Frenxiety, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Stay the Hell Home

If you follow SFF internet skirmishes at all, you may have heard about one making the rounds on social media beginning yesterday.  Former Guest of Honor Monica Valentinelli announced that she is pulling out of this year’s Odyssey Con because of their insistence on placing her on panels with a known harasser, someone who she is explicitly uncomfortable with. (Many more details here.)

To those of us in the niche SFF convention community, the topic of harassment at conventions comes up all too often. There is so much debate, vitriol, accusation, and defense. It can get exhausting, even on the occasions (like this one) when it seems like there is a clear right and wrong.

I generally don’t weigh in on these internet skirmishes, because a) I am often not well-informed on the situation, and b) I don’t believe that you’re automatically interested in my opinions on everything, just because you read my books.

However, this one is a little different, because Odyssey Con is in my town, and because Monica is a friend. Moreover, I have met the person of whom she is speaking, and he makes me uncomfortable.

Let me back up a little. When I was a baby writer, I was thrilled to get involved with my local SFF conventions, which included Odyssey Con. They were nice to me, and generous about putting me on programming even though I wasn’t a big name. As my career continued, I began branching out to other conventions, including Wiscon (also in Madison), where I began to hear some really disturbing stories about an editor named James Frenkel. Actually, I shouldn’t say “stories,” because that implies a fiction. These are more like testimonies, and they are legion.

Getting the full story of Frekel’s indiscretions takes a serious and committed dive into the internet, which I did about three years ago, after my own unpleasant encounter (in which, by the way, I was not sexually harassed. It was more garden-variety unpleasantness). After reading many of these verified testimonies about this individual, I was really surprised to learn that he was still a big part of Odyssey Con. In fact, the very next year, I was put on panels with him.

Sometimes, when I apply for conventions, the online form has a discreet spot that says “List any people who you prefer not to work with.” No questions asked. If the con can accommodate the request, they will. OdysseyCon does not offer this feature, but I made the effort to send an email expressing my concerns. In response, I was told that a) there’s never been a problem reported at THIS con, and b) Here is the phone number for security if you need it. Because I didn’t see him on the schedule until the last minute (I had another convention the weekend before), I felt it was my obligation to go.

I was not harassed.

But here’s the thing: I was anxious the whole time. I was worried about being cornered before or after. I worried about what to do if I was talked over or touched. I worried about the placement of my body, and made sure my arms and hands were always tucked in close to me. I worried, worried, worried.

I’m guessing that most women know this worry. It is what we feel when we’re on a crowded subway, or we have to deal with a male gynecologist or massage therapist…or when we’re the lone female participant on a five-person panel. It is the anxiety of what might happen, even if most of the time nothing does.

I have decided to call this feeling Frenxiety. No reason.

In my daughter’s former elementary school, it’s called bullying. In kindergarten, she had a bully, and there were some days when he didn’t even go near her. There were also many days when he would suddenly take a few quick steps toward her, and then burst into laughter when she cowered. And then, of course, there were a few days when he physically hurt her. Even though the physical touching days were very few, my daughter lived in a permanent state of fear and anxiety at school. She was trapped in a daily miasma of worry. She was miserable, I was miserable, and the school threw their (very limited) resources at rehabilitating the bully. There were no resources left for his targets.

But I digress. Back to Frenxiety. Last year, when Oddcon contacted me about appearing on panels, I wavered. I felt like I should be supporting the home team, and a con that had been good to me since my very first book came out. I really wanted to meet Marjorie Liu, and I eventually convinced myself that I’d overreacted about the Frenxiety. Everything was fine. It was all in my head.

Once again, nothing untoward was done to me. And once again, I was on edge all weekend. I had one panel on Sunday, and I came home feeling exhausted, because being on edge is very tiring (but, unfortunately, does not burn extra calories).

By the way, you know the really hilarious thing about being in a room with a known harasser, who doesn’t harass you personally? You start to wonder what’s wrong with you. Am I not pretty enough? Am I too fat? Is it this outfit?

