Scott Lewis: What Lies Beneath

SL Abuse Help
Sep 19, 2016 · 17 min read

Update as of Spring 2019:
Members of the original survivor support pod are still monitoring engagement on this Medium account and the SLAbuseHelp@gmail.com inbox in the event that additional survivors come forward. Our primary objective now is to resource those who have come to harm. Older updates have been moved to the end of the post to facilitate reading.

We are a growing group of people who have been emotionally abused, manipulated, stolen from, and sexually assaulted by Scott Lewis (“astronomer and science communicator”, creator of Know the Cosmos, and sometimes host of Hubble Space Telescope Hangouts” — also found on Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Facebook). Scott Lewis uses a range of abusive tactics along with industry social capital (astronomy and science communications) to garner sympathy and trust in order to take advantage of people. We have recently connected with each other only to realize that we were not alone in our toxic interactions with him. Between us and thanks to conversations with other victims, we can account for at least $19,000 (edit: current total stands at $35,000, see updates below) loaned to him, and was never returned. We now realize that what each of us experienced fits within a larger pattern of emotional, sexual, and financial abuse. The purpose of this post is not to hurt Scott Lewis, but to provide support to those victimized by him and to warn potential victims so that this cycle of abuse stops. We are writing this article because we do not want any more people to become victims at his hands.


Image: Wikipedia Commons from Ute Kraus, Physics education group Kraus, Universität Hildesheim, Space Time Travel, (background image of the milky way: Axel Mellinger)

Legal action

According to our research into court records, we have found out that Scott Lewis currently has at least one legal ruling made against him by a victim who took him to court (look up case number 16M03964 in LA courts, and look over the evidence yourself, which we received after getting in touch with that survivor). There may be other such rulings in various states that we are not aware of. Unfortunately more often than not, abusers can get away with stealing from their targets because many of the victims either do not have enough evidence to argue their case in court, or worse, are so traumatized by the abuse that foregoing the money is a price they will gladly pay to have the abuser out of their lives. This was true for us with regard to why we haven’t pursued legal action against Scott Lewis. As Lundy Bancroft, one of the world’s foremost experts on domestic abuse puts it, “abusive men present their own stories with tremendous denial, minimization, and distortion of the history of their behaviors”. Based on our experience of him, Scott Lewis is extremely adept at lying. We knew that pursuing legal action against him would lead to a situation where we would have to relive what he did to us while battling against a skilled compulsive liar who would likely deny our experiences while presenting his own distorted version of events.

Despite legal action being brought against him at least once, we know that Scott Lewis has continued with his cycle of manipulation and pattern of abuse.

Hiding in plain sight

Upon first impression, Scott Lewis is extremely charming and engaging, with a vast number of connections to high profile individuals and organizations within the astronomy and science communication communities. He publicly and privately lavishes his targets with attention and compliments about their intelligence, while praising their work in STEM advocacy and social justice issues. We often think of abusers and con-artists as cartoonish villains hiding in the fringes of society, but in reality people like Scott Lewis hide in plain sight, relying on their social currency to keep getting away with their abusive and illegal activities.

Vulnerability

Scott Lewis is open about the difficulties he has struggled through to get to where he is. He writes publicly and candidly about his struggle with depression and agoraphobia; this gains him sympathy from the online community and his current potential targets. This technique worked on us, and it is how he entered our lives. As we each became closer to him, he would speak very emotionally about his struggles. Consequently we became even more invested in helping him sort out his life, by offering emotional support to the point of exhaustion, often at the cost of our own well-being, and other relationships. Making victims so highly invested that they have no resources to focus on other healthy relationships in their lives isolates them from their support systems, and is a typical pattern of abuse.

The “pity play”

According to psychologist Martha Stout, abusers deliberately evoke pity from their targets — “Good people will let pathetic individuals get by with murder so to speak, and therefore any sociopath wishing to continue his game should play repeatedly for none other than pity. More than admiration — more even than fear — pity from good people is carte blanche. When we pity, we are, at least for the moment, defenseless, and like so many other essentially positive human characteristics, our emotional vulnerability when we pity is used against us by those who have no conscience.” As he grows close to his new targets, Scott Lewis carefully divulges extremely personal details about his life. He intersperses these stories with how much he loves science, how he loves sharing the mysteries of the universe with the public, how selfless he is in his quest to bring science to the masses, and how he fights against social inequalities. In hindsight these stories seem crafted to elicit the maximum amount of sympathy from us. Understandably, his targets buy into his redemption story and will do anything they can to help him.

