Accountability in Polyamory

Opening Up

My hands are shaking as I write this.

I still have nightmares, multiple times a week.

I’ve struggled to get these words out of my head for more than a year now. I thought I was ready a while back to talk about all this, but I guess I wasn’t. Maybe I’m still not. This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever written, but I can’t stay silent anymore.

On one of my first dates with my ex Eve Rickert, as we walked down a road that would later inspire the name of our publishing company Thorntree Press, Eve told me, “I am not a compassionate person. When I get angry, I get mean. I do everything I can to destroy the other person. It’s like I’m standing outside myself watching myself do it, but I can’t stop.”

I didn’t understand, then, what she meant.

A few weeks ago, I signed a legal settlement agreement with Eve. We’ve been involved in a legal dispute for more than two years over ownership of the businesses we co-founded and the books we co-authored. Shortly after I left my relationship with her in 2018, Eve demanded that I give her my shares of the company, and hired a lawyer to threaten to sue me for them. When I refused and hired my own lawyer, Eve went on the attack with a scorched-earth social media campaign that rewrote our relationship into an inside-out, upside-down mirror world that I didn’t recognize at all.

Many people believed her. Even I started to after a while.

I tried to get my memories out about a dozen times or so. I talked very little about my experiences. I told myself it was because my lawyer advised me not to, which is true. She did. But that isn’t the whole truth. Even now, after we’ve signed a settlement, it’s still almost impossible for me to talk about this. I am still, after all this time, struggling to say the things I have to say. This will probably be disjointed, and I may not say everything perfectly. I’m still trying to piece it all together. I can only work on this essay for twenty or thirty minutes at a time before I feel myself start to shake. My therapist has diagnosed me with C-PTSD. “Textbook symptoms,” she says.

I’ve been in therapy since I escaped my relationship with Eve. I’ve spent a lot of the last two years trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not. In this weird, up-is-down narrative, there are supposedly eleven of my “exes” who have “come forward” with stories of how I’ve abused them. The head-bending thing about this is, I don’t have eleven exes.

There are “survivor stories” from people I’ve never been in a relationship with, never had sex with, never had any sexual or romantic contact with. How do you respond to something like that? There have been moments I seriously thought I was going insane. I remember talking to my therapist about this: am I delusional? Did I manufacture an entire history that doesn’t exist?

And always, always, underneath the terror and confusion: Were they right? Am I a monster?

The stories that come from people I have been involved with are just as surreal. One of my exes, “Amber,” claims I abused her because she “couldn’t properly consent to BDSM,” she was too young and inexperienced to consent to BDSM, and she won’t have anything to do with BDSM now..

I remember reading that story with a stomach-churning sense of horror, like I was completely losing my mind. The way I remembered it, early in our dating she showed me her collection of expensive high-end BDSM gear she’d bought when she was with her ex-husband, long before the first time we’d ever met or talked. She brought part of her collection of leather bondge gear to my place and asked me to use it on her.

When I read that she felt like I’d been the one to “get her into BDSM,” I felt like I’d fallen through a hole into an alternative world. I thought, could I really have been that wrong? I even unearthed my old digital archives to search through our conversations—I’ve saved nearly every email I’ve exchanged since 1992—and asking myself, with ever-heightening panic, did I imagine it? Did I invent false memories of her showing me her bondage gear collection from before I ever knew she existed? 

Recently I found some of her old boxes from when she’d planned to move in with Zaiah and me to finish her Ph.D. One of them was filled with old DVDs belonging to her...and some of her bondage gear. I sat down right there on the floor in the basement, clutching a spreader bar that had been part of her collection, and I cried. I shook, and I cried, and all the time I remember thinking “this is real, I’m not delusional, she really is gaslighting me.”

Sometimes, where there’s smoke there’s fire. And sometimes, there’s just smoke and mirrors. But it turns out you can still choke on that smoke, all the same.

I haven’t talked much about this experience. I honestly don’t think anyone will believe me. And the narrative that was spun about me is just so absolutely relentlessly bizarre, so utterly divorced from the reality I recall, that it doesn’t make sense. I seriously thought I must be losing my mind. 

If I can’t trust my own mind, my own memories, why on earth would anyone else?

And honestly, I’m scared. I’m terrified of how Eve will react. After the numerous heavy legal letters: threatening to sue me into releasing her and anyone who’s ever written a “survivor story” about me from all future liability for defamation or slander, and threatening to sue me over a nonexistent verbal “non-compete agreement,” I find myself shrinking, shriveling up, retreating from connections to other people. I flinch in ways I never used to. I second-guess myself in ways that don’t feel like me.

