Thanks to leading eBook self-publishing website Lulu.com, 20-year-old Emily Kwissa was able to share her own account of surviving years of domestic violence and sexual molestation at the hands of her former stepfather — the version that's been doubted and ignored by doctors, lawyers, and other adults throughout her life. But when her abuser complained, Lulu quickly and impersonally removed her memoir from the site, even though Kwissa changed her ex-stepfather's name and other identifying details to protect his privacy. Have you read that all-too-familiar story about silencing the victim to protect the offender?
According to Kwissa and her family, her former stepfather — dubbed "Jacob" in Kwissa's memoir, Am I Not — sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her from age 3-7, as well as abused her mother and siblings, until they were able to escape him nearly a decade ago. Kwissa has spent the past few years putting herself back together, most recently by writing a detailed account about what happened to her and how she got through it. A former high school teacher, impressed by her memoir, suggested she self-publish through Lulu.com. Finally, Kwissa thought, she'd have agency over the past, and the potential to help other survivors of sexual and domestic abuse. Her riveting account sold over two dozen copies in less than a month; not bad for a first-time self-publishing college student.
A few weeks later, Kwissa's 14-year-old sister told Jacob about the book during a heated email exchange, which Kwissa forwarded to Jezebel. "Well, if you didn't molest me, rape Emily and my mother or physically and emotionally abuse [her brother], how is it possible that we all have such vivid memories of it all? Explain that to me," she wrote. Jacob replied that all of their memories were lies. "My door is always open to you should you wish to use it in a positive manner, if that means you want to tell me off then so be it get it off your chest," Jacob responded. "Get it out of your system it must be a terrible way to live having that much hatred towards someone or something specially when its something that is false." Kwissa's sister, enraged, told Jacob he should "order a copy of an interesting and detailed memoir called 'Am I Not.'" On August 15th, three days after the email exchange, Kwissa received a form letter from Lulu notifying her that her book had been pulled due to its "questionable content."
Kwissa wrote back in part:
Yes, my memoir does contain detailed memories of abuse that occurred when I was a child. However, the name of my abuser has been changed, and there are no characteristics included in the book that could be used to identify him. He has been told about the existence of the book, and because he denies any of the abuse taking place, he is upset that the book exists. This is his perfect right. It is not, however, his right to silence me. I have done nothing wrong.
I find it deeply unfortunate and ethically questionable that you have removed my book from availability without first asking me about the claims that were made against it. No one has suffered any defamation at my hands. By taking down my book, all you are accomplishing is the support of a man who abused me all through my childhood and has stalked and threatened my family through most of my adolescence and adulthood. I protected his identity. Do I not receive some protection? Does my right to free speech not stand, when I have gone out of my way to shield a man who has done wrong to me?
When Lulu sent her another impersonal form letter, assuring her that Lulu wasn't making "a judgment as to the merits" of her abuser's claim and noting she was "not prohibited" from publishing elsewhere, Kwissa told her friends and online community of survivors and supporters, who filled up Lulu's Facebook page with incensed comments.
"What they've done here is side with the abuser of a child," wrote her former high school teacher, the one who suggested she publish on Lulu in the first place. "Took the side of the pedophile over the victim."
"A victim owns his/her/their own story and nobody should take that away from them or silence them," wrote another supporter. "By silencing victims like this you are helping to perpetuate a culture of shame and silence toward victims. This is the same rape culture that allows so many rapists and sexual predators to get away with their crimes."
On August 16, Lulu posted two public statements on Facebook in hopes of preventing a PR nightmare. First:
To all of our Lulu authors, are aware of the posts about Em Kwissa's book and want to ensure you that Lulu supports all authors in their quest to share their stories. We strive to help millions of authors find their voice...it is the core of everything we do at Lulu. As a self-publisher, though, we are severely limited in what we can do regarding controversial and disputed topics. Our author agreement makes it clear that when there are claims made against content, such as defamation or invasion of privacy, the content in question must be removed, even temporarily. In these instances, we provide detailed follow up information to the author explaining the claim and what the author's options are moving forward. We are in no way making a determination of the validity of a complaint when we do this.
Shortly after, Social Media Marketing Manager Meg Crawford introduced herself:
I wanted to let our social audience know that here at Lulu, we take the removal of questionable content very seriously and I would like to provide some insight into this process in order to shed light on exactly what is taken into account before the decision for removal is made.
Lulu operates under the DMCA guidelines and allows everyone to publish on our site without reviewing content. We allow each product listed on our site to be reported as copyright infringement or violation of our membership agreement. Once we receive a claim, our team reviews the complaint, compares the complaint to the contents of the book, looks to see if the person reporting has purchased a copy and is making a valid claim. We make a significant effort ascertain the claim has any merit.
If it is determined that the claim has any merit, we inform the content owner and remove the content until the dispute can be resolved.
I understand the concern for Ms. Kwissa and the manner in which this situation has been handled. While I cannot go into the specifics of individual cases, I will be reaching out to Ms. Kwissa personally to clarify any confusion or questions that may exist with this matter. Our main goal is to always support our authors to the best of our ability and provide an open forum to the sharing of your ideas and voices.
Lulu's earlier emails claimed the company made absolutely no judgment about the complaint itself. But Crawford wrote that the claim had merit, hence the grounds for removal. What changed?
Crawford also emailed Kwissa directly, promising to send her more information today; Kwissa says she's still waiting on it. Lulu declined Jezebel's request for comment.
"Such a policy utterly undermines the wonderful work that Lulu claims to do — giving a voice to people who may find themselves to be otherwise silenced," Kwissa wrote in an email to Crawford. "By choosing to accept complaints at face value, Lulu is contributing to the silencing effort."
Victims rarely report abuse, and when they do, they rarely receive justice. If they can't even tell their own story online — with all names changed, no less — where can they? The one silver lining: Kwissa said her book has been downloaded around 300 times since Lulu chose to side with her alleged abuser. You can download it on Kwissa's website.
Image by Jim Cooke.