tell a lot of my followers male and female that they’re beautiful.”
The “why me?” behind these messages — and to be sure, there are more messages than what I’ve shared — has come up across every conversation I’ve had with women coming forward. There’s a collective confusion among these women who don’t know each other, work together, or have ever interacted with each other. Separately, they detail how Mack used his status to be a creep to unsuspecting fans. The answer seems to be that these women are vulnerable in some respect. For Theresa and Ashley, their vulnerability is that they were fans. For Emily, her vulnerability was just…being a woman on Twitter, following a verified account who interacts with other people she follows.
In my case, my vulnerability was that I was brand new to the Cracked community and trying to establish connections — a misstep, where if a higher up labels me as uncooperative, rude, etc., suddenly all the doors could close in my face. For two female Cracked contributors, their experience was of a boss saying wildly inappropriate, unprompted things. One of these women told me Mack had wished they both weren’t married so they could date. The other is Jane*, whose experiences were shared with me but who until recently I hadn’t been in contact with. Since posting this piece, Jane and I connected and this segment has been updated to more accurately reflect her experiences and position among all of this. I feel the best way to detail her experience is by just sharing what she’s said. [Edit: Removed for her safety/moving on]
In her post and in speaking with me, Jane has maintained an insistence that she didn’t pursue HR against Mack — they’d developed a relationship beyond that. She, understandably, wanted to protect the man she loved.
Despite how their relationship progressed, there are hallmarks in Jane’s experience that fit right in with women who rejected Mack’s advances. And this creates a scary sort of playbook that Mack seemed to use to varying degrees of success: unprompted, sexually explicit messaging. Deleting those messages and playing it down, likely to test the waters and see how much further he could go. Becoming psychologically manipulative, leaning on Jane’s known vulnerabilities to create the perfect victim who doesn’t think she’s a victim.
I’ve now heard from others at Cracked that the fact Mack — and others — continued at the site falls on the shoulders of Demand Media, which owned Cracked at the time, and their HR department. Robert Evans and Jason Pargin have both made statements that these complaints were immediately escalated above anyone at Cracked, and those at Cracked did what they could to protect their friends and coworkers while also having to continue working alongside men who were, at least in small sections, known predators. Meanwhile, the women subjected to these behaviors were left largely deciding to brush it off, laugh it off, and hope worse wasn’t on the horizon.
Katie*, who has known Mack since his PWOT days, came to me hoping to fill me in on Mack’s character and her own experience of how she eventually ended her friendship with him. Notably, he kept trying to drive a wedge between her and her partner. She told me of a long history of pursuing “fans,” often 18 or 19-year olds who effectively worshipped Mack, the writer, in the early days of his blogging:
“When he and his first wife divorced, he had a history of dating women and treating them horribly before breaking things off and moving onto the next one.” I was sent screenshots of a text conversation detailing one situation exactly like this — where he dated a woman and was persistently and inexplicably disrespectful and temperamental. For privacy, I’ve chosen not to share details beyond that.
“He often dated young “fans” of his,” Katie tells me. She also includes information about conversations that made her uncomfortable and ways in which he tried to undermine her relationship with her spouse. “Shortly after that [his divorce]… I stopped talking to him.”
2. The Apology
Amid what was quickly becoming an avalanche of messages of support, questions, and verified accounts from two separate women (which would soon become three, and then four, and then six), Mack released an apology.
His apology was focused on just me and the information I had presented about my experience. He confirmed my allegations, added to them, and then insisted that he had been in therapy and deeply sorry so all should be well. He did not apologize after I went to HR in 2014. He did not apologize after he left Cracked for what appears to be a Pickup Artist Clubhouse. He did not apologize during the height of #MeToo stories exploding daily last year — or when I reached out to his wife to tell her what happened. He did not apologize until I tossed over in my mind for four and a half years whether I should say anything, how I should say it, or why I should say it. He reacted to his actions being made public. That’s all.
So I rejected the apology.
(note: it was 4.5 years, not 3.5)
Seeing that his fans, having only gotten his version of what was going on (because I was kept unnamed in his apology), were reaching out to him to share support and forgiveness, I recognized that just sharing the details in my own space wasn’t enough. I responded both to his tweet linking to the post (to which I responded, “Fuck this. I reject your apology.”) and responded directly to his apology post as well. You can read both his apology and my response right here.
If Mack thought his apology would smooth things over and redeem him, he was dead wrong. I was full of rage and ready to fight. Someone who had worked at Cracked with Mack reached out about how he treated her. A third woman, whose identity and the details of her experience are too specific to share, outlined predatory, sexually aggressive behavior. I quickly became a beacon of support for people who’ve experienced Mack’s predatory behavior.
