Tag Archives: irreconcilable differences

So, What’s the deal with you and Microcosm?

I have to write something about this and not just leave it muddled in the words of others on the internets. I have seen and heard public discussion of my past involving Microcosm Publishing and Joe Biel. A lot of things have been said; some true, some not. Some things, like the discussion of Microcosm in the We Make Zines forum, I heard about but refused to read or respond because sometimes I just don’t have the energy to deal with it. Some people have criticized me, think I’m crazy or think that the issues I have are only based on a vendetta or a personal attack. I have seen people I know, and some that I don’t (and didn’t ask for their help), advocating for me. This has made me feel simultaneously anxious about what strangers have to say but, also supported in the zine community that I love.

At the beginning of 2010 Cindy Crabb, from Doris Zine and various other projects including editor of the Support zine, came to me after hearing about a failed mediation attempt between Joe and I in 2008. She asked if she could help set up an accountability team to get the ball rolling again. A team was set up with people in Athens, Ohio with a few other people consulting and giving input. After several months that attempt more-or-less failed. This is the statement from the Athens Support Network about their experience:

Statement from the Athens Support Network:

In January, 2010, we convened to help with the accountability process of Joe Biel. We had been given the understanding, from Joe, that he was in therapy, had met Alex’s demands, and didn’t know how to proceed since she did not want contact. We confirmed that Joe had met most or all of Alex’s logistical/legal demands, but in order to confirm whether or not he had identified and changed his behavior, we set about some written exercises. Our process was straightforward and formal, working on identifying behavior and making amends. Joe cooperated with the “identifying behavior” exercises – vacillating between what we perceived as willingness and defensiveness. We did not make it past the “identifying behavior” section of the process, as it became clear that a much deeper conversation/process needed to happen and we were unable to commit to the time and energy it would take. We think that if another process was to take place, it would need to be face to face and would need to have people in his immediate community actively involved. We believe that these people would need to have professional training and experience, and have a large amount of time to commit to the process. We do not believe it is the community’s responsibility to sacrifice themselves for this. We do think that it is the responsibility of Joe’s friends and other people who benefit from acquaintance with Joe to recognize that the accusations concerning his abusive behavior are valid, that he still has problems with control and manipulation that he is working on, and to point out to him when he is behaving in these manners, even if it is not negatively affecting them. We also belive it is up to Joe to actively encourage and support this type of dialogue with his friends, co-workers and acquaintances.
Joe is in therapy, and we feel that he is making progress through therapy. He has identified a large number of behavior issues and has done work and continues to do work to change them. He believes that he honors Alex’s experience. We, however, feel that he still has extreme problems with control, manipulation, defensiveness, and portraying himself as the victim. We feel that he often minimizes and belittles Alex’s experience, and sometimes seeks to redefine it as communication problems rather than emotional abuse (see blog response post, Feb 5). In Brainscan, Alex’s counselor identified Joe as “using classic examples of distraction while arguing like some sort of sleight of hand trick with words”. We also noticed this in our working with him.
Joe has a number of counter-charges against Alex. While we were unable to explore all these charges, they are consistent with the actions of someone trying to regain power when their power has been taken away from them due to emotional abuse.
We do believe Joe is working to understand and change his behaviors. We do not believe this gives him a clean slate.

Also, in this blog post Cindy discusses her experiences with Microcosm and Joe stating: “I won’t be publishing my next book with Microcosm. I am going to give them until the end of the year to come up with a collective statement confronting/admitting Joe’s abuse and manipulation, and/or for Joe to legally remove himself from the collective. If by the end of the year, this isn’t done, I will be removing my zines from Microcosm.” -Cindy Crabb

For the most part I haven’t actively or publicly stated anything about this besides in my zine Brainscan #21. (it can be read online here) With the conclusion of this failed accountability process I feel I should say something. Here is my somewhat linear experience with Joe, Microcosm, and the accountability process:

