On The Abuse And Sexual Assault Allegations Against Oprah’s Book Club Author Gregory Sherl

This month, author Gregory Sherl’s debut novel, The Future For Curious People is being featured as an editor’s pick on Oprah.com’s book club list, a potentially career-making achievement for such a young writer (Sherl is only 29). Any other author would be ecstatic, but instead, Sherl seems to be ensconced a self-imposed exile, riding out a storm of abuse, coercion and sexual assault accusations from numerous women.

The accusations made against Sherl are part of a major crisis going on in the Alt Lit world. For the uninitiated, “Alt Lit” refers to the once-tight-knit community of mostly young, mostly self-propelled editors and writers focused mainly on Internet culture and online publishing. Other, more well-known alleged abusers include former Pop Serial editor Stephen Tully Dierks and Alt Lit golden boy Tao Lin. But while the careers of Dierks, Lin and other more high profile figures have been tarnished by accusations against them, Sherl has received little backlash, despite the fact that the allegations against him are at least as serious the ones against Lin or Dierks.

I want to be clear that, as of this publication, no formal criminal charges have been made against Gregory Sherl. In researching this piece, I reached out to Sherl and received the following in an email from Joyce Freeland, of the law firm Freeland and Freeland:

This is in response to a recent e-mail message from you to Gregory Sherl asking for a statement about allegations of abuse, because you are planning on writing an article.  Our firm has been retained by Mr. Sherl to advise him on this matter. 

Our review of the postings on the Internet, tweets on Twitter, and private messages from a key individual involved in this cyber attack confirm that the assertions by Kat Dixon and Sarah Certa that Mr. Sherl is a “serial rapist” are vicious and untrue.

I recently interviewed three of Sherl’s alleged victims. What stood out to me, initially, was how similar their stories are, and indeed, how similar they are. All of them are young, attractive writers, for the most part well-traveled and well-spoken, but gentle with their words. Though the majority of our interactions have been online, all three strike me as the soft-spoken type. The perfect victims for the type of predator who would dole out the abuse Sherl is being accused of.

Sherl’s former fiancé, writer Sarah Certa, says he suffers from OCD (a claim Sherl himself backs up on a fundraising page he and Certa created last year to raise money for his treatment). Certa claims that Sherl used his condition as an excuse to abuse and sexually assault her during their relationship. She says:

“It all started because I made the fundraiser for him. I haven’t told much of that part yet. How he exploits mental illness. It’s pretty bad … I mean, it’s horrifying. He used OCD to emotionally AND physically control me, I realized. Physical in the sense that I couldn’t DO certain things without risking his upset. One of the worst nights happened because I wore a t-shirt to bed. I was supposed to naked. He blamed it on OCD. OCD doesn’t make you try to control people, it doesn’t make you flip out at them … I did everything for him. I had to put his socks on, and then you’re so distracted by how you’re physically moving around. I mean, I would open and close the trash can lid with my foot, because otherwise he’d want me to wash my hands right away and if I didn’t wash my hands that would be a very big risk … because then he might get stressed. It is not good when he is stressed. Eventually my hands were cracked and bleeding too.”

And this is just was just the beginning of the abuse Certa claims she experienced. In a gut-wrenching essay for Luna Luna Magazine, Certa detailed one of the several times Sherl allegedly raped her. Sherl isn’t mentioned in the essay itself, but Certa has since confirmed that it was about him:

It occurs to me that I am writing this in the bed where he raped me. This is where I go when I want to feel safe but some nights I remember too much. The sheets have been washed but I know his dead skin cells are in my mattress because that’s what dead skin cells do, sink down and burrow like the mini corpses that they are. I don’t always think of it this way but today I do because today I am tired of pretending…Did I cry? Did I think about calling someone? I remember being grateful that my daughter was with her father. I remember often fantasizing about running to her father and telling him everything. I wanted to, but I was paralyzed. What if I was wrong? What if it really was my fault? What if he found out I told?

Another victim, poet Kia Groom, claims to have had a long-distance, but still traumatic relationship with Sherl. From her blog:

I was involved with Gregory Sherl. We were long-distance, and never wound up meeting. However, the psychological abuse was intense. It was very real. I exited that relationship very hurt, very broken. He completely demoralized me, ground me down, and submitted me to what I can only describe as severe psychological torture.

Groom says she is finally comfortable enough to talk about the specific abuse she says she experienced with Sherl. She refers to Sherl’s behavior as “love bombing,” She believes his overall abuse tactic involves “pulling them close, then slowly dismantling their self-esteem and sense of identity.” According to Groom, “he isolates you and makes you completely dependent on him for your sense of self.” Groom says that Sherl was initially kind and supportive, but he eventually became obsessive and wanted to control every aspect of her life:

“For me this looked like having my phone on at ALL times. Not being on call was not allowed. I didn’t sleep properly for three months because I was so highly attuned to the vibration of my cell phone.

