The following is a case study that illustrates the need to carefully vet and verify all clients in editorial freelance work. This is also a warning to the public about Nahshon Dion Anderson. Further still, this is a cautionary tale about the hope and the pitfalls of pro bono or low cost freelance editorial engagement that I pray will be useful to editors who wish to do good work in service to others, but who need examples of how to do it well while avoiding problems.
This case study pertains to the work that I performed pro bono for Nahshon Anderson (also known as Nahshon Dion Ratcliff aka Nahshon Dion Anderson aka Nahshon Anderson Fuentes aka Dion Scott (etc.) for several projects, including Nahshon's developing nonfiction book, Shooting Range.
(Note that I use the pronouns "they/them/their" because, at the time of my writing here, Nahshon is a publicly gender-nonconforming writer.)
An Opportunity for Support
Nahshon contacted me while I was a freelance correspondent for The Advocate. Nahshon told me that they had been trying to find someone at the magazine who was interested in helping them write their story, but all of their emails and phone calls had not been returned. I don't blame the staff at The Advocate. Reporters and editors are inundated with calls and emails, and it's impossible to respond to everyone. Even still, I wanted to be one of the people at the magazine who did return Nahshon's email.
I did not previously know Nahshon. Nashon told me about their story of extreme socio-economic hardship, "emotional/psychiatric disability" (those were the words that they used to describe their disability), and severe trauma borne of frequent experiences of violence, including being the supposed victim of what they described as an "alleged attempted murder" when they were a young adult. Nahshon sent me a few, short drafts of their writing and some legal documents and curiously redacted police reports related to the violence that they allegedly endured.
I was excited by Nahshon's strong narrative voice. It saddened me that someone with such obvious writerly talents faced difficulties in finding support and attention. I was also moved by, but wary of the documents that Nahshon sent to me. Based on my initial perusal, it seemed that their tribulations were authentic. But, readers should be warned: vetting must go hand-in-hand with verifying. In hindsight, I should have verified Nahshon's story more carefully and asked what the documents left out.
For example, I only later found through my own fact-finding investigation that the violent incident in which they were involved as a young adult resulted in Nahshon losing a case brought against them; that they (according to the police files, which, we must admit, aren't always accurate) allegedly participated in the violence as much as violence was done to them (forensic evidence and wound analysis of both parties give credence to the accuracy of the police reports in this case); and that the violence occurred during Nahshon's alleged committal of illegal activities. None of these things preclude writing a good memoir. Some of the best writing excavates a person's mistakes. However, in Nahshon's case, the missing details spoke to their attempt to evade their own capacity for doing harm against others.
Over the last 30-plus years, I have designed and edited pro bono for several individuals with low-to-no incomes or with disabilities who struggle to find visibility and quality support for their work. Pro bono work has been an important way for me to give back to others in a way that honors the kindness that people have shown to me. I never forget the fact that my editing mentor, Joe Beam, trained me pro bono (he did not ask for a dime); paid for my trips to Philadelphia to visit and study with him; paid for my first two years of membership with the Editorial Freelancers Association; and when Joe became ill with AIDS, he referred most of his high profile editorial clients like Richard Failla and David McReynolds to me. I have always been bullish about paying it forward. I got my start as a freelance editor because, before he died, Joe passed on his client list to me.
Over the course of approximately two years, whenever Nahshon called me for support, I tried to help them. I wrote, co-wrote, and edited two grants (which Nahshon received), started work on a third grant, edited two of Nahshon's short nonfiction pieces, and designed Nahshon's website. I also brought Nahshon (along with a few other friends) to a church service sponsored by one of my former full-time jobs in hopes that the affirming atmosphere would be restorative for them. Thus, along with my pro bono editorial support, I offered benevolence, kindness, affirmation, and advice—and I warned Nahshon to please avoid harmful, unhealthy, and violent situations as a part of my advice. Our rapport was strictly professional and friendly. We had absolutely no other rapport of any kind.
Along with grant-writing, website design, and the editing of short essays, I also provided foundational editorial support pro bono for Nahshon's developing memoir book project entitled Shooting Range. One time, when Nahshon sent me a little over a hundred dollars, I gave it back to them so that they would have money to meet life's hardships. When they disclosed that they were being evicted from their housing in New York City, I sent them money to help them move temporarily to Texas.
The Book Project
For the first draft of the book, I encouraged Nahshon to focus on producing the basic true-to-life scenes of the story by writing out what happened descriptively. This initial descriptive work would then give Nahshon well-structured material so that Nahshon may go back into the manuscript and develop the scenes with explanations, exposition, quotations, and information from research materials.
I soon realized that Nahshon had a tendency to make-up or embellish information and to create wholly imagined quotations in their nonfiction writing. This penchant for false representation presented a grave problem within their nonfiction writing and, with great care and affirmation for their talent, I warned Nahshon to avoid misrepresentation. Be creative, I advised, but be creative with facts, not falsehoods. The truth, however unsettling, was a remarkable story. Even if it meant chronicling bad decisions, I urged them to tell the truth in their nonfiction. Thus, not only did I encourage Nahshon to develop sound editorial and prose writing skills, but I also introduced Nahshon to ethical guidelines for literary nonfiction.