Joe Biel is the founder and, to the best of my knowledge, still the head of Microcosm Publishing ( I don’t personally believe it could ever truly be a collective). Joe and I were romantically involved for 6 years, three of which we were married. I “worked” for/with Microcosm from 1999-2006. I left my personal relationship with Joe Biel when I realized I was not respected, supported, or valued in our relationship and, through several catalysts, came to understand that he was emotionally abusive in our personal relationship. I left Microcosm when I realized that they same abusive mechanisms in our personal relationship, were present in our working conditions. While were attempting to collectivize Microcosm Joe continued to make unilateral executive decisions without the input of other collective members as well as revoked my responsibilities and undermined my autonomy.

After I quit Microcosm Joe soon moved the company half way across the country and hired new people. I wrote about some of my experience in Brainscan zine #21: Irreconcilable Differences. In the zine I did not name names because I did not think it was relevant. I would rather challenge readers to examine the use of power in their own life than saddle them with my unfinished baggage. I tried to end the zine on a personal positive note with my new life because through counselors and mediators I had gotten no closure with the situation. I had a lot of counseling on my own, I learned to live again, I wanted to move on because there was seemingly no resolution to be had.

I have been reluctant to say more about it publicly because I haven’t wanted to go back there emotionally. Does that make sense? I don’t want to dissect some of the darkest and most lost years of my life in a public trial. I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to wade into places that I don’t want to go back to. But, with the help of others like Ciara, Cindy, Doug and many more, I realize I need to say something.

The thing is that I really really really enjoy my life as it is now. I enjoy the fulfillment of running my own business. I enjoy the gratification in the hard work I have done on my house and my yard to make it a home which I am truly proud. I appreciate my kind, talented, and supportive friends. I am also extremely grateful for how close I have grown to my family through all of this. Most of all, I enjoy being in a relationship with with someone who loves me unconditionally, accepts me as I am, supports me and trusts that I know what is best for me. This is why I haven’t wanted to spend time hashing out the darkness. It is nice and safe here in my world now. I don’t like the idea of stepping into the public scrutiny of people who think I just have a personal vendetta or people that think emotional abuse isn’t really abuse, that it is just confined to romantic relationships, or that that it is just a “personal issue” and shouldn’t be challenged publicly.

I know that it is not just me who has identified abusive behaviors in Joe. I have had conversations, letters and e-mails from past Microcosm employees, and people who have had their work published and distributed by Microcosm. Also, Joe has been asked to leave or not attend zine events, radical gatherings, and places with safer space policies in Portland and beyond. I’m learning that I have support from people who are not ok with abusers like Joe who refuse or only half-heartedly work on their accountability.

All of the interactions I have had with Joe and Microcosm since I left (all the people that I knew who worked there quit voluntarily or otherwise) has been terrible:  unanswered e-mails about critical issues like the entirety of my book Stolen Sharpie Revolution being available on Google Books with out my permission, my artwork and my writing being used without my permission on the website and in zines and books they have published, poorly documented royalty checks, not getting books I was owed, stealing button business from me, not changing their logo (an image that both Joe and I both had tattooed on our bodies before it was the Microcosm logo), and on and on. After awhile I gave up. It wasn’t worth my time or energy to argue with a brick wall because that was what all my attempts had become. Microcosm, a company that I helped raise from just about the very beginning, never responded and just ignored me and my concerns completely. To be fair, after the first mediation attempt in 2008 some of these issues were resolved.

It got easier to put it out of my mind when I left the relationship, when I left the business, and when J physically moved himself and Microcosm half way across the country. But, now he is back in my town and I’m feeling pressure. I’m realizing that the situation is not behind me when I dread running into him in public. I fear he, or one of his friends, will confront me so I don’t go to events that I think he’ll be at. I wrote him a letter expressing my boundaries and what he needs to do to show accountability and I have worked with mediators to try to set boundaries yet he has left flyers and put stickers in places he has been asked not to go, I have seen him ride by my house a few times, he sent me a very triggering letter that left me weeping on the post office steps when I had specifically asked him not to contact me. He has demonstrated time and again that he is incapable of respecting my boundaries. Maybe I too thought it was a personal thing and that I should keep silent. Our culture teaches us that we don’t talk about such things publicly, they are our secret shames.

