How I, Joe Biel, Have Been Accountable for People I’ve Hurt
I got married fifteen years ago. It was years before I was diagnosed with Autism and learned how to understand or respond appropriately to emotions and nonverbal communication being expressed to me. As a result, I crossed a lot of boundaries and hurt my ex’s feelings deeply. I came to understand that intentions were not what mattered as much as impact.
I looked up “abuse” and found: “to treat a person with callous indifference or pleasure in causing pain and suffering, especially regularly or repeatedly.” Before I understood the emotional needs of others, I was repeatedly insensitive and callous towards their feelings, hurting people that felt close to me in deep, fundamental ways. I took no pleasure in this. I was confused each time that it happened and ultimately it hurt me too; I cared about these people and wanted emotional proximity with them but had no understanding of how to achieve that. Still, my actions had hurt them. I emotionally abused people that I care about. Taking responsibility for the impact of my actions was the first step towards moving on. I focused on learning how to prevent it from continuing.
I checked myself into therapy. Slowly, my therapist could get through to me that there isn’t one truth, but rather each person has a different perspective on the same events and has emotions about it. I learned that my reality does not preclude other people from having different perspectives.
I eventually learned that for neurotypicals, there are three stages to a conflict:
Before my diagnosis, I went from step 1 to step 3 because my mirror neurons don’t respond appropriately in a way to register step 2.
I was inflexible in my assessment of every situation. I had no idea that people had feelings or what feelings were. I wasn’t having conversations, I was sharing information and solving problems. I similarly lacked the ability to recognize any kind of nonverbal communication, like hesitation, sarcasm, body language, tone, or facial expressions. No matter how much I tried, I could only understand someone if they explained what they meant verbatim.
I think the thing that defines this issue as misogynist is that emotional boundaries and nonverbal communication are seen as gendered issues. My ex-wife wrote in one of the six zines that Alex Wrekk published about our relationship, “Part of me thinks it is in [Joe Biel’s] very nature to control situations through verbal and non-verbal manipulation, I don’t even think he is aware of it most of the time.” Which smacks of emotional manipulation and control but is also straight out of the DSM under Autism.
I remain close with over 90% of the people that I’ve had romantic relationships with and I’m still close with almost all of my friends from before my diagnosis. My behavior did, however, severely impact my relationship with my co-workers similarly to my marriage. Microcosm was a collective from 2005–2012. I had more experience than the other members and I can see how missing nonverbal communication could come across like dismissing people’s concerns. Sometimes disagreements grew tense. I was always in favor of following specific policy. In one case a co-worker spent his healthcare stipend on a carton of cigarettes, which was obviously not in the spirit of the policy but the collective was split about how to react. In another case someone that I worked with in the store several days per week was very meek and expressed hesitations and opinions in ways so subtle that I honestly had on idea that I was severely upsetting him and he apparently felt like I didn’t care about how he felt about things. When I got diagnosed as autistic he told me that he didn’t care and refused to understand how that might impact our communications.
Two other co-workers told me that they had met Austistic people before and that I wasn’t one. I have taken legal action exactly once in my life. When I turned Microcosm into a collective we had $40,000 in savings. Six years as a collective later, Microcosm had spent its entire savings and was $37,000 in debt. I removed myself from management and later quit as a result. The collective management of the previous six years had agreed to pay for half of the debt but weren’t paying. After a year I said that if they didn’t start paying at least $100 per month, I would take legal action as that amount of debt was crippling and I had to get second and third jobs to pay it off. Still, I regret it. I was hurt because these were people that I had worked with for years and trusted with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inventory and equipment to pay their half of the debt. It was hugely discouraging.
Obviously, many, many people have owed Microcosm money over the years and many still do. Plenty of people have hurt me deeply. I’ve never taken legal action against any independent zines ever. Why would I? But that rumor is spread all over the Internet. Fortunately those things are public record. Where are the records? And if there aren’t records, why would people spread those rumors?
As far as specific steps that I have taken to being accountable, these were the requests that my ex sent me in 2008 to resolve the situation and how I have complied with them:
1) Seek professional counseling (with someone who is not your friend) to deal with your past family issues as well as issues of control, abuse, and manipulation.