And I’m physically afraid of her. Our relationship was one of steadily escalating physical violence. She screamed at me. She smashed my stuff. Time and time again I was kept awake into the wee hours of the morning for arguments, prevented from sleeping, from taking a break, from escaping. I never really understood how breaking stuff and punching walls were acts of violence towards people until I experienced this for myself.

Finally, she hit me. 

I didn’t—I still don’t—think people will believe me. I talked about this with my therapist, back in 2019. She was quite upfront with me: she said quite plainly that the poly scene, for all its talk of ‘egalitarianism’ and ‘empowerment,’ still holds tightly to sexist ideas that abuse is something that is only done to women by men. She told me I could have video of Eve hitting me and there would still be people who didn’t believe it. There was a time in my life when I would have assumed that was hyperbole. 

Somehow, we’ve also figured out that if a woman gives in to sex after saying “no” ten times, that’s not consent, but we haven’t applied that lesson to anything else. For my entire life, I have kept my distance from recreational drugs. I have always been firm that I did not want to use them. But despite repeatedly, directly saying “no” to drugs, the pressure to use them with Eve was too great, and at the age of 46 I caved. Eve coerced me to use street drugs with her.I even enjoyed some of those experiences. But I was always aware that there would be a consequence for saying no.

My experience of our relationship was a story some people might find all too familiar. I’ve read it in other people’s accounts before, but it always seemed like a literary device to me—the kind of thing that inspires dramatic operas and novellas. Until I lived with, ate with, lay in bed at night beside a lover who seemed like two people at the same time.

One of those people was someone I was so absolutely head over heels for that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. The other was dark, angry, prone to violence. The one who destroyed my wedding portrait in a self-described fit of jealousy. The one who raged at me without provocation. The one who screamed at me in the middle of an editor’s conference, following me down the street yelling at me when I tried to leave.

I didn’t recognise that one.

So I tiptoed around. I savored each moment when it seemed like the smart, creative, wonderful person I adored was there, basking in the joy of her presence, but constantly fearing when she would go away again, when I did something—I must have done something, right?—to make her invite the other one back.

When she enrolled in anger management classes, I was awash in feelings of relief and hope and adoration. This was it! This time would be different! She was actively getting help, and I could prove my love for her by supporting her through it and then I would get to spend the rest of our time together with the amazing person I fell in love with.

But it didn’t seem to help. The mask fooled a lot of people—even me, for a long time—but the mask always came back off when we were alone again.

So I made myself small. I squeezed myself down tight to fit inside her idea of me. I tried not to antagonize her. I tried not to contradict her. When she abused my other partners, I did nothing. I kept thinking, if I can just survive this storm, it will blow over, and the other Eve, the one I love, will be back. And maybe this time she’d stay a bit longer.

The problem always got worse when I left town, especially if I was visiting another partner. After a couple of days away, like clockwork, Eve and I would fight over text or IM. She told me after one of these fights that there was a version of me that lived in her head, and whenever she was angry or I wasn’t around, that version of me would change, morph into something else, something ugly that would replace her memories of who I am in her head. Then the real me would be on the receiving end of her anger toward the made-up version of me in her mind. She even bought me a stuffed hedgehog—to remind me, she said, that when she was prickly at me it was only because she couldn’t remember who I was. So I needed to be kind to her, to remind her.

And the weird thing is, that felt normal. It felt right.

I believed, I really believed, that all I needed to do was accept this is how she was. Nobody is perfect, right? Everyone is flawed. We don’t give up on people we love just because they’re imperfect, right?

Even when other people close to me expressed concern about the unhealthy level of control Eve exerted over me in nearly every aspect of my personal and professional life—control that extended to her telling me who I could and could not talk to, who I should invite on dates—I didn’t see it. I didn’t want to see it.

So inch by inch, I ceded my boundaries and my control over my own life. By the time I left, I was no longer allowed to choose what food to eat, what shoes to buy, what clothes to wear. Things that, when I look back now, I would have described as major red flags if they were happening to anyone else, I simply dismissed as little quirks. 

 

When I left, the only thought in my mind was “escape”. I didn’t just leave, I fled—not just our home, but the whole country. I hid. I curled myself into a tiny ball in the back of a corner and hoped it was enough to just be left alone. But I kept getting pulled back. Every time I thought I found enough distance, she tried to drag me back into the darkness, confusion, terror and pain. Then the nightmares followed for a few more weeks before I could start to relax again.

We went through a mediation process to unwrap our business connections. At that mediation, she demanded I sign new coauthorship contracts. I was shocked to learn that I was expected to hand over my shares of our publishing company without payment. I was dumbfounded when she said she intended to block my Canadian immigration as long as I remained married to my wife. Her exact words were “unless I see a certificate of divorce, I will make sure you never get in.”