In particular, I recommended that Nahshon avoid creating long passages of imagined dialogue that were not supported by a factual record. When I say a factual record, I mean such materials as audio recordings, video recordings, emails, text messages, letters, notes, or memorabilia that render speech and actions factually for quotation or presentation.
Nahshon had gathered lots of first rate factual materials: police reports, letters, and more. Nahshon is a good researcher. I told them that this research material was their saving grace. Instead of making up false information for dramatic effect, rely on the factual record, which will invariably have its own drama.
Additionally, I encouraged Nahshon to avoid inventing composite characters or embellishing the true-life tale. My goal was to introduce the finest values for "true crime" nonfiction writing to Nahshon so that the quality of Nahshon's final book manuscript would make it most likely to be published. I told him about David Carr and Bill Urban (two outstanding alternative journalists who shaped my work)—two people who, more than anyone else, taught me about the ethics of nonfiction writing.
Advice for Structure
The graphic above is the exact outline for a 3-sectioned book manuscript (minus exposition, explanation, quotations from research materials, and other development) that I gave to Nahshon along with lots of intensive discussion, coaching, and drafting for editorial support.
Nahshon already performed considerable research for the book manuscript, obtaining police documents, court records, and even letters with the offender who assaulted Nahshon (the same person who is one of the main subjects of the book).
I praised Nahshon's research skills and encouraged Nahshon to interlace the descriptive account of what happened in initial scenes in the first draft with the factual record gathered from the research documents in subsequent drafts.
One of my deepest aims was to encourage Nahshon to build the kinds of editorial competencies whereby Nahshon is able to edit their own work their self.
To that end, I shared three bodies of information with Nahshon and we spent quite a bit of time going over the concepts in this information:
I include this last statement to bring to light an often unspoken topic among longtime editorial freelancers: how do we deal with harassing, abusive, or unstable clients?
Freelancers are placed in difficult positions because we often do not have the benefit of workplace protections. Telling this part of my story about Nahshon will hopefully help others deal with problematic engagement. I also wish to present an albeit very limited public record of what this individual did to me so that others are warned.
After I began providing editorial support, Nahshon became increasingly unstable. Nahshon wanted me to ghostwrite for them in a manner that contravened the independence that they needed for a truly viable writing career. Nahshon would also turn our editing sessions into occasions within which they disclosed their involvement in very harmful behavior. I told Nahshon that I was not Nahshon's confessor and I did not condone or wish to hear about the harmful behavior that they were doing. As a longtime harm reductionist who has done considerable holistic outreach and engagement, my goal is never to project blame or shame, but also to be honest about boundaries and safety and I never, ever enable anyone to commit harm against others.
After I began to refuse further engagement, and after I urged Nahshon to increase their attention to the ethics in their writing, they began sending me harassing emails and making deeply abusive phone calls and text messages. I asked them to cease the harassment and I ended all communication. But, Nahshon continued a campaign of harassment and disparagement against me on multiple platforms, including emailing my past and present employers and disparaging me with extremely toxic defamation—outright lies. Thank goodness that I kept all of their harassing messages: my records offered evidence of their deeply unhinged motive and impact.
I did not realize at the time that Nahshon's penchant for misrepresentation and making false statements in their writing indicated far more malevolent tendencies within them—tendencies that would burst out into harm against me when I told Nahshon that I could no longer edit for them because my schedule could no longer accommodate extensive pro bono work for an abusive person.
Please don't mistake my meaning when I talk about misrepresentation: I am a very modern and inclusive writer and editor who believes in the importance of multiple forms of evidence in nonfiction writing, including oral history and the examination of unlikely materials like performances and art objects to tell the true story. But, relying on unlikely materials is different than simply making up things.
Often Nahshon simply lied and exhibited an extreme malevolence when talking about other people in their nonfiction writing and in other modes of communication.
When I did not do as Nahshon wished, they became unbalanced and made up false statements and misrepresentations about me in much the same way that they did in their nonfiction writing drafts. Nahshon also admitted to me over the phone and in emails that they had attacked other editors and writers with whom they had worked in the past when they did not do as Nahshon wished.
I saw a pattern: Nahshon's writerly profile was problematic. They did not actually do a lot of the work that they presented as their own, and instead Nahshon retained editors pro bono or for cut rates and then maligned the editors in an unbalanced fashion when they attempted to break away from Nahshon. The truth of the harm that Nahshon has done to many people is an untold story and I urge more people to add to the record that I present here.
Vet and verify all prospective clients scrupulously. Obtain their legal name and the telephone number associated with their legal name. Pro bono work may require an even greater threshold of vetting than we might perform with editorial clients who compensate us. Our best hopes for support may be compromised by unverifiable or even unstable individuals. I learned to screen and vet all clients carefully and to heed warning signs sooner. Sadly, I also learned to cut back on pro bono work. Sometimes, compensation serves as its own kind of vetting and verifying and it may elevate the professionalism of the work.
The original outline I created for Nahshon Dion Anderson's book called Shooting Range.
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