If he didn’t get a reply within a few minutes he would spiral either into manipulative, ‘Well, I guess you don’t love me I guess that’s fine whatever, I’m going to go now, maybe we shouldn’t talk anymore.’ Or he’d get angry. Or he’d threaten to hurt himself.

When I got a job, he needed to know my exact schedule. If I wasn’t able to talk throughout the day (because … work) he’d pull the same shit.”

Groom goes on to say that she feels there was a quasi-BDSM aspect to their relationship. Groom says that Sherl often brought up BDSM-related topics, including wanting to put her in a cage and insisting that she call him “master.” He also wanted her to capitulate to his every whim.

“The dynamic we had was that I was his ‘little slut,’ his pet, and he took full advantage of that,” she says. “That’s all well and good but BDSM or whatever without the foundation of a caring and respectful relationship is abuse.”

The final woman I spoke with was writer Kat Dixon, Sherl’s former fiancé of seven months (they were together for nine). Dixon was the first person to speak out against Sherl and has since started a relief fund for survivors of domestic abuse. Dixon claims that the abuse she suffered was so intense that it took two years before she was able to talk about it.

“Every day with Greg was a different kind of nightmare, and it’s hard to pinpoint what might be most important to an audience that doesn’t know him or knows only his public façade,” she says. “He’s dangerous. He’s an incredibly dangerous man.”

When I mentioned the BDSM aspect that Groom had mentioned, Dixon was quick to say that while this wasn’t her experience, she wouldn’t be surprised to see him evolve this way.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if he was evolving. He wasn’t ‘famous’ yet when we were together. He was a nobody with one chapbook who was just starting to pick up publication steam. Now, he has a lot more power.”

Dixon also touched on Sherl’s OCD:

“He focuses on the OCD more than the bigger problems, I think, because he has a sort of fondness for the neuroses of it. It’s also the most palpable symptom, so it’s easy to believe it’s the beginning and end of the problem. Regardless, he has always and I believe continues to portray himself as a victim of extreme OCD, which he sometimes says makes him incapable of sustaining relationships. … Coming back to the OCD, though, he uses it as a manipulation tactic, and he can turn it on and off to some degree at least when he wants. After we broke up, he spit gum on the ground and stepped on it to show me his being away from me had ‘cured him’ of his OCD. It was something he would never in a million years do without having a major breakdown while we were together. And he knew I knew that. It was another way he could be cruel.

I guess what I’m saying is that I still believe he suffers from OCD. It may even be severe. But he also uses it to his advantage. His ultimate fear is abandonment, and if he could become sick enough to the point where he couldn’t function anymore, to the point where I had to care for him 24/7, which he did, then I would be the monster for leaving him. So I stayed. I stayed much longer than I would have otherwise.”

In a blog post, Dixon directs readers to a heartbreaking essay she penned detailing her alleged experiences with Sherl for Connotation Press. In it she refers to Sherl as “Z” and describes the time she alleges he sexually assaulted her after she attempted suicide.

All of the women I spoke to expressed concern regarding the fact that Oprah’s Book Club and Sherl’s publisher Algonquin Books are still heavily promoting him and his novel. All in all, Sherl’s story brings to mind the controversy surrounding Woody Allen. The question isn’t whether or not people like Allen or Sherl (or Lin or Dierks or any of the myriad of other alleged abusers in the public eye) are talented. By all accounts, Sherl is a gifted writer. But according to the words of his alleged victims, he may also be a predator. And according to his victims, his favorite targets may be his adoring female fans. Which would make him a dangerous man, indeed.  More so with a huge platform like Oprah’s Book Club backing him.

I reached out to Algonquin and Oprah.com for comment and have yet to receive a statement. Certa and Dixon have similarly reached out and have yet to hear back. Besides the aforementioned statement from Sherl’s lawyer, the only other opposing statements I’ve found are this innuendo-laced defense of Sherl written by a friend, and the tweets below, purportedly from Sherl’s younger sister Rebecca:

According to both Certa and Groom, Sherl portrays his ex-girlfriends as “the crazy ex.” The problem is never HIM. Rather, it’s his OCD, his “crazy ex,” his childhood, etc. The women in his life are playthings, at least until they leave. Then they become betrayers. They become “crazy.” It might be easy for some to disregard these accusations as sour grapes from former lovers, much like fans of Jian Ghomeshi did initially. But, when woman after woman comes out of the woodwork with the same type of horror story (again, much like Ghomeshi) you begin to see what, or rather who, the common denominator is. And in this case, that common denominator seems to be Gregory Sherl.