Content warning: This article contains descriptions of physical and sexual abuse.
Last month, poet Joseph Massey asked the Wesleyan University Press to cancel the publication of his book following the surfacing of numerous allegations of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse against the writer.
Accusations against Massey first appeared online in a Jan. 8 anonymous blog post.
In an interview with The Argus, Massey confirmed two accounts and attributed much of his behavior to alcoholism and a history of mental health issues.
“I was highly inappropriate at times with people, extremely provocative, abusive at times—I had a horrible temper,” Massey said. “I have a past and I’ve worked really hard to become a better person.”
Massey is the author of four published collections of poetry, the most recent of which, “Illocity,” received a positive review in The New York Times in 2015. He withdrew his upcoming book five weeks after the Press delayed publication of his work indefinitely. The Press made its decision upon receiving emailed accounts alleging abuse.
“These allegations are deeply distressing,” Wesleyan University Press Director Susanna Tamminen wrote on March 16, the day that Massey withdrew his book, in an email obtained by The Argus. “Wesleyan University Press condemns all acts of harassment.”
“We had no knowledge of these allegations at the time the contract was signed,” Tamminen followed up in an April 4 email with The Argus, referring to Massey’s book deal with the Press, which was signed last fall.
Massey asserted on numerous occasions that his behavior shifted dramatically six to seven years ago when he began receiving professional help for his mental health. He later started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, although the exact periods of his sobriety are unknown.
The Argus also spoke with a number of sources who have direct knowledge of the allegations of abuse, including those who claim to have experienced it. Most have requested to remain anonymous due to concerns related to their careers and privacy.
The Argus has since confirmed an allegation made by poet Bridget Eileen, who described an encounter with Massey at a poetry reading in Wendell, Mass., in 2009.
“He has not only assaulted me by grabbing my breasts in front of other people when he was highly intoxicated at a featured reading of his, but he also sent an apology message to me, at the onset of the #metoo movement, in regards to his behavior that night,” Eileen wrote in a statement sent to The Argus.
Massey confirmed both the incident and subsequent apology message during an interview, claiming not to remember the incident due to his state of severe inebriation.
“I immediately apologized,” Massey said. “I didn’t remember doing it because I was in a blackout…. I apologized when all of the ‘Me Too’ stuff broke, which this was before anything about me started coming out.”
The second confirmed allegation was made by a woman who had been in a long-term relationship with Massey. She told The Argus about an incident in which she felt physically trapped by him approximately two years prior to the event in Wendell, Mass.
“He woke up out of a nap and instigated a fight,” the source wrote in a statement. “At the time, he was not drunk. I told him I felt uncomfortable being around him because he’s menacing when he’s angry. I told him I was going to drive back [home]. When I tried to leave his house, he managed to grab me by my ankles, pin me down, and hold me there. I was terrified and didn’t know what to do. He was much bigger than me, and I thought that if I tried to fight back he’d end me. I stayed through the night, thinking that if I didn’t move and he went back to sleep I would manage to make it to morning. In the morning, he behaved almost as though nothing had happened.”
Massey acknowledged this incident, but he claimed that he was inebriated and, as a result, does not remember it.
“We were both intoxicated—we were arguing—and she wanted to leave, and from what I understand she is claiming that I held her ankles and wouldn’t let her leave,” Massey said. “I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure I did. I don’t remember it, but that doesn’t mean I’m denying it. That weekend she didn’t leave. There was no kidnapping. I mean, I held her ankles during an argument and then we talked about it.”
“The only incident in my life that could be construed as sexual assault was at that reading,” he later said, referring to the 2009 event with Eileen.
Over the past few months, allegations against Massey were sent to institutions that he has worked with.
The Argus spoke with Ken Keegan, a representative from Omnidawn Publishing, which released a poetry collection by Massey in 2014 and more recently received allegations against him.
“They seem like very credible accusations, and we are not going to publish him again,” Keegan said. “We were still open to it, but [the allegations are] what did it. This is why we are not publishing him again.”
Barrelhouse Magazine recently removed Massey from his role in its online poetry workshop. When approached for comment, Barrelhouse Poet Editor Dan Brady referred The Argus to the magazine’s Jan. 10 social media posts on the subject. Barrelhouse’s Facebook post makes clear that they ended their relationship with Massey due to the allegations.
“Barrelhouse takes accusations of abusive behavior very seriously,” the post reads. “We have a zero tolerance policy for abuse of any kind.”
Massey made and deleted several public Facebook posts about some of the allegations against him. Most recently, on March 15, Massey posted an apology, reiterated that he has sought professional help over the past six years, and, in the comment section, denied that he has continued to exhibit harassing behavior.
“I want people to know I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused others,” he wrote in the post. “I take full responsibility for my abusive behavior and will continue to work on myself to be a stable, positive member of my communities.”
Massey has since sent a cease and desist order that requests for the letter and another online post about the allegations against him to be taken down.
Citing privacy reasons, the Press declined to provide details regarding Massey’s contract specifics and the allegations that they received. It is unclear whether or not Massey received financial compensation from the Wesleyan University Press, as he has declined to speak further with The Argus.
In the March 16 email obtained by The Argus, Tamminen indicated an intention to update Wesleyan University Press’ bylaws after Massey withdrew his book.
“We are committed to doing our best to foster a safe and equitable publishing environment,” she wrote. “To this end we have been reviewing and strengthening our ethics policy and contract language.”
Correction: This article has been amended to indicate approximately when the second confirmed allegation took place.
Molly Schiff also contributed to this reporting.