I know— that is next-level messed up. But that’s what it is to be a woman in this culture. You hear so many, many stories of sexual harassment, that if you are one of the few who hasn’t encountered it, you start to think maybe it’s me. And then you’re ashamed of that thought, and you feel guilty because so many women have it so much worse, and all the guilty-angry-worried feelings get all muddled up with Frenxiety and you just need to go lie down and watch Netflix for awhile and maybe not do any cons for a couple of months. Or years.

Anyway. This year, when Oddcon contacted me about doing panels, I more or less lied. Well, sort of. What I said was: no thank you, I needed to cut down on cons this year. Which is true. But really, my reasons for not going to 2017 OddCon would require a pie chart to communicate, and the biggest slice would be labeled with one dude’s name. Because I decided that I don’t need to deal with Frenxiety anymore. I’m an adult, and this isn’t kindergarten. I can make that decision.

Yesterday, though, when former GOH Monica Valentinelli publicly explained that she is withdrawing from Oddcon because of this person’s involvement, I was ashamed of myself. Monica had the courage to go big and live with this denouement, and I didn’t even have the guts to be privately honest with the con chairs about why I wasn’t going to participate.

And that’s when something occurred to me: why was I afraid of speaking out about my reasons? I’m not a baby writer anymore. Oddcon can’t hurt my career. So I thought about why I was keeping quiet, and I came up with these reasons:

  1. People will think I’m overreacting, since I wasn’t personally harassed.
  2. People will assume I am trying to make other women’s personal horrors all about me. (I swear, I’m not. That’s why I want to emphasize that I was not harassed. I was just incapable of enjoying a convention because of fear— fear that I consider justified in these circumstances.)
  3. Everyone will think, “We all deal with anxiety. Anyone who spends this much time obsessing over it is weak and unprofessional. Lame. Fake news. Sad.”

But here’s the thing: none of that is true. So this is me, in public, saying this: I don’t want to go to Oddcon as long as James Frenkel is there. I decided that Frenxiety is real to me, and I decided that I don’t want to feel it anymore.

Most of the time, my daughter’s bully didn’t do anything. Sometimes, he did something questionable. And once in awhile, he got physical. But at the end of the day, he enjoyed living in a atmosphere of fear (atmos-fear?) at all times. That was his preferred environment. Some people are like that. But that doesn’t mean we have to be around them.

I leave you with this final note: Anyone who suggests that Monica is exaggerating or making assumptions or overreacting, anyone who dares suggest that she is alone in her opinions, they are full of shit. Odyssey Con has repeatedly made the argument that no one has ever reported Frenkel at this con (where he is, you know, a part of the staff that one reports harassment to). I’m sure that’s true. But if you had an anonymous box asking panelists who they’d prefer not to work with, it’d be a very different story.

Or testimony.

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11 Comments

  1. So you believe the man should never have the right to participate in any sf conventions again? That seems pretty terrible and unempathetic. At some point you need to stop trying to remove all you dislike from the public. if he is considered irredeemable and never given a chance to partake in convention life again then you are essentially advocating for him to die. Not even sexual harassment is terrible enough to justify the forced ostracism you are advocating. for shame.

    you can still be against sexual harassment AND against permanent ostracism. His presence shouldn’t be banned because he makes you uncomfortable. That is true intolerance seeing that he has not offended again. Otherwise I can make a valid case that you frighten me and should avoid sf cons because I am afraid you will misinterpret whatever I say and get me tarred and feathered for wrongthink.

    • Hi, Tessa, thanks for commenting. There’s a lot to unpack in your post, so let me try to respond piece by piece.
      So you believe the man should never have the right to participate in any sf conventions again?…His presence shouldn’t be banned because he makes you uncomfortable.
      Sorry, I never said any of that. First of all, most of this is in regards to this person being on programming and/or part of concom. Moreover, as you can see in the title, my main point here is that I get to decide what makes ME feel anxious, and this person being on programming with me makes me feel anxious. So I choose not to attend the con if he will be there. It’s really that simple. When it comes to conventions, as with so many other things in the US, we each have the choice: attend or don’t attend. Buy a product or don’t buy a product. My willingness to be there is like my vote in favor of the convention.
      Ultimately, my single “vote” in this matter isn’t a big deal, as I am but one lowly attending professional. If, however, many women, including the guest of honor, were to make the same decision (about ANYONE), I’d like to think a responsible con might look at that person and decide they don’t belong on concom.

      if he is considered irredeemable and never given a chance to partake in convention life again then you are essentially advocating for him to die.
      Whoa! I’m not advocating for anyone to die. Seriously. Nobody. I can’t really agree with the equivocation of convention attendance and life itself. That seems kind of silly and hyperbolic. There are many people who enjoy fulfilling lives without going to any conventions. (Or so I’m told.)

