Statement from Heather Derr-Smith about Gabriel Fried and Persea Books

Gabriel Fried has been abusing his power as an editor at Persea Books and I am devastated. I am a survivor and I am speaking out about his ongoing sexual harassment of me, unethical and unprofessional behavior, and abuse of my vulnerability and trust.

My book, Thrust, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice award back in 2016 to be published at Persea Books in 2017. Gabriel Fried called to let me know, and I was thrilled, of course. From everything I’d heard Persea has a great reputation and I was excited to be in the company of Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Adrian Matejka and Molly McCully Brown, among others.
Very quickly though I became anxious about interacting with Gabe. When he spoke to me on the phone, his tone of voice and mannerisms and some of the things he said, gave me a weird vibe. I also noticed some of the things he didn’t say. For instance, early on in our editorial relationship, I had said I was coming to Missouri to visit my Aunt and maybe I could come to Columbia and we could meet and have coffee and work on revisions. He said, “Of course! And you WILL stay the night with me.”  I’m sure I responded with something positive, but inside I felt very anxious. I didn’t know his sexual identity or if he was single or married. I told Todd and my friend Tom about it and said I was scared to go now. I thought he might be gay, which would make me more comfortable, but I looked him up and saw on social media he had two kids–which– he could still be gay but I got the impression he was a single dad. I didn’t see photos of a partner.
I want to say at this point so much of this situation I can see now was created by my own lack of boundaries and good self-care. I know now looking back that I was really triggered and avoiding being triggered even more. My book Thrust is about sexual abuse and sexual assaults and physical abuse in my childhood and young adulthood and a violent rape by a stranger ten years ago. I had never written about these things, but I felt ready too. It was hard though and scary and I felt very vulnerable sharing this raw work. I was afraid of my family, afraid of perpetrators, and afraid of the response of readers and peers. I was just very, very vulnerable.
So I see now that my main coping skill was to defuse any possible conflict or ugliness and to be as agreeable and nice as possible, my go-to coping skill, in order to feel safe and not have to deal with conflict with a man who now had power over my work, and I feared conflict could escalate to some kind of harm for me–whether with my work or my self–emotional, physical, or psychological harm I didn’t feel like I could deal with. I also was inordinately worried about hurting his feelings.
Another coping skill I have is to hide. I get sick and can’t function, so I stay safe in my room in my home in Iowa.
So, I told Todd about Gabe’s invitation to stay with him and my fears and I told my friend Tom Simpson. I said Gabe was just being hospitable and generous and he’s really good friends with Gabby Calvocoressi and I see him being really open-hearted. So, I said, the anxiety is just because I’m a survivor. It doesn’t mean he’s doing anything wrong. Todd and Tom felt like it was a red flag because I had written a book about being a survivor and he hadn’t asked me if I was comfortable staying over. I felt like it was a red flag too and I knew I felt like something was wrong but I centered the narrative that he was just very open-hearted and kind and I was misreading him. Still, I felt very panicky and I canceled my trip altogether so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it.
Around this time I talked to him on the phone. There was always something about his manner of speaking to me, which made me uncomfortable. It felt seductive. But a person can’t help their tone of voice or mannerisms! I felt I was being too sensitive and reading into things that weren’t there. But in one of our first conversations on the phone, I had told him that we had had a mutual student. A young woman who had been my graduate MFA student at Iowa State had gone on to get her PhD at Missouri where Gabe taught. and I wasn’t sure if she was his student personally, but he blithely announced, “Oh yes, we were lovers.” This was another red flag for me and made me uncomfortable, but I’m sure I responded in a way that did not communicate that. I probably said–Oh I had no idea–Or wow, I didn’t know that. He went on to tell me more about that relationship. How they had been very close but she had been brokenhearted when he got married. That’s when I found out he was married. He said, he was surprised that she had been upset at him marrying, because she was so free sexually, but he guessed she had stronger feelings for him than he realized. That piece of news about him being married relieved me, but the part about my former student bothered me. I felt worried for her and it made me feel suspicious and more fearful of Gabe.