Using intensity to force intimacy

Often these conversations last for hours and can be extremely emotional and intense. As a result his target feels even more connected to him because of their empathy and desire to help. Scott Lewis can also engage his listener, making them feel incredibly special and privileged to have gained his trust. He can make his target feel like no one else “gets them” the way he does. This early “idealization” stage fits a typical narcissistic cycle, and explains why multiple victims describe feeling that their judgement was clouded. Scott Lewis uses the language of feelings, speaking very candidly about his struggles, insecurities, and fears. He will readily acknowledge his various shortcomings, often as a means of disarming his target. Scott Lewis also manipulates his targets into these long drawn out conversations by guilting them into staying longer, even if they indicate they have to go, or attempt to set boundaries about how long a conversation should last for.

The “Money Troubles” Ploy

Inevitably Scott Lewis tells his target that he is stressed and unhappy because he is having money troubles. He may talk about how worried he is about not being able to pay rent or buy food. His target inevitably offers to lend money to help him but he will likely refuse at first, saying that he couldn’t possibly accept money like that. However, Scott Lewis will continue to talk about how stressed he is and how difficult he is finding it to make ends meet, and the target will start to beg him to accept the loan. Eventually Scott Lewis “caves” and tearfully accepts the money with effusive thanks. As we (the authors) spoke to each other, we were horrified to learn that Scott Lewis repeated this pattern with each of us. We each ended up comforting him as we convinced him to accept our loan. We never saw our money again. We have accounted for at least $19,000 (edit: current total stands at $35,000) loaned to him, which was never returned. He has “borrowed” from both kind-hearted individuals as well as non-profit organizations.

Emotional abuse

While this behavior could be dismissed as if it were a lover’s quarrel, it is worth stressing that he did these things to friends and colleagues as well as romantic partners. For each of us, after Scott Lewis took the money, he used an escalating frequency of put-downs. Early generosity turned into more and more selfishness with verbal explosions and never-ending arguments when he didn’t get his way. If his victim dared to complain, he would turn things around so that everything is their fault; this is an abusive technique known as ‘twisting’. But because they have already been conditioned to help him and figure out why he is so upset, they will get drawn into his chaotic inner world filled with tension. They will lose fundamental parts of themselves as they spend every interaction walking on eggshells trying to navigate his extreme mood swings. Their heads will spin as they try to untangle the many threads of his character, trying to understand how someone so kind can be so cruel. Scott Lewis also employs other tactics of emotional abuse such as gaslighting, stonewalling, and projection.

Traumatic bonding

Traumatic bonding is defined as something that “happens as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change”. This is why so many of us stayed in his life as long as we did, despite recognizing that something was wrong and despite knowing we didn’t deserve to be treated this way. This mindset leads to a dangerous type of “cognitive dissonance”; a psychological term which describes the uncomfortable tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs. For many of us, Scott Lewis was an amazingly supportive friend at first. It is incredibly difficult to see the reality of the abuse he subjected us to, because that would mean admitting that he wasn’t any of the wonderful things we thought he was. Thus we blame everyone but him (which means mostly ourselves) for his behavior, and we do not see what is right in front of us: that Scott Lewis is abusive, manipulative, and dangerous.

Manipulation

Scott Lewis is an incredibly skilled manipulator who has been able to convince people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. This extends to (but is not limited to) parting with significant amounts of money, free accommodation, numerous gifts, and coercive sexual acts, while completely disregarding personal boundaries. He achieves this without ever threatening any of his victims, or using any weapons, or resorting to using mind-altering substances. Through coercive tactics such as crying, threatening self-harm, and guilt-tripping, he is able to make his victims act against their own self-interest. As author and journalist Maria Konnikova puts it, “we’re almost always active participants in our own conning. It’s scary how many times con artists don’t break the law at all. They didn’t steal; you willingly handed over cash. The whole premise of the confidence game is that they ask for your confidence, and you give it to them. We con ourselves as much as they con us, because we supply the missing links, we tell ourselves the story that we want to hear”.

Scott Lewis tells many persuasive tales of woe involving former partners and/or friends designed to appeal to his current target’s compassion and desire to make a difference in his life. In hindsight, it should have been an obvious red flag to us that he seems to have an alarming number of these stories. By connecting with each other, we have now realized that many of the stories we had heard about each other were in reality blatant lies, crafted by Scott Lewis presumably to dissuade us from contacting each other. As author Lynn Fairweather puts it, “…an abuser’s prospect becomes an even better potential victim if she’s willing to listen to his tale of woe and offer him sympathy and encouragement, because then he’s hit the jackpot: He’s found a ‘saver,’ a nurturing woman who compulsively takes in troubled souls, blind to the inherent risks to her own well-being”. Each of us have wanted to be “better than all the previous people” when we first entered his life.

