At 4 a.m. on Aug. 24, Riley Kmet created a public Google document filled with anonymous accusations of sexual misconduct against some members of the popular Chicago-area band the Orwells.
Five days later, the Orwells announced their breakup.
For four years, Kmet, a 20-year-old musician from Cleveland, had personally witnessed inappropriate behavior and also heard rumors about allegations of sexual misconduct from some members of the band that got its start as teens in Elmhurst and quickly rose to stardom in 2014.
So when Metro Chicago announced Aug. 24 it was hosting an Orwells concert slated for November (the band’s first public show in Chicago since September 2017) — Kmet said she couldn’t sleep. She felt a responsibility to do something with information she’d accumulated, to create a platform that brought attention to the various allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse made against some band members over the years. More and more women began privately messaging Kmet on social media, confiding in her and she said giving permission for their anonymous accusations to be added to the document.
Soon, the Google document grew to 20 pages. Then 30. Then almost 40 pages alleging at least 15 different episodes of misconduct, all involving some members of the Orwells.
As the allegations spread on social media of some band members’ alleged aggressive, inappropriate behavior at concerts as well as the use of homophobic and transphobic language, the Orwells’ Metro show was canceled. The band released a statement “emphatically denying” all of the allegations that surfaced on social media. Three band members, Mario Cuomo (vocals), Grant Brinner (bass) and Henry Brinner (drums), were specifically named in these allegations. None have been charged with a crime. Guitarists Matt O’Keefe and Dominic Corso were not named. Former members of the Orwells, their representatives and family members have not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
Kmet, who was a fan of the Orwells as a teen, was not prepared for the traction the Google document would gain, or the power it would have on the band’s reputation and career.
Anonymous, informal, crowd-sourced documents created as a platform to warn women about alleged abusers in their industry are a relatively recent phenomenon. In October, 2017, journalist Moira Donegan created a Google spreadsheet called “S----- Media Men” that collected a range of rumors and allegations of sexual misconduct. After facing backlash, Donegan revealed her identity in a column for New York Magazine’s The Cut, writing that her decision to create the spreadsheet was an attempt to “solve what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault.”
Donegan was growing weary of the ongoing “whisper network” shared by women in every industry, she wrote, and at its inception, she wrongly believed “the focus would be on the behavior described in the document, rather than on the document itself.” Critics called it irresponsible, as the reputations of more than 70 men in the industry were at stake when anonymous accusations were made without any accountability. Donegan apologized in The Cut editorial, and recognized the flaws of the effort. But her actions may have inspired more anonymous lists to be shared in other cities, industries and scenes.
A similar spreadsheet circulated on social media in late 2017, this time naming men in academia and alleged sexual harassment. The document was created in November by Karen Kelsky, a former anthropology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Linked to her blog, the list contains more than 2,000 anonymous anecdotes that describe a wide range of alleged harassment at universities.
Kmet said she was not aware of these previous lists, but instead found inspiration in anonymous Tumblr posts. Madeline Heuer, a 20-year-old student at a Chicago university and friend of Kmet who helped edit the Orwells document, was familiar with the whisper network among Chicago’s DIY (musicians who handle all aspects of their band themselves, without management or labels) performance scene.
From graffiti in the bathroom at Cole’s dive bar to posts by anonymous Tumblr users — the Orwells had a less-than-stellar reputation in Chicago, Heuer says. Between 2014 and 2017, the young band gained success — performing at Lollapalooza, Riot Fest and on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” But members of the Orwells acknowledged their reputation, naming the band’s 2017 album “Terrible Human Beings.”
“I thought the band was fading out of popularity, and I think that had to do with the undercurrent of people in Chicago knowing about their behavior,” Heuer says. “But there was no public forum to submit stories, and the DIY scene relies on secrecy, of course. There is secrecy for wanting to protect the people who run spaces and respect the punk scene.”
Heuer and Kmet admit the Google platform is not ideal.
“I think it could be really dangerous, and I don’t think an anonymous Google doc should be the standard,” Kmet told the Tribune. “Someone could use it as a personal vendetta, but it’s sad that people would abuse that.”
Loretta Stalans, professor of criminal justice and criminology/psychology at Loyola University Chicago, has cautioned against anonymous crowd-sourced documents. With her research in gender studies, social justice and sexual violence in the courts, Stalans says the platform gives power to the structural nature of technology, which allows the documents to spread inexplicably fast.
“From an ethical point of view, it is unfair to the individuals being accused,” Stalans says. “We need to be concerned more about changing the culture of these industries and workplace norms, and the assumptions that allow people to take advantage of individuals without repercussions in the first place.”
Creators of a Google document could also potentially face legal action, such as a defamation lawsuit, explains Daliah Saper, an attorney and founder of Saper Law in Chicago.
“Everyone is using the internet as a sword,” Saper says. “If (the allegations) are true, then great — these women are doing a public service. If some of them are not true, they have effectively ruined the reputation of (some) men with a keystroke. Once you have been accused of sexual assault it is hard to come back from that.”
Stalans says that in the #MeToo era, anonymous documents do not necessarily address the societal problem around the privilege of men and mistreatment of women.
Kmet and Heuer say their intention was for the document to be a safe space for women to come forward, and they hoped the allegations would ensure that the Orwells never played music again. On Aug. 29 when the band announced it was disbanding, Heuer said it felt “amazing” to see the news in headlines.
“Girls have been saying to me personally, ‘Thank you so much what you’ve done,’ ” Kmet added. “A lot of girls feel so much better even knowing (these allegations) took years to come forward.”
“I just wanted to make sure the public knew this information and that the Orwells could never have careers where they are in a position of power around young girls,” she says. “I am a drummer in a rock band, and I don’t want people to think that is what punk is about. Punk is about being open and giving a safe place to women.”
Many of the anonymous contributors to the Google document said they felt afraid to come forward publicly for fear of retaliation from band members.
“I think there is a challenge to come forward, but the anonymity aspect protects from potential counterclaims, potential blame and self-blame,” Stallans says. “Anonymity allows one to not have any consequences for what they say or do. It protects the person, but doesn’t change societal norms. Indeed at the end of the day, (it) might hinder that process.”
A lack of education and information about other resources, such as support groups for survivors of sexual abuse, might account for the rise in anonymous documents says Stallans. Proper resources can provide survivors with confidence publicly to come forward, and possibly seek legal action.
Kmet and Heuer say even after the band’s breakup women are still messaging them on social media, sharing their stories. It’s been overwhelming for them as they’ve transitioned into supportive roles.
Alex Manley, a 19-year-old student at Columbia College Chicago and a member of the DIY music scene, got involved with sharing the Google document. Manley has since started a support group for victims of sexual assault within the DIY scene, which will meet monthly in her Logan Square apartment.
“(The allegations against the Orwells and other bands have) all reached a breaking point, similar to the #MeToo movement,” Manley says. “It goes on for so many years, once women start to talk to each other and realize they are all victims of similar situations, a lot of the time, it has taken victims to initiate the change.”