Personally I always knew that Microcosm was a top down operation starting with Joe. When I worked at Microcosm I saw how Joe shot down my ideas and then later took them up as his own. I saw how he struggled with power when confronted with collectivizing. I saw him make executive decisions without talking to any of the supposed collective members. I saw they way people treated him, the things they gave him from artwork to computers, the respect they gave him in exchange for a little of his power. I later heard stories of people saying they did what he asked because they were afraid to upset him or that they wanted something from him so they felt they had to do what he said. I heard from people who had their artwork stolen, who were never paid for their zines, people unhappy with their situation after being published with Microcosm, people who had their paychecks withheld because Joe thought they owed him money, people who never said Microcosm could copy their zines yet I knew we had made hundreds of copies that I personally had stuffed in envelopes and put in the mail. I have heard from people who have asked to have their zines taken out of the Microcosm catalog because they did not want to support an abuser and they were argued with and told it was just a personal thing. There are many other stories that I wish I could say, but they aren’t mine to tell. After hearing all the stories and the realizations of what I had been a part of I started to feel sick to my stomach and feel guilty that I was part of something that appeared so lofty with a but was unthoughtful, disrespectful, and damaging to the community.

In 2008 I was contacted by individuals in Portland offering to help in mediation between Joe so that I could feel safer in my city. That mediation failed because Joe was unable to even work with the mediators. This year Cindy Crabb, from Doris zine and various other projects, and a few other brave souls began a new mediation and accountability process with him. She has been a huge support with this and has done a great job at pulling together people and resources for a task that has already failed before and most likely will again.  I have heard that Joe has been in therapy and that his therapist has concluded that he is not abusive, which just felt really dismissive of what I experienced for years. I’m not sure how this could be done without even trying to consult with me, which is what is supposed to be done in abuse therapy. Also, I don’t put much weight in Joe changing after having see his manipulative behaviors first hand with two different counselors.

In the end, I find it hypocritical that a company masquerades as a happy collective but is really being run by a supposed anarchist and feminist who is dismissive when called out as emotionally abusive. It seems ridiculous that a person who runs in circles of feminists, anarchists, and other radicals would balk at requests for accountability, ignore requested boundaries, and blatantly disregard their hurtful behaviors and then chock it all up to a “personal vendetta”.  It makes me sad that so many people ignore the issues when they are brought to light and that the community refuses to challenge these behaviors.

Where it gets tricky for me is knowing that several people make their livelihood or have their art distributed in ways they never could because of the machine that is Microcosm; from the zinester that is happy to get that $100 check to pay their rent, people who are excited to have their work published or distriburted, the printers of Microcosm t-shirts and stickers, to the people that make a living working at Microcosm. I even understand the complexity of someone living in a small town whose eyes were opened up to ideas and politics through the Microcosm catalog. But at what cost? When problematic behaviors go unchallenged and are swept under the rug because it is easier or because there are benefits to ignoring it, the larger patriarchal system of power and abuse is just being perpetuated.

At first it merely hurt my feelings a little when friends would continue to have their zines carried or published by Microcosm. I didn’t feel I had the support or right to ask them otherwise. Bur now, after failed attempts at mediation, accountability and repeated belittlement I have changed my mind. I believe in honesty and justice and giving people information to make up their own minds and they should act in accordance to their values.

So, the question is do I think people should support Joe Biel and Microcosm? If you think survivors of abuse should be believed, supported and respected and you believe abusers should be held accountable to their community and those they have hurt then I think you know my answer.