I disengaged. I retreated. She accused me of abusing her. She demanded I take part in a “transformative justice” process. I said no, partly because my lawyer made it very clear in no uncertain terms that I should avoid any contact (this happened just as Eve issued the first of many threats to sue me), and partly because she claimed I did things that just never happened and “transformative justice” is not equipped to handle situations where the facts are disputed. But mostly I said no because I was terrified of her. I am terrified of her. 

I finally understood what she meant when she first told me she will do anything in her power to destroy someone who makes her angry.

Of course, that ended up being retold as “Franklin doesn’t want to be accountable for his sins.” When your abuser is skilled in the language of social justice, this spin is easy. It’s easy to wear someone down, then when you leave them running away in fear, claim that they are “avoiding justice.” When all you want to do is flee and lick your wounds somewhere safe, and the last thing you want to do is re-engage with the person who hurt you, the only narrative that’s out there ends up being a story of “lack of accountability,” rather than avoidance of pain.

And the thing is, it’s not like I didn’t do anything wrong. We’re all born of frailty and error. If there’s anything good that’s come from two years of harassment on social media, it’s that I’ve worked with my therapist to unpack all the things I did do wrong and the ways I have fucked up in my relationships.

And I have genuinely done some really shitty things. They simply aren’t the things I’m accused of. There’s too much to get into in this post—it’s already longer than I intended, and you deserve more detail than just a paragraph or two—but I’ll be addressing it in another essay. Probably a few.

I am profoundly grateful to be surrounded by friends and lovers who have helped keep me sane through this. Some of them have been part of my life for decades, and they’ve been able to help give me reality checks: “no, I was there for that thing that person claims happened and it didn’t happen that way at all. You aren’t going insane and you aren’t deluded.” I honestly don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t been able to find old emails, talk to long-time friends, and hold tangible objects that showed me that yes, my reality is real. My memories are real. 

That’s the thing about gaslighting: it makes you question your own reality.

I am also deeply grateful for the strangers—some of them with many years of experience in surviving abuse of their own— who have messaged me to tell me they’ve read the survivor stories and ended up feeling they didn’t recognise the voices of abuse survivors in those narratives. I’ve had many people tell me they also don’t feel safe saying so in public. When Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, who initially agreed to be part of my accountability pod, released a statement that, in her professional opinion, the “survivor stories” failed to rise to the level of abuse, she was attacked and had her professional standing threatened online. A lot of folks got the message loud and clear.

I am still terrified of Eve. I still wake from nightmares every week, my heart pounding and my hands shaking. I still remember the night she hit me, the disbelief, the attempt to justify it to myself as acceptable. I know this essay is disjointed and fragmented, because whenever I try to write about my experiences, I have anxiety flashes and panic attacks. I couldn’t even sit through it long enough to write it all out; it’s taken me many sessions to get through each part, and a lot of work with my therapist just to get to the point of being able to start. I’ve never truly understood what it means to be “triggered” before all this.

For the past two years I’ve done nothing. Eve Rickert published baseless stories about me and I did nothing. She fabricated a narrative about me and I did nothing. I withdrew from communities I’ve been part of for decades. I wanted nothing more than to get away from her. I’ve kept my head down and tried to build a new life away from her, even though that meant losing my community, losing people who meant something to me, losing people’s trust and faith in me. I walked away from spaces I’d spent literal decades building. I risked my livelihood. If that’s what I had to do to get away, to get a little peace and calm to heal, it was worth it to try to reclaim my sanity. 

I expect that by publishing this, I will likely be attacked again.

I’ve started to write about my experiences several times; I even set up a website to do that. I wrote a little bit, and then panicked, chickened out and didn’t tell anyone about it. I’ve tried different approaches, different angles, different mediums, and still I’m afraid to show the world anything I write.

I keep thinking I’m ready to share what happened, then slamming into the barriers of my own trauma. I’m not ready. I may never be ready.

But I can’t sit by and keep doing nothing. Eve is now representing herself as an “abuse expert.” The woman who verbally, emotionally, physically, financially abused me—who smashed my stuff, screamed at me, controlled my life, gaslighted me, suppressed survivor stories from her previous exes, and hit me—is presenting at conferences about abuse.

I know there will be many people who don’t believe me. I expect more legal threats, more attacks on social media. I know there will be more online harrassment—more personal abuse, more detailed death threats, more viscerally explicit rape threats. I know I’ll keep having panic attacks and nightmares. 

These are incredibly painful, but they don’t change the truth. I know what happened. I know who I am now. And I know I can’t  be silent any more.