I’ve attended a total of over six years of therapy and psychology, most of which with Ruth Gibian in Portland, an expressly feminist social worker to focus on issues of my family history, control, abuse, and manipulation. The first three months with her were intensive therapy of four hours per week with ten hours of homework and reading. She expressed that she did not believe that I was an abusive personality and determined we were completed working on these issues in May of 2011. I can see how it would be painful, confusing, and difficult to date a previously undiagnosed autistic person and I feel for my ex’s pain. I continued the pursuit of other therapy goals in the meantime for my own benefit. I grew a lot through this process and I am thankful for it.
2) Publicly acknowledge that you have issues of abusing power through manipulation.
I made a public statement about this in June of 2009, made another post here where I again express sorrow and regret: https://medium.com/@joebiel/on-the-resiliency-of-the-cockroach-aspergers-the-re-spectrum-of-human-emotions-f219102c1c45 and I even wrote a book about it in March 2016.
3) Do not involve anyone you are dating with your work.
I did not involve any person that I dated in my work for over seven years. Eventually, at the request of my current partner, we merged our two companies in 2015.
4) Show me demonstrable changes in your behavior
My counseling resulted in getting an autism diagnosis in 2009. I followed up with years of CBT learning work, which is where Autistics learn to intellectually mimic neurotypical/emotional behavior, agreed to “mediation” in 2008 which was one phone call where the people screamed at me for an hour and then failed to schedule a second meeting, submitted myself to and cooperated with an accountability process in 2010. I’ve been in a healthy relationship for over eight years and counting, much longer than my ex and I were together. I haven’t had any conflicts like is described with anyone in my life since my diagnosis and treatment. If these are not demonstrable signs of change in my ability to maintain healthy relationships, I don’t know what would be.
5) Do not call me, speak to me in public, or send letters to my house (use my po box or speak to the mediators [Wrekk is referring to the people who have since been referred to as an “accountability process”] but don’t ever send me a personal letter again.
I didn’t contact her for ten years until after Alex Wrekk showed up at my book reading, posted a public letter to me, and reviewed my book on Goodreads, at which point I sent her a formal request to settle the matter, since she was actively engaging with me.
6) Do not come within five blocks of my house (not including the Credit Union since I know you have to go there)
I have honored this request.
7) Do not go to Beaterville Cafe
I haven’t been there since 2008.
8) Do not go to Amnesia Brewing
I haven’t been there since 2006.
9) Do not go to Pause
I don’t know what/where that is and thus I have never been there.
10) Do not go to the IPRC
I haven’t been there since 2008.
11) Do not go to any zine reading I am performing at or any shows played by [my partner’s] bands.
I have not attended any of them and would be terrified to. Still, Alex attended my reading event and events where she knows I am present.
12) Stop engaging in “psychological warfare” like writing “I forgave my mother” on my royalty statement or leaving images of your tattoo where I would run into them near my workshop at the Symposium.
I mentioned the former to my Alex in 2007, thinking that she would be one of the few people who understood the implications of that statement and could empathize with its meaning. At that time, she and I were still mutually communicating and she was closer to me than many people and one of the only people in my life who had met my mother. I can see how it could be taken the wrong way or hurtful. We no longer have contact so this isn’t an issue. When the latter happened I had nothing to do with it and only knew about it because she mentioned it to me. I was at my dad’s funeral in a different state and had nothing to do with other people making copies of publicly available images. I think it is hard for her to believe that it was a coincidence and I could see why that is upsetting for her. I recognize that these things were traumatic for her and make continuous effort to make sure that more things along those lines do not happen. This is difficult as she finds symbolic meaning in places where it wasn’t intended and to blame me when, for example, a steak appears on her porch or UPS accidentally delivers our boxes to her home or an intern flyers at her store without telling anyone that they are doing it. Each time something like this happens, I go to greater lengths to ensure that nothing like it happens again.
13) Do not ever mention my family ever again. That upset me the most about your letter.
Haven’t mentioned them again; don’t talk to her.
14) Remove Stolen Sharpie Revolution from GoogleBooks
GoogleBooks suffered a lawsuit for their habit of adding books from libraries without permission. Microcosm/I did not give them permission and they removed it within a week when I asked them to.
15) Quit using my artwork on the website side bar.