      I can make a valid case that you frighten me and should avoid sf cons because I am afraid you will misinterpret whatever I say and get me tarred and feathered for wrongthink.
      You can absolutely make that case, if you want. And if you decide to avoid SF cons because you don’t want to be around me, that’s your right and I would never presume to take it away from you. Only you, Tessa, can decide what makes you uncomfortable or nervous.
      (Luckily, I’m not actually on the committee of ANY convention, so it might be easier for you to just avoid the panels I’m on, but if you’re nervous about running into me in the halls or whatever, I get that.)

      Best wishes,
      Melissa

  2. I honestly don’t understand why this guy gets invited to conventions or put on boards anymore. He’s completely irrelevant in the industry at this point, and has a horrible reputation for being a complete donkey’s behind aside from the harassment incidents.
    The thing about ‘good ole boys’ networks is they eventually die. Which means these conventions should be more concerned about attracting today’s big names and not some has-been jerk.

  3. Just a question: there are as many women as men that I find obnoxious and, yes, threatening. The numbers are about equal. This is not sexual harassment; it consists of acts like attributing opinions to me that I did not actually express and that are actually not my opinions. Or hitting on my husband. Or telling obnoxious and subtley insulting jokes. Or accusing an innocent female friend of mine of harassment. Worst of all, hogging the time on panels and never shutting up and letting other panelists speak. (Two very innocent but jerk-like individuals in the midwest are examples of this, but they still get on panels.) This is, by the way, NOT aimed at anybody in this thread; it’s just a general problem. I won’t say I’m physically threatened by them; unwanted phone calls would be on the edge, but only one person I know makes those, and it’s a woman. What should I do?

    • When this whole thing first broke, I was actually in Rochester Minnesota with my mother, who is getting treatment at the Mayo clinic. I was trying to explain the situation to her, and the comparison I used was this: big companies have to adhere to sexual harassment laws, which are in place to protect workers and make sure they feel safe. No one should need to worry about being groped or ogled at work.
      By the same token, many conventions are as big as a decent sized corporation. The laws don’t protect convention attendees the way they protect employees, so conventions make their own anti-harassment policies. Because people attending a convention, whether they are guests on panels or attendees in cosplay, also deserve to feel safe.
      There is not much we can do about people who are a little annoying or obnoxious, just as we can’t do much about annoying coworkers. People who are socially awkward and/or lack self-awareness deserve to come to conventions, too. (And a good moderator should keep the conversation on track.)
      Its when that awkward person makes you feel anxious and threatened that they cross a line. In other words, there’s a difference between being an asshole and being a harasser. (Although many people are both!)
      When in doubt, read through the conventions anti-harassment policy to determine whether an action is reportable. If that doesn’t answer your question, talk to someone at the con.

  4. Very interesting follow-up! I’ve been watching this conversation and your most striking line was “By the way, you know the really hilarious thing about being in a room with a known harasser, who doesn’t harass you personally? You start to wonder what’s wrong with you.” I’ve been going to Cons for years and years and hadn’t run into it … but we need to support those who say it is happening. And the GOHs have power to speak up – what about the attendees who are just excited to be at a con, getting attention from a member of the committee? I really want to know specifically what this guy has done – because I’d be willing to bet it has happened to people who just didn’t recognize it as abuse or blew it off … if he is a predator, he needs to go and his friends need to open their eyes. (For my part – the one time I attended OddCon I got bizarre phonecalls in the middle of the night. Drunk prank? Or connected to something else? I don’t know – but if it happened to others … ) Anyway, excellent post.

  5. This is a very brave statement. Thank you

  6. I am sorry that this guy appears to be a giant jerk!
    Thank you for writing your story. 🙂

  7. I don’t know you, but I’m thankful for you!!!

  8. Very well put. Thank you.

  9. Thank you for writing this.

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