But I doubled down on my unhealthy coping skills. I relayed this information to Todd and Tom and they were telling me they felt like Gabe had problems with boundaries and was inappropriate and I needed to watch out for him. But I kept saying–I know–I know–I can handle it–we’ll just see how it goes. I’ll be careful etc etc.
Then the next time I was to interact with him was at AWP. I brought Tom along as my guard, because I felt so scared of interacting with Gabe alone. I couldn’t explain good enough reasons why and just kept saying it’s because I’m a survivor. It’s just my trauma. It’s not him.
The first night of AWP was a big reading. Tom and I sat together in the back of the room and Gabe was staring at me the whole time. Tom noticed and I noticed and it was like a longing kind of staring. I felt really uncomfortable. I got up at the break and mingled with writers and was thrilled to meet Molly McCully Brown there. I didn’t really want to interact with Gabe much but when he hugged me it was like full on, pressing holding on. I freaked out and left early and spent the rest of AWP sick in my room.
I said he is just very affectionate and loving and open-hearted and it’s me–It’s my trauma–I just can’t handle it. I’m triggered but it’s not his fault.
We got through the publication process and during that time, he was also very busy working with other writers and with other projects and we didn’t talk or interact a whole lot–but whenever we did, I felt terrible anxiety–but I worked really hard to make him feel at ease and make him feel like he was wonderful and nothing was wrong. I see now I was trying to keep myself safe, because I sensed something was wrong. I was affectionate and loving to him.
The book was published. I was happy and terrified. There was a lot I had to deal with. Fear that my mother might try to sue me (she is the sort). One of my family abusers (sexual) contacted me and told me he was sorry. We had both grown up in a violent home and he was much older than me but he was also the worst abused. He had run away from home before I did. We talked and reconciled–but it was very very emotional and psychologically draining. I was in therapy doing EMDR at the time, which helped. But it was exhausting.
It was hard to read the poems and it was hard to feel sexualized sometimes by readers. It was also hard because I felt left out of major networks of poetry trauma-survivor support. It seemed like because I was older I couldn’t access some of the networks with younger survivors. I felt shut out of those relationships. When I reached out and supported other survivors writing at the time, the support wasn’t reciprocated. I asked to be included in readings about sexual assault and survivors, but was not invited or told maybe next time. My book got a great review in Library journal and a bad review which I felt was sexist from Publisher’s Weekly. I did get some wonderful reviews from women in my circle on twitter and I was so grateful for them.
I tried to network with authenticity and get my work out there, but some of the power brokers were young and very inter-connected with each other and shut me out. I don’t know what the dynamics were there–but I decided to just be proud of my work and turn to those who WERE supporting me and to keep lifting other writers up and putting my energy where it felt more mutual. Still, I felt left out of certain places where I feel like my work deserved being seen and held.
The next interaction I had with Gabe was at Unbound Festival. Again, I was having panic attacks and battling my own anxiety. Gabe was very connected to me through the festival by text and email and phone calls. It was going to be a special time together. I wanted that–I wanted to be friends with him–to be open, affectionate, trusting–but not sexual friends with him. But once I got there I was overwhelmed with fears. I didn’t leave my room the first night. The second day I did my reading and went to panels. In all my interactions with Gabe, the message was that he “adored me” he kissed the side of my head. He would rub my shoulders or caress me. I felt nervous and weighed down by so many things I felt comforted by these affections. I didn’t protest. I accepted them as loving. But in the back of my mind I was battling with myself that I was being delusional. These were sexual advances–not friendly comfort–I just didn’t want to deal with that.
That night he texted that he could bring a phone charger to my hotel room, I didn’t answer his text.