She was aware that our programmer had spent years overhauling the website backend to edit the artwork and that we were working on a redesign jump already. It was removed as fast as we could; within a few months.
16) Disclose any contract or any agreement you have with the publisher of the Alternative Media Handbook to my attorney.
She gave the editors permission to use her work. I had no contract or agreement with the publisher regarding her work. I forwarded her attorney the few emails where the editors had contacted me, which included quoted emails where she had given the editors permission to use whatever they wanted of her work in their book.
17) Pay me the $800 owed for my medical stipend.
She quit working at Microcosm three months before medical stipends were issued. She quit in October of 2006 when she knew that management had decided that it could not afford to begin paying medical stipends until January of 2007, due to owing our printers over $30,000. Various former staffers have explained this to her.
18) Pay Brian for his sticker layout work.
Brian had paid his rent money to her instead of to me in February 2007. I showed him the divorce documents and he agreed that he owed this money to me. We subtracted his rent from the money that I owed him for contract work. He accepted that and moved on.
Further, beyond what was asked of me by Alex Wrekk, I proposed that Microcosm Publishing become managed collectively by its staff in 2005 and created a system for employees to become owners. In a further effort to resolve this situation, I left management completely and agreed to sell all of my ownership off in late 2010. Still, the problem continued to escalate.
Instead of reading what I’ve written, strangers make fun of what other people have claimed that I’ve said, repeating memes like “blames his corn allergy,” or “blames his disability.” Alex Wrekk directed people to harass me about my corn allergy in 2014.
I’ve never said either of these things. In fact, I’ve always said the opposite and expressed how I’m responsible for my actions. Yet Wrekk spreads the rumors that this is how I talk about it. Even worse is “Joe Biel’s behavior goes far beyond the appropriate range of behavior, even taking into account his neurodivergence.” Without any specifics as to what I’ve actually said or done that goes beyond “the appropriate range of behavior” or what the qualifications of the evaluator are to understand autism.
Thirteen years after our separation, I am asked at least twice per week about any number of rumors that she has spread or is spreading about me. I cannot count how many times I have been told that I am not autistic or that my disability has no bearing on the situation. I am bullied online several times per week by strangers advocating on her behalf. Someone created a fake Facebook account to mock and bully my partner and I. Everyone at work has been harassed about it relentlessly for years. Innumerable stores, authors, and events have blacklisted Microcosm and I as a result of her campaign. This behavior has cost me three different jobs and threatened my ability to support myself many times over the past 13 years.
Wrekk has consistently characterized my motives, feelings, and perspective about the situation — things that she cannot possibly know. She continually mentions my “inethical business practices” but fails to say what they are or what is wrong with them. She summarizes my disabled efforts at Executive Function as “throwing the entire field of psychology out the window” when failed efforts at seeing the big picture are a common trait of Autism and, well, psychology.
I brought in a mediator in 2010. She declined to cooperate. She insists that she does not like to talk about this situation but still chimes in and broadcasts the signal whenever the issue come up.
I was terrified to talk about it at all for the first ten years. Now I’ve just got nothing left to lose. She wrote “in case you didn’t know, one of my favorite spectator sports is to watch the sinking ship that is Microcosm Publishing. It’s great that I don’t feel so attached at all these days but, I had to admit to myself that I must enjoy gossip because I find it pretty amusing to see the drama unfold” Perhaps the most perplexing thing about that statement is the lack of acknowledgement that she has specifically campaigned for this result for years. I’ve spent years trying to resolve this situation so that we can both be left alone and move on with our lives. Each attempt at doing that has been summarily ignored or declined.
In 2017, after many years of attempted resolution Alex’s lawyer communicated to me “Ms. Bowles is not interested in settlement.” As if she hadn’t made that apparent already. Is it really in anyone’s best interest to keep pouring salt in this wound?
Worst of all, Alex Wrekk has campaigned to have me removed from events that I love and that she is not attending as well as from any radical subculture or community, the only family that’s ever loved me. The community’s response and understanding of these issues has been completely heartbreaking. I think the issue is intersectional at its core while we are told that we have to choose sides. We don’t. The only side is intersectional, restorative justice. Every other “side” is a red herring and a smoke screen and makes the U.S. Justice System seem downright radical in comparison.