I then became obsessive in exercising strict journalistic standards, vetting sources more rigorously as their stories became more extreme and their relationship to me became more distant. It’s easy to verify a conversation that happened between two people you know than a conversation between two strangers from fifteen years ago, you know? I received an email from an anonymous source — and by that I mean they used a dummy account and refused to provide their name so I could verify them — levying serious accusations against someone unrelated to the John Cheese situation. They also promised me that there were several more women I hadn’t heard from. When pressed for their identity, the source ghosted. I’ve since received messages from other fully anonymous sources offering lofty allegations attached to what others with better knowledge of the information being shared have described to me as “bad blood” and “personal vendettas.” I doubled down on my adherence to the logical standards for vetting unnamed sources. For this, I was called hypocritical. So it goes.
As the night wore on, more and more people began reaching out to Brian Brushwood, Mack’s boss at Modern Rogue. Brushwood fully ignored my presence in his mentions but took time to respond to others asking him to do something by…playing dumb.
Brushwood’s other responses include gems like “He doesn’t supervise women” (so it’s fine to have him on the payroll, because Modern Rogue doesn’t hire women he can harass, which is clearly indicative of a very healthy, normal environment) and “what will I tell his family?” (because it’s more important to protect a creep than, say, not enable creepy behavior. Worth noting: Mack should have thought “What will I tell my family?” before he started sexually harassing contributors, coworkers, and fans. But he didn’t.). In multiple replies on Twitter, Brushwood sent up very loud red flags about the environment he fosters at Modern Rogue and that, unless Mack did something himself, Modern Rogue would protect the predator rather than an increasing number of women coming forward about the predator. I was apoplectic.
3. The Open Letter
If you know anything about me, it’s that I am the open letter king. So I naturally, seeing Brushwood exercise total apathy and disinterest in the situation, the growing likelihood Mack would face zero legitimate repercussions for his treatment of all of these women confiding in me, I felt compelled to write one.
A little before 8am on Saturday, I published an open letter. In it, I outlined three requests:
- That Cracked scrub John Cheese from the site. Bylines, columns, forum comments — the whole nine.
- That until Cracked scrubs him from the site, contributors boycott the site.
- That John Cheese resign immediately from Modern Rogue and all of its affiliated channels/pages/etc.
I would like to add here that it’s become exceptionally clear that Modern Rogue is not a safe environment for women regardless of Mack’s association with the site and I strongly advise against contributing if approached. Birds of a feather, you know.
Here’s where things get very overwhelming. I post my letter. I start hearing from more women (some of whose stories I still haven’t verified because I’ve also had to, you know, go to work and be a person). More and more well-known figures at Cracked are speaking out in support of me and my requests. Brushwood is continuing to play dumb. Mack is silent as ever. Information is flying past me faster than I can catch it. At this point, I’ve confirmed 6 women’s stories, but I’ve also been at work.
Then I get a message from Katie, the woman who had been friends with Mack years ago and ultimately cut ties with him, that a forum thread had been created on Cracked to discuss John Cheese.
People came out in support of scrubbing him from the site. Some argued that the pieces he wrote shouldn’t be deleted because they’re of cultural value (as though there aren’t women who grew up poor, abused, and are working class writers *cough*). Others start levying accusations against someone else associated with Cracked. And then something insane happens.
Jason Pargin, the executive editor at Cracked and someone who has known Mack for longer than Cracked.com has existed, decides to just start the process of scrubbing John Cheese from the site.
Request number one, in progress.
Presently, Cheese’s byline has been scrubbed. His columns and articles are still up, but that likely is a more involved process that takes more time to unpublish manually. But once this happened, it didn’t take long for the rest to follow.
By 9pm, Mack steps down as Editor-in-Chief of Modern Rogue.
Request number two, in progress.
It’s still unclear if this means he’s resigned or if he’s just been moved to a less visible position (which, given Brushwood’s attitude about all of this, would be incredibly unsurprising). Admittedly, I jumped the gun at the news before assessing what exactly it meant, which is what I imagine they were hoping for — reshuffling the team at Modern Rogue to quell the public outrage while not actually affecting change.
Brushwood still hasn’t responded to questions as to whether he has resigned in total or just stopped being EIC. I will update when that information becomes available.
Shortly thereafter, Mack deleted his Twitter account. His Medium and Patreon pages are still up.
But. The pressure is on. I still advocate for boycotting Cracked until Mack’s whole presence — every word he wrote — is gone. It’s worth noting how swiftly Pargin has taken action, and that the process will likely take some time. I fully did not expect it even though it’s the bare minimum.
There’s a lot of politics involving the forums and the history of the site, but it’s clear we are all in the process of moving forward. And regardless of Mack’s involvement or not, I still advocate for not contributing to Modern Rogue because it’s so obviously a toxic environment. I’ve been told that another site with several contributors who often freelanced for both have all agreed not to contribute to MR, though this claim hasn’t been verified yet.
We aren’t done here. This is just the lead up into the first step toward gutting the status quo of comfort for men who make spaces unsafe and uncomfortable for women.
The message here is clear and should be remembered throughout this chaotic transformation period that we are all finding ourselves in: Men who abuse their power are men who lose their power.
Accountability is the name of the game. I don’t know about you, but I’m long fucking overdue for a win.