The next night we went out to dinner with Gabby and Adrian and we sat at the bar and I was sitting between Gabe and Gabby and I was so excited to talk to Gabby. I talked to her endlessly about religion and God and our histories. Gabe’s wife was on the other side of him and earlier I had geeked out with her about Old time music. I loved her. During dinner, Gabe was touching me a lot. He was leaning into me, nuzzling me, and then held on to my head and hair with two hands and put his face against mine and sighed deep into my ear. It was too much for me. I felt flooded with adrenaline and dissociated. I started crying but choked it back, and covered my face, just overwhelmed.
During dinner he also said in conversation, “well, I have sex with ALL my friends so…” I don’t remember the context but the message was clear that he was presenting himself as someone very sexually open and boundaryless and free and unconventional. That was all the positive spin I put on it. I centered this narrative of a sort of Gen X freespirit who didn’t mean any harm–everything consensual of course, surely.
But all of this didn’t feel consensual to me. I felt trapped. He was my editor with power over my book and my publishing future. I felt like I had to keep him satisfied or at ease or let him know he was free with me. An old feeling I’d experienced with many men throughout my life. Like it’s my job to let him be who he is and not cause any trouble. I was trying to navigate this emotional responsibility without actually having sex with him.
The next interaction I had was a few months ago. He came to Des Moines and had a ticket for me to see Dear Evan Hansen.  He was bringing his kids. He said after he put the kids to bed he and I could spend time together. I felt panicked and said I couldn’t that night, but I would meet him Saturday morning before the show for breakfast.
We sat in the hotel lobby and I brought french pastries. We talked for two hours. A lot of the talk was very sexual on his part. He wanted to know about any lovers I had. He wanted to know about my marriage. He told me about the sex lives of his friends. How one friend couldn’t have an orgasm without crying and he found that so sad. How he did a lot of “hard-core snuggling” with his friends. He also talked about non-sexual intimate things so in my mind I excused it all by seeing the conversation to be about intimacy in general but also again, is he grooming me? Is he trying to break down my boundaries? Is he being predatory? Is he gaslighting me? Like if I object will he say I am misreading him? Is he vulnerable himself? He often told me he had deep sadnesses. I was worried about hurting him, so would be gentle and affirming to him. Caretaking. But this time I decided to be very straight forward with him and tell him the things that were bothering me–but in a way that wouldn’t offend him I hoped. I told him I loved being open and affectionate with people–but that also I was a survivor of abuse and rape and it would be very very unhealthy for me to have sex with him or to be in any kind of sexual relationship. I framed it wholly with regards to my own emotional and psychological capabilities–that I just wasn’t strong enough for that–I’d be too needy–I’d be confused and anxious–He said “Well, that’s good to know.”
He never told me he had no such intentions. He never reassured me that we had a professional relationship. He never acknowledged that I was  a survivor or I could trust him. It even felt like my talk of trauma or being a survivor was eye-rolling and kind of boring to him. So I feared this would mean my career was over at Persea. I reminded him that he told me he had sex with all his friends. I said I didn’t–I had friendships with men and women that were very deep but not sexual. I said I couldn’t handle sexual relationships outside of my marriage and that my poems were not about lovers–they were about a place and an imaginary “You.”
His kids came down and we all went to the show. I was crying really hard throughout the show. He took my arm and I didn’t mind that. I take the arm of my friends. But he was caressing me heavily all over my hands and arms and I worried about his kids and what they would think. But I also felt trapped. Ok I like just taking his arm–but all this caressing–what do I do? I felt kind of mad to be in this position–but if I get up and walk out I’m causing a scene for the kids. If I take my arm away he’s going to get mad at me–and this I fear.
During intermission I said–“Have you talked to your kids about you being affectionate with other women? Doesn’t that worry them?” I thought maybe this could get him to pull back. He said He hadn’t thought of it. He seemed kind of embarrassed or a little annoyed. That kept him from being as touchy in the second half of the play. I was trying to move this relationship toward a more platonic–friend foundation and away from any sexual longing he seemed to have.But it made me feel tired. I wanted my editor to be a friend and someone who I could trust–but I had to work very hard to try to make this be a reality.