Scott Lewis deliberately maneuvers his new target into disliking all his ex partners and previous friends. This is also why we have been silent for so long; for a very long time we were too scared to reach out to anyone else, or speak about what he did to us. We knew that he would always craft his narrative to portray himself in the best possible light while making us look vindictive, petty, and delusional. We were scared that he would reach out to mutual friends first with his own version of the story, to further isolate us and make his deception and abuse less likely to be called out. Since connecting with other victims of Scott Lewis’s abuse, we have been able to see exactly how he distorts the things that he does; the way he minimizes his own role, plays the victim, and pins all the blame on the actual victim instead. We were surprised to realize we each experienced the exact same cycle of abuse at his hands.

Feminism and social justice

It is worth noting that Scott Lewis appears to be a passionate advocate of women and other disadvantaged groups, and loudly acknowledges his heterosexual white male privilege on social media. While this appears laudable, Scott Lewis’s abusive actions contradict his allyship. A prominent example of this contradiction is Hugo Schwyzer, who was a professor of gender studies and “LA’s most prominent male feminist” when he was finally called out as a serial abuser. Scott Lewis uses his feminism and [purported] allyship as lures to reel in more victims, so that he can portray himself as different from “all those other men”. Activist communities can often provide the perfect shield for serial abusers; for example, the recent revelations around Jacob Appelbaum within the Tor project. What was asked about Appelbaum, echoes many of our thoughts about Scott Lewis; “How this could go on, so long within arenas whose missions are to fight against injustice and power imbalances, and to champion whistleblowers?”.

The role of society in enabling abuse

We know we won’t convince everyone reading this post that our experiences are true. We are painfully aware of the way our society treats victims of abuse; it is always the victim’s fault; they asked for it, they had it coming, they must have provoked him somehow, or even worse, that they are making all this up or are looking for attention. It’s never his fault; he’s just misunderstood, he’s struggling with mental health issues, he’s doing the best he can. The court of public opinion nearly always sides with the abuser. The odds are stacked against us. We know we can’t win that fight.

Abusers like Scott Lewis build up a fan-club of loyal supporters who take their side no matter what. We hope that upon reading this, Scott Lewis will take responsibility for his actions, and change his abusive behavior. Unfortunately based on our experiences of him, in all likelihood as soon as we publish this post, Scott will portray himself as the victim, persecuted by vicious people who are holding a grudge against him. We expect his supporters to turn on us, to deny our experiences, to minimize what he did to us. We don’t expect to win that fight.

A warning to others

But what we can do is speak out about what happened to us. We can serve a warning to others who may be on the fence, who may have noticed a few red flags but dismissed them thinking they were being too harsh and judgemental. When those people see Scott Lewis’s modus operandi, when they see that his behavior fits within a larger pattern of abuse, we hope that they will listen to their gut instinct that tells them something is not right.

So if you are friends with Scott Lewis, if he is in your life in any way, ask yourself if there are things he does and says that seem a bit “off”. Ask yourself whether you rationalize those behaviors to yourself with the vulnerabilities that he confessed to you. Understand that you are simply seeing evidence of a larger pattern of abusive behavior, and understand that we went through the same thing that you did. He is doing to you exactly what he did to us. And hopefully, you can try to extricate yourself from his influence before he does to you what he did to all of us. That is why we have written this post.

We hope that Scott Lewis will understand the effect his actions have had on us, and take responsibility for them. We hope that he can change. We hope that the people in his life who care about him can help him do that by not enabling this behavior through financial support, or allowing him to continue to abuse and manipulate others. We hope this can stop before more people become victims, and that Scott Lewis can get the help he needs.

Silence is support for the abuser

Abusers like Scott Lewis thrive on making sure that their reputation remains intact. Without it, he would not be able to gain the trust of so many people within the astronomy and science communications community and be as well connected as he is. That is how he is friends with so many prominent science communicators and astronomers working at various organizations such as NASA or the Hubble Space Telescope. Scott Lewis relies on the silence of his victims and on the silence of friends/peers in the immediate circle of his and his victim’s social/professional circles. This makes it very hard for victims to come forward with their stories. As Professor Jennifer Peepas, author of the popular advice blog Captain Awkward puts it, “If your friend abuses someone, and you know it, proclaiming to the victim that you ‘don’t want to choose a side’ IS choosing sides. You are choosing the abuser’s side”.

For years, we have lived with the shame of what he did to us. For years we have buried the guilt we felt at being seemingly “complicit” in what happened. For years we denied how he manipulated us into doing things we never wanted to do. For years we let that shame and guilt keep us isolated from our closest family and friends. We spoke to no one about what he did, and we didn’t even know that there were other victims; we just thought it was a friendship that went awry, a relationship that went sour. Abusers like Scott Lewis thrive on that isolation. Abusers like Scott Lewis rely on us not talking to each other, and not sharing our experiences. By writing this post, we hope to break that barrier he erects around all his victims to isolate them. We hope that more people will see him for the abuser that he is, and escape undamaged while they still can.

We will not be silenced anymore.

