ART imitates life, goes the famous saying; what it doesn’t resolve is the question of whose life art should be permitted to imitate, whom the story belongs to and who is able to tell it. These are questions that become particularly salient when groups of writers interact and do what they do: tell stories.
Today, the telling of stories that once happened in person has landed on social media. Through Facebook and Instagram profiles, one can learn quite a bit about people, the ones one loves and also the ones one hates. Naturally, this is a boon for writers. Ready-made characters pop off from screens, illustrating in great detail and at no cost the daily doings of this or that person, their likes and dislikes.
This restructuring of life stories has birthed a separate set of thorny dilemmas. This was the subject of a recent article published in the New York Times titled ‘Who is the Bad Art Friend?’ The article tells the story of two women, both writers but one slightly more successful. According to the story, Dawn Dorland, who is a white woman, decided a few years ago to donate a kidney. Unlike most living kidney donors, Dorland was not donating her kidney to a friend or a relative but to a stranger. The programme, created by surgeons, was for those people who would never otherwise qualify for a kidney were they to go the usual route given the wait times in the transplant registry and the stringent system of ranking who would be the most deserving recipient.
Dorland donated her kidney to a stranger. She also met the Orthodox Jewish man who was overwhelmed at what she had done for him. She took pictures with him. A while after surgery, Dorland created a private Facebook group and added the people she considered her good friends to it. It was in this group that she broke the news that she had donated a kidney to a stranger. Within minutes she was showered with messages of admiration and congratulations. Everyone was impressed with her altruism, her radical kindness and benevolence towards a fellow human being that she did not know at all.
Who has the rights to stories which are increasingly on display on social media?
In the weeks and months that followed, Dorland took on being a donor as an identity. She posted photos of herself with the recipient, she began to participate in advocacy around kidney donation and share them with the group. Sometime after the kidney donation, she noted that one of her friends, Sonya Larson, had never interacted with any of her posts. She considered this strange because she considered her a good friend from their days of working at a creative writing school. Puzzled, Dorland wrote a letter to Larson asking whether she knew about the transplant. Larson responded, as others had, albeit belatedly. But Dorland was not happy; she continued to prod and poke Larson, unable to understand why she would ignore her.
To cut a long story short, Dorland eventually learned that around the time that she had been posting about her kidney donation, Larson had been working on a story featuring a Chinese immigrant who receives a kidney transplant through a similar programme. The woman who donated her kidney is a rich and rather narcissistic white woman, whose goal appears to be to enjoy the experience of having someone be utterly indebted to her, something that the Chinese woman who receives the kidney finds disturbing.
The article itself goes into greater depth; for our purposes, it is sufficient to know that eventually Dawn Dorland finds out that Larson has written a short story about kidney donation. She is then even more vehement: how could Larson have ignored her if she was writing a story about kidney donation? Things only get worse from there; Larson’s story is selected for a programme called One City One Story, which means it will be distributed among hundreds of thousands of citizens. But the lawsuits begin before this happens. Dorland accuses Larson of stealing her story, referencing a letter that appears in the story and whose text is remarkably similar to one she had posted on Facebook.
The central question in all of this is whether Larson, whose story is dropped from the One City One Story programme following Dorland’s allegation and the beginning of litigation, ‘stole’ Dorland’s story, modelling her own white saviour woman after the real Dawn Dorland. A whole host of issues are raised here; the white saviour industrial complex, after all, exists because of white women who want to use immigrants and racial minorities as set pieces to highlight their own altruism, their ineffable kindness. Then again, whatever Larson had intended in terms of revealing racial dynamics did not justify stealing someone else’s words and story without their permission.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. Who has the rights to stories, which are increasingly on display on social media for friends and acquaintances to see? In a performative culture where people do things not for their own sake but because of the posts they can make on social media, does one give up rights to one’s story, etc when they post something on one of these platforms?
Pakistanis, many of whom share detailed messages about their mental health, their marital problems, their health problems, must be especially beware of this. In this case, it was the letter that damned Larson, showing as it did that she had ‘stolen’ the words. One of the first judges who saw the case agreed with Dorland; Larson had not ‘transformed’ the work enough. But stories once told take on their own lives and cannot be retrieved from the people who have already read or heard them. Both the women in this story are writers; it follows, then, that everyone is right when they say writers make the worst friends.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2021