But then at intermission there was a huge line for the women’s bathroom and so he escorted me into the men’s and came in the stall with me. I told him to turn away and hide his eyes, which he did. I am so stupid and was such a wreck. I pretended it was the best thing ever. but because of all of the other stuff I just felt sick.
So in the meantime he has my manuscript for my next book and he has right of first refusal. He called me a few weeks later and said he would LIKE to publish it but it would have to wait until 2021. I know that it can take a long time in poetry publishing but I had the nagging question–is he de-prioritzing my work because I won’t sleep with him? He said he would talk to others at Persea and we would go over next steps.
After that he went quiet. He didn’t answer most texts I sent asking about the manuscript. I asked him if I could announce that it would be published in 2021 and he did respond to that one and said no. He stopped liking my social media posts though he was very active liking other Persea writers. I felt like he dropped out of my life. I wondered if he is just stringing me along and never intends to publish it or might publish it and not promote it much.
Then last week it all hit me like a ton of bricks. All the pieces came together in my mind and I saw clearly what had been happening the last three years.
He was in a position of authority. I was vulnerable. I was coping best I could by being nice and making him feel good. But I felt unsafe the whole time. Now He has power over me, and I’m in this shitty position where I am questioning everything and feel crazy and isolated. I don’t like this situation I’m in. I’m scared of him and what he could say to others about me–how he could alienate me–how he could hurt my career. Also, I’m mad now that I fell into the same pattern of abuse as my whole life–even after so much therapy! Hw easy it is to slip into these coping skills. I wanted to be at a press with gabby and Adrian and Molly McCully Brown. I wanted to be successful and I also wanted a friend. They were friends with him! If they didn’t see red flags, it must be me!
Is he a predator who knows who he can manipulate and who he can’t? Dos he get more power from being close to good people who can vouch for him and then target people who are ore vulnerable? Is he like that?
Or is he just fragile and lonely and maybe has mental health issues and can get manic about sex and desire and has a hard time with reckless behavior–and he’s just about to turn a corner and get better–except now I’m going to destroy him if I tell?
I thought about trying to talk to him honestly one on one but I genuinely believe I can’t trust him. I think he will hurt me. I think he will isolate me from other people to protect himself.
At  first I thought, at minimum I want to get out of the contract and not publish at Persea at all. But then I feel angry because Thrust deserves good care and he might do something to sabotage it further. Why should I have to be the one to walk away from a great press and have to struggle again to find a home for my next manuscript? And then of course–what about his students and interns? Is there more going on here, where it’s not just me? Are there others? Does he pick favorites in his little publishing kingdom who he can champion and then ignore or actively hurt his other writers if they don’t give him the supply he needs of whatever it is he needs?
Or is it just me? Am I alone? Did he just fall in love and it’s just a one time thing where he lost his good sense and became reckless and it’s out of the norm for him entirely?
But he has never once acknowledged that I’m a survivor. He has never once acknowledged the pain in the book. He has never asked for my consent for anything ever. Never hesitated or apologized or made clear to me his professionalism, his ethics, his boundaries or acknowledged mine.
Now after all this time I really think he has treated me badly and it isn’t my fault. and I feel angry and still scared.
I feel now like I want to go public with this, because I wonder how often it still happens and who else feels isolated and alone. But I’m afraid the money behind Gabe and Persea could sue me. It’s my worst fear but I still feel willing to go public, because I think it’s important and Gabe should not be editor–or at the very least should change his behavior and his attitude. I do not like hurting people at all. It is so distressing for me that it makes me rather be physically sick than hurt someone knowingly. So even though I’m mad at him–I also feel worried about him and feel guilty.
What I want is for Gabe to apologize to me, for Persea to apologize to me, for my pressmates to support me. I want to Gabe to step down as editor and to get help. I want to be released from my contract for right of first refusal. I want to be allowed to speak and to be free.