If you have been on the receiving end of any of the behaviors described above at the hands of Scott Lewis, please know that you are not alone. If you want to contact us, please reach out to SLabusehelp@gmail.com. We treat all conversations as confidential unless those who contact us privately explicitly consent to our relaying what they have shared with us. Our goal is to help those who have come to harm break through isolation and locate resources to begin the journey out of the fog of abuse. We have included some support organizations at the end of this post as well — reach out to them, or a trusted professional.


Update: September 19, 2016, 16:03 Eastern Time:
We have had three victims reach out to us so far reporting similar behavior from Scott Lewis. We also received an email from Google informing us that our email account (SLabusehelp@gmail.com) was under review — it’s possible that Scott Lewis reported it. We have successfully appealed suspension.

Update: September 20, 2016, 22:55 Eastern Time:
We have been contacted by another victim who is $12k in debt because of Scott Lewis.

Update: September 21, 2016, 03:45 Eastern Time:
Yet another victim has come forward, having made a loan of $4k. The total value now “borrowed” by Scott Lewis stands at $35,000.

Update: September 22, 2016, 23:12 Eastern Time:
A previous version of this post erroneously named Scott Lewis as the producer of Hubble Space Telescope Hangouts. A public comment by the founder of Deep Astronomy, who helped bring Scott Lewis onboard at the Space Telescope Science Institute to help with the Hubble show, has revealed that Scott Lewis was never the producer of Hubble Space Telescope Hangouts. This is one of the many examples we have run across of Scott Lewis building relationships with people and organizations that he then uses to misrepresent himself, his skills, and his career.

At the time that Scott Lewis began working on the show — providing tech support for guests and posting live updates on social media — Scott Lewis had already been warned about being more mindful of how he described his roles on the projects he worked on. Deep Astronomy had earlier been made aware that Scott Lewis been advertising himself as the owner of both Deep Astronomy and Space Fan News, a bi-weekly series created and run by Deep Astronomy, and given him a warning. Despite this, as soon as Scott Lewis gained access to the Hubble Telescope Twitter and Instagram accounts, he began to do the same thing with Hubble. What began as insinuation became a conversational misrepresentation, became a Twitter bio, became a part of his LinkedIn profile. In this way, Scott Lewis aggrandized himself from doing tech support on a webcast to working at NASA. (Update: On April 2, 2019: Google shut down the social network Google+, resulting in the loss of Tony Darnell’s comment. We apologize for the broken links.)

Update: September 23, 2016, 19:02 Eastern Time:
Several people have publicly written about their personal experiences with Scott Lewis: Katy Chalmers, Buddhini Samarasinghe, Scott Maxwell, Doug Ellison, Ray Sanders. (Update: On April 2, 2019: Google shut down the social network Google+, resulting in the loss of posts from Buddhini Samarasinghe and Scott Maxwell. We apologize for the broken links.)

Update: October 10, 2016, 13:11 Eastern Time:
We’ve asked a fellow member of the science communication community to help us manage some of the work of answering messages and making resources available to survivors coming forward. Read more…

Update: October 31, 2016, 21:50 Eastern Time:
We continue to identify misrepresentations made by Scott Lewis. This May 21, 2012
story written by Phil Plait for Discover Magazine recounts an event where participants “had a live video feed using astronomer Scott Lewis’s telescope.” A year later, a July 16, 2013 article by Alan Boyle, science editor at NBC News, describes Scott Lewis as a Hubble expert and fellow astronomer. Witness the public evolution of Scott Lewis’s persona from astronomer to a member of the Hubble research team at NASA.

Update: November 1, 2016, 12:03 Eastern Time:
We asked the survivor who took Scott Lewis to court to allow us to share the evidence she presented in her small claims suit. We have compiled it to illustrate his deceit. The survivor expects her first check from his garnished wages on November 18.

Update: December 3, 2016, 15:32 Eastern Time:
After receiving a single check for $25.42 on November 21, pending payouts from garnished wages to the survivor who successfully sued Scott Lewis dropped to $0.00 — meaning she should not expect further checks. The court sheriff’s website documenting action on collection offers no explanation for this change. There are still no challenges to the writ. By law, employers are forced to comply with garnishments, so it’s unclear how Scott Lewis is avoiding further payment. For more information, see the update at the end of this post.

Update: May 9, 2018, 14:02 Eastern Time:
We recently received a public comment through this post advising us that Scott Lewis continues to misrepresent himself as having worked for NASA. The poster writes: “I talked to him on Facebook. He messaged me. I caught on to him in 2 days. Nasa? He couldn’t name the University he graduated from. I knew he was bullshiting. [ … ] I told him he was a liar and he said you’re reading about me on the internet.”


References & Resources:

Legal Action

Vulnerability

Using Intensity to Force Intimacy

Emotional Abuse

Traumatic Bonding

Manipulation

Feminism & Social Justice

Silence is Support for the Abuser

General Abuse Support Resources

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